Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Break falling - a key to overcoming fear

I was inspired to write this post by Felicia after reading her latest post Epiphany: distance karate . In this post she talks about a problem she has getting in close and throwing or locking her partner during ippon kumite practice. She states:

"I know it makes no sense, but I think the idea of stepping into a
technique to grab someone and take them down intimidates the snot out of me. Like every other little girl on the planet, I grew up on fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White where the heroine was kind, gentle, giving and nurturing. Sure their gentle nature almost did them in, but in the end, it all worked out, right? I think that's my hope as far as self-defense goes. Perhaps I may even be a little afraid of hurting my adversary, which absolutely makes no
sense at all"

Fear of getting hurt or of hurting someone else can be a big barrier to overcome when learning martial arts. I have experienced this barrier myself and it has impeded my progress in karate training for about two years! I now feel that I am finally able to break that barrier down (or rather I am in the process of breaking it down) and as a result my confidence is growing.

I think this fear is fairly common amongst women karateka. We want to learn self-defense but at the same time we are afraid to do it with any conviction. I know there are other women in my club who feel the same. We end up going through the motions of practising our self-defence moves but, like Felicia, we stop short of putting the lock fully on or doing the throw with conviction.

Perhaps it is our upbringing that makes it particularly difficult for us to display the necessary aggression or assertion. It's part of the same social code that tells us to 'always think the best of people' or to trust people until we are absolutely sure they are about to hurt us (in which case it might already be too late to execute an effective defense).

So why does it take female karateka so long to overcome their fears? I'm talking about senior brown belts still having this reticence -people who have been training for 3-4 years. I think some of the blame has to lie with karate training itself. In many styles of karate pretty well all throwing techniques have been removed from the syllabus, yet traditionally throwing was a core part of karate.

I mentioned earlier that I was now breaking down the barrier of fear that I once experienced. This has really started to happen in the last 3 months since I started to learn kobudo at a jujitsu club. Though I am not learning jujitsu I am expected to join in the break fall practice and hip throws or locking techniques at the beginning of the session with the jujitsukas. I now know how to fall safely and what it feels like to be thrown and guess what- it doesn't hurt!

Here's a video of an impressive break fall drill (this is advanced stuff, I can't do it like that!)

My confidence has grown enormously. Other martial artists I know have actually told me how much they enjoy being thrown! When they are throwing themselves into break falls they are clearly enjoying it, they are like kids throwing themselves around in a ball pool. I didn't used to understand this mentality but now I share it! There is a child like pleasure in throwing yourself around without getting hurt.

It doesn't stop there though. Being liberated from a fear of being hurt gives you greater confidence in executing other karate techniques. It makes you more assertive (rather than aggressive) in the way you practice all aspects of karate - whether with a partner or solo. However, I have developed a bit of a golden rule for myself: I won't do anything to my partner that I wouldn't tolerate having done to me. If I want to practice a technique assertively on someone then I encourage them to 'lock me tighter' or 'throw me harder', that way I know what it feels like and can better judge if I am doing a technique appropriately.

So for me the key to overcoming fear has been to learn how to fall properly and to learn how to throw and be thrown. I am pleased that in our new SSK syllabus break falling and throwing have been re-introduced to the syllabus so other members of my club will now have the opportunity to learn these skills and hopefully overcome their fears too.

How do you overcome your fear of hurting or being hurt?

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Felicia said...

Wow - what a great video, Sue! We've just started to do falls and throws like that, but it was quite impressive to watch. I'm not so much afraid to fall/be thrown as I am to hurt someone - especially someone I like and train with on a regular. Really limits my training, but the weird thing is that it took FIVE YEARS before I even realized I was stopping short. How sobering is that?

I think you're right about female karateka having the most difficulty with this. Ironically, when I'm working with a (usually male) uke who pulls a technique because he doesn't want to hurt me, I get upset. Ugh...

Interested in hearing about how others conquer their fears!

Sue C said...

Hi Felicia, I understand your reticence about hurting a training partner - I once gave a partner a black eye during sparring. It clearly hurt her a lot and I felt really bad about it but she did not blame me and did not want my apology. She accepted the risks she takes when doing karate. We are still friends and still train together. I, in turn learnt to pay more attention to distancing and control and I have become a better (and safer) sparrer as a result.

