Embracing Fear: How Martial Arts Helped Me Achieve Personal and Professional Success
Visit this page link to listen directly to Robbie Wells as he reflects on his story.
We’ve all felt moments of helplessness. Moments of feeling inadequate.
But how do you respond in these moments? Are you able to take control? Are you able to change the situation?
Let me rewind to my younger years – when I was ten years old.
I’m walking my Uncle’s dog with my younger sister Abi – she’s eight at the time. I start to see a few older boys in the distance. I’m already a little nervous. Okay… very nervous! I’m just praying a certain individual isn’t with them. We’re getting closer and a few more start to appear from behind parked cars. There are maybe five or six at this point.
He’s there! The one person I didn’t want to see.
I keep my head down, but it’s only a matter of time. I tell Abi to keep walking ahead. The group starts to surround me. If I was alone I would have done a 180 and run for the hills. The main bully starts to confront me and then…
I feel a hand gripped around my throat
I heard the words “This is for … “. The rest is fragmented. I was frozen in fear – powerless and hopeless. Like a gazelle in the presence of a lion.
I would have loved to be the lion.
Instead, I was left hoping to wake up in my bed, as if it was all just a bad dream. Time slowed down. Emotions washed away. The feeling of fear left. What was left was emptiness – emotionless. Emotions are only present when you still feel like you can respond in some way. I knew I had no options to change the situation.
Being bullied is common, but you still feel alone when you’re in that space. I think this is the same when we experience any negative emotion – fear, anger, guilt… There is no relief in knowing that you are not alone in moments of suffering.
So what does relieve the suffering?
I’m being pushed towards a small garden wall. There’s a small gap in the group to the right. I start to shrink inside myself, whilst slowly moving in that direction.
His hand falls away but he continued to follow me for a little longer. The boys on bicycles ride alongside me.
Eventually, they let me go. It felt like an eternity.
I was free. Except I didn’t feel free. The feeling of vulnerability, inadequacy and insecurity stuck around.
I didn’t feel safe
I didn’t leave my house by myself for the next six weeks. I’d ask my mum to drop me off at friends’ houses instead of cycling a ten-minute journey.
Morecambe is a small seaside town on the North West coast of England. Who’s heard of any trouble in Morecambe? You guessed it, nobody.
Leaving home to study at The University of Birmingham and recently travelling around South East Asia on a dream trip, has shown me just how safe my beautiful hometown is. Everybody knows a friendly northerner right? The one that embraces you with a hug instead of shaking your hand.
But the reality through my ten-year-old eyes was a very different one.
I was a small kid with chicken legs and elf-looking ears – at least that’s what people told me. I’d be one of the last people to be selected for games or sports. Bare Rangers was the local kids’ football team that everybody wanted to be selected for. I couldn’t make the team.
I was trying to fit in but…
I didn’t fit the mould
So, after those long six weeks, I realised that I needed to regain the confidence to at least walk along my streets. Especially before going to high school.
I needed to feel safe. My mum couldn’t follow me in her car, keeping tabs at a distance, like some sort of MI6 agent – she actually did that. I’m sure she’d have loved to carry on doing it. I guess you could say I was a mummies boy. But that’s not cool is it?
I walk downstairs and say to Mum and Dad “I need to learn how to protect myself”. We sit at the computer and start searching for options.
Boxing wasn’t on the cards because Dad had some concerns about the local gipsy community. He didn’t want me taking the crown from The Gypsie King. That’s fair enough.
We find a Judo club. This is an art based on trips and throws. I remember watching through the glass. Seeing people perform diving rolls and break falls. The black belt instructor was a large man but he moved like lightning. Before you could finish a blink he would have rag-dolled a grown man over his shoulder – crashing down onto the mats.
I did this for a few months and I was enjoying it but the club decided to move and I had to look for an alternative.
It’s time to strike with my hands and feet
Taekwon-Do is a Korean martial art that is a literal translation for ‘the art of kicking and punching’. I was part of the GTUK association which practised the ITF style – similar to kickboxing.
I was practising for 6 months with Mr Butler, 1st degree black belt, before he had to leave the club to move across the world.
I was gutted. I thought this was going to be a repeat situation of the Judo club. Thankfully, a 3rd degree black belt took over the club. He was very different to the previous instructor. Bold head. Grey goatee beard. Circular lensed glasses. Hands the size of a bear, with a vice-like grip.
