Daniele Bolelli - Mythology & Meaning of Teaching Martial Arts

I talk to Daniele Bolelli, a writer, martial artist, and university professor. He is the host of multiple podcasts including the Drunken Daoist podcast and the History on Fire podcast. He has also authored many books such as “On the Warrior’s Path: Philosophy, Fighting, and Martial Arts Mythology” and “Not Afraid: On Fear, Heartbreak, Raising a Baby Girl, and Cage Fighting”.

Here we discuss how martial arts is the perfect medium for learning the limits of your capability and reaching your potential despite a few broken arms and busted knees, why the timid sport of soccer has the most violent fanbase of all and why a jack of all trades may be the master of none, but can oftentimes be better than only a master of one.

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Daniele Bolelli Interview Transcript

Sonny: Daniele, great to have you here. It’s a pleasure. I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time, especially On the Warrior’s Path. I just thought I’d get into just initially about what attracted you to start training martial arts back in the beginning? What was it that drew you to it?

Danielle: I think it’s was the local fad, right? We watched too many Star Wars movie. We watched too many Bruce Lee movies. There’s that dream which all those things are built on. Like the mythology of it is a young lost guy who goes to the wise master who show him the way of the force. And it’s sad you are not a young lost guy anymore, now you’re a Jedi master. It’s all we love, right? What it is it’s a dream of empowerment. It’s like the whole martial art movie story and martial arts in general. It’s the story of you’re weak, you are vulnerable, and you don’t want to be any of those things, and there’s a process to that. There’s a lot of the Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey type of vibe. You’re going to go on with this quest that’s going to transform who you are, and he’s going to reform you into something that you like a whole lot better. I think why we all do it. [laughs]

Sonny: I think I’ve had the same thing. I’ve often wondered would I have experienced a broken arm in a mixed martial arts fight if it wasn’t for the Ninja Turtles? [laughs]

Danielle: Right. Exactly. Or probably not.

Sonny: Is that idea that then drawn us to it? Is that just a romanticized fictional idea that western people have of eastern martial arts that is just made from media companies?

Danielle: It is and it isn’t. it’s like anything else. Anytime when people are, “Oh, it’s just romanticized.” I mean, to some degree of course. But it’s also usually based on a seed of truth. You take something that’s real. The way that martial arts do transform people, the empowerment that is very real. You do take the fact that some people in the martial arts who are inevitably have been more than just the thugs and people who can throw a good punch, but have also had something interesting to say about life, and you just zero in on that part that extra interesting and you make it the stereotype. Most stereotypes are not born out of completely making stuff up out of thin air.

You take seed of truth, and you just blow it up to where the image of the martial art teacher. Now, 95% of martial art teacher you’re ever going to run into are not like that at all. But you zero in on the part that you like, that you dig, that you wish it to be, and then that’s what the movies will focus, on to the point where it looks like that’s what it is in all occasions. Of course, it’s not in all occasion, but that doesn’t mean it’s not that way in any occasion.

Sonny: Then to actually get that experience out of it, this transformational turning, making the weak strong, it’s a noble idea that draws us to it. But then we go into the martial arts school, and generally the first thing we might encounter is a savage beating at the hands of some person who is a lot bigger than us, sweating all over us. How can we actually get that through that kind of training?

Danielle: In fact, that’s one of the sayings that that toughest person in any martial art room is usually the white male who signed up the latest because he’s going to sack [unintelligible 00:04:59] you know. Everybody in the room is better than they are. To keep showing up day after day when they know that they’re going to get their ass kicked for at least a year or two before anything starts happening, that takes some serious mental strength. In some way, that should be rewarded with shining the spotlight on it. That will be some hell of a mental toughness to go in day in and day out, day after day after day. All you’re going to experience is just loss and somebody squashing. They can be nice about it. Ideally, you don’t go to a [unintelligible 00:05:34] school where they’re just overly brutal about it.

The reality is that even if you’re playing nice, you’re still going to get your ass kicked. That part is where really debated– In some way, that’s the part that interesting the most about martial arts. Because we all like the perfect armbar, the great spinning back kick, the technical mastery is beautiful to watch, and we all want. One of the real benefits is that toughness that you develop by going into uncomfortable situation. By going into- getting used to losing. Getting used to getting pummeled. Getting used to fighting on when it feels hopeless. That to me that can be used outside of martial art, even more than the perfect technique that realistically I probably never going to do it outside of the martial art world.

That’s the stuff that will translate to life. Because inevitably life will deliver good [unintelligible 00:06:32] kicks that you’ll grow in, and you will have to deal with it, and you will have to have that toughness to come through when things feel hopeless.

Sonny: That makes sense to me. To get that toughness through the martial arts training, could we not also get that through just other forms of training that could possibly cause us less risk of injury? We can push ourselves, maybe someone could do triathlons and or whatever they choose. What would make the martial arts special over any other pursuit?

Danielle: What you’re saying makes perfect sense. You can get there. You can get very similar lesson through many other parts that have nothing to do with martial arts. I don’t think that martial arts is the one and only. I think there are other ways to get some of those lessons. The one thing that’s really special about martial art is that really is- it’s about neutralize conflict. When it doesn’t get any more primal, that just unarmed conflict which another you might be in the least intellectual and most objective way possible. Just through physical body clashing with one another. One will triumph, and one will get [unintelligible 00:07:50] . It’s very primal. It’s an archetype.

It’s something that you can learn lessons about conflict through playing basketball, through rock climbing, through whatever the hell you want. There are many, many paths to it. But they don’t have quite that archetypal quality that martial arts does, because really nothing deals with conflict in such a direct and raw way as martial art.

