Fight or Flight: Choosing to Face a Fear or Walk Away
The martial arts present many challenges for the student. The student will find themselves facing a number of different fears as they progress in their learning. In our dojo, it starts on day one. Most people have some degree of fear of falling and hitting the ground. It’s instinctual. We fear that we’ll hurt ourselves… until we accept through progressions that one can learn to do it safely. Students also have to learn to make contact with their strikes so that they learn good targeting with their partners. There is a fear they could accidentally hurt someone. To keep things safe, we have students start hitting slowly and lightly, developing their control then increase the speed and power as they do so. As control increases and the student reaches the intermediate level, they are introduced to sparring. The unpredictable nature of sparring increases the stress of the training, leading to the influences of adrenaline. In this scenario, when students first start, they fear getting hit or hitting someone too hard, especially in the head area, even when the sparring is relatively relaxed and controlled.
There is a lot of fear to overcome in the martial arts. Through our training, we keep challenging ourselves, and as we learn and increase our skill level, we introduce more and more things that cause us fear. Learning to take control of our fears and overcome them is one of the best parts of the martial arts. The more we overcome fears, the more it empowers us. It increases our willpower, our resilience and our confidence. But no one necessarily explains the process of facing our fears, why we should do so and how we choose to carry on once we do. That’s what I would like to explain here.
Considering the Stakes
We don’t necessarily have to confront every fear we have in life. It depends on what we want to get out of it. If a person has a bucket list goal to go sky diving, and they have a fear of heights, it is something they will have to deal with. But if sky diving poses no interest to the person, and there are no other activities that require the person being up high that are important to them, they don’t absolutely have to confront that fear. Facing a fear doesn’t necessitate overcoming it, though it may require the person to accept limitations relating to the fear. If the stakes are high enough, whatever the fear is, you’ll have to confront it or limit yourself to things that don’t involve the fear. On the other hand, if that same person with the fear of heights is so crippled by it that they can’t visit their friend in their 20th floor apartment, or do other mundane things in life, the fear will rear it ugly head sooner or later. In this case, the fear is so bad that it’s hard to avoid being affected by it. In this case, the person may want to consider dealing with that fear so they can live a normal life.
The Big Choice
If a person decides for whatever reasons that they don’t want to confront their specific fear in their martial arts training, they will come to a crossroads at some point. If their fear is, for example, being hit or hitting other people, and they get to the level where it is required as part of sparring, they will have to make a choice. They can choose to not spar and simply continue to train at the level they’re training. Unfortunately, without progression, it is hard to keep one’s interest level up. They can give up training altogether, and perhaps look for a different style that won’t require them to spar if they still want to train in a martial art. Or they can face their fear, using gentle progressions with an instructor and training partners they trust who will help them along on their journey. I wrote a blog post on this topic a while back, How to Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.
Challenges for the Instructor
As an instructor, this is one of the hardest aspects of helping my students. People are often resistant to facing their fears. They can be very good at coming up with all sorts of reasons why they don’t want to do it, why they shouldn’t have to do it, but ultimately, if the thing they fear is causing them to avoid a particular part of our training that is required for progression, eventually I have to tell them straight out that they either have to try to face the fear or they’ll have to stay at their level and spin their wheels, or give up training altogether. I always do my best to be compassionate in how I tell them, and do my best to give the easiest progression path possible as the student works through their fear. But if the student digs their heels in and refuses to try to work on their fear, unwilling to try any form of progression, I then have to face my own fear, that of losing a valued student. Few people like being forced to do something, to have a line drawn in the sand for them, but as an instructor, it’s something I have to do sometimes. Ultimately, I just want my students to enjoy their training experience, however long they are with our dojo. If they enjoy it for a time but decide that at a certain level it gets to be a bit too much, I will not begrudge them moving on to a different activity that suits them better. But if I can help the student confront their fears and become a stronger person for it, then I’ll do my very best as an instructor to get them where they need to go.
Now over to you. What fears have you overcome in your martial arts training? What made you decide to keep at it rather than give up? Please share your experiences in the comments to help inspire other people in facing their own fears.
One thought on “Fight or Flight: Choosing to Face a Fear or Walk Away”
Here is something else to think about in self-defense: the freeze response: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/20/opinion/sunday/run-hide-fight-is-not-how-our-brains-work.html.