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By Christopher Caile

It can turn the most practiced martial artist into a rubbery jelly, frozen, unable to act. It makes him or her vulnerable. That’s fear with a capital “F” at work.

I’m not talking about the normal run of the dojo trepidation or the stress and anxiety of competition or demonstration. I’m talking about deep wrenching fright – the terror felt during an actual attack –when you fear for your life.

It can totally incapacitate. Your legs tremble, heart pounds, you sweat, you want to run and you can’t seem to move or know what to do. You see the danger, you see the attack but you don’t respond effectively.

It was a few years ago. I knew a karate-ka who was quite good. He prided himself on his closet full of gleaming trophies. He thought he was the “Man”, you could tell it by the way he talked and held himself.

One day I saw him on the street, and he was all banged up. “What happened to you?” I asked. He didn’t want to talk about it. A few weeks later I saw him again and this time he confessed. He had been attacked by two teenagers who demanded money, he said. “I just stood there. They hit me and then stole my wallet. I didn’t do anything.” He was so embarrassed.

His martial arts training had failed him because it had been incomplete. He had not learned to use fear, to use his reactions to his advantage. Instead fear and the stress of the moment had become his enemy. He had trained in technique but he had never trained in how to deal with his emotions and body reactions that had gripped him. And he is not alone. This is an unfortunate limitation to most martial artist’s training.

If you want to make your martial arts training credible, learning to deal with fear is critical. Some say it is the number one factor in responding to any attack or self-defense situation. (Of course, if you are just training to get in shape, meet friends or build discipline, this might not be so important.)

Fear and stress are natural responses to danger. They are the body’s survival response. But, if you don’t understand these responses, learn what to expect and how to deal with them, these same responses can take you by surprise and paralyze action.

In intense, threatening situations the body reacts – increased heart rate and breathing. The blood stream is flooded with adrenaline (the adrenaline dump). Blood flow to the extremities is reduced and diverted to large muscle groups. Body functions not critical to survival are reduced, such as digestion. The breath rate increases and you sweat.

At low stress and fear levels, the body feels infused with added power and strength. Senses become more acutely aware. The ability to run, jump, and hear is enhanced. Reaction time is decreased - as your body shifts into action gear.

At moderate to high levels of stress and fear, the legs often begin to tremble. Some people feel nausea and their vision tunnels (peripheral vision is reduced). Hearing can also become impaired. For many, events seem to shift into slow motion as fear itself floods through their thoughts. They want to run (fight or flight syndrome). There is indecision.

Some people actually freeze at this point. They are unable to process the threat and response options effectively. Some react irrationally, become disoriented, and can’t respond well physically because their abilities deteriorate (fine motor skills). At extreme stress levels even more complex motor skills can fail – such as those involved in combination techniques.

Law enforcement has studied officers’ reactions to extreme stress and fear. Studies have found that reactions vary greatly – from total irrationality (in one case an officer actually threw his gun at the attacker and then turned and ran) to total control and poise even after having suffered multiple gun shot wounds.

These same studies determined that the ability to react optimally could be traced to proper training: rehearsing of, and training in, the proper methods of dealing with a variety of threatening circumstances so events would not take officers by surprise. Likewise martial arts instruction should teach and condition students on how to deal with adrenaline and fear induced stress through drills, proper rehearsal of self-defense and other means.

How? On a basic level, free fighting, competition, demonstrations and promotions (especially before seniors) can introduce students to their emotions and reactions and train them on what to expect from low to mid levels of stress and fear. This is why participation in competition and demonstrations can be useful to students (who often naturally shy away from participation). They learn about and are forced to deal with their stress/fear reactions. But, this is basic training only. Often what is at stake in these situations is the ego, fear of losing or not looking good. The chance of getting hurt in point scoring competition is minimal. Full contact is more stressful, but still the consequences are limited to losing and perhaps getting temporarily hurt. Having your life at stake is something else.

Even contact free fighting, however, can create dehabilitating body reactions. I know because I experienced them myself.

Many years ago while practicing Kyokushin karate under Mas Oyama in Japan I found myself hurt virtually every day in free fighting. The anticipation of being hurt actually affected my ability to react. Every day I dreaded practice fighting – I would get knocked down, punched and often really hurt (I had been taken to the hospital four times in the first few months of practice).

