#49: Winning and Losing in the Martial Arts [Podcast]

Welcome to Episode #49 of the Fight for a Happy Life podcast, “Wining and Losing in the Martial Arts.”

In the martial arts, winning can mean life and losing can mean death… but some martial artists seem to forget that. Or maybe just want to!

In this episode, I share my thoughts on how to manage the emotions that come along with victory and defeat while training in the martial arts.

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Winning and Losing in the Martial Arts


Today on Fight for a Happy Life, Winning and Losing.

Welcome to Episode #49 of Fight for a Happy Life, the show that believes a little martial arts makes life a whole lot better. I am your host, Ando, and you are my most honored guest. I’m always happy when you can find the time to be here. Thank you.

Today, I want to get right to it. I’d like to talk about winning and losing. When you train in the martial arts, you have the opportunity to experience victory and defeat on a regular basis. That’s why I love it so much.

When you’re fighting, you experience success and failure at the most primal level—you’re either protecting your life and surviving or you’re losing your life and dying.

Those two extremes make martial arts interesting and exciting. But not everybody is prepared to face those psychological and emotional extremes. As a result, here’s what happens—they either hold back in training, go overboard in training, quit training, or change their goals for training.

Does any of that sound familiar? Let me share a couple of thoughts and see if we can figure out how to manage the extremes of winning and losing.

[01:55]  Meet Charlotte. Charlotte is a powerful young woman who I’ve seen training in the martial arts for a few years. She’s smart, a natural athlete, and a hard worker, which makes her an ideal student.

But at some point, I noticed something curious about the way she trained. Over and over, she’d fight hard, get into position to choke somebody, but then let it go. Or she would drive in headfirst for a takedown, but give up her advantage as soon as she gained it.

In short, Charlotte would never finish her techniques. And you could tell she was letting go and giving up on purpose because she would always smile or giggle as if to say, “I didn’t really have that.” But she really did.

Eventually, I sat down with Charlotte and suggested that she was holding back and I asked her why. It took a little digging, but eventually she told me, “If I try to win and fail, then I’ll feel like a failure.”

Wow. Think about that. Charlotte would rather execute a technique 95% and let it go with the belief that she could probably finish it if she wanted to, then take a chance at actually finishing the technique 100% and failing.

Can you relate to that? I sure can. Don’t we all have areas of our lives where we push hard for a while, start to gain some momentum, but then pull back and slow down or stop? It’s so common, right? Here’s why.

The illusion of success is easier to achieve than true success.

It’s easier to hold back because you never have to risk failing. It’s easier to stop short because you never have to lose. Instead, you can just step back and say, “Well, I could win… I just don’t want to right now.”

Let me give you another example of how the fear of failure can affect your training. This strategy is my personal favorite for sabotaging success.

Before I signed up for martial arts, I thought of myself as a real winner. I had been the lead in the school play, president of the student council, MVP in Little League, top of the class academically… I was an all-around A+ guy, which led me to becoming incredibly cocky. I thought I knew it all and could do it all.

So, when I signed up for Tae Kwon Do, I expected the dojang to be just one more domain where I would dominate and excel. But that’s not what happened.

I got punched in the face. I got kicked in the stomach. I mixed up my forms. I couldn’t do a full split. Bottom line—I was losing… a lot!

[05:02]  Now, the failures themselves are not all that interesting, but my reactions to the failures are worth talking about. You see, when I got hit in the face or kicked in the stomach, rather than admit I was failing, I changed the definition of winning.

Instead of figuring out how to block or attack, I changed my goals to staying calm, seeing opportunities, going with the flow, being tough, and not taking a hit personally. All very high-minded pursuits to be sure, but all denying the basic fact that I was getting my butt kicked!

Of course, changing my definition of winning was not a conscious decision, it’s just what my ego felt it had to do to protect my self-image as a winner. My very fragile self-image. I only realized what my ego was doing when I looked back years later.

But seeing a problem doesn’t solve a problem! If I’m not careful, I still lie to myself!

Even today, if go to class and see a big, tough guy ready to work out, my ego will start making excuses and changing goals. I mean, after all…

I’m older than the big guy. And I’m tired. My knee hurts.

Besides, I don’t want to show off or discourage him. My goal isn’t to beat him—that would be immature.

My goal is to keep cool under pressure. Let’s see if I can control my breathing and manage my fear. Let’s see if I can detach from the outcome and be okay with losing.

After all it’s not really losing if I’m not trying to win, right? And hey—shouldn’t I just be proud of myself for showing up? That’s what I call winning.

Boy. Doesn’t that all sound great? My ego has designed a hundred different ways for me to drive home feeling like a winner. But it’s all lies.

When the big guy makes me tap out, he knows I lost. If my teacher sees me tap out, he would also say I lost. If any other human being sees that big guy on my back, squeezing my throat until my face turns purple, they would say, “Man—that skinny dude lost.”

