In 2012 I embarked on a formal educational journey (i.e., my PhD), which I now realise was in fact a culmination of years of informal study. You see, as far back as a decade ago, I began to realise that my personal performance in the ‘fight game’ was largely predicated on what was happening on the inside. Said another way, if I stepped onto the mat filled with self-doubt, anxiety, and self defeating thoughts, it would invariably impact my game. While my research as an academic has been specifically focused on the inner game of leadership, with a specific attention to mindfulness in action — my realisation has been, that these tools expand to all areas of one’s life.
As a martial artist, I recognised this need for an inner game through sparring the same groups of people over time. For example on a Monday I would spar a group of guys, and left that experience feeling I had done extremely well. That Wednesday, I yet again sparred the same group of guys, but this time, my sparring was less than optimal. My realisation was that no one was going to get that better in their game over two days, so clearly something else was going on — that something else was how I felt differently on the inside on those respective days.
Because I wanted to be the best I could be at the fight game, I wanted to do something about it, and although the ‘mental game’ and its importance is thrown around a lot in martial art circles — no one seemed to have a clue on how you would actually go about developing it. Looking back now the ‘mental game’ as it is often described ( a term that I feel is wholly inadequate) has always been my weakness, not just on the mat, but in life. As I have written about elsewhere, I had a tough time growing up. No one ever taught me, be that at home, or at school, how to deal with my anxiety, self-doubt and fear. Those aspects of my inner experience ruled my life for a very long time. In fact most of my adult life was dominated by inner qualities that sought to destroy everything I seemed to have achieved. Once I began to acknowledge this, I realised I had never been fighting anyone else other than myself. To my surprise, what started off purely as the need to up my personal sparring game on the mat, opened up Pandora’s Box, that I have been unable to close ever since.
You Think You There To Learn How To Fight
The truth is I see this all the time now on the mat. Something I didn’t recognise for a long time as a teacher — but now as a coach I am witness to the destructive power of a person’s inherent inner milieu — that sadly as it was for me, largely remains unconscious. I don’t think it is an understatement to suggest, that for the vast majority of people who step onto my mat, what they are truly seeking is not fighting prowess, but rather what gaining those abilities promise.
As one of my students recently noted, “I have felt afraid, and anxious all of my life. I have always been pushed around by others guys. I am hoping that by learning martial arts under you, I can for once stand up for myself”. While of course there is the aspect of physicality in what he is noting to be able to fight back if need be — yet hidden in plain site, is really a realisation of the crevices held within his inner terrain, that he recognises needs to be dealt with. As most of my students believe, they feel martial arts may help them deal with these inner demons.
I have increasingly realised over the years, that while of course people are spurred on by their evolutionary imperative to seek out methods of personal survival, that this is really only half the story of why martial arts is still remains so attractive to so many people (especially men). We have for ages revered the image of the warrior, and we inherently seek those character traits that separates them from mere mortals for ourselves (no wonder that often the greatest warriors in mythology are often either gods are half-gods). I don’t believe this is a mere coincidence either. While there is likely not much scientific evidence for what I am suggesting, my experience has shown me that as much as we seemed to be hardwired to seek out survival data through learning to protect ourselves, we are equally hardwired for growth through that same experience.
Learning to fight then, ‘seems’ to fit both these drives, because as one attains the fighting ability on the one hand (i.e., survivability), once you do, the response from other men is almost immediate. In other words, men treat you differently when they know you can hit back (or seem that you may just be able too). This also makes sense why every wannabe MMA fighter on Facebook’s profile pic is of him shirtless, covered in tattoos, sporting a Pitbull on a chain etc, etc, etc. It’s a way to advertise his fitness signals to woman and to claim to other men, “I am a bad ass, don’t mess with me”. Sadly, most of us men, are still caveman dressed in suites, or shirtless showing off our six packs in the case of Facebook warriors. But this highlights also a very real concern that I have. We, especially as men, confuse other men’s ‘fear’ of us, as growth, when in fact, that ‘fear’ they have of us, is merely their own survival evolutionary imperative being smart.
Just like two bears meeting in the woods, the one who postures enough, looks mean enough, is often the victor. The other bear, although knowing he could fight, recognises that this may be a loss-loss battle. Even if he tussles with this bigger, stronger, meaner bear, and is able to walk away with no definitive victor, the injuries he sustains in the fight may fester, rot, and he will ultimately die anyway in the end. I used this strategy all the time as a bouncer. I would look mean, borderline crazy, posture out to look bigger, and call guys directly on their bullshit (i.e., “let’s fight Motherf#%$er”) — and most would simply back down, knowing that, their evolutionary drive to live on, will jolt them into realising even if they fight, they are likely not going to walk away unscathed from this one. Everyone is a badass until there’s a recognition that they may too be injured (just like that bear).
