Ego in the Martial Arts

Ego is often referred to, colloquially, as one’s opinion or assertion of personality of oneself towards others. That’s not entirely incorrect and there is certainly much more gradiation than that in regards to ego. My undergraduate psychology courses hardly qualify me as an expert to discuss the deeper nuances. As martial artists, we learn much about what we can physically do with our body as it moves through space. However, not all disciplines carry the same values or have the leadership to help us navigate the effects this knowledge has on how we psychologically experience this movement through space. Punches, kicks, joint locks, grappling, acrobatics, etc., are all part of many martial artists repertoire. There are unspoken implications of how this might affect our id and ego as we develop these skills.

I posit that within the modern delivery of traditional martial arts, there is a growing need for instructors to understand the mind in addition to the body. There are so many facets to the human experience, that we have no idea what learning a certain technique, or hearing certain words may induce.    

While I still consider myself “young” in the martial arts (in that I started as an adult), as an academic outside of the arts, I maintain an objective and critical perspective. This is not unique to academia, but there are a number of people who have been in martial arts for effectively their whole lives that hold implicit biases that affect their ego whether they know it or not. Throughout my martial arts experience, I’ve seen a variety of leadership styles. I find it immensely important that we examine (superficially) the effects of ego in the martial arts.

Ego Marketing

Some students are honestly impressed by ego. They need to have mysticism, or reverence attached to their instructor by some sort of accolade, lineage, special cross-training, ranks, or some other experience. One of the most interesting non-congruences is in titles within the martial arts. Some schools have very strict regulations over when you can assume certain titles, at what rank, and in some cases, rank does not equate to title. Some schools have special names for a person who is of a qualified rank but also recognized as an excellent instructor/teacher. Though the number variations of the term “Master” or “Grandmaster” are so numerous it’s hard to even list them all here. You may have heard some like, “Chief Grandmaster,” or “Supreme Grandmaster,” or “Revered Grandmaster,” or “Senior Grandmaster,” or “Chief Professor.” In some martial arts, the term Grandmaster was a point of contention and was basically an open invitation to be challenged. A cultural point that has been blown out of proportion in many Martial arts movies.

As a person who actually loves the ritual and etiquette within traditional martial arts, I think some of the titles are really interesting and I have much respect for them. I appreciate the recognition and bowing done at mine (and other schools) for those of higher rank. I’ve done lots of training in informal settings too, without the etiquette and uniforms, and there is value in both settings. Ranks/titles are often well deserved and are a clear way for students to understand that the person is well-experienced in their art. My point of contention is when these ranks/titles are abused or are self-appointed, which all snowballs into a major inflation of the individual’s ego.

One of the Seeds of Toxic Ego

During what some of us refer to as the “blood and guts” era of martial arts in the 60s and 70s there was the first real boom of martial arts schools cropping up around the world. In areas where there was more than one school, there was inherent competition for students. Major marketing points weren’t necessarily focused on personal development, rather it was a pounding of the chest with a statement about who you trained with, how “real” the training is, or how it was “more effective” than another style’s or instructor’s school. This absolutely still exists today, led by some of the same personalities that carried this antiquated marketing platform with them. Their egos were basically left unchecked.  Moreover, they have festered. In some cases, they’ve passed on this mentality to a generation or two of students under them.

Some egos fester so much that they become toxic. Instructors develop all or nothing approaches to their relationships; where if you directly or indirectly wound their ego, they lash out viciously and will do lots of things that only bad people do. I’ve seen this first hand within branches of my martial arts family tree, and second hand with friends from other schools/systems. Some instructors reactions are so volatile and knee-jerk that even when the individual that “wounded” their ego tries to apologize, they are so consumed by their ego, that they hold their relationship with the person in front of them as a castle gate that may be slammed closed at any time. They are a Supreme Great Grandmaster, after all, you should feel great shame for having caused any injury to their inflated ego.

All sarcasm aside, this chest-pounding, title-boasting, blood-and-guts pedaling attitude just isn’t what the martial arts is about anymore. Some leadership has always known that and instead have adopted deep humility with their well-deserved accolades. I’m sure many of the contributing authors on this site have relationships with this sort of instructor, and have had experiences with the former as well. The term “you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” works so well within the landscape of the modern delivery of traditional martial arts.

Runaway Ego and Fake Martial Arts

While toxic ego is detrimental to the developing psychologies of students at those schools, there is another type of inflated ego. It may even be well-meaning and focused on positive community outreach and personal development. However, there are people who have some limited martial arts training that self-promote themselves to a Dan [black belt] rank. After which, they open a school proclaiming to teach a traditional martial art. This can be dangerous for everyone involved.

Without proper training, there is no way to ensure that the training environment is properly controlled or safe for the practitioner. There are some people that are so alarmed by this that they actually seek out these fake instructors as public servants of the martial arts. With goals to make sure that the students of these fake instructors are aware that what they are doing may be incorrect, or even worse, unsafe.

Now socially, I do not appreciate the “witch hunt” mentality that some folks have towards these instructors. That doesn’t solve the problem, but to those that go out with the community and the safety of the students as their primary focus, I can support that position.

The Strongest Virtue in the Martial Arts

Humility in some arts is demanded before a certain rank, and within some arts, humility is readily gained through sparring or grappling matches with classmates or instructors. It is a byproduct also of deep self-confidence. I would reckon that if your ego is inflated, you may very well have a poor foundation of self-confidence/self-esteem that you are compensating for. If you are a black belt in a stand-up style and go to a grappling-focused school with little grappling experience, you can expect to be humbled. The inverse is also true, traditional sparring for someone of a grappling art will be deeply humbling.

In the end, if we view Traditional Martial Arts as a method of personal development, we should be able to list the virtues of that development. Confidence is a virtue that seems to be something that resonates as a goal as well as an outcome for many who start the martial arts in their adult lives. We are all just people, and when we go home or to work, we aren’t wearing uniforms, we should be a more confident version of ourselves from practicing our arts.

Being humbled is a fantastic catalyst for growth as a human being psychologically and physically. This should be a persistent reminder to us as martial artists that neither style nor rank, should have an effect on our egos. If we approach any interaction, conversation, sparring match, or cross training with deep respect, humility, and openness, we will reap profound martial and personal rewards. Ego-filled interactions are antiquated. The mat doesn’t care about your rank or your title. 

Daniel Hartz

Daniel Hartz

I am a bit of a renaissance man, but one of my passions is the Martial Arts. My primary art is the blended style: Kenpo Jujitsu Eskrima. I've been practicing for over 10 years now and hope to train until I am no longer able. I currently live in Northwestern Vermont with my wife (also a martial artist) and young daughter.
Daniel Hartz

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    About Daniel Hartz 4 Articles
    I am a bit of a renaissance man, but one of my passions is the Martial Arts. My primary art is the blended style: Kenpo Jujitsu Eskrima. I've been practicing for over 10 years now and hope to train until I am no longer able. I currently live in Northwestern Vermont with my wife (also a martial artist) and young daughter.