There is that lovely moment in an instructors life when you are pinned on your back, and you can feel your arm on the verge of breaking. A younger, fitter, stronger and much more energetic student has learned all his lessons well, and has you firmly tied up and is putting a ton of pressure on you. There are tiny little openings in his position, so you can probably work your way out…except that he is wrenching your arm pretty good in an americana lock…so good you can feel the joint starting to give way. You’ve got about a second to tap or spend the next few weeks doing rehab and sucking ibuprofen.

I used to run Palaestra classes back when I was at Academie Duello. One of our drills was to let our partner sink in a deep lock, and slowly increase the pressure. We’d work different body mechanics as the lock got closer and closer to dislocating or breaking the joint, teaching ourselves how to endure and look for defense options even at the last second. Partly it was a mechanics drills, but mostly it was just about teaching students to not just keep calm in the face of fear and pain, but to keep rational. It’s important to know when you still have time to think about things, and when you don’t. A side effect of that training was a pretty high pain tolerance…when fear is removed, pain lessens.

Martial arts is all about pain and fear. Every class should offer you some lesson in coping and overcoming those two devils. Sometimes the lesson comes in pushing yourself to do one more exercise than you think you can. Other times the lesson can be just in showing up for class. No matter how fun class is, the physical and mental toll can start to wear on you. You can start to dread the thought of going to class, and it becomes a real obstacle. A lot of people drop out when this happens, without every really understanding why. As far as they can tell, they missed one night, and the following class something came up, and the week after that they were sick, or someone was in from out of town…Things creep up. If you make it through this phase, though…you’ve earned a level of tenacity. You’ve learned to make it through the one of the plateau’s to growth.

But that pain and fear mostly has effect in the short term, in sparring. I don’t mean literal pain here so much as anticipation of pain, which builds like the fearful anticipation of a balloon about to pop. Not such a bad thing when it happens, but pretty tense to think about. In wrestling, the main avenue of pain is breathing…endurance. Being crushed and unable to breathe, being exhausted enough you don’t think you can actually manage the next breath. In boxing, it’s not just being hit, it’s sometimes the pain of hitting, too. Human bodies can be made of tough, pointy bits. And every time you throw a kick or punch, you worry about all those open points on your own body that feel so exposed. With fencing, it’s usually the fear of that ringing blast that comes from walking into a head shot.

I watch students deal with that all the time. It shows in the awkwardly defensive body posture of new fighters. In experienced fighters, it shows in shorted attacks that fall just short of the mark, or in that long, static wait before moving that is sometimes mistaken for subtle tactical positioning. It’s overcome when a new resoluteness is discovered within. It’s not a toughness born of enduring or pushing through pain,  or ignoring fear…it’s a tenacity born of understanding. It’s the lessons of success, repeated success, that teach you to be calm in the face of what it happening, to know that it is nothing more than a thing you have dealt with time and time again. You know the pain well, but you know better that skill will overcome it, and that you have that skill.

In that moment of my arm being wrenched, there was the brief flash of panicked signal from the stretch receptors in my elbow, screaming at me to make it stop…but I’d be in this position a million times before. I had no solution, but I was able to have the presence of mind to take a moment to observe what was happening. In the deeply locked position, I realized I could turn my head towards my elbow, and jam my chin into my students tricep. It was just enough to give me a little extra base, just enough to stop him from being able to move my arm that one more inch he needed. It was just enough extra stability to allow me to push my elbow up through the lock, pop my arm free and start a chain of actions that got me in an excellent guard position, and I got to return the favour with a series of armbar attacks. He eventually got me with a beautiful armbar of his own. Good bout, good lessons for both of us. Good class.