#53: Are You a Martial Arts Zombie? [Podcast]

Welcome to Episode #53 of the Fight for a Happy Life podcast, “Are You a Martial Arts Zombie?”

When we sign up for martial arts, we’re filled with passion and purpose. But how long does that last?

One day, you find yourself showing up to class, going through motions, and have no idea if you’re getting better or worse. That’s when you’ve become a martial arts zombie!

In this episode, I challenge you to take an honest look at how you train to see if you’re making the most of your time and energy. Accept the challenge or doom yourself to wander the earth in a corpse’s shell forever! 🙂

To LISTEN to, “Are You a Martial Arts Zombie,” you can either:

Martial Arts Zombie poster

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

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Are You a Martial Arts Zombie?


Today on Fight for a Happy Life, are you a martial arts zombie?

Hello and welcome to Fight for a Happy Life, the show that believes a little martial arts makes life a whole lot better. My name is Ando and even though I’ll be doing all the talking right now, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what you’ve got to say.

If you have a question or a comment about today’s show, or life in general, click on over to FightforaHappyLife.com and leave me a comment. Shoot me an email. If that’s not good enough and you want to share your feelings with the whole world, okay—then leave a review over on iTunes or wherever you found this show.

Really—if you have something to say, I’ll be happy to listen. Maybe not as happy as listening to my own voice, but pretty close.

Today, I want to take a look at your training schedule. How do you spend the majority of your workout time? Which exercises do you focus on? How do you test your skills and measure your progress?

The big question—does how you train in the martial arts match up with why you train?

Here’s why I’m asking—I think most people, myself included, either end up chasing two different goals at the same time or the wrong goal entirely. The worst part? They don’t even realize it! They may start out with a clear goal in mind, but over time, they end up just going through the motions. They practice day after day, never questioning who they are, what they want, or where they’re going. You know—like a zombie.

So, let me share a few thoughts on how to break the spell and get more out of your training… and maybe more out of life.

[02:22] If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve probably heard more than one business development guru talk about the difference between working in your business and working on your business. What’s the difference?

Well, working in your business means you keep yourself busy, but not on the tasks that actually build a profitable company. You spend time on “busy work” like filing, fiddling with new software, holding meetings for no reason, dealing in office drama, or wondering if it’s time to change that carpet.

All of that time and energy would be much better spent on true “business work”. Tasks like interviewing customers, researching trends, identifying unmet needs in the market, developing new marketing strategies, improving product quality, hiring the best talent, firing under-performers, and streamlining workflow. You get the idea.

When you merely work in your business, you may go home exhausted, but at the end of the day, you did nothing to acquire new customers, increase revenue, or cut costs. Worse, you wake up every morning feeling like a zombie, doomed to blindly walk in circles, bumping your head into the wall again and again until, inevitably, your business fails. The lesson?

Busyness is not the same as business.

You can become a zombie in your personal life, too. When you go out on a first date, everything is electric, right? You’re a good listener, you make eye contact, you’re willing to compromise and please. And ohh—that first kiss. Then a year passes… two years…

Do you still make eye contact? Are you still a good listener or are you checking emails over dinner? Are you still interested in what your partner has to say or is your idea of quality time nowadays sitting down to watch Game of Thrones together?

It’s funny, or sad, how a relationship built on romance often ends up surviving on mindless routine.

The same phenomenon occurs, of course, in the martial arts. You stay busy going to class, learning new moves, preparing for that next belt test, watching videos, lifting weights, running… but are you satisfied? Are you getting the value you expect from all of that training? Do you feel your dedication is being rewarded?

If not, there are only two paths ahead. You can either quit, as so many do, or become a martial arts zombie.

A martial arts zombie is a student who practices month after month, year after year, with no clear purpose.

You show up to class, you follow the routine, but you have no goal. You train out of habit, plodding along, mindlessly and without passion, groaning and grunting your way through the workouts, led by the blind hope that someday, a reward will appear.

Man. That’s scares the heck out of me.

martial arts zombie

Photo by Pixabay

[05:45] So, how does this happen? In business, in relationships, in the martial arts, it seems that many of us are doomed to shift our attention and our efforts from the most important tasks to the least important tasks. From tasks that make a difference in our lives, to tasks that change nothing. We stop doing the work that led us to growth, excitement, and success in the beginning and start to focus on managing and maintaining what we once gained.

The answer, the problem, the curse, is our old friend the ego. It’s our ego, our sensitive self-image, that wants us to feel secure and in control at all times. Our ego prefers tasks that are understandable and predictable; tasks that we can accomplish and feel good about.

