It’s often taboo to suggest that training in martial arts may not be all that healthy for you. Coming from someone who has practiced and taught martial arts for all of his adult life, it may seem like a strange topic for me to be writing about. But at least personally, I enjoy challenging why I do something, even when it doesn’t make me popular in my own mind, with screams of, “just get on with it”. I won’t lie here and say that questioning everything, especially why I do martial arts has made it easy. It has caused frustration, stress, and even dare I say a tad bit of depression in my life. The need to be congruent between my mind, body and action, seems to be becoming increasingly more important as I get older.
When I began training martial arts at an early age, while I desperately wanted to learn how to defend myself, I was equally attracted to the aesthetics of the discipline. I loved those old Kung-Fu movies, where the weak, zero skilled main character, through arduous training, became the hero, took on the bad guys and won the girl of his dreams. It was always evident in those movies that training in martial arts was far more than just about learning how to fight.
As a child growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood on the South Side of Johannesburg, rife with bullies and gangs, I quickly realized that pursuing martial arts as a tool for personal development would need to take a back seat. And it did for almost two decades. The next years that would follow saw a young boy just trying to survive the harsh realities he found himself in. With a sense of urgency, and chased by the hounds of survival, I sought out any and everything that would give me the upper hand in a street fight. This continued as I entered the military, and later as the head doorman outside some of Johannesburg’s roughest nightclubs. To say that I was completely, and utterly immersed in the world of fighting, and by extension violence would be an accurate description.
Because I have always been a reflective person, I noticed a change in myself during this tumultuous period in my life. I became more aggressive, more paranoid, more egotistical, but paradoxically at the same time more fearful. I justified my anger and my aggression as the natural extension of being a fighter, a warrior, and that it was perfectly fine for me to be that way. In fact during those years of fighting both in the ring and on the streets, I had built such a bad ass reputation, that showing any kind of kindness would have been seen as a sign of weakness. To be honest I didn’t care much for it either – all I cared about was winning.
When you grow up on the losing side all of the time, nothing can drive a man harder than to find a way to the top. And fighting did that for me. And once I did, for the first time in my life there were no more bullies. No one questioned me, in fact most people were scared shitless of me. And I loved it. It was as if finally I was able to get back at all those assholes that hunted me on the streets of Bellavista (a suburb in the South of Johannesburg), who forced me to have safe routes to get home from school, and who chastised me for not having a father. In fact later on in life, some of these bullies from my school and my neighbourhood landed up at some of the nightclubs that I worked. Often forgetting who I was and what they did to me, I nonetheless sought retribution and dispensed with them in the only way I knew how, by giving them a thrashing.
Meeting Your Dragons
Now I realise that many of the people today who train in the modern world of martial arts may have never had the upbringing I had. So the argument could be made that they will not fall prey to living in the red like I did. But in fact, this has been one of my major observations and a personal turning point in my martial arts career. As my reputation grew, and more people wanted to train with me, I had hordes of young men enter my school. Yet, as I watched them, I saw their insecure masculine awaken, the same one I had fought with all my life. But interestingly, the more they fought, and the longer they stayed, the more they reminded me of myself. In fact often they were worse, as they didn’t have the context of living a life as a fighter to know when enough was enough. To make matters worse, I facilitated there inner dragon to emerge, allowing it to take on a life of its own.
When I finally had enough of all the fighting, every day, and every night, I realized I was lost. I had become something I despised, but yet had no tools to change it. I could fight, I was tough, but what I found inside, and what I was becoming scared the living daylights out of me. Over the next several years, tossing and turning between wanting to train martial arts, or giving it up all together – I set myself a goal to find out why this had happened and was there anything I could do about it? If not, I was simply going to quit!
