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5 essential non-martial arts books every martial artist should read

Readers of this blog will know that I am quite fond of books. Reading deeply is good, reading widely is good too. I am often surprised by the extraordinary usefulness of books that on the face of it have no connection to martial arts, historical or otherwise, in my work recreating historical swordsmanship. These five books have been especially influential in the way I teach, train and research the Art.

1) The Inner Game of Tennis, by W. Timothy Gallway

This book has massively influenced the way I teach, because it highlighted for me for the first time the major differences between the part of your mind with which you analyse things, and the part of your mind that actually gets stuff done. Thanks to this book I talk less, explain less, and demonstrate more; and try to always set up a clear feedback mechanism inside every drill. And I have noticed that my students pick up new skills much quicker now than they used to. I found this book going for a euro in a bargain box at Arkadia books. I despise tennis as an utterly pointless waste of time, but can forgive the sport for taking over my TV every summer because it has produced this book.

2) Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman lays out an much of the theory that actually supports the thesis of the inner game of tennis. It has been hugely helpful in putting the lesson of The Inner Game of Tennis into practice.

3) Bounce, by Matthew Syed

I have always felt that the notion of inherent talent is fundamentally counter-productive, as well as being inaccurate. There is no such thing as natural talent. I’m sure there are some disciplines in which a certain amount of genetic advantage is required: if you want to play professional basketball but are under 6 foot 4, you’re unlikely to get there. Or if you want an Olympic gold in gymnastics but you’re tall and heavy boned, again you are unlikely to get there. But the point and the essence of swordsmanship is it transcends physical limitations. The sword is an equalizer and a labour-saving device. If you need to be big and strong to use it then a) what’s the point owning one, and b) I am not interested in teaching it. The physical threshold for us is really, really low. No legs? No problem. Didn’t stop Douglas Bader, it shouldn’t stop you. The first book I read that demolished the myth of talent was Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which is a good book, but this one is more specifically targeted to people trying to master physical skills. Syed was an Olympic-level table tennis player so knows a thing or two about the process of becoming exceptional in a physical art. Really it is only attitude, luck and discipline that matter. And this book proves it.

4) On Killing, by Lt Col. David Grossman

This book is essential reading for anyone involved in any kind of martial art because it outlines the process of conditioning a person to be emotionally capable of taking life. He demonstrates that most people (thankfully) are emotionally incapable of killing. And this is how it should be. But the psychological barriers to killing must be addressed by any martial art that pretends to be seriously martial. This book is also very useful for its discussion of stress response, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is also the source of “combat breathing” which is a hugely useful tool for reducing your sympathetic nervous system’s response to stress. I have much to thank Col Grossman for because I have used his advice in this book to keep myself useful and sane in some hugely stressful situations.

5) Meditations on Violence, by Sgt Rory Miller

Okay, this is kind of a martial arts book. But he never tells you how to throw a kick, or execute a joint lock, so I’ll let it slip in. I do so because this book, amongst other things, is the best, most complete, system for analysing what your martial art is actually for. I would go so far as to say that if you have not read this book there’s not a lot of point in discussing combat contexts with me. This is the bullshitometer every martial arts teacher must have in his toolkit. Thanks to Ken Quek for putting me onto it.

Now, go forth and read them!



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