#48: Practice Time Tips for Martial Arts Mastery [Podcast]

Welcome to Episode #48 of the Fight for a Happy Life podcast, “Practice Time Tips for Martial Arts Mastery.”

How much time do you spend practicing martial arts? Is it enough to become a master?

In this episode, I share two pieces of advice to help anyone make the most of their practice time.

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Practice TIme Tips poster

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Practice Time Tips for Martial Arts Mastery


Today on Fight for a Happy Life—Practice Time Tips for Martial Arts Mastery.

Hello again! Welcome to Episode 48 of Fight for a Happy Life, the show that believes a little martial arts makes life a whole lot better. I’m Ando and I’ve got a quick headline…

As I record this, our little show just hit an all-time record for downloads. Yeah! There were more downloads the past month than any other month, going back four years. And that only happened because of you.

So, thank you for being here. Thank you for listening. Thank you for telling a friend or leaving a review on iTunes, or heck—even saying hello in an email… all of it. I thank you for all of it. Let’s keep it going.

Today, I want to talk about practice time. It’s no secret that the key to being great in the martial arts, or anything, you have to practice. I don’t care who you are or what you know, if you don’t put in your time on the mats, or in the park, or in your garage, you will never be great. Ever. There’s a good chance you won’t even be good.

Hate to say it, but without practice, we’re all just a flaming pile of trash.

But how much practice does it take to become great? Is there a formula to maximize your results? I think there is… and I’m going to share it with you right now.

[01:57]  Let me start by asking you a question—how much time do you spend every week practicing martial arts? When I think about all the students I’ve known over the years, I would say the most common answer would be no more than six hours. That would probably be three two-hour classes a week.

Of course, some people can only get to class twice a week, so that would be four hours of class time, but maybe they practice at home a little bit, too. Now, here’s another question—do you think someone can be great at martial arts practicing four to six hours a week?

That’s an uncomfortable question, isn’t it? Uncomfortable because we all know that six hours isn’t very much time. We know that Olympic athletes might be practicing six hours a day, every day, to achieve greatness.

So, how the heck can we even compare the practice time of a professional athlete, or a professional martial artist, to someone who practices martial arts as a hobby?

I’m not saying someone who practices martial arts as a hobby isn’t serious-minded and committed to being their best, but we all know that the more you put into something, the more you get out, and six hours a week will never get you what six hours a day will get.

Now, let me back up a step. We can’t really talk about the ideal practice schedule without first considering who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish. We have different goals in the martial arts. We also have different backgrounds and capabilities.

If you’re taking martial arts classes just for fun, hey, two classes a week might be ideal. If you’re athletically gifted and you’re able to learn complex movements quickly, then you may not require as many reps as someone less athletic.

So, the formula for practice time is actually a secret formula. Not because I won’t tell you, but because the only person who can figure it out is you.

Fair enough? Okay. Having said that, no matter who you are and what your capabilities may be, I still believe that even a little martial arts makes life a whole lot better. You know that. So, if you only practice four to six hours a week or even four to six hours a month, keep going.

You don’t have to be a full-time martial artist to be the best you can be. You may not be the best martial artist you can be, but you can still be the best person you can be. And that’s a journey you should still be proud to take.

If you’re curious about my practice schedule, I train every day. Well, almost. Always have. Birthdays, holidays, snow, rain, sick, tired… for over 30 years, I have always made time to practice something. Even if I’m stuck on a plane. I’ll look through my notebook, visualize moves in my head, practice breathing, and then go throw 20 elbows in the bathroom.

Hey, QUICK TIP for you! Do not yell “KIAI” when you train in an airplane bathroom. Unless you want to meet the air marshal.

Now, I’m not telling you that I practice every day so you’ll think I’m some amazing or super-disciplined student. The truth is I’m just a bit compulsive. That’s why I don’t drink, smoke, or play video games even… I’m deathly afraid if I start, I’ll never stop!

