Learning to Compete, or Competing to Learn?

How analysing competition has changed my perspective.

A few months ago I wrote a reflective piece about boxing’s “fight of the century” (here). As my views on life have significantly evolved since those months and that fight, I thought I would make reference to that noteworthy event, and how it led to an eventual shift in my perspective on things from materialism and violence, to mass marketing, social media and self promotion. Specifically, I may have been particularly harsh on Floyd Mayweather and his habit of winning. After some soul searching and research on concussions, I realized that in reality, though Manny Pacquiao’s story is inspiring, if I was to ever set foot in a ring, or be attacked on the street, I would like to learn how to fight like Floyd Mayweather. This is specifically because of his unique ability to avoid getting hit (too much), despite the bad press he gets for this skill. How is this relevant to my perspective shift one might ask?

Well, in the past few months I have been preparing for the bar examination. During this time, many study breaks (and study hours) are spent procrastinating and learning about strange topics of interest obscure to my unique and idiosyncratic imagination. The first of my procrastinating activities was to look up concussions. This was for a number of reasons which I can’t remember, but I do remember some old articles about the now infamous WWE wrestler Chris Benoit catching my attention. From there, the fire was sparked, and once it got going I couldn't put it out.

After learning about concussions, and the potential long term effects of having your brain bounce around inside your skull on a regular basis (think CTE, Parkinson’s, early onset Alzheimer’s, potentially ALS), I could not help but reflect on my passion for combat sports and the martial arts. I had really only been a true fan of mixed martial arts since the late 2000s. This was during the time Lyoto Machida was coming on the scene, George St Pierre was still making a name for himself, and Anderson Silva was raising the profile of the sport along with the other MMA “superstars.” It should be noted that I missed the Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell era pretty much entirely (at least when they were in their prime). What I also realize now is that many people will probably read this paragraph and not have a clue about who or what I am talking about, and this is probably a good thing.

You see, what really got me into the mixed martial arts scene was the technique of Anderson Silva, George St Pierre, and then, Lyoto Machida. What Machida brought, as a Shotokan Karate practitioner, was something me, as a student of the art, could see as direct practical applications of what was learned in class, or a sparring match. Lyoto Machida’s first 15 fights, where he went undefeated (for approximately 5 years), can serve as a textbook resource on how to execute some Shotokan techniques effectively. His methods are not by any means the only way to do it (in fact they probably cover only some applications), but they definitely provide some good examples. I later learned from observation and research that many fighters applied techniques from Karate or other martial arts in their style (i.e. George St Pierre from Karate, Anderson Silva from Taekwondo and Capoeira), but were less vocal about their stylistic roots. That being said, once I learned to recognize the stylistic characteristics of the more traditional, complex, abstract and philosophical arts in the movement of these fighters, I became intrigued with the sport of mixed martial arts.

It led to a point, where as a student of the “martial arts” for many years, I was left with the burning question, if Silva, St. Pierre, Bas Rutten, Machida and other martial artists gain such great benefits from Karate or sophisticated martial arts in a competitive setting, why don’t other more “traditional” artists jump in the cage? The answer to this question has taught me an important life lesson.

Competing in any sport, whether it be football, soccer, tennis, or professional fighting, must leave a mark on your body and mind that can be difficult to fix. For some it can be permanently damaged ligaments, while for others it is long term brain injuries. For even more still it is a damaged mind and spirit. Sports people are told by promoters, agents and managers to put their life on the line in order to kick a ball, or a skull…and take as many hits as they can in order to be the best. This notion of sacrifice and competition is further instilled by societal reinforcement, win a match and the athlete’s name is in the media, their picture is everywhere and their social media posts get hundreds of likes. However, equally or perhaps even more reinforcing is the negative experience of how quickly this attention goes away upon the slightest mishap, slip or loss. Professional athletes are constantly swaying between conflicting emotions, pushing and pulling them to give more and more of themselves for the cause.

The spirit of sacrifice, perseverance and competitive drive seen in athletes seems admirable and inspiring to many, including myself. However, when one steps back and examines the purpose for which this effort is applied, the end result is less impressive. Take professional fighters for example. At the end of the day, two men (or women) are bashing each other’s heads in so that a few thousand can cheer. Those odd thousand pay those fighters and their promoters thousands of dollars for this temporary experience. Year after year of repetition leaves the competitor’s body broken, and it may even be arguable that most fighters, even those who are world class, leave the sport worse off than they were when they began (in terms of their physical and mental abilities).

