Do you have plans to travel this summer? Is your schedule getting crazy with other activities? Do you feel like your training has gotten stale so you want some time off– just hit the “pause” button on your martial arts for a bit?
If these questions are striking a chord, this is the post for you. Find out all you need to know about training gaps, from what you can expect during and after to how it will affect your martial arts journey.
What happens while you’re gone?
Often, people will report a noticeable drop in mental and physical ability after only a couple weeks of absence from martial arts training.
Let’s focus on just the physical changes first: When you stop training for a significant period of time, muscle memory starts to fade. Muscle memory is what gets built up by doing certain actions repeatedly, until eventually you can do those actions correctly without having to think much about it, like being able to type without looking at the keyboard. But since it’s based on repetition, muscle memory deteriorates when you stop repeating those actions. Have you ever done something for the first time in a while and been surprised to find that the once-familiar movements felt awkward? That’s because your muscle memory had diminished from disuse.
So how long is too long when it comes to muscle memory? Well, that depends on a few of factors like frequency, time, and complexity. A person who frequents the dojo 20 times in a month will keep their moves longer than one who only makes it 5 times per month. How long you’ve been working on a particular skill-set will make a difference like when an orange belt takes a break theres a good possibility the white belt skills will outlast the more recently acquired orange belt skills. Complexity might seem obvious so it comes with no surprise that when a blue belt returns to training, Kata 2 and Two Man Fist Set (which may have been learned within weeks of each-other) return differently.
The bottom line for all this is that even though there are different factors in how long it takes muscle memory to fade, chances are those forms and techniques you thought you had down may disappear faster than you expect. Along with muscle memory, your grasp of the details and the principles behind your movements will grow fuzzy, and the discipline you’ve worked to build will relax over time.
Now let’s briefly address the mental aspects: I’ve had returning adults mention things like their patience grows thinner, and feeling “off balance” or managing stress poorly soon after leaving. For parents of child students I hear them also say that positive behavioral changes will fade out quickly especially if the child has only been in martial arts for a little while. The character development we see in our students is very real but it takes time for those virtues to grow roots. It’s not uncommon for a parent to find a way to come back sooner because they see their child’s behavior slipping back. They scramble to resume their child’s training ASAP and “get it back”.
So what’s it like to come back after a break?
Coming back at all can be difficult because the dojo isn’t part of your routine like it once was, and even though you might have missed training while you were gone, the part of you that’s worried about the skill you lost might be a bit apprehensive about trying to pick up where you left off.
Speaking of skill, a problem we see with both kids and adults is rank. Lets say a student spends a few months earning their yellow belt. Then they take a few months off. In this example they’ve been gone for about as long as they were here so there is little doubt they’ve lost skill relative to rank. Because rank is viewed as an achievement, it is not appropriate for the instructor to take that away because they’ve only been gone for a few months. They earned it, right? Telling them to put their white belt back on will send the wrong message and can be very discouraging. Now let’s say this yellow belt lines up next to the other yellow belts that are sharp and confident in their movements from continuous training, the student who took time off is going to feel out of place or even unworthy. I’ve seen young kids who seem to feel this even though maybe they can’t articulate why, but it leads to poor behavior / attention seeking.
It’s painful as a teacher to see someone building momentum, with confidence climbing, to fall so hard off the path.
I imagine the frustration a student feels looking around realizing that some of the students who were at their same level (or in some circumstances, below their level) have now surpassed them in skill and/or rank. And of course we teach that one should not measure their own martial arts progress against anyone else’s but I know people still do. Their discouragement is understandable when considering how much progress they might have made if they didn’t stop.
When you come back, after you figure out how much you’ve retained, you’ll start the process of re-building what you’ve lost. And in case you had any doubts, rest assured that there is a difference between learning and re-learning. Most of us love learning new things in the martial arts, but re-learning movements you’ve forgotten is a different experience. The combination of “this seems familiar” and “I used to know this so well” tends to add a level of frustration that wasn’t an issue when you learned it the first time.