So, does it make any sense that I should be driving home thinking I’m a winner just because I didn’t take it personally?

No! No, no, a thousand times no! This is the most dangerous lie in the martial arts. The idea that if you are spiritually balanced, if you have detached from the goal of winning or losing, that you are a winner… even when you’ve lost. Even when you’ve been beaten into the ground.

I talked about this in our show about relaxation. [Relax: The Worst Advice in Martial Arts] In that episode, I suggested that telling someone to relax is the worst piece of advice you can give because it leads to somebody thinking that they’re winning just because they’re successful at staying relaxed. Don’t kid yourself.

It’s better to win with tension than lose with relaxation.

Why? Because in the context of martial arts, winning means surviving. Do you think a real-life attacker will stop stabbing you because they recognize how cool you’re staying under pressure? No. They’ll just keep stabbing you. That’s why martial arts training should be focused on the practice of winning, not on being comfortable losing.

Now, let me be clear—I know that it sounds immature to view training as a win-lose situation. Obviously, we have to lose in order to learn and improve. We have to make mistakes. We have to fail. But here’s my point—

You are going to lose no matter what you do.

There’s always someone bigger and better than you who will happily serve you up a big plate of defeat. You’ll also always make your own mistakes and be faced with the limitations of your own capabilities. Losing happens naturally, you don’t have to seek it out. That’s why you’re better off focusing on winning.

[09:47]  Again, I’m not saying that you should be that competitive jerk who never lets his partner work on what they need to work on. I‘m not saying you should never put yourself in bad situations just to figure out how to get out of them. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to control your ego or develop good character. But I am warning you—

If you get so wrapped up in the spirituality of martial arts that you have no ego at all, that you take nothing personally, that you always go with the flow, that you don’t mind being killed, then you, my friend, are making a fatal error.

Nobody ever signed up for martial arts classes with the goal of learning how to be a better loser. Quite the opposite. Everybody signs up for martial arts to be a winner.

Didn’t you? In one way or another, didn’t you want to improve yourself, improve your life, and improve your chances at being a winner? It doesn’t matter if you signed up to take control of your body, to get into shape, to learn self-defense moves, to build discipline… you are practicing to be a winner, not a loser.

Admit it. Accept it. There’s no shame in wanting to win. You should want to win! You should want to grow! You should want to succeed!

But here’s what happens—you start training and immediately, you start losing. You are then faced with a choice. You can either get to work figuring out how to win, or give up trying to win.

Which brings us back to those early successes of my childhood that I told you about. Were those early successes the result of figuring out how to win or were those just activities where winning came easy?

If I’m being honest, and I usually am, there were many activities that I quit simply because I wasn’t able to win right away. Piano, for example. I gave up piano lessons because it didn’t come easily to me. Every time I sat down to practice, I felt like a loser.

The same was true for basketball, tennis, painting, dancing… I quit all kinds of things!

So, when I really think about it, the reason martial arts was such a life-changing experience for me is because it was the first time that I tasted failure and didn’t quit. But before you say, “Good for you!” remember that my first reaction to failure in the martial arts was to change my goals.

Instead of trying to win, I tried to stay calm, cool, and clever. I focused on throwing pretty kicks, looking sharp when I practiced forms, and earning rank. And on all of those measures, I was a winner. But I couldn’t fight. I looked good, but still got my butt kicked.

My ego refused to label a face kick as a failure. Instead, each bloody lip and black eye became a badge of honor. That might still sound noble… but it’s not. It’s denial in its most dangerous form. I was getting more and more comfortable with the idea of being killed.

A while back, we talked about what it takes to be a good sparring partner. [The Perfect Sparring Partner] That issue goes right along with what we’re talking about today.

Do you want to train with someone who is sincerely trying to beat you or not? If I’m training with someone who’s not trying to win, someone who not only doesn’t mind losing, but believes that losing is actually winning in some spiritual sense, then am I really winning?

No! Which is why if you ever train with me, I want you to win. No, wait. Correction—I don’t want you to win, I want you to TRY to win. Don’t hold back. Don’t think you have to be nice. Don’t think you’re doing me a favor or showing respect by losing on purpose.

If you truly respect your partner, you will try to win. That’s how you will become the best martial artist you can be and that’s how you’ll help your fellow students be the best they can be. Whether they like it or not!

[14:28]  Let’s get technical. What is a fight? A fight is the meeting of two people with opposing goals. I want to control you, you want to control me.

What you do once you gain control is a separate discussion. You may choose to hurt the other person or you may not. But the point of training is to give yourself that choice.

Can you say that winning a fight means doing whatever you have to do to not get hurt? Yes. That’s one option. Can you also say that winning a fight means both of us walk away without getting hurt and maybe even becoming friends? Sure. Why not. That’s also an option.

