We tend to think about movement and exercise in very much a sports-centric way. But we don’t have to. We talk about healthy competition, and ignore what seems to me to be the much more prevalent issue of unhealthy competition, we talk about athletic progression and developing the human body or machine even. But movement doesn’t have to exist only in this context. We can think of movement in terms of artistic expression.
What I like about dance isn’t that it is sports-like, but that it is artistic. You don’t have to compare art, yet we do. You don’t have to compete – in some ways it is anathema to art to do so – and we do, but how do you judge aesthetics? We all have tastes, and sports have rigid rules and boundaries which enable us to gauge success, but with art – someone may audition, or compete for a role, they may be judged as better or worse than other artists and they may win awards or they may not. We rely on the notion that those who conduct the audition possess some degree of relevant insight and knowledge, and they can tell.
But this again, is only a certain aspect of art. It is public, and money is usually on the line. And you do not need someone else to interpret art for you; you can tell if you are moved by art, or if you are bored by it. You do not need to be told what is meaningful. If we are to think about our own human movement in terms of artistic expression, what might that look like?
Bruce Lee used to talk about the pure expression of human emotion. He was a martial artist, so that may be taken in a certain context, but maybe you don’t need to. If you treat your martial art as art, rather than as sport, what might that mean? If being skilled in self-defence is something that’s important to you, it’s easy to develop a competitive mindset. But if you think about your art as an art, it will move you away from standardised movement patterns and towards a true and genuine way of moving, something unique to your own body, mind and temperament, and that may lead to a greater achievement of skill in the long term, or a more refined understanding of your practice.
Standardisation is the enemy of character, Stephen Fry once said. In martial arts and dance, and sports, we standardise many things. In weightlifting and strength training too. I think it’s important to really bring yourself to your education, to study the subjects that interest you with attention, but not to eliminate your character in the process. To investigate technique, to think about how things are supposed to be done, to try to learn from the wisdom of those who have come before you, but then to experiment. Once you understand the purpose of an exercise, you can understand how to modify it to suit your needs. One exercise may target a specific muscle, but you may need to adjust the exercise in some way to really feel the effects. Another may have a sporting or developmental outcome, but you may adjust the training so that the exercise or program becomes more specific to your particular goals. This process can take some time.
The way you squat might look quite similar to the way someone else squats, but what is right for you is going to be different in some small ways to what is right for them. If you have long shins, but all other mobility concerns are the same, you will not squat as low to the floor, even though you may sink into a range of motion at the hip that is just as deep. Or if hip mobility is impaired, you may need to adjust your back or your knee position, you may need to shift in some small way, or instead you may wish to apply your efforts to some other exercise or way of training altogether.
There are so many unique variables that exist, that you may miss, if you only think of training as if it were a sport, if you only think of your own human movements in relation to standardised methods and generalised technical guidelines.
And anyway in the end, it’s not sport vs art, there doesn’t need to be anything binary about the way we think about training and movement. It does not have to be about competitive success, athletic or aesthetic development, skills acquisition, artistic expression, any particular exercise selection or programing methods, or anything else. It may be about anything to you, and that is fine, that’s how it’s supposed to be.
You do not need to think of your training in the ways we are told to. You can think in reference to competition and athletic development, but there is no reason you need to do so if that approach does not help you. Many people had shitty experiences in gym class when they were young. Why would you want to relive that shit? Why would you want to go back to that? Humiliation does not stimulate personal development in any positive way. You don’t need to think of training in those terms, there’s no reason why you should have to.
Movement can be artistic, it can be athletic, it can be only movement if you wish, and if you’re training in a way that is true to your character and needs, then it’s going to be good for you in the long term. Trust yourself and whatever you’re doing, try to move well. Only train at a thing if it seems right to you, if it’s something that engages you. Be curious, investigate, research, apply and question.