The Success Principles of Breaking Boards Bare-Handed

A classic martial arts exhibition is an epic symbol for follow-through in life.

Posted Sep 16, 2013

By Glen Tibaldeo

No one should attempt to break anything they wouldn’t have before reading this blog without the live assistance of a qualified professional. This is a how-to about goals and success, not about martial

Without getting into how long ago it was, I taught martial arts in college. Toward the end of a beginner’s first three-month semester, we would tell a class of terrified faces to go buy a 1-foot by 1-foot, 1-inch slab of pine for “break night.” During break night, the students would fearfully eye the stack of wood in the corner. They all walked out of the dojo that night emboldened and proud. Why?

Here is what I taught them about the philosophy of breaking, inside and outside of the dojo:

  • Commit – Before we began the breaking, I had the class agree to what the consequences would be if any one student failed that night. If I didn’t think the stakes were high enough, I’d encourage them to agree on something more aggressive. Usually, it was something like putting in an extra class of high-aerobic training every week for a month.

Achievement lesson 1: Affiliate yourself with a group (doesn’t have to be big) of people who are trying to achieve the same thing or something similar, and create consequences and accountability to one another. As we were writing Radical Sabbatical, we had accountability calls with other authors, for example, committing certain things before the next call and reporting out progress on the next.

  • Position the board properly – The student would choose two classmates to hold the board at each of its four corners—four corners need four hands. I would advise the student about to break that the holders should extend their arms completely and lock their elbows. If either holder was the type to flinch and bend elbows, they’d absorb the shock of the punch, the board wouldn’t break, and an ice bag would be on the way for the knuckles.

Achievement lesson 2: Find someone who has achieved your goal before, learn the setup, recruit people up to the setup tasks (if it’s a goal that requires participation of others), and arrange that setup as flawlessly as possible.

  • Decide to break the board – I would then position the student breaking in front of the board so that when their fist was all the way out in front of them, it would extend to an inch behind the board (more on that later). Then, I’d say, “There is no mystery here. Six-year-olds do this all the time. This is not about strength. It’s about decision. It’s about commitment. If you decide completely that you are going to get through that board, it will happen. If you’re commitment is shaky, we’ll be cracking out the ice bag.” This would get them already imagining the pain in their hand.

Achievement lesson 3: Failure hurts. Before embarking towards your goal, take a few minutes to feel failure—authentically and for real. If you do, your mind will do everything it can not to go there in real life. But then be done with it, don’t dwell. Failure issues creep up when we dwell on failure incessantly and get comfortable with it as a concept.

  • Harness you core – I’d explain to the breaking student that if they tried to break the board with their fist, we’d be cracking out the ice bag. The vast majority of our spiritual and physical strength is in a spot a few inches below the navel. The focus needed to be on rotating their hips, and the rest of their body would follow.

Achievement lesson 4: Find your core, and harness it to achieve your goal. List your core strengths and how they map to your intended destination. Don’t waste your time carrying out tasks you aren’t good at. Farm them out.

  • Visualize the other side – Now here’s the final big secret. The target is not the board. It’s an imaginary point an inch behind it. “If you punch the board, we’ll crack out the ice bag for you. If you punch the air behind the board, you’ll be celebrating in less than a minute,” I’d say.

Achievement lesson 5: There will be lots of mini-goals along the way. In all those cases, never strive for the goal itself. Aim for what’s behind that goal, which is always a feeling of great satisfaction. Imagine it regularly. Feel it deeply.

Hundreds of students went through break night, and every one of them succeeded. Follow the steps above on the road to your goals, and you will break every one of life’s boards from now on.


Laura Berger and Glen Tibaldeo are motivational speakers, management and leadership consultants to Fortune companies, and co-Authors of Radical Sabbatical: A Hilarious Journey from a Stifling Rut to Life Without Boundaries.