Martial Arts and Confidence

“Build self-confidence!” is a cliche adorning the brochures of many a martial arts school. However, the would-be student of the martial arts should be aware of the fact that this claim, though true, might not deliver exactly what he hopes it will. One of the great appeals of the martial arts is the notion that a smaller man can overcome a bigger man, that hard work and knowledge can overcome brute size and strength. In fact, “kung fu” in Chinese can refer to any accomplishment or skill that results from hard work and dedication and it would seem to follow naturally that confidence should result from any such development of competence. However, in the world of physical combat, there are no guarantees and reality imposes serious limitations on the level of justified confidence one should sustain. Physical combat is the penultimate zero-sum game, and the margin for error is narrower than the width of your black belt.

In any martial arts school worth its salt one should quickly hear a version of the following joke: “the best defense against an assault on the street is a good pair of running shoes.” Though a joke, the point is deadly serious in its warning against unjustified hubris. In a street fight there are three crucial factors that should foster a healthy uncertainty and lack of confidence: the opponent, the environment, and bad luck. One seldom knows if a would-be opponent is armed, if this opponent plans to fight alone or with his confederates, whether he has enough cocaine running through his system to reanimate a corpse, or if this opponent is an experienced fighter. Likewise, one rarely knows the extent of the dangers presented by the immediate environment.  There may be obstacles blocking the path of retreat, dangerous impromptu weapons like pool cues, bar stools, or the ubiquitous beer bottle, structural hazards like moving traffic, the sharp corners of buildings and tables, as well as the unforgiving concrete, which renders a good double-leg take-down or knockout punch a potentially lethal move. Though all of the above certainly fall into this last category, bad luck is a factor that should give any rational person some pause. In an MMA fight, for example, every one of the above dangers has been removed, to say nothing of the rules limiting the use of nearly all of the more dangerous strikes found in the martial arts, and yet many a fight is influenced, if not decided by, accidental eye pokes, groin strikes, slips on the mat, and the ever-present “punchers chance.”

This last form of bad luck alone should warrant considerable reluctance on the part of any rational person considering whether to accept an opponent’s challenge. The “punchers chance” is just one component of that razor thin margin for error and ensures that even a superior striker can fall prey to an errant shot. Take, for example, the first fight between GSP and Matt Serra. This fight was considered to be a huge upset as Serra, who is physically smaller, less athletically gifted, and an inferior striker, caught GSP with a hook that was intended for the jaw, but ended up clipping him in the back of the head, possibly making contact with the forearm instead of the fist. GSP correctly ducked under the punch and closed distance, bringing him inside the arc of the punch, but was still clipped by the blow and knocked off kilter for enough time to allow Serra to capitalize on the opportunity. Far from a proof that the martial arts can ensure that a smaller, weaker man can win over his opponent, this serves to show that training cannot always beat bad luck. In an MMA fight, one is virtually assured of a certain level of training on the part of his opponent and this renders the fight more predictable. Add to this the strict safely rules inside the cage which eliminate many of the unknowns that accompany a street fight and you have a formula that enables most MMA fighters to sustain a great deal of confidence in their ability to win, despite the role of bad luck. On the street, however, one’s careful training and precise knowledge of boxing can even act to one’s disadvantage as the unknown opponent is much less predictable and has even more of a “punchers chance” due to his lack of training. This opponent might make stupid, unpredictable decisions and thow wild, looping strikes that would have missed their mark had you not leaned, ducked, or slipped into their path while displaying your superior head movement and grace. If you have ever trained at a gym you will have noticed that bad injuries usually happen when sparring with an inexperienced fighter. Regardless of how skilled you are, how physically fit, or how confident, martial arts simply cannot offer a guarantee against bad luck, especially in a street fight. The true martial artist’s first line of defense is to respect his fellow man, if for no other reason than their punchers chance.

This should come as a severe disappointment to any scrawny ten-year-old who dreams of walking through hordes of inept henchmen ala Steven Seagal, but this person needs to be disabused of a couple more features of his fantasy as well. Steven Seagall films feature an unusual amount of the theatrical hyperbole endemic to most action movies, such as the typical one-man-at-a-time street assault, but on top of this, at 6’ 4’’ tall with a good beer belly, Seagall is a tree trunk of a man! The sad fact is that size and strength matter in a fight. Pit UFC heavyweight champion Broc Lesner against any one lightweight fighter and he will win regardless of any “punchers chance” his opponent possesses. A man that is literally half Lesner’s size simply cannot muster enough power to snap back that gigantic cranium, especially not with an errant shot, nor manage to overpower one of Lesner’s enormous limbs with a submission, let alone get one’s arms around his horse-like neck for a choke. That being said, a good martial artist could stand a chance against such odds outside the cage because he could employ techniques that level the playing field a little more, such as finger jabs to the eyes and throat as well as kicks to the groin and knees, none of which require a size or strength advantage. Needless to say, however, the margin for error , which we have just seen is razor thin already, would be considerably smaller than usual against such an opponent.

To return to our discussion about confidence, it seems that the more one learns about fighting, the less confident he will become in his ability to deal out indiscriminate justice on the street. In this matter, the gloomy old writer of Ecclesiastes seems to be right that “he who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” The dismal fact is that even the best-trained fighter is in serious peril if facing multiple opponents or even a single opponent armed with a knife and his best defense always remains his running shoes and polite manners. However, the martial arts do offer some considerable benefits along with their cold shower of disheartening knowledge. Chief among these benefits is wisdom, defined by the Tao Te Ching as “knowledge of the self.” The martial arts not only help one get in touch with the body, but also with one’s own egoistic will-to-power and curiosity regarding his place in the physical pecking order.  Speaking of the foundations of self-esteem, psychologist Ernest Becker wrote that “the second source of power to overcome vulnerability…[is] the secure possession of one’s own body as a safe locus under one’s control.” This is the confidence that the study of martial arts can legitimately deliver: familiarizing someone with their own body’s strengths and limitations. However, while training in the martial arts can improve one’s strengths and diminish one’s limitations, its first job is to temper the student’s more juvenile expectations regarding how strong and limitless he can become through such training as well as to teach that fighting is never the preferred option, if not for moral reasons then at least for practical ones.

The martial arts cannot offer invulnerability or boundless confidence in one’s physical abilities, but it can give one the assurance that he has done everything physically possible to avoid harm to his person or that of his loved ones. For many of us, that is consolation enough to keep on practicing. Breaching the juvenile facade of invulnerability not only renders the martial artist much less likely to find himself in a dangerous street fight, but also decreases the likelihood of post-traumatic stress or guilt should such a scenario befall him. The amount of shock that we experience as a result of tragic events is directly proportional to our expectations, and the person who expects that a violent attack “only happens to other people” is as delusional as the person who expects that they are invulnerable to one; both are poised for tragedy and psychologically ill-equipped to handle it. Though the writer of Ecclesiastes might be right about knowledge begetting sorrow, he might have added an addendum to his aphorism stating that “he who increaseth wisdom increaseth joy,” for a good knowledge of the self will help one avoid tragedy or at least deal with it maturely should it occur.

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