Can anger help us perform better in martial arts? Can it help us clear our heads and fight our best fight?
Anger has been linked to negative health effects, like heart disease and early death. And because of this there’s been a lot of commentary on anger being definitively a bad thing, and terrible for our health and well-being. And the suggestion is also that being angry muddies up our thinking, which would be detrimental in a martial arts context, seeing as we need a clear head in a fight situation.
But it turns out that these concerns aren’t totally accurate.
Two common ways of dealing with anger are suppressing it, and letting it out in an eruptive sort of way. When we suppress that anger, we hold it in. We might think anger is a bad thing, and a sign of weakness or a lack of control. So we push it down deep in an effort to regain control. But it doesn’t necessarily go away, and it certainly doesn’t help us address the thing that caused the anger in the first place. And it turns out that doing this, suppressing our anger, has been linked to depression. Which makes sense, when you think of depression stemming from a feeling of having no control over a situation. A situation comes up, you feel angry, you push the feelings away, and nothing has changed. You’re still feeling powerless in that situation that initially made you angry.
So for example, maybe there’s another student at your dojo that is disrespectful to you on a regular basis. They talk down to you, they put you down, they act like they’re better than you all the time, they make you feel like garbage. And you think: this sucks, but anger is a bad thing, and to be a good martial artist I need to exercise control. So I’m going to keep my mouth shut and just keep training. The result of this might be that you feel pretty crappy. Nothing has changed. This jerk still treats you like trash, but you want to be the better person, so you say nothing and the situation continues. And nothing is solved.
Letting that anger out without control isn’t so good either. When we lash out with anger, we can end up hurting ourselves or hurting others. And feeling like this often or for long periods of time is linked to negative health effects, like high blood pressure.
So let’s consider our martial arts scenario. That asshole that talks down to you and treats you with disrespect: instead of keeping your mouth shut, you decide to let out all your anger. You open up a can of whoop ass on this guy. You beat the snot out of him while you’re sparring. You hit him harder than necessarily during partner drills. You kick him in the groin at every opportunity. You’re raging mad, and you want to let it out. This path probably feels a hell of a lot better than holding that anger in. Anger feels good, right. But now you’ve opened yourself up to a potential lawsuit, and you’ve shown that you have zero control over yourself, so you lose other people’s respect. And you’re also motivating that jerk to hit you back even harder. So it doesn’t end. And in this situation, if you let that anger out without moderation, you’re likely not thinking as clearly as you need to in this situation. You’re probably not even thinking anymore. You’re just reacting to the anger.
Suppressing that anger or letting it out doesn’t solve anything. And it can even make it worse. And both of those tactics likely have a negative impact on our well-being and on our ability to think clearly and act appropriately in a martial arts context.
There is a third option though, and this way is not linked to negative health effects, and is much more likely to result in a positive outcome.
Think about this. Anger is designed to protect us. It’s a normal emotion. And when those angry feels come up, this is an indication that something is wrong. Something is wrong; that’s why those feelings exist in the first place. It’s a huge neon sign saying, “Pay attention right now.”
That anger comes up because you’re being disrespected. Because someone you care about is being disrespected. Because your boundaries are being crossed. Because someone is treating you or someone else poorly. Because you feel threatened in some way. Because your way of life or perspective or values are under attack. This is when anger comes up.
Anger demands a solution. Our anger indicates that there is a problem, and our physical symptoms of anger motivate us to find a solution. And that anger can be good for us if we use it to solve that problem in an effective way. Because once that problem is solved, we have no further need to feel angry. And that anger then goes away. No risk of high blood pressure or heart disease or depression. And all the benefits of confidence in ourselves that we can solve problems when they come up. And the knowledge that we’re not willing to put up with other people’s bullshit.
