This is a post that has literally taken me years to finish. It was meant to follow this post, but never happened. Mostly because I couldn't find a frame of reference to start from.
Oddly, the answer came from one of me and my wife's guilty pleasures: Chopped.
For those not in the know, Chopped is a cooking contest show, similar to Iron Chef. More contestants, slightly different format, but the basic idea of "get a bunch of chefs together, give them strange ingredients, make them cook good food, judge them" is the same. For our purposes, the rest doesn't matter.
While there are always new and different contestants, certain archetypes keep reoccurring. The consummate professional. The overconfident old hand. Or the overconfident youthful genius. The asshole. There's lessons to be learned from all of them, but the one I want to focus on here is the seeker of validation.
This contestant is usually young (though sometimes in a second career), almost always untrained or fresh out of training, who enters the contest seeking validation from themselves or others. They often introduce themselves by saying "if I can win this, then I'll know I'm a real/great chef" or "I'm doing this to prove to myself that I have what it takes" or something similar. The notion, it seems, is pretty straightforward: win the contest, you have it what it takes. The unspoken corollary being if you lose, you don't have what it takes.
And yet, I've never seen one of these contestants, upon losing (as they sometimes do), say "well, I guess being a chef isn't for me." Always, they come back saying "well, I know I lost, but I still believe I can be a great chef," or something similar.
Which means, of course, that the competition COULDN'T validate them. If you can lose, and continue on the same path, then the loss doesn't define you as a successful (or failed) chef.
What does this have to do with martial arts?
Years ago, I was told by another trainer that a particular student wanted to compete, because
the student felt that entering a competition would be a way to prove to themselves that they could successfully defend themselves. They believed that by fighting (and winning, presumably), they would then know that they could successfully protect themselves "for real."
The problem, of course, is the same one faced by the Chopped contestant archetype above: the contest can't validate the ability to defend yourself.
[Side note: this is not a "sport vs. street" thing, nor am I saying that sport competitors cannot defend themselves. Please don't go there.]
Consider the problems with this mindset. Let's say the student wins. Great, but perhaps then they realize that their opponent wasn't very good. Or was the same size as them, in contrast to violent assaults, where weight classes don't exist. Or that they competed in a boxing match, but in real fights, you can kick, grapple, use weapons, and so on. So either the student must keep seeking out more and more extreme forms of competition to find validation (a quest ultimately doomed to failure, since there is always a level to which no one wants to compete), or, realizing that they cannot handle some level of extreme competition, must decide that they cannot defend themselves after all.
Or, perhaps they win, and in their victory become overconfident. They believe themselves capable of handling any situation, to the point where they fail to avoid or walk away from a fight that it turns out they cannot win.
Worse, they might lose, in which case, they face the same choice as the Chopped competitor. Either to decide that they CANNOT defend themselves, and accept that complete dis-empowerment, or to say "well, no, I think I can defend myself", in which case, the contest wasn't the thing that was going to prove this to them anyway.
Tony Blauer often reminds us that "there are far more people who successfully defend themselves, every day, with absolutely NO martial arts training than there ever WILL BE trained martial artists who get attacked and successfully defend themselves." If that's the case, why tie competitive success to a belief in your ability to protect yourself?
Again, don't misunderstand me. I'm not anti-competition, nor am I saying that competitors cannot defend themselves. What I am saying is that it's foolish, and possibly dangerous, to surrender your right to protect yourself entirely to the results of a single match, or even a competitive career. The choice to defend yourself (or not) is a lot more complex than that.