How Exactly Is Fighting More Mental Than Physical?

For centuries masters have taught that fighting is more mental than physical. However, when training martial arts we concentrate mainly on the physical technique. As we progress, we learn to be more focused, aggressive and intense; but how exactly does that make fighting more mental than physical when we are still punching, kicking, throwing, gouging or simply bitch-slapping some bugger that deserves it?

I’m going to ask you to bear with me as I explain, as at first this is going to look like I’m going of subject, but it will fit together in the end, I promise.

Something that I’ve come across a couple of times lately is the idea that we should be “living in the present”. Well of course we are you might say, how can we not be in the present?

Let me explain a bit more. Many people spend a lot of time living in regret for things they have done in the past or missed opportunities; or resentment about things that have been done to them. They are in effect, spending a lot their time thinking about and focusing on the past, constantly re-living the causes of their regret/resentment.

Others spend a lot of time looking to the future. How many times have you thought, “I can’t wait for work to finish and go home”, “I can’t wait for the weekend” or “I can’t wait for my holiday/retirement/promotion/whatever”? This is in effect living for the future. The idea is, “I’ll be happy when . . . . . . . whatever”.

The key to actually being happy, or even effective in live, is not to be re-living past problems or to be just biding your time until something better comes along, but to be consciously present in the current moment. This is not to say that you don’t plan for the future, just don’t focus on being there instead of now. Be present now, whilst you plan your future (you’ll plan it much much better that way). This is a big subject which I can’t really do justice to in one post. Books have been written on this subject, so for now please just accept this general idea.

So what has this got to do with martial arts?

One more detour first, then I’ll answer that. I have read several times in the past that soldiers in real combat report that they had “never felt so alive”. That’s not to say that they found it to be fun! Rather they found it very intense, the very fact that their existence could end at any instance made them very much aware of that instance (rather than dwelling on the past or what could be). They were very intense on staying alive and very present in that moment. Hence feeling really “alive”.

OK, back to the martial arts. How often have you said (or heard somebody say) that when training you/they forget all your worries and problems?

Why does this happen? It is because we are practising a combat art. We need to maintain our concentration and focus, especially when partnered up for sparring. We know we’ll soon get hit if don’t focus and be present in that moment. Even in pre-arranged sparring routines, if you don’t block/parry/evade an attack that is coming in full-steam, you’ll get hit.

In solitary practice as well (basics or kata/patterns/forms) we should still train with an opponent in mind.

Note: Our nervous system can not tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. For example, if we watch a scary film, we know full well that we are safe and it’s only on a screen. However, we still “jump”, our heart beat can speed up and our breathing can change. This is our nervous system responding to our imagination as we are engrossed in the film. Therefore training with an opponent in mind is almost as good as training with a real partner.

Our training forces us to be in the present. It forces us to forget our past problems and to forget about our daydreams of our future and to be much more there, focused on the guy in front who is about to knock you into next week if you don’t focus fully on what he is about to do to you.

Being fully focused and aware in the present moment is a necessary reaction to danger. Fortunately it is an almost automatic reaction to being in danger.

That said, some people still struggle with it. When confronted with a bully/mugger/predator, some people will focus on “this isn’t fair”, “why does this always happen to me”, “this b*****d is always picking on me”. The are still partly in the past.

Some will be thinking, “I’m going to get killed”, or “this could really be humiliating”. They are still partially in the future.

Over time with many sessions of partner activities (whether free sparring or pre-arranged activities), we don’t just get used to physical technique, but we get uses to being in the present moment. We get better control over our fears and become more able to instinctively push out the fears of defeat/humiliation or feelings of victimisation. It is often said that martial arts fosters courage. One of the main ways it does this is by teaching you to be in the present rather than focusing on the past or future.

Usually if you get a black belt sparring with a somebody of a middle range grade (say purple/blue belt) then assuming all other things are equal (age, build, strength, size, etc) the black belt will usually dominate. Obviously the black belt should have the better technique, but if you put the 2 of them side by side and tell them to perform say a punch at the same time, the black belt will be only a split second faster.

Does this split second account for the level of domination that most black belts have over lower grades?

Obviously it is part of the reason, but I don’t think it is the full reason. By the time somebody reaches black belt, usually they are much more used having their mind in the present moment and not worrying out defeat, humiliation, fighting a higher grade etc. They find it much easier to commit to their technique and just go for their target, un-hindered by a mind worrying about what the outcome might be. There is a greater sense of certainty about the way they move.

This is where the mind is trained to be “present”. It is more important than just the physical technique that the body is performing. This is where fighting becomes “mental”. This is where your focus and concentration over many years will take you to.

A side effect of this is of course is that you learn to be more “present” in your everyday life as well. You usually find that high grade martial artists often have more resilience to deal with the everyday problems that life throws up than most other people do (whether it’s divorce, career, health, whatever). Why? Because you can solve your life problems much better if you are thinking in the present rather than resenting how you got there (thinking in the past) or fearing the outcome (thinking in the future).

So many martial arts talk about making you a better person with a stronger character and it is irrefutable that they do. Most however are short on explanation on how this actually happens. I personally believe that learning to be “present” is one of the most central principles of the “Do” (The Way).

This concept is a continuation of the idea of silencing that little voice inside your head (which I’ve written about before). You know, that little voice that keeps telling you that you can’t do something for this or that reason. That reason is usually something in the past - dragging you back there and away from the present moment.


Note: Being “present” is a very big subject which I cannot do justice to in one posting. If you want more information then I would suggest that you check out either:
A Bug Free Mind (heavily marketed, but has changed my outlook)
The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle (I’ve seen this recommended several times. I have a copy waiting for me to find the time to read it).

4 thoughts on “How Exactly Is Fighting More Mental Than Physical?

  1. Fighting is definitely more mental than physical. The physical side though challenges you more mentally. When you are tired it takes more focus, preparation, and heart to succeed.

    Good article!

    1. Thank you, I’m glad you liked the article. I agree with you entirely. When the going gets tough, its a tough mind that keeps you going longer than a tough body . . . . . . . .though it does help of course 🙂

  2. this struck a chord with me, as mushin goju aims at doing exactly that; training to a point where nothing matters but right now, especially in fighting. “that little voice” is a fighter’s biggest enemy. great article.

    1. Hi Mushin Joe
      Thanks for your comment. I personally think that most martial arts try to do this on one level or another. I just think that most martial artists don’t actually realise it until it is pointed out to them 🙂

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