The Martial Artist as Hero and Artist: Part 3

Tony Annesi

In Part One, a martial artist discovers what motivates him and whether or not it is ultimately in his own self-interest

In Part Two, the motives of the martial artist are examined as well as healthy self-interest.



I began work for The Academy of Physical and Social Development in 1971 before The Ultimate Athlete (see part two of this essay) was written. Sumner 'Mike' Burg had the idea that you could get kids to feel good about themselves through sports. it does not seem like such a revolutionary concept now, but in 1958 when The academy was founded, it was considered almost absurd. Burg taught kids how to box, how to handle a baseball glove, sometimes even how to introduce themselves. At The Academy, sports were not considered as separate from life, the body was not considered as separate fro the mind. Burg was showing kids how to be their own heroes.

I was shocked, when I first observed an Academy class, to see an instructor purposely missing a floor-hockey puck while in goal so that Sollie Schwartz could get the thrill of victory and avoid the agony of defeat. My conclusion was that this was a method of building false expectations in kids, and that the inevitable results would be a self-image crushed by the real world. However, a week later Sollie scored his own floor-hockey goal, unassisted.

When Melvin Mallarkey pouted because he did not get a chance to even touch the puck, an instructor quietly took Melvin out of the game and privately gave him some pointers on stick-handling. As Melvin returned, the instructor loudly announced his name and fictional number and imitated a stadium in delirious applause: Melvin was here! The instructor managed to steal the puck and feed it to Melvin, but Sollie, working hard for the opposition, batted it away. The instructor checked him lightly into the matted wall and kicked the puck back to Melvin at the same time building up Sollie, What a check that Schwartz can take! Why he's still on his skates. There were no skates, but before anyone realized that, Melvin was dribbling the puck carefully toward the enemy's goal.

Before Sollie could steal it again, the instructor slapped his stick on the "ice" as a cure for Melvin to pass. Melvin passed too sloppily but the instructor managed to deflect it into the goal and with stick in air proclaimed, Score! A deflection of the tricky pass by the great Melvin Mallarkey.The next week Melvin was chosen next to last for his floor-hockey team instead of dead last; a definite psychological victory for Mel, and a point in the column of The Academy.

Each child was treated differently in each class. The instructors knew their small groups very well and knew when to put pressure on a kid and when to help out. Gradually the child did more and more for himself. He felt he could. he began to see his own worth through the instructor and simultaneously began to develop the means to earn his own good opinion of himself. In short, the child, too young to think completely for himself, had considered himself worthless and incapable because others had. Without a choice in the matter, he was learning to be Peter Keating (see part two of this essay). The instructor replaced negative feedback with positive, then gradually weaned the child away from second-hand opinions altogether. "Did I do good today?" the boy would ask. What do you think? the instructor might reply. I think I was okay.

You bet your were, Sollie, Why I remember when you could hardly hold the stick! Instead of comparing him to other boys, the instructor compared Sollie to himself. Soon his ability was so evident that his questions would stop, and if he stayed long enough at The Academy, he would serve as a role model for Melvin to emulate, at least until Melvin formulated his own ideals. My years at The Academy of Physical and Social Development taught me a lot about teaching, about people and also about sports. it taught me that it was possible and desirable to be athletically self-determining, self-competing, and self-motivating like The Ultimate Athlete. I applied these new revelations to my own specialty, martial arts.


A martial art (as opposed to a combat sport) is not really a sport, it is more like play. In sports we do not really "play," we compete; in play, we do not compete but we nevertheless win. On the field, sportsmen and -women compete; at The Academy, the kids and instructors played at sports. On the court, the goal is physical and mental development for the child. Play is fantasy and ideals. Play is romantic literature within reality. In play, the players are their own heroes.

Although a child at play allows himself any number of flights from reality (superpowers, magic potions, dei ex machinae), he always relates play to his ideal self in the real world.

A martial artist plays at his art in a similar way. When facing a training partner, the martial artist convinces himself that this is an enemy although he is realistic enough to know that he must pull his punches and support his foe after throwing him. In kata, he fights imaginary had guys, and in drills, he may wear imaginary loincloths and rescue imaginary buwanas. He is the hero.

The Japanese word for martial artist is bu-do-ka. Do means "the way", bu means "martial"(its ideograph has two radicals which taken separately mean "to stop fighting"), and -ka means "user". Despite this literal translation for the suffix, the word "user" is never used in English to refer to a practitioner. The Japanese "user" seems to suggest that the martial art is like a tool to be used, but note that -ka does not suggest to what purpose budo is to be applied. That, evidently, is up to the user.

