I find the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies to be quite an interesting concept. Whether for good or for ill, there are many examples that can be found in any martial arts school, both for students and for instructors.
I would like to examine a few of the most common self-fulfilling prophecies from my experience of several different clubs training several different sports and martial arts. Maybe you will recognise some, maybe you won’t, but I do hope that this gets you thinking about the mental approach to training for yourself and your clubmates!
Can you do it?
A very pithy statement I once saw in a business cartoon was “whether you think you can or you can’t, you are right”. While this would probably be quite unhelpful and frustrating to hear if you asked for advice, it is nonetheless a good encapsulation of many situations.
If you are in the habit of thinking “I can’t do this”, then you won’t make things any easier for yourself, you will expect failure, and success will come as a surprise (and only rarely).
On the other hand, if you are in the habit of thinking “I can do this” (perhaps after an appropriate amount of training, sure, but the gist of the thought is that the thing is possible), then you will be striving towards becoming able to do it, failure will be expected until success is possible, and success is absolutely on the horizon.
I can think of countless examples of strong people who were convinced that they wouldn’t be able to cut properly with a sharp sword against tatami or some other cutting medium. I can think of examples of people fitter and more competitive than I am who thought that they wouldn’t be able to win a competition. I can think of people I consider to be clever (perhaps even more clever than I am) who have thought that they could never grasp or understand a concept properly.
The upshot? Most of them couldn’t, even though they had all the natural advantages to make success easy.
I also know people, in possession of several disadvantages, who were focused in their thinking and driven by their desire to achieve success, who worked hard and achieved far more success as a result.
While I think it is rarely helpful to tell someone “whether you think you can or you can’t, you are right”, it is nonetheless quite close to reality. If you think that success is possible, it is more likely to be achievable. If you can help your clubmates think that success is possible, you are likely to see your friends achieve more success.
And if anyone is convinced that they cannot do something, they are probably right, until they change how they think about the matter and how they approach the problem.
Does it actually work in sparring?
In my experience with karate, I genuinely have no idea how often people have said that kata is not always relevant, because we don’t fight like that. We don’t stand like that, we don’t move like that, we don’t strike like that when we are sparring.
I have precisely the same experience in HEMA, where people have said that the advice in the sources isn’t always relevant because we don’t fight / move / strike like that in sparring.
In fact, I also have that same experience in modern fencing, where the “correct” on guard position was expected, by people and instructors in the club in which I trained, to become something else when actually sparring.
And yet, is it actually possible to do the things in karate sparring that we find in kata? Yes – you just have to set it up differently, and perhaps the context or victory conditions of the sparring need to be something a bit different from 50/50 free sparring where all that matters is scoring ippon or causing the other person to tap out.
Is it possible to do the things advised by the sources in HEMA sparring? Yes, you just need to set it up properly and try to do what you have done in training, without aborting the action and turning it into something else halfway.
Is it possible to do a classical position in modern fencing? Sure, you just need to try to discipline yourself to try to do it.
I believe firmly that when people say that “this is not possible in sparring”, they are absolutely right, because with that point of view it won’t be possible. And yet, other people somehow manage to do it. I wonder what the difference is?
Is it difficult to perform in sparring?
A slightly softer form of the previous prophecy is that any given technique is “difficult to perform in sparring”. I mean, sure, everything IS difficult if you don’t make it easy for yourself.
When I make myself instant coffee, it’s pretty easy. The kettle is next to the sink, so I can fill it with water quickly and easily. The mugs are in the cupboard above the kettle, along with the jar of coffee and the tub of sugar. The milk is in the fridge, but that’s not far away and it is precisely where I would expect to find it. As a result, the mug of coffee comes together pretty quickly and easily, and I can do it perfectly while thinking about something else (or possibly without having woken up yet).
When I go to someone’s house for the first time, and they ask me to make the coffee, that is difficult! I don’t know where they keep their mugs, coffee, or sugar. I can guess where they keep the milk (fridge is usually a safe bet), and the kettle is usually easy to spot. But once I work out where everything is, then making coffee is easy again. I just had to work out where everything was first.
And so, when we are sparring, a technique might be really difficult to perform successfully, until you learn the situation and set-up that make it easy. And therefore, if you set it up properly and deploy it at the correct time, the technique occurs quicky and easily, and becomes successful.
It doesn’t need to be difficult. But it probably will remain difficult until you learn how to set it up properly, and how to get past the initial difficulties in learning how to do it.
I’m too old for this
This self-fulfilling prophecy resonates with me. I definitely play the old man very well. Just give me a shotgun and a rocking chair, and I’ll fit the stereotype perfectly!
However, if I decide that I’m too old to squat low, or too old to run fast, or too old to compete with people in their 20s, then once again, I’m probably right. At the same time as I stand at the side lamenting my age, I can watch people in their 40s or 50s or 60s do precisely what I decided I was too old to do.
Some young people have disabilities. Some old people are free of disabilities. These factors are probably much more limiting or freeing than age. Age doesn’t necessarily mean much, unless we let it. I have fond memories of people two or three (or four) times my age wiping the floor with me at karate. I have much more recent memories of people twice my (adult) age wiping the floor with me at foil fencing. I have regular experiences of people older than me doing things in sparring that make me laugh and applaud and cheer because of how impressive they were.
The moment I decide I am too old to be successful, I probably will be. And yet, if I keep striving to be successful with the recognition that this is possible, I probably will be.
The things you say about your training and your chances of success will shape how you think about everything. If you keep putting yourself down, and brainwash yourself to think that you cannot be successful, then you probably never will be, and that’s a shame.
If you accept that success is possible with appropriate hard work, and put in the effort to work as hard as you can to achieve that, then success is absolutely on the radar.
As a student, what you tell yourself about your chances for success absolutely will dictate your chance of success. What can you redefine for yourself in terms of how possible success might be?
As an instructor, what you tell your students will absolutely inform and influence how they understand the issue. I urge you, don’t say that something is difficult if it can be straightforward. Don’t mystify what can actually be quite simple. Sure, don’t lie, don’t pretend that complicated things are anything else; but don’t make things more difficult than they need to be. Help your students achieve things, and therefore, make things achievable and talk about them in this fashion.
Are there any other self-fulfilling prophecies that you have told yourself, or heard other people expressing? Please share your stories with me, I’m interested to hear more about how other people have experienced this matter.
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.