I would like to know why martial artists who believe in their training and technique still have a deep fear of engaging in a fight, or losing a match.

  • How did you come to know this? Did a practitioner tell you this? What is the source? – RoundHouse Sep 19 at 5:42
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    There is no such thing as being perfectly prepared for a real fight. One should always, rightfully, be afraid of the moment when it comes to this (although not in the moment itself). The best preparation is being a regular brawler, which is kind of the antithesis to being a (modern) martial artist. There a re some nice anecdotes on this especially regarding the students of Jigoro Kano and how he despised their picking a fight too lightheartedly and regularly... – Philip Klöcking Sep 19 at 21:34
  • It's a good and valid question. You can't really downvote him for his English. I've suggested an edit to make the question a bit more clear. The question is more about the psychology of a fighter rather than the martial art they practice. "Why is it that fighters can excel in training, but become afraid when there's something to lose". – Sjana Sep 22 at 15:38

Thanks for this question. It's a subject that's near and dear to me. And I think I understand what you're asking.

When I was a brown belt in Taekwondo, I was 17 years old, and I remember having an encounter with a drunk, crazy guy on the lawn of someone's home on Halloween night. A smaller friend of mine was with me, and I think we were going to a party or something. Well, this crazy guy starts picking a fight with my friend for no good reason other than he was much smaller and an easy target.

Now, it didn't help that this friend of mine was not backing down and was actively engaging the drunk, crazy guy. I just kind of stood there, motioning for my friend to come and get out of there. When the crazy guy really started getting physical with my friend, I froze. I wanted to go over and rescue my friend, but in that instant, I felt that I had nothing I could do. I was imagining what I would do, but I just didn't think any of it would work reliably, and the situation was totally unlike anything I prepared for in Taekwondo. I felt completely out of my element and just froze.

After that, I did go on to get my black belt several months later. So I was almost a black belt when this happened. After getting my black belt in Taekwondo, I graduated high school and went to college. And in college, I went on to study a bunch of other martial arts. I was never satisfied, though. I was always looking for new systems that could take me further and give me more realistic fighting tools.

Over the decades since then, the rise of the UFC and MMA happened. The martial arts community in general has become a lot more knowledgeable about fighting. And we know now why practicing MMA leads to more successful outcomes in sport-based fighting as well as real life fighting than, say, Taekwondo or Aikido. The reason is simple: It's not the style, it's the way you train that matters.

I go over this more at my answers in the following links:

Measurement of the practicality of a martial art

is Jun Chong TKD a legitimate TKD dojo for self defense?

Essentially, it comes down to being confident. And I don't mean having a false sense of confidence, like many martial arts give students. Real confidence in fighting means you recognize the situation and are comfortable with it. You don't gain confidence in fighting without realistic training. Realism means that you have someone who's kicking you, punching you, grabbing you, throwing you to the ground, wrestling you, choking you, etc. And he's not letting you go. He's actively resisting you all he can in order to "win" against you.

If you're just doing a very small subset of those things - like Taekwondo does - or you're doing it, but without a partner who's putting pressure on you and really trying to win against you, then you're going to freeze in a real life fight like I did. You will realize in that instant that you don't really know how to fight, and this situation you're in bears no resemblance to anything you did in class.

You have to train for fighting as realistically as possible. There should be very little rules, except to prevent injuries. You need to train safely so that you can come back day after day and get better and better. If you don't have any rules, injuries are guaranteed to happen, and you won't be making any progress. In fact, you'll quit after the first day. So you need to look at the way MMA trains. They take a very minimal approach to the rules and allow pretty much any technique. And most important, they will keep the pressure on you. They won't just let you do things and get away with it. You'll find out really quickly whether you can handle yourself or not.

Some people freeze when, deep down, they realize they don't know how to fight. Others just know to avoid situations like this. Avoiding fights when possible is what you should always do, if you can. But if you need to fight, you want to be confident that you can handle yourself. Otherwise you're going to freeze or do something foolish that will only get you hurt.

Being afraid to fight is fine. That doesn't mean you lack ability and confidence. Everyone should be afraid to fight, because there's no telling what will happen in a fight. The guy could take out a knife or a gun when you're not expecting it. Or one of his friends could come out of nowhere and hit you over the head with a big rock or something.

But letting your fear paralyze you from acting and doing the right thing is not okay. Usually it means you just don't know how to fight, and you know it's true at a deep level even if you don't realize it consciously. You can get over it with the proper training method. It's how you train that matters, not the style.

