Ego And Posturing Among Self-Defense Instructors

Why Ego Is A Liability When It Comes To Self Defense Training

One of the most useful carry-overs I retain from my background in traditional martial arts is the concept of defeating the ego. And, an early lesson I learned when I started experimenting and cross-training in other styles and systems is that having a large ego is a liability when it comes to learning realistic self defense skills.

For one, it can cause you to have a false confidence in your abilities. Now, confidence is an oft-discussed topic in self defense circles, and for good reason. Being confident and carrying yourself in a confident and aware manner can make a person less likely to be targeted by a criminal predator.

And, having real confidence in your abilities based on time “in the lab” testing them under controlled pressure is a necessity; doubt causes hesitation, and hesitation leads to catastrophic failure under the real life pressures of sudden violence.

But… Pride Goes Before A Fall

On the other hand, false confidence in your style/system/approach/present skill level/etc. can be just as dangerous. Thinking your style, system, or skills are unbeatable can be a prelude to disaster.

I remember being the top student in my karate school as a teenager; at the time, no other student in the school could match me in the ring, and I soon became full of my own skill and abilities. Then I had the opportunity to train for a few months at a professional kickboxing gym known for producing champion kickboxers back during the heyday of American kickboxing. And, I got my head handed to me on several occasions.

That was the experience that really opened my eyes to a whole world of training that existed outside the realm of what I had known. It taught me that my ego was a liability, a weakness that led me to be close-minded in my training.

Soon after I started cross-training in other systems and styles. Being open-minded while keeping my “base” in a traditional art helped me develop fully as a technician, while also developing practical self-defense and training methods that at first rounded out, then replaced the methods I had learned previously. In short, by setting my ego aside and being a constant student for the next couple of decades, I was exposed to valuable skills and training that I would have never had the privilege to learn otherwise.

“I Can’t Concentrate On What You’re Teaching Because Your Big Head Is Distracting Me…”

But besides the practical need for being humble enough to realize that there is always someone who can teach you something new (sometimes at the end of a glove or boot), there are other important reasons to set aside your ego inside and outside of the training hall.

The first of which has to do with being a decent person. People with large egos are generally hard to be around and become victims of their own inflated self-image. In the world of reality-based self defense, this is evidenced by all the “tough-guy” and “tough-chick” posturing you see in the marketing materials and websites of schools that offer self defense classes.

I’m sure you know the type. The crossed arms or hands on hips, a hard look in the eyes, firm set mouth, the “thousand-yard-stare” – basically, parroting a ridiculous caricature of either someone they may have learned from, or of what they believe a “real” self-defense instructor should look like.

Well, I’ve trained with some of the toughest martial artists you’d ever meet. Folks that are incredibly skilled in various striking, grappling, and weapons methods. Professional fighters, soldiers, and personal protection specialists. In many cases, what professionals would term “real world operators”.

And guess what? The toughest people I know are some of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. They smile, they laugh, they joke with their students, and they have a general relaxed confidence that puts you at ease in their presence. In short, they are really good people.

Moreover, these folks have no need for posturing; to them, it’s silly to boast about their exploits, skills, and training. They know that it’s typically the sign of false bravado, of shoring up a fragile ego. Beyond stating their credentials in simple and professional terms, you won’t hear them trading “war stories” or talking about how good they are at “x” skill or method. Their skill says it all.

Is Your Pride Worth Your Life?

Here’s another reason why it’s best to learn how to set aside your ego. In a real confrontation, egos can get in the way of calm and reasoned thinking. Sometimes, it’s better to lose than win. I grew up in honor-based cultures, where young men were expected to “save face” (to coin an Asian term) by defending their honor versus all comers.

Well, that’s a child’s game, and there comes a time when adults should leave childish things behind. The sad facts are that people are killed every day in violent confrontations that could have easily been avoided had one or the other party been willing to “lose face”.

As I said, losing can be winning. I’d rather be called a coward, agree wholeheartedly, and then go to the house. The alternatives of hospitalization, jail time, a law suit, or an early funeral are simply not worth it.

Closing Thoughts

I hope that when you come to train with us in group or private classes that you find a noticeable lack of ego here, and instead find an atmosphere that fosters friendship, community, and practicality without posturing. One of the best compliments I could get from a new student is, “The classes are hard, but the people here are so nice!”

See you in training!

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  1. finn on July 25, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Thank you for the thorough discussion on ego in martial arts.

    My instructor has openly stated two things – he has a big ego and he likes to talk. He does not tolerate open discussion during times when there is open discussion and seems confused about the need to have a compatible and friendly instructor-student relationship and a amicable dojo environment.

    Admittedly, I crack jokes occasionally during class, but not interrupting and not disrespectful or loud, nor a put-down to anyone training. Just in fun to lighten the mood while practicing with another student. He does not appreciate this, and I believe it is because it draws attention away from him – even when he’s talking to others.

    I am older than the instructor – nearly twice his age – and I suspect this has something to do with it (from both our perspectives). I have many successes in my life and I’m not trying to prove anything. I respect him and his knowledge, but have some difficulty doing so because of his ego and comments he makes which are not true (“there are no hip stretches” and “I’ve never fought anyone”, only to turn around three weeks later and talk about the fights he’s been in). Makes one wonder.

    I have great rapport with all the other black belt instructors from the other dojos. They don’t carry their egos on their sleeves – they carry themselves with confidence and can openly joke and respect all students – regardless of their rank and training status. Unfortunately, their dojos are too far away for me to switch to.

    It may be a personality conflict between the two of us, yet his way of starting the training relationship with me was to miss the first four of my private lessons, not open the dojo at times when he said it would be open, and quickly walking away from me after my first successful belt test without acknowledgement or congratulations. From my perspective, these were clear signals he wanted me to leave his training. I suspect he still feels this way, yet I’m not the type to throw up my hands, give up, and run away.

    I understand that there are two people involved here and my behavior is also contributing to his reactions to me. I don’t want this to interrupt my training or goals, so I am suppressing my comments in class and simply keeping focused in learning and training, training, training. Your discussion on ego has been a great help in reminding me to stay focused.

    Thank you again.

  2. Mr. Massie on February 24, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Finn, all I can say is that sometimes you have to put up with people you don’t particularly see eye-to-eye with to get something you want. Since you sound like someone with some age and experience behind you, I am sure this is not news to you.

    But, I’d say that if it bothers you that much, it may be time to find another place to train.

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