In a number of ways, your fitness journey is a selfish one.  While we all recite the list of external reasons to work out, like living a long and healthy life for our families, you can’t deny a certain degree of narcissism is at play as you sweat and toil to reach a new and improved version of yourself.  That egotism isn’t a bad thing; it can serve as the motivation you need to get you up and moving in the morning, or give you that last bit of momentum required to get the bar back up onto the rack instead of dropping it on your pretty face.  Ego can drive the change that genuinely does offer those external benefits, but it’s important to remember not to relinquish the driver’s seat to your sense of pride, otherwise you may end up doing more harm than good.

When I first started training as a fighter, I walked into the empty hanger that the Commanding General of 29 Palms had seen fit to bestow upon the Marine Corps’ first ever mixed martial arts team. I strode with a sense of confidence I’d gained through balling up my fellow Marines in informal tournaments for a few years, and before that from being one of the tougher kids in my group of friends growing up.  I knew I could fight, and although I was confident that the guys that had been training for longer might have the advantage in skill, in my mind, none of them had my secret weapon: a complete disregard for my own safety.  I figured that lack of self-preservation had earned me all sorts of tough guy accolades thus far, so If I couldn’t out-fight them, I sure as hell could out-tough them.

Those of you who have spent time learning to fight (whether for competition or war) might already recognize the mistake in mindset I carried with me into that hanger.  I was supposed to be going in there to learn, not to fight, but in my mind I didn’t really see the difference.

A lifetime of movie montages and finding myself rooting for the bad guys in the Karate Kid (that kick to the face Daniel used was cheating, guys. What the hell?) had left me with the idea that maybe fighting wasn’t about technique so much as it was about will.  After all, I had already secured my title as neighborhood tough guy as a punk kid without ever taking a single lesson, surely my strength of will would help me reestablish myself in that role as an adult, right?  As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I wasn’t all that bright in my youth.

The rules at the beginning clearly stated, “No kicks to the face,” you cheater.

When you spar during training, the intent isn’t to win the fight–it’s to put the techniques you’ve learned into low-stakes practical application.  When submission wrestling, for instance, a good training match might involve each opponent tapping out a dozen times as you each find your way through a chess game of submission attempts and counters.  When boxing, you might find yourself eating a fair number of punches, but they shouldn’t leave you unconscious because, just like in grappling, the intent is to find and fix holes in your game, not end the Cold War with your dukes like Rocky did with Ivan Drago.

By refusing to submit during my first day or two on the mats, I wasn’t proving my mettle as a fighter, I was hindering both my partner’s and my own progress.  I was looking for nothing but victory, so I refused to experiment with techniques I wasn’t adept at.  Likewise, if I don’t extend beyond a handful of tried and true techniques, my partner is limited in what he can train to defend against.  My ego kept me in my comfort zone, and although it still hurt a lot more than a nap on the couch, I was getting little more out of my time on the mats in terms of improving my game.

I needed my overblown ego to give me the confidence I needed to walk through those oversized hanger doors and swap punches with bigger, better fighters. However, once I was there, I needed it to shut its mouth and let me play the role of new guy with a lot to learn.  Eventually, of course, I found my way there, but it was only after wasting a fair amount of time.

Oddly, I was more comfortable cuddling with strangers than I was with admitting I might not be the toughest guy around.

In the gym, your ego can get you into similar types of trouble.  If you’re too caught up in the numbers game, you’ll begin sacrificing form for weight just to muddle through a lift and brag about your new PR.  Your ego will convince you that the numbers are the point, when it’s what they represent that actually matters.