A funny thing happens to cats when they get to a certain age. The little bits of the pelt that are hard to reach start to accumulate a mat of fur. With a long haired beasty like mine, it starts with one little clump. I sat down this morning with a new grooming tool and started working on the little bugger. I knew he had one big clump on his chest that I took off with scissors a week ago, but when I got in and started cleaning him up, I found dozens of the damned things.

He grooms himself enough to be presentable, but it’s apparent that some spots have become too much trouble for him to reach, or he just doesn’t care. Whatever the initial reason, they are now too matted and clumped for him to deal with. So, over the next few weeks General Starkiller Fangsalicious the Third and I will be spending a few hours here and there of quality time. Cat treats for him, H2O2 for me.

People are no different. We get into habits, and neglect the things that are not to our taste. In fencing or other martial arts, we like to focus on our best techniques. The thing that wins us our fights is what we do the most. Reinforcement comes from positive feedback. Success can kill us, slowly but surely. It works us into a small corner of skill, and we neglect other aspects of our game.

It works, for sure. A limited game of things that work for you is just about the only way for most people to make the jump from good fighter to great fighter. The truly great competitors sometimes rely on just two or three techniques, and learn to vary them to overcome whatever an opponent brings. It’s hard to beat someone who specializes to that degree. You can do it, but it requires an equally high degree of specialization in tactics and strategy. Which is why things can still be fun…

The real problem with that level of specialization is the long term clumps in the fur. Some fighters make it near the top relying on one technique, but lack the skill to adapt that technique to any opponent. They tend to burn out and disappear from the competition scene, once people start to work out a solution to their game and propagate it. Those kind of people really only lick one spot on their fur, and get filthy pretty fast…

With the really good fighters, able to maintain a long career, the down side comes in ease and comfort. When challenge fades out, you get bored. Interest starts to dull out, and it become harder and harder to motivate yourself into new challenges, nevermind the grind of regular training.

Health concerns are another aspect to be aware of. Repetitive strain injuries creep up slowly, and often with symptoms that disguise the true source of the problem. Muscle imbalances are truly evil, and in an ageing fighter can cause staggering amounts of chronic pain. Getting out of bed in the morning can cause a forty year old to feel eighty. Developing a well-rounded physique and balanced overall fitness after years of specialization is a humbling experience. Paying attention to muscles that are astonishingly weak, when you have other muscles that outperform anybody? That can make you feel about an inch tall.

A good coach is an absolute must for any professional athlete, for the simple reason that they know how to manage this problem. They guide athletes into taking their core skill to the highest level, while making sure they still work on general skills and conditioning. This can be a tricky balancing act involving strange exercises, or tightly controlled phases of training. Amateur athletes are often left to figure this out for themselves, or, in the WMA world, rely on a teacher of regular WMA classes to keep them balanced. Personal trainers can help, as can keeping your focus open and crosstraining frequently. Getting involved in more than one sport or method of training can really be key. But nothing beats a well trained coach.

A teacher’s job is to fill you with the complete knowledge of your system, and test and correct your knowledge. Coaches should help you work on your competition game, keeping you balanced and working with your teacher to keep you on system. If you’ve got someone who can do both effectively…that’s a real treasure, worth keeping at any cost.