How To Fight Without Fear

Are you scared of sparring?

You’re not alone…

This is a common question I get:

“Jesse-san, how can I overcome my fear of fighting?”

Today, I will share my approach to sparring.

But first, understand this:

Fear is a liar.

If you think you must overcome fear before you can fight, you are mistaken. The only way to overcome fear is by fighting.

When you face your fear, again and again, you befriend it. You remove its scary mask.

The greatest fighters don’t fight without fear. They fight DESPITE the fear!

Fear never really goes away.

It just stops affecting you.



In order to reach this stage of “fear-friendliness”, you need a practical approach to acquaint yourself with fear.

You wouldn’t throw a child in deep water before first dry swimming on land, and then in shallow water with floating pads, right?

Sadly, I see Karate instructors throwing their students into full sparring without any progressive build-up at all.

It breaks my heart.

Your first impression of sparring should NEVER be chaos and panic.

It should be a safe and fun learning experience for you.

Here’s how:

Jesse’s 3 Baby-Steps of Kumite

This is my step-by-step way of introducing ‘jiyu kumite’ (free sparring).

The idea is to reduce the unpredictable and scary nature of fighting by imposing 3 rules.

   #1: Reduce the number of techniques and/or targets.

The first step is to reduce the number of allowed techniques and/or targets. By eliminating elements of uncertainty like this, we can regulate our feelings towards kumite.

  • For example, only allow straight punches (technique) to the stomach (target).
  • Or, only allow round kicks (technique) to the body (target) and straight punches (technique) to the face (target).

Gradually increase the options of techniques and targets.

   #2: Use extra protection – foam helmet, boxing gloves, knee/elbow pads etc.

The more padding, the more security, the less fear. You need to be able to receive blows from your opponent, in order to rewire your brain’s instinctive flight-fight-or-freeze response.

Of course, this can backfire. Some people automatically hit harder when they are wearing protection.

(That’s why the next rule is important.)

Gradually remove protectors one by one.

   #3: Reduce the speed.

Lastly, all moves must be in slow motion.

As the saying goes; “speed kills”.

When you fight slo-mo, you develop the ability to see attacks before they reach you.

This changes your mindset from reactive to active, since you’re removing an element of surprise.

Gradually increase the speed when you get more comfortable.


That’s it!

If you follow these 3 baby-steps, you’ll get accustomed to free sparring (‘jiyu kumite’) in a safe and fun way.

The final piece of the puzzle is to adjust your mindset.

