By Kay Morgan

Who is Jen?

I’ve recently been corresponding with an amazing Budō Inochi reader who wants to try martial arts for the first time . . . but she’s scared (with good reason) and has asked for advice on choosing a safe dojo.

Karate Summer Camp 2012-005. By Flavio via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

Jen has no knowledge or experience of martial arts. She’s recovering from complex, sustained trauma – and starting to wonder if martial arts training might hold the key to her healing.

Jen feels vulnerable, with a tendency to be fearful of people and “overthink” things. But she is also strong, and determined to heal. She writes:

[…] As for what I would like to achieve from martial arts–mental strength […] I’ve managed to work on myself so I may not be as weak as [I was at that time], but I’m certainly not as strong as I would like to be.

Advising Jen on how to choose a dojo is a tough question; and it’s not without risk. I’m not a mental health professional – so what if I give Jen the wrong advice? What if this advice ultimately leads her into a situation where she gets retraumatised by a bullying or predatory teacher, or fellow student?

And yet – Jen has shown the courage to reach out and ask for help. From her emails, she’s clearly been to hell and back, and is feeling afraid and fragile now. But . . . she has fire, resilience and a deep desire to recover – and thinks she may have found a possible way forward.

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We’re all managing risk

Jen is engaging with the art of risk management here. She’s seen something she wants to try (martial arts training) and believes that although it could be risky, it might just change her life. So she’s now thinking it through, weighing it all up and seeking advice.

This is a process we’re all familiar with. Even the most seasoned, confident martial artist has places in their training which scare them – but which also offer rich potential rewards.

In any case, risk management is not just some modern business invention – it’s an essential element of martial arts. The ancient art of battlefield strategy is all about high stakes risk management. As Sun Tzu famously wrote in the Art of War:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

The yin and yang of risk management

When we think about risk management in relation to martial arts, it’s easy to commit two broad fallacies.

The first mistake is to think only in terms of hard, quantifiable risks, mainly physical injury. Risk assessment becomes all about the quality and condition of the mats and the sparring equipment; the safeguarding and health & safety policies in place; the processes, routines and rules we stipulate and enforce to prevent injury.

[Here’s a great article on this side of martial arts risk management: The Necessity of Martial Arts Insurance]

But that’s only one side of the risk inherent in martial arts training. You could call it the yang side. The yin side of risk management covers softer areas such as: awareness, people, skills, integrity, incentives, cultures, values, trust and communication.

For example I’ve written here about the risks of spiritual abuse in a dojo here.

Both faces of risk are important to create a safe dojo, but it’s easy just to focus on the hard, measurable side, and the tangible risk of physical injury. But when a vulnerable, fearful student like Jen comes among us, these softer risks become critically important.

And this reminds us that we all face psychological risks in our training.

The second fallacy is that many people people believe that risk management is just a negative, preventative science – all about minimising risk and making things safe. Of course on one level, the basic question is: what’s the worst that can happen, and how can I prevent that happening?

But again, risk management has a yin and a yang side. So it also asks important questions such as:

– What are the potential rewards of taking this risk?
– What are the risks of staying in a “safe” place instead of hazarding my safety for the sake of growth?

Avoiding risk sounds like a safe thing to do. But in fact, it’s not always the safest or best option. If Jen never goes near a dojo, she minimises some risks to zero. But she may also miss out on wonderful opportunities and create NEW risks, not least the risk of regret in later life

Martial arts can bring some specific rewards for abuse survivors – I’ve listed ten of them here: Ten ways martial arts training can help survivors of abuse

Risk versus reward

Martial artists are constantly weighing up risk against reward in their training. Karate blogger Joelle White recently pondered here and here whether to stick with a kata she knew really well in a tournament – or perform her more challenging new kata: Jion.

Image source: Air Mobility Command

By playing it safe, she was more likely to do well in the competition. But she would also miss an opportunity to scare and stretch herself in a stressful situation.

On a heavier level, Tobin Threadgill explains in detail the risks and benefits of stress training to desensitise yourself to the psychochemical stress (PCS) effects of combat:

For a vast majority of budo practitioners, even experienced ones, to effectively apply technique during an actual violent encounter requires familiarity with the onset and debilitating effects of PCS.

