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I Try Harder

I Try Harder

Some things come easily to me. Some things do not. I have an easy time learning and remembering musical compositions and songs. I can write words mostly coherently and make myself understood. I am a pretty good guitar player when I get in the mood, and writing my own songs has always been easy for me. Photography makes perfect sense to my mind, it is based on angles and the science of light, and I am very good at it, or so I think.

I cannot paint. I don’t draw. I am not a particularly good dancer, although I am working on that one. My short term memory is crap and I don’t know how to schedule my life in any way that makes sense. I tend to just tumble forward into things and say I’m sorry when I’m late or I forget an appointment. This does not make me popular in professional circles. My wife will shake her head and say that I’m impossible.

Being a new father is the easiest difficult thing that I’ve ever done. I say that because I expected it to be harder (and there are aspects of it that are, i.e Sleep Deprivation), but looking at that little squawking guy in my arms and loving him just turned out to be the easiest thing in the world.

But do you know what wasn’t easy for me at first? Kung Fu.

Or Tai Chi. Or anything physical, for that matter. There are many people out there who are born athletes with crazy muscles and incredible talent, but that wasn’t me. I was the skinny kid that read too much and played death metal. I liked dark poetry and Mountain Dew. I had long hair and an eyebrow ring and I stayed up too late and had strong opinions on the state of the world and the direction it was headed. (Hint: down)

Yet, I have become successful in the martial arts, at least according to my standards. For the past fifteen years I have studied Kung Fu and Tai Chi side by side in the Shaolin-Do system and it has taught me a lot of valuable life lessons. Not just the material and the personal development that comes along with it, but the training itself has held a mirror to my face and made me realize certain things about myself. I believe this is all a part of the dissolution of ego that is the necessary spiritual component of internal martial arts.

What do I see when I look at my career in the martial arts? I see that I TRY HARDER. That’s what got me here, and that’s what keeps me here.

Where am I exactly? Well, currently I am a 4th degree black belt in Shaolin-Do Kung Fu. I have my own school now and my own students, and I am learning every day how to be the best teacher they deserve. I have learned countless styles and forms, gone through rigorous conditioning training, learned how to wield almost every weapon in the system, as well as the iron will training that keeps me going when most people would quit.

I am constantly in competition with myself. Did I do 100 pushups last time? This time I’ll do 150. On my fingers. Three Fingers. No, two fingers. Did I do that last kata 5x thru? This time, let’s try for 7x. No, 10x. What was my time on that last run? Can I make it faster? Can I hit harder? Can I keep going longer and longer? Longer than him or her or that guy over there, can I outlast everyone I see?


It didn’t start that way. I started just trying to huff and puff and make my way through the classes like anyone else. After a year or two, I noticed a strange phenomenon. Even though the exercises and practice hurt me just like everyone else, other people started to quit before I did. I wasn’t always the first one done, but I would always finish the job. And I would always keep going. It wasn’t long before they started to look at me like I was crazy. Maybe I am. I don’t care.


It is often said that the average student doesn’t make it to black belt. It is also true that many people quit training once they have achieved the rank of black belt. And it gets even worse for the ranks past that mythical barrier. Fewer and fewer people have the fortitude and determination to keep going and achieve these higher belts.

How did I do it? Not because I’m better than anyone else. I started at the bottom with zero strength or clue just like any other student. But I kept going. I never stopped. Not even when I wanted to. Not when things got hard or confusing or seemed pointless. Not when my life collapsed and I didn’t know what to do.


I have also been studying Tai Chi and internal martial arts from the Shaolin system for just as long, even though I’m a 3rd degree Black Sash. I kept up training both Tai Chi and Kung Fu simultaneously over the past 15 years and I find that they reinforce each other in a beautiful symbiosis. When I started, there wasn’t even a curriculum for Tai Chi, so the first 9 years or so of my training, we didn’t even have ranks or belts. That didn’t matter to me. I’m not in this for belts or rank.

I train in Tai Chi for me, to understand myself. To understand my relationship to the universe and all the things in it. To create and maintain an inner peace throughout all of life’s tumultuous events. To know who I am and where I belong.

It has not been easy. Internal martial arts definitely feel more esoteric and hard to understand at first. It is not as easy to grasp the concept of chi as it is to throw a front kick. There have been many times where I have hit a wall with my understanding and gotten frustrated. But I never quit. I just kept moving forward, practicing and studying. And eventually, maybe even many years later, certain things finally made sense and fell into place. Certain other things I’m still working on.

How did I get there? Because I TRY HARDER. When most people give 70-80%, I give 110%. Every time. When other students would get winded or sick and want to quit, I stuck it out. I always finished the pushups. I practiced at home. Tried to never miss a class. I punched harder, moved faster, practiced more.

Not because I’m better, remember. But because I wanted it more. Whatever that elusive thing we chase in martial arts is, call it Mastery or Flow or just plain Competence, I always wanted it enough to be the hardest working person in the room. Often it left me broken and winded or sore for days. Sometimes it still does. What a great feeling.

Willpower is everything. It is the difference between will and will not. It is not the same as want. It is not the same as desire. Those come from a place of hope and attachment. Willpower is creation. It is built through strength and against resistance over time. You don’t wait for something to happen, you make it happen. Will is bringing to fruition through the body the thought of the mind. It is literally transforming the idea into reality. It is the transmutation of thought into power, and it is the most powerful force in the universe.


Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go roll some iron on my shins.

Michael Sandham is a martial artist, a writer, and a big-time complainer. He worries that the world is being taken over by aliens, and he once met Carrot Top in an airport. He is also the owner and head instructor of Shaolin Martial Arts in Lakeway, TX.

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