This week, a guest article by “Roger” (last name withheld at his request) about drawing the line between realism/practicality and some of the other benefits of martial arts that may be understated, undervalued or ignored. What do you think? Is there benefit in training martial arts beyond practicality? Is the philosophical benefit of what the author calls “woo-woo” worth ignoring some of the “weaker” aspects of an art? How can you learn (and continue to learn) how to truly leave your ego at the door as you become a more advanced practitioner?
About the author:
I’m Roger. I wouldn’t consider myself a lifelong martial artist, more so a lifelong athlete. I’ve been training BJJ consistently for three years now. Before I started my time in BJJ, I was fairly involved in rock climbing, having climbed for twelve years now and competed around the local circuit.
Leave your ego at the door. I like to define ego as that voice in the back of your mind that tells you little white lies. Every one of us has it and there’s no shame in it. It says things like, “Yeah, you’re a good person.” When in reality you’re not really that good. It says other stuff like, “Yeah, you’re a pretty hard worker.” When you really know that there is so much more that you can be doing. And my personal favorite which was something that I cringe fully told myself growing up, “I’m smart but lazy.” Out of all the lies that we tell ourselves, the one that we probably believe the most and is one of the most egregious of lies is our ability to fight.
We have all heard them before. From other people. From ourselves no less. Things like, “I’d fight dirty.” Or, “This isn’t the cage.” The most amusing one? “All I’d see is red bro.” When push comes to shove, we fancy ourselves as rising to the occasion doing superhuman feats to win battle. It keeps us feeling safe. But to put this into perspective, this would be like walking into a fluid dynamics exam with no prior background in engineering and going, “Yo, I can logic this.”
The mats have always held this somewhat special place in my heart as a result. It tears down that lie and shows us the completely and unbiased truth about ourselves. The lie that we tell ourselves to make walking at home at night feel a little safer? Out the window. Our fighting abilities are trash. Without training and dedication, you’re basically dead. You will probably try to fight your heart out but let us be honest here, that doesn’t count for anything past twenty seconds. And no matter how much you want to make things happen, it will not happen day one. Believe me, I really wanted that guy’s knee off my chest day one on the mats. It didn’t happen.
So like me, you pack your bag for the next day and start training again. A bit of your ego died that day. You accept that you are vulnerable. Put in the hard work, and you’ll get better. The art will rebuild you brick by brick so that you can feel some semblance of safety again. This is why you leave your ego at the door. In a sense, you have to because you’re quieting that voice in the back of your head that makes you feel safe in exchange for actually becoming safe.
If this what you wanted to read about martial arts, you could have read this off of an Instagram post in many less words.
I can really only speak for JiuJitsu. But I think my first exposure to the art is basically the same for everyone. It’s a simple formula right? Show up. Tap people out. You’re a pretty sporty guy. You got this. You’ve seen enough UFC highlights to know how chokes work. And all of a sudden someone who you cannot believe is 20 pounds lighter than you is grinding your face into the sweaty mat all whilst chatting with his friend. That was a lesson. That was a lesson at how utterly useless you are.
There are two ways to take that lesson. If you take that lesson and you remember that feeling of helplessness, it will make you a more sympathetic person. When you see a white belt just suffer from getting both the figurative and literal shit kicked out of them, you end up sitting down next to that guy and remind them, “Hey, it’s going to be okay. It happens to everyone. It happened to me. Just takes time.” That’s a guy who is going to stick around. That’s a guy who will help you elevate your game. The other way to take it is to think, “I just need to get better.” All of a sudden, those around you become tools for you to hone your craft. That white belt became someone that you use to dial in your A Game. In a way, this is always going to be true because training with junior practitioners allows you to see windows of opportunity or experiment with new techniques. But on the other hand, you’re still basically wailing the crap out of the new guy. For the new guy, it can feel really, really, futile. And that’s a guy who doesn’t come back.
I’ve seen it go both ways. I’ve seen it go both ways even within myself. There are times where I sit down and think, “I’m going straight A game here,” knowing I’m going to win but needed to so I could hone in that muscle memory pathway. And I haven’t always been the most sympathetic to people when they get inevitably crushed, not just by me but by everyone. I can say for those who I have been sympathetic to, they’re still training with me. There are days where practice is more talking than sparring. And vice versa. Balance is important.
The reason why I write this is because for as much criticism the woo woo part of martial arts gets, martial arts cannot and should not fully divest the philosophy from the art. Leave your ego at the door. There may be a time that that white belt just has your number and exposes a gaping hole in your game. You can either take that lesson and shore up your defenses. Or you can just turn up the heat and…. you’re no better for it at the cost of the other guy. Always avoid the fight. Why? Not just because getting into fights is just plain rude, you also have no idea what the other guy can do. If you’re lazy and the other guy happens to be a judo world champion starting with grips on your jacket, you’re two seconds from being six feet under.
The mats aren’t magical. They’re just…. mats. We put meaning on them because we like what they provide to us. Whether that’s community, a place to improve, or a space to turn down the volume that is life. These are things that matter to us as practitioners. With that said, the mats can be as much of a safe space as it can be the thunder dome. Every so often a video will surface of some gym where they repeatedly sleep the white belts. That’s not acceptable. What happens on the mats purely depends on who the coach allows to step onto the mats, and by extension the personal philosophy of the coach.
For all of those feel good stories we hear, it is equally important to remember that there are as many bad stories lurking in the background as well. The good stories are made possible because of the philosophy. And ultimately, that’s a gym that ends up retaining students. Not how well it does at Ultimate Punch Kick and Choke Championships. But because of how many people are willing to show up and pay their monthly dues. We get our faces smashed into the mats three times a week because it’s fun. If it wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t be doing it. After all, we’re not fucking stupid. At least, we’re not that fucking stupid.
As with all things in life, a balance needs to be struck. Too much philosophy and no practicality, we start dipping into the guru world of things and we start to forget why the philosophy exists in the first place. It’s not just something that we chat over coffee. It allows for both the art and ourselves grow. Too much practicality, we start to singularly focus on our development as competitors. This breeds a certain level of selfishness that results in burning through training partners. That’s not good either.