My partner (who is more senior than me) was right not to want my apologies. If you let a culture of constant apologies develop then you all become afraid of hurting each other. I explored this issue in a post a while back - you might want to read it, here's the link, it's called Karate is never having to say you're sorry:

You may have to cut and paste it, I don't know how to make links live in the comments section!

Anonymous said...

Well, I’m not a woman nor a practioner of karate nor do I have problems with going full-out on my training-partners (within the boundaries of reason and safety of course). I am a reasonably experienced martial-artist (ju-jutsu, brown belt training for black, I have a little more than 8 years of experience) and an assistant-teacher so maybe I have something to contribute to this discussion. I did find that beginners and women in particular tend to have problems with either executing techniques properly due to (undue) fear of hurting the other party or they behave awkwardly (shying away, tensing up, flinching) when techniques are applied to them (fear of pain and injury, this is not unreasonable in itself but it can generate problems and frustrations in training).
While most people experience these problems in the beginning (some indeed never overcome it completely) women do tend to find this more difficult than men. I don’t claim to know what’s going on in a woman’s head (a great mystery for the majority of us men, lol) and presumably every woman is different but I think their shyness is a product of both upbringing (girls play with dolls, boys with action-figures) and biology.

Aggression correlates with the level of testosterone in the blood and it’s a fact women by nature have far less of it than men. However this is in large part a mental issue and it can be remedied, below I’ll provide some clues as to how this might be effected. I’m not a master nor an expert in psychology or sports-physiology but I do know a thing or two about the MA and have trained with a great variety of people, teaching myself also gave me a new perspective on issues like this. Maybe this will help some people, in any case it’s interesting to read about other people’s experiences on the mat, especially since my aspiration is become sensei myself someday and understanding potential problems and psychological issues people might have is in my view just as important as technical knowledge and fighting-potential.

For one there's fear of getting hurt: while this fear is natural (when an object is flying at your face with high speed your first reaction would be to flinch, duck, cover-up or get away) it’s also something to be overcome in order to grow as a martial-artist and not hinder your partner’s execution of techniques or compromise your own defense (blinking when sparring is a bad idea since you won’t see the next attack coming). Again this may take some time but sooner or later you must have faith in your training-partners (they’re not there to hurt you, nor would they want to, and if you picked a decent dojo safety is always the first concern) and realize a large part of training is devoted to learning how to absorb these techniques without damage and as little pain or discomfort as possible. Of course it depends on the type of technique used but in general (especially with locks and throws) you should try to relax as much as possible meaning you shouldn’t tense up your body too much (except maybe to absorb a punch to the stomach) and just go with the flow. Do not resist your partner’s movement but go with it, it’ll be a lot less painful and far safer than giving resistance (in certain exercises you should but that’s a little more advanced and another matter entirely), forcing your partner to apply more force meaning more pain, a harder fall and a possible injury. …

Anonymous said...

Break-falling is a great exercise in developing this attitude: when you’re break-falling (I must have done this thousands of times already so I do think I know what I’m talking about) your body should be completely relaxed in order to absorb the shock and if your technique is correct you’ll just roll like a ball along the mat, remaining completely unscathed. If you tense up you’re more likely to use your hands to break the fall (a major source of injury in JJ) and not forming a ball will result in more impact on the shoulders and elbows and possible the neck if you technique is particularly bad. When your partner is practicing strikes in the context of a defense it pays to always have one hand in front or near your face: if by accident he does misjudge his distance you can still catch it, you should be able to absorb a blow to the body and I’d much rather have a bruise on my body than a bloody nose or a black eye. If you do get hit you should try to move away from the strike, this lessens the impact and reduces the chance of a knockout. Everyone who’s seriously training in the MA (at least those that utilize strikes) will get hit sooner or later: this is uncomfortable and it may alter your appearance a little for a short while (perhaps more of an issue to women than to men) but serious injuries are relatively rare (striking should be done with control and even when sparring light contact is sufficient) but you’ll live and it’s actually not bad since you learn (more or less) what it’s like to get hit. In a real fight there’s always a chance you’ll get hit and if this stuns you mentally you’re pretty much done for. Getting hit and experiencing pain is not fun but it’s a learning-experience, deal with it and accept it as part of your training. There’s not much you can do about pain except good stretching, relaxation and most of all acceptance. Whenever somebody has a lock on you and you feel pain tap, it’s simple as that. If you do this you won’t get injured (being stubborn will result in more pain and sooner or later you’ll hear a loud pop meaning your wrist or elbow is basically demolished) and pain goes away, it’s mostly a mental phenomenon anyway. How do I deal with this: do I accept it or do I make it worse than it really is?