Sonny: I agree there’s that for sure that primary element of human nature that draws us towards it. If we’re being drawn back to our primal nature into a less intelligent form of being, isn’t that a dead illusion, a regression back? Should we not trying to be the civilized- live in a civilized manner and get away from all that conflict?

Danielle: Yes and no. In the sense that I feel that on one end if that’s who you are and your entire world is built on just clubbing somebody in the head and being physically dominant and that’s all you understand, I can think of better ways to spend your time. At the same time, I feel that sometimes modern civilized life which is also in a lot of ways. I like going to sleep without the thought that an enemy tribe may come in the middle of the night to cut my throat. Stuff that– I dig that part of modern life. But at the same time, there’s something that as long as we have bodies, as long as we have– There are certain energies that are part of who we are, both physical and psychological.

I think martial arts in that sense are the perfect ritualized way to tackle those very primal energies in a way that that’s constructive and can work in modern life. Nobody is telling you that in order to achieve those things, we need to organize gladiator events where we just face off with blades and one will survive. That’s taking it a little too far and in a not so healthy direction. Martial arts are that perfect medium. They give you a taste of this energy, allow you to explore it, allow you to learn that edge, allow you to learn that power about yourself and about life, without being something that takes you to a completely different way of life where it’s not even desirable.

It’s like there’s a difference between training martial arts, even fairly obsessively, and being the guy at the stadium who’s just looking for- classic thing like European soccer stadiums where the hardcore fans are using the games as an excuse to have these giant gang fights. That’s a little different. Not quite. They both deal with violence. They both deal with conflict. My way of seeing things seems a lot healthier than the alternatives.

Sonny: That’s fascinating. I’ve thought about that before where with soccer, it’s so bizarre that it has to be one of the most, I don’t know, least violent sports where they fake injuries. They just fake it. That’s part of it. Part of the sport is just getting someone brushing past you and pretending it was a catastrophic injury, which we know is not true, and yet they have the most violent fan base imaginable. How does that make sense? I’ve never been able to wrap my head around that.

Danielle: I think that speaks volume about a lot of modern society, people loss of identity, people loss of being part of a group, people desperately want to belong to something. All belonging is built on a we versus them mentality. What’s more dramatic of a we versus them, than just- we have our colors, we have our flags, they have their flags, we clash with– It goes back to something that just was there from the dawn of humankind. It’s something that [unintelligible 00:12:00] understand very well, it’s our tribe versus theirs. We don’t live in tribe anymore, but the need is still there.The need to identify with that small group, and it’s fun. You people [unintelligible 00:12:11] in soccer fans, but no sense.

Sonny: It’s interesting what you say then about the tribal conflict because I understand that, and even within the martial arts, I do think that exists still with, or it did, probably does still just within the different styles of training of martial arts. Especially, the last 10 or 20 years now, I guess, the overhaul with mixed martial arts being developed, and there’s still the traditional martial arts schools going around. I guess the broad categorization you could make is the mixed martial arts is more real, but at the same time, there’s all those barbaric elements that people get turned off from in cage fighting, that turned people away from martial arts.

Even though that’s got that benefit to it, could we not go back to just training the traditional martial arts, we don’t get injured, everyone’s happy, and we’re getting a workout in? Can we not just get the same benefits from doing that?

Danielle: There’s definitely advantages to some of that stuff. It’s like when my daughter- my daughter is 10 years old now. She started martial arts a little bit ago, I think when she was seven or something. People were like, “Oh, are you going to put her in Jiu-Jitsu?” I’m like, “No, I think I’ll just going to put her in Taekwondo at first.” Taekwondo especially it’s so much simpler to follow, there’s the structure, these guys are pros. Their , they have teaching methodology, they know exactly how to handle kids. They know how to teach them some basic body dynamics that they’re going to be able to take a bunch of other things that they’re going to do in life.

My daughter, she really doesn’t like authority very much. At school when there’s calls for the principal says this, but this my daughter follows with a roll her eyes reaction of like, “Fuck this, I don’t want to deal with this stuff.” When it came in, she loved it, she had no problem with it. I was like, “How the hell is that possible?” It’s like, “This is super regimented, and they are so–.” But it’s like, “Yes, but I trust them.” There’s something about these guys the way they teach that I accept discipline and authority from them because they do it well. I don’t accept it from those guys because they are not credible, but these guys already earned it.

I was there, usually that’s not my style at all, the kind of Korean regimented approach is far from my approach. But when I was watching the classes, I was like, “These guys are really good at it.” It’s not going to work for everybody. The next person is going to have the same setup and they are irritable, and they just spend their time yelling at kids and it doesn’t pay off, it’s not a good idea. When it’s done well, there’s something good about that approach when it’s a little more structure, when there’s more emphasis on some values that we like, especially for kids but even for adults.

Sonny: That makes sense. I actually did a bit of Taekwondo myself a couple years ago, I got the yellow belt, but then stopped. One thing I noticed is, yes, they’ve been doing it a long time, they run a good class. It was fine, it was good fun. With that authority- and I especially think that it’s good for kids as well what you’re saying, it’s perfect for kids.

Danielle: You can always do Jiu-Jitsu later, that’s great, but not right now. Early on I felt perfect to go with the traditional one.

Sonny: That makes sense. So then how do you think that people can get that authority and do it right in martial arts when they’re so open to, let’s say, people abusing that authority as well is something that we see. That’s almost an archetype in martial arts of just the dictator-hood, smashing people over the back with kendo sticks or something, and just abusing that authority. How do we get that mix right of proper respectful authority, and just this complete disabandonment of it?

