Fight: Learn Confidence through Combative Play

competition martial arts play

Many parents of my generation denounced competition, thinking that it breeds violence, and many of my peers internalized that. Even martial artists, whose sport arose out of real combat, talk about competing with yourself and merely using the opponent as a measuring stick of your own progress.

To me, that seems hugely disrespectful of your opponent. To offer them a meaningful victory, you fight to win, even if you are badly outclassed. You might be a white belt facing a seasoned master, but you can bet your starched white gi that you don’t run or surrender.

Julie-san, fighting not good. But if must - Mr. Miyagi, The Next Karate Kid

Playing to win and playing to intimidate or hurt others are not the same. We all knew that kid on the football team who harassed his opponents but never contributed to a win. Then there was the kid who always led his team to victory but was almost self-effacing off the field. There's a lot of overlap, too, but my point is that you can be competitive without being a jerk.

Respecting your opponent means respecting yourself. By playing to win, you show respect and earn it in return.

That is the most valuable lesson learned from fighting sports: being ‘nice’ isn’t kind. True kindness is dealing with people from a place of integrity and authenticity. That goes for all areas of life, from professional to romantic.

Head to Head

Another valuable lesson of competition is that it teaches you how to read people. In most field games, if you’re not trying to outwit your opponents, you’re not playing right.

This sort of thing is discouraged in most areas of life, but that doesn’t mean people don’t do it. And if you’ve never had to play that game, you won't be able to keep up.

A concept I constantly reiterate is that skills like these are merely tools. I wrote in the past about how money, often associated with greed and corruption, is just a tool that to be used by the good and the bad to any end. You can use the principles of seduction (“The Game”) to entice or demean.

Similarly, the head games, strategies, and tactics taught by combative play sharpens your wits and your ability to read people. You can apply these skills in many other areas of life, like negotiations, dating, personal safety, and family discussions.

That Human Touch

One thing combative play has that nothing else does is physical contact with others, and one of the most common forms of play is wrestling, grappling, tackling, tickling, pushing, pulling, and just plain messing with people. This is universal in children’s play across cultures.

It’s alarming to realize how little physical contact we have throughout the day, compared to earlier times in history or even other cultures. At most, perhaps you hug your kids and are intimate with your partner.

That’s not a lot, and the lack of physical contact is a problem. Women tend to have more non-sexual physical contact than men, a fact reflected in the high levels of social isolation felt by many American men.

Men often need a safe context to be that close to another person without feeling uncomfortable. Combative games are perfect for that.

It's not a cure-all, but close physical contact with others helps us develop a sense of connection and fosters close bonds of friendship. It's good for our physical and our emotional health.

So, if you can’t take being pushed around, emotionally or physically, maybe it’s time to learn how to stand your ground by learning these skills in the safe context of a game.

This week’s Practice of Excellence e-mail will show you exactly how to add a combative play element to your training, so make sure you sign up.

Photo credit: Alex Indigo on Flickr