Our ego does not seek out chaos. It does not enjoy mystery. It prefers to cling to a sure thing instead of running around in the dark, chasing the unknown.

Let me give you an example. I go to class. I fight. I get caught in a choke. It’s a choke I’ve been caught in before. I can not escape the choke. After class, if I had no ego, I’d say to myself, “That’s it. I’m never going to get caught in that choke again. I’m going to ask questions, do research, and practice until it’s no longer a threat.”

But I do have an ego, so, that’s not what I say. Instead, I do some push-ups. I hit the heavy bag. I practice a kata. I spar children. I go back to tasks that make me feel competent. Tasks that make me feel like I haven’t been wasting my time all these years. Tasks that make me forget that I was just murdered and could do nothing to stop it.

The way I see it, if you get killed and refuse to admit it, then walk off and drive home like it never happened, you are truly a zombie. You are the walking dead!

Now, to be fair, maybe your goal in the martial arts isn’t to be a great fighter. Maybe you don’t really care about self-defense. Maybe you just want to get a sweat and get out of the house once in a while.

If that’s the case, hey—maybe you’d be just as happy doing Cross-Fit, or power yoga, or taking a salsa class. I mean, what’s the difference? I’ll tell you the difference—you just got killed, man!

Martial arts is the only form of exercise that simulates death. That’s why I love it! If you want to figure out the which tasks are leading you to success and which tasks are leading you to failure, the martial arts provide you with very clear clues.

Hint: when your training routine is good, you tend to die a lot less.

Every time you get kicked in the head, punched in the chest, or pinned on your back, you have proof that something in your routine is not working… which is a gift. It’s a gift because you then have a chance to make an adjustment to your training, your attitude, your movement—whatever!—to avoid being killed again.

Failure is your friend. Failure is the spark that ignites the learning process. Accept your failures and you’ll be working smart and stay alive. Deny failure and you will be transformed into a zombie and die a thousand deaths.

[09:45] So, how do we stop from becoming a zombie at work, at home, and in the dojo? How do we break the spell? The short answer is to work smart first, hard second.

Listen carefully, my friend—hard work is overrated.

In fact, one of the biggest lies I’ve ever heard is that if you work hard, you can make your dreams come true. Nope. Absolutely not true. I know this because I’ve worked hard—very hard—on many dreams and gone nowhere. If achievement was rooted in work ethic alone, well, I’d have everything I ever wanted.

The truth is that hard work only pays off if you’re doing the right work… the smart work. Frankly, even then, you still may not get everything you want, but you’ll sure as heck get a lot closer.

Now, what do I mean by “smart work”? It means figuring out which tasks will get you closer to your goals and which tasks will not. When you look at your training routine, which tasks are truly worth your time? When you have that figured out, you’ll have arrived at your own formula for success.

This formula starts with setting a very clear goal for yourself. Why are you training? When you know that, then you can order your priorities. Then you can build a routine of tasks that support those priorities. Then it’s just a matter of attacking those tasks with persistence and gusto.

But hold up—you’re not done yet. Along the way, you’ll also have to measure your progress to make sure your training routine is moving you closer to your goal. If you’re moving in the wrong direction, admit it. Set you ego aside and make adjustments to your goals, your priorities, your tasks, or everything.

Having said all that, let me ask you again—

Are you working in your martial arts or on your martial arts? Does how you train match up with why you train?

You can’t answer those questions without a goal, so tell me—why are you training? What is so important to you that you’re willing to spend time, money, and energy on taking classes, practicing at home, or even listening to this podcast?

If you don’t know what you want, please, turn this off immediately and go think about it. I’ll wait for you. Got it? Okay. Welcome back.

Presuming you have a goal in mind, let me ask you about your training routine. Did you design it or is it just a collection of random drills and exercises that you’ve accrued over time? And hey—can you tell me how you’re measuring your progress? How do you know if you’re improving?

Last question—when was the last time you made changes to your routine because you felt you weren’t developing fast enough or you were heading in the wrong direction?

[12:56] For most people, questions like these may sound a little over the top. I mean, such a high level of analysis makes sense for a professional athlete or an Olympian, but not a hobbyist or part-time martial artist, right? Wrong.

I’d say it’s actually more important for a part-time martial artist to analyze their training routine than a pro. Why? Because a part-time martial artist has far less time to do the work required to reach their goal. It’s basic math.

If you’re a pro and you’re working out six to eight hours a day, six or seven days week, you not only have time to do what you need to do, but what you want to do. You have time to work and play. You have time to develop your A-game, B-game, and a C-game.

