Let’s talk about martial arts and conflict resolution..

Over the years I have heard from many people about the concept of “conflict resolution”. It seems that dealing with conflict happens quite often in today’s society, more than we would like to admit or care to realize. Let’s first examine and understand what a conflict is.

Conflict, as defined, can be either a noun or a verb. The noun defines it as “a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one”. The verb usage states “be incompatible or at variance; clash”. When it comes to actually dealing with conflict in a person’s life the martial arts has many more levels that have to be addressed. In my dojo I have simplified into the following categories:
External Physical: This is the typical type of conflict people think of that involves some sort physical altercation such as a fight, domestic abuse situation or other things of that nature.

External Verbal: When we often think of bullying this type of conflict comes to mind. Bullying can escalate into External Physical but the majority of the time it is verbal taunting, belittling or simply heightened arguments between two people.

Internal Physical: This is our physical status of health area. If we are sick we are dealing with a conflict against an internal threat. Items in this category include cancer, diabetes and other health related issues that impact our lives negatively.

Internal Emotional / Mental: This is the state when we have external circumstances that have led to an internal conflict. A prime example is when a person feels inadequate due to being told they are ugly or worthless. Sometimes this aspect of conflict is also brought upon the individual by their own doing such as being a perfectionist (which I am guilty of more often than not).

Within these four types of conflict exists multiple layers where they can overlap or be caused to expand into one another. For example; a person begins berating another one. This makes the person upset and they feel very negative based on what has been said. This was an example of how an External Verbal overlapped / created an Internal Emotional / Mental state.

In the martial arts we teach our students more than just how to kick someone’s butt. Many people, even today, don’t seem to grasp these concepts about those who study martial arts. I could go on for hours about the reasons why the general public hasn’t come to terms with this but I won’t, except to state that the popularity of combat sports such as the UFC series has built the aspect of what I call the “sports warrior” mentality. In order to better understand how we teach students to deal with conflict I will have to take you on a short journey from beginner to long time practitioner. As I realize most of you will not want to read a lengthy blog post about this I will keep it short and to the point.

People of all ages and walks of life enroll in martial arts for a myriad of reasons. Regardless many of them aren’t sure what they are getting into nor have any true understanding of the process of training. The beginner student has a concept in their mind what the martial arts are thanks, in large, to media (movies, TV, etc.). They come in and put on the Gi and start to train having no real idea why they are doing it regardless for their reasons to join a school. The white belt has no skills and aren’t even sure how to learn so we begin the process by establishing etiquette and building their ability to listen properly. It is during this phase of the training that we also set about to build their spirit through physical training and discipline. The spirit we are discussing is a deep part of our body that will either “flight or fight” when faced with any type of conflict in life.  According to Walter Bradford Cannon (a well-known physiologist) we all have the ability to fight when challenged or to run when we face one. At one time it was thought that this aspect of our spirit could not be changed because we are born with these certain genes that trigger the response. We now know that this is not factual however the condition does exist and is triggered by many experiences we have growing through life. In the martial arts we take time to train a student to be aware of this aspect and how to determine the best avenue to deal with a potential or verifiable threat in their presence. This is known as acute stress conditioning and we achieve it mostly once the student has developed the ability to learn and condition their body through being a beginner.

At the intermediate phase of the training it will get tougher and more demanding on the student. They will be in a more contact training environment where they are experimenting with what works against an attack and what doesn’t. Their training at this level is pointed to building automatic responses against various threats from verbal all the way to physical. They are pushed to strengthen their ability to defend against an attacker as well as train harder to condition their body for such a situation if it were to occur. The intermediate phase of one’s training if where a transformation begins to take place and confidence begins to grow. The student builds confidence because they are seeing the results of the hard work as well as getting very good physical shape. Another aspect of training takes place at this point that I like to refer to as the “feel good” phase. The feel good phase is where a student begins the process of stopping to look outward for acceptance from others and starts to look inward. During this phase they quickly realize that what other people say towards them in a negative manner (external verbal) has no actual bearing on who they are as a person. This is a level of conflict resolution that assists people in ignoring the little things to focus on the bigger picture in life.

During the advanced stage of training the student begins to see everything in a new light. They are physically fit, focused and more prone to not be bothered by several types of conflict. They are confident that if an External Physical conflict would occur they could handle themselves very well and do what is necessary to walk away safe and sound, even if that response requires physically harming the attacker. Confidence grows at this stage as does one’s understanding of how other people’s negative actions truly have no bearing on their goals. The student begins to transform into someone that carries themselves in a manner that makes them less of a target for bullies and attackers through the abilities they have gain in training. Sadly many drop out of training at this stage before achieving a lifelong benefit that the long term practitioner of the martial arts gets.

In the lifelong student this state becomes solidified into the actual character of the individual through their training. Once it is instilled into their character it is automatic and responses are determined quickly and effectively when facing any type of conflict. They are more in tune with their mind and bodies to deal with health issues as well as their physical abilities to deal with self-defense situations. Throughout the entire field of training they have been learning the most effective form of conflict resolution known to man and this is why martial arts training are one of the most popular activities today for people of all ages.

