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I've been taking up Tae Kwon Do for three years, but stopped since it didn't feel right for me. So I've taken up Arnis or Eskrima instead. Been doing so for three years too.

And then I realized that why Tae Kwon Do didn't feel right for me was because I found it somewhat violent. I found Arnis and Karate better for me, since then I can focus on technique and strategies. Though the lol part of this is that those two can be violent too. So I'm not really sure why until now I describe Tae Kwon Do as violent.

I think I'm a better sparrer with Arnis than with Tae Kwon Do, and I realized that it's because I can somewhat disassociate the violent part in my head with how Arnis spars are done compared with Tae Kwon Dos. And I realize that the spars I'm good at are the ones where one would have to do the first hit and avoid getting hit, and the other hits have the techniques evaluated. I'm not good at the one where one would have to hit your opponent as in continuously and the number of hits for that period of time is evaluated. I just can't muster up the drive to continuously hit my opponent. It's like something can't connect in my mind, and I find it violent.

I'm sorry if I can't describe the difference between the two kinds of spars/competition styles effectively since I've taken a hiatus due to studies. This problem has just been a thought that lingered with for so long.

Now my problem is I think it's still holding me back from my performance with sparring and competitions (with Arnis in the future), and I actually want to do better. I mean I think I can do better. I don't like this feeling holding me back from anything or from implementing my technique.

I know that it's most likely psychological. In a real fight I think I can go full on. And with the other parts of training, where we have to defend ourselves or disarm the opponents I'm actually good at those.

But I don't know, it's like something (or a feeling) is holding me back greatly when it's with body part to body part sparring. The feeling's lessened when it's with stick sparring.

I actually tried visualizing that my opponent is some killer or rapist, but it just won't stick since in reality, my opponent is really not.

So I was wondering if somebody else encountered someone who had this same problem? Or had this problem and how to overcome it? Or suggestions on how to solve this problem.

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What you're describing is a sensitivity to your own violent thoughts and actions. You feel bad even thinking about inflicting pain on a training partner, even if it's just a "tap" which you know causes no real pain. Just the thought of hitting someone over and over again causes you to feel bad. And so after 3 years of being in a style that practices that way, you decided enough was enough and walked away.

You're fine when you're just going over techniques and strategies, because it's all nicely controlled, and there's no hard impact. It's analytical. There isn't much room for emotion in that context.

Whereas, when you spar, you're engaging your emotional mind in addition to your analytical mind. That's when you begin to feel sensitive about violence. That in turn causes a great deal of anxiety and stress.

Sparring is a stressful situation, also. If you're not paying attention, or if you make a mistake, then you get hit. And Taekwondo teaches an aggressive form of sparring, whereby an offensive approach is instilled in the student from day one. You're taught to keep moving, keep attacking, keep pressure on your opponent. And if you don't do that, you usually get hit a lot. So it forces you to dial up your aggression. For sensitive people, that can be overwhelming.

I'm actually surprised you stayed for 3 years. I would have told you to leave after the first few times you felt this way. It's clearly not healthy for you to be there. It causes you to feel anxiety and stress, so why keep putting yourself through it?

By the way, I know that towards the 3rd year of Taekwondo, that's when things start getting more serious for a lot of people. That's when you enter the advanced colored belt ranks and start preparing for black belt. Things can get more serious and intense. I guess it makes sense that this is when you decided to get out of there. A lot of people leave right about then.

If you really do want to return to Taekwondo someday, my advice would be to try to reframe sparring in your mind so that it means something different to you. Then you won't feel the anxiety and stress that you do now. You can do that a number of ways.

For example, instead of feeling like you're trying to harm someone during sparring, you might try to think of it as helping them instead. If you're not trying to win, you're doing your opponent a disservice. He/she loses an opportunity at improving. So you're not being helpful unless you try to win. Realizing that might change some things for you.

Another thing you might try is to think of sparring as a game. Lots of people think of it mostly as a game. It's fun. It merely looks violent. They hit their opponent, but they don't hit hard enough to cause pain. Think of it as a game of Tag. When you're sparring, pay attention to your own thoughts. Are your intentions to cause harm? Are you angry? You mentioned envisioning your opponent as a killer or a rapist. Don't do that. Think of your opponent as being your friend, instead. And you're having fun with him/her. You're playing. It's a game. When you feel bad intentions, acknowledge having those thoughts, and quickly try to think of happier thoughts. Smile. Relax. Breathe deeply. Remain loose, but confident and happy.

Doing those kinds of things might help you reframe this in your mind from something that's violent and aggressive to something that's fun and stress relieving, like a game. Or something that's helping you and your classmate improve and succeed, giving it purpose beyond being a mere game.

Part of this, I suspect, is also your Taekwondo instructors and the environment and culture at your Taekwondo school. You might try looking at other schools of Taekwondo near you to see if one of them is a little less aggressive and violent, more happy, positive, and playful. They exist. Not all Taekwondo schools are the same. Some Taekwondo schools spend a lot less time sparring than others, and when they do spar, they give people specific techniques, strategies, and goals to try, rather than just having people free spar at random.

In the meanwhile, just realize you're doing fine. There's nothing wrong with you. You're just a highly sensitive person. Lots of people are the same as you. And you're now realizing that and taking appropriate actions to find a martial art that's a better fit for you. That's good. It's what you should be doing. That's part of what martial arts is about - becoming aware of who you are and what you want to do.

