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Iain Abernethy
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Psychological Strength Training for Men: A Dojo Approach

Psychological Strength Training for Men: A Dojo Approach

By Jordan Giarratano

I imagine this might be a challenging read for some men. Men who, like me, grew up with a very rigid set of expectations for how to be a man.

I’m grateful to Iain for inviting me to write this guest post. If it resonates with you, please join Iain in my upcoming six-week course:


I know my fellow practical karateka are the right audience for this new training, given your courage to embrace discomfort and challenge the “way we’ve always done it.”

It’s 2017, I sit at the edge of a desk, giving a talk on self-protection to a room full of office workers at a low-level Seattle tech startup.

They’re waiting patiently to hit pads and shout. They were promised that they could hit pads and shout. But I only have ninety minutes for this workshop, so I need to focus on helping them tap into their most effective self-protection tool.

Their feelings.

Specifically, fear and anger.

I talk about fear as the signal that alerts us to a threat in our environment. I talk about anger as the surge of energy that empowers us to defend ourselves.

I found out that I unwittingly designed my curriculum based on Iain’s feedback hierarchy model when I heard him articulate it at a seminar years later. He’s got a knack for distilling best practices down to their essential elements.

For this training (and the hundred or so that would follow in the coming months) I worked from mindset, to strategy, to tactics, and finally to technique.

The shifts we make to our mindset have the greatest impact on our training.

For the average person, the person who doesn’t step into the dojo for the joy of collecting bruises, these 90 minutes may be the only self-protection training they’ll ever get. I see it as my responsibility to use that time to provide only the most effective training to avoid and/or reduce harm.

So we did some soft skills drills, they shared times in their life they trusted their fear, and we practiced saying no and meaning it.

I put the focus mitts on and let them have some fun. With about fifteen minutes left, they finally got what they thought they came here for.

She got to hit the pads less than ten times. She stayed after class and asked some questions about self-protection tips for runners. I reiterated: trust your intuition, trust your ferocity.

A few months later we were on Good Morning America.

Trusting her fear and anger saved her life.

Even while I taught that fear and anger are important to our safety, I struggled to accept that the rest of our emotions are valuable.

It wasn't until my first panic attack that I got the wake up call I needed to start therapy and recognize how cut off I was from my emotions as a man.

Good, bad, or ugly, our emotions are information signals that help us to orient and act in the world to take care of ourselves

There are few men that escape some level of being shamed for their emotions. Cut off from a valuable source of internal guidance, we learn to suppress more and more of our experience.

• Coach tells you to “man up”: there goes our trust and vulnerability.

• Best friend calls you “wuss” for backing down from a dare: there goes the gift of fear.

• Girlfriend sees a tear and calls you “soft”: there goes our ability to grieve.

This is how men lose access to safe connection, healthy risk management, and our capacity to process loss, to change, and to grow.

This is how men learn that it is safer to suffer in silence.

These messages stopped me from seeking out the support I desperately needed. By the time I finally got help I wasn’t able to recognize that I was hurting myself and others.

This is the key to the mental health crisis that is literally killing men all around us: we need access to our emotions to be healthy.

The pressure of thirty-plus years of suppressed emotions made me feel like I was drowning. I was tense, miserable, and angry. I was up late with insomnia and when I finally slept I had horrific nightmares.

It was the discipline I learned in the dojo that allowed me to gut it out as long as I did (“never back down”). Critically, the dojo also gave me the humility to accept when I was down and the framework to learn new skills and strategies quickly.

Just like the hard skills of striking and grappling, learning soft skills is most effective as part of an intentional community practice. Joining a peer-support circle and learning to share my feelings with other men radically improved my mental health.

I live in Seattle now, but I grew up in the northeast US, in Pennsylvania, in a region formerly known for the collapse of the coal mining industry, and now as one of the many hotspots for the opioid epidemic and deaths of despair.

My older cousin and mentor was one of those casualties.

He and I grew up with intense social pressure to live up to an extreme, rigid model of dominance-based manhood. He was one of my role models and I lived with a constant sense of my failure to measure up to the impossible standard he set.

We never spoke about it, but now I see that he also felt driven to prove his manhood at all costs.

I saw firsthand how chasing a dominance-based model of manhood leaves men feeling perpetually insecure and ashamed. In many instances that combination of insecurity and shame can lead to violence and harm against self and others.

As a self-protection instructor my value is to reduce harm using the most effective strategies available to me.

This is why I created Team Builder Dojo and designed a curriculum to teach men peer support skills. Joining a peer support team is the single most effective practice I’ve found to improve my mindset, my wellbeing, and the wellbeing of the people around me.

Here’s how it works: You get a handful of guys to sit in a circle (or on Zoom) and one man shares what’s weighing on him and everybody else just…  listens. They don’t judge him. They don’t shame him. They don’t try to fix him. They just listen.

It flips the script.

The shame of dominance-based manhood is held in place by social pressure.

It can be released by social acceptance.

Sharing our feelings and being truly heard makes us feel lighter (I have to get something off my chest). And it helps us to relieve pressure and create space so we don’t blow up at someone else (I just needed to vent).

Like any skill set, learning to give and receive support with other men takes practice. I lead six-week practice groups for small groups of men to master these life-changing skills.

Iain is joining our next online training series, it starts Last Week of July! This cohort will be tailored specifically for male martial artists. We’d love to have you join us.

The value that I most love about all of us in the practical karate community is our willingness to go and get what we need when something in our training is out of balance. We cross-train. We work with other instructors. Our ground game sucks? We work on it.

We go and get what we need, wherever it comes from. We make it better and we make ourselves better. No shame. No judgment. And no parade needed either.

Peer support is psychological strength training.

Learn more about the upcoming six-week course with Iain Abernethy and sign up for early registration.


Iain Abernethy
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