#41: Back to Basics [Podcast]

Welcome to Episode #41 of the Fight for a Happy Life podcast, “Back to Basics.”

What did piano lessons teach me about being a better martial artist? A lot!

In this episode, I share a few tips for building a better life by doing more of less, instead of less of more!

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Back to Basics

To READ along, or if the player won’t play, you’ll find a full transcript down below.

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Thanks for listening! Keep fighting for a happy life! 🙂

Back to Basics


Welcome to Episode #41 of Fight for a Happy Life, the show that believes a little martial arts makes life a whole lot better.

 My name is Ando, you know that, and as always, I’m happy, I’m excited, I’m thrilled, that you could drop by.

Now, I’m going to warn you right now… you’re not going to like today’s show. That’s because I’m going to nag you to practice your basics. Most people hate practicing basics. But maybe you’re not like most people. Maybe you’re smarter than the average wanna-be martial arts masta.

What am I saying? Of course you’re smarter! You’re listening to this show! You’re a friggin’ genius. Clearly, you have excellent taste. But I’m going to nag you anyway.

Why? Well, I need to nag myself. The truth is every one of these podcasts and videos and articles I put up on my website is really a reminder to me to get my priorities straight and do things right. I share what I need to learn. And if sharing what I need to hear can help get you where you want to go, too, then I’m a happy guy.

So, here we go… let the nagging begin.

[1:44]  Like many children, my mom signed me up for piano lessons. My teacher, Miss T, would tell me to sit up straight, raise my wrists, and curve my fingers. So, I did. She showed me how to play all the basic scales and very simple songs like, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

She also told me to practice. Practice my basics. And like many children, when I practiced, it didn’t take long before I was looking out the window, bored and grumpy. And when a student gets bored and grumpy, that usually leads to breaking some rules. And that’s exactly what I did.

Back to Basics Piano Lesson

Photo by Lukas Budimaier

First, I slouched. Then I wondered, “What happens if I don’t raise my wrists? What if I play with flat fingers?” And do you know what happened when I broke all those rules? Nothing. I could still play all the basic scales. I could still play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. And if you closed your eyes, you’d never know if I was playing with proper posture and proper mechanics or not.

This, my friend, is a critical moment in every student’s learning process. This is the moment when a student begins to distrust their teacher.

“Why would Miss T tell me to do something that doesn’t make any difference? Why should I listen to her advice?” Thinking like that marks the origin of the rebel movement or the rock ‘n’ roll culture. This is exactly how people begin to believe that the rules don’t apply to them. That tradition should be overthrown. That anything old-fashioned is a waste of time. But in most cases, they’re wrong. Very, very wrong. Here’s why—

The most critical mistake you can make as a beginner is to forget that you’re a beginner.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re learning how to play piano, throw a punch, or just live life as a teenager… if you ignore the experience of your elders, if you disregard the advice of those who have gone before you, you’re just going to make it harder on yourself.

Let’s go back to the piano. If you continue with piano lessons, you will be expected to play more complex music. You’ll be asked to play with every finger, not just one or two. You’ll be required to play at faster and faster tempos. Your recital piece will increase from one or two minutes to a half-hour. You’ll eventually learn that playing piano is as much an endurance sport as it is a musical performance.

So, while the beginner is absolutely correct in thinking, “Hey, I don’t need proper basic technique to play, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’” the beginner is dead wrong thinking, “I don’t need proper basic technique to perform a Franz Liszt piano concerto.”

If you try to play an advanced piece of music with bad posture, lowered wrists, and flat fingers, not only won’t you be able to play it, you’ll probably fall off the bench and hurt your head. The lesson here is that playing at the highest levels is only possible for those who practiced the proper basic technique right from the very beginning.

The same is true in sparring. When you begin in martial arts, maybe your teacher tells you to keep your hands up. But maybe you only attend a beginner’s class and you only spar with other beginners. And since they’re not very good at attacking, you find that you don’t really need to be very good at defending. You don’t need to keep your hands up. So, then you conclude, hey, the rules are made to be broken and you can do things your way, not the teacher’s way.

Okay. But then you move up another level and start fighting with students with real skills, advanced skills… and now you get rocked. Your bad habits are getting you beat up.

