Dealing with Anxiety in Martial Arts and Sports as a Slow Learner (Part 1)

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After a half-decade break from Aikido training, I returned to the dojo in July feeling more self-conscious than excited. Owing to the large gap in time, my technique execution had become clumsy and ineffective, making me feel thoroughly incompetent to be even wearing my brown belt. Trainees who were once my juniors now outranked me in skill and grade.

What had upset me, however, was the presence of learning and performance anxiety during training. Contrary to my belief, past training efforts had not gotten rid of the anxiety permanently- my old habits motivated by the fears of making mistakes, being scolded and looking stupid have returned.

Anxiety in Sports and Martial Arts Impedes Progress

Anxiety in sports is fairly common (especially among beginners) and stems from the fear of performing badly in front of people. It is a form of performance and social anxiety that tend to diminish one’s abilities – the fear of appearing incompetent in a sports and martial arts environment.

So, combine anxiety with attempting to learn and perfect abilities that require motor coordination, and I become a nervous wreck whose ability to absorb and recall information is severely hampered. Where keen observation and conscientious correction of one’s technique are ideal to good progress in martial arts and sports, anxiety is a distraction to this process of self correction.

The first month of my return saw learning and performance anxiety that was so distracting that I failed to notice the footwork, movements and nuances that determined its effectiveness as the Aikido technique was being demonstrated. With the stubborn desire to avoid embarrassing mistakes, I obsessed over predicting the errors I could possibly make and excessively focused on that one specific step of a technique during Sensei’s demonstration. Naturally, when it was time to partner up and train, I had no idea how to begin executing the technique that had been demonstrated moments ago.

Aware that anxiety has been sabotaging training progress in hindering my ability to process and learn, the following explores the past and the underlying root of the problem. Clearly, I must have missed something the last time, since there was no lasting effect from past training on alleviating my sports-based anxiety. I need to move past this anxiety-mode of learning sports and martial arts abilities.

Inferiority Complex: No sporting ability and slow in learning

Inferiority Complex in Sports and Martial Arts

“Terrible motor-coordination abilities, incompetent loser in sports and martial arts, horribly slow in learning sports” – these words summed up the underlying belief I had of myself that was held since childhood.

Perhaps I wasn’t at all slow at learning and maybe my sporting ability wasn’t beyond hopeless. But, over time, lies can become the truth when you believe them. The destructive belief subconsciously influenced my attitude towards and habits within sports, and so, set off a self-fulfilling prophecy that fulled my anxiety and tainted my experiences in physical activities over time.

Bad childhood training experience gave birth to inferiority complex

It began at the age of seven when I had my first encounter with learning kata in my weekly Taekwondo classes. As a quiet child with little confidence, learning a series of choreographed patterns was hard. I was bad at memorising the many steps and was constantly yelled at in my face, which did nothing but made me panic and lose the little confidence I had. Soon enough, the other kids avoided me. My progress became much slower and I dreaded going for classes in which I would feel humiliated, incompetent and isolated.

Eventually, because the frustrated yelling had always accompanied my learning process in Taekwondo, anxiety became a norm when confronted with learning physical skills that required motor-coordination. I concluded at that age that I was an incompetent burden, who had no skill in sports and martial arts. In doing so, I had entrenched the inferiority complex over my slow learning and lack of natural ability.Performance Anxiety in Martial Arts and Sports in Childhood

With that, I sought always to avoid team sports and physical activities when possible. As a result, I forwent the opportunity to build confidence in my learning ability, develop the skill to learn how to learn sports-based abilities, and refine basic sporting skills taught during P.E. (Physical Education). The destructive belief that I had formed early on in life ensured that I faced sports and martial arts with anxiety and a defeated attitude, thereby proving to myself time after time that I was slow in learning, unskilled and a burden to whatever team that I was on.

