How Long Does it Take to Become a Martial Arts Expert?

Updated: October 17, 2012

Matt Alden S.

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This is post by Matt Alden S.

The martial arts are particularly well-known for the amount of time and effort it takes to master them. I certainly think that the 10,000 hour rule is accurate here: it takes that long to truly be a master, if not more.

But how long does it take to attain the more accessible goal of becoming a decent expert in a martial arts style?

Fortunately, a lot less than it takes to be a master, and I've seen it happen very quickly.

The Long Path

My background includes over a decade of mixed martial arts experience, particularly in the areas of karate, kickboxing, and submission grappling. But admittedly, my heart wasn't always in it; I started when I was seven years old, and throughout much of my time, while I did attend frequently, I wasn't devoted to it. Rather, it was school and friends that were at the center of my life.

I only became serious about it as a teenager, rose to the highest rank in my martial arts school, and had our full curriculum known. In fact, my first paid job was as a private lesson martial arts instructor for the school.

We're talking somewhere around 4,000 hours of time invested over a 12 year period.

But this story isn't about me - it's about how I got my butt kicked by someone who became an expert in a fraction of that time!

The Short Path

This story and case study is instead about a guy named Mike. Mike had trained as a kid back when I did, became reasonably proficient, but unlike me, he left after a while and didn't return for a number of years.

Fast forward a few years, and he came back as a teenager to train again. For whatever reason, he decided to absolutely devote his life to it this time. He started as a white belt again after such a long absence, and had to work his way up from there. I noticed his dedication and saw him getting pretty good, although I eventually switched to a larger school to further my knowledge, and then eventually went off to college.

Four years or so after Mike's return, I decided to do a meet up and come back to my original school during a summer break to take a few classes and do some full contact sparring and grappling against old friends. I wasn't actively training, but I was still in shape and still had all the knowledge.

I was surprised to see Mike as the assistant instructor to the school that, just four years ago, he was a white belt at. He confidently taught classes, but the punchline came when I got to submission grapple him after a few days.

We prepared and began grappling in front of the head instructor, and I quickly found out that this was going to be ridiculous. Now, he had a 40+ pound weight advantage on me, but that's never stopped me before and doesn't work as an excuse. He was in perfect shape and incredibly strong, but even from an expertise perspective, he was using the most advanced moves on the curriculum, and even moves that were new to the school that I was unfamiliar with after my absence. At one point during the match, he did such a spectacularly clean and exotic take down that I literally commented on how awesome that was in the middle of the fight.

I put up a good match, countered his moves, but ultimately after 5-6 minutes or so, he landed me in an advanced submission move that forced me to tap out. One of my strongest abilities is not getting tapped out; I've never excelled at offense but in terms of defense, submissions were particularly rare for me. But he broke through that and landed a clean submission.

A guy who was a white belt a few years prior.

A year later, he began operating his own martial arts school, and began successfully fighting in highly competitive tournaments. It took him only perhaps 2 years to become an expert, 3-4 years to become a rather advanced expert, and now he's on his way to mastery.

How to Shorten Your Path

If you're interested in becoming an expert in any martial art, whether it's kickboxing or Wing Chun, or just about any sport for that matter, there are some points worth making:

1. Devotion matters more than time

It's the quality of hours spent, not the quantity. For my 4,000 hours or so of training, only the last 1,000 really mattered. Those were the hours where I had it actively in my mind to be the best at what I was doing, whereas the previous few thousand hours were just as a hobby or past time.

Mike showed this dedication perfectly. He was never extraordinary when he was younger, but when he came back into martial arts, for whatever reason he had it in his mind that he would become a master at this.

It's an awesome example of someone clearly choosing what he wanted to do in life and sticking to it.

For every class, he intensely focused and never took shortcuts, and outside of class he did additional studying. He improved his diet to act as a tailwind, rather than a headwind, to his training. True dedication.

2. The quality of the instructor matters

At one point back when Mike was just getting back into things as a white belt, I was studying for a second degree black belt exam, and the exam consisted entirely of full-contact kickboxing and grappling against second and third degree black belt students.

Like most people, I didn't pass the first time, and I didn't pass the second time. Not only that, but I didn't feel like I was making any progress. I was the highest rank in my fairly small school with a teacher who was an expert but not a master, so I made the difficult decision to train elsewhere under someone who was well over the master threshold.

In six months of training at the new place, I practically doubled my ability. When I took the second degree test for the third time, it was very easy to pass. It's not that I learned new moves, it's that I learned intricate details on how to improve my moves that only a master could notice.

Beyond that, and probably most importantly, it was my confidence that was dramatically increased. Training under a master, and training with some slightly more advanced students, allows you to get a better level of confidence of your ability, with I'd estimate counts for at least 25% of success in a difficult fight. Whether it's fighting a difficult opponent or lifting a heavy weight, the psychological assurance of being able to do it gets you over that last mile.

Both physically and psychologically, when it comes to martial arts instruction, you need a genuine master to take you to the higher levels.

3. Choose your style wisely

Not all styles suit the same purpose. Some are based on tradition and may or may not even include full contact fighting, whereas other styles focus almost purely on modern ways to defeat an opponent in a match or on the street. Some styles fall somewhere between those points.

So, when picking a style, make sure you know what you're getting into. If practical self defense is your purpose, then modern styles that do full-contact sparring or grappling are likely going to benefit you greatly. Softer styles or traditional styles can be great if you're looking for a broader exposure to the art.

When everything aligns, from the right devotion to the right teacher to the right style, you can become rather proficient within a few years.

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