Danielle: I think unfortunately it boils down to individuals. Because we can put together all the right elements that would be ideal, and in the hands of one person, they turn out perfect. In the hands of the next person, terrible. That’s why even martial arts, we all have this idea of the martial art teachers as these guys who don’t just teach you martial arts, but they have something about life they can teach and so on. Most don’t, most martial art teachers are really good at what they do, maybe, hopefully, and they don’t necessarily have deep wisdom to pass on anything else other than how to apply a good [unintelligible 00:17:07] that’s it.

You see so many cases, as you say, abuse of authority by martial art teachers on every direction. From sexual abuse, that unfortunately there’s a whole lot of that stuff that you see going on, to just psychological abuse of their students, to just money. There’s a lot of terrible people that really shouldn’t be teaching because they happen to be good athletes, and they have good technical knowledge, they are teachers. Unfortunately, that’s the same thing in anything else. If you go to school, one teacher is going to be awesome, and the next teacher is terrible, and you wasting your time. They shouldn’t have that authority.

Unfortunately, it’s very hard, it’s trial and error on the part of the customer to figure out, to separate one from the next, to figure out who’s the real deal. It’s the same thing is like, “How do you pick your friends? How do you pick the people you date?” It’s hard.

Sonny: I hear that.

Danielle: You can check all the boxes of what it should be, but then one person is amazing, and one person turns out to be a nightmare. Unfortunately, there’s no certified program to have a good date or the certified way to have a good coach. It is better to have some standards than not having them, but that doesn’t guarantee that they are going to come out being great instructors. Unfortunately, that’s the way it goes. You got to have your eyes open in any field of life when you’re looking for a martial art teacher, when you’re looking for friends, when you’re looking for whatever. Whoever you bring into your life, you need to be able to recognize who’s the real deal, and who’s not such a [unintelligible 00:18:43] human being.

Sonny: That makes sense. I guess it’s an archetype again of martial arts that the teacher, the master, is going to impart some other form of wisdom beyond just the physical training. That’s in the mythology. But then do you think that that’s a responsibility that the teacher should provide? I look around when I’m teaching, I’m just wearing pajamas in a silly costume. The person in front of me might be doctors, lawyers, whatever. Any master in their own profession. And if can tell you how to choke someone, I’m not here to tell you about life. When do you think people you should do that? Is their responsibility to do it?

Danielle: I think what you do, and these would be true in whatever you do, it doesn’t just have to be a martial art, but in whatever field you do while you have students, you’re going to teach them a technical skill, in this case martial arts, and then you’re going to share who you are. If who you are has some depth to you, if you are as something beside technical skill to offer, people are going to pick up. And if not, then yes, you really shouldn’t force it. It’s not good idea to just say, “Let me just teach you guys all about life.” In that sense, it’s going to [unintelligible 00:20:11] indirectly. Just because that’s who you are, that’s how you speak, those are the examples you bring to the table, that’s the energy that you bring to the table.

Not because you have a title, or because you have, “Everybody should listen to me because I’m the master.” It’s more like if people gravitate to you because they like what you have to say, it’s because of your charisma. It’s because maybe they listen to something you’ve said, and it really rang true to them, and they applied it in their life and it worked, and it made their life better. But you don’t do it because you sit down and think like, “Let me how I’m going to teach you the wisdom of life.” You do it because you just share who you are. If who you are can deliver that to people, then that’s great, and you should, it is important.

In anything you do, you should try to help the people you come in contact with, and especially if you have students, the goal is to teach them a skill, but also to help them in life if you’re able to. But without that arrogance of, “Oh, because I got a black belt, somehow I’m the master of life.” No, you are who you are. Again, maybe you have some wise things to pass on, maybe you don’t. I think a lot of it is role play. People take it too seriously, and they think that “Now I’m supposed to embody this idea.” It’s like, “No, you’re supposed to be you, teaching a skill.” If you happens to be somebody who is wise, who can share things that will help people in life, that’s great. You definitely shouldn’t repress that. Let it flow as part of a teacher. But it’s going to come out naturally, not because of a role that you embody.

Sonny: Yes, that’s very important. Just to focus on those skills, just giving the ability to impart the knowledge of the skills in the best possible way. Just if anything else comes from that, people get drawn to whatever else, they can take something from that. Then let that be what it is, but–

Danielle: [unintelligible 00:22:11] and it can be done humbly. It can be done where it’s like, “Hey guys, this something that for me as translated from the match to the rest of life. This is something that in my life it help. Take it as you will. It works for you, great. I’m glad if you can pick it up. You already know it, good for you. You don’t think it applies to you, who cares? That’s fine.” You just share something that is part of your experience, which is what all of us ultimately can do. It’s like, “Hey, this happens to be something that for me, it really help me.” It’s not exactly the fortune cookies irrational quote. It’s more like, “This idea really worked for me.” But again, I’m not trying to convert you to anything. It’s like, “Now I’m done. I shared it. Now it’s up to you to decide whether you want to do something with it or not.”

Sonny: That’s right. I think one of the best things about the mixed martial arts is how it allows that testing because what I found with, especially Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is one of the reasons I keep doing it is just the unique thing of solving difficult problems under stress. It’s simple. I don’t like to attach anything else to it. No mystical side. It’s just we solve problems under stress, and that can be used in any field of profession that you’re in. That’s it. That’s one of those things.

Danielle: I think as a teacher, that may be a good thing to shine a spotlight on. Like, “Hey, man, you’re doing a phenomenal job [unintelligible 00:23:46] training.” You can tell your student, “Hey, you see what a great job you’re doing under stress, coming up with solutions.” Can you do it in the rest of your life? What stops you from– Why is it that when your kids are acting up, suddenly, all your wisdom go out the door, and you’re not able to, why? Is there a way that you can make a translation from that ability that you have when we talk about Jiu-Jitsu, and you bring that to something else? You can toss ideas back and forth and figure out what are the obstacles that people struggle with, if it make sense to you. Nobody is great at everything. You can take all the- not just the technical skill, but even the mental skills that go with somebody like Michael Jordan.

