The lies people tell you about being a winner

In my little corner of the Universe, there is a disturbing phenomenon attempting to take over the foundations of all that is martial arts.  I start with this qualifier because I try really hard not to generalize, but deep down I know it’s happening in other places too.

This phenomenon – for lack of a better word – is the emphasis on winning, and it will one day ruin our children.  It is ruining impressionable young adults as we speak.

The emphasis on winning…

Sounds strange, right?  Strange because it’s counter-intuitive to some people.

All parents want their kids to feel like a winner.  I am not a parent (unless you count turtles as children) but have heard numerous parents talk about experiencing sympathetic joy and pain, as their offspring venture out into the world, succeeding and failing at various things.

I will concede that team sports build character, discipline, and cooperation in children.  Start ’em young, teach them to live an active life; teach them the value of hard work.  All good things.

The type of discipline learned in martial arts is a bit different.  The character it builds is different.  If your kid has problems with authority or self-esteem, s/he will benefit from martial arts.  If your kid has too much self-esteem or bullies other kids, s/he will benefit from martial arts.  They will learn the inherent value of performing a task without being given a reason.  They will develop strong minds and compassion for others.

All this works out pretty well, if you have conscientious, qualified instructors teaching your children.  But more and more, ego and profit are corrupting this way of life.


Martial arts were a part of my life even before I recognized it.  I always thought my mother’s use of unorthodox methods of discipline were because she is, in fact, a Tiger Mom.  She grew up practicing Kung Fu and would torture us when we were bad (and I was really bad, by Tiger Mom standards).  She would have us stand in forms for hours.  Brother was able to stand still without complaint, while I whimpered and fidgeted the entire time.  When she wasn’t looking, he would pinch me and hiss, “Shut up or she will make us stand longer!”

Based on that experience, I am not cut out for martial arts.

But that is exactly the type of child who would benefit from it.


In college, I became involved with Muay Thai and competed between 2002 and 2007.  I still train, but other things in my life have taken precedence over fighting.  I also have performance-induced anxiety – not about the actual physical act of hitting another human in the face and subsequently getting hit back, oddly enough – but of doing all this in front of hundreds of people.  There is nothing quite like it.  I now leave the competitions to the starry-eyed, inspired, and glory-thirsty youth that walk in the doors of DP’s gym.

As a fighter, I was a winner 50% of the time.  So the whole “winning isn’t everything” mentality may be easier for others like me to use as an excuse.  Or so it would seem.

In Thailand, the sport of Muay Thai is more than a sport.  It is a pastime, a source of pride, culture, history, and honor.  The fighters there begin training at tender ages of 5-8.  They will have 20+ fights by the time they’re teenagers.  By age 20, they may have a record of 90 wins, 20 losses.  They have more losses than some people (including yours truly) will have ever fought.

The point is, virtually every fighter there is skilled, but only a few will become champions. Fewer still become legends.  Just like any other sport in the world.  But even if you’re in the 1%, at some point in your career, you will lose.


We can all picture the overbearing parent of the athlete:

…The guy who berates his kid for not catching a ball during practice…

…The lady who shuttles her kid to soccer after school even though he would rather paint, then expects him to practice piano for an hour after that…

…The heckler at the game who talks crap about another parent’s kid…

They all have the same thing in common: they want their children to succeed.

In martial arts competition, it is no different.  But the point of martial arts is to master yourself while, perhaps confusingly, keeping your ego in check.

The idea of winning in combat sports has taken precedence over everything else we’re talking about here.  Why?  One word comes to mind: profit.

The success of world-class athletes like Floyd Mayweather and Anderson Silva have created a rash of pipe dreams.

I am going to train really hard, get super good at this fighting thing, and make millions of dollars.
It’s so much easier than everything else I’ve tried to do with my life.

I don’t normally criticize what anyone wants to dream, but if your impetus is money, what happens when you lose?  What happens if you are not among the 1%?

Related to profit, this fallacy is enhanced by the desire for glorification of the Self and the promotion of all things that bolster this totally nonexistent construct.  You are not as real as you think you are.  You are an aggregate of conditions.

OK, you don’t have to believe in all that jive.  But back on this “I am a winner” thing some of you want to keep pushing on everyone.  This is not “Daily Affirmations.”  Winning…really…isn’t…everything.

Teaching our kids that it IS everything creates a world of bullies, narcissistic egomaniacs, and psychopaths.  It teaches them that failure is unacceptable, that somehow their self-worth is tied to beating another person.  If you do not agree with this mindset, we will sweep you under the rug and act like that last loss never happened.

And what is truly gained from that?

What about the scrawny kid who wants to train to protect himself from the bully you created?  What about the little girl who only trains because her mom is in the cardio class at the same time (and she likes the uniforms)?  What about the artists, the humanitarians, the scientists?  Have they ceased to matter because they don’t WIN?

If your only means to feed and shelter your family is some type of fighting, then you have an excuse for emphasizing winning.  But you are not these little girls in rural Thailand.  In America, you have more options.

Moral of the rant:

– If you want to compete, train hard.  Compete.  If you win, awesome.  Winning is really, really awesome.  I like to win. I like to watch people winning.  I like to see excellence and experience elite stuff.

– But if you lose, as the Thais say, mai pen rai.  No problem.  Try again tomorrow.  Or don’t.  Maybe you’re really good at something else, like mountain climbing.  Maybe you will solve world hunger.

– Learn the things that martial arts are supposed to teach you.  Incidentally, they are the same things that you should learn from being a decent human being.  Don’t lose sight of what is really important.

– Respect martial arts.  It is not a cool thing you talk about doing because you are obsessed with kung fu movies and want to impress people.  It is not a means to force your will.  All pure martial arts have a history and a lineage and a very real role in the lives of people who live in places that are very different from anything to which you are accustomed.

– Kids: you don’t have to be an athlete or a fighter or a winner.  Just stay fit.  Eat your veggies.  Figure out what you love.  Be a good person.  The rest is BS.


5 thoughts on “The lies people tell you about being a winner”

  1. Yes, very good . . . .

    I first studied martial arts under Kani Uechi on Okinawa while in the military in the early sixties. I learned so much about the Oriental mind from that dojo and have great respect for the martial arts.

    I still practice my own style of wing chun in a private dojo I built in my woods. I never competed or even thought to do so as this stuff for me is totally self defense. . . and only then if I feel threatened by bodily harm.

    When I came home in 64 martial arts were pretty non existant, but soon it came on big time and morphed into an all physical competitive thing. I prefer the mental/zen aspect of it so I practice alone with a wooden dummy and bags and nobody knows I even do it….:-)

    1. Well, now I know, and I think it’s great. 🙂

      I was going to delve into the mental aspect of martial arts in a future post. It’s a bit difficult to articulate how nonviolence has anything to do with combat sports, because for those who are true to the practice, they are very much related. Some of the most peaceful people I know are fighters.

      But, yes, Western minds have changed the art entirely. People just take beautiful things and twist them into something ugly and call it “innovation.” And the more it spreads, the more diluted the art becomes. What to do?

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