After an 11-year effort, my 15-year old son earned his Black Belt in mixed martial arts yesterday. My wife and I are so very proud of him. In his five-month-long Black Belt exam, he showed his amazing strength, flexibility, and skill – and even more his persistence and heart.
Also, my son’s black belt reveals the biggest scientific error at loose in the world today.
It’s an error so fundamental and pervasive that it’s hard to wrap one’s head around it. Most readers will not believe it, and I’m braced for the angry comments I may get. Yet what I will say has been scientifically established for nearly a century.
But first, my son.
My wife and I began to realize something was wrong in early pre-school. Stevie could not do what other kids could do. He couldn’t throw, or catch, or kick, or climb. His hands got tired in minutes if he tried to draw; he could not hold a knife or fork. In pre-school, no one would pick him for team games at recess – kids groaned when he eventually was.
We put him into mixed martial arts figuring at least he’d be compared to his own baseline. He came under the influence of a wonderful teacher there, Michelle Clancy, who was kind and inspiring.
Right before first grade, his pediatrician referred him for an evaluation. On standardized tests, his physical skills were those of someone less than half his age. “Moderate hypotonia,” the report said. It was genetic. Yes, with difficulty he could improve but he’d never be good at anything physical.
When my son later joined the “Black Belt Club” we smiled and were supportive, but words echoed silently inside our heads like “genetic” and “never.”
When Michelle created her own “DojoReno” three and a half years ago we were among the first to sign on. He kept getting better, but Black Belt dreams still seemed remote. Put aside skills – how about the physical standards he’d need to meet? Fifty “nose kissing” push-ups? How? A timed two-mile run and push-up combination I myself could never have done? Not likely!
Enter Max McManus. A friend of Michelle’s, Max is Olympic Gold Medalist David Wise’s conditioning coach. Max agreed to work with Stevie.
I told Max the story of his diagnosis and history. He listened respectfully. “We don’t care about that,” he said, with an air of finality. “Let’s see what he can do”.
His sessions were creative, focused, long, unusual. For me, as a psychologist, I found the workouts fascinating. He’d describe a challenge then pause as if changing his mind. “Stevie, I’m not sure you can do that,” he’d say, with an almost unnoticeable twinkle in his eye. Emotion now properly engaged, Stevie would answer, “I think I can”, and he’d then give 110 percent to an exercise I’d never seen before. “This is probably too much,” Max would say. “Well, let me try.” would be the retort, as he did some bizarre combination of strength and balance that Max seemingly made up on the spot. It wasn’t just Stevie’s muscles Max was training, it was his mental engagement, excitement, and motivation.
In two weeks, Stevie was showing strength and stamina beyond anything we’d ever seen before. His adolescent growth spurt hit, and a cycle of self-confidence and barrier-busting effort set in.
Now, years later, he’s done those push-ups, made those runs, and passed that months-long set of qualifying exams. Now, years later, his speed, kicking, and punching strength are almost frightening. And as of that fine day called yesterday, our sweet little boy now grown-up has a Black Belt in Mixed Martial Arts.
We are so very proud of him.
Here is the error.
Since 1931 when it was first proven in physics, we’ve known you cannot properly predict the trajectory of an individual on the basis of averages and variations within groups of individuals. It’s mathematically illegitimate, except under a few extraordinary circumstances that apply to no living things (indeed they apply to a very small list of inanimate things, like a few noble gases).
The proof is called the ergodic theorem.
Virtually all of our concepts about human abilities, tendencies, and qualities contain the ergodic error and the falsehoods that come along with it. Physical strength. Intelligence. Personality. Mental disorders. Learning disabilities. Talent. Creativity. Even the needlessly crude ways we think of genetics, or trauma, or injury, or motivation.
All statistically illegitimate.
And the vast majority of psychological scientific methods that give us such concepts: psychometrics, randomized trials, mediation, standardized testing.
Human development is idiographic first and nomothetic second. Humans are complex evolving networks, and no one thing makes sense except in context over time compared to within-person variation. Yes, your genome matters, but it plays out individually, in context, and interacting with epigenetics, developmental history, environment, behavior, and culture.
So too with every human trait.
It does us little good to simplify this complexity with concepts like “weak” or “hypotonia”; never mind “mentally ill,” “unintelligent,” and on, and on, and on, until you get tired of the clown suits we force ourselves and others to live inside.
Some babies scoot on their diapered butt for several months and then stand up and walk. Every pediatrician who is properly educated “knows” that’s abnormal.
No, it isn’t. It’s one of more than a dozen known pathways to walking.
People are individuals, not averages.
Yesterday I watched a “weak” human child, my son, earning a Black Belt. He earned it, due to his heart, his persistence, and the miracle of good coaching. Thanks, Michelle. Thanks, Max. I’ll never again use “weak” to describe a human being without also using scare quotes.
Will Stevie’s lesson help us better address mental health, intelligence, or psychological prosperity?
I cannot say for certain. We have a lot to learn.
But I’m 100 percent down with the answer Max gave. “Let’s see what we can do”.
