Some Motivations Involved in Martial Art Training

Joseph Svinth, Editor Journal of Combat Sports

EJMAS Oct 1999

Beginners seem to gravitate to a teacher who reflects or shares or harmonizes with their inner evolution.
-- Herman Kauz, The Martial Spirit: An Introduction to the Origin, Philosophy, and Psychology of the Martial Arts (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1988).

To get the most from your martial arts training you must know what you want and expect from yourself, your training, and your life. For example, saying that you want to teach martial arts because you have low self-esteem and think this will help may be honest but is hardly likely to inspire prospective students. Likewise saying that you want to study martial arts because you have heard that the associated calisthenics can keep you in a size 8 is honest but hardly a good reason to sign a year's contract with the first school listed in the phone book.

If I were to be catholic in my descriptions of why people start (and more importantly stay) in the martial arts, then perhaps I should limit myself to the seven deadly sins. Unfortunately pride, covetousness, lust, envy, anger, and sloth do not precisely fit the bill. If I were to be more New Age, then perhaps I would use Maslow's hierarchy of values instead. In ascending order Maslow's hierarchy goes like this:

1) Physiological needs such as food, oxygen, water, and sleep.
2) Physical safety.
3) Sense of community, to include camaraderie and love.
4) Competence and the associated prestige.
5) Self-fulfillment.
6) Curiosity and the desire to better understand the cosmos.
Yet, while much closer, this is still not a perfect fit.

But rather than making a Procrustean bed here I simply list some common motivations. Obviously most of us are impelled by two or more motivations at once, and that's where the problems begin: which takes precedence?

Structurally, then, it probably helps to think of these categories as Venn diagrams. You know, those overlapping circles used in algebra classes to show groupings, with the best fit being the tiny area in the center where everything overlaps.

To avoid giving undue priority to any single motivation, the following is arranged alphabetically. If you think of additional categories, feel free to add them.

1) Body sculpting.  Sometimes this involves shaping the body as a kind of plastic art, but usually it is nothing more than vanity. After all, strengthening the body sufficiently for any reasonable everyday function requires neither a flat abdomen nor bulging biceps. The root motivation for the sculpted is narcissism. The motivations for the sculptors vary, but include lust (voyeuristic homoeroticism should not be overlooked) and wanting to play God.

2) Bullying.  Besides the obvious bullying of the big kids or senior students over the little kids or beginners, there is also the bullying of thugs and gangsters on the one hand and the bullying of the police and the army on the other. It is interesting to note that when the bullies are on their side, then most people perceive them as good, whereas if they are on the other fellow's side then they are evil.

3) Curiosity. Some people are intrigued by a combative system and begin study to learn more about it. A few find the process of discovery endless but most find their curiosity quickly sated and then move along to something promising more excitement or novelty.

4) The desire to be a Master.  A simple rule of thumb is that anyone who has to proclaim himself a master isn't. Nevertheless there are enormous numbers of people who are not masters who have printed up fancy certificates proclaiming otherwise. Since these people know that their claims cannot stand close scrutiny they routinely discourage skeptics by saying it is rude to ask them for references, credentials, or proof.  Real masters, on the other hand, rarely mind skeptical inquiries. The reason is obvious: being the real thing rather than pale imitations, they have the skills and credentials to support their claims. As an example from the life of one well-known Southwest Asian teacher: "Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing." (John 20:25)

5) Muscular theater.  Excepting the occasional sociopath most people prefer fantasy violence to real violence. Although kung-fu movies and professional wrestling are extreme examples of this theme almost all public and many private exhibitions fit this bill to some degree. If simple entertainment, then the associated deadly sin for the audience is sloth while for the promoters it is greed. If blood is involved, however, then the sadistic elements of lust must not be overlooked.

6) Personal empowerment. Besides resolving issues of low self-esteem, this category also includes finding answers to historical, philosophical, or personal conundrums. In moderation empowerment can be a positive thing. Unfortunately the necessary small amount of ego developed all too often swells into unwarranted pride.

7) Personal self-defense. Here one should ask (but rarely does): is the Self being protected the Inner or Outer Self? If the Inner Self, then defenses are usually magical, philosophical, religious, or shamanic in nature. Although most traditional martial arts include training in such processes this leads us toward a whole new set of issues to include psychotropic drugs, ritualistic behaviors, and the risks inherent in dealing with devils and soul-stealers. On the other hand, if protecting the Outer Self, then what are the motivations? Usually the motivations for physical self-defense include fear, anger, lust, and greed. As venal motivations usually lead to venal results (and even when they do not power still corrupts), desiring to learn martial arts solely for personal self-defense is usually a dangerous motivation.

8) Prowess. Competition between the big strong boys seems to be the driving force behind many combative activities. While ethical strong boys limit themselves to competing with their peers many -- perhaps most -- strong boys are not so enlightened. Once again, power corrupts.

9) Redemption through pain. Redemption means to free by force, and as a result some people may practice or teach martial arts as a kind of mutual flagellation. The line between redemption through pain and sadomasochism is, however, very fine.

10) Salvation. Here the goal is release of the spirit through faith rather than works. In theory a martial art practiced with this goal would liberate both teachers and practitioners from the world of appearance and send them racing down the path toward union with ultimate reality. Unfortunately the first step along that path is learning to distinguish fantasies from warranted assertions. And that is a critical but frequently overlooked step: while there are many paths to Truth, there are even more to Error.

11) Socializing with friends.  Assuming that the socialization is voluntary rather than coerced, the motivation is the desire to belong to a group. At its best, this desire leads to agape, a fancy word for non-sexual love. More commonly, though, it simply leads to the beatings, verbal abuse, sexual assaults, and homicides so frequently associated with gangs, militaries, and families.

While that's nearly a dozen categories, doubtless there are more. Of note, however, is the fact that each category contains the potential for both good and evil. So regardless of why we step onto the path of the warrior it is what we do each day while on that path that ultimately matters the most.

EJMAS Oct 1999