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by Rob Redmond - August 13, 2006 (www.24fightingchickens.com)
A man who shall remain nameless wrote to ask:
"I’ll be in a tournament in about 3 weeks. Doing a kata form, weapons form and sparring. Got the kata and weapon forms down and feel pretty good about sparring. Still feel pretty jittery though. Any ideas how to over come this?"
I never learned to “overcome” my jitters. I don’t recommend that you try to overcome your nerves, either. Instead of overcoming my pre-performance anxiety, I learned to stop being ashamed of something that is a natural fact of life. Everyone is nervous before they perform. Only actors on television are calm and collected before a major competitive event. Everyone in the real world experiences an increased heart rate, shallow breathing, a dry mouth, cold, clammy hands, overly dry or wet feet, and difficulty concentrating.
The cause of all of this is adrenalin. When your biological system determines that there is a threat, such as being chased by a lion or being humiliated in front of hundreds of people, the brain signals glands in the body to release adrenalin into the blood. Adrenalin enhances performance. When your system dumps adrenalin into your bloodstream, you can run farther, move faster, and jump higher. You are more likely to escape an attack, and you are more likely to succeed if you are the attacker. Adrenalin is your friend, if you are an animal.
Unfortunately, we humans are cursed with vivid imaginations. We are able to feel as though we are under threat far in advance of the actual event. Instead of feeling nervous only as we walk onto a stage or in a dangerous situation, we are able to picture in our minds our own death, losing friends or family, being fired at work, or being humiliated at school. We might be nervous days, or even weeks in advance of something happening. In fact, living with too much threat in our lives on a day to day basis is referred to as stress, and it is believed to cause us mental and physical harm in too great and too constant a quantity.
Some people have incredibly vivid imaginations and they find themselves unable to imagine how they might avoid a threatening situation, even if the situation is unlikely. It is usually referred to as anxiety when we are close to panic, and many people feel this way off and on whether they have any rational reason for it or not. In fact, some people live with constant feelings of anxiety, and they end up on medication trying to dampen the feelings of fear and a desire to flee. Some people have off and on again attacks of anxiety so powerful that they feel physically ill and are unable to function. These are often referred to as panic attacks.
What I am writing about, be it panic attack, chronic anxiety disorder, or simply getting so nervous the morning of a competition that you feel weak and sick to your stomach, is fear. Fear is a powerful, powerful thing. It is instinctual, and it emanates from deep inside of hundreds of millions of years of evolution, and now thanks to our latest development, the conscious mind, we are plagued with it sometimes getting in our way or taking control of us when we want to make a choice different from the one the lizard brain at the base of our skulls would have us make.
One of the reasons fear is so powerful for us, though, is not merely because it is something we can feel without being in immediate danger. It is also powerful for us because we have such a cultural need to not show our fear or not feel it. Our movies tell us that heroes are not afraid. Our friends do not admit they are afraid. People who do admit to being afraid face censure or condemnation – another ancient instinct we have. The pack falls upon any member who presents as damaged or unable to cope.
Because of all of this, we are often ashamed to admit to anyone else that we feel fear. We can even feel so alone in this that we are ashamed to feel fear at all. Our shame over our fear causes us to become afraid we will become afraid. Oh my god! Now we’re caught in it! And once you begin to feel afraid, you might be afraid that you will never feel normal again, or that someone will notice you, causing you to feel even more afraid! Causing more fear over your fear. Causing even more!
For some people, this can continue until they literally throw up into a toilet. As I wrote, fear is a powerful thing and not to be underestimated or trifled with.
Frank Herbert was very mindful of the power of fear. He wrote a prayer that characters in his book Dune would recite when they were terribly afraid – the Litany Against Fear. Herbert seems to have viewed fear the way most of us do, as if it were something that attacks us from the outside that cannot be helped or stopped.