One day I talked the situation over with my housemate, Donn Draeger. He said,“If you fear the sword, you will die by it.” He said you have to get to the point of ignoring danger. For me, daily meditation was the key. When I finally could accept the fact that I would be hurt, I was able to calm my mind and the effects of the danger on me were reduced. I reacted better and suddenly I was no longer getting punished.

Don also reminded me that I really was not in real danger, at least in terms of my life. A couple of weeks after our discussion, he took me aside one day to talk. We talked about my fear again and various solutions. He said that he wanted to emphasize the point about really being in danger.

“Let me show you something, “he said. “ And whatever you do, don’t move. Don’t move. Right?” We had been talking in his room and he reached down into a small separated area where he had a low writing table, books and assorted other things. In his hand I saw a short sword in its sheath. “Don’t move, and for God’s sake keep you hands down and hold on to your belt.” he said again. I froze as his hand whipped out. I felt the air separate an inch over my head as a razor sharp blade whizzed past --- whoosh.

“Now that’s fear,” he said. I knew.

I was all too aware that if the blade had been just a little off I would have been dead or severely injured. It was bone chilling. For from some deep reaches of my soul, an icy cold fear and trepidation had exploded upward. I felt totally focused and super alert – riveted by the experience, but my limbs trembled – as if I had no control. (Note: This stunt should never be attempted. It was foolhardy even though Donn was an expert swordsman.)

“That is the emotional difference between a fight and life threatening danger,” Donn said. I understood. That is why practice fighting, even if it involves contact, may not provide enough mental conditioning.

Students who are interested in learning realistic self-defense should also practice how to respond to forceful simulated attacks and multiple confrontations – drill situations where they must respond with force and without restraint. This can be done by having attackers dressed in full body protective armor actually attack with force.

Another method is mental: to use kata for training. But this requires mentally making kata real and also learning realistic moves within your kata (something which is difficult to do). Richard Kim (the famous karate teacher, historian and writer) used to advocate using past experiences of fear, and dredging up new images (like seeing an attacker), feelings of threat and fear – visual and mental incantations used to induce fear reactions in order to learn how to respond to them.

In this way, Kim often said, karate kata could provide a link to the spirit and intent of the Japanese classical battlefield martial arts. Using kata this way, you can experience and practice self-defense situations within the context of real (but self-induced) stress and fear.

There are other methods as well. Of course some people go out and look for fights (to test themselves which is not practical for most students or advised). Others take up boxing (one method I used), full contact kick boxing, become bouncers, or use their experience within the military or law enforcement. Another less intense method is acting or public speaking (because this can cause fear that has to be controlled).

What is important is to become mentally conditioned through the most realistic, stressful training possible. Without it, all the physical capability and technique you have learned may fail you at the very moment when they need it most.

With training and conditioning you can actually learn to recognize the signals and use the adrenaline and fear response to heighten capability. Once you are emotionally and mentally conditioned to respond to physical confrontation and attack, you will be able to respond better. Your body will be trained in response, and be powered and speeded by the adrenaline pumping though your veins.

Fear which was once your enemy can in this way become your ally.

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About The Author:

Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of He has been a student of the martial arts for over 44 years. He first started in judo. Then he added karate as a student of Phil Koeppel in 1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and then hitch-hiked eastward. In Japan (1961) he studied under Mas Oyama and later in the US became a Kyokushinkai Branch Chief. In 1976 he followed Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 6th degree black belt in that organization's honbu dojo. Other experience includes judo, aikido, diato-ryu, kenjutsu, kobudo, shinto muso-ryu jodo, boxing and several Chinese fighting arts including praying mantis, pak mei (White Eyebrow) and shuai chiao. He is also a student of Zen. A long-term student of one branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong, he is a personal disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.) and is Vice-President of the DS International Chi Medicine Association. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from American University in Washington D.C. and has traveled extensively through South and Southeast Asia. He frequently returns to Japan and Okinawa to continue his studies in the martial arts, their history and tradition. In his professional life he has been a businessman, newspaper journalist, inventor and entrepreneur.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

fear, high stress, adrenaline dump, street self-defense, self-defense

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