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The Ego of Martial Arts Combat


As I stood full of pain and sweat with a dribbling of blood piercing my tattered shirt, I gazed into the warrior eyes of a determined opponent. Although I continually connected with multiple jabs and a low kick that rattled his thigh and brought him to his knees, this young bull just kept coming. His hook slipped through and caught my head gear and he let loose a penetrating, thunderous overhand right. Jab, hook and low round kick...all three found their mark and he finally went down. The battle was won. My ego, however, had become a spoil of war.

EGO! Loosely defined it as an exaggerated opinion of one's self. This can be the martial artist's strength or downfall. All too often it is an unfortunate hindrance to our growth and development as we pursue our combat endeavors. As I sat home reviewing the fight in my head I was embarrassed and frustrated that this 18 year old had hurt me. Yes, I easily won and should have with my years of training (and his lack of training) but my ego was bruised. He only got a few strikes in but one was enough to affix a reality of his strength. At first thought I justified his successful strikes as a result of his six foot four and 270 pound frame against my five foot nine inch 165 body. Ahh, somehow the excuses began to emerge. He is young....I am an old 46. (Or maybe young 46....sometimes my body isn't so sure either way.) Perhaps that's it? I wondered and rationalized and ultimately searched for answers. There was still an uneasiness and troublesome thought. Eventually I egotistically justified his improvement as perhaps a benefit of my coaching. There's that self-aggrandizement again. Yet this was in fact true. It was also true however, that my student had hit me with a very good strike and he hurt me. I may have won the fight but a lesson was surely learned. Suddenly my ego found its place in my fragile mind. Apparently my ego was more than just a little bruised.

It is a double edge sword. When training in combative arts the ego can lead you to self-fulfillment and awareness. This results in improvement and growth. Or your ego can force you to live in a distorted world of perception, devoid of any realistic thought or, more importantly realistic and functional training. Our ego and our own misperception of our ability can be destructive. Ego can grow into a monster called the "Master" that no longer trains with his students. Ego can be like the snowball that becomes a mound of destruction as it rolls down the hill. Ego is a path that needs guidance and constant evaluation. Without insight and objectivity this is a path bound for failure and stunted growth. The martial arts are like any athletic pursuit; although we often somehow categorize martial arts into something entirely different. This is such a travesty and so wrong. How is it that martial arts have developed into more art than athletic pursuit? There is nothing wrong with art; indeed it has its place. However, the combative side of "martial arts" is based in athletic training principles and concepts. It requires proper training and lots of it on a regular basis. It requires an ever increasing level of difficulty and testing of one's mental and physical attributes. It requires a testing of the EGO! Only through constant failure can you improve. Surely, I did not fail but my student hit me for the first time and it was with definitive force and intent. It was both a physical and emotional awakening. The next week I returned as a student in a different gym full of hardcore boxers and martial artists who surpassed my level of ability ten fold. My ego was severely bruised, as was my body. Both improved that night. The wonders of being a student? When I faced my students again I did so with an open mind and respect for reality. I now controlled my ego and not the other way around. This was an education.

A world of perception is quite deceptive and dangerous for the martial artist. Many prominent instructors have preached this concept. From Bruce Lee and his first generation students like Richard Bustillo, Larry Hartsell, Dan Inosanto...... to the new breed such as Straight Blast Gym's Matt Thornton, Eric Paulsen, Burton Richardson and many of the mixed martial artists of today. All these individuals have recognized the benefits of reality based training. Tony Blauer has expanded this concept to both psychological and physical training. Many of the military combative instructors fully recognize the need for reality training and constantly strip the participant of all ego limiting thoughts. This is necessary to accurately analyze and research effective technique. More importantly, it is an absolute in developing and mastering technique......technique under duress, chaos and with an opponent full of bad intention. The common similarity with all of these individuals and their training methods is that the ego is constantly being tested. Reality can do that. Perception does not. Of ten it is easy to progress in the world of rank and glory and we slowly have a greater perception (or misconception) of our ability than reality would demonstrate. The best teacher is a good student and the best student recognizes that learning is a constant growth process. If our ego is not kept in check than that growth process dies along with our ability. Somehow it becomes easy to justify our lack of technique or inabilities because our perception is distorted by the negative protection our own egos. The boxer and wrestler recognize this everyday and constantly test their physical ability against resistive opponents. It is the test that is our biggest threat to our ego. Yet, it is also the testing of our ego that allows improvement. No perception...just performance and reality. With this process comes true discipline. Discipline not only of the mind but of physical development and character as well. It is only when our ego gets out of control that this process is sidetracked.

Ironically, at a recent testing of some of my students many of the black belts well respected in the community were part of the testing board. This provided a sense of stress for my students who were comfortable with those they knew but not with "outsiders." It was evident immediately how the adrenaline rush and nervousness had the expected affect. They performed well, nevertheless, and dealt with the "psychological" stressor quite well. Comments emerged that the students were brawlers and lacked disciplined technique. Real fighting can be mis-perceived as such. Quite to the contrary they were able to effectively submit an oncoming boxer with every intent to knock them out. To the untrained or perhaps "ego" trained eye the technique appeared sloppy and undisciplined; however, the end result was an effective resolution to a dynamic combat encounter. One without restriction or rehearsal. My students were very respectful of the instructor's opinions, but they also recognized the limitation of his thought and his suggested technique. The instructor graciously demonstrated his method of defending against an oncoming opponent. In a slow, non-intentional manner it worked. However, in a reality and no-limit environment where chaos rules, he immediately found his thinking and technique flawed and impossible to effectively initiate. This was an interesting learning experience for the instructor and he was humbled and educated by the experience. Ironically, the following week he emerged as a student in our gym to learn "our way." Surely, it is not our way, as many do understand this fact. I commend him for recognizing his own "ego" and the limits it had placed on him and his training. Like many of us when we learn new things we see that it is not the physical attribute that is difficult to master but the willingness to actually pursue that path in the first place. When we control our ego that process becomes possible. My students respected him greatly before this process, but developed an even greater respect for him as he rolled around on the mat with us learning new technique. He was stimulated as a student and suddenly no longer considered himself a "master." The following day I was again being beaten and submitted by boxers and grapplers much better than I. My fragile ego was no longer so fragile. For that matter, it wasn't even an ego. Learning is growth and through introspection our minds and body can be released to ultimately learn forever. The best learning is functional learning regardless our endeavor, athletic pursuit or path. On many occasions my path finds me tangled in discomfort and distress. My mind, body, psyche, and yes, my ego are subjected to specific demands of increasing difficulty that directly overload and stress my combat development. It is through such ego testing that I improve in the real world of combat. It is not a world of perception. Now, I get beat up on a regular basis. It is done safely, and with excellent athletes and fighters. And occasionally my students remind me that they are getting better and yes, they can hurt me with very effective technique. Interestingly, my ego loves it!

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