The Role of Pain, Frustration & Violence in the Martial Arts


I recently read Stu Cooke Sensei’s blog post, The Beauty of Paradox, which concluded by saying that “Getting past the first batch of pain is likely the major barrier for people that try the martial arts”, saying that they don’t understand the point of the unpleasantness and don’t get to a point where they appreciate what it’s all about.

This is true for many people, but there are those who take their training a bit further, accepting the part that physical discomfort plays only to face a second sticking point: frustration.

I have often considered the reasons why many women and even smaller statured men don’t stick with a martial art training over the long term, and this is one reason, particularly in Jiu-jitsu. At the earlier stages of learning fine motor skills like joint locks and throws, most students don’t understand the finer technical points that make them work. Bigger and/or stronger students often get by using their strength to get their uke to tap or throw them to the ground. They feel a certain level of satisfaction at having achieved their objective, even if they didn’t do it exactly the way they are taught. Smaller/weaker students often face greater difficulties getting a desirable outcome from their joint locks or throws at the initial stages of learning. As as result, they feel more frustrated with their training. And if there aren’t any instructors or higher level students of a similar stature for them to look to as an example, they often wrongly come to the conclusion that the martial art is just not for someone like them.

To those students out there who feel this way, I say if you are enjoying the instruction and training you’re receiving, have faith and give it time. If you’ve made it past the hurdle of pain, keep training and jump over the hurdle of frustration. Once you start to figure things out, you’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of the people who used more strength to get by at the lower levels.

In his blog post, Cooke Sensei also refers to the “mutual existence of compassion and violence” as a beautiful paradox that exists in the martial arts. In my opinion, the way we train in Can-ryu (the style I teach) and Shorinji Kan (the style cooke Sensei teaches and I train in), the “violence” experienced is not true violence. Oh sure, we teach techniques that can be used violently in self-defense and often put ourselves in physically violent training drills so we can learn to use them effectively, but in the dojo, there is no violent intent in that no one wishes for another student to come to harm (or at least there isn’t supposed to be). Ultimately, I don’t see this as a paradox, but I understand why people outside the arts or new to the arts, might not see with this mentality.

9 thoughts on “The Role of Pain, Frustration & Violence in the Martial Arts

  1. The other reason smaller-statured people may be more likely to stick around if there's a higher-ranked similarly sized person around, is the higher-ranked person can usually give them size-specific tips on getting the techniques to work.

    On a separate note: I know you've talked before about being a good uke, and how to go about doing that, but have you ever done a post about training with people you don't like or don't feel safe with? I would appreciate your perspective on this topic if you have not already addressed it.

  2. That definitely helps. I should know. 🙂

    As for your topic suggestion, I don't believe I've covered it in the past specifically. I'll put it on the list. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. There's a number of times I've wanted to quite out of frustration. I'm a 5'3" female often working with males 6' or taller, some up to 90lbs heavier and then there's the teenage boys half my age; crazy fast, agile, etc, etc. I love the challenge of training with the guys. I have truly learned so much from them. (Some are actually more intimidated about working with me.) But there's days were you get frustrated of always "losing". You don't feel like you're learning a thing. Then a class comes along with a few girls and you realize how much you've actually learned.

    Frustration also comes in when training is not meeting your expectations for whatever reason. I'm a few months away from black belt and frustration is the stage I'm at now. I don't feel like I'm going to be ready for the grading due to various reasons beyond my control. Or perhaps all black belt candidates get frustrated at this point?

  4. Heather,

    Way to keep going! It's pretty rewarding when you see how far you've come. 🙂 As for your current frustration, is there any way you can do training outside the standard classes to prepare? I know it doesn't always work depending on what style you train in. Or maybe it might be worth addressing the issue with your instructor. Either way, good luck!

  5. One of the best things about Jiu Jitsu is it's ability to level the playing field when it comes to size and strength. For us bigger out there, it is often easy to cheat or power the technique but after time, there are advantages to being smaller. The technique tends to be better as its trickier to develop some of the 'big boy' (or girl) bad habits.

    In our dojo we are lucky that my Sensei is much smaller than I am and I am usually always his uke. Newer students believe it will work because they see it work on me. It does take patience, however. I imagine you have a similar dynamic in your dojo with your bigger students. Great post.

  6. In my experience it can actually be really helpful to have to throw someone larger than you. I am the smallest person in my jiu jitsu class at my college and recently I worked with a man who was at least three times my size. I had to throw him and I had a really hard time with it. However, through that experience I learned a lot. There was literally no way that I could throw him unless I executed perfect technique. I am a yellow belt and so I am teaching all of these throws to another white belt. This experience taught me a lot about how the throw actually works. I also learned some cool tricks about throwing larger people. It was a really valuable experience although it was exceptionally difficult.

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