The only thing you have to fear is fear itself…

Good luck! 🙂


  • Els
    Thank. You. Soooo. Much, Jesse!!!!
    • DearJesse Sensei, You are the best karate instructor in the world. Funakoshi Gichin would have admired you for teaching Karate in this way. "Karate starts with respect and ends with respect". You are the perfect example of Funakoshi's Karate Philosophy. Thanking you very much, Yours sincerely, Khushveer Motobu-ha Shito Ryu Karate-do, Mumbai INDIA
  • We all should know this, if not, should not be in it! I do not believe in the padding, it always seems to let students hit harder and can cause more damage to the head than with no padding!
  • Alaris
    That's absolutely awesome! I wish there were more teachers like you, Jesse. In my case, my shihan just made us fight like the basal stage (slowly and limiting techniques) but then at the exam it was free kumite. So you can imagine how everything turned out, considering that people from other dojos were used to free kumite. :D
    • Thanks for chiming in Alaris-san! I believe correct introduction to sparring is a huge responsibility of the sensei.
      • agha
  • Chantal
    To me, sparring was always scary. Simply because we haven't done it much. I'm much more of a Kata Girl I guess, so that's why I was a bit intimidated but I thought: Hey, if I do not try it, I won't learn it. And Karate without Kumite? It's like a car without its wheels. Therefore, I went to Kumite training this summer, where the worst case happened: I injured myself pretty badly and now suffer from ACl in my left knee. Which means rehab three times a week and even worse, no Karate for me for a very long time...And I have no idea if I dare to try again because what if this happens again? I understood that Karate is no Modern Dance and that injuries are part of the game and the personal development as Karateka. But I feel my fear just became real. It was super painful and very depressing. I'm not the type of person who gives up easily and I know avoiding Kumite is not the solution. However, currently I have no clue how to overcome that fear.
    • Els
      I'm with Chantal. Because we never learned it the right way (baby steps), I had a concussion 2 years ago (and some memory issues since) and lately someone punched my eye, making me see lights that are not there (still hoping it will go away)...
      • That's so sad to hear. I hope you get better Els-san. Don't be afraid to go "back to square one" in your fighting, by starting over with my 3 baby steps approach. Good luck!
    • Baby steps, Chantal-san! The real reason for your injury might actually be totally unrelated to kumite (for example, the initial weakness in your knee might have come from biomechanically incorrect stances and transitions in kata), but that specific kumite session was the "final straw that broke the camel's back". Anyway, rehab and fight yourself back! :-)
  • Gerardo
    I've seen many videos in which even professional fighters - as Conor McGregor for example - train fighting in slow motion, and so I got used to imitate them. I am happy to know that you also think so!
  • Andreea
    I really wish more senseis to be like Jesse-san. I am a girl ,a jujutsuka, I practice nihon jujutsu. We too learn kumite. I once went to a competition and I suddenly felt fear. I couldn't overcome it. I got hit many times, and the referees were unfair. My opponent should've been disqualified and we didn't even have proper tatamis, they were some mats taken from a kids playground in a shopping mall. I feel like the true spirit of martial arts is slowly shrinking. I fell down during my sparring and I felt so weak because of the fear.Plus, at that moment I had my right foot injured, but I still fought. I told myself I should not give up and train harder, improve and be better. Later on after that, I came to the point where I was comfortable enough thinking about sparring. I have managed to win 2 medals, a bronze one and a silver one.I hope I'll get better at it and thanks so much for your amazing advice, sensei! Arigato!
    • gary sidaway
      Andreea, I feel exactly the same with Kumite. I practice Goju ryu karate, and have been to two tournements and got a bronze in kata only. this year i going to a tournement in May 2017, and hope to get a kumite medal then, hopefully next year go for my blackbelt. We dont do kumite much at our dojo so its difficult to progress. I guess its about trusting your opponent on the day, and of i knew they were getting too agressive i would raise my concerns with the judges as i did once when got punch in the throat, and my opponent for two warnings.
      • Andreea
        Yes, it's true, it's hard to progress when not practicing kumite too often in the dojo. Honestly, I will tell you this: I also think I felt fear because it was my very first time. I am a yellow belt, still learning :) Also, all the competitors were very aggressive.I know how you feel. I got punched 3 times constructively in the face, more exactly my nose and eyes. Plus, my opponent stepped out of the fighting area. Not fair at all. They're just a medal factory, they're not promoting the true spirit of martial arts, and it's sad. I wish you good luck in the future regarding your Karate journey. Train hard and stay healthy!
        • Andreea
          *consecutively I meant :) not constructively my bad
  • hassan
    hi Jesse I have problem that when I have a competition l lose from the first match this happened with me for 4times but I know that was from fear now I am not afraid but I don't know I feel that I have problem but i dont know what is it u know its like a feel only
  • Harish Aboobacker
    Simple but very important which doesnt know most of the people
  • Samantha Henderson
