It’s often taboo, with hush, hush undertones under breath in dark corridors if one suggests that training in martial arts may not be all that healthy for you. Coming from someone who has practiced and taught martial arts for all of his adult life it may seem a strange thing for me to be writing about. But at least personally, I enjoy challenging why I do something, even though it doesn’t make me popular in my own mind, with screams of, “just get on with it”. I won’t lie here and say that questioning everything, especially why I do martial arts has made it easy. Its caused frustration, stress, and even dare I say a tad bit of depression in my life. But as I get older, the need to be congruent between mind, body and action, seems to be very important.
When I began training martial arts it was more for the aesthetics and what it seemingly could do for a person. I loved those old Kung-Fu movies, where the weak, zero skilled main character, through arduous training, became the hero, took on the bad guys and won the girl of his dreams. It was always evident in those movies that training in martial arts was far more than just about learning to fight. As I grew older, and the realisation set in that living in a poor neighbourhood in government housing, rife with bullies, that the luxury of pursuing martial arts as a tool for personal development would need to take a back seat. And it did for almost two decades. The next years that would follow saw a young boy just trying to survive the harsh realities he found himself in. With a sense of urgency, and chased by the hounds of survival, I sought out any and everything that would give me the upper hand in a fight. This continued as I entered the military, and later as head doorman outside some of Johannesburg’s roughest nightclubs for several years. To say that I was completely, and utterly immersed in the world of fighting would be an accurate description.
Because I have always been someone who looks inwards, I noticed a change in myself during this tumultuous period in my life. I became more aggressive. More paranoid. More egotistical. But at the same time more fearful (it seems I am not alone in this journey, I justified everything. I was a fighter, a warrior, and it was perfectly fine for me to be that way. It was a sport, and the sport demanded the fighting Cockerel emerge. In fact, I had built such a bad ass reputation, that showing any kind of kindness would have been seen as a sign of weakness, and to be honest I didn’t care much for it either – all I cared about was winning.
When you grow up been on the losing side all of the time, nothing can drive a man harder than to find a way to the top. And fighting did that for me. For the first time in my life there were no bullies. No one questioned me, in fact most people were scared shitless of me. And I loved it. It was as if finally I was able to get back at all those assholes that hunted me on the streets of Bellavista, who forced me to have safe routes to get home from school, and who chastised me for not having a father. In fact later on in life, I had some of these bullies come to my martial art school, forgetting who I was and what they did to me, needless to say I sought retribution and dispensed with them in the only way I knew how, by giving them a thrashing.
Now I realise that many of the people today who train in the modern world of martial arts may have never had the upbringing I had. So the argument could be made that they will not fall prey to living in the red like I did. But in fact, this was one of my major observations and a turning point in my martial art career. As my reputation grew, and more people wanted to train with me, I had hordes of young affluent men enter my school. Brought up with the proverbial silver spoon, they had a cushy life. Yet, as I watched them, I saw their insecure masculine awaken, the same one I had fought with all my life. But interestingly, the more they fought, and the longer they stayed, the more they reminded me of myself. In fact often they were worse, as they didn’t have the context of living a life as a fighter to know when enough was enough. To make matters worse, I facilitated there inner dragon to emerge, allowing it to take on a life of its own.
When I finally had enough of all this fighting, every day, and every night, I was lost. I had become something I despised, but had no tools to change it. I could fight, I was tough, but what I found inside, and what I was becoming scared the living daylights out of me. Over the next few years, tossing and turning between wanting to train martial arts, or giving it up all together – I set myself a goal to find out why this had happened and was there anything I could do about it? If not, I was simply going to quit.
So what have I learned? Far to much to put into one article. But I would like to share four important ones with you;
Lesson 1 – The Warrior Within: We are hardwired for survival. Even if we saw a world of global peace, people will still seek out martial art training. While we may be living in the 21st Century we are still running on software, a brain that evolved and was designed for millions of years ago. The human brain that we have today, is the same brain our ancient ancestors had living in caves or hunting on the Savannah. Because of this, there will always be a need for us to express the inner archetype of the warrior, because it is this energy that kept us alive for millions of years against predators, inspired us to hunt and protect ourselves against the neighbourhood tribes.
Lesson 2 – Resistance is Futile & Brain Plasticity: Realising that there is a part of us that seeks out survival either real or fictitious, ignoring it or trying to socialise it out, simply wont work. It is simply inherent in our animal makeup. Now here is the important bit, because you are likely going to express your inner warrior anyway either on the mat, in the ring or in road rage, what you need to know is that what your focus on you become. Not just what you focus on, but what you repeatedly do. For a long time neuroscientist thought the brain was fixed. By early adulthood the brain’s physical structure was pretty much set for life. However since the 60’s a realisation emerged that in fact your brain is plastic. Simply put, your brain can change, and it changes depending on the experiences you expose it too.
So here is the crux of the matter. If you train martial arts in a aggressive way, fuelled by hyper competitiveness, where the object is winning at all costs, and the thoughts you have to prime yourself to do this are ones of total destruction to the opponent (just listen to how some of these MMA fighters talk about what they going to do to an opponent) then guess what? What you think, coupled with embodied expressions of it, you ultimately become.
As there is little research (okay none), on what the effects are when people practice in this way and how that experience shapes their brain, and ultimately their personality in the modern martial arts world – we will have to wait and see if my hunch panes out. However I don’t believe for a second, and my own experience has shown me, that if you live in the red on the mat, that you can then simply step off it like a Buddha. Neuroplasticity says this is impossible and this was a big awakening moment for me. Going in night after night, having aggressive thoughts, over time, changed my brain and then moulded it into the very behaviour I was modelling through the experiences I was creating.
