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The Fighter's Superego: Experiencing Fear in a Fight

Last Monday, I was at one of my drinking holes. Stayed for a little bit talking to a friend there and made my way to leave soon after. On my way out, I extended my hand to the bouncer to say ‘by’ and wish him a good day. I had not known him long; he was dating a friend of mine. But we were on good terms and I even considered him somewhat of a friend, until that day.

He looked me dead in the eye and accused me of stalking his girlfriend on line and just in general being inappropriate. Then he told me not to comeback to the bar and threatened to hit me then and there if I did not leave. I was caught completely off guard with no clue what he was talking about. I stood there for a dead minute looking him dead in the eye as well, with one hand still extended and the other ready to block any shot to my face. Though to be honest I was too close to really block a hit.

What stood out to me most about this encounter and is also the point of this article is the fear and hesitation I felt in that moment.


Voices in My Head

I eventually walked away, deciding that then wasn’t the time or place for a physical confrontation, and also having too little information as to why it was happening and was it worth the consequences. Now though I intellectually know it was the right thing to do, circumstances being what they were, I have to admit that I was rattled.

I have been practicing martial arts for twenty years. I have sparred people, been in some other fights, and have even had other tense moments with bouncers being idiots over time. One thing longtime fighters like to pride themselves on is knowing what to do when the test arrives. You know that moment: when everything you learned, all your knowledge is about to be tested? Whether all those years of learning were wasted and any trash talk you spouted is bullshit or not, or not or if it actually paid off.

It’s the fighter’s superego. That part of the brain the Sigmund Freud says contains our values and meeting those expectations.

I begin doubting myself and my abilities and wondered if I was really just a coward and if I could handle myself at all. I walked away from a fight, which is what I had been training for. The fighter’s superego can be an unforgiving and unseen accuser. Ask Rhonda Rousey when she lost her title to Holly Holm. It takes an immense amount of honesty, humility, and a powerful sense of self to walk away from a challenge and not feel like a failure.

Arranged fights can have their own set of unknown factors.  However that is usually within the realm of skill.  There's no risk of death.  Fear can be more easily controlled.

Arranged fights can have their own set of unknown factors. However that is usually within the realm of skill. There's no risk of death. Fear can be more easily controlled.

Expectations and Context

I had read an article talking about the way to deal with fear is to spar more often. Train harder and more intensely. However I have done that, with people of multiple styles. I still feel competent that I can hold my own in a fight. If anything my problem now is that there are not enough people to spar with. Yet I came out of this recent confrontation with the bouncer realizing being prepared for fighting a match in the ring or with friends is much different from that random encounter outside the ring.

Whether TMA or MMA martial artists alike, they enter their dojos or rings already having an idea of the people they are fighting. They are familiar with the environment and its controlled factors. MMA people in particular because they may spend months studying one opponent whose match maybe the next year! That develops a level of comfort and certain level of predictability for the mind. There’s nothing really at stake, nothing of real importance anyway. However encounters in uncontrolled environments like rape, bar fights, or home break-ins don’t have that luxury of preparedness. It slams into you straight out of left field and there are no rules to govern how far it may go.

To give you an idea of what I mean by that, the last, real fight I had, I nearly tossed a guy into a not-too shallow pit when he over committed, after he started throwing punches. He stopped after that, realizing he could have been killed. When the bouncer threatened me on Monday, in spite of my fear, I had already calculated in my head five different scenarios to take him out given his size and proximity. And all of them involved what some krav maga trainers call first and second level pressure points. Essentially, strikes that are either potentially fatal or will result in long term or permanent injury and most importantly, would have legal repercussions.

In an unanticipated fight, the outcome is never a guarantee no matter how much you train or how big you are. You don’t know their style. You don’t know if they are armed or when they will use it if it’s concealed. You don’t their endurance and how far you may have to go to stop him or her. And you don’t know if that person has others who will jump into the fight, whether from the get go or if their buddy starts losing. Victory is possible, but never certain.

