Fighting Fear

WhompAt Valkyrie we make it no secret that we’re owned and run by women. We constantly, actively recruit women as students. When the subject of women, fear, and martial arts comes up in conversation, it’s common to assume that you’re going to be talking about fear of being hit, hurt, or injured. Bzzt. Wrong. Thank you for playing.

It’s not to say that the fear doesn’t exist, because it does. In my experience, though, it’s something that we’ve prepared ourselves for ahead of time. When you go to a martial arts class you know that at some point you will be punched in the face. You begin to deal with that before you even walk in the door on your first day. It’s just one small piece of the normal flurry of emotions that come with trying a new thing.

The problem.

The fear that takes you by surprise the first time you’re face to face with a person, fist in motion, is the fear of hurting somebody else. It sticks around, and sometimes it gets worse. You know that it sounds ridiculous, especially if you’ve been partnered with some monster twice your size.

The monster laughs at your worries. He tries to shame you, saying that you’re ruining his training experience because if you don’t throw proper attacks, he can’t practice the proper blocks. He changes tactics and hits you harder and harder, trying to make you angry enough to hit him back.

You make it though the class, and never come back. The instructor who separated you from your friends and paired you with the monster writes you off as a lousy student who wasn’t fit for martial arts in the first place. He makes no effort to get you to come back.

The above scenario might sound ridiculous, but those are precisely the tactics that are often used in poorly taught traditional martial arts schools to make somebody quickly “get over” their fear, whether it’s of hurting or being hurt. Shame and force. It may come disguised as logic and character building, but that’s just a story to excuse trading abuse for money.

The solution.

There are other ways to help students with this stumbling block. You don’t have to get all touchy-feely and trade in your school’s reputation as a badass institution to do it.

One of the best ways to combat fear in the long term is simply good, solid, technical training. The process of teaching somebody how to throw a one-punch knockout, or a cleave-them-in-twain cut, also teaches them the things they can choose not to do if they’re not actually trying to knock somebody out.

Intellectually it’s obvious that a newbie is going to have a really hard time damaging someone experienced, but the body and the emotions don’t understand the difference between a flail and a powerful strike until you’ve spent hours drilling it to perfection. By the time a student is truly capable of causing grievous injuries, they are also more than capable of preventing it from happening by accident.

But what do you do in the short term, when you’re faced with a 45-year-old woman who’s never hit anyone in her life? Who’s out of breath, giggling hysterically, and missing each strike by several inches?

Patience. Acceptance. Compassion. Enthusiasm.

Be patient. Know that it may take until the end of class for her to actually make contact with a strike, even to just a pad, bag, or pell. Know that it may take weeks, or months, for her to strike with any kind of force. Know that it may take an extra couple of seconds before each strike for her to muster together the will to go ahead. Know that she will, sooner or later, become frustrated or angry with herself. It’s your job to be there for her, to tell her that it’s normal, to give her the time she needs to set her brain and body into striking mode.

Be accepting. Make sure the class atmosphere is pleasant and welcoming to everyone. Giggling is a common symptom of nervousness in men and women. Acknowledge those feelings for what they are, don’t dismiss it as a sign that she’s not taking the class seriously. If successes are openly celebrated and failures are accepted as simple learning opportunities then fear of failure quickly melts away. Encourage, but don’t force her into doing something she’s not ready for. Hesitance to strike another human being is easily written off as just social conditioning, a desire not to be a bad person. That doesn’t make it any less real or easy to overcome. Remember that anybody studying martial arts, especially a beginner, is in the process of changing themselves. You are the clearest example they have to aim for. If you can hit people and not be a bad person, then they can too. You, and your institution, have to show acceptance of not only the person they are, but also the person they are becoming.

Be compassionate. There is nothing wrong with being uncomfortable at the thought of hurting somebody, by accident or on purpose. In fact, most martial artists prefer not to injure their training partners – good punching/stabbing buddies are a finite resource, after all. It’s not an unfounded fear. Anybody who has been teaching martial arts for any length of time has a story of that newbie that gave them a bloody nose. At the same time, make sure that she understands that serious injuries are rare, and a lot of effort goes into ensuring the safety of your students in drills and sparring, with protective padding, armour and/or clear rules. She’ll make her training partners sweat, bruise, and probably bleed, but it’s just pain. Pain don’t hurt.

Be enthusiastic! Maybe some people come to martial arts for self defense, but they stay because it’s fun and challenging. As a person who has decided to devote a significant part of your life to studying and teaching your chosen art, the best way to recruit and keep students is to demonstrate your own passion and enthusiasm. Doubly so for those who are new and still finding their way in the world of martial arts. Show the joy you feel in throwing a great combo. Laugh at yourself when you fail. You know all the benefits of training in your art; it’s your duty to keep her hooked until they kick in.

So that’s the big secret. That’s how you turn a nervous beginner that’s afraid of their own fight-or-flight reflex into a badass fighting machine. Excellent instruction, with a generous helping of humanity.

3 Comments

  1. Awesome article. This is what I personally strive for in my teaching because I never cared for aggressive or negative ways of teaching. Heck, I don’t even subscribe to pushups as punishment. I sometimes worry I’m a big softy, but I teach the way I’d like to be taught. I’m not interested in getting hit over and over until I “learn to defend myself.” I want clear goals with clear methods to attain those goals in a given context, not a free-for-all cult of “natural talent” and technique hearsay. And then I want someone to help me learn how to do the thing, only hitting me when I need that experience. Failing in some ways stings more than getting hit, and your brain will start to do some funny things when it would rather you not go someplace because it gets hit a bunch AND then feels bad about it.

    And it’s extremely difficult to be a good practice partner when it’s your turn to be on the losing side and your partner keeps clobbering you. I think that’s why some people get in the habit of changing up a drill without being instructed to and generally making things unnecessarily hard for their partner. Somewhere their brain is going, “Don’t let them hit me!” and they come up with rationalizations as to why they are being difficult. One or more versions of “I’m trying out some counters,” “I’m testing his defense against an afterblow,” “I’m trying to do realistic resistance,” etc. etc. for example.

    Maybe it’s better to have the attitude that your partner will ask you to use more force or actually hit them instead of your partner will ask you to tone it down. The person you’re hitting will tell you when you’re ready to make firmer contact, since they are putting so much trust in you. Most people will shy away from having to tell someone else to stop hitting so hard lest it be seen as weakness, by their own self-critique or others’. Meanwhile, then you are in charge of how much force they use. None of this, “I’m hitting you hard so it’s okay for you to hit me hard,” business. Instead, it’s mutual trust because you have given that power to each other.

    Really, you are there to help each other learn and that’s often lost in drilling. It’s also lost that control is hard and swinging for the fences is easy. In turn, learning to take a controlled strike and have it make contact with however much force you want is easy but taking uncontrolled strikes and avoiding contact or making light contact is hard.

    Anyway, I’ve rambled. Thank you for this article!

  2. Pingback: Hitting Girls | Kaja(s)words

  3. This. I left the Bujinkan partially because of the instructor’s insensitivity to issues like this. And in my experience, that Bujinkan instructor was one of the best I’ve ever trained under. They simply do not learn how to moderate interactions between students in a effective way.

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