Seriously. Some days I wish I didn’t feel like practicing, so I could just sleep in or stare at the clouds. But that hasn’t happened yet.

The funny part—or sad part—is that for a guy who studies, takes classes, teaches, and practices all the time, I should be a lot better than I am! I’m nowhere near where I want to be. Which just goes to prove that—

Practice time is a waste of time if you’re not working on the right things the right way.

It’s easy—so easy!—to waste time on drills that don’t develop practical skills. It’s easy to waste time on low priority goals while avoiding or being completely unaware of more important issues. But figuring out what to practice and how to practice, that’s a discussion for another day. Right now, let’s assume that you practice practical drills and high priority skills.

[06:42]  Here are two pieces of advice to make the most of your practice time.

My first piece of advice…

…is something I say to my students all the time. “A little practice every day goes a long way.”

That means if I have the choice between practicing one hour a day/six days a week or two hours a day/three times a week, I would choose the former.

Yes, both practice plans add up to six hours a week, but in my experience, practicing one hour every day builds up more momentum. Consistent practice, as opposed to sporadic practice, taps into that timeless success strategy that you already know well—slow and steady wins the race.

When you were a kid, someone told you that if you put a nickel into a piggy bank every day, before you know it, you’d have 20 dollars. Put that same nickel into an account with compounding interest and you’d be a millionaire by the time you’re 50.

Obviously, I’m not a math guy, but you know what I mean. The same principle applies to martial arts. If you practice your skills every day, if you keep making small investments of time and effort, you’ll ultimately be rewarded with a large gain.

It may not look like it at first and I’ve talked about that before in Episode #6, The Invisible Path to Success. The idea was that you can’t really see or measure progress in the short-term. But after six months? After a year? You can definitely look back and say, “Wow! Look what I did!”

More often, other people notice your improvements before you do. Maybe you’re trying to get into shape and lose weight, but you get discouraged because you’re not seeing any changes on a day-to-day basis, but then you run into a friend who hasn’t seen you in a month and they say, “Wow! You look great. You’ve really lost some weight.”

So, my first piece of advice for anyone who wants to master a martial art is to practice every day. Whatever skills you believe to be important, make time to review them every day in some way. If you only have five minutes, hey—that’s better than no minutes.

The fact is, and I think I’ve said this before, the mind is smart, but the muscles are dumb. Which means every day you don’t remind your body how to do something the right way, or challenge your body to find a better way to do something, your skills start to erode. You lose ground. You drift backwards.

Sure, practicing every other day, or every two or three days, that will still lead to improvement. But when you follow a sporadic schedule, part of each training session is always spent reminding your body how to do what it should already know how to do. Instead of picking up where you left off and getting ahead, you waste time catching up.

Now, I’m not saying you have to sweat and push yourself to the limits every time you train. No. That’s stupid. Your mind needs time to process what you learn and your body needs time to recover. But that doesn’t mean you can’t practice at all!

Even if you just spend 15 minutes moving through your kata, maybe at 20% speed and power, or shadowbox at half-speed, or hit a bag lightly, that small investment will pay off. You will keep your momentum going.

Step by Step

Photo by Jake Hills

Just be careful. The slow and steady approach demands that you set realistic expectations. You can’t expect your skills to make a leap every day. Your goal instead is to simply take one step forward.

Actually, that’s too much. A step is too high an expectation. If you can just shift your weight forward, that is a good day. If you keep shifting forward a little bit more and a little bit more, maybe in a month you’ll have taken a step. That’s how it works.

Most people are not patient enough to invest in that kind of training. They want to see their skill level make a leap or a jump every time they hit the mats. But that’s not the path to mastery.

The path to mastery requires patience. So, my advice—make daily deposits into your practice time piggy bank.

My second piece of advice…

[11:36] …on the subject of practice time is to go deep. What does that mean? Going deep might mean attending an all-day seminar or a weekend retreat. Or maybe a full-week training camp. Maybe you travel to Okinawa to visit dojos for two weeks. Maybe you travel to Thailand to train at a Muay Thai school for a month.

