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.

I tend to think of lifting, in particular, like working on an old hot rod.  I can load plates on to brag about digits, but announcing horsepower figures before a race doesn’t win you shit.  What matters is being able to perform.  That’s what the workout is about.  The numbers are just supposed to give you a means by which to measure your progress.

Ego can rear its ugly head in other dangerous ways too.  If you haven’t been in a gym for a while, you probably become a bit self-conscious as you walk in the door.

“What the hell am I wearing?”

“I don’t know how to use that machine…”

“God, I’m the smallest/skinniest/fattest person in here!”

“Maybe this just isn’t for me…”

When your brain starts firing those self-defeating barbs at you, or begins offering up excuses as to why you’re better off just going home, it’s your ego struggling to remain intact.  A bruised ego, or even your fear of bruising it, can leave you feeling like you’d rather just give up and stay unhappy than risk a few fleeting moments of embarrassment in front of a crowd of strangers that, I assure you, don’t care what you’re doing.  We all fancy ourselves the protagonist in the great movie we call life, but the guy doing curls in front of the mirror without breaking eye contact with himself really doesn’t care about how silly you look on the leg press machine… and even if he does, who cares what that guy thinks?

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It’s important to stoke your ego, encourage it, and help it develop in healthy ways (a lot like a muscle group) because, like it or not, it’s intrinsically tied to your sense of self-worth.  An athlete’s ego is like having a pit bull.  Some people think having one at all makes you a bad guy, and it certainly has the ability to do some damage, but if you treat it right and spend time building a healthy relationship with it, it’s incredibly rewarding (and might even help you kick the hell out of a home invader).

My ego and I remain at odds with one another all the time.  Depending on when you catch me, I either feel like a competent and capable writer… or an utter charlatan.  Sometimes I feel like I’m tough and capable of handling myself in a fight… others I find myself fearful of the bumps in the night I hear just outside my front door.  My ego believes I can handle anything, the rest of me remembers long nights in hospital beds when I’ve let my ego get me in over my head.

The hat was supposed to cheer me up…

Don’t let your sense of manliness bar you from doing something that might help–maybe it’s yoga, Pilates or switching to light beer.  Don’t let your femininity stop you from grabbing some weights and working on those shoulders.  Your ego might get you into the gym, but it’s your mind and heart that’ll make it worth it.  I know a number of Special Operations bad asses that do yoga, and some very pretty young women that bang weights around like Olympic power lifters–all because they didn’t let their ego decide what was best for them and their goals.

Let your ego drive you in positive directions, but like that pit bull, teach it not to pull you by the leash.  As long as you’re doing what you need to do to improve yourself, it doesn’t matter what other people think and it doesn’t matter if your ego is scared to let you leave your comfort zone.

But if I catch you wearing those ridiculous toe shoes, I’m still going to make fun of you.  Sorry.  Gotta let the dog off the leash every once in a while.


Karate Kid images courtesy of Columbia Pictures, all other images provided by the author