Fear is a huge component in martial arts training yet one that very few people talk about. This can take many forms: fear of being hit, fear of looking bad, fear of knowing that you’re not that talented, and just wide ranging non-specific fear. Geoff Thompson has written about fear in his excellent books on the subject but in day to day classes it’s a subject that’s rarely mentioned. It seems that even to talk about fear is to show that you are scared or fearful and generally that’s not a cool thing.
I know from my own teaching and training that I get students who are excessively fearful, who want to control every situation. I tell them it’s not possible to control life but you have to do what you can and then have direction and go with the flow. I often try to explain the realities of fighting to them but can see that often they aren’t listening seemingly locked in an inward looking bubble, and it’s easy as an instructor to have less patience with them, but we’ve all been there, locked in fear. These students often look for a technical answer to fear and I find them excessively focused this way. They often have little idea of going with the flow and working with the force so to speak. It’s as if at their core they are scared or distrust their body’s innate abilities to protect itself.
This of course isn’t the only way in which fear exerts an influence on our lives. The late Danny Connors always used to say to me that we practiced martial arts because we felt inadequate or fearful and I’m sure there’s a hidden truth in that, at least when you start training. For some it remains an abiding force and for others it joins other drives that make us want to become masters of ourselves, and the arts that we practice.
Fear is a huge hindrance to achieving the optimum results from your training. If you have to mentally check everything before acting then you’re going to be slower. Acting in the moment with a purity of speed is movement based on intent. Fear means that you are looking back at yourself to see if you are ok, when you should be looking forwards thinking attack. The more you simplify your thought process and give it a direction and intent then you start focusing on your opponent not yourself. You have to let the ‘you’ in you, go.
‘Losing your bottle’ as the term is sometimes called happens to lots of people. It’s a private battle that you can’t see, so you imagine that you are the only one. However, it’s prevalent everywhere. It’s how you deal with it firstly on the surface that’s important and then deal with the internal part.
I believe that everything follows action. Internally you can think positive thoughts and have mantras and affirmations that you chant secretly in your brain and these help a lot but action is the key. Most of the problems are in your brain. Think of your brain as a possible double agent and one not to be totally trusted. Rather deal first with its brother the body and influence the brain that way. There’s a feedback loop between the body and the brain and some people say that we’re one body-brain organism and that there isn’t really a divide except in a purely anatomical sense. Similarly if you have a forward’s direction of your head in sparring (and in life) there’s a subtle feedback loop happening within your body. The captain (your head) knows where it’s going so the crew (your body ) relaxes and follows.
I remember becoming permanently scared ‘losing my bottle’ on my return from training in Japan and for two years or so I fought an internal battle where I forced myself to go training and enter competitions. In truth I was petrified all the time. Yet surprisingly fought some of the best competitions that I ever fought. Almost sick at every competition or sparring session I endured but didn’t gain control until I started boxing on a serious scale. Here I did lots of ‘out of distance’ sparring and then lots of fairly easy sparring just learning to move and be hit without being over reactive. I was fortunate in having a great trainer. The key I now see was the doing. Starting slow and building up your confidence whilst building your strength and conditioning to support it.
Confidence is everything. One of my senior students who is about twice my size used to flinch every time I hit him even when we were going light. He had an expectation of pain so that’s what he got. To counter this we played a game over a month or so of ‘ who’s the guv’nor?’ this was to show him that he should only deal with the real, with what really happened, and that he should take charge of the fighting space. If he moved back I would punish him and if he stood his ground then we’d go light. Similarly when he flinched as I hit him I’d say ‘how hard did I really hit you just now?’ when he answered that it wasn’t hard then I’d say ‘then don’t flinch’. Who’s in charge here you or me ‘Who’s the guv’nor? Within a short time he was pushing me around the dojo using his size to good effect. He also realised that standing his ground he got hurt less than if he moved backwards. Use this thought process throughout his life. In a meeting or unfamiliar situation where there is a subtle conflict or control issue why not say to yourself ‘who’s the guv’nor?’ only react to what’s real. Being mildly affirmative and having a forwards intent is subtle but it works.
Imagination is often your worst enemy when it comes to fear and the answer is to deal only with the real. The most frightening fights I’ve ever had are those in which I haven’t been hit or when blows have missed. One fight in particular was scary. He was a top fighter and we were both throwing full power blows without gloves and trying to hit each other which would have done lots of damage. Fortunately, I survived unscathed but the ‘what if’ scenario roamed round my brain for ages.
Getting hit can reduce your anxiety greatly, or at least let you know how painful it is. When I started forty years ago I’d hear pro boxers I worked with saying to each other ‘oh he hasn’t got much of a punch’ at the time I thought ‘but your getting hit!’ this was seeing it from an over perfected Karate viewpoint where to be touched was a loss. What I learnt was that there’s hits and hits. Sometimes it helps you relax if you take a light hit when you haven’t taken any in a long time.
Realise that you’re fighting and accept what happens, whilst also keeping a forwards intent, and surprisingly, luck often helps you. Getting in tune with the force is important. It’s about getting the fundamentals of YOU right. Technique and conditioning help an incredible lot, but there’s luck to deal with. Relax and go with the flow and you’re working with the grain not against it.
Training and sparring when you’re scared means that you’re brave and your proving that, so relax and be less judgemental with yourself. Remember that Hollywood super heroes are not real so don’t compare yourself to them. Just keep turning up, take action and compare yourself to those around you if you must, but look both up and down and realise that you’re just human and that fear is a driver and makes us excel. Use it to get better but don’t be it’s slave.
If you feel scared rebuild your confidence with body-strengthening drills and cardio work like running or cycling, where you push yourself past what you think are your limits, then get back into easy sparring as soon as possible. Above all take part in life don’t avoid circumstances where you can be seen to fail. You only get to be great by firstly being the worst player in the band. When you’re the best it’s time to move.
Am I done with fear now? No of course not, it asserts itself everyday in myriad forms but I know the secret; ’confront your fears and the end of fear is nigh’. Deep inside you’ll always be the scared little boy or girl you were as a child but coping methods and life experience mean that you gain some control, and sparring and competition of any form is a great place to practice your method and learn to believe in the most important person, yourself.
Have fun and good training.