06 Nov THE JIGSAW PUZZLE ANALOGY
If youth is wasted on the young, I have to admit I was the poster child as far as martial arts training goes. Pursuing a passion when you are young is one thing, but obsessively overtraining is quite another. That was me. About 10 years into my journey I heard a certain analogy, a lesson about training that resonated at the time and made me wish I’d heard it a decade before.
Not that I would have listened then anyway! But I feel it’s one of the most important lessons I can share with my athletes now, and it’s worth putting out there as a resource for any serious student not only of Muay Thai, but any martial art. If only I had known then what I know now…
Looking back at those formative years, I remember training pretty much full time throughout my early twenties. Despite working at least 40 hours a week, I’d force myself to get four to six hours of training a day. During fight camps I’d drive myself mercilessly with eight hours of training a day, often six days a week. I was determined to be the best I could be. With hindsight, it was stupid and counterproductive.
At that point, I was fighting mostly American-style Kickboxing. We didn’t have any good Kickboxing clubs in our part of South Africa at the time, so my friends and I trained ITF Taekwon-Do every morning and evening. Every day at lunchtime I went down to Willie Toweel’s boxing gym to get a headache. A few times a week I’d meet up with the crazy Russian kickboxing brothers Andre and Vlad, and in between I’d get together with my stupid-tough Kyokushin Karate friends or my talented full-contact Kung-Fu buddy.
Despite training at least twice as hard as my competition, I was still losing more than I was winning. Later on I’d get to know some of my most successful competition really well, guys winning European and World Championships. I would even stay with some of them for extended periods. Interestingly enough, none of them trained even remotely as hard as I did. Yet they had way more success. When I got my degree in Exercise Physiology, I learned I was actually overtraining! I also discovered I wasn’t taking into account The Jigsaw Puzzle Analogy.
The Jigsaw Puzzle Analogy
When you begin training in martial arts with a good instructor, he or she will give you a couple of pieces of The Jigsaw Puzzle. Not many. Just one or two, so as not to overwhelm you. You will then spend the next few months learning how those pieces feel and how they fit together.
When you show you understand those pieces, you’ll be given another few. You’ll spend a period getting to understand those pieces and how they fit with the original pieces. Over time you’ll be given more and more until one day, far in the future, you can look down and say, “Oh what a beautiful picture!”
That’s where I went wrong, and where I see so many others going wrong.
You can go to one instructor and get a few pieces of the puzzle, then go somewhere else and get a few more pieces. Perhaps you go somewhere else and get some more. You try your hardest to force the pieces together, and you push and push. None of them fit. One day you look down and say, “What the heck is this mess!”
It’s not that any of those instructors were necessarily doing things wrong. They were working on different jigsaw puzzles!
(I can already hear some of you saying, but Bruce Lee took parts of different arts, like Fencing and Western Boxing, and he fit them together to form Jeet Kune Do. True, but first of all he was a rare genius, and second, he had a very strong base in Wing Chun before he delved into other art forms.)
This is where it gets interesting. Once you’ve finished your original Jigsaw Puzzle—once you’ve been deeply involved in one martial art for an extended period—you can swap out one piece of the puzzle for another from somewhere else. But here’s the caveat: you should only try this once you truly understand which piece makes sense in which place.
The Jigsaw Puzzle in Action
Last summer we attended IFMA Amateur Muay Thai World Championships in Bangkok. Omar and I represented Team USVI and Austin was on Team USA. The eastern European countries like Russia and the Ukraine dominated the tournament, after the Thais, of course. One of the Ukrainian coaches told me that his guys fight every few weeks. One month they might fight a Boxing Tournament and the next month a Kickboxing Tournament, then an elite level Muay Thai fight. They are so adept at switching out pieces of their Jigsaw Puzzle it’s mind-blowing.
So how do they do it? They began with a well-developed foundation, and they have very talented coaches who understand The Jigsaw Puzzle Analogy and always know which puzzle they are working on at the time. The end result is athletes who are built from several different jigsaw puzzles, but all of those puzzles are complete. You have to complete your first puzzle before you can start building any more. Only then can you become “multi-lingual” at martial arts.
The Real Foundation
Whether you are trying out different styles of martial arts—or different coaches within the same style—to find the best fit, or you really to do want to master multiple styles, the foundation is the same. Stick with the same coach and the same style until you have a real foundation. Then build upon that base with pieces that make sense, as opposed to being arbitrarily forced together. Come to JMT to build one complete jigsaw puzzle, and be open to where the path takes you. I’m incredibly proud to build this community, this tribe, around the valuable lessons I’ve learned in my own personal journey!