“Secrets” of the Filipino Fighting Arts
Words from a Modern-Day Warrior

Building Courage in Martial Arts Students

This is something I’ve written on in the past, and I thought I would revisit the topic. Building courage is one of the most difficult skills to have in teaching the martial arts, and not many teachers have this ability. In fact, I would dare to say that not many teachers even realize the importance of developing this skill.

I believe that the average martial arts program only addresses the technical aspects of the martial arts:   punches, kicks, self-defense, weapons, etc.  But the deeper levels of the art involves those things you cannot touch; they are things that change the character, the behavior, the personality of the fighter. We want to affect more than simply the physical appearance of the student, but the way he acts and thinks. Building courage is one of the most important of those changes.

In many cases, courage is a by-product of good training. As a man (child or woman, I’m speaking in the general sense) sees his physical strength increase as well as his knowledge of fighting techniques, he will feel protected. “Protected” is the important word here, as the fear men feel is from their vulnerability–the lack of protection. When he feels like he cannot be hurt or is not in danger, he does not experience fear. But when he feels as if he is in danger or may be hurt, even the skilled fighter will experience fear. The secret to removing fear is to train our students until they feel as if they can defeat almost anyone you put in front of them. In other words, we need to see to it that our students are so well-trained that they believe that they are unbeatable. I do not want to waste so much time talking about how to accomplish this, as most of this blog is dedicated (as well as my book) to building a dominant fighter, so let’s talk about the fighter who still experiences fear although he is being properly trained.

So, the question–I believe–is why would a student still be afraid, although he is being trained?  There are several areas that may not necessarily be covered by a good training program. I don’t believe they are at the fault of the teachers, as many systems simply do not address all the areas:

  • Defense against weapons–most FMA systems will address weapons vs empty hands, but most do not actually teach fighting versus those weapons. Facing a real weapon is scary. The first weapon I faced was at the ripe old age of 19, and was at my sister’s birthday party in the Philippines. One of the men I was fighting had a pipe, and guess what? None of the skills against the stick I had learned came out in that fight. In fact, do you know what I used to combat him? A well-placed roundhouse kick… to the jaw. On top of that, he darned near broke my arm, and I still have the scar from the pipe, as it broke my skin. The next weapon I faced came about 5 years later, and it was in Baltimore, and was a knife. Fortunately for me, I had a knife too, and the guy ran. But the fear was only there for the pipe. By the second time, I had fought many times against a wooden knife and had a plan. Some call it stupidity; I call it preparation.
  • Combat against several people–I had been “jumped” several times throughout my childhood, and I learned early on that I was stronger and had more endurance than most opponents I may face. The first time I fought a group, I was 11, and scared as a mouse. By the time I was 13, it was no longer an “attack”, but a “fight” versus a group of people. Fortunately, as an adult, I have only had one incident when I was outnumbered and actually fought… and that time was my fault–I approached them. But I did have a few near-incidents, and I believe that my lack of fear is what kept me from having to fight. If I seemed afraid, a fight would have been unavoidable. However, preparation was not so much sparring against a group in training, as much as it was simply being in top shape and very strong. Again, a by-product of proper training.
  • The practice of facing fears–this is perhaps the second most important of them all. Remember, from earlier articles, I quote the saying that courage is not really the absence of fear–but the willingness to face and confront them. Many fighters, especially older students, will be nervous about sparring. In order for many teachers to hold on to students longer, they will not force students who are afraid of sparring to do it. It can be the act of sparring, or sparring with heavy contact, or even a certain classmate or exercise. As teachers, we must recognize when students fear something or someone, and work to remove that fear. There are several ways to do this, but I feel the best way is to just talk to your fighter about his fear and then have him face it regularly until he is no longer afraid. One of my strongest memories of my teacher, Boggs Lao, is his insistence that I fought with a classmate I feared name Bernard. He was one of those really aggressive fighters who would hit you hard–even hard enough to knock you down–and I don’t think I ever saw him lose a match. He drove an 80-something Toyota Celica hatchback, and I remember looking to see if that car were outside before arriving to class. If I saw it, I knew Boggs would make me fight him that night. Eventually, I sparred him daily at lunch time, and within a few months, I was perhaps the only student who could handle Bernard. And guess what? I was perhaps the only one who was not afraid of him (except for Lakeim Allah, who matched him in every department except speed)… Boggs told me after I was promoted to Black Belt, that he knew I was afraid of Bernard, so he made me fight him until I lost the fear.

We do not want to overlook our student’s fears. When they do not face them, they will end up as martial artists who do not have the courage level of a warrior. When they are taught to deal with fear, they can then deal with almost all of their fears.

I hope you find this article helpful. Thank you for visiting my blog.

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2 Responses to “Building Courage in Martial Arts Students”

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