    Hi Jesse-san, My first experience of sparring was as an 8th Gup up against the Cho Dan Bo (Shodan Ho equivalent in Tang Soo Do) because I was coming from work and missed the warm up. :-) But at my dojang it was an extremely nurturing environment and I have since become good friends with the Cho Dan Bo who I sparred against. It was always encouraged that the senior belt would only spar at the level of the junior belt so that they would feel encouraged to take a few shots without feeling like they were going to be overpowered. Head shots were allowed from the start but only softly and it meant that we learnt to keep our gloves up from the beginning. It allowed me to grow as a student and I never feared donning the gloves and protective headwear as a result. In fact, I thrived on it. I have not had the pleasure of sparring for some time, given that I stopped martial arts completely for a while (moving back home amongst other things) but in time I hope to be able to take up something that grabs my interest like Tang Soo Do did where I can continue to grow. To me, I am never sparring against the other person. I am in a battle with myself. The person in front of me is a test and it is up to me to see how well I can take it up to them. It's why I thoroughly enjoyed sparring in a dojang setting. The level of respect people had for each other was incredible. If you knocked that person flat on their back with a well-aimed kick, you allowed them the time to get back up again. It was not about trying to beat them, it was about technique, timing and encouraging one another. Nevertheless, those who we sparred regularly became good rivals and we could take it up a notch or three. :-D Thanks for reading, Samantha.
  • Hector William Ramos
    This is exactly what my sensei does at my dojo. I started sparring using only one or two techniques in order to have the proper form, then we increase allowed techniques and speed.
  • Meg
    Thanks for this! Great info for my daughter who practices point fighting. She has always been afraid of fighting. Her biggest fear has always been illegal punches tonthe face. We got her a face mask and this helped alot. She had improved and stopped backing away and being on the defensive so much. Unfortunately we may need to resort back to the mask since she started wearing sport prescription glasses. She now has a purple target on her face again and the fear has reared it's ugly head again.
  • Josep
    I do not agree. Common sense about how not to damage your training partner is the way to go. You will (probably) get used to fighting.
  • Dean
    Thanks Jesse for another great read. Always appreciate the way you break things down. I'll be encouraging these baby steps more in our dojo, looking forward to see there confidence build.
    • Thank you sensei Dean, that's excellent. Good luck! :-)
  • Freddie
    I needed this so badly. Thank you!!!!
  • Caleb Zea
    Agree 100%, this totally the way to go, otherwise people end falling down over and over and never learning
  • Thanks for posting this Jesse. I look forward to more helpful articles from you!
  • Akshat
    Thx really , i agree about the fear , it stops affecting u when u face it again and again and yes fear never really goes away. Sometimes i just what some UFC press conferences and interviews to remove my fear !!!!
  • Mike Martherus
    Fear is a marvelous thing. As you say, it is False Evidence, Appearing Real. It makes us unsure, unwilling, unmotivated, makes us Forget Everything And Run. But it can also enpower us, lift that hidden strength that is born from fear, as we learn to understand, accept and embrace it. Then, and from that moment we realise by accepting it we get stronger, fear will make us Face Everything And Rise.
  • What a great post! Thank you for addressing this "fear". Sparring can be daunting especially for the beginners but this article should boost their confidence.
  • Oh...first u get well soon :) then try to do with basic kumite alone ...,,and in front of mirror (get long distance dont' break êmirror) then get ur trust friend or bro or sis ,,start one by one punch and block one day simple gyaku tsuki practice while gradually increasing speed go ahed then get do harder kumite and u know also I;love kata dont' like kumite even but I'practiced with big strong guy to overcome fear because if'i'can beat him i'can beat anyone this way i'overcome fear ! best of luck :)
  • Nicholas Lawrence
    Hey Jesse I am a big fan and I love this article. The question I have is what can I do to improve my punching speed or to at least hit a little harder with a lot of control. Looking forward to your response
  • FP
    False Evidence Appearing Real I've heard that somewhere already. But I can't remember where. Can you help me with that Jesse-san?
  • Stephanie
    Thanks for this, Jesse-san. It's actually really funny, but in my three years as a karateka, I've never really had the allowances to learn to fight like your method suggests. I suppose it's lucky for me that I learn quickly when thrown in the deep end... I still would have preferred to do it this way. Recently, I participated in the Female Cadet Heavy Weight category of the British Open, which is a full contact kumite competition. I did quite well, and came in 3rd place :) I suppose I just have to be different in that both the gentle introduction and sink or swim methods both work when teaching me... That's got to be good, right?
  • Aura
    This is an interesting post. I agree that it is definitely good to come out of your comfort zone and try new things. Congratulations on giving it a go. But I have a couple of points. First, it is not always good to face your fear and jump in. For example if you're afraid to get hit by a truck. Second, following from the first, it is not pain, stitches or defeat that stop me from attending MMA competitions (not that I'd have the required skills), but the head-/brain injuries. Third and most importantly, competing is good, BUT it gives a skewed view of anything thats important in life. Be the competition rules those of karate sparring, kata or MMA. It is a poor measure of things. Why is it not enough to only spar with MMA rules, thai boxing rules, submission wrestling rules, karate rules, why must it be competition? Or why any rules at all? I find that I practice what I preach in Koryu uchinadi karate even without the competition aspect.
  • Adrian
    When I first did karate in the late eighties, this was exactly how it was taught. In at the deep end with someone who just battered you. I went away thinking I was useless. Came back to karate years later, after doing various other martial arts, where I actually been 'taught' how to Spar and how to fight. Guess what ? Suddenly it was easy. Now, I'll Spar with, and fight anyone. And I'll have no fear. It's just fun. Invariably I'll win pretty much every competition fight I'm in, and I love it. And when I Spar with lower belts, I go nice and easy. I don't batter them. We have fun. This was one of the big problems with karate. Thank goodness it's gradually changing.
