Do martial arts actually teach humility? I know we talk a lot about being humble in the context of martial arts. We value it. We discuss it at the dojo. We emphasize its importance at belt tests and tournaments. But… is there anything inherent in the training itself that actually teaches humility? Or is humility moreso a byproduct of the training?

Humility is often seen as lowering our view of ourselves, but really it’s more about raising our view of others. It’s about valuing other people and their needs, to the point that we’re willing to step out of the limelight to give others a chance to shine.

Humility doesn’t mean a lack of confidence or a low self-worth. It’s moreso about not having a need to brag about our accomplishments. Not having a need to raise ourselves up in the eyes of others. It’s the ability to keep our egos in check, and not take ourselves so seriously.

So does training in martial arts help us develop this? It seems to have that capacity. I’m not sure that there’s anything unique to martial arts in this regard. Perhaps martial arts are no different than any other athletic pursuit in their capacity to encourage this. Perhaps that’s a normal part of sport in general. Or perhaps the development of humility and encouragement of it is more of about being human than it is about being a martial artist or athlete specifically.

Either way, competing in martial arts can be a great avenue through which to develop humility. There’s nothing like getting your ass handed to you in the ring to put you in your place. But not every martial artist responds to this scenario with humility. Some do, and I have met some incredibly humble martial artists who not only accept failure with grace, but also seem to have no need to brag about their wins. They accept defeat as well as success with the same humble demeanour.

Others, on the other hand, respond to failures and successes with a little too much ego. They seem to have a sense of entitlement, and will gloat over their wins, and pout over their losses. Some may be really good at hiding it and putting on a humble face, but inwardly will feel that sense of arrogance and entitlement.

If humility is a central tenet of martial arts, why is there so much ego? Arrogance is everywhere in martial arts. Go to any tournament, and you’ll see it. Log on to any martial arts forum, and you’ll see ego pop up in every conversation thread.

Online you’ll see a lot of this in these forums. My martial art is the best. My style of karate is the best. I have a higher rank than you. That kicking technique sucks. Only traditional karate is valid. That martial art is useless on the street. Sport karate and WKF is garbage. Point sparring means you’re weak and not a real martial artist. Kata is useless. Performances that are too theatrical at a tournament are worthy of being ridiculed. Our dojo is the best. That dojo is just a daycare. If you can’t do knuckle pushups until you bleed you’re an embarrassment to the discipline. If you haven’t had 10 concussions by the time you reach black belt, you’re not all that tough. Oh, you train at a McDojo, get the f out.

Seriously, if martial arts are actually about humility, why is there such a lack of it in these forums? Humility is about building other people up. But… there is so much ego online, so much building ourselves up and thinking we’re better than others, this superior attitude is bringing everyone down and creating divide among the martial arts community.

Some argue that there is nothing in martial arts that is inherently about building humility, character, enlightenment and the like. And that the only thing separating martial arts from other sports is the focus on fighting. And that just training in martial arts will not help you develop a moral compass.

Others argue that you can’t be humble and competitive at the same time. So if you compete in martial arts, and want to win your divisions, this speaks to a lack of humility. That trying to beat other people is the antithesis of humility. That the only way you can remain humble in a competitive environment is by focusing on bettering yourself rather than trying to be better than others. And yet we still give out medals and trophies, and compare one martial artist to another at these events. 1st, 2nd, 3rd. You don’t win a grandchampionship for being better than you were the year before. You win that title for being better than everyone else.

But even so, martial artists can and do develop humility in such an environment. We learn to accept instruction and correction. We learn to submit to the rules of the dojo and the rules of competition. Training with higher ranks reminds us that many martial artists know more than us, and that we actually know far less than we think. And competing helps us appreciate our limitations, and gives us a chance to encourage and praise others.

Developing that humility does seem to require intention, however, and is likely highly influenced by the character of our peers and leaders.

And of course it would require intention, because let’s be real here: martial arts are about learning how to fight. This is the core of martial arts. And without a system of honour or morals in place, without a constant reminder of the need for humility and compassion and respect, we risk becoming bloodthirsty violent fighters. We are learning techniques that could seriously harm another human being, if not obliterate them. So we need some sort of system that keeps this in check.

We are human, after all. And we do love a good fight, don’t we. I know I do. That sort of controlled violence is incredibly appealing and entertaining. Violence is part of us, it’s part of nature and human nature. And I think that reminder of the value of humility is important exactly because of this. Because we are not necessarily humble. Because we do have the capacity for aggression and violence. Because we are learning fighting arts. And of course, the emphasis is on self-defense in martial arts, but you don’t learn self-defense without also learning how to attack and injure. You can’t learn one without the other.

So perhaps humility is the same. Perhaps we can’t have humility without arrogance and ego. Perhaps we need both. Perhaps we need that tension between the two to test our worth as martial artists. We feel that instinct for violence, that air of superiority, that oh-so-alluring pull of our ego. And yet we know and we remember the value of humility. And we need to work at it constantly to keep it in balance.

So, are martial arts effective at actually teaching humility? They can be. But there’s no guarantee. I think our egos and that visceral pull towards violence will always be a reality. We will likely always feel some degree of struggle between humility and ego. But maybe our worth as martial artists doesn’t require that we obliterate our ego entirely, and exist in some higher state of humility, compassion and enlightenment. Perhaps our worth as martial artists lies in us navigating that very normal human struggle with as much grace as we possibly can.

Episode 10

Show Notes for Episode 10

Do martial arts actually teach humility? We talk a lot about being humble in the context of martial arts. We value it. We discuss it at the dojo. We emphasize its importance at belt tests and tournaments. But… is there anything inherent in the training itself that actually teaches humility? Or is humility moreso a byproduct of the training? Join me in this latest episode as I discuss the tension between humility and ego in martial arts, and in the importance of navigating this tension—as well as the reality of violence—with as much grace as we can.

Thank you for joining me on my martial arts journey, and in the exploration of all the ways we can perform better in life and martial arts.

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You’re reading Humility vs Ego in Martial Arts by Sabrina Bliem, originally posted on The Karate Shrimp. If you’ve enjoyed this post, be sure to follow The Karate Shrimp on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!