Mastering fundamentals teaches who you are

This post is a reminder to continue mastering the basics, the fundamentals of your sport, your job, your skills. The fancy things, high-level, tricky, complicated skills will come as they usually are based on the fundamentals and combining the very basics. Let me share my story of what I learnt from practicing karate and the three key points about mental performance that you can learn as you progress in your (athletic) career.

Fancy moves inspire us to start

My first sport is Shotokan karate. As a kid I used to love the high leg kicks, the speedy tzukis (punch) and smooth choreography of karate fight scenes. I wanted to be able to do them. It did seem boring in the beginning to spend 30 minutes of every training on one of the basic positions and so for 6 months, 3 times a week. I vividly remember zenkutsu dachi practices, moving from wall to wall in with this one position. I am happy that these fancy moves got me to the training in the first place. We need these motivators sometimes to start the learning, to inspire us to achieve higher excellence. But it is the decision to do the work that will keep us there.

This was in year 2001 or so. After that six months I had on-and-off relationship with karate, as I moved to Norway and then back to Estonia. I also tried different styles, like wado-ryu, self-defence. When I found a new Shotokan karate group in Tartu, some 15 years later, my basic moves were almost as good. That’s because the routine of the training built a muscle memory. This allowed me to continue working on the important details (lowering the stand, smoothness, coordination). Giving many hours to basic positions helped me learn it for life (to some extent). It was much easier for me to get back to the level of others with the same belt and also be open and ready to learn how to do it better.

This is one kata I did years later as an examination for green belt.

Mastering fundamentals means learning about your own mental game

Mastering fundamentals gives you three important key points:

  1. Basic skills that are needed to create more complex performances.
  2. Teaches who you are as an athlete: your mental state that either allows you to persevere to become skillful and confident or stops you from it.
  3. Teaches you that it is all about the process of growing and learning.

Who are you as an athlete and where will you get the grit?

I talked about the first learning point. The second thing I realized and what is so vividly seen in karate and most likely in any other sport, once you get to know them, is that black belts still have to perfect the first basic steps. As the levels progress, the positions don’t change, but the quality, the effectiveness and the ability to perform them in variety of combinations, giving you the mental freedom to focus on the opponent and trust your own body. If you have done the basic work. And keep doing it, your confidence in your skill grows and you are free to grow as an athlete, as a skillful performer.
Mastering the fundamentals is the only way to sustainably move forward with self-confidence, focusing on the process not worrying whether you can do the next step. On top of the physical skill you learn about yourself while you are mastering each level of skills:

  • your dedication, your vision of where you want to be and why. Because nobody stays to do something they really don’t want to or gain something from.
  • your deliberate focus on learning, growing, being curious. Growth can’t happen when you are not present and knowingly adding the details of movement: how and what to do to master this one single movement. And as you progress, one single technique can become so complicated as you learn what muscles, movements, etc., are related to just doing one kick, one shoot, one move that starts the sequence.
  • you get information about how you learn, what helps you understand and
  • what helps you command the skill. When will you be unable to get the information, do you need to be angry to hit really hard or do you need to be happy to openly listen to your sensei. What emotions help you focus and what distract you from your goal of mastering the martial arts (or any sport you are in). We will always have distractions, the question is, will you stick grittily to your chosen vision?
  • You learn about how you deal with negative feedback, when the skill is taking time to own and when you mess it up or can’t perform it. This will give a valuable hint for you for next times you are struggling. If you manage to thrive and get past negative feedbacks, learning and taking what is necessary for your performance at the beginning, you have learnt a valuable mental skill to deal with future losses, failures and learnings. Which will come if you are on a path of growth and exploration.

These are all mental skills, performance psychology skills that you also learn while mastering a physical skills. And it is vital that you give time for both the skill and your mental state to grow. Being hasty and shallow at the beginning of your career or also at every training leaves a mark on your abilities and trust to your own performance when it matters the most. 

The understanding of not ever being “there”

What I love about the third lesson in mastering the fundamentals is that in some way the beginner and the elite level performers are equal. To be in the game, you need to know the fundamentals, to still learn the same things. It is then easy to see that oftentimes it is not the physical skill or long career that gives you the win but the mental state to choose to grow and fight for improvement in that skill. You see it all the time, that a new athlete at the elite stage wins a legend. That is normal. We also see, that the “old” can put the arrogant beginners in their place since they have mastered their sport and have the confidence and respect, but not arrogance to their skill. There is a benefit in being overly confident even when you are not “there yet”, you need that to keep on going. But you never know whether skill beats mental game and how the skills you have learnt will play out in real life competitions. A nice story about the process and rooky vs legend is this following video where Michael Jordan shows how to respect to those who have mastered the game. Corey Benjamin called MJ out when he had been on retirement for a year and a half. The rest is seen in this video:

I think it is an interesting thing to keep in mind that skill mastered with passion gives the easy to perform. It also leaves no doubt in your mind about your abilities, it elicits respect, even when you do lose or are out from the game.

I am not doing karate these days as I have building my skills in kayaking the last few years. Karate has been the first sport, and the sport where mindset, dedication, focus is built in the practice. It tought me a lot as a person and as an athlete and I have used its teachings in oh so many ways. Its basic teachings. So as a final note:

Quick start to mastering the fundamental performance skills

  • determine what are the fundamentals you need to master.
  • determine how you will keep on mastering them throughout your career to be humble and confident at the same time.
  • understand how these simple fundamentals are the basis of more complicated skills in the future.
  • understand yourself and your mental game during the mastery process.

You have so much power to create your own physical and mental gameplan to continuously grow and perform! Learn more about the psychological performance skills that can help you there.

About the Author


Performance coach, blogger and activist.

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