Leaping Past the Comfort Zone
by Robert Wolfe
We often talk about the benefits of martial arts training that extend far beyond the notion of self-defense. One of the most significant examples I’ve ever witnessed was the case of a young woman named Sarah and her fear of doing a forward roll. Those familiar with our dojo know we employ a very sophisticated method to teach the skills of ukemi (“receiving body”), the rolls and break-falls used to counter being thrown and enable safe training. Usually, we can take a first-practice student from zero to a break-fall from kote-gaeshi in as little as 15 minutes, and typically no more than a half-hour.
But not in Sarah’s case.
Strangely, Sarah quickly learned to execute a flawless backward roll, something that is technically a lot more difficult than a forward roll. And this went on for months. Persons training with Sarah in the role of uke (the person receiving the technique) would have to take Sarah to the point of the throw, and then stop, which obviously compromised their training. Finally, one evening before class started, I said to Sarah, “Look. If you can’t do forward rolls, you can’t train. It’s as simple as that.”
Sarah looked at me, turned away, and executed a forward roll, from standing. Within a week or two — and this is no exaggeration whatsoever — she was taking a running start and leaping into forward rolls. Laughing. It was an astonishing transformation.
This would be a perfect moment in which to claim all sorts of sage-like sensei-wisdom, and pretend that I knew exactly what to say at the appropriate instant to trigger the breakthrough, but the truth is I was just completely out of ideas.
Sarah is now an executive with a corporation the name of which just about anyone in the world might recognize. While she no longer trains actively in aikijutsu, her experiences in our dojo continue to pay dividends for her.
Here’s her perspective, in her own words:
For background, I was always scared of taking risks — my Mom said it was just “sensitivity” — and ballet, while also physical in its own right, never got to a level of overcoming fear. Twice a week, however, I was confronted with forward rolls that put me in the same position, emotionally, that roller coasters used to, when I was younger. Still not sure why, but I remember it being the same type of fear. (I also remember my friend pulling my hand and telling me I had to go on a ride with her or “What was the point of being at an amusement park?”) There wasn’t any prior experience that was the basis for being scared, it was just about getting over myself.
Since being pushed to do something that scared me at the dojo, there have been several situations, largely professional, where I have pushed myself beyond what is comfortable. While not outwardly required in a Human Resources handbook, given the competitive nature of where I have worked, to get noticed you have to take some risks. Maybe it pays off, maybe it doesn’t, everyone is fine in the end. Sure, anyone can do the same thing over and over, but executives only want to see the same methodologies in market research so many times before asking for more, and now I know there isn’t any growth in avoiding risks. Specifically, I took on a large research project that is usually reserved for those much more senior than myself that I knew would be used around several parts of the company. It was scary, sure, but the experience made it worth doing and now the results will be applicable for years. If not to take risks, why are you there?
An applicable aphorism: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”
To summarize, Itten Dojo gave me a chance to practice taking risks.