It’s no different off the mats. I can think of a couple of friends—and I’ll bet you can, too—who back in their 20’s said the heck with building a career, the heck with saving money. And now they’re almost 50—no job, no savings, no health care, no retirement plan, no security whatsoever. It’s only now at an advanced age that they realize that all that old-fashioned wisdom they ignored, all the advice they thought was stupid, was important after all. And now it’s too late. They’re getting beat up, too.

That’s why it’s important to remember, whether you’re a beginner in the martial arts or anything else… investing in the basics doesn’t pay off in the short-term, it pays off in the long-term.

[6:34]  Have you ever thought about how the basics became the basics in the first place? The way I see it, the basics were created by winners. The people who succeeded in what they were doing. The winners looked back at their long journey and they figured out the most important ideas, the most important tools, that led to their success, then they passed them down to the beginners to help them become winners, too.

The basics are the building blocks that can be combined and sequenced to get you to the advanced levels of whatever it is you want to do. So, if you want to play at the most advanced levels of piano, martial arts, or life, you should listen to the winners. And if they say start with A, B, and C, then you should commit yourself to mastering A, B, and C.

Now, as easy as that may sound, there is a complication here—committing yourself requires faith in your teachers. Unfortunately, not all teachers are deserving of your faith. Some teachers are just repeating what they heard from the winners, which is not always the same thing. Sometimes teachers don’t hear the winners correctly. Or they change what they were told. Or they stopped working before they made it to the advanced levels themselves, which means now they’re missing information. Worse, they might simply make up information to fill in the blanks in their own experience.

You see this in every walk of life, but for sure, in martial arts. I can’t even tell you how many martial artists I have met in person or online who tell me how they’ve created their own style. They say, “Yeah, I did Kempo for 4 months, some Wing Chun for about a year, and oh, my friend is a boxer, so I just took the best of everything and put it together.”

Oh, did you? Well, sorry to tell you, but most of the people who talk like that suck. I’m just going to say it like that. They suck. As much as I respect anybody training in the martial arts, that level of ignorance is dangerous.

Maybe if these guys only practiced by themselves, hey, that’s one thing, but when they take on students or present themselves as experts, that’s just reckless.

Now, to be clear, I’m not against people making up their own style. Every style you can name was made up by somebody, so do your thing. But being a beginner in three different martial arts does not make you an expert of anything. Actually, you’re an expert in quitting. That’s it. You have mastered no basics. You have developed no skills. Your opinion is based on first impressions.

Yes, martial arts is a personal journey, which means, hey, you can pick and choose whatever methods and techniques work for you. Fine. But if you’re only picking and choosing from what you learned in a month or even a year of training, or off of videos, off of YouTube, how can you possibly tell if something works or doesn’t? If you think you can judge that quickly, then I would say your standard of evidence is low. Ridiculously low.

Personally, I’ve been practicing martial arts for 30 years and only now am I beginning to consolidate everything into my own thing. And I’m still learning! I still take classes and private lessons. And I’m not telling you that to make it sound like, oh, I’m the greatest martial artist who ever lived—I’m not–but if I tell you something works for me, you can believe that I’ve tested it over and over again.

[10:11]  I not only committed myself to learning and practicing the basics, I had faith to stick it out to see where those basics led. Which is why, today, I believe in the basics more than ever. And that’s why I’m nagging you to believe in your basics, too.

I tell my students all the time that advanced techniques are just basics done better and together.

If a white belt throws a front kick and a black belt throws a front kick, they shouldn’t really look the same. Even though it’s the same move, the black belt’s precision, control, consistency, and power should make it seem like a very different movement.

Fancy Is Built On BasicNow think about a jump front kick. A jump front kick starts with a good stance with legs bent. Then a jumping knee to get you moving. Then a front kick in the air. Then you land back in your stance, balanced, ready for the next move. Now, if any of those basic movements have not been practiced enough—the stance, the knee, the kick—then the whole technique falls apart.

If you can’t throw a front kick on the ground, then how are you going to throw it up in the air? You can’t. This applies to all advanced techniques. I mean, if you can’t perform a hip throw on a willing training partner in the dojo, how are you going to pull it off on an unwilling attacker on the street? You won’t.

It’s very hard for students to understand that. We all want to jump ahead and do something fancy. But listen to me—fancy is built on basic.

