In My Dojo, Cheaters And Failures Are Welcome

Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it. We learn only from failure. ~Kenneth E. Boulding

Want to become an admired and successful martial artist? It’s easy: just find a style and dojo where the rules favor your natural traits and talents, and insist that everyone follows the rules.

Do you have long legs and flexible hips? Try sport Taekwondo.
Overweight? Take up Tai Chi or knife fighting.
Prefer horizontal combat? Enroll in a BJJ class.

If this sounds like ridiculous advice, it is because you expect more than comfort and fraternity from your martial art. You want a practice that enables you to grow, and to realize your latent potential. Martial arts are supremely useful for this purpose because, at their most basic level, they have no rules; with no impermissible attacks, no fault is too small to remain uncorrected.

How to Become a Failure

Immanent success in martial arts is always a simple matter of lowering your standards. Failure, in contrast, becomes increasingly difficult to achieve. And as the opportunity for failure decreases, the rate of learning slows.

Martial arts skill vs. practice

Progress in martial arts tends to follow a logarithmic curve. When a ten-year veteran of the arts possesses only three years worth of skill, it is probably because they long ago exhausted their opportunities to fail.

There are many ways for a student to increase their failure rate. The most obvious is to stop trying very hard. Unfortunately, artificial and self-inflicted failures are not very instructive. If you skip class too often, for example, then you will only “learn” that you skipped class too often (and you already knew that).

Working out with the best available partners is a given. It may not be enough. The greater Seattle area contains nearly one hundred different dojos, but residents of most cities and towns have fewer and less impressive options. This is why I recommend cheating.

Cheaters Welcome

Although martial arts themselves have no rules, the training methods invariably do. The rules shape what would otherwise be an overwhelming task into manageable pieces. Since the goal of study is learning, not winning, breaking these rules in order to score a point is counterproductive.

Breaking the rules to keep the game going is another matter. Losing is valuable experience, but giving up is not.

Consider the following scenario. Arnold and Sylvester are practicing a fixed-step Taiji pushing hands drill. Each is working towards the goal of uprooting their partner, thereby restricting his ability to attack. After a few moments of searching, Arnold breaks his opponent’s defense and prepares to push him away.

Both players know that Sylvester is on the verge of losing this round. Three possible responses:

  1. Arnold stops early, without uprooting Sylvester. He might think that victory is a foregone conclusion, or he might just consider this to be gracious behavior.
  2. Arnold pushes Sylvester to the limit of his stance, and continues to push farther. Sylvester pops up and out. He concedes the loss.
  3. Arnold pushes Sylvester to the limit of his stance, and continues to push. Sylvester takes a quick step to the side, attains the central position and pushes Arnold out.

The first response is the worst, hopefully for obvious reasons. Deception is fundamental in martial arts. Before declaring victory, it is prudent to verify that you have actually won, that you are neither mistaken nor being led into a trap.

The second response is typical. It also represents a missed opportunity.

In the third response, Sylvester is technically cheating, by taking a step during a fixed-step routine. However, this “cheating” is actually beneficial to both parties, as it grants both a second opportunity to fail, and to learn from that failure.

The specific scenario presented above is specific to Taiji, but the principle applies to all martial arts. Every dojo concerned with practical applications should allow this kind of cheating, if only as a last resort. This approach is excellent preparation for the real world, where cheating is often a first resort.

Entered in the Problogger Group Writing Project.


  1. Great advice: cheat. And it’s great in the context of cheat-the-rules because there are larger things at stake.

    I even cheat the culture of Taiji-Fixed-Step-Poop-Hands, by disregarding it. It’s built as you describe: for the overweight, though I’d contend that it’s built for, not the overweight, but the pathetic, foolish, wishful thinker who crave desperately for an guru/mater/slave-maker.

    Cheat! That’s great because, to me, it means cheat the infrastructure of belief systems that bind us and keep us from reality and truth.


  2. As a success coach, I can’t help but put this in broader terms. Especially the following truth:

    Immanent success in martial arts is always a simple matter of lowering your standards. Failure, in contrast, becomes increasingly difficult to achieve. And as the opportunity for failure decreases, the rate of learning slows.

    Wow, Thanks!

    Ava Semerau

  3. Stephen,
    Training games such as fixed-step push hands tend to reward an unintentionally broad set of behaviors. Yes, one can play push hands such that their free fighting ability actually moves backwards. However, I think that if the instructor carefully demonstrates the intent of the game, then this risk is minimal.

    Whereas, if you take away all the games, then you are left with either a crippled art or crippled students.

    Thank you.

    Yes, I do intend for all my posts to be taken in broad terms.

  4. I love this quote, “Losing is valuable experience, but giving up is not.”

    It seems to speak a truth applicable to nearly anything we set our minds to do. Love your title as well.

    cheers & best of luck with Problogger’s contest!

  5. I’m a huge fan of fail and enjoy it. Good teachers teach their students to take risks which result in failure.
    But I lost you when I got to the Taiji example. Isn’t giving yourself a handicap a better tool for insuring failure than having a partner who cheats the rules?
    A cheater in the situation you described would not uproot me, they would get hurt….unless I did the gracious thing and simply gave up–which we agree doesn’t improve the game/skill.

  6. Scott, I cannot resist rephrasing your comment in the active voice: “A cheater in the situation you described would not uproot me, I would hurt them…

    The skills which enable one to succeed within the game are often a superset of the skills we intend to cultivate. The difference between the former and the latter is revealed when we transgress the normal rules of engagement. Better to experience this in playful cheating than in a deadly serious fight, I think.

    Yes, it is ridiculous to propose that one could simply “step away” from a push-hands loss, when facing a skilled player. You and I know that, but some people do not, and they are my target audience. 😉

    I agree that taking a handicap is another good solution.

  7. That’s a very interesting post. I especially like the example; I never thought about it this way before, but it makes a lot of sense and if I look back then this is exactly what the good teachers (or rather: those that I think were good) I had always advocated.

  8. Enjoyed the article. I’d like to say,with 40+ years in Karate/Judo, dashes of Aikido, I’ve learned much about myself and’ my’, ‘lying mind’. The statement about 10 year w/ 3 years experience is sooooooooo true…. I have seen(many) people chase Belts/ Ranks with no thought of training for training. It has been overheard that, ” I can’t live up to this dojo’s standard but I really want ‘my’ Black Belt”. Martial Arts are about truth. A statement from a great Teacher said,”As human beings we are kind to ourselves…it is the goal of Karate to put ourselves into hardship, so that we may’ know of our weaknesses’ and ‘face ourselves’, in order to become strong”. (para) I was told, by my Teacher, “there are NO compliments in Karate…one can always improve”, “one more time please”. I, always, thank him in my mind for those guiding words. . Ichi- ” Seek perfection of character”. Osu!

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