[…] The first level towards experiencing PCS is to allow the speed and power of the attacks to reach a level significantly higher than one can easily handle.

[…] This is not a pleasant experience and it isn’t meant to be. It’s intended to put one under extreme stress.

[…] By adapting to the incremental increases in physical, psychological and chemical stress, you are no longer physically or mentally reacting as you did early in your experience with PCS. You are now becoming mentally detached from the effects of PCS, free to evaluate your situation with much more clarity of mind.

You’ll never know in advance all the risks or rewards that could come out of starting a martial art. But thinking about both sides deeply, and starting to weigh them up against each other, could be a good starting point.

Risk management is a complex art – and full of unknown possibilities that we can never really close down.

Even my trying to help Jen could put her at risk, if this advice leads her in an unsafe direction. So one option would be to politely direct her to stick with professional help instead. Or even to tell her to avoid martial arts altogether, as this article does, because the risks for a survivor are just too high.

But actually, I believe most Budō Inochi readers will respect the fact that Jen wants to explore these risks, and would support the idea of gently introducing her to a self-defence mindset. You will absolutely get the idea of helping Jen start to understand and listen to her own feelings and intuition; and be proactively mindful of risk.

Jen: if you take the path of martial training, you could face so many challenges and risks. But if you avoid challenge and risk, you could then risk missing out on growth. There probably isn’t too much black and white advice any of us can give you, but here are some basic concepts borrowed from organisational risk management; which perhaps you’ll be able to apply with good effect on your journey . . .

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Risk identification – What are the risks?

This is the critical first step of risk management. What are the risks that could stop you achieving the rewards you seek?

For a new student like Jen, this could be hard. She doesn’t yet know what martial arts involves, let alone what the risks might be. To make matters more complicated, different styles and even schools within styles can train completely differently from each other, and cover different material.

Jen can therefore start to educate herself about martial arts in general. In this way, she’ll start to anticipate and understand some of the potential risks. She’ll also start to realise that some apparent truisms about the martial arts are actually just myths. E.g. you have to take part in competitions; the arts are inherently violent; all martial arts involve heavy sparring.

If and when she tries out a class, Jen can watch what’s being taught carefully, and observe her chosen school, teacher(s) and peers like a hawk, searching for clues about what kind of people they are and the impact they could have on her. She can watch the things they struggle with, and think about how she’ll get on in a similar scenario. Most importantly she can try things out, and get an understanding of her own limits.

For an experienced martial artist, identifying potential risks will probably be a lot easier. Not least because you have years of relating to your dojo colleagues; and you’ve seen the areas where you and others may have stumbled at times, and the eventual outcome of such events.

Risk assessment – How serious is each risk?

Image source – “Making over the humble risk matrix” by Leonard Gavin via LinkedIn

In formal risk management, you assess how dangerous each risk could be. Typically, you consider how likely each risk is, and then consider what its potential impact could be, and weigh these up together.

So breaking your neck in training would have an immense impact on your life. However, for most of us this risk is extremely unlikely, so it wouldn’t be one of your top risks to worry about. (Although for someone with a neck weakness or instability, the likelihood could become much higher, making this a higher priority risk.)

Conversely, the risk of getting bruised forearms at some point is a very high likelihood for many of us. But its impact will vary. For some people, collecting bruises in training is all good fun and even a badge of honour. For others it could be distressing enough to put them off training altogether, especially in their early days.

Therefore it’s not enough to just list all the risks you might face, in no particular order. You need to assess these risks, and understand which ones are the most serious. The most dangerous risks are those which are BOTH high impact and high probability.

[Read more – Wikipedia article on risk scoring and risk matrices]

Risk treatment – How can I protect myself?

Once you’ve identified the risks, you need to think about ways to make yourself safer. With regard to physical risks, we have policies, standard ways of behaving and insurance as noted above.

We also seek to manage risks such as physical injury in our day-to-day lives outside of class, for example through good diet, rest and a good fitness/flexibility regime outside of class.

