The aging martial artist: how to keep on fighting when you get older

by Dylan Thomas
Dec 3, 2016

For some reason, probably because I just turned 40, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about getting older. I look back at the past, good and bad alike, and think about how I would do things differently in my life given the chance. Sometimes, this reminiscing brings forward regret and sorrow about the things I messed up. Other times, I’m pretty happy with the way I handled it. And then there are the gazillion situations in between that have both good and bad sides to them. In other words: life happened, like it does for all of us.

I’m not going to go into the personal stuff; that’s personal for a reason. But I am willing to talk about training in the arts. Though before I do, let me address a pet peeve of mine:

Some of the people I respect the most are 10, 20 or even 30 years older than me. The reasons why I respect them are legion but one of them is that they never played the “I’m older than you so I know best” card. A card that goes right along with that one is the “*Insert age*?! That’s nothing. Wait until you’re *insert older age* like me!” card That just irks the shit out of me and makes me want to look them dead into the eye like Debra Morgan and say:

What do you know about me, really?

Just because you’re older, doesn’t mean that whatever you have is by default worse than any of my crap. It might be, it might not, depending on a shitload of parameters and details. Who knows? Certainly not you because as soon as you say something like that, I’m done talking to you. The worst part is that of all those who have pulled that card on me, none of them came even close to those aforementioned people in terms of accomplishments and basically being a good person. So if those impressive guys can treat me like an adult it isn’t impossible for you to do the same, you pompous ass.

Age does not give wisdom and knowledge by default. What it gives is plenty of time to acquire those two. Some people do just that, some don’t. Some people are wise beyond their years. Others stay ignorant fools their entire lives. Having ten or twenty years on me doesn’t prove anything, other than that you were born before I was, which isn’t really an accomplishment on your part so maybe you shouldn’t use it as a justification to claim you know more than I do. Some of the stupidest, most arrogant, bigoted, racist and worthless people I’ve ever met were older than me by a decade or two. So no, age is not a measuring stick on my “you’re a cool person”-scale.

For the benefit of the slow, Polonius Lartessa, if you were thinking about writing a comment here about how I’ll see things differently when I’m your age, please watch the above video again and picture me saying that to you but only a lot louder than the lovely Miss Carpenter. (Can you tell I’m almost out of patience for Cold Days to arrive?)

Back on track.

 

Tempus fugit, for all of us

Getting older as a martial artist is weird. Certain things slowly creep up on you and because you don’t expect them, they surprise you. Whereas other things you take for granted slowly go away. Here are some examples to illustrate this:

  • Last week I was sparring with my students. It was the last class of the season so I gave them a run for their money. One of them is a heavyweight like me and though he hasn’t been training long, he is strong and hits plenty hard already.  As he has a much longer reach than me, I usually have to fight my way forward for my punches to land (and for him to lose that reach advantage). So there I am, happily throwing a hook and uppercut combination that forces him to close his guard, when he suddenly flails a swinging hook at my body and I feel as if he stuck a knife between my ribs. My first thought was “When did I become such a wussy that I can no longer take a bodyshot?” My second thought was “OK, I’m going to kick you in the face now” which I promptly did. My final thought that night, as I carefully crawled into bed, was “This getting older thing sucks. Ouch…”
  • I used to do all sorts of funky techniques when I sparred with my students. One of those was jumping kicks and jump spinning kicks. The main reason I did that was because people didn’t expect it from a big guy; we’re supposed to be slow and clumsy. Because of my arthritis and other injuries, I’ve slowly stopped throwing those because training for them makes it all worse. So instead, I just leg kick my students more… Anyway, a week ago this comes up at the end of class and one of my students starts teasing me about being too old for that stuff now. So I promised him I’d show him next class; which I did. Now I’m nowhere near the level I was before but as he found out, I can still do those kicks more than well enough to land them. I don’t know how much longer that will be though, as I definitely feel the difference with only five years ago.
  • I worked hard at becoming flexible and doing splits. As a teenager, I was not at all flexible and suffered a great deal during class. But I so very much wanted to do those high kicks, I stretched an inordinate amount of time and eventually achieved the results I wanted. For a number of reasons, I haven’t stretched as much in the past year. Now this isn’t the first time that I lost some flexibility but it is the first time that it is taking so much work to get it back. What used to only take a couple of extra training sessions now takes weeks, even months, of dedicated, slow and careful stretching to regain what I lost. Which is only normal given how muscles lose elasticity when you get older. But knowing it is one thing, being confronted with it out of the blue is something entirely different. As in “Since when can’t I do splits anymore?! WTH?!”
  • Last week, I picked up my gym bag before heading out. As soon as I lifted it off the ground, my shoulder informed me it was not amused by means of a stabbing pain deep inside the joint. I dropped the bag and the pain went away. I spent the next minute or so moving my arm around to reproduce the pain and figure out what was wrong. I eventually found it and did some more tests. Turns out my shoulders aren’t as strong as before because I’ve switched to a different kind of conditioning regimen that is less stressful on the shoulders. As a result, they have weakened a bit. Time to rectify that problem…

 

There are more examples like this but I think you get the picture: age takes things away from you.

