Embracing Challenge and Play – Why Hyper-Competitive Training is Slowing Your Progress

Like any industry, martial arts training goes through different phases and fads. One of the more recent of these is the trend towards increased competition and emphasis upon winning within martial arts schools around the world. Driven partially by the increased popularity of MMA and grappling competitions, this movement would have us believe that we need to train like competitive athletes, pushing our bodies to the limit every session and “leaving everything on the mat”.

While this approach may have a lot of appeal to some people, particularly to young guys who have more of the resistance to injury and free time needed to train this way regularly, for the majority of people who want to have a life outside of martial arts, excessive focus on competing inside or outside of the gym is likely to lead to slow learning and injury. Having people to look up to within your martial arts can certainly be a source of inspiration, but trying to treat every training session as chance to emulate their competitive matches is not an effective way to success.

Meaningful training must incorporate a sense of fun and play.

Meaningful training must incorporate a sense of fun and play.

A competitive athlete has chosen to dedicate their life to competitive success at their chosen discipline; they have elected to sacrifice a large amount of their time and lifestyle to performing at the top of their chosen competitive game. Spending 6-8 hours a day training is not unusual, and you only have to look at the training schedule for any Olympic athlete to see the commitment required. For the vast majority of people who want to use martial arts as an awesome way to stay safe, stay fit and build awesome new skills, but still want to have success at work, success with relationships and success with their family, this sort of tunnel vision is simply not practical. The average man or woman training martial arts has at best a few hours spare a week in which to enjoy and develop within their art. Thus, we need to tailor training to these needs, and focus upon the techniques and training methods that will give them the best results with the time that they have.

In addition to this, there is a myth that every session for an athlete is full on, “balls-to-the-wall” competition. While it is certainly true that successful athletes are frequently pushing themselves to the limit, they also have a balance of slower, lighter, technique-focused sessions. The athlete's coach will be making sure they are not over-training or risking an injury which may set them back many months. This is something many “competitive” schools sadly ignore. Yes, there are certainly times for high energy, high resistance sessions (for those whose goals require it), but these need to be part of an intelligent approach to skill development and learning. The problem is not competition in and of itself, but the mistaken belief that everything must be about competing, going hard, and winning at the expense of everyone else.

How do we ensure everyone on the mats progresses, learns and develops?

How do we ensure everyone on the mats progresses, learns and develops?

What then is the best way to approach training for the everyday man or woman that wants to enjoy martial arts as part of a rich and varied life? Within Crazy Monkey, we aim to create a Challenge-Play environment. Challenge-Play is just a shorthand way of saying everyone who trains with us is being challenged to be better today than they were yesterday, and that we're helping people be playful and creative rather than rigid and dogmatic. Within this environment, it is possible for everyone to “win” not because we're handing everyone a plastic gold medal, but because the goal is no longer to be the best person in the room and instead to progress on your own personal martial arts journey.

Embracing this idea that everyone in the room is there to be challenged, rather than competed against, allows for rapid learning and skill development; plus, the injury rate is so low as to be non-existent It also allows everyone to vary their own intensity based on what else is going on in their life and set the level of challenge accordingly. Allowing ourselves to play with our training partners rather than compete against them not only makes for a more dynamic and varied experience, but also helps us stay motivated and have fun. Rather than working with a black and white environment of win or lose, we are free to alter the rules of play and the level of challenge to provide the best learning and development for everyone who trains with us, allowing the martial arts to enrich a persons life rather than dominate it.

All of this is not to say that people should never compete or enter competitions – if this is an important goal for them then it can be approached intelligently and effectively – but that for the vast majority of people a training environment centred upon competition and ego is going to result in a loss of motivation, increased risk of injury, and lack of progress. Through understanding the creation of a Challenge-Play environment for the everyday person looking for a balanced life, we can instead increase their motivation, keep training safe, and speed up their development as well-rounded martial arts.


Look out for Part 2 of this series - Embodied Performance – Why Your Body Is Not Your Enemy - coming soon!