But if you’re only training one hour a day, or a couple hours a week, every minute matters. When a hobbyist or part-time martial artist trains, they must know exactly what they want and exactly how to get it.

Fail to follow the formula—no goal, no priorities, no routine, no measurement—and you’ll quickly end up working in your martial arts instead of on your martial arts. You’ll wind up becoming a martial arts zombie.

Now, in case this rant sounds like I’m making fun of zombies, I’m not. The only reason I brought up this topic is because I recognize the call of the zombie in my own training and life. As a teacher, sure, I see it in my students all the time, but I’m only able to see it in others because I saw it in myself first.

That doesn’t make me special, by the way. I’m sure you see it, too. I think it’s just human nature to turn into zombies. Maybe not in every area of our lives, but certainly in some. Probably most.

[14:57] To be completely candid, I’ll admit to you that I’ve been frustrated as a martial artist for many, many years because, last time I checked, I am not invincible.

Yes, I understand that no one can be a real-life superhero. Yes, I understand that making mistakes is part of the learning process. Yes, I understand that everyone gets hit when they fight. I understand that no matter how skilled or experienced you may be, you can always be punched, choked, or stabbed.

However, if I’ve been training for over 30 years in the martial arts, and I’m sparring with someone with only one or two years experience, is it unreasonable for me to expect that I should dominate the entire session? If not dominate, shouldn’t my success rate be significantly higher than theirs?

The way I see it, or maybe the way my ego sees it, I should be able to create any situation I want and execute any technique I want. I mean, isn’t that the whole point of training? Skills? Competence? Success?

But alas—that is not how it goes. I still lose. I still get popped in the face. I still tap. It drives me nuts!

It’s not fair. I do the work. I practice. I listen to my teachers. I take notes. I ask questions. I do everything I’m supposed to do! But it doesn’t matter. I still lose against lazier, less experienced, and less diligent students.

Problem… meet solution! Not too long ago, it occurred to me that I, too, was guilty of working in my martial arts and not on my martial arts. I was guilty of working hard, but not always working smart.

My training routine, I thought, was on point. I promise you, I can stay busy doing martial arts drills all day, every day. I have spent hundreds, thousands, countless hours sweating, studying, reading, observing, visualizing, practicing in the park, at the track, in the basement, in the driveway, in the bathroom—everywhere! I train on vacation, on my birthday, Christmas Day, in the snow, in the rain. Training is just what I do and who I am. I love the grind.

But which of those sessions, which of those exercises, actually makes me a better fighter? That’s my goal, after all.

It wasn’t when I signed up for martial arts, of course. In the beginning, I just wanted to get in shape. Then I wanted to strengthen my character. Then I wanted to be a black belt. At about the five year mark, I finally figured out that what I really wanted was practical self-defense.

So, I went out and found a style and teacher that offered exactly that. But it didn’t take long for me to completely forget what I wanted. That’s because my ego wasn’t ready for the lessons that fighting was trying to teach me.

Instead, it shifted my efforts back to my old routine. I learned as many moves as I could, kept a detailed notebook, and focused on conditioning. Why? Because all of that came easily to me. I knew how to do all of that!

That was my comfort zone. As a result, instead of developing into a great fighter, I became a great studio fighter. I became a martial arts zombie.

[18:52] I spoke about breaking the spell of being a studio fighter in Episode #35: Can You Really Fight? If you want the details on that, take a listen. But in short, that period of time was a huge turning point. That’s when I finally stopped being proud of myself for working hard, and remembered why I was working hard.

Once I remembered my goal, well, I was embarrassed to discover that I had not made much progress at all. I was crushed to figure out that my training routine was lame. It would never get me where I wanted to go.

I mean, what’s the point of a push-up, really? Does a push-up build strength? Yes. Can it help develop a stronger punch? I guess. But does it help me keep my cool under pressure? No. Does it help my timing? No. Does it help me land punches on a resisting partner? Not one bit.

Too bad—I was really great at push-ups. In fact, I bet I could show you more variations of push-ups than any person alive. But who cares?

I mean, if the point of martial arts training is just to develop general athletic qualities like strength, speed, and flexibility, then I guess you don’t really need to take martial arts to be a martial artist! The fact is you can get the same benefits of a push up, a sit up, or a squat from a yoga class, dance class, or jumping on a trampoline.

But I wanted to be more than a movement artist, I wanted to be a martial artist. That meant I needed to accept the risks of being hit, thrown, or choked. I needed someone to choke and someone to choke me. I needed someone to throw and someone to throw me. I needed someone to hit and someone to hit me.