But there is a third option. That’s the one where I completely and utterly dominate you and gain the power to decide whether you live or die. That decision is the most extreme expression of winning we can experience as martial artists. Practice for anything less, and you may be a good martial artist, but you will never be a complete martial artist.

So, my advice is not to give up on the spiritual goals of the martial arts, it’s to accept that winning is also one of the spiritual goals of martial arts!

Martial artists love to talk about humility and being in service to others, but if your spiritual development stops there, then you are training to be a loser. Your spirituality as a martial artist should also include the belief that you’re allowed to win.

You should accept that your true nature wants you to win… needs you to win. You’re allowed to fight and survive. You’re allowed to get what you want. You should train yourself to never give up. To make things happen. To succeed.

How to lose with honor is only half of what a martial artist should be working on. The other half is how to win with honor. Otherwise, you’ll just be a black belt in losing. A black belt in designing failures. Not just for you, but for everyone who looks up to you.

Your friends, your family, your students, your peers—they will all be inspired to lose just like you.

Let’s forget about you for a minute—what about them? Don’t you want the people you love to win? Who will be their role model for success if not you? Don’t just show them how to accept defeat with dignity, show them how to win with integrity.

Don’t fool yourself—there is just as much spiritual value in achieving greatness as there is in accepting defeat. True defeat, I mean. There is zero spiritual value in defeat if you weren’t trying to win in the first place!

So, let me ask you…

…are you in it to win it? In your business? Your friendships? In the martial arts? Do you want to be a master?

If so, then focus on winning. Go back to the goals you set for yourself on the first day you signed up for martial arts classes. Go back and relight the fire of your desire to be a winner in body, mind, and spirit.

The next time you train and someone hits you or chokes you, don’t just shake it off with a smile. Not unless you were trying to stop them with 100% of your powers.

Keep your fire burning!

Keep your fire burning!

Again, don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not saying there is any shame in losing… there is only shame in losing your desire to win. There is only shame in denying your ego’s need to be a winner.

Even as I say that, I know some people will still feel uncomfortable ever admitting to want to win when they practice. Well, if that’s you, let me ask you this—why is it okay to be noble in defeat, but not in victory? Why do we see the good loser as an example of an enlightened spirit, but not the good winner? Shouldn’t they both be inspiring? Shouldn’t they be equals?

[19:04] Now, if I’ve expressed any of this in a clumsy manner, I apologize, but don’t let that make you miss the point—the main purpose of training in the martial arts is to help you succeed.

You should be learning how to win. You should be practicing how to win. You should be figuring out how to get exactly what you want, when you want it, and how you want it.

If you go into training thinking it doesn’t matter who wins, then you’re already losing. It does matter who wins. You should win. Because if this is a fight for your life, which is what every martial arts exercise represents, then you are either going to live or die.

If you just want to break a sweat or have some fun, hey—go to a dance club or shoot some hoops with your buddies. If you want to develop your spirituality, great—join a Bible study group or read philosophy.

Martial arts should be more than a good sweat or meditation. It should tap into your primal mandate of survival. If you are not building skills to stop the people who would try to control you, then you will lose. You might even die.

Yes, I believe half of your journey in the martial arts will help you learn how to be a good loser. You will have the opportunities to face defeat whether you want them or not.

The other half of your journey, however, the part that so many nice people push aside, is to learn how to be a good winner. Those opportunities won’t just come to you… they must be created.

Hopefully, you’re training in a school or style that allows you to find a balance between winning and losing. You don’t want to be the best guy or the worst guy. Not for long, anyway.

If you’re winning all the time, you may need to find a different school that offers more skilled training partners. If all of your drills are choreographed, like one-steps, leaving you no room for failure, then be aware that you’re likely building a false sense of victory.

You may be building good habits, but you’re not building ALL the habits you’re going to need to win in a freestyle situation or a real fight.

It’s also true that you may be advancing in rank, but not advancing as a human being. Or at least not as far you could be. Blah blah blah. Just remember this—

If you don’t practice winning, you’ll become a master of losing.

[21:47]  So, starting right now, don’t lie to yourself. Losing is losing.

Give yourself permission to start winning. Give yourself permission to start using your creativity and your courage to become more efficient and effective at dominating your training partners.

Don’t worry—winning doesn’t automatically make you a jerk… only acting like a jerk when you win makes you a jerk.

Give your ego permission to protect you from what might hurt you, but not from what might help you.

Give yourself permission to be the person you wanted to be when you first signed up for classes.

Give yourself permission to be a winner.

CLOSING: All right! There it is. Get out there and don’t hold back. Win or die trying.

If you liked this show and want to catch the next one, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcast platform, then head over to FightforaHappyLife.com and sign up for my free email updates.

Until next time, smiles up my friend. Let that smile be your shield and your sword. Keep fighting for a happy life!