Is he able to apply them in the rest of his life? If he could do that in every aspect of his life, he would be like the Buddha, right? He would be [unintelligible 00:24:48] and he’s like probably not. He has that ability. It’s easier when you have that ability in one field, to then make the jump to other fields. It’s not automatic at all, and it’s not easy, but it’s easier. I think that’s part of something that we should put attention on sometime. It’s like, okay, you’re learning these things for what for? Just because you want to win the next tournament, or just so you can have an hour of mental health when you do Jiu-Jitsu? That’s great. Nothing wrong with that.

Can we take it a step further tough? Can we take that idea and just run with it even a little bit more? Again, it’s not done in a, “I’m the wise master, let me teach you the ways.” It can be more through dialogue. It can be more to just throw in things, and that people can decide to run with or not.

Sonny: Yes, that makes sense. I would never tell someone how to fix a problem in their personal life unless they ask specifically or something, for my opinion. I’m just like, no, I don’t want to give this unsolicited, “Here’s how you should do something.” If you don’t ask, you probably don’t want to hear it from me. [laughs]

Danielle: I think the good thing there is just sharing one’s experience, because one’s experience is usually not perfect. There are situations where you mess up. There are situations where you’re frustrated, where it’s like, “Man, I should know better. How can I apply it in this context and not in this other one?” Not in the classic “Let me tell you how I was lost and then I was found” kind of thing. Again, you’re not setting yourself up to be this– You’re just sharing life. You’re just sharing things that worked, things that didn’t, ideas, and then you let people take what they will from it.

Sonny: That makes perfect sense. Just sharing those experiences. I guess probably the most important part then is just focusing on the skill and being the best that you can at the skill that you do. I guess the better you get at the skill, hey, maybe the more chance there is of people being able to pick up or learning other things from it, and probably yourself being able to learn other things from it.

Danielle: If you’re going to become a good teacher of a skill, that means you’re going to have to be a good communicator. To be a good communicator, you’re doing more than passing a skill, because that means you know how to read the people, because no two people have the same learning styles. That means that when you are working with somebody, you are able to tailor your teaching of that particular skill in a way with a tone that that person will respond. If you learn how to do that, you are learning something about life. Then you can also help somebody out in ways that are, again, more indirect. But because you have that ability, because again, a teacher is not just somebody who can perform a skill in amazing way. It doesn’t necessarily make a good teacher. I’ve had experiences sometime where–

I know I can teach well things that I’m good at, but I’ve had very funny exp– For example, my Jiu-Jitsu is pretty good. My judo kind of sucks, it’s okay at best. It’s not that great. But I’ve had days when I work with people on some judo stuff, and they are like, “Man, I learn more judo now than in the last six months.” I’m like, “How is that possible because my judo really sucks? I’m barely hanging myself. How is it possible that–.” Then I realized, and I’m like, “Oh, because I see these four guys in front of me who are way better than I am, but their communication is not the greatest.” It’s one of those that if you learn by watching, well, watch those guys because they can perform it in a way that’s so much better than I could ever could. But if you learn in other ways, maybe then that’s a different skill.

That’s not just the skill of being able to execute the move perfectly. There are other communication skills involved that somebody may respond to, but sometime we think– Even in school, they don’t teach you how– You go to school, you get a Master and you get a Ph.D, that doesn’t mean in any way that you are a good communicator. That just means that you know how to jump through the hoops to do the research or to do the whatever stuff. That is a completely different field from actually having that knowledge of being able to communicate it [unintelligible 00:29:24] Sometime we think that it’s one and the same, it’s not. Unless you work on communication, unless you work on yourself that way, that’s not going to come through just because you know the technical skill.

They are related parts. If your technical skill sucks, no matter what a good communicator you are, you’re not going to do a good job. You need more than technical skill. By itself, the technical skill is not going to do it. You also need something beyond that, that communication side.

Sonny: It’s funny. It reminds me at university, there was one day they had a lecture on how important it is to engage a classroom and keep everyone’s attention. The way they did that was the lady was reading bullet points off a PowerPoint about the importance of keeping everyone engaged, then I’m sitting here going, as anyone else, “What is going on here?” [laughs]

Danielle: Yes, it’s totally like that. Sometimes when I talk with– I don’t know if you listen to Dan Carlin who does Hardcore History podcast. He’s a absolute genius in terms of communicating history. He has a BA.. That’s it. There are like three gazillion people on earth who have more advanced degrees, who have done that more. That’s why he’s all like, “I’m not really a historian,” but it’s like, “Well, you’re more of a historian than most. You are able to communicate history so much better than three zillion of these guys with their fancy titles.”

Sonny: Part of that I think has to be the way you can tell a story of whatever information you’re trying to get across and weave it into some narrative, just to be able to get people’s attention into it, and somehow just make it interesting too. Just finding out what that is. I find it so hard to just figure out how you can do that with a dense piece of information, or risk lock or something. There’s that how do you bring that stuff to life. Do you have any ideas?

Danielle: There are a lot of ways. None of them are “it”. There are no the seven steps to become a great communicator. It’s not that easy. And I think there are a bunch of things you can do, like reading books. I think reading helps a lot because it develops your mind in certain directions, kind of like Game of Thrones thing, right? Where there’s a [unintelligible 00:31:59] look at me. What am I going to do? I’m not a warrior, I’m not the– But I sharpen my mind through reading books. That’s the skill I develop. Reading books is huge. Paying attention to people, engaging with people, communicate, making a skill of reading people. Seeing how people respond. Seeing if you use a certain tone it works with this person, but this person really doesn’t respond to it. There are so many times that I see cases where I see a person A communicating, and I totally get where they are coming from.

