Meet a Voyager: Richard Sison

Photo courtesy Fight Coop and Richard Sison.

I learned about Richard when he emailed to ask if he could share a piece about mental health and martial arts on At first, I assumed that he was like so many people who write me — looking for a linkback. (Link backs are the currency of SEO rankings, which means if my site links to another site, it can appear higher in Google results). What I found, though, is that Richard was sincere in his desire to write about his own past experiences with anxiety. I love how he describes it in this interview as a “weird feeling” that he treated for years only with martial arts. Or how it can be difficult to fear being judged when practicing martial arts.

If you’ve been thinking about giving martial arts a try, and you’re hoping it might help with your own mental health, read on to learn more about how one expert in the field thinks about the connection.

Q: Can you tell us about your background — where did you grow up? What was your family like? 

I had the privilege of growing up in the Canadian city of Vancouver, known for its mountains and oceans. It was a place where the scent of ocean breeze mingled with the vibrant energy of a diverse and welcoming community.

My family shaped my journey within this nurturing environment, especially regarding my deep-rooted love for martial arts. I was blessed to be part of a close-knit family consisting of my loving parents and two amazing sisters.

My father, an engineer, always had a knack for problem-solving and instilled in me a thirst for knowledge and continuous improvement. His unwavering support and belief in my abilities became a guiding light throughout my martial arts journey. He often shared stories of perseverance and determination from his life experiences, inspiring him during moments of doubt.

My mother, a dedicated nurse, possessed an unparalleled nurturing spirit. She taught me the importance of compassion on and off the training mat. Her gentle encouragement and genuine interest in my martial arts pursuits helped foster a sense of empathy and humility within me.

Growing up with my two sisters was a constant source of joy and companionship. We embarked on countless adventures together, playing countless games and adventures in the nearby park. Their presence in my life brought an element of camaraderie and mutual support that further fueled my passion for martial arts.

The community in Vancouver itself played a significant role in my upbringing. It was a melting pot of cultures and ideas. I encountered individuals from diverse backgrounds with unique stories and perspectives. This rich tapestry of humanity fostered a sense of acceptance and inclusivity, providing the perfect backdrop for my martial arts journey.

Q: What do you think first drew you to martial arts? Was there a mental health component to the appeal (whether you realized it or not)? 

The allure of martial arts was undeniable when I discovered it as a young and curious teenager. A combination of factors instantly captivated my attention and sparked an unquenchable curiosity. The discipline, focus, and sheer power of martial arts resonated deeply with my spirit.

The intensity and precision of the movements were like a magnet, pulling me toward this captivating world. I was fascinated by the physical and mental challenges of martial arts. The artistry and skill displayed by practitioners ignited a fire within me, urging me to embark on my journey of self-discovery through martial arts.

Like many others, I struggled with maintaining concentration at school as a young boy. However, the discipline instilled by martial arts seeped into various aspects of my life, including my academic pursuits. I discovered that the mental focus and discipline honed through martial arts training translated into improved performance in the classroom. It became a valuable tool for channeling my energy and maintaining a sharp focus on my studies. 

Q: How would you describe your own mental health journey? 

My mental health journey has been winding, filled with triumphs and challenges. Anxiety has been a constant companion, creating hurdles demanding resilience and strength. However, martial arts have been a guiding light, illuminating the way forward and empowering me with the mental fortitude to navigate even the darkest times.

As far as I can remember, I’ve experienced feelings of anxiety. The feeling of something wrong, but I can’t quite put a finger on it. It started at an early age, as mentioned, during grade school, not being able to concentrate. It grew as I got older, and I thought maybe I was just sensitive. I would take criticism worse than others or overthink situations in my head countless times after they happened.

Martial arts and exercise have always made these feelings easier to manage. It wasn’t until I turned 19 that my mental health journey reached a climax when my dad died from cancer. Being young and equipped with stoicism learned from martial arts, I dug my feet in and didn’t allow myself to feel pain. At the time, I viewed this as a weakness to overcome.

Doing so didn’t allow me to grieve my loss and hurt many relationships around me. I became irritable and harsh with friends and family. I blamed everyone and everything for my circumstances while wearing a “tough guy” mask and not accepting responsibility for my situation.

It wasn’t until 25 that I decided to seek professional support. My sensei at my Jiu-Jitsu gym guided me to not view mental health as an embarrassment or weakness. Something he said to me stuck with me: “You would go to the dentist for a toothache, so why not go to a counselor for a heartache?”

Fifteen years later and I still attend counseling regularly. Even if I’m not being rocked by life’s undulating waves, it’s beneficial to have a professional ask probing questions and help me understand behaviors and thoughts.

My mental health journey will continue for the rest of my time here. There will be difficulties, but I’ve changed my opinion as I’ve grown older. First off, it’s not shameful to feel depressed or anxious. And more importantly, I strive to teach young men and women not to bottle up how they feel. If you feel like crying, do it. If you feel like yelling, do it. Just feel your emotions and be kind to yourself.

Q: Do you think martial arts help with anxiety, and if so, how? 

After my father passed away at 19, a little “weird feeling” within me grew. My anxiety was left untreated for years and grew silently. Martial arts kept it in check. However, alongside guidance from a mental health professional, this became the “one-two punch” to manage anxiety. I know that the days I practice martial arts are much brighter than those I don’t. This is why I decided to dedicate my life to becoming a teacher. 

However, deciding to try martial arts can be a terrifying experience. Are people judging me? Can I do this? Will I get hurt? These are some of the questions that permeate.

In the beginning, stepping into the martial arts studio was a daunting experience. I was surrounded by unfamiliar faces, my heart pounding, and my mind consumed by self-doubt. However, the supportive and inclusive nature of the martial arts community began to break down the walls of my social anxiety. Fellow practitioners welcomed me with open arms, creating an environment where I felt safe to express myself without judgment.

As I continued training, I realized that martial arts offered a unique blend of physical exercise and mental discipline. The structured and intense workouts pushed me to my limits, demanding a complete focus on precise movements and techniques. Through this process, I discovered that martial arts required me to be fully present now, effectively shifting my attention away from my anxieties and onto the task at hand.

Q: Where do you recommend someone start with martial arts? Example: me. Where should I start?

Martial arts offer several styles, each with unique characteristics and techniques. Research and explore several types to find the one that resonates most with you. I recommend Jiu-Jitsu as a great starting point. You receive the numerous benefits of physical struggle. Still, the risk of injury is much lower because of the lack of striking.

Think about what you hope to achieve through martial arts. Are you interested in self-defense, physical fitness, competition, or personal development? Understanding your goals will help you choose a martial art style and training environment that aligns with your aspirations. Consider factors such as the intensity of training, focus on technique or physical conditioning, and the overall philosophy of martial art.

Take the time to visit different martial arts schools or clubs in your area. Observe classes, speak with instructors, and get a feel for the training environment. Pay attention to factors like the instructor’s teaching style, the atmosphere, and professionalism. Finding a school that provides a supportive and inclusive environment where you feel comfortable and motivated to learn is essential.

Many martial arts schools offer beginner-friendly programs or introductory classes designed for newcomers. These classes usually provide a gentle introduction to martial art’s basic techniques and concepts, allowing you to build your skills and confidence gradually. Participating in these programs can be a fantastic way to start your martial arts journey and assess if it fits you.

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