Road to black belt: Part 2 – Fear

Road to black belt: Part 2 – Fear

Hi I’m Tanya. I’m currently a 1st Kyu (brown with 2 white stripes) and I’m hoping to grade for first Dan in June, alongside 5 others from Senshi Karate. I’m writing a blog about my journey to First Dan. Last month I wrote about the importance of stamina. You can read that post here.

This month I wanted to concentrate on the mental side of karate and something which we all experience at some point along our karate journey – fear. The feeling that will stop you being at your best (or even turning up at all). But more importantly, I want to talk about what I am doing to help put fear back in its box for June.

Fear can be a lot of different things to different people – everyone’s trigger point is different. For some people it might be something physical like the fear of injury, or intense training. For others, it’s more of mental challenge: maybe fear of a (new) situation, fear of (new) people, or even the fear of failure.

So what on earth has fear got to do with Dan grading?

The Dan grading is not done on your home patch like normal kyu gradings in your club. Dan grade candidates have to go to a central location selected by our association body, Shotokan Connect, and grade with other people from other Shotokan Connect clubs, judged by a grading panel independent of the club that we’re not very familiar with. The combination of new dojo, new panel and new opponents throws a lot of nerves into the mix. Nerves that you won’t experience in your normal dojo and regular training, where you have the comfort of knowing your instructors and fellow students.

So what am I doing about managing my fear?

The short answer is by building my confidence, to make the unknowns less scary. I’m not talking about ‘the swagger and bravado’ sort of confidence, I mean the self-assuredness which is born through experience and practice. Quite simply: the more you do something, the more familiar it becomes, the less you worry about it. For me, I have a number of fears for the grading ahead: I am nervous about fighting someone new (in the 3 or so minutes of free-sparring); I’m nervous I will aggravate an injury; and truth be told, I’m afraid to fail. So how am I going about building my confidence? Well, I have three strategies.

Strategy 1: many classes

To build confidence, my first strategy is to go to as many classes, masterclasses and additional training sessions as I can. Quite honestly, walking through the door of a new dojo is scary. So don’t forget to congratulate yourself on just turning up! A sea of new faces and new instructors is daunting but this is GREAT training for your Dan grading. Feel those nerves and get used to being out of your comfort zone. (And whilst you’re there, don’t skulk around at the back. The point of going on the course is to learn and a good instructor should be paying attention to everyone so there is no point hiding away.)

The more you train with different people, the broader the experience you can get, then it will start to take away that element of unknown and fear surrounding it. My aim is to step up to my free-sparring fight in June with a healthy mix of nerves and self-assuredness that I’ve gained from pushing myself out of my comfort zone and getting the experience under my belt (so to speak). I am hoping that my self-confidence will be unsettling to my opponent, and reassuring to the grading panel in equal measure.

Strategy 2: overcome my injury

My second strategy relates to an injury – I recently broke my wrist (not through karate!) and it’s playing on my mind that it will hold me back in June or even stop me from grading at all. I’m no doctor but I am listening to my body and pushing it as far as I can while being sensible. I’m finding the key is to be kind to yourself and not go hell-for-leather the moment you think you’re better. I’m an impatient patient so this is not natural for me at all. But I’m focussing on long-term gains. Build up the trust and confidence in your body so you can rely on it when you need it.

Strategy 3: permission to fail

My final strategy for building confidence is perhaps counter-intuitive but is grounded in sports and musical performance psychology. Give yourself permission to fail. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to succeed but sometimes that pressure creates a bit of a mental block. We get so worked up around making our techniques and kata perfect, we overthink and things get worse. We’ve all seen professional sportsmen and women be brilliant in practice and then mess up their big moment. (Penalty shoot-out anyone?!) Allowing myself permission to fail will enable me to relax a little, enough to stop overthinking. And we all know that being relaxed makes a better, more confident performance. Easier said than done, which is why starting 3 months away from the big day is important. Permission to fail absolutely DOES NOT mean not trying hard, but rather reframes your training so you’re not giving yourself an internal ‘talking-to’ every time things don’t go to plan.

Three is the magic number

Okay, so it’s confession time for me. This isn’t my first Dan grading. Or even my second. This will be my third! Yup, you heard correctly. I was a karateka as a child and took my Shodan for the first time in my mid-teens. I failed for ‘coasting’. I took my first Dan for the SECOND time when I was 16. My Dad tells me that I was so focused the second time around that if anyone would have told me I’d failed, he feared for them. I passed!

So why am I taking first Dan again, 27 years later? Well, I had a 25-year break from karate and the obvious answer is that you forget a lot in that time! Since returning to karate I’m relearning the martial art and relearning my new (older) body. It means that I’m in a particularly unique position to know what a Dan grading requires. It’s definitely a physical challenge but the mental strength required shouldn’t be underestimated. That’s why I’m investing in my mental preparation now. When I step up before the grading panel in June I want to be ready in body AND mind.

Third time’s a charm, right!?!

Follow my journey and read more…

3 thoughts on “Road to black belt: Part 2 – Fear

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