He would throw a kick or a punch at full speed and stop a hair’s width from hitting you. I could carry on.
I was in awe! This is a level of skill and power that I could only dream of.
But it was…
More than just kicking and punching
He taught me the art of Taekwon-Do – ‘the way’.
As you enter the Dojang (training hall) you look for the most senior grade and bow to them. Heels together, toes apart, and hands as fists out to the side of your body. You also do this at the start and end of class.
Students line up in order of belt rank – military-like discipline. After all, the art was established by the Korean military for use in hand-to-hand combat.
Mr Harvey led classes in the traditional way. Built on standards from the five tenets of Taekwon-Do – Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self Control and Indomitable Spirit.
There was no room for excuses. No room for disrespect. Only dedication and a commitment to the process.
I was engrossed in the art and it became my priority throughout my schooling years. This became ingrained in my character. I could feel it feeding into every aspect of my life. Taekwon-Do and its values became my identity. I knew that my self-regard was growing but I remained quiet and reserved about practising Taekwon-Do.
I didn’t want anybody else to know out of fear of someone trying to challenge me. But after all …
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate…’
“Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”
There is only so long I could keep this information just within the family house. Partly because my Mum loves to share how proud she is. But, mainly it was due to the levels that I had risen to.
I achieved the level of 2nd degree black belt. Competing across a decade at national and international level competitions. Winning several national titles and becoming a Junior World Champion in 2013.
It’s only now that I feel no inner conflict with writing those words. That’s because my onboarding at EA5, working through the unique 5-step real change process, exposed my self-deprecating behaviour towards my success in Taekwon-Do.
I would shy away from acknowledging I was a former world champion. Not just that, but I would often downplay any form of achievement or success – whether personally or professionally.
I think this has stemmed from feelings of insecurity. That started way back when I was ten – in that moment of fear.
Ironically, even when I had reached a level of physical proficiency to be able to protect myself. I still felt insecure but in a different way. So I can embrace my fear, but I can’t embrace my success? Am I now fearful of the potential I have?
I was unaware that this was selfish behaviour. Why? Because of the words in the quote just mentioned.
“Your playing small does not serve the world.”
“There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”
Leaning into this and embracing my success is important for me to be able to serve the world. I need to keep working on this even though it feels uncomfortable at times – welcoming moments of inner conflict. Through this, I’m able to think, feel and act with freedom.
So I guess there is only one thing left to say…
Thank you to the bully who put his hand around my throat. Without you, I wouldn’t have learnt the art of Taekwon-Do. I wouldn’t be the man I am today.
Maybe I wouldn’t have learnt the power of dreams.
In November 2022, weeks before flying out to Thailand, I found a note written by a sixteen-year-old Robbie. A note that had priced a trip to the now-famous, Tiger Muay Thai Gym in Phuket, Thailand.
I didn’t know when in my life this would become a reality. But I knew at some point it would become a reality.
Throughout December 2022 and January 2023 I experienced the feeling of living my dream. I find myself training with Rafael Fiziev, #6 Lightweight in the UFC, experiencing his power, balance, ferocity and beginner-like mentality.
On returning to the UK in March, I was in the privileged position to attend UFC 286. I was able to watch Fiziev fight Justin Gaethje in an explosive contest. Not only that, but the inspirational Leon Edwards retained the Welterweight World Title in a trilogy fight vs Kamaru Usman. A moment in sporting history.
It would require a whole new blog to get into the real juice of such an experience.
So I’ll leave the bully’s name omitted… but if you see this, I’m genuinely grateful.
Is there anything you shy away from in your life? What do you fear?
Recognise that there is no benefit to gain from playing small. It is detrimental to you.
These aren’t easy questions to truthfully answer. Reflecting in an open and honest environment is the only way to truly help yourself.
At EA5, listening to the stories and reflections of our clients is the start of the process within our high-performance programmes. We are passionate about supporting people to be the best they can be.
Through the EA5 Academy, we are now making these valuable insights accessible to everyone, through our guided audio sessions.
“We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
I would like to thank my Taekwon-do instructors for their commitment to me and their authenticity in showing me the art – Mr M. Harvey VI, Senior Master R. Auciello VIII, Master D. Holmes VII, and Master A. Holmes VII.