How to be a martial artist: 3 things we learned from GSP this year

“Do you want to be a fighter?”

That’s the line UFC bossman Dana White delivered in his now infamous speech way back in The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) season one. It was an enlightening moment. One, because it set the tough-as-nails tone TUF would use as its brand for the next five years and beyond, and two, because even though White was hamming it up, he wasn’t wrong. The UFC was and is a place for fighters. MMA isn’t for everyone.

Because of that truism, though, MMA is often looked at as a farm (slaughterhouse?) full of meat heads. In some ways, that’s accurate — of the fans as much as the athletes. But rising above the bullies and the villains is always a crop of fighters (and intelligent fans) that turn the MMA stereotype on its head and complicate the picture. There’s Rich Franklin, the role model. Dan Hardy, the artist. Lyoto Machida, the traditionalist. Kenny Florian, the humble student. Frankie Edgar, the strategist. The list can and does go on.

Above them all, though, is Georges St. Pierre. I’ve always had respect for GSP as an athlete and a champion, but seeing him as coach on this season’s TUF has been an educational experience that has raised my esteem even higher. And my regard for him, and the lessons he taught us throughout the season, will hold up regardless of whether he wins or loses tonight against his rival, Josh Koshcheck.


After the jump, we’ll look at just some of the things we learned:

1) Learn from everyone. (Even that guy.)

GSP made it clear from the outset that his primary role wasn’t being Head Coach to the team. He was their training partner. Kind of cheesy, sure, but as things played out you could see the wisdom in this attitude.

GSP doesn’t have a home base. He travels and trains with different camps, and in that vein, he brought in a wide array of coaches from around the world to train with his team. They included famous boxing coach Freddie Roach, but also town drunk Jean-Charles Skarbowsky, a kickboxer nobody had heard of. The lesson? Just because Skarbowsky lives a lifestyle GSP would never want for himself doesn’t mean GSP can’t learn something from him. Learn from everyone and get out of your comfort zone. Surround yourself with the right team, of your own choosing. Choose your friends, don’t let your friends choose you.

2) There is always someone better. (But so what?)

GSP’s motivational speech to Michael Johnson before he faced Nam Phan was probably the worst ever. He told him that Phan was better on his feet. Better on the ground. Had more experience. But still, he said — Johnson would win. And he did.

It’s the same mentality Cody McKenzie had before facing a fighter on Koscheck’s team he admitted was all-around more skilled. “So what are you bringing to the table?” a house mate asked, bewildered by McKenzie’s seeming lack of confidence. “I’m going to win,” smiled McKenzie. And he did.

GSP and his team did something this season we’ve never seen before: they worked the psychological aspect of the sport. Visualization. Mental preparation. Who are you and what’s inside of you? GSP foregrounded that the battle against your self is more important than the battle against your opponent.

3) Fear is natural. (It’s just no big deal.)

You would think a fighter of GSP’s pedigree would be fearless. But he’s admitted to being intimidated by Matt Hughes during their first bout. He’s also stated that he was scared heading into the second round of his first fight with BJ Penn. Is this just false humility?

On this season’s “Disrespectful” episode we got to see two rare moments of honesty: both Spencer Paige (Team GSP) and Nam Phan (Team Koscheck) said in their pre-fight interviews that they experienced great fear every time they headed for the cage.

Overcoming fear is a popular thread through many martial arts. Many practitioners take this to mean they must act intimidating, or do reckless things. They must appear to be fearless. This is a mistake. Overcoming fear doesn’t mean ignoring or masking it; it means confronting yourself honestly and not shying away from the aspects of your mind that embarrass you or block you from achieving your goals. Honesty is the only way you can begin to deal with the obstacles in your head.

Check this episode of The Aftermath for a very enlightening sit-down interview with GSP, Phan and Paige. Rather than the usual bravado and behind-scenes gossiping, this recap episode delves into the mentality of a martial artist, and the psychology and philosophy behind living a martial arts lifestyle.

“Do you want to be a fighter?” White asked five years ago. This season we learned that the greater question is, “Do you want to be a martial artist?”