When Sam was in college, one of his professors told the class that when they graduate, the question that will be at the forefront of their minds will be what am I made of. Sam has spent his career trying to figure that out.
We have always looked up to the warriors in our society. Bravery is a necessity for survival. It goes back to our days in the savannah where the courageous ones were the most willing to go off the beaten path, find new sources of water and nutrition, and survive battle.
The need to prove something to yourself is deeply ingrained in our DNA. But in the modern world, there is less and less opportunity to do so. And that's where fighting and martial arts can fill that need.
Sam is well known in the MMA community for his books A Fighter's Heart and The Fighter's Mind. In writing them, he immersed himself in all aspects of MMA. He learnt from and trained with the best boxers, best Thai boxers, best Brazilian Jiu Jitsu players, and best wrestlers.
He deeply immersed himself in these arts, and he came away with a bit of a deeper understanding of life and so do his readers.
In this interview, we talk about what he's learnt about life through fighting and just his general ideas on what he wants to accomplish with his. In this part of the interview, we cover what he learnt from his trainers and their fighters about teaching, learning, and staying motivated.
It was a great interview. Hope you enjoy!
"The only thing you can do is be a good man"
Killing Buddha: In your process of learning to fight, you’ve seen a lot of different teaching styles from Dan Gable’s to Virgil Hunter’s. What style did you think was the most effective?
Sam Sheridan: I think the lesson from Gable and everyone is the same. It's almost like a Zen saying, but I think that there is no style and no right answer. It has to be specific to the individual.
Dan Gable studied his opponents and laboriously mapped out their weaknesses and strengths. And he does the same thing as a coach. He has notebooks on each of his wrestlers. He's looking for a way into their psyche.
Virgil is the same. His teaching is very, very specific to the student. What do they need? What’s their identity? What are you trying to accomplish?
He is not going to take you and make you into something you’re not.
Greg Jackson is the same.
The guys who are the best coaches are going to try to make you the best version of you. But they don’t try to make you into something you’re not.
The second part of being an excellent teacher is that the only way to reach anybody is to be genuinely committed to them, to love them, and want them to succeed. If you’re not really committed to someone, you’re just not going to reach them.
I was down with the Pittsburgh Pirates for their spring training a couple of years ago. They had one guy who teaches Navy SEAL instructors how to be better instructors. He doesn’t teach Navy SEALs, he teaches Navy SEALs how to be Navy SEAL makers.
He said that the only thing you can do is be a good man. It’s a terribly difficult thing to do. Basically what he’s saying is that no one is going to listen to you unless you’re walking the walk.
My mom was a teacher who taught little kids, in teenagers, college students and in Indian reservations. She taught everything from Italian to Art History to Pottery. She believed that all you can do is unconditionally love your students.
I think that’s another really difficult thing to do. But that’s the way it is.
KB: I guess that advice is more uniquely suited to certain personalities because not everyone is going to love all of their students.
SS: But the ones you reach are the ones you love. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.
Of course, most people don’t love any of their students, but they’re less effective teachers.
Certainly in the fight game, if the trainer doesn’t love the fighter, the fighter suffers. There are no shortcuts. If you want to have a great fighter, you need to love them and care about him. You have to be sincere and intelligent in what you do.
"If you know the way broadly, you will see it in everything." - Miyamoto Musashi
KB: I also wanted to talk how you learnt so many different skills. You learnt painting, sailing, fighting, writing. Josh Waitzkin in The Art of Learning wrote about universal principles of learning. I was wondering if you learnt any particular principles that helped you learn in general?
SS: First of all, I’m jack of all trades, master of none. It’s easy and fun to learn to learn the first 90% of something. It's the last 10% that gets you into mastery that’s the hard part.
I think at some point you have to pick and commit one thing. If you’re going to dabble in everything, then you’re going to be a dabbler. I think at some point you have to commit and say I’m a goddamn writer. You have to take yourself seriously.
I don’t find anything I do in conflict necessarily. People believe that if you fight, then you can’t be a painter for example. There’s nothing incongruous about them, except for one is physical and one is little bit less physical, but they’re both forms of expression.
KB: I wanted to switch to the topic of fighting. It’s one thing to workout every once in awhile. But to train for years and years on end, requires a whole new level of dedication. I was wondering if you knew any techniques that fighters have or trainers have to keep them motivated day by day. Or for you when you were training in Thailand.
SS: For me I set a goal that I'm going to fight.
It’s the simple stuff like first establish a goal, then write it down, then tell everybody about it. Now you can’t back out because you told all of your friends that you’re going to run a half marathon or whatever you’re going to do.
I think that’s a valuable tool is to set hard goals and force yourself into growth that way.
Training is incredibly boring and fighters at some point usually start rebelling. Good trainers can mix it up and make it fun. If they’re paying enough attention to see burnout coming.
For professional fighters, it’s almost more important for them to take enough time off. Take a year off, take 6 months off, get out of the gym. Fall back in love with the martial art in terms of learning and growing. Instead of being in fight camp after fight camp.
If you listen to St Pierre’s last interview, he’s talked about how he's been doing these camps forever and how they’ve been killing him. That’s what happened to Muhammad Ali. He fought for 16 years and the first 8 years he trained like a maniac. Then he just broke. He hated training. He wouldn’t go into the gym anymore. But he kept fighting. He was talented enough that he could do it, but he definitely hurt him.
If you have a super talented sixteen year old, burnout is a huge issue. You don’t want to burn them out. It’s the same with the chess players, or any other athlete.
I could care less if they’re a prodigy at twelve. Doesn’t mean anything. There’s a good chance at sixteen, they're going to burnout. They’re going to find girls and booze and they’re never coming back to this because they started to hate tennis for example.
KB: In terms of day to day practicalities, when you wake up and you say fuck I have to train again. It’s so easy to say I’m not going to train today.
SS: That’s what I’m saying, you have to set those big goals like preparing for a fight.
It’s important to take that break and get excited about going back to the gym. Get excited about learning Jiu Jitsu. Learn Tae Kwon Do. Learn something completely different. Instead of sparring all of the time.
You definitely need to take time off from sparring and learn and grow as a fighter. You don’t learn anything when you’re trying to survive.
KB: When you first start learning something, it’s super exciting because you’re learning all these new skills. If you take time to learn new things, you’re always in that state of growth and excitement.
SS: Yeah, you know, I was talking about this earlier where the 90% is really fun. And that 10 percent is the mastery. And that’s what necessary for real achievement. Jiu Jitsu is a blast, but to get your black belt takes a long time. The last 10% of that knowledge is more than half of the time you spend getting your black belt. But that 10% is critical for real mastery. It’s understanding the concepts and the meaning and the realities of the gym.