The Dark Engine, The Bright Engine – How My Wife Trains and Fights a Ton
At photo top, Modt Ek in Sylvie’s Corner between rounds
I try in this Husband’s Point of View series to present an extra perspective. Sylvie, just by the nature of the blog, is forced to talk a lot about herself, but sometimes it’s interesting or enlightening see things from a different set of eyes. She and I do talk a lot about her training, her fights, and much of where we get to, we get to together. But I wanted to write this just as a fact of my amazement. It’s not just that Sylvie has fought nearly 130 times in a little over 3 and a half years, but that she has trained at a very exacting level (sometimes at as many as 3 gyms a day) almost without break, throughout that time – the physical and mental dimensions of what she is doing are stark. She’s fond of saying, and more importantly thinking, that she never gets hurt in fights because her training is harder than fighting. There is a sense in which she has been hardened, tempered like steel, I think. Some of this is personal myth, the kind of self-directed mental achievement that allows you to climb higher and perform better, and some of this is just plain fact. She seldom gets hurt in a fight.
So I wanted to sit down and reflect on qualities I’ve noticed in her, things she does and thinks, really values she’s developed that I think have led her to this place. It’s not a “Sylvie’s so awesome!” post, even though she is. It’s my real amazement at her, as a person, and a lesson to myself, a lesson that perhaps others might like to hear. It’s an attempt to look at what is going on under the hood, so to speak.
Using Pain as the Ultimate Guide
This is one of the more incredible things I’ve witnessed. Sylvie has become very familiar with “pain”. I put pain in quotes here because pain is not a simple, singular thing. There is the physiological sensation of pain, basically an alarm bell of some kind, an energy, let’s say, that is like a train’s Engine. But there are lots of other accompanying cars that get hitched to that Engine. Psychological pain, emotional doubt, a host of beliefs about the nature of that pain, and about yourself. It can become a very long train of cars. Somehow, and I don’t really know how she got to this place, she has become very good at uncoupling all the cars that can grow in a chain from that one Engine, and deal pretty much exclusively with that one thing: pain. Let me tell you about when she broke her hand last Summer.
We had a big series of fights up in Chiang Mai. It was big because at the time it was really hard to find enough fights to keep fighting at a high rate, a rate Sylvie believes is necessary to really grow as a fighter the way she wants to. So we were reaching out to our old contacts up in Chiang Mai, which is 10 hrs away by car. Den at Lanna could set us up a fight, easy, but the pay was so bad, and the trip was so expensive in terms of gas and car, we were going to lose hundreds of dollars just to fight one fight. So instead, Sylvie booked three fights in 5 days, just so we could get close to breaking even. The problem was, promoters didn’t want to book all these fights together. A single injury would screw up their cards. So it was all done on very shaky ground. The one thing we knew though, Sylvie had to show up to all these fights, if we wanted to ever do this again. Add to this whole bit of madness, Sylvie was at the last minute offered a fight in Hua Hin, located a little below Bangkok, just two days before her string of 3 fights in 5 days up in Chiang Mai was supposed to start (900 km away). This too felt like a fight we couldn’t turn down. When a promoter calls, you jump if you want to get more fights in the future. So the plan was, drive a few hours down to Hua Hin, fight this good, much bigger fighter, and no mater what, win or lose, DON’T GET CUT. A cut would cancel all the Chiang Mai fights and pretty much sour our relationship with those promoters and dim the hope of fighting in Chiang Mai in the future.
As it turns out, Sylvie breaks her hand in the second round of the fight – which she ended up winning. She isn’t completely sure that it’s broken, but it is. It’s swelling up, she can’t turn a door knob. It’s fucked.
As it turns out, Sylvie breaks her hand in the second round of the Hua Hin fight – which she ended up winning. She isn’t completely sure that it’s broken, but it is. It’s swelling up, she can’t turn a door knob. It’s fucked. Long-story-short, she ends up going up to Chiang Mai to begin her 3 fights in 5 days gauntlet, resigned to just fight one-handed, and clinch as best she can. She ends up getting bashed in the first fight by Nong Ying, who had like 6 kg (13 lbs) on her, and CUT, and it kills the next two fights that had been booked. But this story isn’t how badass Sylvie is… it’s about how she treated her broken hand from the moment she broke it, in the hotel and in the 10 hour drive up to Chiang Mai.
