Martial artists want to win.

At least, most of us do. We step onto the mat, after all, with the goal of learning how to defend ourselves. You can’t do that unless you want to win, to beat your opponent.


I’m not so sure.

Lately, I’ve had numerous conversations with people about aikido training, and about how they want to win–to show other martial artists that aikido can hold its own. I listen during these conversations, and I can certainly empathize with folks who feel this way, but I am always left thinking that this is not the best thought process to follow if you really want to understand a martial art.

To be truly proficient at a martial art requires that you become accustomed to fear. For some, this means being completely unafraid of any situation. For others, like myself, it means coming to terms with fear, recognizing that it exists and refusing to allow it to dictate your actions. It is hard to listen to people discussing how they want to “win” without hearing at least a hint of fear in their voice. Perhaps they are afraid they haven’t been training diligently enough. Perhaps they fear that there is so much that they don’t know, they’ll never be able to apply what they do know in a real situation. Perhaps they’re just afraid they’re not being taken seriously enough by others. Whatever the reason, people that focus on winning physical conflicts seem to demonstrate that they have not yet become accustomed to fear. There’s some proof of this. Think about the teachers you respect. Do they show a pre-occupation with winning? Odds are, they do not. As one of my teachers once said: “The best technique comes when you are not afraid to lose.”

Pre-occupation with winning has another downfall: it focuses on the technique and wondering what your opponent is going to do. In Aikido, this can quickly lead to ineffective movements; I am sure that this is true in other martial arts as well. I have never done well in free-style sparring when I try to win. Too often, I try to anticipate what my opponent is going to do, or try to determine which technique I will try next. On the other hand, when I relax and simply let the situation take care of itself, I more often than not end up selecting the right movement (or close to it). When I face an opponent, I attempt to think “how can I resolve this conflict?” instead of “how do I beat this person?” The former has opened me to finding solutions that do not involve any physical contact whatsoever. In the dojo, where physical contact is pre-determined, this mindset of conflict resolution has me focused on taking care of myself and my uke, with highly successful results.

In the end, perhaps it comes down to how you define “winning.” In my opinion, I do not win when I beat my opponent. I “win” when I remove my uke’s reason and ability to fight without compromising my own safety and well-being. This might mean that I need to employ physical technique; consequently, I must continue to practice to refine my movements. It might, however, mean that I talk the other person down, or find some other non-physical means of settling the issue. I cannot accomplish this goal, however, if I am solely focused on beating my opponent.

I’ll end this entry with a question: If you spent your life training in a martial art, and found that at the end of your days you lived without compromising your principles and without physically confronting someone, would you say that you have found the ultimate success in your martial arts career?

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