Certain skills you worked so hard to make your own, slowly erode away. Strength and endurance aren’t what they used to be. Stuff you could handle no sweat in your twenties now takes some time to recover from.

To put it another way, you become less of what you once were.

How depressing is that? Pretty damn sobering, that’s for sure. But it’s also the natural order of things. For some reason, martial artists seem to have a very hard time accepting this inevitable degrading of our physical skills and possibilities. I know, because it took me years to accept my arthritis, which is typically associated with old age.

 

Omnia miser est?

That said, there’s an upside too: if you work at it, age can give you back many things in return. Here’s a list of things I can only do now, that were impossible when I was younger:

  • I’ve never hit harder than I do now. Especially with my arm techniques, I’ve never had this kind of power. And it doesn’t seem I’ve hit a ceiling in that area just yet as I’m still making progress.
  • I’ve never seen as many punches coming than I do now. Of course, I still get tagged. I’m no Superman and don’t claim to be the guy with the best defense in the world. But 10 years ago, slipping punches with head movement was exceedingly difficult for me, to the point of not wanting to try it in sparring anymore because I got tagged so much. Now, I do it all the time. So either everybody else has gotten worse or I got better. (Or they’re throwing me a bone, could be that too…)
  • I’ve never been able to correct my errors better and faster than now. As I’ve gotten to know my body (and control it) more over the years, when I spot an error in a technique, it takes me less time than ever to get rid of that mistake. And the results last longer too.
  • I’ve never understood more about the arts than I do now. Because I didn’t stop training or studying (“to study”= “to be eager”), I kept on accumulating knowledge. Thanks to my teachers, friends and a lot of hard work, I’ve acquired some understanding along the way too. I’m no where close to where I want to be in this department, but I’ve also never been further down this road than ever before.
  • I’ve learned some funky tricks I thought were impossible. Certain “truths” I always believed in turned out to be not as absolute as I once thought. The whole “you can’t fight against stance integrity” thing turned out to be a lot less definite than it seemed to me ten years ago. Now, I can do things that has my engineer student go “WTH? That shouldn’t be possible?” It’s no big deal by the way and I’m also far from the only one who can do those bizarre things. I also see very little use in a lot of them, but some are actually pretty damn important as it turns out.

 

So in many ways, age gives back just as much as it takes away from you.

There is a caveat though: you won’t get it for free.

When I look at some fellow martial artists, some of whom have even more time spent training, they haven’t received as much as they’ve lost. There are reasons for that, some of which are their own fault whereas others are simply a case of bad luck or life happening. Regardless, I doubt they ended up like that on purpose. On the contrary, I think they didn’t expect what happened because nobody told them or they only realized it when it was too late.

Here’s what they don’t tell you about getting older:

  • You lose energy and you don’t realize it until it’s gone.  If you were always the first to jump out of bed each morning, twenty years later you have to drag yourself out of it. Don’t plan on having the same energy levels throughout your life, just isn’t gonna happen.
  • Pain becomes your constant companion. On a good day, you wake up and only have to start moving around to have your body in working order. On a bad day, you wake up and everything hurts until you go back to bed. Joints start breaking or working badly, your back suddenly aches, your stomach suddenly refuses to work correctly anymore, and loads more. Some of that pain you get used to. Some, you never do and it can drive you crazy.
  • Your mind changes. Beliefs you once held sacred now seem ludicrous. Priorities you thought set in stone seem like a waste of time. This is different for everybody so I can’t really give you details. Just expect it to happen as it will. To give you a personal example: as a young man, I thought depression was something for weak people. The day I found myself smack in the middle of having one, I discovered weakness has nothing to do with it. Took me a long time to get out of it.
  • No matter how much importance you give to martial arts, other things will take over. Getting married, having kids, work, stress, health, etc. These will all eat away at your training time at one time or another. That’s only as it should be; martial arts are there to help you throughout your life, not to replace it.

