What makes a martial artist good? Look at your fellow students in your dojo, which of them would you consider to be fine examples of your martial art? I don't just mean the black belts or senior members. Looking as objectively as you can, which individuals stand out, no matter what the experience?
I can remember a particular black belt that got me into aikido, he had been practising something like eight years before I joined. Even though there were other black belts around, he stood out for me. His posture was always good, his technical ability was sharp and he would not let me slack off on naming the techniques in Japanese or on poor form, he always strived for perfection. On top of all that he was a humble, gentle guy.
In my current training in TSYR obviously my instructor stands out. He has many of the same attributes as the person I mentioned above. Our headmaster of the school has even called him a 'freak', but in a good way, he learns new things, fast.
Why do these guys appear to be a step above the others, even of equivalent rank?
First and foremost, they are talented, there is no question. They learn by doing (kinaesthetic learners). The teaching of martial arts happens to coincide with the best way that they learn, by repeating movements of the body over and over again. They can watch someone else do the movement and pick it up very quickly.
However, there are plenty of talented people in the world. The one factor that I think sets them apart is how and when they train. They train earnestly when they are in the dojo, they use every moment to progress while on the mat. They always believe they can do better. But this is the big thing...they train outside of the dojo, often by themselves - solo work.
The aikidoka I mentioned often practised his weapon work at home by himself, going over the kata, refining each one. He would come to the dojo with questions about his training for the sensei. I asked my current instructor what he valued most in his training and he showed me a series of exercises he uses to maintain mobility and keep a strong centre. He has been doing them for years and learnt them from a guy in Thailand.
You are your best teacher. You know yourself best. Solo training, in my opinion, is key to progressing towards excellence in your chosen martial art.
The challenge of course is finding time. Once you take into account work, family and your normal dojo hours, where do you find the time (or energy) to do solo work. I have set myself a goal. To do the conditioning exercises of my art at least three times a week. One of those times will be in the dojo, so I need to find about 15 minute blocks outside of the dojo in the rest of the week to do this. Incorporated into my own training are the other exercises sensei showed me. I use these as a warm up before the conditioning exercises. I find after 15 minutes that I have quite a sweat up. As time allows, I'll move into doing these exercises every day. Some days this won't happen but that is OK, provided I achieve my three times a week.