The Necessity of Failure in Martial Arts

Some housekeeping before we start- the response to last week’s article was incredible. It helped me realize that my experiences, although personal, were definitely not just my own. I have a followup article planned but it needs a little more time as I compile the responses to the discussion that ensued.

After a year of training, I was as ready as I was going to be. I was 19 years old, single (and in no danger of changing that any time soon) and spent most of the hours I wasn’t at college classes in the boxing gym. I tend to dive into things that I like with an addictive ferocity; and I was living the lifestyle of a fighter. Now it was time to become one. We drove an hour out of Charleston to nearby Summerville, where a ring had been constructed in a recreation center. After months of waiting, training, and running every conceivable scenario for this night through my head, I had an opponent and I had a fight.

It was go time.

I got dressed out and started to warm up. Across the rec center, I saw my opponent. He was taller than me, about 6’1 (I fought at 160) and appropriately lanky. He held his hands high as he hit the mitts. “That’s how you beat him,” my coach told me, making the most of this rudimentary scouting report. “You jab or feint high, then you punish him to the body. Don’t let that bastard breathe.”

And when the bell rang, that’s exactly what I did. Being a southpaw was working in my favor– he wasn’t sure how to handle the timing/footwork change. I threw a jab high and then I threw a hard left straight/right hook into the body. Over and over again, it was working.

Until it wasn’t.

At one point, rather than fall backward, my opponent came in and tried to jab as my left hand sunk into his stomach. His punch didn’t land, and mine did, but as we were separated from the clinch I realized immediately something was wrong. I couldn’t lift my left hand above my sternum. I tried throwing my bread and butter, my straight left, a few times and it flopped out lifelessly. But I was in survival mode, and there was still someone across the ring trying to take my head off, so I kept doing what I had been trained to do. Near the end of the round, my opponent figured out that I only had one functional hand and began landing shots with more ease as one of my primary tools had been taken from me. The bell rang and I went back to my corner. My trainer was furious. “Why the hell did you stop throwing your left hand?” he demanded to know. “I… I don’t know,” I said, and then both he and I got a good look at my shoulder.

It was immediately clear something was wrong.  My arm looked as though someone had jammed a baseball between my biceps and my triceps as it hung, almost entirely limp from my body. “Oh, shit,” my trainer said. “We’re done here.” He went to get the referee and just like that, the fight was over. Just like that, all of my training was for naught. I had run through dozens of scenarios for how this fight could go. My shoulder dislocating on my opponent’s sternum was not one of them.

And. I. Was. Pissed. I had trained for months to get to this point, and had finally had the courage to step up and get into the ring. I knew I was the better boxer that night, but I still had a loss etched into my USA Boxing passbook. I made sure to let everyone know my discontent, swearing and yelling as my opponent’s hand was raised and the medics came into the ring. I protested the stoppage. I initially refused treatment, saying I wanted to continue one-handed. I was, in retrospect, throwing a temper tantrum. Finally, my coach looked me square in the eye and said “This isn’t your profession. This is a hobby for you. You couldn’t control what happened, but you can control what happens now. Now is the time when everyone gets to see if you’re a class act or an asshole.”

In my head I said “I am an asshole, but there’s no reason why all these people need to know it.” I took a deep breath and forced a smile.

I was out of training for three months following that badly dislocated shoulder, and wound up leaving boxing a few years after that, but my coach’s remark from that evening said always stuck with me. As I’ve moved back into competitive martial arts, I’ve started to think about my time as a competitive boxer again, and to think about how losing is not only a part of martial arts, and a part of life, and an absolutely integral part of learning and improving.

Losing manifests itself in martial arts because fighting is, in its most stark and basic terms, a zero-sum scenario: there is a winner and a loser. Someone gets the better of someone else.  One ego dominates another.

When you begin a martial art, all you do is lose. You don’t know what you don’t know, and whether you’re in a competitive martial art or not, what you don’t know generally gets plastered all over you. But if you stick around, and learn how to move, and study diligently, eventually you learn how to win. The combination you learn works in sparring. You hit a sweep on a blue belt. You execute your kata with a new level of technical perfection. There are many ways to win in martial arts training. And it feels good. My god, does it feel good when you start getting positive reinforcement and your labors begin to bear fruit. But winning doesn’t make you better. Playing the game with people worse than you doesn’t make you better. Failing, learning, and trying again until you succeed makes you better.

I want you to think about what would happen if you beat your instructor in a competition. If you tapped them or won a points victory. The best instructors would be surprised, learn from their mistakes, and come back to beat you next time.  To be sure, decades of training can give someone a large toolbox that can help them overcome untrained or badly trained attackers. Despite this, I sincerely believe that a lot of martial artists reach a point where they crest the mountain, and rather than find higher peaks, they begin sliding back down.

Last week I wrote about infallible, supposedly-unbeatable martial arts instructors. The truth, of course, is not that they are actually unbeatable because nobody is. You’ve probably encountered one of these people in your time training: the senior instructor, often in terrible physical condition, who refuses to spar or roll with any of their students at any level of intensity. Or, if they do, the students are happy to feed into the myth, and refuse to assert themselves into a dominant position because that’s not what’s supposed to happen. These instructors have forgotten what got them to the point where people wanted to learn from them. 

They forgot how to lose.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I gear up for my first BJJ competition. Other experienced competitors have offered me a bleak outlook: it’s generally accepted that you’ll lose your first few matches. This isn’t necessarily because your Jiu-jitsu is bad per se; it’s because competing is a different intensity and a different mindset and skillset, and until you develop those tools, it’s something of a crap shoot. For this reason, I’m trying to realign my mindset regarding competitions, wins, and losses. I’m trying to remember that as a 32 year old white belt, I’m not going to win the Open division at Worlds anytime soon. I may not win any division anytime soon.  But that’s not why I’m competing. As I prepare for my upcoming matches, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes, from Theodore Roosevelt:


I’m competing to test my Jiu-jitsu, yes, but I’m also competing to test myself. To put myself into a stressful situation and learn how to react to that stress. To create and attempt to execute a game plan. To learn how, as my boxing coach once told me, to be a class act instead of an asshole.

It’s important to remember that no matter your specific reason for training, nobody improves without adversity and nobody improves without pressure. Whether that adversity is competition, a public demonstration, or a belt promotion, ultimately it doesn’t fall on your teacher to ensure that you continue pushing yourself. Learning to lose well, and continuing to have to courage to fail while daring greatly, is one of the greatest gifts the martial arts can offer. You just have to find to courage to accept it.

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