Welcome to Fighting Words; thoughts and theories on martial arts in the modern world. In today’s post I’ll be writing about the often commonly held assumption that martial arts makes people more aggressive. Why do people feel this way and what can we do to help resolve this issue?
This may be anecdotal, but I’m sure many of you will have come across this if you’ve ever told someone that you do martial arts. You will proudly say what style you do and they – without any experience of the subject – may ask you something along the lines of “but doesn’t that make you violent?” Now, in the past I’ve been quick to point out that being aggressive in your workouts doesn’t help you and can often lead to you losing focus and possibly even injuring yourself from unnecessary tension; after all, these points are true and quite obvious when you think about it. The problem I’ve had though is that sometimes I’m perhaps a bit too quick off the mark to say these things and being as I’ve rolled out this answer so many times I may even come across as a bit angry about it. Smart thinking!
But let’s take a moment to think about why this question pops up every now and then, and what the best way is to confront it while not coming across as either too aggressive, or too smug and condescending. After all, if someone is prepared to talk to you about martial arts, maybe they’re interested in joining your class – this could be the conversation that starts their lifetime interest in the fighting arts and you don’t want to put them off by confirming their fears that we’re all a bunch of nutters spending our free time punching each other in the face.
So let’s start from the beginning and break down why this attitude is prevalent in the first place, before thinking about how best to overcome this mentality in the best way possible. To start with, people associate martial arts with violence, which is a given and understandably so. We can’t deny that there are a lot of physical and mental challenges ahead for any practitioner and some of those challenges do involve hitting – or getting hit by – other people, and we shouldn’t try to deny it. Part of the appeal of Muay Thai, Krav Maga and other styles is that these skills can be transferred into self defence situations, so there is an obvious link to aggression and violence, but often from the side of the attacker and not the one who is only using their training for defence.
Let’s break this down further; we’re often told to remain calm under pressure or to not lose our heads. In stressful scenarios, a cool and logical approach is favored over an instant emotionally charged reaction so when we’re faced with another individual’s anger, the best response is to not rush in and meet their energy with the same. This works in the office, at home and yes, both in the training hall and on the street which shows that these skills are useful in our day to day lives as well. If the person that you’ve talking to isn’t planning on having a violent night out on the town any time soon then they’ll still find that they’re learning something that can be suitable to their own experiences. So we’ve got the link to anger covered and we can say that others might be in a rage but not us.
Next up is the idea that continual repetition of punches, kicks and holds will make us somehow want to keep doing those same punches, kicks and holds whether we’re in a safe, controlled environment or not. This is the bit that is the most flawed in its reasoning; if you’ve just done a grueling two hour workout and potentially took some knocks during that time, I’m sure that the last thing that you want to do is go out and find someone else, anyone else, to continue that workout. In a time where professional athletes are very open about their strict dietary requirements and daily routines, even the average person with no interest in martial arts should be able to figure out that we all need to rest and recover after a session and that most of us are simply too tired to think about doing much else afterwards. Anyone familiar with the endorphin rush from running or other such sports will recognise that you would often be leaving the training hall feeling knackered but great and will typically be in a positive, upbeat mood that encourages friendly, open behaviour over anything else.
This boils down to a mindset that we need to adjust, and there’s potentially an easy way to do this. Whenever we refer to practitioners of martial arts, we use the term “fighter” as a default descriptor. This in itself brings in questions of authenticity and gatekeeping; there’s countless forum threads across the internet debating what level of skill and involvement is required for someone to move from a beginner to a fighter – one prime example is on Ellie Goulding’s Ask Me Anything Reddit page. The singer-songwriter included the term “kickboxer” in her opening statement, which led to all kinds of comments about whether or not she is a kickboxer, or merely someone who just does kickboxing. And if you’re slightly confused about what the difference is, then so were many other people (I believe the arbitrary rule on it was that you could only refer to yourself as a kickboxer if you fought professionally, anyone else merely does kickboxing).
So let’s instead use the term “athlete”, or something that emphasises the fact what we’re doing is first and foremost a sport or hobby with potential competitive elements. It plays down the machismo end of things and helps project an inviting, open attitude; after all, there’s plenty of people interested in sports in general, far more than there are martial arts fans. And the more people there are practicing what we love, the more we can spread the word about what training is really like, and why it’s not just fighting but something so much more.
That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Fighting Words and will join me for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world again. So until then, be like water, and stay safe.