She was completely focused on isolating the “pain” in it. Aside from icing it in the first 12 hours, she constantly was moving it, rotating it, using it. In the car, with the darkness of the Thai countryside racing by, she was absent-mindedly rotating her wrist, over and over and over. She was not going to let it freeze up. She needed it for the fight. She would test it against her open palm, seeing if it could take direct impact, feeling for the angle where the pain began and where it ended. She worked her hand, grabbing hold of things, using it in every way she could. Now, it’s not that she was toughing it through pain, ignoring pain. She was locating the pain, using the pain signal as her ultimate boundary. And she was uncoupling the mental cars that can get hooked up to that Engine.
Now, it’s not that she was toughing it through pain, ignoring pain. She was locating the pain, using the pain signal as her ultimate boundary. And she was uncoupling the mental cars that can get hooked up to that Engine.
It all didn’t work out. The two extra cards were canceled, we drove home defeated and broke. But she had already armed herself with a process, a way forward with her broken hand. And this is exactly how she trained with it. She was constantly tempering it and testing it. And she fought maybe 6 fights with it broken. Was this the smartest thing in the world? By regular measures, no. In fact, I’m pretty sure that she accidentally semi re-fractured it several times by throwing it out of habit, in training and in fights, and slowed its healing time. But this is about how Sylvie deals with injury, and more importantly pain. She takes the pain, the real pain, as her intimate guide. She wants to feel that boundary. So week after week, month after month, she had a very real sense of where her hand was at, the exact angles it could take impact on – the break occurred on a wonky overhand right. She became more and more aware of impact angles for that hand, and improved her right.
The result of all this pain watching was that she was led to barefist training. Boxers with broken hands often have recurring break issues, and Sylvie may very well have this in the future. But she was determined to change the way she struck, and to build confidence in the hand. Instead of over wrapping the hand in more and more tape, she took to the opposite: learning barefist training. The idea behind barefist training is that you can’t make a mistake on impact angles, you feel every tweak because you have no extra support. Instead you build confidence and resilience through the barefist on the bag. Now she does all her bag work barefisted, and her once-broken hand has an aura of confidence about it. People think you can’t strike barefisted, that you need all sorts of tape support. But it’s the opposite. You need all that tape support because you don’t strike barefisted. You don’t actually know your strikes.
The story of the broken hand is really but an illustrative example of the way that Sylvie has treated injury from the beginning. It’s not really about injury, but about pain. What is really interesting is that somehow Sylvie has reversed the common instinct about pain. Instinctively, when we feel pain we move away from it. Instead, she moves toward it; she seems to treat pain a little like people treat smoke. When you smell smoke, you don’t run from it, you move toward it. You want to find its source. Maybe its a small fire, maybe it’s raging. But if you really are going to be about controlling fire, you have to look it in its face.
With a big thing like a broken hand this feels stark or extreme, but really the hand was only an example of something she faces every single day. Every day her shins are in some state of dis-repair, there is swelling somewhere, skin torn somewhere, hip pain, slight shoulder separation. She is constantly exploring her pain, pushing towards the boundary of the pain itself. Importantly, she isn’t just ignoring it (though she does that too), she is carefully using movement to locate the pain, isolate it, and is busy unhooking all the mental cars that can get attached to the pain itself. So she never stops. She doesn’t stop training, she doesn’t stop fighting. It’s all one process, a process of development.
Fatigue, the Cousin of Pain
This being said, the way Sylvie has treated pain, she’s also treats fatigue. Instead of moving away from fatigue, she moves towards it. It’s an invisible body whose boundaries are often shifting, and don’t seem to always be telling you the truth. Like pain, fatigue can be a very real limit, but I think she learned that in order to understand and recognize true fatigue you have to pass through the boundaries of false fatigue, that is: fatigue that is telling you you can’t, when you can. If you don’t move towards fatigue, and want to feel its nature, it will fool you. Like pain, the sensation of fatigue can be a train Engine with a mile long of cars connected to it. It needs uncoupling. Sylvie likes to say: “People ask: ‘Why are you never tired?’…It’s not that I’m never tired, I’m ALWAYS tired. It just doesn’t matter.” I think for Sylvie tired becomes your friend. You discover things in tired. But I also suspect that this is something that occurs over years. You can’t just blow through exhaustion walls and discover things. You have to listen to tired, walk beside it. Move through it. Accept it. Pain and tired are family.
