My brother was always a troublesome little cuss. When I took my very first martial arts class, I came home all fired up and eager to share what I had learned. My little brother wanted to see what this kung fu thing was all about. I showed him the cool crouching tiger pose, one leg all stretched out…and he promptly stomped on my knee. Had I been my current age instead of the limber pre-teen I was then, my knee would have shattered. As I hopped around in pain, howling in anger, my brother booked it out of the room. My parents intercepted us before major bloodshed erupted. Free from retribution, the little so-and-so heckled me for the rest of the night about martial arts being useless. Which didn’t stop him from signing up for classes a month later.

Our teenage years followed a similar pattern. My brother would let me sign up for a martial arts class in whatever town we’d moved too. Once I’d broken the ice, he’d sign up shortly after. At first glance, you might think he was trying to imitate his older brother. Adoration and hero worship, the natural due of the eldest. Ha. His real goal was to do whatever I was doing, and do it better. It was a non-stop competition that haunted my early years of martial arts training. I was constantly dropping out of classes and trying something new, hoping he’d stick with something he actually liked and leave me to my business. No luck. It wasn’t until we were adults that he branched off to do his own thing.

We finally settled the matter about who was better. I was teaching classes out of my garage at the time. He came in with some attitude, and I turned around and bolted the door closed, locking the two of us in the garage. These days, we have great conversations about the different martial arts we train in…but he always refuses to spar with me again. I have great respect for my brother as a fighter. I used to use him as an exam for some of my students. If I thought they had the basics down, and looked like they where developing some real skill, I would invite my brother over to the school and have him spar with the students. The ones who didn’t panic moved on to advanced training.

Having a solid training partner is one of the most valuable things a martial artist can have. I always know that a student is ready to excel when I see them move into a natural partnership with another student. I don’t know what is that makes that relationship happen. There is no predictable pattern to it, and it only happens to some students…but it’s a guaranteed success when it happens. I don’t know what causes it, but I know what the effect is. The partners will start to train together more often in class, arranging to be paired as much as possible. They start to spar in free moments. They may start out at vastly different skill levels, but they quickly adapt a remarkable pattern. The more skilled student will pull up the skill level of the lesser partner, who will leapfrog over the senior and become the most skilled. And that partner will then pull up the former senior. At the same time as the pulling is happening, the lesser skilled partner will constantly be pushing the better to improve. A good partnership can double or triple the usual rate of skill development. And grow a life-long friend at the same time.

I’ve had one spectacular partner. I’ve nurtured similar relationships between others. I think it’s something unique to martial arts training. Other sports can have rivalries and friendships, but there is something about face-to-face, violent competition. You just don’t get it elsewhere. There is a real truth shared in combat sports. You always try to hide your intentions, but you can’t hide who you are from the person you fight. What’s in your guts always comes out. Your ugliness, your insecurities, your toughness and your strength…it’s all there for someone to see if they care to look. It’s a basis for friendship unlike any other. It’s hard for outsiders to understand, especially if the partners cross gender, age or other societal boundaries. People want to label the partnership in a lot of different ways, but only the partners really know the truth of it.

For me, it’s a conversation in steel, in a language only known to a few. My memories of learning are almost all memories of moments spent with my training partner, not listening to someone teaching a lesson. I actually don’t think there is a better lesson to be learned in life than the one learned by exposing your vulnerabilities to another, seeing theirs, and working together to make each other stronger without denying those weaknesses. The camaraderie I learned in that vulnerable space has intense value. It’s made me stronger and taught me a compassion that would be have been foreign to a younger me. The partner that taught me that lesson is gone, but the lesson remains. I try to share it out with my actions, in how I interact with those close to me. It makes life better. The sword can give life as well as take life.