Daily Dispatch

What An Eight-Time National Chess Champion And Holder Of 21 Martial Arts Titles Learned From Using Adversity

I wrote this post around a chapter from Josh Waitzkin’s best selling book, ‘The Art of Learning’.

This passage below comes after Josh explained how he broke his right hand in a Wong Fei Hung All Kung Fu super-heavyweight championship match, against a 230-pound giant. He went on to win this match despite only having one working hand. After his victory, when the adrenaline had died down, Josh realized an immediate problem, his right hand was broken, seven weeks before he would defend his title as Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands Middleweight U.S. Champion.

After going to the doctor the day after the injury, the X-rays confirmed Josh’s fears; there was no chance he could compete. He had a spiral fracture in the fourth metacarpal. Best-case scenario, the bone would be fully healed in six weeks, but his arm would have atrophied substantially because of being completely immobilised from the elbow down. Leaving him only a few days for physical therapy, he knew it would be utterly absurd to consider talking tournament-level impact under those conditions. So, what did he do?

The day after he got his cast on, he was in back in training.

Seven weeks later, the doctor removed the cast and was stunned at what he found. Four days before the Nationals an X-ray showed that Josh’s bone was fully healed with little to no muscle atrophy at all. The doctor cleared him to complete. On Wednesday he finished his first weight workout on his right side in seven weeks, on Friday he flew to San Diego, and on Saturday, slightly favouring his newly empowered left arm, won the Nationals.

Here’s what he learned from the experience:

“In my martial arts life, every time I tweak my body, well-intended people like my mother suggest I take a few weeks off training. What they don’t realise is that if I were to stop training whenever something hurt, I would spend my whole year on the couch. Almost without exception, I am back on the mats the next day, figuring out how to use my new situation to heighten elements of my game. If I want to be the best, I have to take risks others would avoid, always optimising the learning potential of the moment and turning adversity to my advantage. That said, there are times when the body needs to heal, but those are ripe opportunities to deepen the mental, technical, internal size of my game. 

When aiming for the top, your path requires an engaged, searching mind. You have to make obstacles spur you to creative new angles in the learning process. Let setbacks deepen your resolve. You should always come off an injury or a loss better than when you went down. Another angle in this issue is the unfortunate correlation for some between consistency and monotony. It is all too easy to get caught up in the routines of our lives and to lose creativity in the learning process. Even people who are completely devoted to cultivating a certain discipline often fall into a mental rut, a disengaged lifestyle that implies excellence can be obtained by going through the motions. We lose presence. Then an injury or some other kind of setback throws a wrench into the gears. We are forced to get imaginative.

Ultimately we should learn how to use the lessons from this type of experience without needing to get injured: a basketball player should play lefty for a few months, to even out his game. A soccer player who favours his right leg should not take a right-footed shot for an extended period of time. If dirty opponents inspire a great competitor to raise his game, he should learn to raise his game without relying on the ugly ruses of his opponents. Once we learn how to use adversity to our advantage, we can manufacture the helpful growth opportunity without actual danger or injury. I call this tool the internal solution — we can notice external events that trigger helpful growth or performance opportunities, and then internalise the effects of those events without their actually happening. In this way, adversity becomes a tremendous source of creative inspiration.”

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