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It was freshmen year of high school. One of our required courses was English. A friend of mine, who was high ranking in the martial arts and I would shuffle into English class every day after lunch.  My buddy was not an aggressive guy and at times could seem a little meek.  He would usually get to English class early and be sitting in his seat before most other kids arrived.


It started with flicks to the back of the head. One boy would come in, sneak up behind him and do something nasty. Training and a gentle spirit had taught my friend to ignore him.  However, the bully saw this as weakness and the annoying flicks soon turned into punches.  At first hitting went unanswered too. My buddy, always taught to avoid the fight at all cost, went to our instructor and explained the situation.  Our instructor’s advice probably wouldn’t fit today’s tell-the-the-teacher convention, which is good advice and a proper first step but, as most of us know, can be over simplistic given the complex social dynamic in any school. Further, bullies are bullies and not necessarily stupid so they tend to be able to work their way around the system.


Armed with our instructor’s advice my buddy arrived early to class again, and again the bully came up behind him punching him this time in the neck.  Without leaving his seat, my friend turned around and grabbed the bully by the collar and yanked him down to his level so that they were face to face. The normally calm energy he tended to project gave way to a confidant fire. “You touch me again,” he said quiet but with purpose and so only the bully could hear, “I’ll break both your knees.” He then shoved him back. The bully, his wide eyed and open mouth expression frozen on his face, sat down without a word.


The bully completely avoided my friend for the next few weeks until one day they ended up next to each other in the hallway. They made polite and pleasant conversation and remained friendly to each other throughout the remaining years of high school.


Looking at the Victim


It is up to the school’s administration to look at bullying from the perspective of the bully. They must take a how-do-we-stop-them approach.  As martial artist we are lucky that we get to look at it from the perspective of the potential victim.  And, it may not be in the way you think. Bullies aren’t stopped by good self defense techniques (although they are sure nice to know when a bully actually strikes.) Bullies are stopped by the right energy. In the story above my friend, who was a good fighter, never hit the bully but stopped him in his tracks with the change in the energy he projected.  Sure there were a few fun lines (I’m sure they’ll be embellished when they make a movie about it) but it was the energy – the confidence – that he projected that stopped the bully from looking at him as a victim.


Predator and Prey


The relationship between bully and victim is that of predator and prey – let’s say tiger and wildebeest. Think about how a tiger approaches a herd of wildebeest. They sneak up from behind and chase the herd then attack the slowest, weakest one in the back of the pack. The tiger is stalking its prey for a reason – it’s hungry and wildebeest is what’s for dinner. It wants that dinner with minimal effort so there is no way it’s going after the big, strong, confident wildebeest in front… or any of the middle ones. No, the quick and easy fast food drive through for a tiger is the weakest little guy trailing behind its friends.  This is how the bully works. They are looking for the weakest in the herd.


Two Strings


Like the tiger needs food, the bully has a need. Confident, well adjusted and emotionally balanced kids don’t bully.  Bullies are lacking self-esteem and bullying is a temporary fix for them.  It gives them a momentary feeling of superiority… a false sense of self-esteem.  However, like the euphoria of a drug it fades.  This goes back to the analogy Joe Hyams gives in his book Zen in the Martial Arts. Two strings are set out side by side and the master asks the student how he could make it so that one of the strings was longer than the other.  There are two answers:  one is to cut one string, making it shorter, and by default the other longer. The other is to add to one piece and make it longer. The bully is a master at cutting other peoples string to make themselves look and feel “longer.” The bully has to work this way because the circumstances in their life have not given them the skills to lengthen their own string. Further, there is probably someone in their lives that’s cutting away at their string every day.




We’re not tigers and wildebeests so how are the roll of predator and prey defined? It’s by the energy we project. The person being picked on is giving off energy that says, “Hey, I’m weak prey. Pick on me. I’m good prey for a bully” Generally speaking it’s due to a lack of physical confidence. This dynamic is so profound that it can be seen with the tiger and wildebeests when the dynamic reverses, as it does in this video when a wildebeest stares down a tiger causing it to run away.  The wildebeest senses the tiger’s lack of confidence. The energy the wildebeest then projects is one of confidence not prey.   It is in this way that the victim can take charge of the situation and stay off the bully.


Many parents sign their children up for martial arts so that they learn to defend themselves. If that bully attacks, they want them to be able to fight back. That is certainly something the martial arts addresses. However, no one dedicates themselves to the martial arts so that they can handle the one or two times in their life that a true self-defense situation comes up. It may be a reason to start but it’s not a reason to stay. What it really does for the bully’s potential victim is gives them physical confidence. It changes the energy they project so they no longer give off the vibe of being the weakest in the herd.  If it does come down to it, that physical confidence is backed up with physical ability.


This is a concept that we sometimes try to employ with the victims. “What you need to do is stand up to the bully.” “Give him a good pop in the nose and he’ll never bother you again.” Or maybe Uncle Joe shows him a few boxing moves in the backyard one day. They’re all good sentiments and may even work for the victim. They can also be dangerous. Because the victim doesn’t truly have the ability to back up the attitude, because it’s not a genuine confidence and because they are backing and already scared beast into the corner, the advice could and often does backfire.


The Art of Fighting without Fighting


When a student walks into a dojo week after week to train they are rebuilt physically and mentally. Their health, fitness and coordination improve. And, yes, they learn to defend themselves.  Moreover, they are surrounded by a supportive group of people with a common interest in the martial arts and a common drive to improve themselves mentally, physically and in character.  They become the kinds of people that hold their heads so high that they are no longer considered for the roll of victim. And, if they do have to get tough, they can back it up.


The Goose and the Gander


In this case what’s good for the goose may also be good for the gander. While it may be somewhat dangerous to give a bully the physical skill set of the martial arts, building up their confidence in all these ways will eliminate their drive to bully. In my years as a martial artist I’ve seen one of two things happen when a bully is introduced to the dojo. They don’t change and don’t stay or they stay and become productive members of society.


There are many dynamics to bullying. We need to keep looking at it from every angle and do what it takes to eliminate the problem. The martial arts are only one way, one possible answer, but it’s a good one especially if your immediate concern is an individual victim.

2 Comments, RSS

  • Sally Tobias

    says on:
    February 18, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    True strength comes from within. The confidence one has in their own ability to positively control a situation. Martial arts training empowers the student with that energy. Great insight . You can feel the change of energy in the video when that wildebeest turns and stares down that lion. I can almost hear that wildebeest say ” excused me …you got a problem buddy ?!”

  • Craig Wharem

    says on:
    February 25, 2012 at 9:24 am

    I have to tell you as a Martial Artist, I love this blog. Bullying is definitely something that is taking a lot of our focus as Martial Arts teachers and as people. One of the things I always tell my students is that one of the best ways to handle a bully is to show them kindness in return. There is a catch to that though, The kindness needs to be extended with confidence. I tell my students that they have a lot to be confident about including their training in the Dojo. Keep up the great work, You are a fantastic role model for everyone at the Dojo.

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