As to the issue of fearing to hurt others: as a beginner it’s best to do your exercises in a slow, controlled manner. This way the chance of you involuntary hurting your uke will be greatly reduced: with time you’ll learn both control (the techniques are burned into your muscle-memory) and you’ll be better able to judge how far you can go without permanently injuring your partner. When striking don’t use too much force but do try to hit him, it’s very annoying to train with people who strike besides your head (for fear or hurting you) instead of the center of it. Most of all you must convince yourself it’s necessary to put a little intent and aggression into your techniques otherwise they’ll never work in real life. In order to do this it’s best to train a lot with higher belts: they’re tougher and more experienced and will be able to deal with your attacks and counterattacks far better than a beginner (as well as being able to give you pointers on how to improve your techniques) or someone your own level. Again trust your partner and speak to him/her: if they say your technique was too weak apply a little more force and speed the next time (and the next until your reach the limit). ...

Anonymous said...

However do remember people’s bodies are built differently and some people’s threshold for pain and flexibility are higher than others. Only in an atmosphere of trust and mutual cooperation (no machismo, nor ego) can people grow and overcome their limitations and fears. Don’t get impatient, work hard, listen to your instructor and try to emulate his or her example and that of your seniors and you’ll get over mental and physical barriers alike, as you did. To me that’s the beauty of the MA: it’s a way of discovering yourself and growing as a person as much as becoming proficient at fighting and developing your body.


Sue C said...

Zara: thank you for your very comprehensive comments, they are very welcome.

A recurring theme that you mentioned is about having a cooperative training partner. I think learning to be a good uke for your training partner is as important as developing your skill as tori. I think techniques sometimes fail because uke doesn't punch or kick straight, puts up too much/too little resistance or falls for you instead of letting you throw them! I think we should receive training in how to be a good uke - it would help a lot

Anonymous said...

Hi Sue,

Glad to be of assistance. I know I have a tendency to be a bit long-winded (comprehensive does sound much better, lol) on these topics but I didn’t really know what you knew already so I jotted down whatever came to mind. Learning how to be a good uke is indeed at least as important as becoming a good tori, even more so: without a good uke it’s difficult at best to properly train your techniques (if your partner can’t fall properly it’s virtually impossible to perform a good throw, let alone one at normal speed) and it basically undermines the whole concept of training, which should be about cooperation between two competent individuals with credible attacks and credible defenses. In JJ this is done mainly through ukemi or break-falling and it’s the reason why it’s performed (or should be performed) at the beginning of every training. You can never do too many break-falls and it does become fun after a while, once you get the hang of it. It’s an excellent add-on to your karate and weapons-training and it might save your neck one day, not so much due to attack as due to general clumsiness or accidents.

One last remark: I found that a great way of developing and training aggression (the ability to switch it on when needed without a build-up phase) is to take every advantage of impact-training. Be it on the heavy-bag, makiwara, wooden-dummy, focus-mitts or kicking-shield: whenever you train go full-out (except maybe on the makiwara), strike full-force and your whole body-weight behind it and imagine a real opponent when you’re doing it (preferably a mean-looking bodybuilder-type, that’s what I always do lol). This way you won’t hurt your partner yet you get to develop your killer-instinct and a sense of confidence in yourself and your weapons.

Anonymous said...