As noted above, martial arts can also entail emotional / psychological risks. For a beginner in Jen’s situation some good protective measures might include: watch a lesson and ask the instructor about the curriculum before you participate; take a trusted friend to your first lesson; write a journal about your feelings after each lesson so you can keep track of the impact training is having on you.

[Read more: Five ways to manage risk; 5 types of risk treatment]

Risk appetite – How much risk do I want to take?

martial arts-84 by leopoldo de castro via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

Jen is already showing signs of an active risk appetite, by exploring the idea of martial arts training.. Although she knows this could be risky, she wants to try it anyway. But she needs to understand how much risk she actually wants to take, so that she doesn’t overreach herself.

The secret of risk appetite, is that it’s not single or fixed. It can change over time, as you become more or less confident. It can also vary across different areas.

So one person might be very much up for taking physical risks in training, and find this side exciting. However, they may be reluctant to open up emotionally to their dojo colleagues, or to engage with the spiritual side.

Even within one risk domain, such as the physical, your risk appetite might vary. So you might feel comfortable with being hit at a reasonable intensity, but flinch at the thought of fast breakfalls, or bring choked. This fear may subside with time.

Increasing your risk appetite

Typically, we would hope that our risk appetite will increase over time spent in training. If you are teaching someone like Jen (or if you are in Jen’s situation), it’s important to support such increases, but without pushing too hard. Paul Linden writes:

An abuse survivor was trying out her first aikido class. The instructor, who was an excellent aikidoist and a very caring person […] was teaching the survivor a forward roll and was keeping up a steady stream of encouragement, suggesting she could do one more and get it right. However, that made the woman feel pressured to perform. She felt threatened by the power of a male instructor and couldn’t bring herself to tell him she wanted to stop […] She wasn’t able to control her movements and as a result, she hurt herself so badly on a simple forward roll that she wound up in the hospital. Needless to say, she never came back to aikido, which was a loss for her and all aikidoists as well.

[…] It is crucial for survivors to be encouraged to set their own pace and own process of practice. Survivors should, in the beginning at least, be encouraged to do less than they can. This may sound strange. Ordinarily people are encouraged to do more, to go beyond their limits. But survivors most frequently don’t have a clear sense of their limits or boundaries. It is very important to encourage them to set clear boundaries. It is important to give survivors permission to do only a little. As they feel safe and successful in doing that much, they will be able to risk doing more. That may mean not rolling, or not practicing with people who scare them, or doing only warm-ups and then watching the rest of the class. Whatever limits they need should be encouraged.

– Abuse Survivors in Aikido Class

[Read more: Wikipedia entry on risk appetite]

Risk capacity – how much risk can I handle?

Risk appetite is not the whole story. We may desire more risk than we can safely handle. The student who loves physical risks may push themselves too far, and end up injured. The student who trusts very easily and enjoys connecting deeply with others may get emotionally wounded.

If you want to thrive, your risk capacity (ability to handle risk) has to match your risk appetite. If your risk appetite is much higher than your risk capacity, you can get hurt. If your risk appetite is much lower than your capacity to handle risk, then you’re limiting your chances to grow ,

The Good Governance Institute has created a useful framework for defining organisational risk appetite in the health services, across various risk domains such as finance; quality and patient safety; compliance; reputation. For example, an organisation may decide that it’s happy to take a certain amount of aggressive financial risk, but when it comes to patient safety, it only wants to avoid risk.

For martial arts training, the key risk domains might include:


  • Risk of one-off physical injury, for example from a bad fall
  • Risk of developing a physical injury over time, for example through repetitive strain
  • Risks relating to experiencing too much physical pain during training
  • Risks relating to experiencing too much physical intimacy in training


  • Risk of being exploited or otherwise abused by someone in the dojo.
  • Risk of not being socially accepted within the dojo.
  • Risk of your family or friends not being happy with the time you spend in training.


  • Risk of not being able to trust and open up enough to train effectively, so that you limit your ability to learn.
  • Risk of being too trusting or emotionally attached to teacher(s) or dojo colleagues and getting hurt.
  • Risk of showing emotions too openly and being labelled, e.g. anger, fear, crying very easily.


