My dating life recently helped me understand martial arts techniques. Would you like to hear how?
Over the years, I’ve dated a few girls. Sometimes the romance concludes at my call, sometimes at hers. [Side note: that’s not failure… it’s just the nature of dating. All romances end until you find one that doesn’t.] Recently, I met an incredible lady and was quickly smitten. (To my credit, my fall was understandable. I met her in an old stone barn overlooking a partially frozen dam on a frigid winter evening, and she’s beautiful, athletic, curious, and speaks French. How does a poor guy not fall hard after all that? I digress.) However, after a couple dates she made it clear she didn’t see a future with me. It was over.
To be honest, I was bummed. After all, great gals don’t cross my path very often. So, in true Martyn fashion, I stewed on it for a long time. Then, I channeled my disappointment into a letter about the future she and I will never know. [I didn’t send it, have no intention of ever doing so, and she doesn’t read KR so I’m safe.] It was all pretty tame. Here are some examples:
I won’t know how you fidget on a plane just before take-off.
I won’t know the boredom of waiting for a bus in a strange land with you.
I won’t know the sound of your tired arrival from work.
I won’t know the fragile permanence of a framed picture of us.
You get the gist. The point is that our relationships hold potential futures. If they end, those futures end with them. Of those futures, there is much we won’t know.
But what else do we not know? Are there other relationships in our lives that, if nothing changes, will also remain unknown?
After more than decade of non-participation, I’ve begun to reacquaint myself with martial arts. UFC fighter Charles Byrd is my trainer.
This past Tuesday my performance was subpar. I made the mistake of scrolling through texts and social media when I woke up. That fragmented my attention. Still, I stuck to my schedule and arrived at the gym in time to warm up. The brief warmup didn’t refocus me, though. The session began and we went through the numbers. My strikes were labored and out of sync. I forgot to turn my shoulder. I didn’t tuck my chin. I leaned forward too much. I forgot to breathe through my nose. You get the picture.
Unwilling to give up, I channeled the wisdom of our culture: Try harder. Focus more. After all… that’s the path to success, right?
Nope, not at all. The harder I tried, the worse I performed. On one combination I remembered to twist my hips but forgot to keep my guard up. On the next, I remembered my guard but forgot to keep my elbow up on the hook. Over and over again, my coach reminded me of his standards, but internally, I was already aware of the errors. Nothing was flowing. I was incredibly tense. Everything in me said I was doing it incorrectly. The more I tried and the harder I focused, the poorer the outcome.
Thursday’s results were quite different. Frustrated at my Tuesday performance, I spent Wednesday stretching and shadow boxing. Then, I got up early on Thursday and ran two miles to the gym. Before Coach arrived, I wrapped my hands and stretched out. I was sweating profusely as we began agility work.
The additional effort made all the difference, right?
Nope. As we went through the punch numbers, I still made mistakes. Then, Coach started moving around. If I wanted to attack, I had to follow him. I did so, tracking him in an odd dance- forward, back, side to side, circling. Staccato strikes punctuated the flow. Better. I was getting the hang of it.
Then Coach said, pointing to his shirt logo: “Focus on my chest. That’s it. Just watch right here.”
In an instant, my perspective shifted. In the subsequent moments so did my performance. I focused on the shirt logo, but every time he held up a mit, I’d see it in my peripheral vision. WHAP! My jab or cross would quickly knock it down. More strikes and kicks flowed as we tracked each other around the room. My form improved. I could feel it. Things were clicking. I was enjoying it! At the session’s end, I was shocked. What accounted for the change?
In his 1972 book, The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey explains that, “[e]very game is composed of two parts, an outer game and an inner game.” The outer game is whatever external endeavor we undertake- tennis, soccer, dancing, fighting, language learning, whatever. Typically, we’re up against an opponent (though not always) and must overcome obstacles to reach an external goal. However, the inner game is the “game that take place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt, and self-condemnation.”
The trick is, apparently, to find a “harmony.” That harmony results in what the performance experts call the “flow state” and what the noteworthy psychologist Dr. Abraham Maslow (cf. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) called “peak experiences.” However, for many like me, that harmony is difficult to achieve.
How does it come about?
Well, it’s actually an internal harmony that is then directed at the outer game. The inner game breaks down into two parts: the conscious self (which we will call the “thinker”) and the subconscious, automatic self (we will call the “doer”). According to Gallwey, “Harmony between the two selves exists when the mind itself is quiet. Only when the mind is still, is one’s peak performance reached.” It is the “constant ‘thinking’ activity of [the thinker], the ego-mind, which causes interference with the natural doing processes of [the doer].” Apparently, the harmony comes in “not trying too hard.”
Up until this week, I wouldn’t have believed that for a second.
See, I’m all about effort. I try pretty hard. Judging by my stress injuries it’s a deeply engrained, life-long habit. But truth be told, I don’t think I’m alone in this. The American “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” view is loaded with it. But here’s the rub:
Effort is often paired with qualitative judgement.
This is because we want the effort to matter. We measure. We categorize. The “thinker” judges the outcome to have a positive or negative value- “good” or “bad”. Consider this analogy provided by Gallwey:
… [I]magine a singles match being played by Mr. A and Mr. B, with Mr. C acting as the umpire. Mr. A is serving his second serve to Mr. B on the first point of a tie-breaker. The ball lands wide, and Mr. C calls, “Out. Double fault”. Seeing his serve land out and hearing, “Double fault”. Mr. A frowns, says something demeaning about himself, and calls the serve “terrible”. Seeing the same stroke, Mr. B. judges it as “good” and smiles. The umpire neither frowns nor smiles: he simply calls the ball as he sees it.
What is important to see here is that neither the “goodness” nor “badness” ascribed to the event by the players is an attribute of the shot itself. Rather, they are evaluations added to the event in the minds of the players according to their individual reactions. Mr. A is saying, in effect, “I don’t like that event”; Mr. B is saying, “I like that event”. The umpire, here ironically called the judge, doesn’t judge the event as positive or negative; he simply sees the ball land and calls it out.
But life isn’t all tie-breaker matches. Sometimes we enter a realm where the “thinker’s” judgment (represented by Mr. A and Mr. B in the analogy) doesn’t matter. It’s often in fun moments like intramural tournaments, pick-up games, or uncoached practice sessions. Or alternatively, as I experienced on Thursday, the “thinker” gets focused on an uncategorizable action like looking at a shirt logo. The end result of both is the same: the “doer” is released to do.The mind is stilled. Fun, enjoyment, flow and possibly even “peak experiences” result.
There’s more to Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis like learning to feed the “doer” images instead of instructions and teaching the “thinker” to trust the “doer”. But after this week, the rest of it doesn’t seem as important.
Instead, I return to the letter to the cute, French-speaking gal. It was focused on an external relationship’s unrealized future. But what of my internal relationship’s unrealized potential? As a matter of fact, what is unknown in that relationship right now? What is said in it? How do the “thinker” and the “doer” interact? Is there kindness and trust? Anger? Ignorance? This isn’t silly self-help junk. There is a real relationship inside each of us, and I’ve gone three decades with little understanding of mine.
All that to say, a letter to a girl that she’ll never read helped me understand some of what’s behind my erroneous martial arts form. I have tremendous hope that a new, long lasting relationship will come about… with my left hook. Now, if only I could get my elbow up.
Damn it! There’s that judgement again.