Hope that helps.

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  • Humans have an innate feeling of self-preservation. This innate feeling is sometimes overwritten by several conflicting emotions. The most common being pride. When humans feel the need to defend their pride, they may leap into a fight without second thought. Another is something that was long thought to be unique to humans. That is Altruism. Altruism is when you step into a fight risking your own neck for that of someone else. However, when people are trained in combat, they also know the dangers of combat. And this can freeze people in place when confronted with physical violence. Preserve. – Sjana Sep 22 at 14:07
  • Preservation enters your body like a shock when you are faced with sudden and unexpected danger. When you're training, you never feel the direct need to defend your life. In a real fight with a real assailant, that shock may be too much to handle on the first time it happens, and maybe even a lot of times after that first time. Some people can get over it quite fast, while others have that lingering feeling of self-preservation. Fight or flight. And a lot of people choose flight by default, until they feel more confident about a dangerous violent confrontation. – Sjana Sep 22 at 14:10
  • @Sjana Yes, all of that is correct. My experience was a little different, though. I was observing myself at the time. And what I realized in that moment was that nothing I had learned in TKD training prepared me for this real fight. I'm a very intuitive person. I visualize scenarios very quickly to see how they'll play out in my mind before I select one to execute. And I just did not see any scenario playing out well. I had no answer for him grabbing me, for example. After running out of ideas, I realized I had nothing. It's a harsh realization when it happens. But I suddenly saw the truth. – Steve Weigand Sep 22 at 14:25
  • All in all, if you can avoid a fight, you always should. If your friend truly was in danger, I'm sure you would've stepped in, despite not knowing how to fight him. The odds of 2 versus 1 still sounds more promising to your brain than "I know my kicks and punches". I have had to defend myself 3 times in life. As in, truly defend myself. Not talking about silly street brawls where we all know no one's going to die. When it comes to it though, those street brawls do prepare you for more serious encounters. 1/2 – Sjana Sep 22 at 15:31
  • But when you've had an encounter of life and death, you don't want to be in that scenario ever again. So you will automatically avoid a fight at all cost. And when there is no way to get out of the confrontation anymore, you are prepared with your experience from the previous time(s). I don't freeze up anymore. Instead, it became more natural for me to use body language to get the assailant to "lose interest". Most people who pick a fight do so for the fight itself. When you make it uninteresting for them to fight, they just walk away scoffing a bit. 2/2 – Sjana Sep 22 at 15:33

Q: why a perfect expert and trained taekwondo player or martial artist fear fights?

A: Have you heard of the saying that the more you learn about something, the more you realize how much more there is to learn? The same thing is relevant in martial arts. For a novice, the "experts" seem to know everything and can handle any attacker. The "experts" walk with presence, and seem to have an "air of confidence" that the novice aspires to have. This is typically seen in a controlled environment.

What Steve Weigand mentioned about 'confidence' is absolutely true. You gain true confidence by building it up in many 'fights' - the less rules the better for your confidence. Unfortunately, there is a high correlation with fight experience and a greater chance of being injured or killed. Training in a safer environment is great and also build confidence but you also begin to acutely realize your distinct deficiencies. You also are comforted by the fact that if you do get injured, your opponent (usually) doesn't keep attacking - there is a pretty definite stopping point.

If you don't train sufficiently realistically, you gain a false sense of confidence. This means that your moves all work when your opponents are compliant and know how to react. You feel like a badass who can win any fight, however, in a spontaneous fight, your opponent will not be compliant - at all. To make things worse, your opponent could pull out a weapon, or have friends nearby. Despite what movies might suggest, coming out unscathed against a weapon wielding attacker is very difficult (even for trained martial artists), and multiple attackers significantly reduces your chances of 'winning'. Even if you do 'win' in some way by injuring your attacker(s) to the point where they stop attacking you, now you may face legal repercussions - even for a self defense scenario - and that is just the start of your problems.

Does any of this mean that martial arts are useless? Not at all. But have some expertise in a martial art can get you out of a bad situation, make you aware of your limitations, and teach you that avoiding a fight is almost always your best option. To summarize, a "streetfight" has too many uncontrolled variables even for a very experienced martial artist to guarantee that they will be successful. Any martial artist with robust training knows this, and this is why they fear fights.

If you're still curious about this, I've put together a longish document based on my experiences and what I've seen: A primer on effective self-defense

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