In America, the most popular term is "player", which seems to imply that the martial art is played like a sport (competed), played like an fantasy-game, or played like an instrument. I think most American martial artist use "play" to imply sport. I prefer the last two uses and see them as intertwined, for if we play a martial art like an instrument, our object is not to win, but to make beautiful music. For whom? Initially at least, for ourselves. And that is exactly why we play at fantasy-games. For our own enjoyment, for our own gratification.

Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings, a temporary, limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it "spoils the game," robs it of its character and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play has a tendency to be beautiful.... Play casts a spell over us; it is "enchanting," "captivating.' it is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony.
-Johan Huizinga, quoted in The Ultimate Athlete, P. 174-175 (Avon edition, 1977)

The martial artist is an artist-hero who plays for his own enjoyment, and to live for two hours or so in a world of order which supplies him with a view of himself as he can and ought to be.


Just imitating the motions of the art, however, will not initiate one into the heroís hall of fame. There should be no self-deceiving Peter Keatings in the martial arts. it is a true that the martial arts are not real fighting, but they are real! There is real danger present and that is essential. Peter Keatings do not like stark challenges because in such situations there is no one to turn to for advice. And challenges, solo challenges are necessary!

In arguing for the salutary effects of danger, Dr. Sol Roy Rosenthal of the University of Illinois divides the sports world into two categories. There are RE (risk exercise) sports such as skiing and skydiving, and non-RE sports such as tennis and golf. Dr. Rosenthal notes that the same amount of energy invested in the two kinds of sports by the same person is likely to produce quite different results. For example, tennis tends to exhaust, while skiing exhilarates. Moreover, RE sports are likely to encourage a healthy attitude toward winning and losing. While the enjoyment of non-RE sports such as golf or volleyball often is tied up with winning, sports involving risk generally are enjoyed for their own sakes. Dr. no means favors recklessness. it is precisely the tension between high skill and carefully calculated risk that creates exhilaration and health. Dr. Rosenthalís studies have shown that regular participation in RE sports makes women and men more efficient, more creative, and more productive.

Risk, in short, helps produce heroes and artists.

At The Academy, the instructors referred to a child who did not try his best as having a fear of failure. For the child it was easier and safer not to attempt anything or to attempt it half-heartedly so that he would be provided an automatic excuse if he did not do well. Never failing means never trying. It is the non-heroís counterpoint to Morihei Ueshiba's Never losing means never fighting.The difference between Ueshiba's followers and the child with a fear of failure is that well-trained aikido-ka have the ability to succeed in a struggle but choose not to try. They have choice. The child does not try so that he will not show himself to be inept. he does not want a choice. Everyone has this fear of failure, but the artist/hero overcomes it. his reward is his own character.


When people hear that Mary Smith seeks "self-control" through the martial arts, they infer that she wants to control a colossal temper, an assumption which may be only half-correct. She may have trouble controlling her anger, but it is also true that she has trouble controlling her life. She may not be fully conscious of it, but to her self-control means self-determination. Self-determination, in turn, implies (1) self-worth (you control yourself for yourself primarily, although others benefit also), (2) capability (self-determination cannot be just a wish without an action), and (3) judgment (since self-determination cannot be action without purpose.)

In the broad sense, self-control is at the base of all the motivations for studying the arts. Self-control is egoism 2. That lack of self-control which results in the inability to act converts self-defense knowledge into self-sacrifice, converts anger-control into cowardice, makes physical development purposeless, and makes a fun pastime dreary. That lack of self-control which results in excessive action converts self-defense into aggressiveness, makes anger-control meaningless, physical development dangerous, and a fun pastime narcissistic. Inability to act eliminates the measure of heroism. Excessive action makes heroism exhibitionism. Like the charlatan, the exhibitionist seeks to feed his ego second-hand, by someone elseís reaction to him: he does not seek "I," but "I through you," not artistry but ostentation. An artist appreciates an audience, an exhibitionist needs one.

One must always determine and control oneís actions because actions have personal consequences. Despite parents, relative, and governments who try to ease the consequences of actions by taking them on themselves or putting them on others, in the practice of the martial arts, what Mary Smith does is what she gets. A punch is blocked or it is not. A throw dumps the opponent or it does not. To quote Peter Urban's The Karate Dojo, All start at the bottom, Nothing is free, Everyone works. Who profits? The martial artist herself. She earns her own way regardless of subjective judgments, excess politics, and domineering instructors, and, through self-determination, creates her own self-esteem.


