Practicing Wisdom In Combat Sports

What is wisdom? The pessimist in us might say that online culture has reduced wisdom to lists of inspirational quotes or #deepthoughts on social media. To the combat sports community, however, wisdom remains a meaningful, and, as we will see, a useful concept.

Wisdom in Modern Martial Arts

At the turn of the 20th century, martial arts pioneer Kanō Jigorō established “the cultivation of wisdom” as one of the pillars of judo. While the other pillars would account for physical fitness and competitive prowess, the cultivation of wisdom would aim to build a moral conduct among judo practitioners that was both effortless for the practitioner and beneficial to society. Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, also invoked the concept of wisdom in his own teachings, but, in his case, applied wisdom directly to the competitive arena, saying:

“Those who are skilled in combat do not become angry.  Those who are skilled at winning do not become afraid. Thus the wise win before the fight and the ignorant fight to win.”

Despite their different contexts, Jigorō and Ueshiba both characterize wisdom as:

  1. Deep intuition, or a sense of knowing.
  2. Something that can be developed through practice and experience.

This understanding of wisdom is nearly identical to that espoused by many professionals in behavioral psychology. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) trainer Randy Wolbert, for example, describes wisdom as the ability “to go deep within and intuitively know what the most effective course of action is to pursue.” By further exploring wisdom in this light, we will learn how combat sports athletes can cultivate their own wisdom and win before the fight.

Skill: The Wise Mind

Just as wisdom is a pillar to judo, the emotional and reasonable minds are pillars to cultivating the wise mind. Together, they make up our states of mind, and they present us with one of the most recognizable Venn diagrams in all of psychotherapy:

Source: Therapist Aid Worksheet

Emotional Mind

Emotions are important. They motivate us for action, they send us signals to keep us safe, and they even help us to communicate with others. However, to be in the emotional mind means our emotions are in control, and although this is not always a bad thing, it does leave us vulnerable to the consequences of fast reactions to intense feelings.

One potential example of the emotional mind’s “takeover” is Khabib vs. McGregor at UFC 229. In this case, Khabib took offense to words from McGregor’s team leading up to the fight, so when fight night came and Khabib ended the fight victorious, a combination of excitement for the win and lingering disdain for McGregor’s team led to Khabib climbing over the cage to pursue an additional round of fighting with McGregor’s teammate, Dillon Danis.

Later, during the post-fight interview, Khabib began by apologizing, saying, “this is not my best side” and, in a recent interview, acknowledged that “it was an emotional moment for me.” The point here is not to impose a judgement nor defend Khabib’s actions, as Khabib is certainly not the only athlete to take the fight outside of the arena, but instead to illustrate the emotional mind’s potential.

Reasonable Mind

The reasonable mind also has its place in our lives. It helps us to analyze the world around us and to use logic to make decisions. It enables us to plan ahead, to follow directions, and to balance our checkbooks. However, like the emotional mind, the reasonable mind poses some risks when it’s in total control.

When the reasonable mind takes over, we risk seeming detached or cold in situations where our emotional sensibilities could have led us to help others, to rejoice with loved ones, or to listen with care as a friend vents about their day.

The Wise Mind

We can’t emote our way through our most difficult problems, and we can’t reason our way around the emotions we feel. That’s why we all rely on the wise mind, whether we realize it or not. In the wise mind, we confront the following questions before we make our decisions:

  1. Is what you are going to do something that is in your long-term best interest?
  2. Is it something that you can emotionally buy into? (McKay, 2007)

Although we cannot know for certain when someone is speaking from their wise mind, a 38-year-old Mike Tyson potentially confronted these questions during a post-fight press conference in 2005:

In this clip, Tyson takes questions from the media after forfeiting, and ultimately retiring, between rounds. His opponent, Kevin McBride, had pushed Tyson to the ropes all night and, at the end of the sixth round, had knocked Tyson down to the mat. Tyson explains that his decision followed the reality of his physical limits as well as the shifting priorities that come with a hall of fame career:

“It was a good fight, I just don’t have this in my gut anymore. It’s hard for me to fight now. You have to understand that I had nothing starting off. Now I have wealthy children who have a great life. It’s just very difficult to fight when you’re in that kind of situation.”

He also uses sound logic to shoot down any suggestion of future bouts or rematches, saying:

“Listen, I’m not trying to take anything away from Kevin McBride. We know his record and we know his credentials. And if I can’t beat him, then I can’t beat Junior Jones.”

At the same time, Tyson’s demeanor and choice of words indicate that he’s at peace with the decision he has made. Forfeiting alone does not make this wise on Tyson’s part, but the combination of rational analysis and emotional honesty hint that Tyson was coming from a place of personal wisdom. And sure enough, Tyson has not stepped back into an officially sanctioned bout to this day.  

Practice This Skill

Whether you are engaging the wise mind for your personal life or for your next fight, you have the tools to cultivate or preserve your own intuitive wisdom. The worksheets below offer a starting point for you to reflect on your states of mind and to grow the wisdom you want to experience.  

Thoughts Are Not Facts Worksheet

Emotion vs. Reason Worksheet

The Wise Mind Worksheet

Wise Mind Personal Log


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