It is tough to explain to Muggles why we keep showing up, day after day, week after week, year after year to struggle, sweat, and get our butts kicked. There is an ineffable feeling of satisfaction that comes from the learning process in martial arts, which transcends just the physical side.
For those like myself who grew up in the Dojo, it can be hard to imagine who you would be if it weren’t for the influence of Budo. It has impacted virtually every sphere of my life: my daily habits, how I approach my work, my personal relationships, and my outlook towards existence on this planet.
I love martial arts. However, this emotion is contingent on the people who surround me in the process. Many of my closest friends, including my wife, were people I met through martial arts. The people you meet can be the best aspect of training. They can be lifelong companions in the pursuit of a higher ideal. They can motivate, inspire, and make you laugh. They can share in your success and your failures with true empathy because they are walking the same path.
The people you meet can also be the worst aspect of training. They can ruin the fulfillment that you get from training with a single comment or action. You can choose your teacher, but you don’t get the luxury of picking who walks in the door to train with you.
Especially lately, I feel like saying to the martial arts community (particularly when we interact online), “This is why we can’t have nice things.” Here are the major reasons why some martial artists are assholes.
If you’re running a martial arts club or a business, I suppose it is normal to see another school as a competitor. Unfortunately, this tends to influence our feelings towards other styles, martial arts, or instructors across the board.
People train with different outcomes and priorities in mind. They have backgrounds and personalities that not everyone else understands. What benefits one person may not benefit another. Some methods, though practical, are not appealing to everyone. For a young, competitive, alpha learner, MMA or BJJ might be a huge draw. For a middle-aged, out of shape, passive, unathletic learner, these same practices might be far too intimidating. I think it’s okay to admit that some people are better suited to martial arts that are not pragmatically aimed. Not everyone has the goal of becoming an elite fighter. Some people are more drawn to the camaraderie, tradition, and discipline rather than functionality.
The only time when it becomes dangerous is when someone is training in a system which is not practical, but they believe it is. It gives people the false impression that they can handle themselves in a real fight. For evidence of this, watch any of the multitude of YouTube videos where a traditional martial artist gets their ass kicked by an MMA practitioner.
In Karate, I’ve been around long enough to note the target demographics. We are fundamentally a bunch of nerds. It’s mostly historical reenactment meets Cosplay, with some actual self-defense embedded within.
Looking at my martial arts journey, if I’d found Koryu Uchinadi or BJJ at a younger age, I don’t know if I would have been emotionally mature enough to handle the ass-kicking that both systems involve. I’d love to think I would have toughed it out, but I was a wimp growing up. Doing mainstream Karate (though not as practical as what I study now) was important for me to build the self-confidence and resolve it takes to realize that it’s a normal part of the process to get your butt handed to you.
Master Ken’s condemnation of every other style of martial art besides his own is funny because of how accurately it reflects the way many martial artists are. As soon as you name what you do, someone else will tell you why it sucks.
This is universal, but especially common with MMA now due to the popularity of UFC. Don’t get me wrong–yes, this has proven to be the most effective method for combat sports. Yes, those dudes are the best fighters on the planet. Yes, those guys would kick the shit out of me in an embarrassingly short amount of time.
People tend to forget, though, that the first M in MMA means mixed, i.e. MMA is derived from other martial arts. MMA’s highly effective techniques and strategies were taken from the other martial arts that a lot of today’s MMA fans are so quick to dismiss. It proves the point that collaborating together across styles allows us to mutually benefit. Instead, many choose to treat others as competitors rather than collaborators, which results in the fragmented approach that sadly dominates our industry today. Rather than uniting the strengths of various martial arts into something that highlights our best qualities, MMA has become a doctrine just as divisive and exclusive as any other stylistic brand.
Of course, I have been guilty of being a “style snob” like many others. Obviously, you choose to train and teach in the system you think is best for what you want to achieve, but that is different from deciding to dismiss the validity of every other curriculum out there.
It is also important to remember that it depends more on the person than the art itself (as this article is all about). There are outliers–both good and bad–in every methodology. Surround yourself with individuals who are competent, intelligent, experienced, and genuinely dedicated to effectiveness, and ultimately the name of the system or the design of the crest will cease to be of relevance.
An ESL student of mine recently said in class, “Your ego is an animal.” I thought that was quite profound. On the one hand, martial arts can be a way to let the ego off the leash and stretch its legs. On the other hand, the ego can also limit your potential and blind you to the truth.
Everyone has an ego, and it plays a part in learning. Healthy competition can be a powerful motivator. I’ve had some students that are too okay with losing when they’re rolling or sparring, becoming complacent about fixing what went wrong–an attitude which is not conducive to improvement. Being too passive is a problem.
Of course, whether in formal competition or in class, it feels good to win. Especially when you fare better against training partners who used to handle you easily, it’s a concrete sign of progress, which we need for reassurance that our investment is paying dividends.
However, when your ego controls you, it both limits your training and makes you behave like a dick. People whose egos are dominating their thought process avoid confronting their weaknesses, because they are afraid of “losing face” if they get hit, thrown, or tapped. They either choose only partners who they predict they can handle, or they simply don’t participate in activities where they might lose. In the case they do end up losing, they have a convenient excuse prepared: “I was distracted,” “I ate too much before class,” or “I have an injury that spontaneously flairs up whenever I’m getting beaten up.”
Ego can obstruct learning in this way, but it can also obstruct instruction. I caught myself slipping into this frame of mind somewhat recently when an experienced martial artist attended a study group I co-teach. During my instruction, he pointed out that my supporting arm was in the wrong place during a joint lock, which would allow the opponent to escape more easily.
My ego’s initial reaction was “How dare this jerk call me out and embarrass me in front of my students!?! What a prick.” I felt the need to prove that I had been correct. However, ultimately, I knew I was wrong and that he had made a valid point. I had to stew on it a bit to get over the shot to my ego, but in the end, a more experienced martial artist taught me something on that day.
There’s more politics in martial arts than in . . . well, politics. Dealing with the politics of a club or a wider organization is one of the most exhausting aspects of martial arts, and distracts from the actual purpose of what we do.
Just like any industry or workplace, there will be rivalries, personality clashes, and feuds. The disappointing thing is that martial arts are supposed to teach people to be respectful and open-minded, but seem to have the opposite outcome for many. Especially for a pursuit that is purported to build strong character and ethics, it is disappointing to see how often jealousy and insecurity plays out behind the scenes.
Trying to keep track of who you can and can’t cross-train with, which students are in good standing and which aren’t, who has offended whom, and why Student A can’t stand Student B would be a full-time job in and of itself. There is pressure to take sides when certain conflicts emerge. It is immature and wasteful, yet seems to occur in every school or organization.
The best way to manage these kinds of political rifts is to simply transcend them. Keep your eyes on the prize, in terms of remembering why you go to class in the first place. Presumably you are there to train, learn, and improve; all the rest is noise.
The martial arts community has an opportunity that no previous generation had–to compare our practices in real time, share information and ideas, build on what others have already done, and test what legitimately works. We should prop each other up instead of tearing each other down. Unfortunately, all too often judgement, ego, and politics become obstacles that ruin the experience of what would otherwise be an awesome endeavour for everyone.
I have met lots of outstanding people through martial arts, and I’m really hoping that trend continues in the future. However, if we don’t address the issues in our industry, community, and clubs, pretty soon all the nice people will be driven away and we’ll be left with only those we wouldn’t want to share even our lunch with–let alone our skill development or personal safety.