How To Overcome Nerves in Karate (Before Grading or Competing)

Have you ever been nervous before a Karate event?

You are not alone!

Sleepless nights, extra training sessions and negative self-talk is experienced by everyone before competing or grading.

These events trigger stress hormones and anxiety.

  • But the problem is not that you’re nervous.
  • The problem is your approach towards it!

Today, I want to teach you how to overcome your nerves in Karate.

This is important for several reasons.

For example…

Anxiety is a common issue for anyone having to undergo grading for their next belt. The fear is similar to that of public speaking.

Besides the fear of failure, you’re also afraid of disappointing your sensei and being judged negatively by everyone watching.

The butterflies in your stomach can compel you to overtrain, just so you can feel more prepared.

Sadly, many martial art students get injured by these paranoid overtraining sessions.

This is one reason to keep your nerves in check.

Another reason is because anxiety has been shown to negatively effect both your attention span and working memory.

In other words, your nerves can undermine your performance.

Luckily, there are solutions…

How to Overcome Nerves in Karate

Before moving on to specific methods, acknowledge that you’re nervous.

Don’t try to ignore it or dismiss it.

You need to understand that it’s normal to feel this way!

Once you’ve accepted it, the next step is to deal with specific factors that causes (or worsens) your nerves.

Here are my top 5 tips:

Five Ways to Reduce or Eliminate Anxiety

#1 Positive Reinforcement (“I Belong Here”)

If you are competing or grading, it’s for a good reason. Because you belong there!

Your sensei or coach thinks you are ready for it. So, even if you don’t trust your own skills, you should have faith in the judgement of the person who put you in this position.

Tell yourself: “I belong here!”

For example, almost all instructors have the policy to grade their students only if they are ready to pass the test. They would have observed the student’s performance during regular training sessions and deemed the student ready for the next belt. So, if you are asked to go for the grading, you are ready. The test is often just a formality.

The same goes for tournaments. Your sensei wouldn’t throw you in the ring unless you could handle it. Karate instructors are very careful about this, because they know that if you have a bad experience you might quit.

So, tell yourself; “I’m here for a reason. I belong here!”

#2 Overwrite Negative Self-Talk With Humor

Negative self-talk feeds on fear.

But in 9 times out of 10, your negative self-talk is silly!

However, because your negative inner speech is continuous, your brain starts believing it. It becomes habitualized.

That’s why you need to observe your inner speech. What are you telling yourself? 

Make a list of those fears. Then say them out loud to yourself in a silly voice.

Here are some examples:

  • I will lose my balance when I kick. Then my kiai will sound weird. And everyone is going to laugh at me!
  • I’m going to forget to bow. Then my foot will get caught in my pants, because they are too long. Then I’ll trip on my butt!
  • I’m going to forget the entire sequence in my kata. Then my sensei will pretend like he doesn’t know me!

Realize how ridiculous they all sound, especially when you say them out loud in a silly voice.

(You might have even chuckled a little.)

The point of this exercise is to psychologically reframe your negative thoughts with humor.

This will distance yourself from the anxiety, because if you’re able to laugh at yourself it makes your negative narrative less compelling.

As a result, you will perform better!

#3 Use Inoculation Theory

Inoculation Theory works in 3 steps:

  1. First warn yourself that you’ll feel a certain way in a particular circumstance.
  2. Then, you highlight the specific concerns you might have.
  3. After that, give yourself information to cope with it positively.

In the case of pre-grading anxiety, this is what you could tell yourself using Inoculation Theory:

  1. You are going to feel excessively anxious on the day of your grading. (Forewarning)
  2. You may worry about losing your balance and falling when kicking. (Specific concern)
  3. But you haven’t lost balance in the past two months of training. It’s unlikely to happen. (Coping information)

By forewarning yourself, you allow the brain to feel prepared to deal with the onslaught of nerves.

And, with specific solutions, it reduces your psychological stress and uncertainty.

That’s why Inoculation Theory has proved to work better than merely telling yourself not to be anxious.

Try it out!

#4 Anxious or Excited? You decide.

Okay, so your sensei thinks you are qualified to grade or compete.

But… you still feel nervous.

Of course!

That’s part of the test – to perform Karate under stress!

After all, Karate is a self-defense martial art. It is meant to prepare you to deal with attackers.

Unfortunately, being attacked spikes your adrenaline. The grading or competition triggers a tiny dose of what you’d feel when being attacked in the streets.

So, what’s the key? How do you keep a level head when facing stress?

Try to find a moment of joy. When you reframe anxiety as something “fun”, you can’t help but to relax.

You see, the human body has difficulties distinguishing between positive excitement and negative anxiety. The feeling of adrenaline rush is very similar.

The only difference is the story you tell yourself.

It’s hard to be anxious when you’re excited.

#5 Focus on Being in the Moment

Lastly, practice your Karate techniques with this zen-like twist:

When you prepare for your performance, close your eyes and focus on doing the technique with an empty mind.

If your inner critic starts judging the correctness of your movement, that’s a warning signal.

The objective is to focus on your movement – without judging what you’re doing.

You cannot perform a technique and judge it at the same time!

You have to become “one” with your Karate.

But… what if you find yourself making a mistake?

Acknowledge the mistake to yourself, then correct it. Just don’t pass any judgment.

Remember, grading or competing triggers the instincts associated with an actual attack. When you are being attacked, you simply correct yourself and keep going. It’s about survival.

Reprimanding yourself in the middle of an attack will get your injured or possibly killed.

Apply this thought process if you make a wrong move.

That’s it!

These 5 tips will help you smash your next Karate competition or grading.

Do you know other ways to deal with anxiety, fear or stress?

Leave a comment and let me know!

