This post is long and I run the risk of not only ruffling some feathers, I might also come across as an arrogant bastard who thinks he’s better than everybody else. I can only tell you that this is not my intent. That said, please read on.
We all have an ego. For some of us it’s bigger than for others but we all have one. That ego is often surprisingly fragile. You’d think that martial artists who spend decades honing their skills, learning to become strong in both mind and body, would feel less easily threatened than others. But I’ve found this is often not the case, perhaps even the opposite. It’s not surprising though, as the dynamics at play are probably not all that difficult to understand.
Here’s how I see it.
Martial arts students and self-defense practitioners are heavily into learning a specific set of skills: how to defeat somebody who attacks you.
They spend an inordinate amount of time training for an event that is (for the most part) avoidable in the average Western society: unless you live in a crime infested area or regularly have to go to one, unless you live a criminal or dangerous lifestyle, chances are actually pretty low that you’re in acute danger. Even if there is a problem, chances are good you can avoid trouble with some common sense and awareness skills. So practicing your punching and kicking techniques religiously is not the skill-set you need the most to be safe. Which means people often train for other reasons than self-defense.
There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s perfectly fine as long as you’re honest about it with yourself and that’s where I think the problems start. My guess is that people who invest so much time in the arts identify themselves with the training. Meaning, their martial arts or self-defense skills are an important piece of what makes up their ego. Questioning that piece means questioning their ego. Which means questioning who you are, scrutinizing core beliefs around which your world revolves, and more.
That’s a tall order…
It’s human nature to refuse to do this and I don’t think there’s a need to blame people when they’d rather stick their head in the sand. I know very few people who willingly and systematically question themselves, their motives or their world view. Hell, I know you should do this but freely admit I fall short all the time in this aspect.
So let’s agree that questioning your own skills is difficult for most people. There’s actually something even more difficult: truly admitting to yourself that you are not invincible.
We all like to think we can handle ourselves against all comers. We so often rather tell ourselves stories that our training will be enough to get us through anything. But that’s simply not true. There are no guarantees when it comes to violence and self-defense. Anybody can get beaten, anybody can die at the hands of an untrained opponent, none of us are Ares, the god of war. Accepting this fact, really ingraining it into your mind, is difficult. It’s a lot more comfortable for your ego to believe you are unbeatable because the system you practice is traditional/modern, ancient/new-and-improved, proven on the street/battlefield or in the cage and so on ad nauseam. This is a lie you tell yourself to make you feel better. But it’s still a lie geared to avoid facing a scary reality.
This is often happens if you have been training for a while, have competed successfully or have a few successful street encounters under your belt. That’s when it’s the easiest to believe that lie when your subconscious mind whispers it into your ears. What can happen from then on is that you start underestimating others and that’s when the real trouble starts: you start acting as if that lie is true.
I’ve been guilty of this in the past and have experienced it when others underestimated me. Some examples:
– I attended the 2000 EU Wushu championships as national coach for Belgium and during the common meals, I noticed a delegation from one of the former Soviet countries. There was a young, fit guy who was clearly a fighter and then a small, potbellied older man who we thought was his coach. This older man would drink lots of beer at every meal and gave of the vibe of a “good old uncle Albert” you find in most families. You can imagine my surprise when I saw him step onto the stage to compete the next day. My surprise got even bigger when it turned out he was good. So good in fact that he took home the gold, beating younger and much fitter opponents. I’m sure they also underestimated him when they first saw his overweight body and jovial demeanor.
– A little while ago, I ran into somebody I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years. He’s a very experienced guy but also a bit of a cocky bastard. Back when we originally met, I was not as experienced as I am today so I didn’t feel the need to question his knowledge or somehow prove myself his equal when we trained for a short while. Turns out he took that as a sign of my weakness and inferiority, as I found out when I saw him again recently.