There is never a dull moment when training with Master Sports Trainer Max McManus. For the past 19 weeks, we have all had the privilege of training with Max where we would be put through special workouts designed specifically for martial arts. We don’t just lift weights to lift weights. Everything we do has a specific purpose, which translates directly to our movements. I don’t want to spoil all of Max’s secrets, but one of the drills that he has us do is a single-leg dumbbell press on a yoga ball. This drill is designed to improve our balance, strength, power, and stamina. We are improving our balance because we have to stay on an uneven surface using only our posting leg (similar to the majority of our martial arts movements). We are improving our strength because we are pushing heavyweight. We are improving our power because he makes this drill a plyo-movement meaning that we push the dumbbell up from 0% to 100%; we cannot use any momentum. Everything is from a full stop to an explosive pop upwards. We must have the power to bring it up, but more importantly the precision to stay balancing on the ball. Lastly, we are working on our stamina because we have to be able to hold and push the heavy weights for a certain amount of reps without stopping. There are so many other brilliant drills that Max has us do. This is only one of them. Imagine a whole workout filled with so many other fun and challenging drills. It is the best time ever.
One thing I love about Max’s training is that there is always something new. There is always something that catches my attention. Just when I feel like I get good at a drill, he finds a way to advance it. Every time I walk into his gym I see someone doing a unique drill. His workouts are like nobody else’s. I’m athletic and most things come easy to me, but I can never say that when Max is training me. Sometimes he tells you to do something and you just think to yourself how am I going to do this, but since I don’t want to disappoint Max, all I can do is say yes sir, and try my absolute best. Surprisingly you will complete the drill more often than not.
When training with Max you have to have a certain mindset. You have to be able to stay focused, especially when your body and mind are fatigued. You must have the grit to stay in it and the drive to keep on improving. It’s easy to mess up one of his drills when you lose focus even for a second. One thing Max and I worked on before my jiu-jitsu tournament was learning the difference between being proactive and reactive. One day when I was having trouble doing push-ups on the bongo board, I kept on predicting how the bongo board was going to move before I started my actual set. I would do one push-up and then fall off repeatedly. I felt as if I knew how the board was going to move, which made me fall because it is never going to move the same way more than once. This is when Max highlighted the fact that I need to react to how the board moves in real-time and adjust accordingly so that I don’t fall off. This translates directly to our combatives because in a live sense we have to react to what is going on; we have to move like water and go with the flow. This mental challenge of always needing to stay locked in, and the constant need to re-adjust develop us into better and more athletic martial artists. Another thing that makes Max’s training so special is his dynamic gravity drills. This is when our center of balance is always changing. This makes it so that we can never get used to the movement. You have to stay focused and make all of these micro-adjustments so that you don’t fall off. It’s like doing 12 sets of 1 rep rather than 1 set of 12 reps. You have to always be ready to react to the movement and adjust your body accordingly without giving up. There is so much thought that goes into his intricate workouts. All of these athletic movements reward us with a higher rate of improvement compared to someone doing a normal drill.
Training with Max is the best. His training gives me confidence because I always feel like I have the edge. I know that I have the best training me. Max is like Yoda; if we ever have a question, then he has an answer. In the past 3 years of training with Max, I have improved so much. I will always remember being terrified of going to Max without Ben and Amanda for the first time, I will always remember our jumping competitions, and I will always remember our little inside jokes. All the talks about the magic water in the back or the secret formula or starting up new businesses are the best. I am so fortunate to have Mr. Max as my strength and conditioning coach and as my friend. I would not be the skilled martial artist I am today without him.
I have trained every week consistently with Max McManus since Fall 2014. I came to him broken, physically and mentally. I hadn’t been able to do martial arts in three years due to a back injury. After a two-hour meeting/interview, Max figured out what no doctor, PT, chiropractor, or even I could, and we got to work. Within three weeks I was symptom free, and the rest is history.
I brought Max into my fifth-degree black belt test in 2016 as my strength and conditioning coach. He was the secret ingredient to my success within that test. He did not just increase my rate of improvement physically in martial arts. In those two short years of training Max elevated my mind as an instructor, coach, and individual. Max was a huge inspiration and motivator in me starting my own academy. I find it very easy to say, there would be no Dojo Reno without Max McManus.
When I began designing Dojo’s first black belt test for none other than Ben Jaksick, Amanda Jaksick, Kai Hiratani and Emma Harris, I was steadfast on the details of the exam that would make it more sophisticated than any test I had been a part of before. The number one way that was going to happen was by bringing Max in as a coach to this team. My gratitude for Max’s dedication to our students is un-contained. He has made every one of them better in a way I never could. I cannot thank him enough for taking all of us in. And especially, designing the physical requirements for our testers. What he imagined, innovated and created is perfect.
Max is more than a coach for me. The word “trainer” is a term I would never use to describe his role. He is an expert of athletics. He knows food on a molecular level, anatomical systems to a T, and never boxes himself or his patients into a comfortable and complacent space. I find myself thinking and often saying aloud, “How do I have access to this person?”
Max, you changed the trajectory of my life, as I’m positive you’ve done for hundreds of others. I am so fortunate to have you as one of my dearest friends. My love for you fills me up, and all I am left to say for it all is thank you. Thank you for everything.
Pictured is Max and a seven and a half month pregnant me, getting in our fourth training session that week. This was the summer of 2018, four years to the day, just four months after opening Dojo Reno. Wow, what a special time in my life.