  • Risk of becoming unbalanced or distressed if the instructor is very aggressive
  • Riisk of finding the art too complex and difficult to understand, and losing confidence
  • Risk of becoming overconfident and putting yourself in danger (inside or outside the dojo)

Perhaps you can think of more, based on your own vulnerabilities?

As you can see, some risks cross over two or more domains. For example the risk of not being able to handle too much physical intimacy cuts across all the domains listed.

The six levels of risk appetite / risk capacity as defined by the GGI are (slightly amended to relate them to martial arts):

0. Avoid – Avoidance of risk and uncertainty is your key objective.

1. Minimal – Preference for ultra-safe options that have a low degree of inherent risk and only for limited reward potential.

2. Cautious – Preference for safe options that have a low degree of inherent risk and may only have limited potential for reward.

3. Open – Willing to consider all potential options and choose while also providing an acceptable level of reward.

4. Seek – Eager to be innovative and to choose options offering potentially higher rewards (despite greater inherent risk).

5. Mature – Confident in setting high levels of risk appetite because controls, forward scanning and responsiveness systems are robust.

You can think of it as a matrix, to start to understand your own risk appetite. Here’s a starter example for an imaginary beginner:

0. Avoid 1. Minimal 2. Cautious 3. Open 4. Seek 5. Mature
Physical My shoulder is currently injured so I need to be careful of that. Apart from my shoulder, I’m fit and sporty, and very keen to explore my limits.
Social I’m shy and nervous about meeting new people, and will keep myself to myself at first.
Mental I very much want to challenge myself by learning complex techniques.

For a more seasoned martial artist, your physical risk appetite might reflect your greater confidence and ability, balanced with acknowledgment of your possible older age. Your mental risk appetite might refer to the risks of teaching larger, more challenging classes, or venturing out from the safety of your own dojo to test your skills in an unfamiliar environment.

The idea is to develop your risk capacity over time – so that you can safely increase your risk appetite. Here’s a great example of this process:

Under the heading “Safe tuition promoted” at 0:40 onwards, we see the progression from a beginner’s first slow, fully supported breakfall, to the more dramatic fall of a black belt.

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So this was a very brief, simplified overview of some basic principles of risk management, and how they might be applied to our personal martial arts journey.

In the end, risk management is a complex and slippery art, and you will NEVER pin down all the things that might go wrong (or right).

Anthony Tarantino writes:

The problems with risk management can be summarised in the teachings of the legendary Samurai master swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, in his Book of the Five Rings.

[Musashi teaches:] “Never take a hard focus on the point of your opponent’s sword. The attack will never come from the point of the sword, directly in front of you, but from some other direction” […] He advises to take a soft focus in order to prepare for an attack in any direction.

[…] “Never favour one weapon – master all of them. If you do have a favourite, you will be defeated when forced to use your least favourite weapon” […] Effective risk management must take a more holistic approach because the next risk problem will not look like the last one and may come from a completely different direction.

– Essentials of Risk Management in Finance

So the basic tools outlined in this article are really just a starting point, for the complex and subtle art of risk management.

So why even try to apply risk management principles to our martial arts study?

Even within the corporate world, not everyone believes risk management processes are of use:

But in the end, martial arts training IS risk management. As Tim Brown explains:

– It’s learning awareness and avoidance strategies to keep you out of dangerous situations.
– It’s verbal tactics to de-escalate conflict.
– It’s body language cues to alter the mood.
– It’s understanding (but not agreeing with!) the thought process of the attacker so you are better prepared.

Risk management methods and tools can be really simplistic and clunky, but they can also be a great way to engage and train people into a practical risk mindset.

Just as we use defences against wrist grabs – that most simplistic and improbable of attacks – to get the principles and physical vocabulary of self-defence embedded into our system for more realistic attacks.

These tools can be useful for all of us, but perhaps even more so for someone like Jen, so vulnerable and inexperienced in our art. Perhaps sharing the very basics of risk management in this simple way will give her a starting point on her martial arts journey, to start to think about how to identify and assess risk – and keep herself safe.

Wishing you all the very best Jen; and hoping that you will find the strength and peace of mind you’re seeking – either through martial arts training, or through some other meaningful path . . .