But fear is not something to be ashamed of or to give total control over you life. For all of the examples of dysfunctional fear that I have written about so far, fear can also be seen as serving a valuable purpose in our lives. Fear is our alert system telling us “Condition Yellow – Pay attention.” Fear can also tell us, “RED ALERT! ESCAPE NOW! RUN LIKE THE WIND!” Fear is a tool. It is a message from your unconscious mind that tells you that it has summed up all of the things you are seeing, hearing, and smelling, and that it has determined there is some measure of threat to your body or your reputation. At least, you think there is.
It can be annoying to have your breakfast sit uneasy in your stomach, hands get sweaty and clammy and mouth go dry, but it is something you can use. You can dig down into that sensation and actually find a spiritual power source from which you can draw upon to improve your performance.
There are a couple of tricks to using fear to your advantage. I am a master of none of them, but I can pass them on to you despite lacking something that perhaps you have that will enable you to do better than I have.
First, recognize that fear is natural, and see signs of fear in other people. Everyone is afraid. Most people are afraid all of the time. Fear is so common among people. Those that act most aggressive and posture with you are most likely to be the most afraid. When people are afraid, they become bossy, demanding, they raise their voices, and they appear angry and sometimes their tempers seem out of control. These are not dangerous people, in that they will harm you because they are confident. They are filled with fear. Learn to look for it in others, instead of over-focusing on your own condition, and recognize it in them. You will no longer feel alone, and you will divert your attention away from your own fear.
Feeling that fear is natural interrupts the “I’m afraid because I am afraid,” or the “I’m afraid I will get afraid. Oh no!” sorts of things that disable people when they are in stressful situations. If it is natural, and you do not feel ashamed of it, fear will only go so far.
I’m not a big believer in relaxation exercises during a competition. I believe these are an expression of fear of fear. They sometimes make things worse by putting me into a cycle where I am trying hard to not be afraid, and in so doing, am ramping up the fear factor in my body and mind. My advice, especially before a Karate competition, is that you embrace your fear as a tool, and that you surf it like a wave instead of trying to suppress, deny, or smother it in a desperate move.
The best way I ever did this was by really psyching myself up before an event by forcing myself to smile, growl, squeeze my fists, and yell, “YEAH! YEAH BABY! YEAH! I’M GOING TO BREAK SOMEONE OVER MY KNEE! YEAH!” and scream it. Work yourself up with positive and very strong emotions of aggression and energy. Looking into the mirror and winking at yourself, making jokes to yourself, and talking yourself up are great things to do when you are afraid.
There is another secret to controlling fear before a match. If you were a sparring champion, I doubt you would bring up the question in the first place, so I will assume that, like me, you are not one and doubt you ever will be. The biggest secret I learned was surrender. That’s right. Before I ever even went into the match, I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to lose badly. I went ahead and got angry about it, then sad, and then I reached a peaceful sort of acceptance that I was doomed.
I found this particularly relaxing before a big match. Knowing I was toast already freed me up to try anything I wanted, and it allowed me to get a little silly and stop taking everything so seriously. Show me a man filled with fear, and I will show you a man who is taking himself and his situation far too seriously.
There is no way you can win a match if you are thinking, “This is my one shot. If I blow this, I’ve done it all for nothing.”
I learned that from the godan in our dojo in Nagoya, Yoshigai, who taught me to hold my own against the really talented sparring guys where before they used to just blow through me. One of his secrets was to try to have fun in the match. He said to be aware, to not worry so much about winning, that if I focused on winning or losing, I would surely lose.
Instead, he suggested I focus on having fun and perhaps being a little silly while I was in the ring, playing with the other guy and trying to tease and annoy him instead of trying to show everyone how cool I was.
It is the difference between taking things too seriously and taking things lightly and in a detached way, as a practitioner of Zen might suggest, and through that detachment finding a calm wash over you that gives you strength, and just enough nervousness to provide extra performance without depleting your will to try.
And remember, it is OK to lose.