Martial arts

Brain Freeze

I’m standing on the mat of the martial arts dojo. We are doing kick combinations.

And then it happens. My brain freezes. I can’t seem to get it together.

We are practicing in preparation for the next belt test. I’m not even testing this time though even my instructor thinks I’m ready. I had committed to being a speaker at an event before knowing about the upcoming test.

And here I am, standing next to two 12-year old kids. They are doing well. Me? Not so much. The more I get frustrated with myself, the less I can perform.
Haven’t I been at this point before? I have. Years ago, I threw an outright tantrum, akin to that of a 2-year old. I had a serious chat with myself. Chill, I told myself. You are doing this for fun, remember?

The experience was insightful. I saw my lack of patience with myself. My high expectations of myself. It was not only making me miserable at that moment but it also caused me to freeze. It was not a pretty sight. I vowed to be mindful of this, and cut myself a little more slack and enjoy the journey.

Speaking of this journey: I’m now seven years into it. I’m a “red belt with white stripe” now. We call that “first gup.” Soon I will be testing for the blue belt. The next step (probably at least one year later): Black Belt.

They say

“A black belt is a white belt who didn’t give up.”

Osai Robinson, West Coast Dragons (my first instructor)

Master Osai was surely not the first one to have cited this saying. For sure, I’m further down this path than I could envision for myself when I started.
I have had many moments where I doubted myself. Could I ever be as good as the advanced belts I was training with?

I Learned A Few Lessons Along The Way

The lessons I learned along the way are:

  • Don’t compare yourself to others. Focus on getting better than you were before.
  • Don’t expect to do things perfectly. There is no “perfect” to start with (although some are a LOT closer to it than me).
  • Give yourself time to learn and get better.
  • Be patient with yourself.

And Here I Am Again, Frustrated and “Frozen”

Frustrated that I can’t do something as well as I think I should be able to. I am going downhill fast. I am not doing what I know I am capable of. Destructive thoughts like “What am I doing here? I should quit!” run through my head.

While I’m going through this it is like I am watching myself falling apart. I know it feels way worse than it is. I know it will pass. I have to breathe my way through it and hang in there.

I told the instructing black belt that I probably couldn’t even count to ten in German right now. I know that was an exaggeration (as a native German that would be pretty bad).

Minutes Later I Am Fine!

But I felt that way. Minutes later I’m fine. We are doing forms now. Bassai. I got this! No more thoughts of quitting. Silly, you!

I have learned to talk myself “off the cliff” a little faster …

And yes, despite my occasional breakdowns I’ve always dusted myself off. Mentally most of all.

It is helpful to have people who pad you on the back in those “brain-freeze” moments and support you. I appreciate my martial arts friends!

Thoughts Become Things – They Shape Our Reality

But regardless, thoughts become things. Our thoughts about what is happening, what will happen, or what is possible – these thoughts really are related to the reality we are creating in our lives.

Training in martial arts has made me even more certain of that. Because I could SEE and FEEL my brain freezing because of the thoughts that were running through my brain.

I’m Curious

Does this kind of thing ever happen in your life and/or business?

Maybe not in martial arts but someplace else. What were your thoughts? What unfolded?

P.S.: I appreciate you commenting and sharing this Brilliance Nugget with others. Thank you!


  1. CARL on at

    I now am in the most worthy routine, Dr. Stephie, of reading your nuggets. Thank you for including me on your list.

    Next on my routine is to start applying real-time thinking to the direction you provide. Each nugget is a stand-alone and deserves appropriate reflection. There is a great deal of self-help and assessment in following this exercise. But that is why Stephie’s brilliant mind, along with Roberts’s helpful nudge, leads the way.

    Again, thanks. Carlos

    • Stephie Althouse on at

      Excellent, Carlos! I look forward to hearing what conclusions you come to. 🙂

  2. There are times when I’m my worst enemy. When I was in the corporate world I know I demanded more from myself than others did in almost every situation. I felt failure was just outside the door ready to knock it down. I’ve had many brain freezes in my life and it’s like stepping into quicksand. The harder you try to get out the more you sink. I’ve learned over the years to strive for perfection and not get bogged down in the fact that I might not (probably won’t) get there.

    • Stephie Althouse on at

      Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, Regina! I have learned to strive for excellence rather than perfection – there is a difference. That said, as the story shows, I don’t always manage to escape the perfection trap. Or, in this case, it was probably more the “I suck!” trap that caused the brain freze.

  3. Carolyn Koenig on at

    You are right, Stephie! We become what we believe. Our self-talk can be what helps us do the impossible, but it can also be our biggest enemy. Be positive!! Be optimistic!! Nothing in life is as important as enjoying the ride.

    • Stephie Althouse on at

      I agree. And I’m sharing my own breakdowns and struggles to make it easier for others to look at theirs – and to know that no one is on this on their own.

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