One other thing. If you want to go a completely different route, try taking Judo or Brazilian Jiujitsu. I highly recommend it. They're based on grappling, not striking. You probably won't experience the same anxiety that you did when sparring in Taekwondo. Everything in Judo and BJJ is under more control than TKD. There are less injuries, also. You'll find that they never try to intentionally harm one another in practice, and they generally do care a lot about safety. When you do look for these schools, inquire about competition and whether or not it's required that you compete in order to gain rank. You might want to avoid those competition-focused schools.

Hope that helps!

  • 2
    Oh my gosh, you really hit right on spot. I've always thought of myself as someone tough on the outside, but can be a softy deep, deep, inside. It's just been these past few days that I realized that I am actually subconsciously sensitive (with life in general), and my thoughts and conscious actions are what's not exposing that so much, as I don't like displaying weakness. And now you've just confirmed that. – Val Croft May 9 '15 at 19:13
  • Thanks a lot with the advice! At all points I can actually relate to. I'm not quite sure about Judo though since I know people doing it, and it's quite accident prone for the limbs. I think I'll go on with Arnis as I actually really liked it, or maybe Wushu in the future :D I think my problem too is that somehow, the part about the just hitting the person over and over, is that I don't get why I do it. I mean I know that it's a learning experience, but somehow it doesn't make sense to me subconsciously or somewhere inside. – Val Croft May 9 '15 at 19:15
  • Hey, thanks for the kind notes. The statistics show that grappling based styles like judo are far less injury prone than striking based ones. Wushu is awesome, but make sure to get with a gymnastics instructor to help you with your aerials, somersaults, back flips, butterfly twists, etc. Those can be tricky and tend to be very injury prone and hard on the joints. At the very least, find a gymnastics school which has "open gym" times that let you use their foam pit and other safety equipment, usually for just $5-$10 per hour. Usually there's someone there that will spot and guide you, also. – Steve Weigand May 9 '15 at 19:23
  • Really? Or maybe it depends on the kind of injuries? I think the striking based ones have more injuries related to muscle pain and open wounds, while grappling based styles are more on the bone dislocation and bone fracture kind of injuries. Or is this just a generalized misconception? Haha I totally forgot about the gymnastics part of Wushu. My dad's been doing wushu since he was a kid, I'll ask him about this :D But I think it depends on the style one would choose to specialize on? – Val Croft May 9 '15 at 19:29
  • There are differences in the types of injuries between grappling and striking based styles, yes. Striking based styles have more muscle pulls, nose breaks, bloody noses, finger breaks, arm breaks, concussions, broken ribs, tooth and jaw injuries, eye injuries, and bruising. Whereas grappling styles have a lot more ankle sprains, toe sprains (from sticking into the mat), finger tip sprains (from grabbing the gi), spine and neck injuries, rashes, scrapes, and knee, elbow, and shoulder injuries. But injuries are much more frequent in striking styles. – Steve Weigand May 9 '15 at 19:38
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I don't have a direct answer for you, but I'd like to address your statement that "In a real fight I think I can go full on."

Please note that this is not what usually happens. In an emergency situation, people generally revert to whatever they've practiced most, and if they've been practicing holding back, it doesn't bode well for outcomes. It's like learning to swim: if you tell yourself that you can do it in an emergency even though you practice with a flotation aid, you are deluding yourself and better hope your life or someone else's never depends on your skill.

Maybe this knowledge alone will motivate you to push through your aversions. Tell yourself that if you can't squeeze out a bit of violence in controlled, supervised practice, then it could cost you (or someone you need to protect) your safety later when you really need it.

Caveats: Of course, you can't 100% replicate street violence in practice for safety reasons (it doesn't help to be prepared for a fight if the preparation itself reliably results in bad injuries). But within reasonable safety limits, you need to practice as accurately as you can. But if you are participating in martial arts without any particular goals of self-defense skills (and that's fine, too, there are many other reasons to want to study martial arts), then my line of reasoning may not help you.

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    You're right, but you're arguing something Val wasn't arguing. Val's point was that sparring felt like a different situation than a real-life defense situation. That, in real-life, Val would internalize it differently. Val would use force against a real threat, but doesn't feel like the anxiety about causing harm would get in the way like it does in class. In class, Val's life is not really being threatened. That's the distinction. Probably in real life, this anxiety of Val's would still occur. It's just that in real life, Val can justify using force and be okay about it. – Steve Weigand May 18 '15 at 19:21
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You may find a grappling art such as Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or wrestling easier to get into the mind set for. Once your more used to the "game" of sparing transferring this to striking is simpler.

With grappling the transition from drilling a technique with a partner (especially positional type moves) to using it against them is smoother. Your training partner can slowly increase the level of resistance from talking you through it up to actively attempting to prevent or counter you.

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Steve Weingard gave an excellent answer, but I would like to highlight something that Steve also pointed out, but what might have been lost in the longer answer — it is all in your head.

Any martial art worth it's ropes must at some point introduce sparring or sparring like activities. If you are serious about practicing these arts, it is inevitably going to include sparring at relatively high intensity.

Learning to deal with increasing level of intensity in these situations is something you will just have to learn to do. If done properly and introduced gradually, this is quite easy and natural process. It won't take long to reach intensity to a level that, to an outside observer, will look quite violent and aggressive, without actually having the feelings of violence and aggression yourself.

The key is the attitude that you take when entering the proverbial ring. The intensity of the sparring must be just a notch over your comfort level — enough to keep you on your edge, but not so much as to make you feel totally out of your league...

Most likely, when in your TKD class, you were introduced into a live play class that was operated on a way too high intensity level than you felt comfortable with.

When done right, playing in a sparring match should feel more like an extremely fast-paced strategy game than a slugfest, while always keeping you at the edge of your capabilities.

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