When dealing with conflict a martial artist is always to determine if it is necessary to fight or if they can simply walk away. During this process the mind goes into overload on most individuals but a martial artist, through their training, has been conditioned to handle the elevated levels of stress and focus on the objective clearly. We achieve this through disciplined and hard training in classes. The repetitive nature of the martial arts builds almost super human reaction levels to a physical attack which increase the ability of the individual to survive an encounter. A properly trained martial artist will be able to remain calm in the face of danger and make split second decisions that can result in the best outcome to keep them, and the ones they love, safe from harm. Through the building of confidence martial artists are less likely to engage in a conflict, be it a verbal or physical issue, because they simply have no reason to “show off” their skills or prove anything to someone trying to goad them into a fight. While others may construe this as weakness it isn’t. In reality it is their way of saving the person who is negatively acting towards them from a solid butt kicking.

We have all heard the statement “Karate is for defense only” and that means we must train to know the difference of when it is appropriate to use our skills and when it is not necessary at all. We also train to be ready for any type of encounter at any time through diligent study in the dojo. As we grow, our skills grow and progress to levels where we simply do not care to prove anything to a bully but how we can smile and walk away knowing they are insecure and a won’t ever amount to much unless they change their ways. We have a saying in the martial arts that goes like this “Karate ni sente hashi”. This is typically translated to mean “There is no first attack in Karate” but it has a much deeper meaning than simply what it states. By teaching there is no first attack in what we do we are not conditioning our students to be weak. We are conditioning them to determine if they have to harm the person across from them or not. One of the first aspects of learning how to successfully deal with conflict is to determine the course of action needed to resolve it safely. Karate teaches this but also gives the student the ability to be physical if that is the course of action needed.

Martial art training also helps us to deal with all sorts of internal conflicts as well. Through the training a student will learn to seek a balance of the body (physical), the mind (mental state) and the spirit (willpower) so they are at peace with both themselves and the outside influences they encounter in the world during day to day living. Over the years I cannot even count the number of times I have had a student come into the dojo who just had a terrible day only to see them smiling on their way home after classes are over. Martial art training alleviates stresses found in the common day thus helping us to stay more focused and healthy. The training also builds successful habits because you feel good about achieving the goals such as earning a new belt or learning a new Kata.

In the United States we still haven’t grasped all the wonderful benefits of martial arts training because people simply are not sure what it is. Some see it as the violent sports on television, like MMA/UFC while others think it is some sort of religious cult activity. In reality it is neither of those when you train with a good instructor, in an authentic system of Karate and at a dojo with experience. We also train sporadically here in the United States. A student typically will hit the dojo for classes twice a week but expect the same results as those who have learned that daily training is the best format. In Okinawa it is well known that people train almost every day and some do seven days a week. They do this because it is part of their way of life (if they train Karate) and how they seek to stay healthy, focused and centered. When a student only trains a couple of times a week they won’t gain the same benefits nor the solid conflict resolution that one who trains four to five days a week will. It is also very common in our society today to quit something we begin which leads to the deduction of skill and reduction of ability to handle ourselves, feel good about ourselves and deal with the conflicts found in everyday living.

Conflict resolution is a topic every good martial art school teaches but it is best learned in the traditional martial arts that don’t focus on the sport aspects as their mainstay. Traditional martial art schools have an environment to them that is positive and where everyone can fit in, regardless of their ability or skill levels. They are also ruled by etiquette and traditions that make everyone equal because they are all there to learn the same skills. Through a supportive environment, like those found in a good dojo, along with the discipline development conflict resolution becomes second nature to the student. It becomes an aspect that they no longer dread and can deal with in a positive manner thus improving their way of life and those of the people they love around them.

In my lifetime I have been in job positions where I have had to deal with conflict on a daily basis. Be it when I was a bouncer, a correctional officer or a body guard my martial arts training always kept me safe, able to determine the proper course of action and often resulted in job promotions. I learned that, no matter how tough I may think I am, one simple mistake can lead to serious harm or legal action. Through my martial arts training I was able to think quickly on my feet and determine the appropriate course of action for all kinds of situations that would happen in life. Be it a bully, a rude co-worker, an ego maniac or even just a person who thinks Karate is a joke it all came down to how I dealt with it. My training gave me the confidence to ignore the haters, to be who I am and to grow into a strong person that doesn’t need to smack a person down to prove a point.

Recently, while I was at a high school reunion, there was a belligerent drunk there. This is someone I know, a person whom I had to throw out of a bar over and over I worked at many years ago and he was very obnoxious to say the least. Regardless he didn’t remember me nor did he bother me but I watched him bother many others. When he turned his attention to me I shook his hand, looked him right in the eye and said I know who you are. He sat there quietly and eventually got up from the table and walked away without saying a word. Later on he was in the bar area at the club were at bragging about being a brown belt in martial arts and how tough he was, etc. People came over and told me about it as if it would bother me. Did it bother me? A little bit because, had he been a real brown belt, he wouldn’t be going around bragging about it but I ignored it. The reason why I ignored it is because he would never learn even if he got beaten up. He was one of those “types” of people so there is no point in bothering with him and it is always best to ignore them and walk away. Some people cannot be taught a lesson through physical altercations and they will never learn the error of their ways.

Conflict resolution was in play that night. I didn’t avoid this person but I wasn’t going to let his ignorance bother me either. When he did turn his attention to me I shook his hand confidently while giving him the look, straight in the eye, letting him know I am not easy mark nor to be trifled with (something you gain in martial arts training). When he progressed to bragging about his “martial arts” skills I ignore it because I knew he was lying plus he wouldn’t learn anything from getting smacked down. I also knew if I got into an altercation with him I could end up in jail which is something to avoid all together since I am in a leadership role where children look up to me in my dojo. This is the process of conflict resolution and all occurred within a very quick amount of time. Thanks to my martial arts training I was able to handle it effectively and positively…and no one got harmed.

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