Understanding Upstairs and Downstairs Brain in Martial Arts

Before we begin, I want you to remember a time one of the instructors walked a crying student off the mat. Remember the ice pack they placed on the students knee and had them count to 10? Do you remember how the student returned to class with a smile on their face?!

How about this! Have you ever been on the receiving end of a tantrum or roller coaster emotions with no idea of where it came from?

In my experience as a Martial Arts instructor I can say with certainty that the answer to this question is: Yes! Don’t worry, this is completely normal and more common than you might think (You’re not alone!). Even I have been on the end of a meltdown or two. The key to maintaining your composure and remaining drama free is understanding!

First, let’s talk about the brain!

We are going to focus on the two main areas involved when tantrums arise. These two areas are the Upstairs Brain and the Downstairs Brain. The book The Whole Brain Child does a great job describing this as a two story building! All the complicated processes happen upstairs, such as decision making, planning, etc. The Downstairs Brain is where emotions and impulses are managed.

For most children, the Downstairs Brain is fully developed. Unfortunately, the Upstairs Brain is still under construction. The tantrums arise when the Downstairs Brain takes over and emotions get out of hand. The key is knowing how to respond and open the door to the upstairs brain again.

Our instructors understand this concept and have some insight they can share! These are things that help us while on the mat and can help you as well at home!

Recognize their feelings!

Knock on the door to their Upstairs Brain by asking questions like: “Wow, you must be feeling pretty upset, right?” Questions like these will begin to reconnect to the Upstairs brain. This will allow them to begin the process of understanding where they are and how to get back to a calm state.


As a result of the wild emotions, children experience a cortisol (stress chemical) dump. To combat this, lots of high-fives, hugs and pats on the back help to trigger the release of Oxytocin. This will help balance the chemicals in the brain and make it easier to reconnect the Upstairs Brain.

Get them moving!

We also try to get our students moving again as soon as possible! This helps trigger the release of Endorphins which help cancel out the effects of Cortisol.

Now back to the icepack story. Our instructor was prepared and understood how the Upstairs and Downstairs brain interact! He sat the student down, gave them an ice pack and asked about their feelings. They were then able to engage the Upstairs Brain by counting to 10 and agreed to return to class.

Our goal is to help every ninja become the best they can be. Understanding these key ideas is only the beginning.