Writer’s Note: Even though the Taekwondo instructor’s yelling may have been well-intentioned and worked well for the rowdier children, it wasn’t suitable for me due to my quiet and sensitive personality as a child. As such, the dojang where I trained in was not necessarily bad. nor is it reflective of how all Taekwondo training halls are operated. 

Failing to get rid of learning and performance anxiety for good

After years of avoiding physical activity, my passion in martial arts and desire to develop my confidence prodded me to give martial arts another go during my adolescence. Due to my lack of confidence in memorising long series of choreographed patterns, I chose Aikido.

Temporary alleviation of anxiety in Aikido

My learning and performance anxiety in martial arts lessened as a subconscious side-effect of training regularly. Familiarity and trust with the Aikido dojo environment had broken the connection to my early bad experience in martial arts and desensitised my anxiety triggers, enabling me to learn with little distraction from anxiety.

But… some issues relating to performance and learning anxiety were never directly addressed. These are some problems back then that contributed to the return of anxiety.

1. Relying on familiarity to a specific training environment

Training regularly in the dojo enabled me to be familiar with my training environment and helped lessen the anxiety. However, because I was only familiar with the dojo and did not expose myself to other sporting situations, the performance anxiety persisted everywhere else. This was especially evident when I began learning marching and weapon drills upon being enlisted to the military.

As such, my method of alleviating anxiety was incomplete and highly reliant on being comfortable in a specific training environment. The return of anxiety was a result of the half-decade break from training that erased my familiarity to my dojo.

2. Failing to deal with anxiety and learning in a conscious process

In addition to being incomplete, the lessening of anxiety through regular training was only a subconscious process that just happened. There was neither a conscious decision nor effort to first manage anxiety and then work on improving the way I learnt in sports and martial arts.

Looking back, my objective had been to build self-confidence in taking up Aikido. Yet, my lacking self-awareness prevented me from seeing the sports-based anxiety as an impediment to confidence.

Hence, I had never really made any effort to seek the root cause of my anxiety and discover solutions specific to anxiety and learning better. It was pure stupid reliance of faith that my haphazard efforts at building confidence would work and I would become less anxious as a subconscious side-effect. Clearly not true at all, since I had no experience from back then to kill off the present anxiety and learning issue.

3. Believing that being mediocre in martial arts and sports was an unchangeable fate

On hindsight, another reason why I made no conscious decision to tackle the issues with anxiety and learning was because of my belief that there was nothing I could do to improve my natural ability in sports and become a better learner.

Subconsciously, I was still convinced that being a slow learner with no natural sporting ability had doomed me into an unchangeable destiny of being an inferior martial artist. Performance anxiety would always be the norm for me. Genetics was was set in stone and I could only contend to remaining at status quo (or just give up). I had been stubbornly convicted to the view that these weaknesses would always make me vastly inferior to the average sportsman and martial artist.

4. Misunderstanding the root cause of my learning and performance anxiety

Thinking that my lacking abilities caused anxiety

Obviously, the anxiety issue was never about me being a slow learner or a mediocre sportsman. No. But that was what I had believed was the root cause of my anxiety when writing this post earlier on.

I had failed to realise that the performance and learning anxiety arose from an inferiority complex from being slow in learning and having no natural ability. By accepting the limitations set by my inferiority complex in sports, I was only running in circles in this self-fulfilling prophecy loop. This was the missing key to resolving the complicated issue with anxiety and learning how to learn with finality.

Moving towards resolution

This reflection of the past and present was a journey of self-discovery necessitated by my desire to be much better in martial arts and other physical activities. The ultimate goal of improving my underdeveloped learning ability and sporting ability can only be done after weeding out anxiety and the underlying inferiority complex.

Fortunately, in the four months since I resumed Aikido training, I have been consciously working on the aforementioned issues with great progress. Despite this still being a work-in-progress, here’s what I did to alleviate my training anxiety in part two. I sincerely hope that this series would help fellow martial artists and sportmen alike, who suffer from anxiety and/or an inferiority complex for whatever reason.

