When you train martial arts (or indeed, any physical activity), consistency is one of the most important skills to develop. It will improve your training and your resulting skill development in many ways. It will also improve how swiftly your training partners can learn skills when they practise with you.
Learning motor skills
When you are learning motor skills with your body, you need to learn simple things before you can learn more complicated actions. Babies do not begin their lives by learning to pole vault or throw a spinning back kick; they begin by learning to crawl, learning to stand up, learning to walk. As you gain better control of your body, you can perform simple actions with more ease and more success, and this enables you to attempt more difficult actions.
To learn a skill, you need to practise that skill. Going for a run does not help you learn to throw a new cut with a sword. Going to a karate class does not help you learn a new stroke for swimming. Complementary activities are good for cross-training and for the improvement of skills you already have – but they do not teach you new skills in your primary discipline.
Similarly, to learn a new technique with a sword, you have to practise that technique. Not several different variations of that technique. To learn a descending cut with your sword, you need to practise cutting in a descending fashion; not a horizontal strike, not a rising strike, not some funky twisting strike. By focusing on performing exactly the action you have been asked to do, with no variations, you will learn the technique much faster, and you will also improve your ability to perform variations of that technique in sparring. If you only ever practise variations because you do not have the consistency of practice or the control of your own body to be consistent, then your performance will always be somewhat random as the body does not have the control necessary to perform the right motion in the right way at the right time.
Learning more complicated variations
It may seem boring to train the basic actions again and again. Maybe it would be more interesting to practise some other cut, or to see how far you can bend your body while making the action, or to go faster and faster; but maybe the instructor needs to make sure that everyone in the class can perform the first part of the exercise correctly before moving on.
Every action in a martial art will make sense in a particular situation. The same action will be deficient in a different situation, and may even be a very silly thing to do in yet another situation. Everything you do in sparring is therefore a response to a stimulus. If you perform the correct response for the stimulus you receive, then you will be successful. Performing the wrong response for the stimulus will probably result in failure.
Therefore, before the instructor moves the lesson forward, he or she may need to ensure that every student is capable of giving the correct stimulus for the exercise to make sense. The faster you can demonstrate that you can perform exactly the correct stimulus, every single time, without changing things, the sooner the instructor will be able to move on and develop the exercise. You may feel that by altering the drill and changing your technique (or the context, or the set up, or whatever), you are learning more from the exercise; but you may in fact be throwing a spanner in the works, making it more difficult for the instructor to teach the lesson, and more difficult for your fellow students to learn. By developing your skill at performing actions consistently, you will make it easier for instructors to teach their lessons, and you will therefore be able to experience a higher quality of learning with more interesting information. Patience and consistency are most definitely virtues when it comes to training!
Improving the training experience for your partners
No martial artist gains skill in a vacuum. There is always an influence from somewhere else, and there are usually training partners. The purpose of a club is not to make YOU a better martial artist, but to make EVERY participant a better martial artist.
Therefore, the overall skill level of a club is the product of the skill level of all of its members. A club with a large number of very skilful practitioners will create an environment where newcomers can learn very swiftly indeed. A club with a lot of beginners and no advanced practitioners will struggle a little more, but with dedication (and patience and consistency of practice) the club can create a helpful training environment.
If you always try to “win” the drill by changing your attack, so that your training partner cannot defend properly, then you are sabotaging your training partner’s learning. This is disrespecting their time, effort, and their desire to learn more. It also fails to improve your own skills. Consistent, high quality training is what improves your ability as a martial artist.
Testing your ability against an uncooperative opponent is of course important, and sparring is the place to do that. The ability to adapt to new situations, to respond to sudden problems, to demonstrate skill under pressure – these are important, and they are some of the many reasons we do sparring.
Drills where one person does a specific thing and the other person learns how to deal with it are intended to help people learn how to deal with a specific situation. By providing a consistent stimulus, so that your training partners can work on their response to that stimulus, you will be a valuable training partner, an important member of the club, and an integral part of the overall success of the club and its other members.
Improving the frequency of your training
Attending training sessions once a month, whenever you can drag yourself off the couch, is not going to turn you into a skilled martial artist any time soon. Disciplining yourself to go to the club, rain or shine, tired or not, is what will give you the opportunity to develop. If you can increase the consistency of how often you attend training, then you will find your skills (and your enjoyment of the activity) increasing in due proportion.
If you can improve from attending 50% of the sessions that are running to attending 80% of the sessions, then you will find yourself improving If you can reach 90% or 100% of the available sessions, then your development will be so much faster! But attending 100% of the sessions one month and then taking two months off “to recover” is not going to help. It is best to establish your training frequency (one session a week, two sessions a week, a third session every other week, whatever your schedule and wallet will allow) and then stick to it with all the consistency and self-discipline you can muster.
If the consistency of your attendance improves, then your development will improve noticeably.
Consistency is so important, in so many ways, for so many reasons.
If you have the self-control of your body to perform exactly the right technique at exactly the right intensity for the training situation in which you find yourself, then you will be more than just a good martial artist: you will be a valuable training partner and a valuable contributor to your club and the wider community.
If you have the self-discipline to attend the club consistently then you will give yourself the opportunity to develop faster while also supporting the development of your friends and colleagues, and also supporting the club financially with your attendance fees so that it can continue to run and provide the opportunity for people to engage in the practice of your chosen activity.
Consistency is relatively easy to learn. It just requires practice, patience, and focus. These elements are also the requirements for becoming a good martial artist. It just so happens that by becoming more consistent in your practice and your attendance, you will become a better martial artist.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.