“I shouldn’t do this. He’ll be embarrassed if I win. He worked so hard, and he’s struggling so much. Who am I to take that away from him? And…what will he think of me once he loses?
In my moment of doubt, he cranks my neck to the side and sinks in his fingers to choke me unconscious. You aren’t supposed to feel bad for your opponent in submission grappling, or any kind of serious competition. But I did. And it ruined everything for everyone involved.
The Consequences of Being Too Nice
Imagine you’re fighting your heart out in the activity you care about most. You’re focused, intense, and feel you’re an inch from victory. In a final climactic moment, you give everything you have and pull out the win. You’re elated, and you swell with pride looking at how far you’ve come.
After it’s over, you get a chance to speak to your opponent, and he’s happy for you? He says, “Great job friend. I could tell how badly you wanted this, so I didn’t want to take it away from you. I let up a bit at the end. You deserve it more than I do. Congratulations.”
I don’t know about you, but if my opponent said that, I would feel more disrespected, robbed, and humiliated than if he spat in my face.
Letting someone win? What could be more insulting?
The Psychological Component
Before I understood what my problem was, I called it “hyper-compassion.” I was more concerned with the other person’s wellbeing than I was with playing the game. But it turns out psychologists have created a term for my issue.
It’s called over responsibility. You take ownership of things and events that could not possibly be your fault. In the case of a competitor, it’s responsibility for their opponent’s emotional wellbeing. According to psychologist Ellen Hendriksen:
Owning what’s yours — mistakes and blunders included — is a sign of maturity, but owning everybody else’s mistakes and blunders, not to mention tasks, duties, and emotions, is a sign of over-responsibility.
It’s your fault if someone gets angry about losing. And, as if you were their mother, it’s your job to make sure they don’t feel bad about themselves.
Think about how this sounds:
I’m sorry I beat you fair and square.
I have no right to make you feel like a failure. I don’t want to make you feel bad.
This is what I had to learn:
You have every right to win, and if they can’t beat you, that isn’t your problem. What they think of you after the fight couldn’t be less of a factor. If you respect them, you show up to beat them.
Let Them Stand on Their Own, and Go for the Win
Give them the very best you have.
In martial arts, there’s a saying that gets passed around. They say, “iron sharpens iron.” When you give your best, you’re improving your opponent. You’re revealing their gaps and bad habits. And most importantly:
You’re giving them the opportunity the rise to the occasion.
If you coddle people by letting them win, you rob them of the opportunity to improve. Your willingness to compete is beneficial for everyone. And your willingness to challenge others brings out the best in them. This is why you see martial artists bowing, hugging, and thanking each other for a good fight.
This applies to personal relationships, too. Telling people the harsh truth will hurt them, but what’s the alternative? Sweet lies? I still have enormous trouble giving people tough love, but I know it can save a person from themselves. People have done it for me. I just need to do it for them.
This is a hard thing to embrace when you feel you have to care for the emotions of everyone around you. What I do is try to stay focused on my own needs and explore the crazy idea that my winning contributes something to the world. You deserve victories, too.
Now, in whatever way you please, go kick somebody’s ass. They might end up thanking you for it.