That kind of training, however, is difficult and uncomfortable. Live sparring, live rolling, and freestyle drills—they all mean jumping headfirst into chaos. It means bumps and bruises to your body and self-esteem. It means trial and error. It means frustration.

Especially as you get higher in the ranks, the more you fail, the more your ego has to lose. Looking ignorant or incompetent might just be embarrassing as a student, but it’s a professional liability as a teacher. That’s when you hear the call of the zombie.

I mean, why take the chance of getting hit during sparring when you can drop into a full split instead? Why risk getting caught in a choke by one of your students when it’s so much easier to impress everyone with your speed bag skills? Why get cut up by a white belt with a rubber knife when you can look so much cooler demonstrating your favorite kata?

I wish I could tell you that after I broke the spell of being a studio fighter and adjusted my training routine, I never forgot my goal again and lived happily ever after. I wish I could tell you that I am now immune to ever becoming a zombie again. But that is not the truth at all.

The truth is I caught myself turning into a zombie again eight years ago. That’s why I forced myself into facing a new challenge and started training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Not good enough!

Then I caught myself turning into a zombie two years ago. So, I threw myself out of my comfort zone and started taking Systema lessons. And the threat is still not over!

I just caught myself turning into a zombie last week, which is why I decided to talk about it today. I’m hoping that if I tell you about my own struggles with staying on track, you’ll take another look at your training routine and make some adjustments, too. Or at least think about it.

[23:00] The point is this—we must all be on high alert at all times.

You should be terrified to your core of turning into a martial arts zombie!

The frightening truth is that the call of the zombie will always be there, moaning in your head. The temptation to fill your day with less and less meaningful exercises… the desire to build a routine of easy tasks and lesser challenges.

There’s no escaping it. I’m sorry to tell you, but the zombie virus has been in your blood since the day you were born. That’s why if you let your ego design your training routine, it will always run away from the cold chaos of the unknown and fall back into the warm, loving arms of the familiar and predictable.

When that happens, something else will become predictable—failure. Stagnation. False confidence. Disappointment. Regret.

Now, don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that you can’t live your years in this world as a happy zombie. Hey—I’ve been a happy guy for most of my life, even when I was braindead.

But don’t be fooled! That happiness was not the same happiness I would have felt if I had stayed focused on my original goals. I mean, I love going to the track and running sprints, counting off push-ups, and throwing my favorite combinations in the air. I come home after every zombie workout feeling quite satisfied. Successful, even. But here’s what I’ve learned about success…

I’ve learned that 100% satisfaction in small goals is nowhere near as good as 50% satisfaction in big goals.

Every time I make a jump in my skill level—when I finish a choke, when I sweep someone in live sparring, when I land a combination I’ve been working on—I am left feeling more than satisfied… I’m thrilled. And I’m here to tell you—

A little bit of thrill beats a lot of happy any day.

Of course, I realize that the name of this show is, Fight for a Happy Life, so, obviously, happy is a worthy goal. And if happy is as far as you can make it in this life, good job. Dying happy is nothing to be ashamed of!

But what if I asked you to set a goal that will take you beyond happy? Is it too much to ask you to live a thrilling life?

I started off today’s show with the idea of just challenging your workout routine, but forget that. Let’s take it a step farther. I hereby challenge your entire life. I challenge you to live a thrilling life.

My promise is this—even a little thrill will make your life a whole lot better!

[26:10] So, heed my warning—don’t become a zombie. If you feel yourself being pulled into meaningless work, don’t worry. A real zombie doesn’t have the chance to transform back into a human being… but you do.

I just beg you to do it before your time runs out. Do it before the Reaper finds you or someone splits your head open with a shovel.

You can start by setting a clear goal in your business, your relationships, and your training. Then you must design a routine for each of those built on smart work. Then you must measure your progress…and be honest about it!

If you’re finding yourself heading in the wrong direction, have the courage to make the necessary adjustments. But keep this in mind—

Even when you work smart, even when you work on your life instead of just in your life, you still may not achieve your dreams. Just because you spend every bit of your time, money, energy, and enthusiasm on a goal, that is not a guarantee that everything will work out for you.

But that’s okay. It’s okay because I would rather die a hot-blooded, passionate, thinking, feeling human being who almost made it, than a cold-blooded, brain-dead zombie who never came close.

How about you?

So, what’s it going to be? Are you going to fight for a thrilling life or just bump your head into the wall and drool on yourself? Let me know what you decide over at FightforaHappyLife.com. And hey—if you know someone who you think would enjoy this show, thanks for sending them a link. Until next time, smiles up, my friend. Let your smile be your shield and your sword. Keep fighting for a happy life!