Fear does not exist in this dojo

Anyone who’s seen The Karate Kid, the one from 1984 not the new one with Will Smith’s kid, will recognize the title.  It’s a repeated line from the bad sensei in the movie.  We know he’s the bad guy because he’s tough and mean and regularly teaches his students to crush their opponents.  Also, he’s cut the sleeves off his gi, a sure sign of being a bad guy.

When I first saw The Karate Kid it made me want to study Karate.  It would actually be many years (well, five) before I actively started studying, in this case an old Okinawan form called Shodin Ji Do, taught by a guy at my college who had studied the art in Okinawa.  It was a real eye-opener.  It was the first time I had been exposed to the endless repetition that goes into teaching some of these older arts.  I think the guys that run the school in the link above may have learned from Dr. Robert Taylor as well, but I’m not positive.

Over time, I drifted from Shodin Ji Do and wound in Kenpo and have stayed there pretty much ever since, with a minor sojourn into Kenjutsu and Aikido.

When I started Kenpo in 1999, I still had some of the ideas about Karate I’d picked up from The Karate Kid all those years earlier; be merciful, karate is for defense only, blah, blah, blah.  Some of those ideals I still hold true to.  For instance, I’m not going to go out and start a fight just because I can.  On the other hand, you regularly hear about people getting beaten to a pulp over trivial arguments.  You still hear about women getting gunned down because they wouldn’t have sex with a total loser.  I also know there are a great many people out there who are carrying knives and guns because they think the world is out to get them and are just itching for an excuse to knife someone or shoot someone.

Personally, I don’t carry weapons and I try to go out of my way to avoid any potentially dangerous situations.  I’m more likely to try to talk my way out a situation than engage in a fight.  Fighting is risky and even though I know how to deal with a gun or a knife, I don’t really relish the idea of testing my skills in a live fight.

Still, just reading the news every now and then makes me wonder if the bad sensei from The Karate Kid wasn’t preparing his students for a violent situation better than Miyagi was preparing his student.  The Cobra Kai were dicks, to be sure, but they were probably better trained at handling violence.  And that, right there, is an extremely important part of fighting.  Most people are not mentally prepared to deal with a dangerous, violent situation.

There’s a biological reaction that happens when we’re put in dangerous situations, the brain dumps adrenaline, your breathing changes and your mind turns to mush.  When that happens, the only thing you’ve got left is gross motor movement and that’s significantly less effective.  The only way to around this problem is to get used to it, to be put in those uncomfortable situations and learn to overcome the biological response.

That and practice, practice, practice.

Today when I was at the gym I started, as I always do, by finding the heavy bag the JCC keeps hidden in the stairwell and was surprised to see someone else in there.  That doesn’t happen too often.  In the years I’ve been doing it, I’ve only ever seen a couple of people hit that bag.  One was a kid with a huge roundhouse punch that’s going to get him clobbered in a real fight, another was a regular guy who petered out after 30 seconds or so.  Today there was a young woman in there actively trying to take what she’d been taught and put it to use.

The more I see people doing that, taking what they’ve learned in a class somewhere and trying to implement it, the better I feel about the state of the martial arts in the world.  Too many people people practice their arts by punching air.  That’s good for form, but it doesn’t teach you positioning, distancing, how to develop power, how to relax, and, most importantly, what it feels like to actually hit something.  Punching and kicking a heavy bag will teach you all that.

After studying martial arts for a while, I have to wonder if maybe the Cobra Kai Sensei wasn’t onto something.  All the various forms of martial arts out there exist for a couple of reasons: learn to avoid getting hit and learn to hurt someone.  Mostly, it’s the latter.  I would argue that all martial arts exist for the sole purpose of making it easier and more efficient to clobber to someone.  To survive the fight, you need to know the mechanics of fighting, but your mind has to be ready to do some violent things to another person.  If you can’t get to that point, you’re just spinning your wheels.

It’s from that mindset that things like Reality Based Self-Defense have risen.  People like Kelly McCann and systems like Krav Maga have taken some of the traditional martial arts and tried to integrate the natural fear response into their curricula.  I’m slowly trying to integrate the idea that you don’t always have a nice, clean dojo to fight in when I teach the kids classes in Kenpo by putting punching shields in and around the kids and telling them they have to work around those things or by getting the kids to do their katas outside or on parking blocks, anything to simulate the rubble-strewn surfaces real fights take place on.  We also did a fun exercise where one student would close his or her eyes and three other students would position themselves around that person randomly.  When I call go, the student would open his or her eyes, locate the student with the red shield and hit the shield as quickly as possible.

Fighting, real fighting, takes place in uncontrolled areas.  While I don’t know McCann’s Kembatives or Krav Maga, I can take some of the the theories they have and incorporate them into my own training and what I teach.  It doesn’t really matter what style you’re doing, as long as you understand that it does, in fact, have real-world implications and it doesn’t always take place when and where you want it to.

I’m always happy to see people learning to defend themselves.  The young woman I saw at the gym yesterday is starting a long path, but when she gets there she’ll be safer.  There’s an old saying, “When seconds count, the police are minutes away.”  Not to diss the cops, they can’t be everywhere at once (unless you’re late for work and speeding, then they’re everywhere).  Ultimately, it’s up to you to learn how to take care of yourself.

So, while fear probably will always exist, it’s possible to get used to it, as long as what you’re learning helps you to understand that fear and tries to get you out of your comfort zone.

If you don’t know how to fight, go learn.  There are a ton of good schools out there (there are a ton of bad ones, too, so go watch a class and see what you think).

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