What fuels your anxiety and what have you done about it? And if you have resolved the mentioned issues, what was your journey like?

Whether you are a beginner, a slow-learner or are suffering from some form of inferiority complex in martial and sports that causes anxiety, please share your thoughts in the comments section below. If you have found my insights helpful, please share this post.

Note: Dealing with Anxiety in Martial Arts and Sports as a Slow Learner (Part 2)

  1. KarateMama says

    Putting a name to my challenge was huge – it helps me recognize it. Its name is Directional Dyslexia. Once I recognize it, I don’t have to feel anxious about it because I can think about what I need to do about it. If you’d like to read more, please see my blog post, “Dyslexia – a Path to the Heart of Karate” at

    1. says

      Oh gosh… I was searching hard to put a name to it. While I don’t think I have Directional Dyslexia (or maybe a mild form of it), your experiences in kata training and learning in school through intuitive understanding/creating a story struck a chord. As opposed to not being able to memorise through rote practice, I much prefer intuitive and contextual understanding. The process of getting it is slower but the knowledge stays. I remember tutoring various people in accounting and macroeconomics and helping them understand the concepts where the lecturer could not.

      In a way, directional dyslexia seems to be a strength when you need to teach someone else, doesn’t it? I guess it comes from having to structure our own learning process and note the ‘mistakes’ we overcame. Not sure if you feel the same way about this point.

      Anyway, thanks again, Joelle, for putting a name to this challenge and sharing that blog post! Your tips and insightd were very helpful.

      – Logen

      1. Joelle White says

        Wow, I’m glad I was able to help! Thanks for reading the blog and for your complements!

        You might not have a learning challenge like I do – you might prefer to learn by doing. As a home school mom, I learned that some people prefer to learn by hearing, some by watching, some by doing, and I’m sure there are some people who can happily adapt to whatever is presented. So being a kinesthetic learner isn’t a learning challenge, it’s just a preference. Kinesthetic learners need to ask, “Sensei, may I try it now?” or “Sensei, may I please show you what I think you’re teaching me?”

        Gosh, I hadn’t thought of directional dyslexia being a strength for teaching. I’ll have to dig around in my memories and see if I remember the things I did for teaching people who came in for their free lesson. I’ll bet you’re right! So I guess that means martial arts instructors do need to be aware that different people are wired for different modes of learning. Great point!

        Group learning does necessitate that each individual adapt, but practice time and receiving individual instruction can be tailored beautifully. You’re right, we do have to structure our own learning process because every single one of us has different preferences, challenges, and needs. Practicing on your own and taking advantage of time before and/or after class to grab your instructor for a minute or two pays off big time – that’s taking charge of your learning process. Remembering something you’ve overcome is a great thing to do when the gloom of self doubt sets in.

        Keep on trucking, and again, thanks for stopping by my blog!

        1. says

          Thanks for the advice Joelle. And it was a pleasure reading your blog. I nearly forgot the fact that are different kinds of learners until you mentioned it, especially when many people I encounter learn by memorising.

          Anyway, it was great to connect with you. I will likely mention you and add the gist of our discussion in part 2. Will give you a shoutout on Google+ when that happens. 🙂

          Happy Halloween in advance!

          1. Joelle White says

            You’re welcome, glad I could help. I look forward to your next blog, and Happy Halloween to you too!

          2. James Garr says

            I have a theory about directional dyslexia that you might find interesting. When I started training in kung fu (only about 2 and a half years ago) I realized that I didn’t understand which hand or leg was my dominant one. I’m right handed for everything, else, but kung fu was different. I felt equally comfortable, or maybe equally uncomfortable, in a right or left fighting stance. My legs were the same, no real dominance. LIke you all and some others I know, I struggle with left and right. I have to focus very hard on it, and sometimes I still get it wrong. It’s very frustrating.

