Google “martial arts advertising” and you’ll find a limitless supply of advertisements proclaiming that martial arts practice teaches these. They are good things. I certainly won’t dispute that developing good self defense skills, self discipline, self confidence, and self respect is good for anyone.
Yes, self defense skills are wonderful. No one is going to argue that self discipline isn’t important. Self confidence and self respect are both awesome. All of these traits are drilled and reinforced by martial arts practice. My concern is that I’ve encountered too many martial artists who haven’t developed these things in a healthy, balanced manner. What happens when things get out of balance?
Learning self defense by training in martial arts seems redundant, but it has to be addressed. Everyone who trains for a while will run into people who have learned this lesson badly. These are the guys who develop some skill but never quite learn when and where to apply the skills. They have self defense skills, and perhaps self respect, but they haven’t learned to respect others, and it shows in how they use their skills. They can be seen subtly, and not so subtly, bullying the people they train with, making strikes and throws harder and more brutal than necessary. They use the implied threat of their skills to intimidate their training partners and the people they deal with in and out of the dojo. Hardly the ideal of what self defense training should develop into.
Self confidence is often what gives us the courage to attempt something new or to go into something that isn’t a sure bet. Having it means not hesitating to do little things. Being self-confident means being willing to take risks, even if the main risk is to our ego. It’s amazing how often the biggest thing being risked is our ego or a little personal embarrassment, and that risk is too great. Healthy self-confidence includes being able to take those risks and be ok with the results whether you succeed or fail. Where self-confidence fails us is when we have too much of it. Think of all the arrogant jerks who really believe they can do no wrong in the dojo. Where do they get it? Where is this arrogance learned?
Self discipline is a wonderful trait, and I often wish I had more of it. I’ve seen what can happen when when you have a good stock of this. I’ve also seen people get too disciplined. That guy in the dojo who wants to make it into a lower weight division who diets to an unhealthy level while bragging about how his self-discipline helps him do it. Or the woman who trains day in and day out without taking a break, never giving her body time to rest and recover, even when she’s injured. There’s self-discipline, but it isn’t leavened by any wisdom.
Self-respect is wonderful. It’s the healthy recognition of our own value as human beings. That knowledge gives us the mental strength to not be destroyed by every bit of criticism. Even more, it braces us against the pressure that comes from all sides of society to change or do things just so other people will like us. Without self-respect, we can be talked into all sorts of things because those around us want us to do something. Peers can push us to dress in a certain way, behave badly, they can even convince us to be disrespectful to one person in order to impress another. Self-respect though has to be balanced with respect for those around us, or you’re just a jerk.
Most of the advertisements I run across seem to be aimed at parents, but there are plenty of adults who would like to have self-defense skills and improved self-confidence and self-respect. Martial arts training, without question, should make us better at some sort of combat, but the other stuff? How does learning to fight really improve general self-confidence, or self-respect, or self-discipline? Frankly, does the combat training really improve self-defense skills, or does it teach something else?
Martial arts are often taught in a style that I don’t think will do too much for developing any of the character traits advertised. How does standing in rows repeating techniques develop personality traits? Even practicing techniques and skills with partners won’t necessarily teach anything but the techniques. It’s even quite possible to learn bad lessons that develop poor character from working with partners.
Training with partners, you’re likely to learn what sort of character your partners have. Someone who has learned to boost his own self-confidence by abusing less skilled partners will abuse you. He’ll make the pin too hard or crank the joint lock a couple degrees further than is really necessary or throw you hard while doing nothing to take the sting out of the fall. This is certainly not the way to learn how to respect your partner, much less yourself.
If the teacher is arrogant and disrespectful of his students, then the students will learn to be arrogant and disrespectful to those around them. Even if the teacher is not arrogant or disrespectful, if he permits seniors to be arrogant and disrespectful towards more junior students, the students learn that arrogance and disrespect are acceptable.
In classes where students are not treated with respect by teachers, there is no reason to expect the students to learn self-confidence or respect. A self-confident teacher isn’t afraid to make a mistake or be wrong. That’s what her self-confidence is all about. A teacher who has confidence in herself, and respects herself, will give students individual respect and the room to develop self-confidence.
There are far too many ways a teacher can give students lessons in poor character, and sadly there are far too many people with less than wonderful character teaching martial arts. Martial arts practiced in such a way teach students the physical aspects of the art without learning anything about character or maturity. Teachers can be arrogant and teach that anyone who isn’t good enough should be ridiculed. Students who ask difficult questions can be treated with condescension. Everyone can be abused, and only those who suffer the abuse without complaint or cry can be called worthy. When I think about it, it’s as if there are more ways to teach martial arts badly than to do it well.
There is a delicate balance. How do we teach self-defense without teaching how to bully and abuse? How do we teach confidence without teaching arrogance? How do we teach students to value others while we are teaching them to value themselves? How do we teach confidence without shading over into cockiness?
Martial arts studios, dojo, and dojang, have to make time to emphasize something other than the raw violence of what we train. In the judo dojo that I love to be in, the reminders for safety and mutual concern and respect between partners are as frequent a part of the discourse as are the suggestions for improving throws and joint locks. No one is going to learn a lesson that isn’t being taught. If a martial arts school advertises that they teach self-defense, self-respect, self-confidence and self-discipline, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask “How do you teach that?”
Rory Miller and Marc MacYoung are always making the point that self-defense is a legal concept, and that if you don’t know what constitutes self-defense legally, you can put yourself in all kinds of trouble. If the school claims to teach self-defense, do they teach anything about appropriate response and the complexity of the situation, or do they default to cheap slogans like “better to be judged by twelve than carried by six”? Does the school spend time emphasizing how rare the use of force should be and what might appropriately call for it, or do they throw out techniques and let students figure it out for themselves?
When a school says it teaches self-discipline, do they teach self-discipline or just discipline? Self-discipline is about being able to focus and do something on your own. Does the school give students time to work on things on their own, or is every moment scheduled and directed and driven by a teacher? Unless students have time on their own, they’ll never learn how to direct and discipline themselves. No one can learn self-discipline while external discipline is locked down tight. Students need room to develop their internal self as well as the cool physical skills.
How does the school teach self-respect? Or more importantly to me, do they teach respect for self and others? Do the teachers and senior students model respect and treat everyone with respect? Or do they belittle and abuse anyone below them in the hierarchy? Are students treated with appropriate praise and legitimate criticism or are they yelled at and demeaned when they make a mistake?
Self-respect and self-confidence are closely aligned. Do students have the opportunity to work on goals without the constant pushing and driving of instructors and fellow students? Do students have the opportunity to fail? Real self-confidence comes from knowing you can do things yourself, not that you can be moved along a track with others as long as you pay the monthly dues and the test fee. It’s not until we’ve experienced some failure and kept on going that our self-confidence and self-respect become genuine and deep. If the bar is set so everyone always passes, or if students don’t have the chance to fail, they won’t develop genuine self-confidence or self-respect. At best they’ll have the illusion of it, which will be fine until something happens to put stress on that confidence and respect, and then it will shatter. Genuine self-confidence can handle the setbacks. Genuine self-respect won’t be damaged by what comes from outside because it has the depth to absorb the damage that life inflicts.
If the school isn’t actively working at teaching these lessons, it probably isn’t teaching them passively either. Despite the myths and legends, good character is not an automatic byproduct of martial arts training. Advertising is nice, but what do students really learn in martial arts class?