The Lessons I Have Learned
So what have I learned? There are far to much to put into a single article. But I would like to share four important lessons with you;
Lesson 1 – The Warrior Within: I can to realize that we are hardwired for survival. Even if we saw a world of global peace, people will still seek out martial arts training. While we may be living in the 21st Century we are still running on software, a brain that evolved and was designed millions of years ago. The human brain that we have today, is the same brain our ancient ancestors had living in caves or hunting on the open planes of the Savannah. Because of this, there will always be a need for us to express the inner archetype of the warrior, because it is this energy that kept us alive for millions of years against predators, inspired us to hunt and protect ourselves against other tribal enemies.
Lesson 2 – Resistance is Futile & Brain Plasticity: Realising that there is a part of us that seeks out survival either real or fictitious, ignoring it or trying to socialise it out, simply wont work. It is simply inherent in our inner animal makeup. It is primal, a left over from the dawn of mankind. Now here is the important bit, because you are likely going to express your inner warrior anyway either on the mat, in the ring or in road rage, what you need to know is that what your focus on you become. Not just what you focus on, but what you repeatedly do.
For a long time neuroscientist thought the brain was fixed. It was argued that by early adulthood the brain’s physical structure was pretty much set for life (some even said by the age of six). However since the 60’s a realisation emerged that in fact your brain is plastic. Simply put, your brain can change, and it changes depending on the experiences you expose it too.
So here is the crux of the matter. If you train martial arts in a aggressive way, fueled by hyper competitiveness, where the object is winning at all costs, and the thoughts you have to prime yourself to achieve these goals are ones of total destruction to the opponent (just listen to how some of these MMA fighters talk about what they going to do to an opponent) then guess what? What you think, coupled with embodied expressions of it, you ultimately become. There is no separation of mind from experience. They are, if we like it or note, intimately connected.
As there is little research (okay none), on what the effects are when people practice martial arts with unfiltered violence, and how that experience in turn shapes their brain, and its affect on personality – we will have to wait and see if my hunch panes out. However I don’t believe for a second, and my own experience has shown me, that if you live in the red on the mat, or in the ring, that you can then simply switch it off. Neuroplasticity says this is impossible and this was a massive awakening for me. Going in night after night, having aggressive thoughts, coupled with aggressive actions – over time, changed my brain, molding it into the very behavior I was modelling through the experiences I was creating. In other words, instead of becoming less aggressive, I found myself becoming more violent, except now that violence emerged in every day life over arbitrary things like someone cutting me off in traffic.
Lesson 3- Change The Context, Change The Game: I don’t think there would be any surprises from lesson 2 if you spoke to ancient masters of martial arts. They may have not known about neuroplasticity back then, but they quickly figured out that if you only embrace the warrior energy, often times, the outcome was disastrous. Hence so much writing exists about honor codes, Zen in Japanese martial arts, and martial arts being a way of life etc. This is simply no coincidence.
If you want to harness the power of a positive experience in your martial arts training (and it is possible) you need to change the motivation. In other words, you need to change your relationship with the martial experience itself. Most people simply have experiences without ever focusing on the motivation. Just think back to an earlier part of this article where I justified the fighting experience, without ever considering my real motivation (even though in the back of my mind, I knew something was amiss). If experiences will change and mold pathways in your brain, which will then alter who you are, what you will become, how you interact with the world, and those you love – then having a clear motivation, in other words the way you are going to experience something like martial arts, is very important.
The motivation behind why I train today is a far cry from what it was before. Every time I step on the mat today, I want to leave it less stressed out, I want to feel joy, be happy, have fun, be less aggressive, and feel like I made a difference in my training partners life.
None of this is possible if I go in always to win, to win at all costs, and especially when it means the other person needs to get hurt for that to happen. I know what some people will say, but in order to get good at martial arts you need to fight hard, you need to be seeking the win at all times. What fascinates me is how often the people who say this, are those people who live a cushy life, never compete, and actually have never been in a real fight. So what are you truly fighting for?
