In the 1888 book Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “What does not kill me makes me stronger”. This is a frequent sentiment seen among athletes, especially in the contact and combat sports, even more so among martial artists. I’ve reflected on it a bunch recently as I’ve listened to old tales of martial arts ‘back in the day’.
My primary style at the moment is Kajukenbo, a system born out of the post-World War II slums of Hawai’i. It was a hardcore style in the truest sense, composed by black belts from various systems, in an attempt to create a truly universal and effective fighting style that would protect them and their students from the ravages of gang and racial violence. Legends abound about the training at this time. The black belt test involved being kidnapped from your home in the middle of the night and dropped off in the jungles. Or maybe the test started at dusk and you had to survive the beatings until dawn. Al Dacascos – one of the heads of the style and the creator of its primary off-shoot, Wun Hop Kuen Do – talked about the day’s training not being done until there was blood on the mat.
Good stuff, right? Hardcore. Tough training makes one tough. It makes sense. This is martial arts. This is fighting. This is violence. You must be prepared for the viciousness of a true fight to be able to reliably survive it. Bruce Lee once said ‘the best preparation for an event is the event itself’, right? So what better preparation for a fight than a fight itself? If you get your ass kicked, and survive, than you’ll come back stronger? Right?
Well, funny thing…
Concussions are mentioned in medical texts going back as far as ancient Greece. They appeared in various forms in different learned cultures until the 17th Century. For reasons too complicated to go into, it became believed that concussions did not do physical damage and therefore, were temporary in nature. In fact, the term ‘concussion’ was meant to describe the unconscious state, which further drove medical thinking away from any lasting effects.
Today, concussions are a phantom in the medical world. Something that is hard to detect until well after the fact. Many in the sports world follow and have followed the NFL’s struggle with CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), which is essentially repeated concussions having a cumulative effect. We’ve seen similar studies done in boxing, which obviously has some correlation with martial arts.
Boxer Max Baer reputedly killed a man in the ring. That man, Ernie Schaaf, didn’t actually die before Baer. The cranial trauma he received was severe. He complained about headaches and other pains for almost half a year when, in February 1933, he died in the ring after taking a light jab from another fighter, Primo Carnera. The death was attributed to the beating Baer had given him, a beating he most surely ‘survived’.
Bo Jackson, possibly the greatest athlete of the last century (or ever), was stolen from the spotlight because of a hip injury. During a 1991 playoff game, he claimed he popped his hip out of joint and reset it himself, damaging the blood vessels. While the subsequent medical diagnosis did not match his assessment, he was eventually found to have avascular necrosis, meaning the blood supply to his hip joint was impeded. Almost all the cartilage and upper bone was rotting away. But he didn’t just survive that injury, he finished the game!
There is a confirmation bias that surrounds the martial arts, and athletics in general. I don’t know whether this is flawed logic or the toxicity of masculinity or what, but regardless of the source, ‘the methods of the victor must work because they were used by the victor’ is a dangerous and hazardous thinking. ‘Walk it off’. ‘Get over it’. ‘I’ve had worse’. These are challenges and accusations that are used to undermine the validity and reality of injury.
Many would love to laud the brutality of great men of violence. We look at the legend of the Spartans and the Mongols (among others) and at how harsh and brutal they were. ‘You fought from Day One and learned to survive, or you didn’t survive’. What many people seem to gloss over is the ‘or you didn’t survive’ part of that legend. It’s easy to dismiss the brutal death of so many when they’re just faceless denizens of a story, but it’s a whole other matter when you are talking about real people in the here and now.
It is short-sighted to tell a person that because they are still conscious, still drawing breath, they survived. In athletics, we use the term overtraining when a person’s body can physically complete the movements in question, but their endocrine system cannot cope with the stress placed upon them. The hormone system is overwhelmed, even if the muscular system can endure. And yet, there are some who would say that if you can do the work and complete the reps, you’re good to go.
“What does not kill me makes me stronger”. Does it?
Much of the body’s reactions to training are thought to be born of abuse. Lift a heavy weight and you do microdamage to the muscle fibers. They grow back stronger, capable of lifting more…right? Well, actually, maybe not. It may have more to do with the neuromuscular controls that your body learns. Or it may be more due to the release of certain hormones that trigger muscular hypertrophy. I don’t know that the microtrauma theory has been disproven but I do know it has been unsubstantiated more than once.
The same is true for flexibility. You stretch a muscle and it lengthens…except surgeons have moved unconscious patient’s joints far beyond what anyone would believe capable with no injury or damage what so ever. Pain thresholds often have less to do with deadening nerves and toughening skin and more about exposing the body to stimulus, allowing it to learn just how much force it can be exposed to before actual damage is done.
This would all suggest that maybe it isn’t what doesn’t kill you that makes you stronger, but what you experience? Or maybe what you observe? Physical abilities seem like they might be based more on improved communication within the body than some kind of external overload that is endured.
Look, I’ve been in fights (although never a bar fight, in case anyone is asking). They are brutal and unpleasant experiences that absolutely any person would and should avoid. Training for them demands respect. Respect for their seriousness, and for the harm that they will do. And if it’s a real fight – and not just two idiots horsing around aggressively – then harm will be done to one if not both participants.
You don’t just ‘walk off’ a broken bone. You break a femur and you may never walk properly again. Snap somebody’s knee and they will limp for the rest of their days, assuming they can walk at all. We thankfully have some greater respect for concussions these days, but they still are not treated with the seriousness they deserve. A concussion isn’t a trivial injury to be respected; it is brain trauma. Given that just about the entire human body is essentially a support system just for the brain, damage to it cannot be understated. And yet, boxing is a sport that persists.
It is a form of nostalgia for us to look to the brutality of ancient training and assume it is optimal. That said training may have produced phenomenal fighters and warriors is, likewise, nostalgia and also confirmation bias. Even if the training was instrumental in producing these warriors (which is not as certain as one might think), how many others were broken in the process? Can we consider a methodology successful if it works for only one in a hundred? One in a thousand?
Years upon years ago, when I first started training in the martial arts, I engaged in a training known as maka wara. It’s the toughening of the hands and body by striking increasingly harder and more rigid surfaces (bare wood, brick, etc). I trained relentlessly, pounding my knuckles, hands, fingers, elbows, knees, feet, etc, against trees and telephone poles. At least once a day did I go through all the striking surfaces of my body.
Then I noticed my typing speed was deteriorating. I noticed that when I held my girlfriend’s hand, I couldn’t feel all the little details like I could before. So I gave up the practice. And today, my knuckles lack the callouses of many of my peers. And yet my punches work just fine.
“What does not kill me makes me stronger”. Perhaps the time has come to broaden our definition of ‘does not kill me’. You may not die in the here and now, but part of you may. The death you think you avoided may not be immediate, but its inevitability may be set in stone thanks to an injury that seems trivial in the moment.