When students fall apart in the middle of trying a fancy throw or a cool takedown, I see it all the time, they get frustrated. They get frustrated with themselves or sometimes they get frustrated with me. They say, “Hey—this move doesn’t work.” And I say, “Oh, the move works… you don’t work. Your stance is weak. Your head is up too high. You don’t rotate your hips. You hold your breath. In other words, go practice your basics. You have to do the work to make it work.”

Now, I don’t want you to think I’m being whiny about this. My Kung Fu teacher, my BJJ teacher, and the best Karate guy I know, they all complain about their students not knowing their basics. Not drilling the fundamentals. Like me, they get frustrated because they’ve told their students from day one how to succeed. But they won’t do it. And why is that?

Because most people prefer learning new techniques to finding something new in their old techniques. Most people want a shiny, new toy to play with instead of polishing the toys they already have. Most people go wide in their quest for knowledge and skill instead of deep. They go outside instead of inside. But true masters, the winners, yeah, they don’t have these problems.

Imagine what would happen if we could get back to basics and focus on the fundamentals in every part of our lives instead of trusting in shortcuts and hacks and gimmicks.

  • What are the fundamentals of building a happy relationship?
  • How about the basics of building your business?
  • What about your health?
  • Or your finances?
  • What are the basics behind making you feel fulfilled as a human being?

Wait—did I say imagine what would happen? Hey, how about actually doing it!

I hereby challenge you—yes, you!—to take the time to identify the fundamentals in every part of your life and then commit yourself to mastering them. The odds are you already know exactly what you should be doing… now it’s just a matter of having the faith to commit to it once and for all.

Now, I don’t want you to be too hard on yourself if you’re not already a master of the basics in every part of your life. That’s a tall order. Here’s the truth—

It takes years to be a good beginner.

It takes time to respect the rules. To value the basics. To see what works and what doesn’t and why. To stop seeking the new and appreciate the old.

It’s especially hard in the martial arts where there are so many shiny toys to choose from. So many moves. So many styles. For a very long time, I thought more was better. I wanted to learn as many moves from as many teachers in as many styles as I could. But it was overwhelming. And frustrating.

I figured out pretty fast that it was going to be impossible to see and remember every move from every style. And even if I could see and remember every move from every style, guess what? There would never be enough time to practice it all. You simply can’t be a master of everything. It’s hard enough to master one thing. Which is why it’s so important to get back to the basics. To turn your focus back on what you already know.

To practice more of less, not less of more. That’s the path to mastery.

[15:33]  As a teacher, I can tell you how I know when someone is on the wrong path. It’s actually very simple. Whenever I hear someone say that practice is boring, I know they’ll never be a master. If I ask a student to go throw 100 punches and they groan or roll their eyes, well, they’re telling me they don’t understand the learning process.

Now, I’m going to tell you something you probably won’t believe, but it’s true—I have never been bored during practice. Never. Ever. Not once. Piano, yes. Martial arts, no. Maybe that’s the best way to figure out what to do with your life. Find the activity that bores you the least.

For me, practice is only boring if I’m not focused on improving. If you tune out and focus on counting to 100, or you’re staring at the clock, well, then no wonder you’re bored—you’re not practicing correctly.

You’re supposed to be focused on getting better with each rep. You’re supposed to be going through emotions not just motions.

You should feel frustrated, you should feel inspired, you should feel encouraged, you should feel the excitement of discovery, you should feel pride in accomplishment, then return to frustration again when you find something new that has to be improved.

No joke—practicing for me is as exciting as watching an action movie. I’m the hero battling against the impossible task of becoming perfect. In my experience, when you turn your practice into an emotional journey, you’ll build skill and knowledge. You’ll also build character and confidence.

Here’s another way I can tell if a student is on the path to mastery or the road to mediocrity. After running a drill, it doesn’t matter what it is, it could be push-ups, it could be a form, it could be sparring, it could be just meditating for a moment, I’ll ask, “Was that easy or was that hard?”

Most students puff up their chests and say, “Easy!” They think if they can get through a drill without working hard, without breathing hard, without sweating, well, they must be good at it. Wrong answer!

I suggest to these students that if something is easy, then you weren’t really trying. I mean, call me crazy, but nothing is easy if you do it with 100% of your mind, body, and spirit.

Let’s imagine you’re a world-class sprinter. Let’s say you’re in the Olympics. You’re in great shape. You’re one of the fastest people on the planet. You are a master runner. And when that gun goes off, and you explode off the blocks, even if it’s just the 100-meter dash, would you ever say that was easy? No! Running at an advanced level takes everything you’ve got. At least if you want to win.