There’s nothing wrong with what they are saying. But they lack the body language. The tone, the humor they are using is clearly not made to be received by person B. Person A is, “What’s wrong with person B? Why can’t they get it? I’m being nice.” Personal B is, “This person is a jerk,” and it’s like you’re both right. It’s just that they are speaking different languages, and nobody’s understanding that you need to switch the language if you want to be understood by person B. You cannot communicate with person B the same way you did with person C. It’s a whole different game. That requires paying attention. [unintelligible 00:33:10] person. They’re a bunch of things that are going to do it, but definitely paying attention is huge.

Sonny: That paying attention to– I find it hard to quantify that, but I know exactly what it means. You have to just be paying attention, and then just go from that, and then you can go from instincts. It’s like pay attention to the data coming in, the scientific [unintelligible 00:33:33] and then just let that guide the instincts for however you’re going to react somehow. However that can work.

Danielle: That’s really a tricky thing. It’s like having all the skills that are human skills. It’s like saying once we agree that, for example, using humor usually helps people relax and pay more attention eventually because they’re having fun and all of that. That’s great. But if you are not a funny person by nature, that doesn’t help you. You can [unintelligible 00:34:04] thanks, but no. It works when somebody who is not funny tries to be funny. It’s like, okay, forget it. Forget humor, that was a bad idea. It’s hard because we all expect that there’s this clear blueprint to acquire certain things. They are granted. There are certain things that are more likely to deliver good results than other, but they are far from guarantees.

And some of it, unfortunately, is not very democratic, but that’s the reality of it. That not everybody has the same talent for all the same things. Some people are going to pick– I can work like a dog at the skill, and I’m never going to be as good as somebody else who has a natural talent for it and work on it on top of it. You can just improve and try to get better at it, but you’re not going to create a skill out of thin air.

Sonny: Just trying to improve and keep pushing that boundary forward and then eventually you’ll be communicating better, getting that engagement, getting that attention, and also then communicating the skill better, and maybe imparting some other lessons that people can take away.

Danielle: Yes, because what we are talking about is not just about martial arts, and it’s not even just about teaching. It’s about becoming just a good human being.

Sonny: That’s huge. [laughs]

Danielle: It’s not a simple answer.

Sonny: That’s not simple at all.

Danielle: [inaudible 00:35:37] human being. I wish it was that easy though. [inaudible 00:35:41].

Sonny: I wish it was that easy. I guess people have tried throughout history of writing down different ways that can be done, but maybe the way where we’re going now is mixing that reading of books and taking that intellectual pursuit to gain that knowledge, gain that confidence, gain that broadening of ideas, and then mixing it with cage fighting.

Danielle: Totally. I’m a big fan of a Yin-Yang approach to life. You need different things, even [unintelligible 00:36:23]. If all you do is read books, you’re going to be really good at communicating with people who are nerdy. They’re not going to necessarily how to communicate– Even if you have the intellectual understanding of what somebody who are coming from a completely different background is like, you don’t have that life experience. You don’t have that energy attached to you, so it’s not going to work. I remember I had students in– I teach in college, so I had students in my college classes who then would want to come train with me.

We’re hanging out, we’re training. Suddenly they developed a whole different attitude to work because maybe some of these guys come from straight up from the ghetto. Where it’s like, look, I like the stuff you say in the classroom. It’s cool. It’s interesting, but none of that stuff translate to my experience in the ghetto. It’s like when I can punch you in the head and you just laugh it off and smile and take me down and choke me out, that speaks a language that I understand very well from [unintelligible 00:37:26] . More than one language that way that you can adapt is something that now that same person can listen to me blab along intellectually, and be 10 times more interested, because I gained credibility in their eyes, because I excelled at something that makes sense in their world.

Similarly, it goes the other way around, right? It goes both ways. Most of life is made of different energies, and you want to try, if not to master at least to be decent at as many of them as possible. You want to be comfortable if you are talking with some professor in an Ivy League university, and if you are sitting in a room full of gangsters, you want to feel just as comfortable, right? Because you can switch the language easily from one to the– You can relate to one, and you can relate to the other, and a lot of that is life experience. A lot of that is just being open to not just stick to one thing in your whole life. I hate it when- as much as I love martial arts, I can’t stand where all the people I know in martial arts, all they can talk about is martial arts.

Come on. Do you not get bored? I love it. I get it. I can nerd out with you forever, but there’s more to life. It’s like, can we talk about something else? I think we do ourselves a disservice when we turn our passion into an obsession, where that’s the one and the only lens through which to see life. No, that’s one lens. It’s a lens I like. It’s cool, I dig it, but there’s so many other. Experienced a whole bunch of them, and then when you are at least conversational in these other languages. If not, of course, time is what it is. There are 24 hours in a day. You can’t master everything. You’re going to pick a few things they are going to focus on, but be at least decent at the many things.

Sonny: I agree. That’s probably what I’m at least trying to do myself. The one thing I sometimes think about that is the old saying “jack of all trades, master of none”. It’s like am I splitting myself too thin? Am I ever going to gain any authority in one realm if I don’t focus all my attention into that? How can that crossover be a benefit?

Danielle: I think there’s a point where it’s diminishing other thoughts. If you’re trying to be the best in the world at one thing, you probably need to dedicate an hour [unintelligible 00:40:05]. The reality is that you can become really good in a much smaller amount of time. Let’s say that you dedicate 50% of the time that somebody was obsessed with an activity [unintelligible 00:40:18] . You’re going to be really amazing at that.

Now, every 10% more that you dedicate, you’re going to gain millimeters. If it’s a game where you’re competing with the best of the best, the millimeter makes all the difference.

