Q&A: Never to Late to Start

I want to learn a martial art but I am 25. I feel like I’m too old to train my body for something new. I even tried to take figure skating classes a year ago and it was embarrassing and frustrating. Everyone who great at something seemed to learn when they were kids. I read books all day and do well with learning new intellectual things but struggle with learning new physical skills.

Twenty-five is not too young. I’ve seen people get their black belts in their eighties, I’ve seen cancer survivors get their black belts, one of my major training partners for my third degree black belt was a woman in her mid forties who’d survived a stroke and the other was a man in his late forties/early fifties. Dave went on to get his fourth degree, and is still a part-time instructor at our martial arts school to this day. He got into martial arts because of his kids, and stayed long after they quit because he loved it.

Believe it or not, most martial arts masters and instructors at most schools actually started in their late teens/early twenties. You get the rare ones who start when they’re five or twelve, but most of the ones who start as kids eventually quit. They lose interest, and go on to do something else.

You’re not going to get past the embarrassing and frustrating part if you’re embarrassed by struggling, nothing regarding physical activity is going to click quickly. Training your body to do something new takes time. Realistically, in a recreational martial arts school where you train three days a week for forty-five minutes to an hour a day, the techniques will start to click about three months after you start. That’s if you’re consistent with showing up to training, and if you try hard. At two years, the techniques are going to feel good and you’ll be limber enough/coordinated enough to start doing them well. Four years to six years in is when you usually test for your first black belt, so that’s when you actually start getting good.

However, it’s only embarrassing and frustrating if you let it be.

There’s a real reason why willpower and fortitude are the most admired traits in martial arts. You don’t give up in the face of adversity. Mostly, this is a learned skill. The vast majority of people who start give up within the first three months. They get frustrated and they get bored because they’re not progressing fast enough. Physical activity is the beast where the conditioning part feels miserable until you reach a point where your body clicks, you plateau, it gets easy, and then you start all over again. There are no short cuts, you just have to do it.

It’s important to remember that the stunt actors you see in the movies have made martial arts and martial arts choreography their careers. The people you see who started as kids have all been doing this for anywhere between five to fourteen years depending on how old they are now. You don’t get to see how they looked when they started out, which most of them will admit was pretty terrible in comparison to what you’re currently seeing.

You’ve got to give yourself permission to suck. Give yourself permission to say, “yeah, I’m doing okay.” Realize everyone you train with has been where you are, at the beginning, at the bottom of the mountain and intimidated by the climb. It’s going to take awhile for your body to catch up to what your mind imagines, and you probably won’t be able to do a high kick day one. Or day two, or by day three. It takes time for your body to build up coordination, to develop your balance, and work on your flexibility.

Be honest with yourself about what you really want from the martial art experience. There’s nothing to stop you at twenty-five from eventually competing on the martial arts circuit if that’s what you want, but if you just want to practice recreationally or get skills for self-defense then try not to beat yourself up for not being Jet Li.

Focus on the progress you are making, rather than what you’re not doing right. Try to have fun. Find a good, supportive community, most martial arts schools aren’t what people imagine. They’re family affairs with people who start from all different ages and are from different walks of life. They’re communal, rather than competitive. They’ll push you to find the best version of yourself, if you’re willing to put in the time.

Learning not to be immediately discouraged by something your not immediately good at is difficult. It may take a few tries to find a martial art and a school which fit you. I can’t promise the experience won’t be frustrating at times and occasionally embarrassing because it is, you’re going to fall down even when you’re really good. You’ll get sweaty, and gross, and your face will be a red mess, you’ll get out of breath, you can pull muscles, even break bones. There will be days when you want to quit, want to give up. However, there’s no better feeling that conquering your own body. No better feeling than conquering your fear. The sensation you get where everything just clicks into place, and just works is great. The point where it stops being hard and starts really feeling good? The fantastic thud of landing a powerful kick on the training pads? Those are the moments you live for.

Martial arts is a fun, rewarding experience. Martial arts is for everyone willing to put in the effort. There is no cut off, only the hurdles you build in your own mind and your own perceptions. Ultimately, life is what we make it. Training in martial arts, what you’ll eventually learn is, most of the time, the only thing stopping you is you.

So, don’t let fear, frustration, or embarrassment stop you from getting what you want. The only way to know is to start, stick with it, and not give up if studying your martial art is what you want to be doing. Also, study a martial art you’re actually interested in because that’s half the initial battle.

-Michi

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