#45: Self-Doubt in the Martial Arts [Podcast]

Welcome to Episode #45 of the Fight for a Happy Life podcast, “Self-Doubt in the Martial Arts.”

Do you suck at martial arts? Do you ever feel like you’re wasting your time practicing all those fancy moves?

Be warned! When it comes to success in self-defense or any part of life, doubting yourself won’t just hold you back… it might get you killed!

So, let’s get real. Join me for a reality check that will help you see yourself a little more clearly.

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Thanks for listening! Keep fighting for a happy life! 🙂

Self-Doubt in the Martial Arts


Today on Fight for a Happy Life… self-doubt in the martial arts.

Hello again and welcome to Episode #45 of Fight for a Happy Life, the show that believes a little martial arts makes life a whole lot better.

 Ando here again and, man, am I glad to be back! For the first time in three years, I took a break from the podcast… and now I feel like a total loser.

You see, I didn’t plan on taking a break, but training, teaching, working, making videos… it all got the best of me. Well, the best of my voice anyway. I apologize for that. But I couldn’t wait any longer. Because even though I’ve enjoyed the last three months, I was never really, completely happy. I just kept thinking, “Hey, man! You gotta do a podcast!”

No joke—my stomach has been upset for weeks… then months. And actually, I think that’s a good thing. Good because all that stress proved to me that part of my fight for a happy life is making time to sit down and talk to you about fighting for a happy life. And if part of your fight for a happy life is making time to sit down to listen to me talk about fighting for a happy life, well, then let’s get to it!

Today, I want to talk about doubt. Doubting your skills is a common problem in the martial arts, yet I don’t hear much talk about it. What we usually talk about is the problem of confidence. Over-confidence.

We talk about the over-confidence that can result from light sparring instead of full contact sparring. Or practicing choreographed self-defense drills instead of live drills. Or training in only one style instead of cross-training in multiple styles. We all love to make fun of that self-proclaimed master who thinks he knows it all and can’t be defeated.

But what about the dangers of UNDER-confidence? Everybody says that the martial arts build confidence, but how many of us are still walking around with low self-esteem? Do you ever get the feeling that you’re wasting your time taking classes? Do you ever worry that your techniques won’t work in a real fight? Do you ever feel like a wanna-be warrior?

Well, you’re not alone. So, let me share a few thoughts that might help you gain a clearer picture of who you really are and what you can really do. I’ll be right back.

[03:00] Quick story. I was sparring with a student named Edward the other day. Now, Edward is a fearless young man. His strategy is to run straight in, crash into me, and just start punching. On the one hand, I love his spirit. On the other hand, I hate his strategy. But even though I kept suggesting that he set up his attacks, or attack on an angle, he wouldn’t listen. He just kept charging in straight at me.

So, finally, I grabbed him. I tied him up and started swinging him around. He didn’t like that. Edward wiggled and grunted to free his arms, but I just held on. Had to make my point. And then—BAM! He hit me in the face. How, you may ask. Well, Edward jumped up and headbutted me in the mouth.

I was shocked. I never saw it coming. I had completely underestimated Edward. I was guilty of being over-confident. And why wouldn’t I be? I mean, Edward has only been training for about a year and a half… I’ve been training for 30!

And it gets worse. Did you catch the part when I said that Edward jumped UP to hit me? Well, that’s because Edward is six years-old. That’s right. He’s just a kid. Not even a big kid. He’s a tiny six-year-old. And he gave me a fat lip.

Now, some people are surprised when they see me walking around with a black eye or a scratch across my face. They think that as a professional teacher, as a martial artist with a fancy website and, hey, a podcast, I should win all the time. I should be untouchable.

HA! Sorry, folks, but the truth is I get touched all the time. Not just touched… punched, kicked, choked, thrown, and yes, headbutted. And not just by other teachers, mind you, but by all kinds of people.

Which leads to an interesting question—if I’ve been training in the martial arts for 30 years and I’m still taking hits, am I a terrible martial artist? After spending thousands and thousands of hours, and thousands and thousands of dollars, training to be the best fighter I can be, does getting hit by a six-year-old kid make me a joke? A wanna-be warrior?

The dark side of my ego says yes. The bright side of my ego says no. Which side is right?

Before I answer that, let’s take a step back to remember how many of us got started in the martial arts in the first place. For me, and maybe for you, it all started because of what I saw in the movies and on TV. I saw amazing people like Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan, and Steven Seagal, do amazing things, and I said, “I want to do that!”

Yes, you heard me—Steven Seagal. Get over it.