When I shook his hand, he suddenly yanked me forward and tried to get my back. Even though there are other applications for this move, I learned it as an old WWII assassination technique (as you pull him forward, your left hand stabs your victim in the kidneys with a knife you’ve hidden in your left hand) and reacted as such: I managed to ride his pull, turned it into a drop step and bent my arm into an elbow strike, hitting him in the floating ribs. When he doubled over from the impact, I pulled him down over my lead leg and was about to punch him in the throat when I noticed the shocked look on his face. I also noticed the lack of a knife in his left hand and concluded he hadn’t tried to kill me but was just being his arrogant self and was messing with me. In his mind, I was still that kid from twenty years ago whom he could eat for lunch. In short, he underestimated me.
– Twice a year, a friend and I organize a pushing hands and shuai jiao meeting. It’s basically an open mat training session with the two of us keeping things running smoothly. It’s also a very low-key and relaxed gathering. Egos are left at the door and everybody gets along great. A few years ago, we organized another one and as I enter the training hall, a well-known American teacher is waiting for me, along with two Chinese men. He greets me with “Do you know who I am?” I respond with “Yes” as I think to myself that the nice guy image he shows on Youtube and on his website is apparently not all that accurate. He then introduces me to the Chinese men who turn out to be his Shuai Jiuao teachers. He seems upset when I don’t know them by reputation but he assures me they’re great and that they came over to participate in the event.
Later on, while I’m busy explaining the rules and am giving guidelines, the three men explicitly turn their backs to me and talk amongst themselves. I found that to be a bit rude but didn’t think much of it other than that. The training starts and my buddy and I get to it: he takes care of the shuai jiao group while I handle the pushing hands part. After a while I notice one of the Chinese teachers wants to spar too and he seems to be correcting one of my friend’s students on his form. Then he says he’s just going to demonstrate the technique but then throws the student violently while diving on top of him. This is pretty much the opposite of what shuai jiao is all about. They both get up and my friend tells his student to not hold back either. A few seconds later, he does a beautiful throw and slams the Chinese teacher down, hard. The teacher rolls away and goes to sit down. Neither one of them joined the activities from that point on.
In the mean time, the American teacher comes over to where I was pushing hands with everybody and he couldn’t get over “how strong my root is” (meaning, I have good stability). He was clearly very surprised I had some skill in that department. I replied that I better have after all those years of hard work. At that point, my friend’s shuai jiao teacher showed up and the two Chinese men were surprised to see him. He’s a pretty big name in the community and is their senior in both years and training experience. There was also a lineage thing but I’m not going into that.
After about ten minutes of chatting, the American teacher took his two Chinese teachers with him and they all left. At that point, my friend walks over and tells me the American had come up to him ten minutes after we started with the message that, as our level was clearly pretty low, it would be better that he and his teachers took over…
My friend politely declined.
In essence, they’d come over to take control of the event and try to get our students to leave us and join them instead. In the Chinese martial arts tradition, this is a deliberate insult which they knew full well. Had my friend told me about this while they were still there, I would have “asked them for a lesson.” They’d not really given me many other options. I’m going to end the story here (there was also a funny aftermath a few days later) but there’s more to it.
The point is this: both the American as well as the Chinese teachers underestimated us. They assumed they could just waltz into our gathering and take over because they felt sure we would have no skill at all.
To conclude this post, here’s another story:
Several months after this happened, I went to a seminar of one of my tai chi chuan teachers and during a break, he asked me if I knew the American teacher. I replied that I’d met him only once and found him to be a real asshole who insulted me in my own school, despite having received nothing but a friendly welcome. Then I explained what had happened.
My teacher told me he’d met the guy a little while ago and apparently he had spoken highly of me. My teacher went on to explain that Chinese teachers often think of all Westerners as poorly skilled, simply because thats the kind of Westerners they meet in China and Taiwan. They rarely have well trained people come over to study with them, so they assume all Westerner suck big time. As a result, it’s not uncommon for them to underestimate non-Chinese practitioners.
Which brings us full circle again:
- No matter how much somebody doesn’t fit your idea of a “fighter”.
- No matter what somebody’s level was a long time ago.
- No matter how much certain people always seem to suck.
- No matter how good you eventually become.
Give everybody the benefit of the doubt and never underestimate their capabilities. If it turns out they do indeed suck, then it still doesn’t cost you anything and you can feel all awesome about how right you were all along.
If they turn out to be a lot better than you expected, you won’t have made a fool out of yourself while at the same time avoiding the beating they could have given you.