All these things, and many more, will lead to your martial arts skills deteriorating. Like I said, to a large degree you can’t really control them and how severe they are will determine just how much skill you lose. But there is something you can do about it and it’s also my way of handling it:

Say to yourself: I will not go quietly into that dark night. And then commit yourself to it. Every single day. Every hour. Every minute.

I’m no self-help guru, nor am I particularly interested in becoming one. This is my own opinion, no more no less. This is the choice I made for my own life.

I refuse to give up and accept the limitations age places upon me. I know my future; pain and surgeries. Then some more pain until the day I die. So what?

One of my teachers is almost thirty years older than me and he’s faced worse than that for almost his entire adult life. He can still kick my ass.

Another teacher of mine is battling a terrible degenerative disease but he’s working hard at handling it, every single second of each day.

Loren was told he would never do karate again when he tore up his knee in his twenties. We all know how that ended…

 

Who am I to give up if my teachers don’t? If they can do it, why wouldn’t I when I’ve been given a lot less on my plate than what they have to face?

 

I’m not too old for this!

Like I said, I’m not going gently. I’m gonna make as much noise and create as big a hoopla as I can until I finally kick the bucket. There’s no avoiding death, we all come with an expiration date. But my epitaph will not read “He played it safe.”

Because many of you have told me you enjoy the practical tips and guidelines I often write down here, next up a couple of the things that work for me to handle the current problems age has given me:

  • Extra sleep. I’m a night owl by nature and it’s wreaked havoc on my health in the past. I committed myself top improve my sleep hygiene and it yields impressive results.  Never forget that training breaks down your body, rest and nutrition build it back up. The latter two are just as important as the first.
  • Better diet. I’m a chocoholic. Have been since the age of ten. Sugar isn’t really all that good for you and I’ve known that for a long time. But guess what, I’m as human as the next guy and have my vices. But I decided to kick this one and am getting better at it every day, to the point where people are noticing it with a surprised look on their face. I feel better too, by the way.
  • More maintenance. I don’t compete anymore so peak performance is no longer a necessity. Which doesn’t mean I’m stopping my conditioning training, not at all. But I do spend more time on conditioning for health as opposed to for performance. That means strengthening the smaller muscles and stabilizers more than in the past, lots of specific stretching for those muscles and a bunch of relaxation/regenerative techniques to delay the inevitable physical decay.
  • Learn to manage. I’ll probably never do sprint training again. I’ll probably never do certain plyometrics again. But I’ll train as hard as I can to get as close as I can to those drills.  The same goes for all my other aches and limitations: I’ll push at them as hard as I can without making it worse. Just because my body isn’t 100% anymore, doesn’t mean I have to let it get worse than it needs to be.
  • Keep up to date. Sports medicine advances every year. Treatments and surgeries that were impossible one day are routine a year later. I’ve already avoided one surgery by using a treatment two doctors I went to didn’t know about. I went to a specialist and he prescribed it: never felt better.
  • Be happy. Life beats you down and when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, it proves to you that you can always sink lower. The only solution I know is to focus on being happy. More happiness allows you to live a better life. It also means you will not only have more time to train but also that you will be more inclined to train because you’ll enjoy it more. So I sing out loud in the car with my kids (to their horror), dance with my girlfriend in the kitchen and act silly whenever I can. It makes me happy.

 

What’s it all about?

Aging is a part of life, also for a martial artist. You have to accept that. But you don’t have to accept sub-standard performance if you can do better than however low you set the bar for yourself because you think that’s what getting old means. Age isn’t an excuse to become a slacker. It’s an invitation to consistently train better and smarter, even if that means training less hard than before.

In parting, I’d like to leave you with that poem by Dylan Thomas. It’s a pretty good one and I like it for a variety of reasons. If it’s new to you, I hope you do so to.

Most of all, I’ll leave it here as an inspiration for you to also make that commitment to not go quietly into that dark night, if you haven’t done so already. Maybe there’s a special place in the afterlife for those who choose to only go along with death kicking and screaming.

If so, I’ll meet you there.

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

http://www.wimsblog.com/2012/07/the-aging-martial-artist-how-to-keep-on-...

About the Contributor

Thomas (Tom) Davies has been an active karate-ka in the Koei Kan Karate-Do system since he started his training in 1978 under Sensei Ed Kaloudis.  Since moving to Southern California in 1984, Tom has been training under Sensei Jack Sabat of Santa Barbara, California. Tom was the chief sensei of the Long Beach Koei Kan dojo for over 11 years and currently holds the rank of Go-Dan.

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