And the same is true for every single thing that you do… and that includes practicing your basics. To really focus your attention, to really coordinate every muscle fiber, to really feel the movement, you must work.

So, don’t be so easy on yourself when you practice. Your training should exhaust you mentally, physically, and emotionally. If you practice like that, I promise, you’ll never be bored again.

Before I wrap up, I want to address an issue for teachers…

This might apply to you right now or maybe some day in the future. Okay, you know that beginners love to ask questions, right? Why is my hand on my hip? Why do we turn this way instead of that way? Why do we practice this horse stance? We never use it!

Well, I want you to recognize that a question is an attempt to build faith in what you’re teaching. They want to believe in what you’re doing, but if they don’t have a reason to do something, they probably won’t. So, if you respond to a question by saying, “Don’t worry about that now,” or, “Because that’s the right way to do it,” or the worst one, “Because I said so,” well, just be warned that you’re pushing your students in the wrong direction. You’re actually pushing them towards the door.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about that wise guy student who keeps asking, “Well, what if this,” or “What if that.” I have no patience for that. I’m talking about questions that will reveal the value of fundamentals.

I don’t care if a student is five years old, if they ask me a good question, I will give them a good answer. I’ll show them how what they’re practicing right now leads to an advanced skill later. Now, not every teacher will do that, but I really do think you should.

[20:30]  When I think back to my piano teacher, would you believe me if I told you I never actually heard Miss T play the piano? Nope. I would go to lessons, sit down, and she’d just tell me what to do. That’s it.

But imagine what might have happened if when I asked her why I need to raise my wrists, she had said, “Oh, I’ll show you why,” and then launched into a ferocious, awe-inspiring piece of music. Something that made me say, “Wow!” I think I’d be so inspired that I would do anything she said. I’d have faith. I’d commit to mastering those basics. But when teachers just shake their head and tell you to do it because I said so, well, then you just shake your head right back and think, “Well, this is a waste of time.”

Over the years, I’ve met both types of teachers, on the mats and off. When I asked one teacher why we do something, he’d say, “I can’t show you that now, but someday I will.” Another teacher would say, “Oh, here’s why,” then grab me and throw me on the ground. With the first teacher, I left in four years. With the second teacher, I’ve stayed for over 20.

Which is probably why the best advice for teachers and for anyone wanting to have an influence on the world is to lead by example. Show people what you can do. Deliver the goods. Put on a show. Then when people ask you how you do that, well, you can say here’s how—start with these basics.

Unfortunately, in some martial arts, you’ll find teachers who won’t even let you see advanced techniques. They hold separate classes for different skill levels, which is fine, but then they prohibit the beginners from even watching those classes. I mean, wow! I don’t like that at all.

When you create a culture of secrets like that, here’s the message that you end up sending… what you’re doing in the basics class is not that important. The advanced material is so valuable that we protect it, but the basics, well they’re not valuable, so we don’t protect that stuff.

What a completely misguided message. Let me tell you something—I’ve been in the back room. I’ve been to the advanced seminars. I’ve felt the touch of world-class masters in multiple arts. And do you know what I found out? It all comes back to basics.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of fancy moves out there. There are sophisticated concepts and techniques that will blow your mind. But… none of them will work if your basics suck. Period. And the world-class masters, yeah, their basics don’t suck.

Now, it’s a little deceiving because when you deal with the big boys and girls, you may not see the basics, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. In Kung Fu terms, you might say the external has become internal. But you can sure as heck feel them. And once you know what to look for, you really can see them.

The basics are only invisible to people who don’t know their basics.

So, now you know. The secret to advanced techniques is no secret at all—practice your basics. Work them with a focus on improvement. Work them with your full attention and effort. And don’t just work the basics in martial arts, work them in every part of your life.

  • Don’t spend more than you earn.
  • Don’t eat more than you burn.
  • Be clear in your communication.
  • Be honest in your business dealings.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Keep your promises.
  • Say please and thank you.
  • Say I love you to the people you care about.
  • Brush your teeth.

And be consistent.

If you master the fundamentals, when the challenges come and the pressure is on, you’ll be prepared. You’ll be ready to stand your ground and put up a good fight. That’s not just the secret to mastering the martial arts, it’s the secret to a happy life.