It doesn’t matter. Whoever it was who first inspired you, we all went out and found a teacher. And even though that teacher probably wasn’t a movie star, they were amazing in their own way. Maybe they were the founder of a style. Or the first generation student of the founder of a style. Or a world champion. Or the head of a special forces group in the military.

When I went out looking for a teacher in the late’80s, every ad in the phone book seemed to feature a world-class killer. It was shocking how many 9th degree world champions were running around out there… and maybe a little suspicious.

Anyway, if you were like me, you found a teacher and signed up. And because you were a beginner, your skill level jumped up several notches in no time. “Hey! I can punch! I can kick! I know a wrist lock!”

You felt amazing. Like a movie star. Your goal of dominating the bad guys and bullies of the world not only seemed possible, it seemed inevitable.

Ahh… the joy of being a white belt!

Until one day…

I can’t say exactly how long it took, but at some point, reality smacked you in the face. Your learning slowed down. Your skill level plateaued. And despite your enthusiasm and dedication, you realized that you were NOT amazing. You realized you were NOT a champion or a world-class killer… and probably never would be.

You caught yourself making the same mistakes over and over. You got hit and tapped by people who were newer than you. You accepted that there were techniques that you’d never be able to do. You understood that you’d never be the best in the world. Heck, you wouldn’t even be the best in your class.

Uhh… the depression of every rank after white belt!

[08:18] In those dark times, especially after a few years, it becomes harder and harder to measure your progress. You might even suspect that you’re not making progress. You might even think you’re getting worse!

Don't let self-doubt stop you!

Photo by Milada Vigerova

Now, we talked about this pitfall within the learning process once before in Episode #6, The Invisible Path to Success. In that show, we talked about how improvement seems to disappear at some point. It becomes invisible. But that’s a delusion. And when you buy into that delusion, that’s when you open the door to self-doubt.

And this can happen to anyone. Believe me, after 30 years of training, my ego tells me I should be much better than I am all the time. It tells me that fighting should be easy by now. It tells me I should not only win, but I should win with a smile on my face and a milkshake in my hand. But that’s crazy talk.

A true fighter, a true martial artist, knows that those are unrealistic expectations. Look—setting high standards for yourself is one thing, but setting unachievable goals, that’s something else.

The quickest way to crush your spirit and bring progress to a dead stop is to set unrealistic goals for yourself.

So you still get hit. So you’re not the best. So you’re not perfect. So you’re not a movie star or a master. SO WHAT? I’ve got news for you—movie stars aren’t real. Masters aren’t perfect.

Let’s be clear about that—any teacher who wants you to believe that they’re perfect, or can’t be hit, or never loses, is not a teacher—they’re a cult leader. Go find a real teacher.

A real teacher is someone who is still learning and isn’t afraid to let you witness their own ups and downs. They’ll let you know that it’s okay for you to slip, miss, and lose because they still slip, miss, and lose. As a matter of fact, a great teacher will insist that you slip, miss, and lose, because they know that’s the only way you’ll ever learn how to win! So, consider this—

When you feel like a loser, the problem is not you… it’s your vision of you.

The vision of who you want to be. The vision of who you think you should be.

If you’re demanding a level of skill from yourself that’s not only impossible for you to achieve, but impossible for anybody to achieve, then you’re just hurting yourself. You’re beating yourself up. If you expect your training to yield a continuous, never-ending string of quick gains, and giant leaps in ability, you’re going to end up frustrated and bitter. And that doesn’t leads to building self-confidence… it leads to self-doubt.

That’s why, for me, when it comes to martial arts, and everything really, there’s only one question you should ever ask yourself—

Am I better today than I was yesterday?

Do I know a little more? Am I a little tougher? Did something get a little easier? The only mea surement that matters is comparing the you of today to the you of yesterday. That’s it.

For example, compare you at your current rank to you before you started training. Are you the same person? Of course not! I have no doubt that you are far more developed as a martial artist and as a person than when you first started. Don’t forget that. Don’t forget how far you’ve come. Any other comparison is a damaging, delusional waste of time.

I take that back. There is one other comparison that you should make. You should also compare yourself to people who have no training whatsoever.

No matter what style you do, if you’ve been training for six months to a year, then, yeah—you should have some skill to show for it. Your skill may be physical, psychological, emotional, or tactical, but you should have some advantage over your family and friends who don’t train. Which brings me to the topic of baseball…

[13:05] Now, I’m going to guess that you’re not a professional baseball player. I’m guessing you haven’t stood at the plate and seen a thousand pitches fly past your face at 90 miles an hour. I’m guessing you haven’t trained your eyes to recognize the difference between a curve and a slider.

