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Fear, courage, the discomfort zone and personal development in martial arts and beyond.

When was the last time you faced a fear? Have you recently left your comfort zone and entered your discomfort zone? What are the things that you know you should do, but your uber-sophisticated excuse-making machine talks you out of time after time? These are questions we all must ask ourselves if we are serious about achieving growth in any area of our lives. All growth and development, from training martial arts, studying for a qualification or learning how to surf, all of it happens when we face some form of fear and move beyond our comfort zone.

In this article I’ll be examining fear, its manifestations and the benefits of overcoming it and embracing discomfort in a way that allows optimal personal growth, be it physical, psychological or spiritual.

As someone with over 20 years of experience training in a variety of martial arts, a question I’m often asked is “What got you into martial arts in the first place?” The truth is that in my earlier years, my personal motivations revolved around being a bad-ass who could bravely handle any would be assailant like Jackie Chan does in his films. That’s how basic, immature and narrow-minded my thinking was.

Training undoubtedly offers a huge variety of benefits, many of which even untrained people will be aware of, such as self-confidence, fitness, discipline and physical prowess. But for me it was clear: I wanted to be able to defend my loved ones and myself if shit ever hit the fan. I wanted to be fearless and massively effective.

I trained obsessively towards this end-goal, studying everything from Karate and Western boxing to Jeet Kune Do (JKD)/Kali and Muay Thai, as well as exploring several grappling arts such as Judo, wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). However, the more physically capable I became, and the more ways of incapacitating and controlling my opponent I learnt, the more conscious I became of that elusive place that I’d originally sought to find. Why wasn’t I there yet? I had been training for over 10 years, developing knockout power in both hands alongside effective if somewhat rudimentary grappling skills. My chin had been tested in the gym, in the ring and elsewhere and I had a strong will and heart. But why then did heroic, fearless bad-assery still elude me? Even though I was physically capable, I struggled to be morally brave and would not express thoughts or feelings for fear of being regarded in a negative light. In short, I was deeply fearful, scared in fact. So what was this fear? What are courage and bravery and what actions make a person heroic in the true sense of the word?

To get a deeper understanding of fear you need to understand its definition. Fear is an emotion induced by a real or perceived threat, this emotion causes changes in brain and organ function and ultimately leads to a change in behavior, such as running, confronting the threat or freezing (the flight, fight or freeze response).

Courage on the other hand is defined not as a total lack of fear but as a willingness and ability to confront this uncomfortable emotion and the perceived imminent hardship/pain/rejection that it is linked to. So does being courageous make someone heroic? Hero comes from the Greek word hērōs, meaning warrior/protector/defender. In modern times however a hero is simply someone who faces fears often in an act of selfless service. So in short, a hero/heroine is someone who is scared yet still confronts the impending threat to serve the greater good, which to my mind is a beautiful and empowering concept.

Cus D’amato, the legendary boxing coach – who trained Mike Tyson among many other fighters – famously said "The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It's the same thing, fear, but it's what you do with it that matters." Nelson Mandela, a truly brave man both physically and morally defined courage perfectly with these powerful words “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear”. A brave hero may well feel fear, but when they act it is not from a place of fear, but with a focus on selfless service.

I soon became aware that I was coming from a place of fear. I felt that the world was a dangerous place, and that there were bad guys (and girls) everywhere waiting for an opportunity to hurt or violate me, my loved ones and my property. This was my first mistake, and one that caused me to react to stressful or fearful scenarios with aimless uncontrolled emotions, usually anger.

Realising that the martial path is a journey rather than a destination, an organic process, I soon came to the conclusion that the ultimate aim of the warrior is to serve and protect, but a person cannot do that effectively unless they are moving towards self-mastery. In my opinion, winning medals, competitions, wearing a uniform or having a professional fight doesn’t make you a warrior. In fact, it is often meaningless if you have no control over your own demons. You are only as strong as your weakest link, so if you can physically disable an opponent yet you’re a slave to your jealousy, greed (both financially or otherwise), bigotry, over-eating, drinking, drug-taking, gambling or any uncontrolled emotions that lead to negative long term consequences, you still have a way to go before you can call yourself a warrior!

It’s been observed that in extreme emergencies certain people act completely automatically. However, to face the more nuanced fears such as failure, poverty, hate, anger, addictions, taking responsibility and social or sexual rejection, you have to go beyond your comfort zone, because that is where the growth is. The martial arts, like every other endeavor in life, are no different. If you want to improve, you will need to be tested, pressured and pushed into places that you have never experienced. You will want to go home, cry, give up and buckle under the pressure, your fears will try and convince you of a million different reasons why this isn’t for you. But if you are willing to embrace this discomfort, knowing that on the other side of your comfort zone is where all the growth is, it’s almost guaranteed that you will achieve huge development.

If you ask any high performance individual such as a surgeon, fighter, programmer, CEO, athlete, bomb disposal expert or anyone pushing their boundaries and performing at the highest level, they learn how to embrace that discomfort, almost to the point that they enjoy it, because they know the benefits that they will reap from it. They know how to get in the zone and stay in what is known as the ‘flow state’, often losing any grasp of time or distractions and becoming very friendly with discomfort.

It’s important however to distinguish between catabolic (breaking down) discomfort and anabolic (building) discomfort. Catabolic discomfort is unproductive and doesn’t lead to any kind of growth, i.e. hurting yourself further by training on a bad injury, beating yourself up over a regret, or identifying personally with previous negative experiences. Anabolic discomfort however feels very different emotionally. You may feel aroused, stimulated and challenged, and once you have confronted it, you often experience an empowering sense of euphoria which makes you want to revisit that place again as soon as possible. I have seen this regularly among fighters and competitors in BJJ, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and boxing. Inexperienced competitors will turn up wide-eyed and nervous, but once they reach the mat, cage or ring, that fear slowly dissolves and they find they can focus on the task at hand. Many times after competing fighters will feel euphoric and empowered and often talk about how they really want to compete again. This is the start of getting comfortable with discomfort.

In my experience, the internal fears are the most debilitating and powerful. So once you have won your medals, tournaments, fights and trophies, once you have posted your pictures on the winners podium on your social media page, then the next stage is to explore the internal process. How much are you doing to address your greed, intolerance, pride, anger, jealousy and so on? You can be the mightiest of warriors on the battlefield, but a coward at heart if you refuse to face your own internal shadows. As Confucius said “He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.”

I will leave you with this very inspiring quote by Rickson Gracie the BJJ and Vale Tudo legend “Where there’s discomfort, there’s fear…. In these very tough positions, you’re in a little piece of hell. And through this daily suffering, you learn to survive in these situations. You have to find comfort in the uncomfortable situations. You have to be able to live your worst nightmare. Jiu-Jitsu puts you completely in the moment where you must have complete focus on finding a solution to the problem. This trains the mind to build that focus, to increase your awareness, your capacity to solve problems. Sometimes, you don’t have to win. You cannot win. But that has nothing to do with losing.”

So if you want to improve any aspect of your life, however insignificant it may seem, face your fears head on and undertake a challenge that forces you out of your comfort zone. Make a public speech, write an article (like I am doing), go travelling, be unconditionally kinder, join the gym, enroll on a course you are passionate about, leave your dead end job, tell your small-minded bigoted mates to fuck off, it might be as simple as just introducing yourself to a group of strangers at a social function. As soon as you embrace it, the fear shrinks, you feel empowered and you’ll find yourself anabolically progressing each time you allow yourself to take control.

Miad Najafi

Head Coach, Centre Line Jiu Jitsu



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