Lesson 3- Change The Context, Change The Game: I don’t think there would be any surprise in lesson 2 if you spoke to ancient masters of martial arts. They may have not known about neuroplasticity back then, but they quickly figured out that if you only embrace the warrior energy, often times, the outcome was disastrous. Hence so much writing exists about honour codes, Zen in Japanese martial arts, martial arts being a way of life etc. This is simply no coincidence.
If you want to harness the power of a positive experience in your martial arts training (and it is possible) you need to change the context. Most people simply have experiences without ever focusing on the context. Just think back to an earlier part of this article where I justified the experience, without ever considering the context (even though in the back of my mind, I knew something was amiss = mother intuition:) If experiences will change and mould pathways in your brain, which will then alter who you are, what you will become, how you interact with the world, and those you love – then setting up the context, in other words the kinds of experiences you are going to have, is so important.
The context behind why I train today is a far cry from what it was before. Every time I step on the mat today, I want to leave it less stressed out, I want to feel joy, be happy, have fun, be less aggressive, and feel like I made a difference in my training partners life.
None of this is possible if I go in always to win, to win at all costs, and especially when it means the other person gets hurt in the process. I know what some people will say, but in order to get good at martial arts you need to fight hard, you need to be seeking the win at all times. What fascinates me is how often the people who say this, are those people who live a cushy life, never compete, and actually have never been in a real fight. So what are you truly fighting for?
Lets get real for a second. I no longer have to deal with bullies, I am not in fear of being attacked every day, I don’t live in a war zone (although most people living in Johannesburg would likely disagree), and I don’t compete anymore either. The context for me stepping on the mat is different. Do you need to do many of these things, like seek the win at all costs etc, etc, if you competing? Likely, but the fact still remains, every time you enter into that, just know you are laying down pathways in the brain that will more than likely come back to haunt you later on in life, creeping up behind you without warning and trust me, it will be very, very hard to break these habits that you and no one else have created. So unless it is absolutely imperative from a real survival perspective that you live in the red, just don’t go there. I promise you if you do you will likely regret it.
Lesson 4- May The Force Be With You: Remember Yoda from Star Wars when he said “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering”?
People don’t fight because they are fearless, they fight because they are fearful. We all have our demons, and they can be both a catalyst for positive change or our destruction. I know fear drove me to be the best martial artist I could be. While most people compete today to proclaim they are the best, I fought on the streets to become the best. Regardless, I paid a heavy price for living in the RED. When I finally figured out how to let it all go, I actually didn’t want to fight anymore. It was totally surreal, I actually saw no sense in doing martial arts anymore, until I changed the relationship I had with it (context) and began the journey to embody fearlessness.
Fearlessness means having the courage to go against the grain, to not do things how everyone else does, to challenge the status quo. For the first time in my life I found myself saying no to either spar or role with someone because I knew they only wanted to prove how bad ass they were, would likely hurt me or wanted to beat me and tell the world. And you know what, I was totally okay with it. The fear of looking bad, or the fear of what people may say about me was gone. Was it easy? Hell no! Just like Geoff Thompson, people who said they had my back, left the minute they saw I was no longer going to be the object that fueled their insecurities.
Today I surround myself with like minded people. People who love to train, express their creativity through movement, play, and be personally challenged (not the same as competing) – in other words to measure oneself against ones own standards – not other people on the mat, not what the fight scene says, or what other people think you should or cant be. Do I get flack for this? You bet! I hear it all the time, “Rodney sold out”, “he’s scared”, “he has gone all hippie”. They right on one front, I am scared. Not of fighting, I have done that my whole life, but rather scared to go back down that red brick road. I know it changes you, before you are even aware of it, and in the end coming back to your senses isn’t that easy. It took me seven years to let it all go.
In most instances when I write pieces like this, there is invariably a bunch of people who get their knickers in a knot. Likely because it hit a nerve. If there was no value in what I write here, simply dismiss it – but if it gets you all riled up, you may have to ask yourself why?
People, especially those in the hyper-competitive streams of modern martial arts or the dysfunctional reality based scene don’t want to entertain the why. Its scares them. It sacred me. When you have invested so much time, energy and even resources into something, you really want to convince yourself that all is well – even when mother intuition is telling you something completely different.
So what I am not saying for a second is don’t train martial arts. Even if you simply want to chalk it up to evolution, you will always find martial arts interesting, because simply it talks to the survival part of your brain. I am also not saying don’t train hard. Training hard is where the real growth occurs. If something is a challenge, it brings the best out of people. What I am saying however is, lets stop being infantile and start to recognise that violence is violence. If you live in violence, real, imagined, or justified as sport, it is going to change you. The brain doesn’t make distinctions between reality and fantasy, that’s why research finds that children who play violent video games or watch violent TV can become violent themselves.
So if you are already an aggressive person, and you indulge yourself in an aggressive sport, without any safeguards, guess what? You will likely become more aggressive. No one in the modern martial arts world wants to talk about this. If you think I am full of shit, just try.
If we take a page from research they found that people who played violent video games showed less activity in areas that involved emotions, attention and inhibition of our impulses. This was after 1 week of playing video games, and even though after a week of not playing those games, brain systems seemed to normalise, changes were still evident. Now imagine if you did this every day for hours?
This is why I have focused so much of my energy on creating an environment of martial art training that coaches positive internal management of a person, through the process of a martial art experience. Everything I do, is geared towards creating positive pathways in my clients brains, that will aid them in life and career. For the most part, much of what is encouraged in a fight gym, is simply not acceptable in life or in the workplace, even though there are times you wish you could just double leg takedown your boss, pass his legs, knee ride him, and choke him out.