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The three hardest things to learn in the martial arts

When I take on new students or when dealing with students that are not familiar with my teaching style, I will usually make the comment that the hardest things you will have to learn are to walk, fall down, and breathe.

This simple statement is usually looked at with disbelief and the ramblings of someone who is trying to glorify their position as a teacher. As the weeks go on and the student starts to actually learn the basics of the three difficulties they begin to understand why I made them aware of the walk, fall down, and breathing comment.

What follows is an explanation of each of the three actions and why they make my top list of challenges:


The foundation of any martial art is the ability to stand in a body position that allows you to interact with your opponent. In making the comment about walking, one could say that the real difficulty is to learn to stand. That may be true, but most students can learn to obtain a working standing position rather quickly. The difficulty comes when they need to leave a nonmoving position and move around the room to either engage or disengage an opponent.

When a student learns to walk they are combining many skills that are taught from day one of their learning. But in learning to walk they will invariably return to how they learned to walk when they were very young. The education that must be made to the student is that yes walking is just the process of moving from point A to point B, but staying in stance while walking is the real challenge.

And the process of getting into stance and staying in stance is a combination of balance, centering, force generation, body dynamics, frame structuring, perceived work to be done, preexisting injuries, and being in tune with one’s own body. All these actions taking place in a stance are one thing but having to combine them and actually moving the body can be overwhelming.

Students that start young or up into their late teens or early twenties tend to find the transition to walking easier. While they may not be better at walking, they are more relaxed and willing to make mistakes without being as self conscious as adult students. The older students especially men, will tend to be very ridge in their muscle structure and walking while in stance become an exercise in force of will. Being able to work through the difficulties and help the student learn to walk will provide a foundation that they will never lose.

Fall down

Adults hate to fall down. Our entire adult lives have been spent in the pursuit of not falling down. Only children who can’t control their bodies fall and we as adults have mastered the process of not letting gravity take us to the ground.

The look you get from a 50 year when you tell him that he has to learn to fall down and do it in the manner in which they are instructed is nearly comical. With many students you can actually see fear in their eyes. They perceive falling down as a failure or with getting hurt and nobody like pain.

The way I approach students that are hesitant to commit to learning to fall is to teach them how to sit down on the ground first. This takes the fear out of the process and lets me teach them some techniques for control and balance.

After you can demonstrate to them that you are not going to let them get hurt, their defenses will come down and they will turn their brains back on.

The transition to being able to fall down follows the same muscle rigidity problems as seen in the learning to walk example above. The more tense your muscles, the harder it is to fall down without being injured. Children tend to be the opposite; they are like wet noodles and have difficulty in creating a good structure because they just flop around.

It is this trust in teaching the student to relax, have faith in letting the body follow gravity, and be in control without trying to control everything is the challenge.


Everybody breathes. Babies do it best. They are not self-conscious about how they look or how they sound. They don’t care if they breathe in your face or spit a little when excited. We can all learn a lot about breathing by watching an infant still in the crib.

To breathe properly is work. It might not be work you are paying much attention to but it is still work. Most people will understand the need to breathe faster and deeper when running or climbing a mountain but getting them to understand the necessity to breathe in time with the work you are doing is a foreign language.

Teaching someone to control their lungs and the reasons why can be daunting. The point I try to make is that the lungs are one of your bodies larges organs and as you flex, contract, or control the relaxation of that organ can affect your ability to absorb oxygen, stay conscious, focus your body’s potential energy, and or terrorize your opponent.

The lungs are always used in every technique. You may not use your fist in every technique but if you don’t breathe and breathe correctly you will eventually pass out.

One method I use is to combine a breathing exercise with some other form of hand drill. I try to get them to focus less on the drill and more on the breathing exercise. In time they will start to increase the power and level of commitment to the drill and as they do, the breathing will usually start to fall in line with the work to be done.

It is these three areas that will build the foundation for everything the student will eventually accomplish. But without an understanding and mastery of the most basic body skills the student will never achieve their highest levels of accomplishments.

“Your own body is the first challenge, the opponent is the second.” – OMK