I’m getting really sick of the “suck it up, buttercup” attitude in martial arts.
I was raised to be tough. I was raised to keep my mouth shut, to be seen and not heard, to not be a whiner, to take my shots without tears, to get up after I fall down. I absolutely was. But I was also taught the value of empathy and compassion. I was raised to be compassionate as well as tough. I was taught that you can be both.
Far too many martial artists prioritize toughness at the expense of compassion. We want to be tough. We need to learn how to take a hit. Absolutely, these traits are valuable. But we also need to be able to meet people where they’re at, and this requires compassion.
Some people do really well with the “suck it up, buttercup” attitude, but many people don’t. It can be incredibly dismissive for someone who is struggling with fear or pain or exhaustion in a martial arts context, to hear someone say, “just suck it up.” No compassion. No attempt to understand the reasons behind that person’s struggle.
Is this really the martial arts way? Belittling people when they’re struggling? If we value humility as much as we say we do, doesn’t that require a huge dose of compassion for others?
Let me give you an example of the value of compassion in martial arts.
I have a thank you card that I got from a karate student a few years back. He was training at the dojo that I was working at. He was a good kid, but he struggled with anxiety. He’d get really anxious whenever he had to perform in class. So anxious he would shut right down.
Then he got invited to his very first belt test, and he was so excited about that test. Until the actual day of the test.
His dad brought him in, and this kid was terrified. He cried. He refused to step on the mats. He refused to get ready for the test. His dad was trying to convince him. Our Sensei was trying to convince him. But no one could get through to him. He was too anxious and couldn’t calm down, and it looked like he wouldn’t be able to test.
So I stepped in. I kneeled down in front of him, and started talking. I talked about fear, and how normal it is. I talked about being nervous for every belt test I’d ever done. I talked about being anxious about performing in front of others. I talked about all the things he seemed to be struggling with. And as I talked, he started to relax with me, and I was able to coax him onto the mats. Just at the edge, where he still felt safe. But I got him onto the mats.
Then, when he seemed to feel safer with me, I asked him to join me at the other end of the dojo, far away from everyone else who was preparing for their test. I said hey, we can hang out down there, just see how you feel, no pressure. He joined me, and within a short period of time, I got him practising everything he needed for his test. And I convinced him to do his belt test.
And he performed his test. No tears. No hesitation. And he did awesome.
After the test, both the dad and our Sensei were totally grateful, and shocked that I’d been able to convince this kid to test. Our Sensei said to me, “I don’t know how you did it. I would NEVER have been able to get him on those mats. Not in a million years.” And I said to them both, “You just gotta get them laughing. When they’re scared like that, you gotta get them laughing.”
And that’s exactly what I had done. I knew from experience as a mother what it took to get my own kids over their fears. I knew from experience as a very shy kid what it took to get over my own fears. I knew from experience that humour has been an incredibly helpful coping mechanism for me for dealing with all sorts of shit. But mostly I knew what would work because I made the effort to meet that kid exactly where he was at and work from there.
He was terrified, and I knew that if I could get him giggling, I could get him through that fear. So I made our karate practice together as ridiculous and goofy as I could, and it worked. Laughter got him over his fear.
But really it wasn’t the goofiness. It was compassion. It was empathy. I could see how he was feeling, so I could figure out how to reach him. I could understand how he was feeling, so I could figure out how to help him.
If I had just told him to “suck it up, buttercup” I would have failed miserably. He would never have gotten on the dojo mats, and he would never have done his test. No way. Toughen up was not the solution for him. Compassion was.
For some people, you could probably say, “Hey just be tough. You can do this. Act like a black belt, and just push through.” That absolutely works for some people. That works for me a lot of the time, particularly in martial arts. But here’s the thing, you need compassion and empathy in order to figure out who can motivated by that tactic. Even the people who respond well to “suck it up, buttercup”; you need to be able to empathize with those people in order to figure out that that will work. You need empathy both for people who can handle tough love as well as for people who can’t. You need to understand people, and you need to meet them where you’re at.
Toughness AND compassion. We can have both, and we need both.
That’s how to help people, that’s how to motivate people, and that’s how to keep the humanity in martial arts.
Podcast Show Notes
Far too many martial artists prioritize toughness at the expense of compassion. We want to be tough. We need to learn how to take a hit. Absolutely, these traits are valuable. But we also need to be able to meet people where they’re at, and this requires compassion. Join me in this episode in a discussion of the value of compassion and empathy in martial arts, and of how compassion can help us determine the best way to motivate and support other martial artists on their journey.
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.
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