The Importance of Self-Belief in the Martial Arts (or Anything!)

Having taught Jiu-jitsu to hundreds of students over the years, I’ve come to realize how fundamentally important self-belief is in a student’s performance. A student’s level of optimism or pessimism about his or her own abilities plays a major role in their development.

Here are a couple of quotes to get you thinking:

“All that we are is a result of what we have thought.” – Buddha

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, either way you are right.” – Henry Ford

I’ve dealt with a number of pessimists over the years. They tend to believe that they are in some way at a unique disadvantage over everyone else. They think they could be better in their training if they weren’t so small, so big, so frail, so old, so weak, so lacking in talent, so unfit, etc.

The pessimists with the least self-confidence tend to give up on their training very quickly, thinking that they are so disadvantaged that there’s no point to it. But it’s not necessarily the case that pessimists don’t try in their training. In fact, some pessimists try harder than anyone else on the mats because while they believe strongly in their disadvantages, they train extra hard to make up for it.

To counter their pessimism, they might trick themselves into doing well by working very hard, believing it’s the only way they’ll succeed. And they’re right. Progress comes at a high price for pessimistic students. They work so hard and put themselves under so much pressure that ultimately burn themselves out. The training stops being fun and they end up quitting sooner or later.

Optimists, on the other hand, have strong self-belief. They make the most of their unique bodies and minds, seeing themselves as having unique advantages rather than disadvantages. When they face challenges, they don’t see them as resulting from fundamental problems about themselves. They have faith that most challenges are things they’ll overcome in the moment or over the course of their training. The stronger the belief a student has in their own abilities, the more quickly and effortlessly their progress comes to them.

“I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.” – Winston Churchill

Students best serve themselves by being optimistic about their training. I believe that it is the martial arts teacher’s role to guide students toward a more optimistic approach toward their training. I don’t mean blind optimism here. You can’t just tell students “You can do it!” all the time. Particularly with pessimists, you have to build a case for it. You have to make them believe it and to believe it yourself, so it has to be realistic to both of you. They need to have the positive side of their unique traits emphasized and to be shown how they give them advantages. It also helps for them to hear of the successes of people who share their similar body types.

Teaching a martial art isn’t just about showing people a set of moves and techniques. It’s about teaching self-belief. And that’s why the martial arts can have such a positive impact in people’s lives outside their training. Or so Mr. Miyagi would have us believe ;).

Comments (3)

3 thoughts on “The Importance of Self-Belief in the Martial Arts (or Anything!)

  1. Too much optimism can lead to an unfounded belief in abilities that aren't there (yet) or aren't ingrained enough to be useful under duress. Pessimism does not necessarily lead to quitting and a lot of times these people focus more on the job at hand and train harder, it's been proven that depressed people (pessimism in the extreme or the pathological form of pessimism) tend to judge situations (especially those involving a chance of a negative or positive outcome like gambling) more accurately than non-depressives. The reverse is called the optimism bias: in general people are too confident in their judgements (things are going to turn out well, inspite of the actual evidence) and this is responsible for failing exams, market bubbles and unwanted pregnancies. Among other things.

    We had a student who was very pessimistic about her own performance yet scored the best at tests while another student who overflowed with confidence thought he knew everything the very instant he saw it and wanted to race through the curriculum while his performance was below par in all departments except enthousiasm.

    Overall I'd say it's better to underestimate your own abilities than over-estimate them. A healthy dose of pessimism (emphasis on healthy, too much of anything is bad) makes you more realistic about your own prospects, instills the need for effort and will keep you out of trouble most of the time. As well as prevent you from setting insanely high goals for yourself that you cannot possible hope to reach, the predictable result is dissapointment and unnecessary suffering. If you're just not good at something hoping or blind optimism won't change anything, yet the trick is to first find out whether you could be good at it and that takes effort.

    Being too pleased with your own abilities or level is as detrimental to progress as the inability to be content with what you have achieved.

  2. There are two things that scare me in martial artists. Too much confidence or not enough. I've seen beginner take a two day course and feel that they can take on the world, and I've seen dedicated practitioners afraid of their own shadows.

    As with life, balance is key. My Sensei says that he doesn't want to see carbon copies of himself, as everyone needs to learn what works for them and be confident in what they have learned and practiced.

    I believe you covered the balance aspect well. We all need to believe in ourselves to prevail in anything. That's why I've always loved the Henry Ford quote.

    Great post.

  3. I couldn't agree more we can't let our students having make-believe dreams in their studies.
    Balancing should be considered.

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