How Fear Can Help You Win

by USA Taekwondo

Learn to use Fear to your Advantage in Taekwondo

By Jinnie Cristerna, LCSW, CHT

(Special Submission to USA Taekwondo)

In any sport, fear is often experienced as a bad thing. While fear can lead to less than ideal or optimal results in performance, it can also help propel athletes into some of their best performances.

Before we get into the specifics of how fear can help you win, it’s important to understand what fear is. Fear is often thought of as a noun in that it is an emotion that signals danger. However, what often gets overlooked is that fear is also a verb. When fear becomes active it triggers specific responses within the individual who is experiencing the emotion: flight or fight (

In the sport of taekwondo, sparring athletes often face dangerous situations and opponents when they compete. While there are many reasons sparring competitors may experience fear, I’ve found the most common fears are: 1) fear of being knocked out, and 2) fear of getting injured.

While these fears are understandable, the responses that athletes have to them vary. For example, some athletes become very aggressive and go on the offense, others become strategic and go on the defense and another group shuts down or runs away.

In my observation, a distinct demarcation between predator and prey is made during a match. The athlete who shuts down or runs away is marked as the prey, and the aggressive or more strategic athlete takes on the role of predator. It is when this assignment of roles is accepted that athletes begin to compete in an either optimal or less than optimal way. Consider the phrase, “Beast Mode,” and notice how athletes at tournaments or practice often recite it after a brilliant performance.

Sparring athletes who shut down or run away tend to do so because they become so flooded with the feeling of fear, the fear becomes active and they are unable to think clearly to execute strategy or defend their square.  

Here are five tips to managing fear:

  1. Breathe. Learning how to breathe MUST occur during practice and takes some time to do. However, when you learn how to breathe, you will notice that your stamina improves and your fear is more manageable. HINT: When fear becomes active, our entire body freezes up. Breathing from the lowest part of your abdomen relaxes the muscles in your body so you can remain loose. When fear is experienced as a strong emotion, we feel it in our chest and our breathing becomes shorter. Breathing from the top of your chest (above the diaphragm) helps to release the tightness so you can breathe easier. Here is a meditation for breathing for taekwondo athletes:
  2. Learn how to relax. If you are too excited, you’re going to be all over the place and burn yourself out during a match. On the other hand, if you’re too laid back you will have a difficult time reacting to your opponent. Calming the mind is part of all martial arts, and meditation is the common mode of learning how to find that inner peace. I strongly recommend meditating daily or at least twice a week. Here is a FREE TKD mediation for athletes:
  3. Stay grounded. Confidence is one thing; arrogance is another. Never get so comfortable in your space as to underestimate your opponent or think that you are above reproach. Staying humble and focused is timeless advice to performing at your best.
  4. Identify the REAL reason you’re afraid. A lot of athletes fight because they need to finish something that was left undone or release something that has been building up—and that’s OK. It’s best to know what your reason is so when it’s time to face your fear, you can do so with courage and commitment. Here is a meditation on anger and fear:
  5. Practice game-time conditions. Fighting the same people in your school does not make you a better athlete; it just makes you better at fighting the same person. Go to different tournaments and interschool workouts so you can mix things up a bit. If you don’t have those options, ask your coach to create real game-like situations so you can become more comfortable when tournaments come around. For example, the golden point (a.k.a., sudden death) or there are 30 seconds left in the third round, and you’re down by two points. There are several combat visualizations that you can use to help improve your comfort level and performance in tournaments. Go here to visit the TKD store:

With love and light, I wish you all pleasant journeys.

ABOUT US: International Sport Achievers are taekwondo sport psychology experts. Working with Olympians like 2004 silver medalist Nia Abdallah ( and Team USA members at the senior, junior and cadet levels (like Zach Budde, Logan Weber and Ethan Robinson ( we have developed some of the best taekwondo athletes from the ground up. We are committed to ensuring that all athletes have an opportunity to compete at the top of their game while developing the skills they need for life. If you have questions or would like more information go to; send us an email at; or call us 312-382-8710.