Why do people learn martial arts, what do they gain from it?

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This is a very frequent question I get outside of the club. What do I gain from putting all that effort in, especially if I don’t plan to actually use the physical skills I gain? Which is true, I don’t plan to fight anyone outside the dojo, and if I’m in a situation that requires my fighting skills, I will always run first, if possible. This also makes people wonder why I bother to train up these skills at all.

Fighting not the goal, strength is

Most people I train with never plan to fight and quite conscious about not being pulled into one. They are very aware that during a fight things can easily go wrong, and the first things you learn in your martial journey, is that injuries hurt and the recovery is long. Most of the fighter, however, have a heightened awareness of the potential dangers of the outside world. For some, it comes from growing up in a hard neighbourhood, for others, it’s from living in a mentally abusive household, and even if things never go physical, still, the fear stuck in the veins.

This is where most people’s interest in martial art stems from. Their question is not ‘How can I start and win fights, but ‘how can I stand my ground and protect myself if someone else pick me’. Which is quite realistic question, if you’ve ever tried to say NO at any point in your life. Doing so is followed by strong pushes to explain yourself or to change your mind. If you persist (by maintaining your boundaries), a conflict is in order.

People take NO very poorly. So poorly in fact, that when you start refusing favours, free work, free food, free rides etc., at the beginning you’ll instinctively think twice about it: you know that it’ll result in people questioning your values, calling you names, becoming emotional and making you feel you’re a piece of dirt. Due to the high emotions entangled in these situations, you start to feel the need to train up self-defence skill.

What can you do? Keep giving your time and money away or start to train, and gradually build up your skills of self-preservation? Fighting is still not the goal of studying martial arts. Rather, all the skills we gain from martial arts are physically and emotionally defensive, not offensive. We’re building up mental resilience to keep away the exploitation attempts and to able to navigate others’ responses to our boundaries. Mental defence always comes first, that is what keeps away physical conflicts.

The biggest value: Growing out of the box

Your chosen marital art club will eventually be the place where you can dig out your hidden strengths and discover new aspects of your personality, you can build your mental resilience on. That is where I see the biggest value of practicing martial arts and that is what I gained myself: emotional control skills and self-understanding.

In adulthood, the opportunities to develop new skills are few and far between, beyond what your job demands. Most people I know often accept they are good or bad at something based entirely on what other people tell them. Building up mental strength in this environment is very hard, because you have no new input about yourself. However, with training, a lot of my network have discovered that the box that others put them in is not fully correct: they have other skills, other potential and other options for growth that nobody else can see.

When it comes to expanding your physical limits, most sports can help you do so to varying extents. Martial arts are capable of developing your mental skills (emotional control, creativity, sharpness, intuition, etc.) on top of physical skills because martial arts require full involvement of the entire body and mind. You’ll be regularly challenged not just physically but emotionally as well, yet you’ll have to keep it together, so you learn to keep it together. Gradually, you develop control and awareness that follows you to other areas of life. You get comfortable with who you are, develop respect for what you can or cannot do.

Over time, the proud, long spine you walk home from training with will become your regular posture. All because you are doing something you never thought you could do and have developed skills you never thought you’d have.

About the author

M. Leblanc

Trainer, martial artist (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), avid self-improver