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Matthew_Eastwood's picture
Fear in the Martial Arts

I suppose I should start this post with a question: how does one overcome fear?

When I was younger, I studied karate, but before I started secondary school, I stopped for numerous reasons. Before I digress, if I hadn't dropped it, I don't think I would have restarted it again at University- something I would have regretted intensely!!

Like many pupils at school, I was heavily bullied, both emotionally and physically pretty much everyday throughout school, college and to an extend, at university. As I look back, I regret to admit I feel angry at what  treatment I suffered, yet I can see I was conditioned not to fight back.

Starting back with the university club, I found I enjoyed karate immensely, and I train with two clubs in Cardiff 4 days a week. However, the university club is primarily sports karate focussed, and that means fighting...

I will admit, my kumite is not the best. I am afraid to fight- partly because of my past, partly because I hate violence, and partly because I am afraid of what I could do to someone else should I lose control. On top of that, it is illegal in sports karate to grab/grapple/throw, and dare I say it- use my strength at all (I hasten to add I only fight within the club, I dislike competitions). Without weight restrictions, I am often stronger than my opponent; yet unable to use that to my advantage. Hence I always fight at a disadvantage.

My question therefore is: how can I overcome the fears I have, both of my opponent and of myself?

In an almost P.S. sort of way; I have no desire to fight or to be the cause of violence (I do feel that competitive karate goes against the "no first strike" precept, in that both parties wish to fight, and are therefore both intent on violence, controlled or not...). I just wish to improve upon my own karate, and not be afraid to defend myself should I ever have to.

ky0han's picture


I feel that a correct upbringing in the martial arts is crucial to manage the fear. The fear itself (fear of getting hurt or pain, the fear of hurting the other one) is always present and will never go away. You just have to learn to channel that fear and learn to accept it. The fear of pain can be worked on with body conditioning training, so you can learn that the pain is a normal reaction of the body designed to protect it and that the body will always move away from pain instinctively at a certain severity level. The conditioning can help you raise that level to a certain degree.

For the whole competition like sparring the pain of loosing control can be worked on if you slowly start to learn how to control things like distance, timing, muscle contraction and so on. That you can do by going through the different stage of those types of Kumite. In Shotokan we start with Gohon-Gumite, Sanbon-Gumite, Kihon-Ippon-Gumite, Kaeshi-Gumite, Okuri-Gumite, Jiyu-Ippon-Gumite and finally Jiyu-Gumite. That should give you enough confidence to participate in competition like matches even when it is only at the dojo. Relaxation is key here too. Breathe and be relaxed and focused on your opponent. Mushin is the term that jumps to mind here. Don't think about what might happen. Just live in the moment.

I witnessed first hand how someone was tossed into a competition bout of Jiyu-Gumite with just 2 weeks of training. A guy from our dojo had to face him. That was horrible to watch since that poor dude had no clue what to expect and with no refined techniques in his arsenal. Our guy had serious problems handling him because the other one had no intention to control his act. He just wanted to survive I guess which he did. He lost the fight though. Fear made everthing worse and got him a bloody nose too.

In order to defend yourself properly you have to develop a predatory mind set, were your health has to be the priority over the health of the other one. Goal is to survive. If someone decides to hurt you he gets eaten alive and has to expect no mercy (to a certain level within the legal boundaries of course :o)). You can drill that with Kata and a partner were you drill the sequences out of Kata with high cardio vascular intensity. Pad drills and working out on a punching bag can help too. The higher the intensity the less you think about the process, you are just functioning. The fear is still there somewhere but you've got no time to think about it and it will not hinder you from functioning.

Regards Holger

Gary Chamberlain
Gary Chamberlain's picture

No way around it that I can see. We have to push ourselves to do things we don't want to do. My advice? When asked to partner up for sparring pick the scariest person there.  

Every time.  

You'll hate it to start with but soon find it's not so bad.  Next step, you'll catch them with a few good shots and before long you'll be holding your own.

Of course, there's no guarantee that this new-found confidence transfers to outside the dojo.  But for life in general knowing you can push yourself and improve is usually a good thing.


Th0mas's picture

Hi Matthew

It is brave of you to raise this issue. This is great topic and is something we all struggle with as martial artists.

In my experience it is not the fear that's prohibative but the "feeling of the fear". Dry mouth, tunnel vision, feeling of panic, loss of strength, bladder control issues, high squeeky voice etc.. The reasons for your fear and the experience of fear, will never go away - but you can learn to handle the symptoms of fear. In fact fear is a vitally important aspect of combat.

The way to look at it is to recognise that those feelings are just one side of the coin. The anticipation of combat, being afraid of the violence, is what kicks your body into fight and flight mode. Your body swamps itself with this wonder drug called adrenaline, but you need to learn how to handle it. Adrenaline has a number of vital physiological effects, firstly it reduces blood flow to your skin and those organs that are not vital for running or fighting. It increases the blood circulation and therefore the oxygen to your core muscle groups, your lungs and your heart. It focusses the visual and awareness centres of your brain and creates a single minded pyschological state to reduce distractions both mental and experiencial from the task at hand. It increases your pain threashold. This is a wonder drug and can make you feel like a fighting God! even your perception of time will slow down -  everything else is running in slow motion. 

You need to learn to embrace that initial feeling of dread and begin to recognise it as your friend..(apologies for the metaphors - I may have had one too many glasses tonight) and that can only really happen through training, as the others have pointed out (familiarity breads contempt). It is very strange - the anticipation of violence, especially when it is outside of the dojo, is very debiiltating, but you get to recognise its embrace and it becomes part of your internal pre-violence build up. Being scared does not make you a coward, if you are not afraid of confrontation you are a fool and bravery requires it by definition.

There some good material out there that can help - read Geoff Thompsons stuff as a great start.

Oh and when undertaking dojo kumite, don't play to your opponents strengths, fight to your own. Being big can be a massive advantage - use it to crowd out your opponent, be intimidating.. they may not like it at the time, but it is good training for them :-)

Gary Chamberlain
Gary Chamberlain's picture

Theon: You're afraid?

Robb: I must be.

Theon: Good.

Robb: Why is that good?

Theon: It means you're not stupid. 

- Game of Thrones
Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Great line that Gary. I like this one from the 1999 move "Three Kings":

Archie Gates: You're scared, right?

Conrad Vig: Maybe.

Archie Gates: The way it works is, you do the thing you're scared shitless of, and you get the courage AFTER you do it, not before you do it.

Conrad Vig: That's a dumbass way to work. It should be the other way around.

Archie Gates: I know. That's the way it works.

It also fits well with the advice you gave above.

All the best,


swdw's picture

Here's  2 recommendations

Turning Fear into Power by Bill Kipp

Freedom from Fear by Peyton Quinn