On the mats: On Managing Fear

In every aspect of the term, fear causes us to react instead of living proactively. I was taught in martial arts that I have to move past my fear in order to be able to fight.   When I was flinching, I was impulsively reacting- letting my fear burn my energy- rather than thinking, trusting my instincts and training and making a conscious choice about how I wanted to respond in an effective way.  I was reactive and afraid, sometimes making a move that worked temporarily or, most often, reacting in a manner that was completely ineffective.  I trained and I trained and I trained.  At some point, and I am not even sure when that moment was, I stopped blinking.  I stopped panicking.  I stopped thinking.  I was no longer afraid.  Time slowed down and it felt as if I could see every move from a mile away.  I did not plan, I let my body know what to do.  At times I blocked a punch before my brain even knew what I had done.  Flow state.

More fascinating to me than my ability to work at that speed and mental state in the ring was how it impacted my day to day life:  My relationships, my routines, my work ethic, and my entire perspective on life.  The relationship we have with ourselves permeates our relationships with everything else.  Everything.  When someone gave me attitude, it rolled off me like butter.  I did not take it personally because it was not about me, and I did not make it such.  Challenges felt like challenges, but did not impact my mood or attitude towards life.  I saw people with more clarity, and I could empathize with others more easily.  I felt stronger and more confident than ever.  I was excited and curious about trying new things without fear of failure.

Then, I stopped training.  You know, life happened.  College, a few moves, job changes, graduate school and a couple of injuries that meant I needed to take a break from the daily grind of hitting the mats.  What were the results–I felt the sensation of “dizziness” for the first time in my life.  Seriously.  After training since childhood, I did not know what “dizzy” felt like, and that was just one of the first physiological parts of not training that I notices.  The dizziness permeated into other parts of my life- confusion over who I should spend my time with, what decisions I should make, conflict resolution, identity…  I was dizzy, alright, in every sense of the word.  I also started “flinching” again.  The moment someone was on top of me (smothering my face…common in jiujitsu), I panicked.  I became reactive, in training and with friends, family members, strangers and in making daily choices.  I did not trust my judgment.  I did not trust my ability to handle a situation.  Everything got harder.

In order to get back on track, was my first job to train harder? To get stronger? To get faster?  No. It was ACCEPTANCE.

My coach, when I first started boxing did not let me throw a punch for two months.  TWO months!  He knew what I needed- to take hits, accept the hits, and stop being afraid of the hits.  I had to extinguish that fear of being hurt, my fear of losing, my fear of being embarrassed, my fear of being vulnerable…What did my training look like? 100% defense and looking square at the glove as it approached my jaw.  I took hits- to the face, to the gut, leg checks, throws, take downs, chokes… What was my job? To remain calm and clear headed. To breath. To keep my heart-rate down. For at least a moncleareyesth, I thought, “This is bullshit. I came here to learn to fight.”

However, over time, guess what was happening? Those hits hurt less.  I was deflecting more of them. I could see them coming from a mile away. I lost my fear of getting hit.  I began CHOOSING which hits I would take and which hits I would block or avoid.  I regained choice. I knew what I could now handle. THAT is where power is located. It is in our CHOICES.

When I began incorporating strikes again- throwing my own punches and kicks…you know what I discovered?  It was not only so much easier but often unnecessary!  I didn’t have to work so hard, because I had choice. I was calm. I was no longer defensive. I was no longer aggressive. I could just be.  I would chose what hits to take, and I could chose just where I wanted to land that roundhouse kick and when…as opposed to my previous style of throwing a bunch of fancy strikes out there and hoping one of them would land.   Instead of reacting and worrying about how I was going to block their strike, I was thinking about my next move.  I was strategizing, and working towards my overall goal.

This is life.  When we are focused on preventing pain, we are not opening our minds up to creativity, exploration, curiosity and strategy.  Practice taking challenges, fears, struggles, rejection and pain…feeling it, experiencing it, learning from it and remembering what it feels like.  Then, next time it comes your way you can say, “Oh, hi, I know you.  I can handle you.  Excuse me, I have other things to focus on…”  

Speaking of…time to hit the mats!




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