You Fight Because You Are Afraid
Crucially though, this physical prowess, or a perception of it, isn’t growth. This ability to fight back, doesn’t engender the necessary ingredients to change fear.
You don’t fight because you are fearless, you fight because you are afraid.
I fought my whole life, and beat people I thought I couldn’t, but I was still very much afraid when I did it. In fact, my fear, my need to survive spurred me on to victory. But it still didn’t allow me to grow. For me growth meant, when I was no longer afraid of living, that there wasn’t this constant undercurrent of anxiety, and that I was for once comfortable in my own skin. This personal transformation only became possible when I stopped bullshitting myself that I was only doing martial arts to learn how to fight.
As I began talking more about using the experience of martial arts over the years as a catalyst for personal transformation, and not simply just to learn how to fight, I saw far to many people in martial arts circles react to this proposition negatively. There’s probably many reasons for this (this would require an entire article itself). Lets just say, for one, for a long time this is how traditional martial arts spoke, yet, as we all learned through MMA much of what they taught didn’t actually work for real in the end. This talking then about martial arts as a vehicle for personal liberation and transformation was sadly relegated to bullshit speak, a way to avoid the reality of the fight, or at worse cult like thinking (which, I might add, for some valid reasons too, because often this ideal of personal liberation through martial arts often went hand in hand with control of students thoughts, actions etc).
MMA on the other hand has gone all sport. You hear now and then fighters talking about the positive benefits of its practice beyond fighting, but much of the time is spent on what works in the fight. To be frank, most guys would give anything to be perceived as someone you shouldn’t mess with, and we are often then willing to excuse any behaviour to get it. I have seen this first hand to at my kids sports games. The coach talks about the positive life benefits of the sport off the pitch, but then goes utterly insane on game day only focusing on winning at all costs (even when and often it is to the detriment to the kids self-esteem). We then wonder why often most of the A Team players are obnoxious on and off the pitch.
The inner journey is also damn hard work. Its hard work to go into your inner bullshit. And unlike a physical technique that you can see improvements in weeks, a year can go by and you seem to have made zero inroads on your inner game. Even now, after years of practice, some days I get it right, some days I don’t. For example I have always had an issue with anger. Much of this is a left over from my childhood. To be on the mat, to be losing, and not to fight out of anger is damn hard. For a long time I didn’t care either, if that’s what I needed to win, so be it.
But, with age, and education, I realised that every time I allowed myself to fight out of anger, I was in fact becoming more angry in life — the very place I was trying to curb that kind of behaviour. Not knowing then, what I know now, each time I bought into my anger, I laid deeper and deeper pathways in my brain for that kind of behaviour to manifest. The human brain, being what it is, an ancient do not get killed device, will always default to it’s evolutionary instinct of survival first. If you have primed your brain to deal with every situation with aggression (a survival instinct), guess what you are going to get? If you don’t believe me, go do a search on neuroplasticity. Neuron’s that fire together wire together. Said another way, every experience, thought, feeling, and physical sensation triggers thousands of neurons, which form a neural network. And it is those networks you are creating, often unconsciously, that become a habit, that you then act out of simply by default. Why do you think we say, “it’s just like him to act like that!”
Martial Arts May Make You More Of What You Don’t Want To Be
If you understand what I have written, then martial arts can either be a powerful transformative catalyst in your life, and or amplify all the bullshit you have been trying to change or overcome. This is a very controversial statement I am making. There is a perception that martial arts training is ALWAYS positive for you. I am going to suggest often it’s not. I found this out the hard way. In my years when focused on hyper-competitiveness, and reality based fighting, the thinking that required to be there, and win, was the very stuff I wanted to not have in my everyday life. Rather than martial arts aiding me in overcoming this stuff, it made it a 1000% worse in my life.
Most people who practice martial arts, especially the modern competitive or reality based forms will say I am full of shit. They don’t see this happening to them. Most of these people only train, if at best, a couple of times a week. What I am talking about, the negative side effects of immersing in purely the martial experience will creep up on them, slowly over time. When they do realise it, because it took so long to manifest, they won’t make the connection to the martial training they have been engaging in. However when you are someone like me, who spent several hours a day immersed in hand-to-hand combat for close on three decades, you see it, feel it, know it, but then often don’t know what to do about it. You just relegate yourself to the uneasy fact, that this is may just be part and parcel of the journey. It’s also easy to excuse ones’ violent expressions, because in the world of fighting, you see the results.
In the end though, part of us is clearly drawn to martial arts as a way to sooth our evolutionary need to know how to defend ourselves. But, beyond that, we are also coming to the mat to grow, even if we acknowledge that or not. The question is, what happens when you do decide to step on the mat, and take the inner journey to self discovery? What would those lessons look like, what would you need to know? This is something I am still wrestling with, and what most of this blog is really about!