My Sifu grew up on the wrong side of the tracks without many opportunities or much family support. But one thing he learned is that no matter what hand you’ve been dealt, you always have the ability to respond. Many of his peers joined gangs to escape poverty, family dysfunction, and a decrepit school system. Sifu turned to the martial arts, and that decision saved his life.


Regardless of your upbringing, as you enter adulthood you soon realize that life is full of ups and downs. Developing perseverance and finding right action in a crisis requires training and the willingness to face your fears. There are many proving grounds to develop these qualities, from the military to the church.


The martial arts is another one of these proving grounds. Studying martial arts has prepared me for the rigors of life by teaching me the following lessons.


men grappling

You must be prepared to respond, regardless of your situation. [Photo courtesy of Dan Halpin]


Your Response Is What Matters

A fellow kung fu student once showed up to class with her arm in a sling. She had an accident, but she still wanted to practice her forms and get a workout. She stretched, worked on her forms, and participated in drills to the best of her ability.


Towards the end of class, we were told to line up for sparring. Sifu always picked who would spar from the line-up. He selected Pru, the woman with the injured arm. “But Sifu, my arm is hurt,” Pru said defensively. Without hesitation, Sifu responded, “Is that what you’ll say to your assailer if you’re attacked in the street?” Sifu then had Pru lightly spar for a few minutes to avoid injuring her arm further.


Although sparring while injured is clearly ridiculous, Sifu made his point by having Pru face her fear to the best of her ability. Beyond the self-defense application, the point is that stuff happens. You must be prepared to respond, regardless of your situation.


Takehome: While you may be ‘injured’ in business, life, or relationships, life’s circumstances do not dictate your resolve and feelings. The martial arts teach you that while there are always scenarios out of your control, you are always in control of your response. 


It's Mostly About Defense

There’s an old adage in sports that says defense wins championships. The same holds true in fighting. Floyd Mayweather’s unblemished record was due mostly to his unparalleled defensive ability. Ali is considered the greatest in large part because of his unworldly speed and defensive footwork.


And yet we still can’t get enough of the offense. Offense is action, expression, and fun. Defense is tactical, methodical, and hard work. In my many years of boxing and martial arts, I’ve seen that most students eagerly and enthusiastically love to learn punches, kicks, knees, combinations, and clinches. Very few, if any, are excited about the prospect of receiving them.


Takehome: Taking hits prepares us for life and is something all of us experience, whether we like it or not. Being prepared for rough seas and battles in life has everything to do with the ability to stay calm and see clearly during the storm. Learning the physical application of self-defense in the martial arts develops the mental ability to respond in a crisis.


More on Embracing the Martial Life:

Living Life Like a Boxer: Making and Breaking the Rules


Never Fight Over Words

Unlike a peaceful Shaolin monk, Sifu had a knack for raising his voice and even using profanity. He was more of a New York brawler than Zen warrior. Perhaps it was his nature, but I think Sifu raised his voice and swore to better prepare us for life’s challenges.


There are plenty of bullies in the playgrounds, boardrooms, and relationships of life. People will swear at you, take advantage of you, and even intentionally hurt you. There are times when standing up to face a bully is the only appropriate option. But there is a time for such a fight, and hurtful words are not such an instance.


Takehome: How we interpret, react, and respond to words is a conscious choice. If someone wants to talk trash about your mother or tell you what a loser you are, let them. The martial arts will teach you the right time for action, the right time for defense, and the right time to do nothing.


Breathing Will Save Your Life - Literally

I’ve been in a rip current. I’ve been plugged into frightful machines in an emergency room. I’ve also faced much bigger, stronger, and scarier men than I in a boxing ring. I’m here to tell you that the ring is an even more terrifying place than the emergency room or the ocean.


What got me through the toughest moments in the ring was the same thing that gets us though the toughest moments in any fight in life - the ability to stay relaxed and calm and not defeat yourself. That ability all starts with breathing. Sifu once told me he could tell how someone fights by one simple thing: how well they breathe. Regardless of your specific discipline or martial art, breathing is your life force, as well as your biggest nemesis. Breathing correctly can literally save your life, while rapid and shallow breathing can take you out faster than any punch.


Takehome: Breathing correctly is a learned skill. When adrenaline and fear take over your nervous system, your breath shortens, you physically lose your strength, and in turn you make bad impulse decisions. Breathing well allows you to conserve energy physically and let cooler heads prevail. But first, you have to remember to breathe with control. The martial arts will teach you to do just that.


Find Inner Peace

To paraphrase Gandhi, world peace starts with inner peace. Ironically, finding inner peace has everything to do with the willingness to fight. Human beings are aggressive animals. Many suppress that aggression, only to find themselves at the mercy of suppressed rage. The martial arts teach you to channel your aggression and to use it wisely.


If you watch kids, you will see they like to hit things – from bats, to balls, to each other. What many of us tell kids is, "No!" Instead, we should be teaching them to channel that aggression and use it to their advantage.


Takehome: Gandhi was a pacifist, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t aggressive. In many ways, Gandhi exemplified the true spirit of a martial artist and the way of the warrior. The way to peace is to face your fears, confront your oppressor, and stand up for yourself. The martial arts will teach you how. 


Become a Leader:

The Charged Connection: Exercise and Leadership


Create Opportunities

Bruce Lee famously stated, “To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities.” While that may sound like a brash fighter talking, nothing could be further from the truth. Lee was a humble servant to the lessons he learned in the martial arts.


During your journey through life, you will face challenges, dilemmas, and failure. Finding your way can feel overwhelming and even impossible, especially in today’s uncertain climate of volatile markets and unpredictable circumstances. Perhaps the most valuable lesson we learn from the martial arts is that in every one of these scenarios lies an opportunity.