Courage in Karate: The Role of Vulnerability

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

We so often take it for granted, as instructors, as seniors, what it takes for our students to keep returning to the mat. We have long forgotten that once upon a time, stepping onto the tatami required great courage. While seniors tend to suffer from Imposter Syndrome, our juniors and new students still face fears we have since forgotten.

In her work on shame and vulnerability, Brene Brown talks about how vulnerability, the willingness to try despite not having all the answers, enduring the risk of emotional, physical and mental exposure, is the driving force behind courage and growth.

“The willingness to show up changes us, It makes us a little braver each time.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

How vulnerable the new student is – all these new faces, this towering presence of a Sensei, these older kids who know what to do. All the rituals that have to be followed that make no sense. Why the bowing? Why can’t I wear socks in the winter? Why is everyone shouting this weird word all the time?

I think we forget so often that it takes great bravery to join a dojo. To learn something utterly foreign in so many ways, and to stick it out day after day after day. We so often forget to praise this, the consistency of showing up. The bravery of putting on mitts and sparring. The harsh spotlight of performing a kata alone. And to do it all as a tiny kid, or an adult who has forgotten what it takes to learn something new.

Perhaps one of the most important ways we can support our students and not lose them is to celebrate this daily bravery. To recognise that they are putting themselves out there, willing to learn and so terrified of failure or humiliation. I’ve been on the mat so long and so often that I’ve forgotten that once upon a time, every single move was difficult. I was not born with great natural talent, but sheer bloody-minded dedication got me to where I am today. It is important that we remind ourselves of how far we’ve come, and to not expect the same of our fledgling students. I know that it is not my place or journey to find the next Miyagi. But what I want to do, as an instructor-in-training and hopefully as an instructor one day, is to help others find their authentic selves through karate. To help them find a new confidence, a place to belong, and develop personal strength and integrity. In the modern world, karate is still a valuable tool for self-discovery and self-improvement. To treat karate as an instant answer to self-defence problems is short-sighted, and parents who think it’ll magically cure all behaviour issues without input from their side are wasting their money. It is a great sadness that many parents expect their kids to pick karate up instantly, not knowing how difficult it actually is. They fail to acknowledge this, and in so doing make their kids feel inadequate.

The most important thing we can encourage in our students is bravery. Bravery will take them far in all they do. It will help them take risks and endure difficult things. That bravery comes from vulnerability, and as teachers, it is our place to celebrate and support that immense act of courage. 

“Wholeheartedness. There are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is vulnerability and worthiness; facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

For more on vulnerability: 

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