Karate gives you grit. Not the stuff clinging to the soles of your feet after a sweaty training session at your dojo (although karate gives you gritty feet, too). I’m talking about mental grit. Toughness. Character.

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A martial artist steps inside the ring knowing full well they’re going to get hit. And yet they do it anyway. Crazy? Maybe. Ill-advised? Probably. Brave? Definitely. Building our ability to persevere despite obstacles is one of the most amazing things about karate, and the biggest gift the discipline has given me. This grit helped me when I started karate in 2017, during one of the most stressful times of my life. And it helps me now, in 2020, when our very world feels broken.

My Karate Beginnings

People try karate for a variety of reasons. Often fitness, self-defense, or confidence. I chose karate out of desperation. It was March 2017, and I was a mess. The obligatory early-40s existential crisis. I didn’t know who I was anymore, what I stood for, or what I wanted. I was lost.

My mom had been diagnosed with cancer the year prior, and I was still overwhelmed by grief. I cycled through all the stages—anger, guilt, depression, numbness—with no relief and no hope of closure. With that diagnosis, my whole perspective didn’t just shift; it was torqued. And the ripple effect was significant. My kids—the emotional barometers in my house—picked up on it, and fought incessantly. I became increasingly aware of my deep unhappiness in my marriage. My work—helping my husband with his business—felt off and meaningless. All of my interests—gardening, running, writing, playing piano—felt trivial in the spotlight of my pain. I was falling fast, and hitting bottom was going to hurt.

I had to fix it. For me and my kids both. Had to do something.

And karate was it.

Karate is Difficult

Karate is a hard sport. Technically difficult, karate also demands a high level of physical and mental toughness. We sweat at the dojo. Face difficult opponents in competition. Move slowly up in rank over years of hard work and commitment.  Performance anxiety, failure, injury, fear—karate takes its toll on us. But interestingly, it’s those very challenges that build our resilience.

When we practise martial arts, we are essentially practising facing adversity. With every challenging training session or competition, we hone our skills, increase our emotional endurance, and build our confidence in our capacity to withstand pain.

Karate Builds Toughness

Karate didn’t get rid of my grief. It was always there, in the periphery. Instead, it channeled it. The punching drills, the walking kicks, the katas, the sparring—I took all of that anxious, angry, sad energy and funneled it into my practice. Grief became the fuel. And somehow, in using that fuel, karate transformed it.

I still cried a lot. Had angry outbursts. Had days of numbness and apathy. But the longer I practised karate, the shorter those episodes became. Karate made my pain seem, if not inconsequential, at least far more bearable. I could handle it. I could fight through it. And eventually—incredibly—I could laugh again.

Karate and Loss

2020 has been rough. For all of us. My mom’s health has worsened. I’m going through a divorce. And now a world pandemic. All of that grief and stress I experienced before has been magnified with COVID-19. Compounded to a degree that is overwhelming at the best of times.

And the irony of it? Karate—the one thing that had helped me through all of my grief and stress—was put on hold. My dojo closed for several months. I got temporarily laid off from my karate teaching job. It has now—thankfully—reopened, and I got my job back, and I’m so incredibly grateful for it, but it isn’t the same. No physical contact. No sparring. No tournaments. None of that usual intimacy and physical connection. And the constant threat of a worsening pandemic, another potential closure, another huge blow. The loss has been heartbreaking. My dojo is my second home and my sanctuary, and its members are like family, and I miss the way things were so terribly. I miss the relaxed atmosphere, I miss tournament trip bonding, I miss seeing all of those amazing people I’ve met at tournaments. I miss feeling that hope, and that excitement, and that all-important human connection.

My mental health is suffering. I cycle between anxiety and depression, hope and overwhelm, acceptance and apathy. I’m right back in that grief cycle, feeling stuck and alone.

And so I train.

The beauty of karate is that you can practise it anywhere. So I do. I practise karate at home, at my dojo, in my head. Every single day. I don’t always feel motivated, but I train anyway. Whether I want to or not. Whether it feels worthwhile or not. I train because I am a fighter. And because I have grit.

Karate Can Help Us Through Covid-19

We are experiencing one of the most difficult, soul-wrenching challenges of our lives. But with karate and grit: our pain is bearable. Karate teaches us to do the tough work even when it doesn’t seem worth it. Even when we don’t feel like it. Even when the match or tournament or situation seems hopeless. And boy, does it ever seem hopeless now. But we still have resilience.

We can handle it. We will fight through it. And together, eventually, we will laugh again.

How have you been coping through this pandemic? And how has your training been affected? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment below.

Recommended Resources

For useful tips on how to build resilience, check out this article by Trevor Ragan and Alex Belser of The Learner Lab.