Thanks for reading. 🙂



  • Jakemitsu
    Thanks Jesse san! Just perfect timing. I have black belt test coming next week and this surely was helpful! Keep it up!
    • Fantastic Jake-san. Best of luck and thanks for commenting!
    • Sarah
      Me too, so perfectly timed. Everything I have been feeling. Thank you....
  • Karthik Vailaya
    Great timing.. Participating in a tournament in 2 weeks.. Gonna try this.
    • Excellent! Good luck and let me know how it goes. :-)
  • Peter Archer
    Really good advice Sensei that will sure be of help to everyone. One thing I could add would be when you are performing a Kata for instance, don’t lock eyes on anyone. It results in an instant brain blank. Thanks again.
    • Thanks and good input! Trying to have a "blank stare" is important.
  • Selin
    Thank you sooo much Jesse! I love your blog a lot, just wanted to say that! Also, this is perfect timing because I'll get graded for my next belt this evening and reading this really soothed my nerves ... unfortunately I already did overtrain a bit, but well, I sure won't do that next time... thanks again!
  • Vítor Oliveira
    Congratulations for another enlightened article! It's always pleasant for me to learn with your articles. Thank you, Jesse-san !
  • Laurent Garcia
    Tips and analysis are so interesting! waiting to meet one day in France. Thx Jesse
  • Brendon
    Hey Jesse. Thank you for these tips. I have my Shodan grading in just over 3 weeks time & I'm stressing out big time. Hopefully these few points will help me to just keep calm & focus. Keep up the good work!
  • Matt
    Thanks! Having earned my black belt this Summer, I readily admit to going through all of these processes. My school requires multiple senior panel members 'sign off' before taking the black belt exam. This can be a very negative process as their focus is often critiquing in order to improve your karate. It is one thing to know that, logically, but it still makes for some low moments. In my school, those panel members do take the time to tell students that they are preparing for a test because they are good enough and the critiques are not attacks, rather they are helping improve your karate. I was surprised; however, at just how nervous I was during black belt exam! All the practice did pay off in the end.
  • Marlene C
    You know what those aren't just wise words for karate but for life in general. I will definitely use those 5 tips. See you not just a karate nerd but your words speaks to us in other life matters. Thank you and once again love your article! Totally put a smile on my face :-) especially reading the Overwrite Negative Self-Talk With Humor part hehehe
  • Adrian
    All very good :-) don’t forget the most basic one Martial arts also teaches breathing if you control that then it helps regulate oxygen levels and Adrenalin realease, in a reall situation on the street if someone is going to attack you no matter how good you are you will get a level of adrenaline release. regulating breathing will help keep you in control and use it to your advantage control the Fight or flight or you will lose control painic,hyperventilate and more likely to lose control of your techniques as to much adrenaline like to much alcohol can close down the rational and coordination parts of the brain and go into the reptilian brain. Use comps and grading or other things that make you nervous to learn how to control it in a controlled environment.
  • freddie
    perfect timing for my competition next week
  • Gideon
    Wow I like this very helpful. Thanks jesse
  • Charles
    My first belt test will be this coming month I'm very excited you shared this at a perfect time I appreciate it!
  • Babajide Ayeni
    You are really doing a good job keep it up Jesse Meny thanks.
  • Alvaro
    Thanks Jesse Sensei. Im a heavyweight Kyokushin practitioner from panama central america (and long time follower btw:) ), ill be grading for brown belt in 6 weeks and ill try to use all of your tips this time. Biggest concern is getting to tired since i have to do 10 kumites of 2 mins each in a row. But im running every day and training hard.
  • Amir
    Ahahaha you couldn't time it any better. I'm flying to London for an FSKA World competition and it's my first competition in both this association but Worldwide as well!! Thanks again!
  • I have a friend whose anxiety prior to his competetions is killing him, even though he competes for about a decade now. He's aware of it, but can't cope with it. And the result is a bad performance.
  • Amir
    By the way I got knocked out during the competition x) ahaha so yeah, it wasn't peace what I was looking for but a new pair of working balls to engage without fear :P HAPPEEEEEEEEENS Ty for reading!
  • Siddhesh Singh
    Thanks for this article now I am confident for my kumite fight on 11th & 12th november.
  • Andrea
    Hi Jesse I’m so glad I got your email about overcoming nerves. I had my Ted Belt grading today and I got it! :) I read your email a few days ago and again today before the grading. It helped a lot. Thanks
  • Elias
    Theses tips are useful to all moments in life. Great message! Thanks!
  • Adi
    Thankyou so much Jesse! This was published the day before I had a competition it helped alot!! :D
  • Sherry-Ann Marcia Serra
    Thank you, Jesse! My 1st Dan grading starts in 3 hours, 17 mins... I just didn't know what to do with myself so I re-read this article to help remind me to GET A GRIP! : D You're the best! Osu!
  • Jon
    I just passed my Shotokan Shodan last week (with Edmond Otis Sensei). To make a long story short, I almost had an axiety attack doing my Yellow Belt, I failed Orange twice because of nerves. But with each subsequent test I relaxed more and more till Shodan being mostly a fun thing done for my Dojo friends. I'm still sayin' to myself "I can' t believe I'm now a BB". Truly one of the greatest decisions I ever made; I'm 62 :-)
  • Sherry-Ann Marcia Serra
    I passed!!!!!!
  • Thanks Jesse!I used to get really nervous before big competitions, but after being really successful (as well as a fair amount of failure), my nervous feeling kind of dampened a little.This may be because I have already experienced a lot of things that you hope don't happen, or maybe my past success has given me the confidence that I will do well.Never the less, I still get very nervous before competitions, so I will definitely try some of these techniques out!Cheers!

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