Which means if, right now, I challenged you to grab a bat and go up against a professional baseball pitcher, how do you think you’d do? Could you hit that ball or not? Let’s say you took 100 pitches—how many could you hit?

Me? I’m going to say one or two. MAYBE one or two. And make no mistake, those would be lucky swings. It’s also possible I’d be so afraid of getting cracked in the head, I’d throw the bat down and dive into the dirt.

Okay, so now imagine being able to hit that ball 20 or 30 times out of 100. Wow! Doesn’t that sound like magic? But isn’t that exactly what the best hitters in the league do?

The professional baseball player takes a task that seems impossible to a beginner and makes it possible. But it’s not magic… it’s skill. It’s years of training. It’s years of experience.

And yet, even with all of that training and experience, do you see any pro hitting 100 pitches out of 100? No! If you’re hitting 30 out of 100, if you’re batting .300 in baseball, you’re an all-star. They’ll pay you millions of dollars for that 30% success rate.

More importantly, even though the pro doesn’t hit 100% of the time, he still hits a lot more than you. That’s important to remember because, in the same way, even if you’re not winning your fights 100% of the time, I’ll bet you’re winning a lot more than all of your buddies who don’t train would. Don’t forget that!

Speaking of percentages, years ago, I went to a Ryukyu Kempo seminar featuring the late, great Seiyu Oyata, founder of Ryu-Te. At one point, Master Oyata made the claim, through an interpreter, that his art works 80% of the time.

Now, I was a younger man, in my early 20’s, and my head was still filled with action movies, so when I heard him say 80%, I thought, “That’s it? You’re bragging about being 80% effective? Wait—I’m paying you to teach me how to lose 20% of the time? What a rip off!”

It took me years, many years, to appreciate, that what Oyata said only proved what a true master he was. He accepted reality. He admitted that he couldn’t control everything. He allowed himself a margin of error. He knew it was okay to miss, to slip, to lose. And if he could do that, so should you.

[16:25] So, don’t be fooled by the highlights reel. When you watch highlights, you only see what works. You only see success. You see the big homerun, the big slam dunk, the big knockout… but those are just brief moments of very long games. Instead, go watch a full Judo match, or BJJ match, or Taekwondo match. What do you see?

Miss… miss… almost… miss… almost… hit.

You know why? Because it’s a fight, not an assassination! In real life, people miss all the time.

Interestingly, in BJJ, you hear people talk all the time about “high-percentage techniques” and “low percentage techniques”. That means they already know that some moves have a higher chance of success than others.

But the headline here is that there is no such thing as a 100% technique. There is no technique that always works. Again, that’s because in a real fight, or even a combat sports duel, it’s not easy to get the submission, the knockout, or the throw. Not even for the world’s toughest fighters and highest paid professional athletes. The best of the best.

So, why the heck are you expecting better results than they get? Why do you expect all of your techniques to work? Why do you think you’re never going to get hit? Why do you feel like a loser when you fail? Get real!

The odds are you’re not even training to become a world champion or a world-class killer. If you’re listening to this show, there’s a good chance you’re just a nice person who wants to make your life better and martial arts is a fun way to do that. You want to stay in shape, give yourself an edge in bad situations, sharpen your wits, and toughen up a bit.

Well, guess what? Even if you’re just practicing once a week, you’re probably succeeding at all of those goals. That’s why I say even a little martial arts makes life a whole lot better. So, give yourself some credit for a change and feel good about what you’re doing.

The fact is if you’re training, then you’re getting better. Period.

Yes, you’ll still get hit, but you’ll get hit less. You’ll still make mistakes, but your mistakes will be smaller and easier to recover from. You’ll still grunt and sweat your way to victory, but you’ll use less energy and become more efficient. You’ll still get scared and intimidated, but you’ll be able to breathe sooner and take action faster.

The trick to being a great student is to never let yourself feel like a loser when you’re losing.

And that starts by being realistic with your goals and patient with your progress.

Look—fighting is hard enough without you telling yourself that you’re no good. You wouldn’t yell at a flower to bloom faster, would you? “Let’s go, flower! We’re waiting!” You wouldn’t scream at a baby while it’s learning to walk, would you? “What’s your problem, baby? Stop being so lazy and walk!”

So, don’t talk to yourself like that, either. Train yourself to see what you’re doing right, even when you’re outmatched and overwhelmed. Especially when we’re outmatched and overwhelmed!

Don’t give into self-doubt and insecurity when you’re not dominating the dojo like an action hero. Just be you. Just focus on doing what you can today. Tomorrow is another story. My point—

If you allow yourself to feel like a loser, you will lose. Guaranteed.