But if you just want to do it for life enrichment, even as a teacher, let’s say you do teach martial arts, and you gain enough ability to be– You’re a black belt in jujitsu, you’re a black belt in whatever it is, you have the technical skill, it takes time, it takes energy. But there’s a point where if all you do is keep going down that path, because I want to be the greatest black belt there is. It’s like now you’re losing a ton of time that could be put in other fields so that you could be good at six things, really good at two, and maybe you’re not the number one person in the world at any of them. [unintelligible 00:41:11]

extremely complete human being. You have a lot to your personality. You have a lot. People who know you for that one thing suddenly discover this other side of you and are like, “Wow.” That’s so much more interesting if all there is to you is, you’re the god of that one particular field. It’s like, if you want– Again, it works in sports. When you want to be the absolute best and that’s your goal, that’s a different story. It’s probably a good idea if you’re going to get heart surgery. I don’t care if my heart surgeon is a fool.


I wanted to do it in their sleep. That’s what, but other than those things, most of life, you can get really good at something but then there’s a point where for their time invested into that skill, what you gain is so small. That same amount of time could have been spent elsewhere and you would have gotten to a level where you’re decent at it. You’re pretty good at it.

Sonny: I agree with and I’ve thought about that a few times for the idea that if you’re an Olympic athlete, you’re going for the gold medal, you have to do things to achieve that goal that are going to be detrimental to your health, in long-term health, detrimental to other parts of your life. There’s going to be a lot of negative side effects to achieve that gold medal and that’s just the way it is and if you decide to make that your goal, you have to take that responsibility on and the competition for that too. There’s no guarantee that that’s ever going to– [laughing] There’s no guarantees, that’s ever going to happen.

Danielle: [inaudible 00:42:53] and your entire career trajectory is gone.

Sonny: One day. [laughing] You ate a bad breakfast that morning and maybe that throws it off. It’s a big risk and I salute those people who take it but if you are trying to mix a few different skill pursuits together and get it at good level for all of those, you can actually find yourself in a situation that you’ve created a unique skill set or unique combination of things that maybe you could be the best at that. Maybe, maybe not, or just some level of a unique skill set and depth about you.

Danielle: Absolutely and I think that’s what makes you you. You’re able to do these four, five, six, whatever many things fairly well in a way that allows you to become a more complete human being, which for the point of view of just mental and physical health and relating to other people is way more valuable than becoming the one guy that feel. The one guy, the specialist is usually not the most fun human being to be around because all they can talk about is that one thing. All they know about is that one thing. It doesn’t translate to a life skill. It translate to just that one field and it’s like–

I don’t know, I feel like there’s so much more to life to it that it’s what you were saying about the Olympic athletes. It’s really become detrimental to your overall well being.

Sonny: With that detrimental thing to our well being, if we’re taking the pursuit of being that number one, what do you think is it with the martial arts, particularly the modern martial arts? We go into it knowing that, maybe not even going into it but eventually, everyone’s going to experience some kind of injury probably. People could get lucky and it’s maybe the role of the teacher to minimize the risk of injury, but that’s going to happen. There’s going to be that detrimental side effects, and then, can we not just take a more softer approach, and does that just lead itself to falling over when we come up to against any real test of the abilities?

Danielle: Well, and I think that’s where there’s a line. It’s a balance. It’s he’s [unintelligible 00:45:29] hard all the time, you’re going to get brain damage. Queasy all the time, is completely not realistic and the first time you take a real punch, you’re completely shocked and can’t handle it. You want to find probably around the side of safety, you want more on the soft than the hard, but you need to add a little bit of the health experience in a controlled fashion. Just something that give you that edge.

I think that’s the important thing, it’s fine. That balance is not the same for everybody. If you are 18 years old, and you heal from injuries really fast, you can push a little harder. If you are some 50-year-old guy, you have to tailor that balance in a different direction. We all do it because everybody’s body’s fragile to one degree or another, but that exact spot changes in life, changes from one person to the next. I know a lot of people, for example, I’m 46 now and generally speaking, the people who are good at Judo, they do it from when they are kids because you take so much damage getting thrown that nobody wants to learn Judo in their 40s. You’re already good by that point.

You’re not going to ever become the best at it. You’re not going to win the Olympics. You’re not going to do any of that but so many will never train because it’s taught in a way that just too hard. That is built to teach 15-year-old kids, not to teach people who are adults, who start when they are in their 30s or 40s or 50s, but can you teach it in a way where these people will still learn something valuable? Yes, you can. You can switch it around rather than doing hard randori all the time where people slam each other, you can do more of a playful randori, where you’re doing a lot of entries.

If I am balanced when they set you up for the sweep, and you are right there and I’m holding, I don’t even need to take you down at that point. It’s like both you and I know that I had it, that he was there. Now once in a while, we go a little harder and will do go for the full take-down, but a bunch of times, rather than having to get thrown 300 times a night, you get thrown five times a night and suddenly, you learn a lot of skills that sure, the guy who’s getting thrown 300 times and going at that level of intensity probably learns more stuff if they don’t break down. [chuckles]

Probably is like, “Great. That was realistic” and you learned all this stuff but now three years later, you can no longer practice. Who’s going to get better? The guy who practice a little more mellow for the next 20 years or the guy who push hard and destroy their body?

Sonny: I know what you mean and I think that’s a good point for talking about how to keep people engaged, knowing what would be the best way to tailor training of martial arts to the different body types and ages and whatever their goals will be. That’s probably the most important thing about being able to keep someone engaged and learn whatever it is you’re trying to impart is by making sure they keep showing up on the mats and don’t just decide to quit.