But it’s not all bad! On average, you can expect it to take half the amount of time you were away for to get back to where you used to be. Plus coming back to your dojo after a break just feels good, like coming home from a long trip. You’ll feel both relaxed and recharged, and happy to be back!
What if I just want a break?
If the issue comes from a lack of motivation or discipline, maybe it feels like you’ve burned out. It might feel like you’ve had enough because you’ve put in a lot of time and a lot of energy and you just don’t feel that same enthusiasm as you did when you first started. I’ve spoken with many students who explain these symptoms but after letting them talk more we find that they are tired of practicing the same things over and over and not learning as many new things and not feeling like they are developing skill as quickly as they’re used to which feels far less exciting.
What I find actually helps the best for this is MORE TRAINING. What?! I told you I want to train less because I’m bored and you’re saying I need to come more? That’s right. You feel stuck because you’re not seeing the same PROGRESS that you’re used to. Training less or stopping will slow your progress even more and while I can see the value in a short recharge (like, a few days), I’ve seen too many students slow down or stop for too long and seriously impact their goals for the worst. Training more will accelerate your progress and with the seen improvement your confidence (or your child’s confidence) will continue to climb as it did when you started.
If adding more training is not an option for you than here’s another great tip:
Maintain long time perspective and consider that by sticking to this you will make it to black belt and beyond. Now that you’ve decided that you’re sticking to your training regardless of pace think about switching things up to keep yourself motivated. Talk to your instructor about learning a new weapon. Focusing on just sparring skills or on another particular skill set for a little while. By concentrating our efforts for a while you can see the notable progress you crave. Just be sure to use this strategy for increased skills not a promotion in rank because if we focus on grappling in lieu of kata you may not have all you need for a new belt color. Some material may hit the backburner for a little bit but because you’re maintaining the habit of attending regularly, you’ll still have timing, distancing, balance, speed, accuracy and good body mechanics. -So, when the time comes to put the heat back on those techniques you neglected, you’ll have all the necessary ingredients to get it back.
What if I can’t avoid taking a break?
Believe it or not, a break might not be the only (or the best) option available. The most common issues like traveling, other sports, activities, busy work schedule etc can be dealt with by modifying your program. Talk to your Sensei here and we’ll do whatever we can to be fair and assist you in keeping on track with your goals or at least minimizing damage. We’re here to help you. Changing your schedule or cutting down your regular training by going to fewer classes rather than skipping your classes altogether will make everything easier when you are able to train in full again.
That said, of course legitimate and unavoidable reasons for taking breaks do come up, whether it’s a physical injury, change in financial situation, or long absences. So what can you do, in that case, to minimize the damage time off can cause?
Practice. Practice as much of your material as you can, as often as you can. In the case of injury I recommend working on what you can and mental rehearsal for the rest. Even just closing your eyes and going through your material will help keep your martial arts much more in tact. A great way to do this is by reading your training manual. You may not be advancing in your training, but it will mean much less catching up to do when you’re ready to come back.
To wrap up:
If you’re thinking about taking a break, my advice would be to do whatever you can to avoid it.
If you allow yourself to quit once you’ll probably allow yourself to quit again.
Each time a person quits the likelihood of them sticking to it and reaching high achievement in martial arts drastically declines. The best advice I can give is for you to decide once and for all that you will never quit, just draw a line in the sand and refuse to cross it.
If you can’t run you can walk if you can’t walk you can stand, if you can’t stand you can sit, but do not lie down and give up. We’ve literally done lessons sitting down for a student post surgery so they didn’t lose momentum. Talk about commitment!
As discussed, it’s not always avoidable. So if you are forced to take a break in your martial arts training, be patient with yourself and the process of getting back to full capacity because you’ll find that it’s 100% worth it. These challenges may seem big now but in the looking back later will just be a short chapter of your martial arts story as long you as you don’t let it be the conclusion.