So that jerk at the dojo. Instead of suffering in silence or pummeling the crap out of him, you can go with that third path. You can see that anger as an indication that this situation needs to be addressed. You feel disrespected and threatened and angry, and how this student is treating you is not okay. And now that you see that anger as a teacher, and pay attention to what it’s telling you, you can assert yourself with this person, have a calm conversation, state your case, firmly set clear boundaries. Instead of suppressing it or reacting to it, you can instead respond to that anger and express it in a calm and controlled way. Let them know they pissed you off, tell them plainly that you’re not cool with it, and make it clear that the behaviour has to stop. And then go from there.
By doing this, you are regaining control. That anger provided clarity, and mobilized you to take action. And that is what is so powerful and valuable about anger.
I was sparring in class once with a student who was getting a little too rough with me. She became increasingly aggressive while we sparred, and I could see in her eyes that she wanted to hurt me. And then she hit me really hard and knocked the wind out of me, and kept going, coming at me, and I got really mad. If I had suppressed that anger, she would have kept coming at me, hurting me, which is not cool. If I had lashed out in anger, I would have made the situation worse. But I also knew that she was not the type of person to have a respectful conversation about it. She smirked when she knocked the wind out of me, so I needed to communicate with her in a way she understood, otherwise she would have just brushed my concerns off and seen me as weak. So here’s what I did, and you might not agree with how I handled it, but it certainly solved the problem. I held back for a bit longer, letting her think she was still in control, and then the next time she came in I moved in quickly and punched her just a little too hard to the face. Not enough to give her a concussion, and it definitely was a controlled punch, but hard enough to stop her in her tracks. She didn’t expect that from me. She expected me to submit to her dominance. But I wasn’t putting up with that. And here’s the thing, she backed way off after that, and didn’t hit me nearly as hard again. She knew she had pushed me too far, and the funny thing is, she seemed to respect me a lot more after that.
So, was this a good thing, how I responded? That’s debatable, but I chose to use my anger to motivate me to stand up for myself, and it definitely solved the problem. With other classmates that weren’t so aggressive, if they hit me too hard I could probably simply say to them, “Hey back off a bit, not so hard,” and they’d say, “Oops, sorry!” and back off. That quick convo could solve the problem. But sometimes physicality is an effective solution.
Studies do show that anger is a motivating force. And studies do show that anger can help people feel more optimistic in a stressful situation. Our anger mobilizes us to do what is right, and if we act on it in a respectful way, it can absolutely be a path to positive solutions.
And the physical symptoms of anger, these on their own can be a really powerful motivator for action. I personally have performed some of my very best belt tests and tournaments when I’ve been angry. But the key for me was staying in control of that anger. I didn’t suppress it. But neither did I beat the crap out of training partners or tournament opponents. I made note of what got me angry in the first place, and then chose to use that anger to my advantage. Consciously and with control. Using those side effects of anger—the racing heart, the adrenaline, the tense muscles, the rapid breathing—to fuel some really intensive training and performances. But it does require control, and it does require setting aside the thoughts about what got me angry, and focusing instead on the physical sensations instead. And using those as fuel. And then later—once the training or tournament or belt test is done—addressing the cause of the anger in a much calmer and more productive and assertive way.
If you’re not angry, I don’t suggest trying to make yourself angry. But when that feeling does come up, it is totally normal, and can absolutely be useful. So instead of pretending it doesn’t exist or punching holes in every wall around you, think about how you can use that anger to your benefit. You’ll be a much stronger and healthier martial artist for doing so.
Podcast Show Notes
Is anger a good or a bad thing? Can it hurt us or help us? Can it help us perform better in martial arts, or does it weaken us and muddy up our thinking? Join me in this episode as I discuss the pros and cons of anger, and how best to use this emotion to solve problems and perform better in martial arts and the rest of our lives.
Thank you for joining me on my martial arts journey, and in the exploration of all the ways we can perform better in life and martial arts.
If you’re interested in starting your own podcast, I highly recommend Buzzsprout. The platform is incredibly easy to use. If you sign up for a paid plan through my link you’ll get a $20 credit, and you’ll help support my show! Here’s that sign-up link: https://www.buzzsprout.com/?referrer_id=2039494
Have you ever trained, competed, or performed a belt test while angry? How did that go for you? Feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section below.