[20:27] Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be hard on yourself. I’m extremely hard on myself. But I also forgive my mistakes. I learn from my injuries. I laugh at my slip-ups and misses. I accept the learning process.

It’s a paradox, really—a great martial artist must be both a modest, humble student and a fearless, fiercely confident warrior.

Hitter to quitter!

Hitter to quitter!

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t always accept the learning process. I have quit many, many things. I played little league baseball… and quit. I took piano lessons… and quit. Played tennis in high school… and quit. Painted… and quit. Cooked… and quit. I could go on all day, but you get the idea.

In each of those activities, I actually started out very well. My natural abilities gave me a head start and my skill level jumped up pretty fast. But at some point, I hit a wall. I wasn’t getting better. Or so I thought.

Each time, I knew if I really wanted to be successful, I would have to invest time, more effort, and probably more money. To make even the smallest improvement, I would have to suck it up and join the grind.

But I didn’t love baseball that much. Or piano. Or tennis. Or painting. Or cooking. And once those easy wins stopped, I stopped. Which is okay. Part of growing up is figuring out what you want to do. Where you want to spend your resources. Where you’re willing to suffer.

For me, I chose writing and martial arts. And I’ll be doing both of those for the rest of my life. The proof is that even when I feel like a loser, even when I think I suck, even when my progress seems invisible, I keep going. I love the grind.

The secret to a happy life is to find a grind you don’t mind.

So, don’t let movies and TV, masters and superstars, strip away your confidence. Don’t let what inspired you to start martial arts also inspire you to quit martial arts.

Of course, you should still set high standards and big goals for yourself… just don’t let them crush your spirit when reality adjusts them for you. When you find out you’re not invincible… when your technique doesn’t work… when you lose… hey—it’s okay. That’s part of the process. Enjoy it. Be proud of yourself for even being part of it. Because here’s the danger…

Whether you’re a beginner or a black belt, if you don’t accept failure along with your success, you’ll end up drawing some crazy conclusions…

You might conclude that since you’re not talented or tough enough to be a world champion or a movie star, that there’s no point in training. So, you quit. Or maybe you conclude that your style is not good enough, or your teacher is not good enough, so you leave and find a new school. But hang on a second…

The problem there is not your style or your teacher, the problem is the pressure you’ve been putting on yourself to be perfect. The problem is training to be a movie star instead of a martial artist.

Now, sure, it’s possible that finding a new teacher or a new style will improve your success rate, but guess what? You still won’t be perfect.

So, if you’re upset with your current progress, if you’ve been struggling with self-doubt, before you burn your bridges, before you throw out all of your hard work, ask yourself if your feelings of failure are rooted in your style or in the expectations you have set for yourself within your style.

In my opinion, it doesn’t matter what style you do. It doesn’t matter who your teacher is. If you’re training with unrealistic expectations, you’ll always feel like a failure. The fact is, even on your best day, your best move won’t always work. That has nothing to do with how hard you work, or how much passion you have, or how pure your lineage is, or how long you’ve been training… failing is just a natural part of life.

Does that mean training in the martial arts is a waste of time? Not at all. It just means that when you get hit, or when you miss, you shouldn’t waste a moment thinking you’re no good or that you can’t win. You’ve got to train yourself to see the hit and the miss as normal and keep fighting.

[25:29] So, my message today—get real. As you drive to your next class or prepare for your next training session, think back to when you got started. Think about who you wanted to become. Think about how you’ve changed since tying on a white belt. Think about all of the experiences that have made you tougher and wiser. Think about who you are today.

If you can take an honest look at yourself, I think you’ll realize that you don’t suck. You’ll figure out that you’re better than you thought.

You’ll finally accept that you’re not a movie star… and that’s a good thing! Because movie stars aren’t real… you are!

Remember— if you’re still getting hit, even by a six-year-old, good! You should be. Still losing? Well done. Keep it up.

Once you get your head out of the movies and comic books, once you set realistic expectations, once you get back to the grind of making small, almost invisible improvements, self-doubt will naturally give way to self-confidence.

You’ll start to appreciate all of the things you’re doing right. How skilled you are. How your hard work is paying off. As a bonus, you’ll start to see those same skills in others. Instead of always noticing what your partners are doing wrong, you’ll see what they’re doing right.

So, if you’re thinking about quitting something you love, don’t. Instead, get back to work. Before you work out, ask yourself, “What can I improve today?” After you work out, ask yourself, “What did I improve today?”

When you have answers for both of those questions, you, my friend, will become a true student. You’ll have discovered the secret to eliminating self-doubt, becoming your best, and living a happy life.