Danielle: [unintelligible 00:48:33] because that’s huge, right? It’s like, I realized, I’m not going to be able to do certain things, and that’s okay, but I can still get decent, I can still learn some stuff. I can have fun. I can. Why not? That’s a good goal. I’m down with that. Again, it’s not the Olympic athlete goal, but it’s a goal that works for my life. That means me healthy, that adds elements to my life. If the only choices are train like a madman or don’t train at all, those are not great choices. The person who can afford to train a madman, they are few and far between, and more likely than not, they are not going to be able to do it for in their entire life.

Sonny: I agree with that and makes me think about the rolling of competition because I know there’s a saying of something along the lines of, once in your life you should train as if your life depended on it or, as hard as you ever train before. I get where that’s coming from. I feel like everyone– You should compete at least once in jujitsu, which has a relatively low risk of injury, but I understand it’s not for everyone too and if your job involves you– If an injury happened and you lost your job and everything would be thrown into chaos, I get it.

Danielle: You train very differently and that’s fine. Again, it’s not a bad thing. There are limits to what you can do and that’s okay.

Sonny: What do you think they could be missing out by never competing or what’s that extra benefit of pushing yourself that one time to get into a competition that– Can you learn that elsewhere or can that only be learned in competition?

Danielle: Some of the stuff are competition, it’s hard to replicate [unintelligible 00:50:16] The reality is that people are going to go way higher there in a way that when you have never experienced it, it’s very hard to even imagine. The first time people compete is like, first they don’t know what it’s to be under the level of pressure. They may be gods in the gym, but now, suddenly, they feel they wake up in the morning and their heart is racing, it’s hard to breathe, and their muscles are tensing up and they’re like, “What? Why?

What’s going on? I’ve never–” You experience that mental state of it. The fear. This time, you’re not going to experience when you’re on the mat with your friend rolling easy. That just not, but in some way, it’s fun not to experience those things, because it’s not a great state to be. For the next three days, I’m just going to be mostly in fear and anxiety. It’s like, “Yes, let me sign up for that. That sounds so fun.”


Danielle: [unintelligible 00:51:12] right?

Sonny: Yes.

Danielle: No, you don’t want to do that all the time, but as an experience, it’s something that mainly allows you to learn how to deal with fear and anxiety a little bit better. Maybe. Often it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you reinforce with fear and anxiety because you’re afraid, you’re anxious you go out there, you get squashed. You’re more traumatised about it you never want to do it again. It’s worse than if you never did it. It’d have been better for you not to do it at all.

The idea you do it with enough wisdom or where you compete, who you compete against, all of that. You learn that. You get that experience but in a way that allows you to thrive. Maybe you don’t win but you still feel good about it. You feel, “I dealt with it. I felt that anxiety and I was able to step up and perform at my best.”

Sonny: That’s pretty much what I experience every time I enter a competition. I enjoy competition myself and I try entering as much as I can. I understand that’s just me, but man, entering and it’s fine, but the morning of the competition I’m always like, “Why did I do this? I could be out somewhere. It’s a sunny day outside. I could be doing anything else. Sit at the beach, go on and see a movie, kicking back, having a good time. Instead I’m driving to a gym in the middle of somewhere where some guy is going to try and break my arm and sweat all over me and it’s going to be really uncomfortable. What on earth am I thinking?”

Then always, when it’s done, win, lose, or draw, whatever happens I’m like, “Ah.” It’s a sense of relief and I’m glad I did that. That was fun. That was enjoyable, it was a good experience. I still after all these years, I don’t know why that is. [laughs] How that happens, why I keep doing it, I don’t know.

Danielle: What is it you like about the competition then? If you do feel that stuff, you do feel like, “This sucks.” What is it that makes you want to do it?

Sonny: I really don’t know because it’s that something because probably if I didn’t get that fear, I don’t think I’d like it as much. It’s something, that relief afterwards of, “It wasn’t so bad.” [laughs] That “Aha, that was good, that was fun. It wasn’t–” Maybe it’s probably anyone I can have negative thoughts about what’s going to happen in the world and I can get entrapped into ways of thinking about, “Oh, this is going to go wrong in my life. This is going to go bad in my life and something is going to come and hit me one day. Everything is going to turn to chaos.”

You get trapped in those thought patterns. [laughs] Even thinking about it, I can start thinking of examples that I can go back to. When I enter in those competitions, I guess some of that– There’s a tangible example of I’m having bad thoughts about things that could happen on this specific day at this specific time in this specific match. Are these thoughts real? The last competition I had, I was coming back from injury. I had minuscule surgery on my knee at the start of the year and I really wanted to compete by the end of the year just to say I overcame that injury.

At the morning of, I was like, “What am I thinking because I haven’t given it enough time? I’m going to reinjure this knee for sure. Let me just tape it up as much as I can because–” By the time I got to the venue I was thinking, “For sure, there is no way I was getting out of this without re-injuring my knee.” I just had– All the negative thoughts were filled in me.

That’s my prediction of the world I guess. My prediction is, “I’m going here today and I’m going to stuff up my knee again. Well, can’t change anything about that, too late.” Of course, I go in the match, didn’t go my way but the knee was fine. I was wrong. Great. Those negative thoughts weren’t re– Those negative thoughts weren’t real. What a relief. Every negative thought I have isn’t going to come true, brilliant. Thanks so much. That gives me a– I, don’t know that’s the motivation to know the good things will come true sometimes too and not all the negatives will come true. Let’s go with that.

Danielle: There’s something about dealing with fear that people who never ever have to be with fear or unpleasant scenes, the day when those scenes show up in their lives they’re completely unprepared for that. If you have had at least a little bit of ritualized experience, like a martial art competition, it certainly helps. It help to deal with that because otherwise, it is a crashing thing. Fear is [unintelligible 00:56:19] and caution.