"I fear not the man who practiced 10,000 kicks once. But I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times."

— Bruce Lee

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Fear as the Teacher

There is also a more basic element here though and it’s what helped me come to my senses, though it’s an element I think few would ever admit to. Fear is not something to be ashamed of. It is not dishonorable or unmanly or makes you a pussy. Even lions and tigers feel fear and it’s what makes them as dangerous as they are. Fear is a natural response when a threat has made itself known and prepares the body for action. Not to say you’re going to turn into the Wolverine, but your senses are heightened and response time quickened, depending on the body’s level of conditioning.

Fear itself isn’t the problem. It’s how we respond when it hits. Something I have heard many women criticize about self-defense forms is that all the techniques look great in the training. Yet in that dark parking lot when some stranger jumps you and just starts wailing on you, you tense up and go into deer-in-headlight mood. I am not sure how many trainers prepare their students for that challenge: the mental challenge.

Also, situation awareness in those cases or simply put, basic human intelligence is also key. If you have a moment to access the situation, you weigh the risks and best options. In self-defense situations, usually the best option is to walk away even if you believe you could whip the person’s ass that’s starting shit. The legal troubles and potential unknowns aren’t worth a worst case scenario made reality. But in other cases there is no time and you just have to react and let thing flow as they will.

"What happens when you accept and embrace your fear? Fear becomes your weapon"

— Georges St-Pierre

Embracing Our Shadows

We are raised in a world today that tells us to admit to fear is wrong, especially in the face of an enemy. You never have regrets, are always right, and could beat both Bruce Lee and Mike Tyson with one arm tied behind your back, any day of the week. This is an improper setting of expectations and sets up people to be shaken when the fear does strike in their first assault.

I am not talking about developing confidence, which is what every fighting practitioner is going to tell you they do. Confidence is a great aid in ring matches and fight clubs because there is nothing really unexpected there except a new way to strike, grapple. Or knock you out. It’s a controlled environment that you can prepare for ahead of time. It’s also though more vulnerable against unknown possibilities street fighting can present. May still be helpful, but no assured game changer, at least on the outset. It maybe compensated when the fear is controlled.

Fear is an emotion, a reaction. Like any emotion it’s not an option you just pick off the shelf of your mind. Good training prepares the mind as best it can to respond to those moments and handle those instincts. It never ignores fear or pretends that it doesn’t exist. My brother is a Marine from the Second Gulf War and when I asked him if Marines, arguably the loudest self-promoters of their own badass-ness, feel fear before a fight or battle, his response was of course they do. It was simply a matter of working through that to do what they needed to do.

With tournament fighting, this maybe different since the circumstances are controlled and as I said before, there’s preparation. I never really did any regulated fighting or cage fighting. But I am fairly confidant with this assessment within the context of street fighting. The bigger battle for the martial artist isn’t attaining peak, physical perfection or learning the perfect, fighting form. It’s learning to control the fighter’s superego in spite of fear and be able to keep a solid head about you to still make smart decisions while defending yourself.


ron l on June 26, 2017:

good read .. in my experience some times I fear not the person themselves but what I may do to that person and the damage I may cause especially after getting hit and your instincts take over and fear turns to anger .. neither emotion is good in a fight but never feel bad for walking away from a fight ... bouncers are like cops if you beat on 1 they are all going to jump in

Lee Blegen on June 26, 2017:

I know the feeling. You made the right decision, I think. I've found myself feeling the same emotions and experiencing the sameness feelings before most physical altercations I have had. I just go with it. I tend to find that I needed to get hit ONCE. Once that's game on, and the doubt flees. Instinct takes over. That, of course, is my personal experience. Everyone is different.

Zack Woll from Somewhere on June 26, 2017:

Great article! What you wrote is very true. Your mental state has to be in peak condition at all times.

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