For most students, a trip like that may be something you can only take once in a lifetime, but I assure you, it will be worth it. I’ve shared my feelings about this before, I think. Seminars and retreats are a special occasion. Your brain puts those experiences in a separate folder from your regular, routine classes. What you learn at a seminar gets a big gold star on it.

I have personally had experiences with weekend camps, week-long camps, and a large number of day seminars. Each one of them has usually lead to a leap forward in my skill level, as opposed to a step or slight shift forward.

That’s why my big goal in the near future is to organize live training events, either for a weekend or a full week. I want to set aside a time and place where good people can come together and immerse themselves in their martial arts training.

Something like those foreign language courses where you’re not allowed to speak your native language and you’re only allowed to speak a new language for an extended period of time. Or learning to swim by being thrown into the water.

There’s something magical about experiences like that. Of course, that’s not the only way to learn, but I think it’s the best way… and here’s why.

A long time ago, back in my Aikido days, I heard this saying: “If you cut with a sword 1,000 times, they can’t all be wrong.”

I love that. I find that idea oddly encouraging. The concept is if you pick up a sword and swing it 10 times, it’s possible that none of those strokes will be any good. In fact, if you have a bad habit, you’re probably just going to reinforce it.

But when you practice a large number of strokes, like a thousand, at some point, maybe around 200 or 300 cuts, your body will start to fatigue. That will force you to find another way to execute the same movement. That leads to becoming more efficient.

Hundreds and hundreds of cuts will also take that vision of how you think you should look when you swing a sword and smash it. When your shoulders and wrists are burning, you stop caring what you look like. You just focus on the function of the cut. That leads to becoming more effective.

Practice Time

So, first the body breaks down and then your mind and ego break down. By the time you reach 700 or 800 cuts, you’ll probably find yourself asking WHY you’re swinging that sword. Why are you putting yourself through this torture? What is your true motivation for training so hard? When you find that  answer, that leads to your practice becoming more meaningful.

At least for me, going deep with a high number of repetitions breaks down your body, mind, and spirit. By the end of an experience like performing a thousand cuts, or practicing several hours a day for several days in a row, your technique, your art, will never be the same… and neither will you. And isn’t that the goal of martial arts training?

By breaking down, rebuilding, and strengthening our techniques, we break down, rebuild, and strengthen ourselves—physically, mentally, and spiritually.

So, don’t wait for those opportunities to appear… create them.

[15:57]  Yes, I know—a commitment of time and money to take trip overseas, or take a week off from work, is not easy. Most people are not professional martial artists, or school owners, or personal trainers who can devote hours every day to go deep into their practice.

For most people, martial arts is a hobby. You have a job, a family, and let’s be honest—you enjoy doing other activities. And that’s fine. It really is. You can still achieve a high level of skill without participating in immersive, deep training sessions. Slow and steady can still win the race.

On the other hand, life is short and unpredictable. If you can take a leap forward today, then I say you should take it. Who knows if you’ll ever get the chance again? But if that’s truly impossible, if running off to the mountains and standing in a waterfall for a year is never going to happen, don’t worry. I have a plan for you, too.

First, no matter how busy you are, I bet you can find time to attend at least one seminar. Even if it’s just once a year, do it. I’ll make it even easier. The seminar doesn’t even have to be in your style!

Any multi-hour martial arts training experience will give you a lot to think about. I know I’ve had some of my greatest insights into martial arts working outside my own style.

Now, if the idea of meeting new people or trying new styles makes you uncomfortable, I get it. No problem. I have another plan for you.

Attend your regular classes more often. Let’s say you normally go to class twice a week. Okay. Choose one week in the next year when you double that and go to four classes. If you normally go three times, go six.

You don’t have to do this forever, but pick at least one week when you will show up more than you’ve ever shown up before. If there’s a morning class, go to the morning class. Then go to the evening class. Then show up for the morning class. Whatever your school or teacher offers, show up like it’s your job.