Given this reality, it is not surprising that many people who study martial arts are not lining up to jump in the cage. When the essential goal of martial arts is to perfect ones technique, physical ability and ultimately, ones character, it is unclear whether throwing punches and kicks in a cage is really the best way to go. It is arguable that preparing for a controlled and regulated event, where one trains for an immediate opponent, and where one’s mistakes are extremely costly…in the crucible of professional sports… is counterproductive to the long term development of skill. Why is this so?

When a performance athlete has an immediate need to solve or tackle a problem, say for example performing in a fight 40 days away, or preparing for a known event, it seems natural that he or she will train expediently and effectively to handle the particular threat or obstacle. This training will include developing some new technique and skill to cope with the unique challenges ahead. Much of the skill developed will be immediately relevant to that particular obstacle, if the athlete is focused and concerned about overcoming it. Over the course of many such unique competitive events, much of the athlete’s concentration will go towards short term, adaptive and expedient learning techniques. Over time, more complicated, time consuming muscle memory combinations may be neglected by the urgency and immediacy of the specific challenges faced by the athlete on a regular basis. Eventually the pressure not to fail will discourage exploration, and necessary mistakes or improvements during the athlete’s training and preparation. Ultimately, “bad habits” could be conditioned in form and technique while the athlete continues to prepare for the short term, but neglects to work on or maintain their base or depth of techniques. Given this process, it is not surprising that many successful professional athletes develop strong technical skills BEFORE they enter the competitive sphere, and many do so at a young age to maximize their competitive career.

With this type of training however, the body will eventually become exhausted. With ageing technique, mental fatigue from constant stimulation, stress and urgency, and an endless stream of younger opponents with newer abilities, the mind can also collapse. For professional athletes who put themselves on the line, this can have devastating consequences when they step back into the arena for that extra payday, without being mentally focused or fully committed.

By contrast, many people who learn martial arts, will come to know that most authentic arts are not exclusive to those who can afford to put their mind, body and soul on the line to the extent a professional athlete can. Don’t get me wrong, any serious sport, martial art, recreational activity or skill (whether it be learning to play guitar, a new language or doing yoga) will require sacrifice, and achieving competency may even require your mind, body and soul. However, in my opinion, it should not require your all for a few clapping hands or pats on the back. From my experience, the art demands commitment, for the sake of itself alone, and ultimately, for the improvement of the participant and their community. Excessive competition in controlled environments may even be antithetical to the aims of developing a skill.

This is not to say competition is bad or counter-productive. I am a firm believer that some accountability is needed in ones training and development, for any purpose, whether it be in the form of competition, sparring in martial arts or professional sports for athletes. However, I have come to believe that learning for accolades seems far less appealing than developing ones character through diligent study and practice, and for what may seem a “higher purpose,” idealistic or naive as this may sound. Competing for applause alone, whether it be in a profession or in sport does not seem appealing given its costs, and excessive focus on accolades and competitive behavior seems attritional rather than nourishing to me.

Therefore, I believe that while competition, public reinforcements of “successful” behavior and apparent/explicit recognition (though superficial) may be driving factors for the behavior of many people, including the wealthy or well known in the world, it appears far more healthy to pursue a path of self improvement and more sophisticated measures of objective success. This would be in the form of more visible development of skill, or a more refined approach to which kind of recognition to appreciate (think a genuine critique of your thoughts by an actual person over likes on Facebook).

For me, this also applies to day to day successes as well, for example when a person is able to control their anger or do something productive with their time. Though these acts have an intangible and apparently subjective nature, they can be measured with qualitative objectivity. For example, smiling instead of getting angry in a particular situation, or running a faster mile can be objectively observed by someone interested in looking.

Further, I think it is highly under-emphasized how important it is to seek out failure as well. Many “successful” people failed hundreds of times before they achieved success, and I believe that finding examples of involuntary failure are priceless in developing ability, whether in sports or life situations. In a highly competitive world, we are often not given such an opportunity to risk involuntary failure unless we are brave enough to make room for it.

Given how I started this essay, I will end on the note that it would be helpful if failure doesn't result in a concussion or cost so much that future progress may be hindered, by something like a traumatic brain injury for example (in the case of aspiring martial artists that is).

Over-competitiveness, the need for attention and recognition, a prison in itself?