My personal rant aside, we see people all the time talk about how the martial arts builds confidence. McDojo's use that phrase as parent-bait to get their children signed up but I've never heard them explain HOW martial arts builds confidence. Not knowing how martial arts builds confidence and thinking confidence will just show up someday is a risky gamble and not very likely to pay off. This is proven by the hordes of gangly, black-belt-in-3-years paper tigers churned out by schools who lured them in with promises of confidence but spits them back out with a certificate and zero real world courage. It's truly sad to see these kids come into the bar where I bounce at, they are bursting with pride at being a black belt but when they get rowdy a slap in the mouth and a good stare has actually brought a couple of them to tears.
So what is confidence and how does training increase it? I say increase it because confidence and poise are internal characteristics and external training can only help bring it out, it can't create confidence from thin air. That is the first thing to remember about it in my opinion. You must understand that YOU create the confidence in yourself, it can't be given or bought no matter how hard you wish for it.
So with this understanding, let's explore how training can help build confidence.
The reason all of us started training was to become more physically capable and more in control of our own bodies, regardless of whether or not you want to use that for fighting, and that right there is really where the confidence is nurtured. Confidence is the belief in your capabilities or the self assurance that comes from understanding your own abilities. So we see that it's not the punches or kicks that build the confidence but the student being able to apply those strikes or kicks that can be the spark for building confidence.
So how do we help the people around us build confidence through training?
Easy! After students get the choreography/technique right, they should be pushed into application as much as possible. We don't have to try and turn everyone who walks through the door into killers but helping the students to understand just how amazing they can be through applying the art to whatever their goals are will undoubtedly build the confidence of every student.
For example, say an elderly woman wants to learn Taiji for health. She can build confidence in herself and her art by training and being shown how much her balance and stability improves. She will feel some of her aches and pains vanish through training and be certain that she is moving towards her goals. That right there is her confidence building.
Another perfect example is one of my students, Portia. She and her husband have been training for a little over a year and when they started, I gave them a taste of old school training. They spent 6 months just working on circle walking and the Single Palm change from Gao Bagua. Both of them train very hard and are really dedicated but about 2 months ago, Portia started sharing her frustration that she didn't feel she was any more capable to defend herself than when she started. This led to me walking her through what she had been doing for the past year and how she had unknowingly learned to generate way more power than she understood. She wound up actually knocking me to the mat a couple times that day (she is less than half my size). The sudden realization that her training hadn't just been empty dancing in circles has sparked a huge turn for her. She is much more confident in herself and what she is working on and she is more dedicated to training that before. Hopefully she realizes that the more she trains, the more competent she will become and as long as she is aware of that, her confidence will always grow.
This leads to the question, 'Is it the punches and kicks that build confidence or is it a different, internal change that comes because the person feels better about themselves?'
I wanted to get another opinion on this from a friend so I reached out to Sifu Erik Oliva for his thoughts-
"A common idea in learning anything, especially a martial art, is one of failure. How many times has
a new student of a martial art thought about quitting? How many times have you thought about giving up when the going gets tough?
Historically in America, martial arts paved the way for the quiet introvert to develop a platform of emotional stability. We have heard the term “confidence building” used endlessly in the martial arts and are led to the idea that practicing a way of fighting will somehow refine one’s mind for the better. So, what is it in a martial art that actually builds character?
Let us look at the phrase “Planning to fail.” In the martial arts school, one prepares themselves on a journey of re-education. In learning routines and self defense applications, overcoming the inner voices of failure are ever present, and a scary one. In that, confidence is developed by persevering through difficulty in re-learning motor and coordination skills. Be it for health or self defense, a feeling of accomplishment overcomes a practitioner when they have performed according to the instructions given.
It is through this hard work, and the perseverance of overcoming emotions like aggression, overwhelming feelings of loss of control, fear and confusion which lead one to realize a state of confidence. The various practices within the martial arts through physical conditioning, form memorization and sparring offer a platform in which a practitioner can develop their mental and emotional integrity."
Peace and Blessing,
Erik Oliva / 林爱伟
That is very well said and I really appreciate Sifu Oliva for his help with this. Let me wrap this up with this thought to take away. If someone doesn't understand HOW their training works, can they ever truly develop to their highest potential? I say no and I think the students graduating from McDojo's bear witness to that, in more than one way. I would suggest that every teacher takes the time to reflect on their classes and see if they are truly explaining these topics to their students and helping them achieve their goals.
Jesse Conley is the owner and head instructor at Stone Tiger Martial Arts
in Vancouver, WA.
He teaches Gao Bagua, Xingyi, Taiji and Ma Tongbei
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