Elliot Wave Theory & The Virtue of Failure

“I look down on mountains from a cresting wave.

I look up again from under,

the water recedes at odds,

the trend an even number.”

There is a certain self-corrective measure that guides the honest MMA practitioner. Perhaps appealing to investor psychology is too academic, but I do think that Elliot Wave Theory is an appropriate metaphor for the growth trajectory of a martial artist. 

Athletes who participate in individualized sports have more psychological exposure than team athletes. Individual athletes have fewer places to unload the burden of an unsatisfactory performance.  An athlete who participates in a subpar team outing can share the burden of failure around, and as a result, much more easily self-deceive.  When the objective of the sport is that of inflicting damage there is a heightened survivalist, knee-jerk for self-preservation that must be yoked and channeled.  The threat of bodily harm raises the psychological stakes. 

Elliot Wave Theory traditionally involves the psychological analysis of the collective behavior of individuals participating in financial markets.  It posits that there is a wave progression that reflects investor behavior based to a large degree on a predictable alternation between enthusiasm and fear.  An upward trending market can be shown to have three progressively higher crests and two progressively higher corrective troughs.  A downward trending market will have the inverse.  Let’s retool this theory and apply it to the growth of the mixed martial artist.  

Fail purposefully and fail often.

While there will be significant technical growth and the psychological benefits that accompany such growth for the athlete, there will be lows-even necessary lows-that are essential to a healthy, upward trend line. For the purposes of this discussion, the trend line for the martial artist would be charted on a graph where the axis are technical improvement over time.

Most people have heard some media friendly economist proclaim that “the market is in a bubble”.  The suggestion is that the market in question is not accurately reflecting the underlying values of the securities that trade theirein.  An impending sell-off is implied, inevitable.  In fact, it is essential to the overall health and longevity of the market that the correction occur.  Per corollary, I would argue that “failure” by the mixed martial artist is essential to his overall growth.  The average student will quickly come to the conclusion that poor performance has a high emotional, psychological and physical cost.  He will likely then make tactical adjustments in technique or study habit or diet or training partner etc. in order to optimize his growth going forward.  Or he will divest, that is, cease to participate in the sport in any meaningful way. Losing a physical confrontation, even a controlled, consensual one, has the effect of humbling a person, and a humble student is more receptive to learning-If for no other reason than that of physical self-preservation.  When reasoned a step further, the reflective student who has the primary motive of furthering his development will realize that he must seek out failure so that he can protect his ego and buttress his chances of becoming more proficient in his sport.  

It is much easier on the ego to “fail” in the company of a trusted training partner or even an arch competitor within the school, than on the elevated stage under less forgiving lights.  Thus this type of “calculated” failure, if you will, will lend itself to an upward trend line. “Fail” is in quotations because ultimately, given a long enough time line, a “failure” is a learning catalyst that saves time and boosts overall development.  As my training partner triangles me for the third, fifth or twentieth time, I become more resilient to the submission.  He in turn is forced to adapt, evolve and refine, which, in turn saddles me with a momentary feeling of “failure” until I adapt, evolve and glean the knowledge from such an experience that allows me to achieve a higher level of understanding of my craft and the psychological and emotional resiliency that accompanies it.  

In essence the student experiences a positive feedback loop that benefits him and those around him.  A high tide raises all boats!  I would argue that a person who places himself in vulnerable situations under relatively comfortable conditions, i.e. in the gym with a trusted training partner, will ride that upward developmental trend line.  He will have had more opportunities to grow, and if capitalized upon, he will be more knowledgable over time for having “failed” purposefully.  The student who fails early and often when earnestly pursuing growth will “fail” less often then a more risk averse peer participating in the same training regimen- and arguably with less psychological cost. Therefore the student who assembles an arsenal and tests it frequently in different situations, will have progressively higher successes, or crests.  His peaks and valley will follow an upward trend line.

Conversely, consider the martial artist who becomes a victim of his own success by overly relying on a specific technique.  Over specialization breeds weakness.  You might possess the most effective Kimura sequence of anyone in your gym.  However, over reliance on that submission will confer an opportunity cost, i.e. too much time spent with that particular submission may detract from your ability to become an expert in a different submission.  In a world of infinites, this would not be a concern, but we live in a practical world of constraints.  Constraints on time.  Constraints on money to pay for mat time.  Constraints on access to training partners, etc.  Simply because you can do something doesn’t mean that it is the best use of your precious resources. 

So let us aspire to follow an upward trend line of growth when competing against other martial artists.  This is not to suggest that a martial artist can only measure his development through competition or in juxtaposition to someone else. However, I would argue that this model of development that involves oscillating between positive feelings of development and more negative feelings of stagnation or regression will still apply to the practitioner who works exclusively with forms, heavy bags, shadow boxing, etc.

 If you are always “winning” or seem to be experiencing uninterrupted developmental progress, step back and ask yourself if you are training or competing in that theoretical “bubble” discussed a few paragraphs previous.  If you are, depending on your goals, i.e. in the event that you plan to showcase your skills outside of the sanctity of that “bubble”, you might want to practice with partners who are more learned than you in a given area.  You might consider organized competition in a more experienced bracket.  You might consider bracketing your orthodox stance for a regimen of southpaw training.  I highly recommend that you handicap that ace in the hole submission in the interest of diversification.  Or if uninterested in competing with others, expose yourself to other people’s technical expositions: shadow boxing, pad work, etc.  Anyone who has been to the beach knows that there are plenty of bubbles when riding waves.

On the contrary, if you struggle to keep up with your peers or reach your stated goals, perhaps  you should consider striving for more modest gains.  When rolling with more advanced practitioners, set the less ambitious goal of achieving a reversal, or thwarting a guard pass, rather than demanding a submission of yourself.  Take smaller more manageable steps in an attempt to find the harmony of a positive feedback loop, which will confer emotional and psychological benefits which lead to confidence, which in turn leads to better performances, which in turn leads to new challenges, ad infinitum!  

In summary, fail purposefully and fail often!  Elliot Wave Theory suggests that corrections are not only healthy but essential to overall positive development.  All fighters fail in the gym.  In fact, I as a coach, make sure that my fighters do.  Better to do it there than in the circle, square, hexagon or octagon.  Rest assured, it will happen there as well. Clearly no one likes to lose, but it will behoove you to learn to do so purposefully and with a good attitude.  To be sure, people will like you for dealing optimistically with the adversity and for the resourcefulness that you demonstrate in adapting and growing.

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