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How Is Toughness Taught In the Modern Martial Arts School?

By Christopher Rappold


An ability to be tough is needed to pursue any high-level training. And while different coaches, teachers and instructors may have different definitions for what it is, for the purpose of this discussion, I will break down being, “tough” into two different categories. They are mental toughness and physical toughness, both of which have great value in sport and in life.

Elements of Mental Toughness

As I think of mental toughness, three things come to mind:

  1. The ability to problem-solve.
  2. The ability to handle frustration.
  3. A high degree of confidence in battle.

Within the confines of a martial arts class, how can you teach these important skills? A simple solution may be to set up a scenario that requires a student to come up with what a solution to a problem in a limited amount of time.

At times, we as instructors are in a rush maintain a schedule, and do not allow students to explore different options. We forget that this process, though not as structured as some drills, contains amazing opportunities to grow.

The second part of mental toughness is how a student handles frustration. He/she can learn how to correctly deal with frustration by going through training that is very challenging for their experience level, but still safe.

When selecting the task, choose something that is just slightly above what they have experienced in the past. Watch carefully how they either succeed or fail. In either case, at the end have a debriefing with them, so they can become familiar with the feeling. Share with them your observations, so they can learn from your coaching how to be in the very best mental state to figure their way out.

The third part of mental toughness is having the confidence that it takes to succeed at a high level. Though it may come as a surprise, I think most of this will come from simple preparation.

For example, how confident are you at tying your sneakers? Could you do it without thinking? At the drop of a hat? With your eyes closed? I’m certain most of you can. In this same way, a student needs to train, not just so he/she gets it right, but rather, so it is virtually impossible for them to get it wrong. Correct, precise repetitions against progressive resistance makes the difference.

Physical Toughness

Physical toughness, on the other hand, comes from the body’s ability to handle the physical stress of an activity. Depending on the art, this can require a high level of balance, and a progressive approach to conditioning the body for the physical impact or pressure that is inherit in the style.

The key word here is “progressive.” This is achieved by meeting the student where —meaning, at the level — he/she is, then slowly, over time, adding resistance.

Think in terms of taking a nonrunner and training her to run a marathon. Though we all know you could force the physical demand, in the end you’re going to cause injury, discouragement and, in some cases, prevent people that truly had the capability from ever reaching the goal.

As teachers, we see our prized students. But we don’t see the hundreds or thousands we lost by not matching the correct experience to the person.

A final thought on physical toughness. Knuckles, shins, forearms and even your body can be conditioned to absorb impact or adapt to pressure. But a student’s brain cannot. The days of teaching people how to take punches and kicks to the head by kicking and punching them there are long gone. You can still teach timing and structure without your students needing to incur the damage caused by hard, repetitive impacts.

Old school teaching taught a child how to swim by throwing him/her in the deep end. Today, however, we know that through the proper drills, coaching and conditioning, we can get to the same end result. In the old school, you ended up with one or two students who were able to make the grade. Today, however, you can literally have a school full of high-level students. What changed? We did!


Chris Rappold can be reached for questions or comments at [email protected].


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