What prevents the rational selfishness learned in the martial arts from becoming irrational greed? What stops pride from going over into conceit, and egoism from becoming egotism? Who sets the limits? One might as well ask, who stops people from becoming trespassers, thiefs, child-beaters? Some people may be all those nasty things and more, but why is everyone not so disposed? Is it fear of a higher authority which legitimately may use force? Or is it respect for rights? Is it the zeitgeist which makes people more or less decent? Or is it the written law? I suggest that the martial arts depend on subtle threat of force, guiding philosophy, and the moral development of each individual trainee to regiment self-interest and use of violence.

At The Academy of Physical and Social Development, I used to tell my students that if they did not control themselves, someone would have to do it for them. That was a vague threat, to be sure, but also a statement of reality. If oneís self-determination does not stay within certain parameters, that is, if it interferes with the free action of others, it must and will be controlled. Self-control prevents this external control. In most respectable martial arts schools, a severe lack of self-control in daily life may lead to suspension or dismissal. But that is a seldom realized extreme. Usually the function of the art itself produces self-restraint.

The constant interaction of martial artists during training influences them to appreciate not only their abilities but also their limitations. Each student must take his/her turn on the receiving end of a throw or a striking combination. Each must serve as the "losing" partner. Practitioners therefore begin to appreciate the powers of others as well as their own limitations. There is always someone against whom a wrist lock will not work, or a punch will not score. It is true that experienced students may not find themselves limited by the abilities of most training mates, but even senior students will inevitably find themselves frustrated when working specific techniques against specific partners. Practitioners can thus become proud of their abilities and simultaneously humble. If conceit creeps in, the instructor is there to show, directly or indirectly, that there is always someone better.4

In the dojo, one may be allowed to defeat oneís partner, but not to humiliate him. Self-restraint is expect. Both physical power and self-satisfaction may go only so far. In Moving Zen, C.W. Nicole, training at the JKA hombu (headquarters), is singled out by a senior karate-ka whom he refers to as Bullet-head. Bullet-head overwhelms Nicole in a sparring match, and, reaping vengeance for an earlier match, the Japanese keeps humiliating the foreigner. The instructors and seniors do not jump in to save Nicole directly since that would be a loss of face for both men. Instead, when the match is over, Bullet-head must spar his seniors one at a time until he himself feels humiliation. This is not the method of all martial arts schools, but it is one method which makes the martial artist, in this case, Bullet-head, see things from both sides. Bullet-head was faced with his own limitations, and simultaneously the reality of what he was doing to Nicole. To understand reality (and thus one's limitations) is the first step toward self-determination which, in turn, is the first step toward that artistry which creates a hero of oneself.


The Martial arts have always been linked with moral codes. From the Shaolin monks of China to the Code of the Korean Hwarang to the Japanese Code of Bushido, the martial arts have concerned themselves with right and wrong. Right and wrong for whom? The martial artist answers, "For oneself." Morality implies judgment, and judgment is self-control in the broadest sense. Self-control )self-determination with self-limitation) implies effort — a struggle, sometimes physical, sometimes intellectual, often emotional. It is a struggle to maintain rationality and morality. Therefore self-control is a value. Rand defines valuesimply and accurately as something which one works to gain or keep.

Since a rational man's ambition is unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong process--the higher the values, the harder the struggle--he needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. it is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move farther. Art gives him that fuel; the pleasure of contemplating the objectified reality of one's own sense of life is the pleasure of feeling what it would be like to live in oneís ideal world.
-Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, p. 38 (Signet paperback, 1971)

The martial arts give that pleasure.

1 Leonard, George, The Ultimate Athlete, pp. 246-247 (Avon edition, 1977)
2 Do not confuse healthy egoism with egotism, which is the exact opposite of self-control. Egotism is an exaggerated sense of self-importance (often based on opinions of others), or an attempt to impress oneís supposed value upon others. Egotism ignores reality. Egoism embraces it.
3 Urban, Peter, The Karate Dojo, p. 18 (Tuttle edition, 1967).
4 Ironically, the martial arts are the only sport/physical activity I know in which the instructor, regardless of her/his age or size, is supposed to always be better than the students. Nobody expects a running coach to outsprint her sprinters, nor a football coach to outblock his blockers. Did anyone ever expect Angelo Dundee to outbox Muhammed Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard?
In the martial arts, the instructor is not always better but can always find a way to show the student that he/she is not the best.

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