To some degree, the answer to this question is always yes. Of course, you are the person most invested in your progress in martial arts—that’s why you show up to class. It also makes every practitioner somewhat selfish.
This attitude is only a problem when it actively prevents the progress of others, which is shortsighted and ironic; the reality is that helping your training partners helps you improve too. The more skill your teammates acquire, the better they can push your limits, both physically and mentally.
It is a reciprocal relationship. The rising tide raises all boats, which is why martial arts needs to be done in a community. If you surround yourself with quality people to train with, it definitely forces you to rise to meet the standards of the group.
So what are the telltale signs of training partners who are only in it for themselves?
It’s obvious, but needs to be said. If one person insists on getting more of the reps than the other, it is a symptom of a selfish attitude.
Both people should be active in training, no matter their role, but if one partner insists on always being the Tori (取り, literally “the taker”) and wants their partner to always be the Uke (受け, literally “the receiver”), it creates an imbalance of power. One person habitually reenacting winning and the other habitually reenacting losing creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That said, there is nothing wrong with asking for a re-do if you screw up a rep. I often ask my partner to try something again if I wasn’t satisfied with my execution. I also follow a simple rule: never end on a bad rep. I apply that both to myself and my partner; I’ll encourage the person to go again if they didn’t like their previous result.
If one partner struggles more with a particular technique, then it makes sense for that person to get more of the work to address their weakness, but over the long term, there should be a balance of workload between both practitioners.
Hogging the reps doesn’t just mean the number, either; it can also be the quality. I have experienced some partners who have really sharp focus on execution and precision when it’s their turn, then when it’s mine, they turn into a gelatinous mound of distracted flesh. It’s really hard to develop skills when your partner is giving less resistance than a wet paper towel and isn’t reacting at all to the stimuli you provide. A good partner stays engaged and thinks critically even when in a passive role.
You Don’t Address Mistakes:
This can be a tough one. It is a tricky line to know when you are experienced and skilled enough to advise others. I’ve been berated for teaching others when I wasn’t ready to or wasn’t supposed to—lesson learned. When in doubt, ask the instructor to clarify or correct. However, that doesn’t mean you just bite your lip during training.
Letting mistakes pass—especially obvious ones that beginners make, like using the wrong arm or leg—is detrimental to your partner’s skill acquisition, and also sends the message, “I don’t care whether you get it right; just finish what you’re doing so I can train.”
A good partner will, at the very least, make suggestions. They may be wrong, they may be right—troubleshooting techniques is a difficult process in martial arts. If you and your partner don’t come to a consensus, bring the authority in the room over to settle any discrepancies. However, just giving feedback to your partner about how it feels when they execute their technique does not require an expert. You shouldn’t need a BJJ black belt to tell you when you’re about to pass out from a choke.
You Always Lead:
Especially when you’re working with someone less experienced, less skilled, smaller, or weaker than you, let them set the pace and level of aggression they are comfortable with. Otherwise, you are just beating on someone who is unqualified to defend themselves. How much are you really going to learn from the experience? There are times when giving someone an old-fashioned beat down might be justified, but it’s generally not warranted.
On the other hand, working at a slower pace with less resistance offers opportunities to practice different things. Put yourself into bad positions and see if you can work your way out of them. Try that ridiculous, low-percentage technique that never seems to work. Identify openings to utilize strategies outside your usual repertoire. This way, even if you’re taking it easy and letting your partner work on the basics, you are still developing new skills.
This works the opposite way, too. I’ve had teammates prepping for tournaments that I wasn’t competing in. They needed to push the pace to get used to dealing with the franticness and adrenaline they were going to face; if I’d insisted on light touch sparring or a gentle flow roll, I would have been doing them a disservice. It kind of sucked, but they needed a ragdoll to throw around and beat the hell out of, and it was my turn to take one for the team.
There’s Always an Excuse for Losing:
Selfish partners can’t admit when they lose. They either don’t put themselves in position to face defeat by avoiding the people who challenge them, or they have ready-made excuses. Here are some of my favourite examples:
- “Man, my shoulder’s suddenly killing me.”
- “I thought I’d let you try that one out.”
- “Isn’t that against the rules?”
- “Hey, I thought we were just taking it easy.”
- “It was leg day, so I’m super sore.”
Instead, try replacing these ego-saving sentiments with:
- “That was sweet.”
- “Damn, that hurt.”
These statements acknowledge the reality of the situation, letting your partner know they did something legit. If you train for long enough, you will be on both sides of this equation many times. If you win, feel satisfied and don’t brag about it. Humility is only a meaningful if it comes in the face of success; there is a big difference between being humble and being humbled. If you lose, recognize how your partner made it happen. Acknowledge it, congratulate them, and address what you did wrong so you are less inclined to be victimized by the same technique or strategy in the future.
Someone Gets Hurt:
Martial arts are intimately connected with the study of physical violence, so yes, sometimes accidents do happen and injuries occur. However, the frequency or severity of injuries tends to be more extreme surrounding students who have a selfish attitude. Often the damage happens to the partner of the guilty party, but the person can also cause themselves injury by exhibiting selfish behaviour—ironic, in that the prime goal of most martial arts systems is to learn how not to get hurt.
Usually this is the result of an overzealous person who doesn’t account for the comfort or skill level of their partner. Especially when training with someone who you don’t have a history with, there should be a feeling out process while you discover the other person’s abilities and patterns. You should start slow and build incrementally until you find each other’s limits, rather than dictating your own pace. The majority of injuries I’ve seen have resulted when one of two unfamiliar partners has decided to go full throttle before both people are ready for it.
Raw beginners who want to train as hard as possible are the most terrifying, especially if they are large and strong people. It can quickly devolve from training into actual self-defense if your partner doesn’t know their limits and level of competence. They might believe they are ready to train at full intensity, but they are usually not.
My advice here is to take your own safety into prime consideration rather than worrying about winning. For example, though I am philosophically opposed to pulling guard, if my training partner is trying to crush me using raw strength rather than skill, I will resort to this strategy simply because it is a position where I can impose some control—slow the other person down and let them burn off energy trying to pass.
In some cases, injuries can happen to the person exhibiting the selfish behaviour too. The best example of this is people who refuse to tap while rolling. In order to save their egos, they refuse to admit when they’ve been got, which creates a dilemma for their partner: prove who won by injuring the person, or simply let go and allow them to labour under the delusion that they weren’t submitted. Putting one of your teammates in the position where they have to make that decision is the epitome of selfishness in martial arts—and, eventually, someone is going to decide to do the former and force an injury that could have easily been avoided.
I’m not going to say that nice guys always finish first in martial arts, or that virtue is directly tied to success. That idealistic and naïve notion is attractive in Hollywood, but doesn’t pan out in reality, especially when we look at the upper echelons of martial arts competitions or combat sports.
However, I will state that, especially for the average martial arts hobbyist, a selfish approach to training limits you. By failing to invest your time, attention, and energy in the partner you are working with, you are likely going to lose their interest as well. Conversely, by promoting their progress through your actions, they become a person who, in turn, supports your growth and development in training.
Ultimately, you want to be the kind of partner that everyone at your club is excited to work with, not the one that everyone avoids making eye contact with when it’s time to split into pairs. You know the guy. And if you don’t, it’s probably you.