Personally I love impact-training: it’s a great way of conditioning and it’s very fun and satisfying to feel how much force you can generate, especially when you hear a satisfying tud when you hit the bag or focus-mitts just right. To me impact-training is one of the cornerstones of MA-training and it’s something I emphasize when I’m teaching: you need to develop your weapons (fists, feet, elbows and knees) in order to dish out respectable damage without damaging them. For years I’ve trained without any of the aforementioned equipment (hitting the air instead) and it took me years to transform my punch from a forceful push into a genuine hit (whenever you hit properly you always feel a slight jerk, as if your fist were catapulted towards the opponent) and even then I wasn’t all too confident in my ability to actually down somebody if push came to shove. Two years ago I changed dojo’s and from then on I started doing regular impact-training and I can honestly say that while I’m not a boxer I can deliver a knock-out punch when needed (proven on one occasion), this is not only a great weapon in itself but also a considerable source of confidence. The added advantage is that you don’t need to use your partner to found out how hard you can hit (eliminating the need to go hard on him/her, do try to perform with speed and fluidity though) but it does give you the reassurance you can actually hit hard when called for.

You have an interesting blog, I’ll check it out from time and drop you a line from time to time, or a whole essay (lol).


PS: sometimes it is necessary (with certain joint-locks for example) to jump and perform a fall before your partner actually initiates his technique in order to save yourself from serious injury. This is pretty advanced though and in the beginning it’s done very slowly to give you time to adjust and overcome any anxiety. In general you shouldn’t go to the ground unless you absolutely have to, you were right about that. That’s what I always tell beginners: you’re not doing each other favours by going down easily, basically it only masks flaws in technique and since this is meant to be used in defense of life and limb it’s a potentially very dangerous practice (it creates false confidence and unwarranted belief in abilities that aren’t really there. Your partner is basically your only source of reliable information (besides your teacher, who can usually spot faults just by looking at a technique) and if there’s no honest, respectful communication then your training will be for naught. In the beginning this will be very frustrating (why doesn’t this work, with everyone else it goes so smoothly) but it’s the only way you’ll learn and become good one day.

Sue C said...

Zara, thanks for your complement about my blog. Your comments are so full of useful information they are wasted hiding in my comments section - you should write your own blog, you have a lot of interesting things to say - you need a broader audience. I'll sign up as your first follower if you start one. In the meantime keep reading and commenting on mine!

Anonymous said...

Hi Sue,

Thanks for your kind words, I was actually told the same thing by Neil Martin from Urban Samurai. While I do not consider myself a beginner anymore I’m hardly a master (pride comes before the fall) and I think there a lot of people out there who are far more knowledgeable and more experienced than me, perhaps it’s better to let them do the talking and limit myself to commenting and contributing to the discussion whenever I have something new to offer. On top of that building and maintaining a blog seems like an awful lot of work, an activity for which I may not have the time in the near future. I will think about it though, in any case it’s nice to hear people actually find your thoughts interesting and I’m glad my advice was helpful to you and maybe a few others.

In essence we as martial-artists are very much alike (regardless of style, gender, origin, rank…) and we should endeavor to cooperate, respect each other and learn from each other (something easier said than done). An online community is a great way of achieving that and bringing together knowledgeable, experienced people from all over the world and from all walks of life. That’s why I like to read MA-related blogs: to learn and maybe offer some advice or guidance to others, based on my experience and with the caveat that what maybe right for me is not necessarily right for others, on their journey (whatever the goal). The reason I like your blog is that it offers a female outlook on the MA and training, since I am a man and have to teach on occasion it’s very helpful to learn how a woman approaches training and what her particular needs and problems are. Besides that you write well and you’re obviously passionate about training and incorporating karate in your life outside the dojo. To me this is the hallmark of a true martial-artist: it’s not just petty technique or putting in the hours at the dojo, it’s what you take from your training that is applicable in everyday life: a strong spirit, mental toughness, respect and rigorous discipline. This is what differentiates the dilettantes from the pros, martial-arts isn’t just a hobby or something you do just for fun or sports. It’s this enthusiasm and seriousness about training that seeps through every line on this blog and makes it highly readable and enjoyable. At least in my opinion.



Sue C said...

Zara, thank you so much. I'll look forward to further dialogue with you in the future.


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