It is not often that my professional research interests intersect with my obsession with the grappling arts. But recently I have been thinking about an important overlap between some research I have been conducting during the past two years on the psychology of humility and some habits of mind that one finds among practitioners of the gentle art. To get my present investigation off of the ground, I want to introduce a distinction between two antonymous traits—hubris and humility. First up is hubris—which involves excessive pride or self-confidence. People who exhibit hubris often also exhibit other related traits such as arrogance, conceit, self-importance, and egotism. This constellation of negative traits is commonly found in grapplers who have an inflated sense of their own skills, accomplishments, and self-worth. Not only can hubris be an impediment to progress—since one thinks one is better than one actually is—but it also leads to a “me first” mindset that makes it less likely that one will be a good training partner and team member.
A paradigm act of hubris on the mats is what happens when a lower belt really goes after upper belts who are already taking it easy for educational purposes. Not appreciating their proper place in the hierarchy of skill, grapplers in the throes of hubris roll harder than they should—which can serve to irritate and frustrate training partners who have more experience and skill. One minute, you let someone have back control and suddenly they’re going after a submission like it was a match for the world title rather than a practice round at the gym. It’s one thing to roll hard with upper belts but it’s another thing to roll with hubris—that is, lacking self-awareness concerning one’s own limitations and underestimating or undervaluing the skills of those who have put much more time into mastering the art.
Rolling with hubris is rolling without the right perspective or attitude. It is to place yourself at the center of the universe. It is to try to “score points” by “showing up” an upper belt rather than rolling to have fun, learn, and help others improve. Rather than respecting your training partners and fostering their growth and development, rolling with hubris breeds frustration and even resentment. Nothing is more frustrating than the lower belt who constantly brags about how he “almost” caught an upper belt, how he kept from getting passed, etc. The response to those who roll with hubris is to bring them down a notch—that is, to humble them in the hopes it will give them the self-awareness and perspective they are sorely needing.
In this sense, humbling someone is a way of leading them from the path of hubris to the path of humility. On the view of humility I have been developing and defending with my collaborators, to be humble is to have two chief traits: (a) low self-focus, and (b) high other-focus. Humble individuals are “decentered”—they focus less on themselves while simultaneously focusing more on others. Being humble doesn’t require one to have a low-minded attitude towards oneself. Instead, it merely requires that one appreciates one’s place in the bigger picture.
It should be obvious that humility is a great mindset for anyone who is interested in being a good student of the grappling arts. Not only does being humble make one a better student, but it makes one a much better training partner as well. A humble training partner is someone who is going to roll with self-awareness and a keen appreciation for how her skills and techniques stack up in relation to others. To roll with humility is to know when it’s appropriate to take it easier on lower belts and when it’s appropriate to turn it up a notch against upper belts. Being humble requires one to be mindful of issues that are often ignored by those who roll with hubris. So, whereas the latter generates frustration and resentment, the former fosters trust and respect. I think that if more people approached their training with humility rather than hubris, those new to the art would be more inclined to stick around since the environment would be both safer and more welcoming.
So, keep this in mind the next time you find yourself going after the upper belts who have often dedicated a lot of their time to helping you improve. Grappling is bigger than you. Know your place within the hierarchy of skill and technique and appreciate how much you have yet to learn. Above all, respect yourself and your partners and remember that while humility is a central grappling virtue, hubris is one of the worst vices for those interested in making progress on their own grappling journey.