Sonny: It’s something that– I think a hard thing is then balancing that fear. I know it’s popular just to be we only need positive thinking about that. Banish all fear.

Danielle: Well, good luck. You can want to banish it all you want but it’s going to show up. The other guy across the cage wants to take your head off. You could have thought positive all you want, but it’s just like, bam, three out. This is not just about what I think, this is about these people who’s coming to kill me.

Sonny: I remember one time I even did that with training where I was thinking, you know what, it’s just my mindset that why I’m getting smashed in this role against this person. It was just in my head if I go in there and I just think confident thoughts, “I know I’m beating this guy today. There’s nothing that’s going to change it” then that’s the thing and then the same thing happened, of course. [laughs] The thoughts, maybe they helped a bit.

Danielle: They have for sure. It’s better than [inaudible 00:57:28] Again, those things are not wrong but they’re inches. It can improve your game a few inches, it’s not going to throw in– Just because I think positive, I’m not going to beat the best in the world tomorrow if anything. It’s just going to be– it’s super interesting. It is important to develop those aspects without becoming dogmatic about it where you think that that’s the solution [unintelligible 00:57:53] because [unintelligible 00:57:54]

Sonny: That’s where I know the danger is and you don’t want to have that delusional confidence that it’s not based on anything. At least with the martial arts, I can get that test. I can get that. Is my confidence warranted? Yes or no.

Danielle: That’s [inaudible 00:58:11]

Sonny: [laughs] I know. Exactly, it’s a firm gauge of my positive and negative thoughts. The confidence and fear. What’s my ability to judge this accurately? Let’s go have a look.

Danielle: Absolutely. That’s exactly how it is. It’s funny how we forget how much of the game is mental because martial art is about fear. It’s different if it was some other sport. You have the fear, there’s performance anxiety for sure. You can have performance anxiety about anything. It’s like when people are afraid to give public speech because it’s you making sound with your mouth. I understand there’s fear that can come from self-esteem, from how people are going to judge you but objectively there’s nothing to be afraid of.

In martial art, objectively, there is-


It’s not just me doing my thing, it’s this person who’s going to try to slam me. They’ve trained the [inaudible 00:59:10] last years to become more assertive and destroy me. I can see how that will [inaudible 00:59:14] anxiety in [unintelligible 00:59:15]

Sonny: [laughs] It’s funny, but yes, without a doubt, you’ve got something to worry about. [laughs]

Danielle: [inaudible 00:59:26] I’ve seen it sometime. What’s funny is that the same person who can be amazing one day can drown the next man. It’s like they can be mentally perfect in one occasion and in the next one they’re just not there. It’s so weird to see because it’s like, “Wait, you did it perfectly the last time, what changed this time?” There are so many little factors that can make or break you mentally.

Nobody is just mentally invincible and nobody is mentally such crap that they’re going to fail every time. There’s a possibility for everybody to rise above and to sink below. Clearly, the better you’ve got at it and the more you have done it, the more the odds are you’re going to stay in a certain range, but there’s [inaudible 01:00:12] is different.

Sonny: There’s that reaching of potential. I guess that taking it back to the beginning, that’s probably one of our types of– That’s one of the mythological things of martial arts over anything else is that you could potentially reach your potential with this. [laughs]

Danielle: On a good day it’s like that, next day, maybe not so much.

Sonny: [laughs] That firm line in the sand, that’s important. You can’t get that through everything for sure, but you’re definitely going to get it with this.

Danielle: I think if I remember correctly it was [unintelligible 01:00:58] Jackson who said it. Who said that, “Everybody can be broken. The point of training is to bring the line which will be broken so far that the other person is not going to be able to push you there likely.” It’s not that that line doesn’t exist anymore, you still have it. If you apply enough pressure, everybody breaks.

Sonny: That’s it. That’s right.

Danielle: It’s to push the line so far that we are going to be able to discover it and push you there. It’s not [unintelligible 01:01:28] there is no such thing.

Sonny: That’s so true. I think it’s our own general kind of quote. Maybe you never know what quotes you read online, if the person said it or not. I’m not trying to be better than someone else. I’m just trying to be better than yesterday.

Danielle: Yes, definitely. That’s all you can do. That’s [inaudible 01:01:53] is a whole other– All you can control is yourself ultimately. You don’t control opponents, you don’t control how well they’re going to perform, you don’t control any of that. That’s why I even like focusing on new victory. [unintelligible 01:02:07] it’s more [unintelligible 01:02:07] All you got to focus on is just going out there and doing the best job you can, putting everything on the line. That you do have under control. You can control that aspect.

If I go out there, I put everything on the line, I do the best job, and I fight somebody who’s 100 pounds heavier than me and they are the greatest heavyweight of all time, [laughing] I’d still feel like [unintelligible 01:02:30] That I can control. Again, all you control is your mental attitude and what you bring to the table. That’s it.

Sonny: Danielle, thanks so much. What a great conversation that I’ve enjoyed having with you.

Danielle: Thank you so much. It was definitely a lot of fun.

Sonny: Like I said, I’ve been a fan of your work. When I saw you comment on something of mine, I was very happy, let’s just say. [chuckles] I was like, “Wow.”

Danielle: I was watching your videos and I’m like, “Oh man, I love his videos. They’re such great, great balance.” I dig down [unintelligible 01:03:07] there were commented on it and you responded, “Hey, I really like your book.” I was like, “Oh, perfect.” It’s so great. It works nice that way.

Sonny: It was very cool. I’ll just say that. I’m very, very happy. If people want to get in touch with you, what the best way they can get- [sound cut]

Daniele Bolelli Resources


Daniele Bolelli On Teaching Martial Arts