  • Bobby
    Ha! Just coming back into karate with my 6yr. old son, I'm eager to start sparing again. I remember the feeling of "getting used to" being hit. We tended to fight in a kickboxing style back in the day as well as learn traditional karate techniques as my instructor was involved in the PKA back in the 80's. I still remember my first match as a 7yr. old. I was matched up against my cousin, a 6yr. old girl. They said fight and I threw a strong reverse punch dead in her face.... They forgot to tell me the rules. Luckily I was still a weakling so there was no real damage other than pride. I went on to win that match, and those early years at my dojo are some of my most fond memories. Of course, I was paid back in spades as an adult in BJJ (I still have scars) but I'm eager to get back into the karate ring. Occasionally I'll walk into a place that has that familiar smell and I'm 7yrs. all over again. Thank you so much for all you do Jesse-san! I'm glad I found your site!
  • Isaac Florentine
    Beautifully said Jesse Sensei!
  • I love this. This is absolutely correct behaviour. Great read. I must pass this onto my students so they can read instead of listening to me babble on. Good job.
  • Its very useful to me thanks jesse For turning the difficult things in such a way that it would give me best results..
    i can like to be your student through online cause you know how to teach
  • Rishi
    Opponent is tall and fit then how i will overcome
  • I do Kyokushin, so our training is quite heavy on the sparring side. I think what helped me the most to not even develop a fear of sparring, is, that I sparred from day one. I walked into the dojo for a trial lesson as a 48 year old, unfit, relatively weak female with next to no prior martial arts experience. And the absolute scariest part of that day was the ten seconds or so it took me to walk through the door. Everything was new. Everything was super exhausting and exciting. And the sparring was just one little part of that. Of course, everyone went super light on me, and I had no idea what I was doing, and I gassed out in 30 sec flat, because that is what happens, But I had sparred. And nothing bad happened. So there was no reason to develop a fear of sparring. If someone had told me: "Yeah, you have to learn some technique first, and once you are an orange/blue/pink/polka dotted belt, you are allowed to spar", I think I would have developed a lot more fear/nervousness about it.
  • Alberto
    Hi Jesse. An old question that goes on by decades in karate community : is it true that traditional okinawan karate has no full contact sparring and in traditional karate only kata , workout and bunkai are practised ? Is it true that sparring has only been introduced in modern day competition for both shotokan and kyokushin and derived styles ? And same question about kobudo :why you never see some free full contact sparring like for eskrima or kendo championship or even like Dog Brothers but only applications and forms ? How is it possible that in modern day combat sport we realize that sparring is essential to learn ( full contact and wrestling ) and it was not obvious in a brutal society like the one in feudal Japan ? If in traditional karate there s no full contact sparring: how is it possibile to learn without striking or grappling or at least a minimum kind of competition ? If instead there was a kind of traditional full contact kumite : why is it always so difficult to find a full contact traditional karate match online ? You can find kyokushin, shotokan, kudo and so on but never traditional , where you can find loads and loads of traditional katas and bunkais, How is it ? Yet you can find some matches of shima /tegumi local okinawan wrestling. But never of irikumi go, bogu kumite , randori or whatever it is called in traditional karate of Okinawa And again : I ' d like to address the same questions about what you witnessed in white crane kung fu. Thanks for your helpfulness
  • Jason
    When I was in karate, I absolutely hated it. I was one of the oldest so first off, it was embarrassing, secondly, I had to babysit half the kids while the instructor took care of rest, and lastly, I was thrown into sparring without any regard for my intense phobia of hitting others, when I was younger I was extremely aggressive and reactive so I tended to hurt anyone and everyone I formed a close bond with, this made me incredibly defensive, I am an extreme pacifist because of this, but not by choice or for a noble reason, because I have such a phobia of fighting back. This obviously was to my detriment, everytime I went to spar I ended up curled up in the corner with my hands up trying to block all their attacks, and never landing a single one of my own. I just couldn't. I felt so vulnerable and powerless and worthless I would start crying, I still feel pathetic thinking about it. It made me lose my love for karate and ended with one of the girls in my class, a girl about two years younger than me relentlessly harassing me about my weakness to the point I had to quit just for my mental health. If my instructor had genuinely cared about my phobia and helping me through it rather than getting the younger kids little ribbons, I probably would still be doing karate to this day, I still haven't gotten over my phobia, and infact, quite the opposite, im so scared of fighting I literally locked away my karate gear so I didn't have to see it. It brings back awful memories and I start crying if I think about it too hard. I still love karate though, ironically enough, so I'm trying to get over my fears. The problem is, I think I'm much too old to actually start up again or even learn anything worth my time, all this is to say, what would you suggest I do? I want to learn again but im afraid of actually going back to any "dogos" in my town to learn anything, mainly because of the embarrassment and fear that I cary with it all and the intense shame of not being able to fight back, I dont think this is a fear I can get rid of if I pursue it by myself, but if I can. I will. What things do you suggest I do to ease me into actually fighting another person and potentially hurting them?
    • Jason
      I just realise I misspelled dojo, my bad, I guess you cant edit comments in this browser so it'll have to do...
  • Azaro

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