If you do this, I guarantee that you will change how you view your techniques forever. You will learn new lessons and they will stick with you. It’s not magic, it’s just how learning works.

Yes, your body’s going to be sore. Yes, you’ll have less time for other activities. Yes, you’ll have less time for your family, but you still must do this.

If you feel like you’re being selfish for spending so much time on yourself, STOP! You’re not being selfish.

You’ve committed to being a martial artist because you know that improving your skills also improves you, and improving you means you’ll have more to offer your family, and friends, and the world.

Everybody wins when you go deep.

Now, hang on. What if you don’t belong to a full-time school or your class sessions are limited? I got you. The answer then is to simply make the time on your own.

What are you doing tomorrow? Can you wake up early, before you have to work, before you have to run errands, and just go to the park and spend three hours working on stances? Yes, you can. Just go to the park, or your backyard, or in the alley, and move through the stances and footwork patterns that you should know. Don’t even throw a punch or a kick. Don’t make it complicated.

I promise, if you just do that one time, you’ll not only gain new insights into your footwork, you’ll also discover new questions to ask your teacher the next time you’re together. You’ll have a brand new idea to look up on YouTube.

There is just no way that you’re going to leave a focused, three-hour training session without a deeper understanding of what you’re doing. It’s impossible. Your body will break down, you will change your vision of the perfect technique, and you will build a more meaningful connection to your practice. Guaranteed.

So, that is my double challenge to you…

[20:30]  I challenge you, first, to practice every day in some small way. That’s what my seven-day martial arts challenge is all about. If you’re not aware of that, click over to SenseiAndo.com and you’ll find a video explaining what to do. But the big idea is simple: “A little practice every day, goes a long way.”

Second, I challenge you to make time to go deep. If you decide to go deep on your own, as opposed to attending a retreat or a seminar, you can choose one of two approaches.

One, you can name a specific skill that you want to improve and just focus on that. If you want to improve your sparring, then go to as many classes as you can for a week and spar like an animal. Take notes, ask questions, video tape yourself, find a partner to spar before class, find a partner to spar after class… just spar, spar, spar.

Two, if you can’t think of a specific skill to improve, just show up. Show up to the park or class and whatever you do first, stick with that. So, either way, choose a goal or let a goal choose you. Then work it.

One more piece of advice—going deep doesn’t have to be a one-time-a-year occasion. Why not go deep one week every three months? Maybe one week every month? Maybe one day every month, wake up early and give yourself three hours to explore one skill.

I leave the schedule up to you, but just remember the old saying, “If you cut with a sword 1,000 times, they can’t all be wrong.”

So, if the first time you throw 1,000 punches, or 1,000 kicks, or 1,000 takedowns on a heavy bag, and you only feel you did it right one time, perfect. Maybe the next time you practice 1,000 reps, you do it right two or three times. Then maybe 10 times. I promise, the more often you go deep, the quicker your percentage of successes will increase.

Logically speaking, it’s tempting then to predict that, one day, you’ll be able to cut with that sword 1,000 times and each cut will be perfect. But I’m not going to say that. To me, that’s unrealistic.

If every move you make is perfect, then there would be nothing more to learn. You would no longer be a student. So, if you ever feel like that, be careful—your confidence has spilled over into arrogance. Your awareness has been dulled by ego.

A master is not someone who does everything right all the time. A master is someone who does things right most of the time, but also knows when a mistake is made.

A master is someone who is not only able to identify that mistake, but knows exactly how to fix it. A master is someone who is honest enough to admit his or her flaws and humble enough to face them.

So, if you want to become a master, if you want to keep taking steps and leaps forward in your art, make a little time every day and a lot of time every once in a while to practice. That’s the secret to becoming your best as a martial artist and as a human being.


Want more advice on mastering your practice time? Check out…

Podcast: Episode #22: How to Be a Master
Read the transcript.