            My theory provides a bit of hope though, that this mild learning disability could be turned into an advantage. I’m no scientist or doctor, and I’m new to martial arts, but here it is: if you suffer from directional dyslexia, a term I had never heard of until reading these comments btw, perhaps you simply don’t have a natural bias to one limb or another and that makes it more difficult for you to translate to right and left, whether when dealing with words or visual cues. I’m not saying that makes you ambidextrous, but I am saying that you could have the potential to be a great “switch hitter” in the martial arts, equally competent with both sides of your body..

            While I wouldn’t call it “research”, when googling “directional dyslexia ambidextrous” I was startled to see multiple hits that confirmed links between dyslexia and ambidexterity. For instance: states ” Dyslexics tend to be ambidextrous more than the general population.”

            Numerous other sites touch on this link as well.

            Now that I’ve practiced so many right handed forms for so long (Our style of kung fu like many tends to teach right handed for many things), I tend to be more right handed when I fight. I’ve made a conscious effort in the past few weeks though to adopt a left handed fighting stance more often, and make my left side more active. It has paid off, because I feel more like i used to, equal with both sides, not off balance or awkward.

            Someday, I plan to do the same with those right hand forms and practice them mirrored to work my left side more, but for now I’m too pressed for time, and just need to practice them as I learned them.

            I believe that while left-right confusion will always make learning forms and techniques challenging for me, it also is an advantage, particularly in a sparring or other non-choreographed formats of training, There may be more advantages than disadvantages in the long term in having a learning process where you are forced to consciously think about right and left.

  2. Ando Mierzwa says

    Thanks for sharing so much about your personal training struggles, sir. I’m sure many will understand exactly what you’re going through and be glad to know they’re not alone!

    I’m also relieved to hear a happy ending is in the making. Good for you for not giving up.

    These types of issues are not exclusive to martial arts, of course, and can affect every part of our lives. But I believe that martial arts training is the best way to work through the darker parts of our souls while building a stronger sense of self.

    So, keep punching! Or flowing! Or throwing! Or whatever you’re doing… just keep doing it! 🙂

    1. says

      Thanks Ando for your wisdom and encouragement! 🙂

  3. Andrea Harkins says

    I’m sorry to hear about your struggles. Some comfort should come from the fact that we all struggle with SOMETHING! That is simply part of life. The other part of life is learning how to overcome. The best part of life is learning to accept ourselves and not focus on our weaknesses. I believe some of that comes with age. When you’ve been around long enough, you can disengage from personal assessment a little more and become more accepting of your strengths and weaknesses. As for your writing style and content- anything written from the heart is good content; and your writing is always very polished. Congrats on a great post!

    1. says

      Thanks Andrea. I need more work on “acceptance”. 🙂

      Anyway, seeing you write often has inspired (and ‘pressured’) me to write more. Haha. So, thanks for the push, my friend! We will “Hangout” soon.

  4. Aubrey Allen Smith says

    This is such an excellent piece of journalism and the personal nature makes it even more compelling and truly appreciated. This will be of great help to many, I’m sure and thank you, sir, for sharing your story.

    1. says

      Thanks Aubrey, for your kind words. Had to dig deep to write this one. 🙂

      1. shadow says

        Thanks for that because I was wondering if I would fit in with the other’s because I am a slow learner do to my intellectual disability and I am autistic too so please be patient with me and I may need some help understanding some times especially to change the subject i may miss understand some things sometimes a lot so please be understanding if I do and don’t get mad at me if I do I may seem different from you are even weird and strange but I am just trying to fit in to your world this I sometimes get my p, and 9, b and d ,m,and w mixed up with each other my senses are so sensitive to much sounds sights smells and certain textures can be so painful I sometimes start to cry and go into what is called sensory overlord

        1. says

          No worries Shadow. I don’t run a martial arts program. You will need to find a dojo in your area. 🙂

          And there is nothing wrong with being slow in learning. Make sure that you find a suitable dojo/dojang with instructors that are patient. Inform them about your sensitivity to sound and sights so that they can better guide you.

          How old are you by the way?

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