In the course of eight days before beginning this article, I had six separate pep talks from five different people about my upcoming second fight. A week and a half before I was scheduled to get back in the ring, I asked my kru (my coach; see previous previous posts 1 and 2) to take me off the card.
Warriors, let’s jam for a minute. Take a seat, and get comfortable: Today, I’m not talking training or fighting. I want to talk about that thing that’s harder than taking a punch, running a mile, or going on a cut diet when things like pizza and pad thai exist. I want to talk about losing my edge.
You probably know the feeling. Sometimes it’s because depression has decided to come take a ride on your shoulders for a few days or weeks or months (or years). Sometimes it’s because you’re burned out and exhausted. Sometimes it’s because you’re distracted, can’t focus the way you should. All of a sudden, you’re just “not good” at something anymore, something that used to bring you joy, something you used to shine at. The thing that made you a diamond.
And then the fear sets in. Maybe it’s not just depression, exhaustion, or distraction. Maybe you really have gotten worse, and it’s not all in your head.
And then the little voices start to sneak in, whispering, suggesting, ever so lightly, that maybe you never were any good at it. Maybe the whole thing was a pipe dream, and it would be easier to just stop trying.
For me, it manifested pretty clearly, first as physical and emotional exhaustion. During the month I took off from training, in order to finish my application, testing, and interview for graduate school, my gym went through a minor upheaval that resulted in a new space and a new schedule. Class was now three hours a day, four days a week, and I just couldn’t seem to find the right rhythm to get back into my fight training. I couldn’t find time to run my three miles or to do my hundred crunches, hundred pushups, fifty squats. Getting to the gym at five o’clock in the evening meant coming home from work, changing, feeding the cat, and immediately leaving for class—no time for running, calisthenics, or food. Getting out anywhere between eight and nine at night meant I was bone-tired when I got home, and too tired to cook dinner for that night and definitely too tired to prep breakfast for the morning.
So, I wasn’t getting in my reps, I wasn’t sleeping, and I wasn’t eating right. I was skipping breakfast and eating junk food—both things tend to make me feel not great. The time to start my cut came and went. The weight stayed stubbornly on. Worse, I actually started gaining again—probably a product of not eating enough and binging on the wrong kinds of foods and not sleeping well. (Let me explain that comment a little. In the context of fight training, not making weight means I won’t fight, period. I know weight gain and loss is a touchy subject for a lot of people, and body policing is wrong. In this particular situation, my gaining weight is bad, because it means I wouldn’t have been able to fight, even after all my hard work and training.)
Weeks rolled by. I grew more and more tired. I went into prepping for this fight already feeling frayed. I started getting frustrated easily in my pad rounds, started missing cues, and doing the wrong thing. I felt slow. I felt stupid. Everything felt like it was coming three seconds too late. I was edgy and frightened. Sparring became something to dread. The fight took on a nearly mythical quality of impossibility.
It’s not a feeling I’m unfamiliar with. I’ll often spend weeks procrastinating on writing three or four paragraphs, because that blank white space feels like a brick wall planted squarely in front of my nose. I’ve heard that procrastinators are born of perfectionists and that we are paralyzed with fear to even begin something because it might be less than perfect. I believe it. I worry so often that, rather than bringing the world Athena—flawlessly formed, delivered, exquisite, directly from my brain without stops or edits on the way—I end up with an unrecognizable ragdoll.
The rising tension didn’t escape my teammates. “How are you feeling?” became a regular refrain, and, finally, after a bout of sparring in which I came out “not on top,” I couldn’t come out with my usual response of, “Fine, good, I feel good.”
Instead, my throat closed up, and my eyes burned. It was frustrating. Embarrassing. Somehow, even after a year of training and embracing the humility that comes with living a Muay Thai life, I didn’t want to roll over and show belly. I didn’t want to be weak. I’d already lost my edge, but admitting to it seemed like a failure.
Listen, I’m going to tell all of you this, and I’m still telling it to myself. With luck, we’ll all learn to believe it: Feeling this way does not make me, or you, or anyone slogging through it, a failure. Remember when I told you about the fighter’s heart? It means you don’t give up. Not just in the ring, not just in training, but ever. It means we pick ourselves up, or we let someone give us a hand. It means that we keep pushing, through the days that feel like they never end, and we choose to believe the people who tell us we’re doing well, instead of our jerk brains whispering that we’re getting worse. It means taking a break when we need it, so we can come back better and stronger. It’s not letting fear make our decisions for us.
I’m fortunate to be surrounded by kind and compassionate teammates and a supportive network of friends and family members, all of whom have stepped up to the plate to sympathize, advise, or just listen if I’ve asked. My teammates and I rely on each other when thoughts like these start to weigh us down, and I’m grateful for all the times I’ve been able to say, “I feel like this,” and they’ve taken the time to talk it out with me.
In the end, I opted to take myself off the June 20th fight card, but like I told my kru, not because those thoughts won. (Making weight was another matter.) I took the fear that he would be disappointed in me and pushed past it. I’m still pushing past the disappointment in myself and trying to regain my footing and resharpen that edge.
But you better believe it’s coming!