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The combat underneath the martial art training – Dare I say: Emotions

Emotions—those foggy, sticky, muddy things that culturally we don’t talk about, especially if someone was raised to be a ‘man’. For many, this often means that, when they needed it most to express or cultivate, their emotions were suppressed. We have all heard the slogan ‘boys don’t cry’. This phrase sets a man up for a lifetime of struggle to understand his own emotions.

So why are we talking about this? Because as you will see in the tournament preparation course, during combat, you have nothing but emotions. The cognitive layer is numb due to stress, which leaves your emotions as your driving force.


Emotions—or, more intuitively, e-motions—are the internal forces that make you move (or freeze in place). In practical terms, Joseph LeDoux (👉) defines emotions as the result of a process occurring in the body in response to an environmental trigger. This, perhaps, can bring us a little closer to understanding why this topic is so important.

Since emotions have a chemical presence in the body, they create physiological changes, causing you to act based on the environmental trigger. Let’s take a look at an example. If you saw a lion stalking toward you, your body would evoke fear: your breathing rate and blood pressure would rise to supply your muscles with more oxygen; you would sweat to regulate your body temperature during the upcoming run; and, most importantly, your legs would move you away as fast as they could. With other words, you survive because the triggered fear prepares you to run. It’s not a thought that makes you run, it’s the emotion triggered by the lion is what prepares your body for an efficient run.

Same happens in the dojo. Any impact you get, which is commonly a physical offence, will trigger physiological changes to have your body prepared for an appropriate respond. The evoked emotion will drive your game into a certain direction. Regardless if you have a thought on it or not.

Most clubs promote the idea that fighting in class is not personal. Even though it technically isn’t personal, in reality, it couldn’t feel more personal. Every sparring session—in fact, every close human interaction—creates emotional responses. That is not something we have control over. What we can learn to control over time, though, is how to catch them before they take over so as to maintain some control over our actions.   

emotions in sparring

In the everyday life of a club, for example, it’s a common occurrence for someone to get pissed off. This very often comes about because a sparring partner tries out a move, risking the partner’s health out of curiosity or experimentation. The suffering party will experience anger. Anger is the most common, and perfectly appropriate, emotional response for this. We evolved anger as a prevention method to keep harm from coming to us, in this case, to stop the partner experimenting on our account.

That anger will drive the response and commonly raise the intensity of the offended party in an attempt to end the fight as soon as possible, reducing the chance of injury. This is the normal response for someone with a healthy connection to their emotions. Without emotional awareness, however, the aftermath can be much less cut-and-dried. The participants, and potentially the peers, start to moralize what happened, attaching personality traits to the story, eventually leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

The more these kinds of experiences accumulate during the course of the training, the higher the chance of an emotional burn out, leading to the end of training altogether.

This response in the example, just like most of our emotional responses to the environment, it not conscious and in most cases can’t be overridden. It wouldn’t be a good idea to override it, anyway. A full force attack is dangerous, regardless of if it’s in the dojo or on the street.

impact on the journey

Most notably, this example was focused on just one single interaction in a club. If we zoom back out, there are dozens of these interactions per class, hundreds of them per week, and hundreds of thousands of them during your entire martial art journey. Just how draining can they be without having a coping mechanism in place? Very. So draining, in fact, that this is the main underlying reason for students fading out of a club: getting tired of the personal fights because mental resilience is not built up fast enough—or in some cases, not at all.

The recommendation is to change club when training starts to feel heavier, because that means that the emotional stress is bigger than what could serve your progress. This is especially common in ‘no rules’ policy clubs. In that environment, as a beginner, being overpowered every single session by almost every member will give you no chance to improve your emotional and mental resilience nor your technical skills. There the mind doesn’t grow as fast as the body gets destroyed. That can lead us to another story on how to approach pressure and pain for efficient training.


It is important for any competitive fighter to understand the role of emotions in their tournament performance and put effort into their mental development alongside their physical training. Otherwise, the emotional responses will become an obstacle to the physical development. As soon as you begin your journey to understand your own drives and responses, you will be one of that 10% who knows what the game is really about.

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