Lets get real for a second. I no longer have to deal with the kinds of troubles I had to deal with growing up, and I don’t compete anymore either. My motivation therefore for stepping on the mat is different. Do you need to do many of these things, like seek the win at all costs etc, etc, if you are competing? Likely, but the fact still remains, every time you enter into that, just know you are laying down pathways in the brain that may come back to haunt you later on in life, creeping up behind you without warning. Trust me, it will be very, very hard to break these habits that you and no one else have created. So unless it is absolutely imperative from a real survival perspective that you live in the red, just don’t go there. I promise you if you do you will likely regret it.
Lesson 4- May The Force Be With You: Kind of cheesy I know. But do you remember Yoda from Star Wars when he said “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering”?
People don’t fight because they are fearless, they fight because they are afraid. We all have our demons, and they can be both a catalyst for positive change or our destruction. I know fear drove me to be the best martial artist I could be. While many of my contemporaries competed to proclaim they were the best, I fought on the streets to become the best. Regardless, I paid a heavy price for living in the RED all of the time. When I finally figured out how to let it all go, the anger, the fear, I actually didn’t want to fight anymore. It was totally surreal, I actually saw no sense in doing martial arts anymore at all. For the first time in my life I was truly fearless.
For the first time in my life I found myself saying no to either sparring or rolling with people I knew only wanted to prove how bad ass they were, and would likely have no issue hurting me to tell the world. And you know what, I was totally okay with it. The fear of looking bad, or the fear of what people may say about me was gone. Was it easy? Hell no!
Today I surround myself with like minded people. People who love to train, express their creativity through movement, play, and be personally challenged (not the same as competing) – in other words to measure oneself against ones own standards – not other people on the mat, not what the fight scene says, or what other people think you should or cant be.
Do I get flack for this?
You bet! I hear it all the time, “Rodney sold out”, “he’s scared”, “he has gone all hippie”. They right on one front, I am scared. Not of fighting, I have done that my whole life, but rather scared to go back down that red road. I know it changes you, before you are even aware of it, and in the end coming back to your senses isn’t that easy. It took me seven years to let it all go.
In most instances when I write pieces like this, there is invariably a bunch of people who get their knickers in a knot. Likely because it hit a nerve. If there was no value in what I write here, simply dismiss it – but if it gets you all riled up, you may have to ask yourself why?
People, especially those in the hyper-competitive streams of modern martial arts or the dysfunctional reality based scene don’t want to entertain the ‘why’ of something they do. Its scares them. It sacred me. When you have invested so much time, energy and even resources into something, you really want to convince yourself that all is well – even when intuition is telling you something completely different.
So what I am not saying for a second is don’t train martial arts. Even if you simply want to chalk it up to evolution, you will always find martial arts interesting, because simply it talks to the survival part of your brain. I am also not saying don’t train hard. Training hard is where the real growth occurs. If something is a personal challenge, it brings the best out of people. What I am saying however is, lets stop being infantile and start to recognize that violence is violence. If you live in violence, real, imagined, or justified as sport, it is going to change you. The brain doesn’t make distinctions between reality and fantasy, that’s why research finds that children who play violent video games or watch violent TV can become violent themselves.
So if you are already an aggressive person, and you indulge yourself in an aggressive sport, without any safeguards, guess what? You will likely become more aggressive. No one in the modern martial arts world wants to talk about this. If you think I am full of shit, just try.
If we take a page from research they found that people who played violent video games showed less activity in areas that involved emotions, attention and inhibition of impulses. This was after only 1-week of playing violent video games, and even though after a week of not playing those games, changes to their brains were still evident. Now imagine if you did this every day for hours on end?
This is why I have focused so much of my energy of late, creating an environment for martial art training that coaches the positive internal management of a person, through the process of a martial art experience. Everything I do, is geared towards creating positive pathways in my clients brains, that will aid them in life and career. For the most part, much of what is encouraged in a fight gym, is simply not acceptable in life or in the workplace, even though there are times you wish you could just double leg take down your boss, pass his legs, knee ride him, and choke him out.