The Mental Game: How to Do Something You Don’t Understand
As a first hand observer, as remarkable as Sylvie’s long term pain and fatigue tolerances have grown to be, it does not measure to the changes she’s made in her mental training approach. The reason I say this is that Sylvie’s always been friendly to pain (her work ethic values take care of fatigue). Sylvie always could endure pain, probably since she was a child. The pain tasks of Muay Thai maybe only elevated those instincts and powers, giving them meaning, and a path. But from the beginning Sylvie had no aptitude for mental training, mental imagery, mental self-talk, the whole ball of wax of the mental game itself. Despite having a Sports Psychologist for a brother – who she interviewed here after she started making mental strides – the mental part just did not click. Despite (or maybe due to) having immensely rich powers of imagination, “visualizing” always fell flat for her. She read up on all kinds of powerful self-talk necessities, setting goals, focusing on the positive, reaching for successes, but most of it just rang false to her. She didn’t want to say super positive things about herself that she just didn’t believe. Part of this was maybe due to her already pronounced pain tolerances. Somehow she was able to endure because and through how hard she was on herself, mentally. To disengage from the harsh internal talk was to perhaps risk the entire pain surviving engine that was allowing her to train at a very high level.
But somehow, and to this day I am swept up with amazement at the change she was able to make in herself, something provided a tipping point. She just kept reading, and knowing that if she really was going to improve she was going to have to take control of the mental side of it all. She has traced a big moment of the change back to the Summer of 2014 after an embarrassing loss to Cherry Sityodtong and having to face the formidable (though young) Japanese champion Saya Ito in a Queen’s Cup fight…just three days later. As she tells it, she knew that nothing physical could change in 3 days time. The only thing that could change was mental. Those that follow her closely will recognize this story. She gave into mental training, focused on specific exercises, and in three days produced her biggest win to that date, overwhelming the heavily favored Saya Ito in the clinch.
My general human philosophy is that while I hope for the best from people, I expected people to follow their “nature”…and by nature I mean what they have habitually accustomed themselves to be.
For me, I was astounded. I cried after the fight. In fact I kind of cry writing these words. My general human philosophy is that while I hope for the best from people, I expected people to follow their “nature”…and by nature I mean what they have habitually accustomed themselves to be. And Sylvie was and has been a very harsh, negatively minded person to herself. She had ingrained so much of this talk she had a very hard time seeing the good and potential in herself. To fight like this, under these conditions (and she had already fought maybe 80 fights) is an incredible burden. You believe in nothing you are doing. You land a punch, it hurts your opponent…but you can’t see it…you are too worried that you looked off balance, or you “have no power”. The punches that can and should follow will not happen. You attempt a kick, you hit air… you stop kicking. A strike lands, you feel you have made an error, your energy goes down. It is extremely difficult to fight pessimistically. You are climbing against a current of your own negative review. That she fought and won against more experienced and often bigger opponents, under this kind of mental outlook, so many times, is just a huge testament to her heart. But when she hit that proverbial switch, and in those three days reached into her mental powers of positive thought, and dominated her opponent…it felt miraculous. We don’t have a “nature” we are stuck with. Through focused mental action, and mental training switches can be flipped.
Okay, so that was the beginning. She had tapped into something and it produced a win. But that just meant that the real, hard work lay ahead. I can’t imagine how difficult it was, but she slowly excavated the negative talk in her mind. She kept training diaries to monitor her internal dialogue and was shocked to find just how often she put herself or her situation down. She visualized – following various mental coach suggestions – new possibilities, and created skills with which to deal with negative thoughts when they came. And they came. It was (and is) an entire regime of mental tasks put on top of her own physical training which already was seriously loaded. And somehow she was able to disengage her brute powers of endurance and recovery from habits of negation and harshness – they were probably closely braided. I’m very sure that the task is not near complete, but the miles she’s come in this are gargantuan. I get to see her at her worst, when she is incredibly tired, or after a very difficult day, and I’m even now surprised how she rises above the possible negative, and relentlessly pursues the pragmatic and the hopeful. I can see her training in her words, but not only there. I can see it in her face, her posture, hear it in her voice. And slowly this is easing into her fighting style and freedom as a fighter. As she opens herself up, through very hard mental work, she seems to be learning new techniques and finesse differences at an accelerated rate. It’s no joke, it feels like breakthrough after breakthrough. I’ve never seen anything like it. “Driving with the emergency break on,” that’s how one mental training book described the effects of negative thinking. It’s like after over 130 fights there has been a technical dawning, like that language of Muay Thai is opening up for her…with the emergency break disengaged. People say: Why fight so much? Why? Because you learn things after fight 80, and after fight 100. Things you may never have known. This mental climb has been just enormous.
To be remembered though, this came through very hard, concrete and specific mental work. It wasn’t that a Light Bulb just went on. Sylvie’s capacity to focus on this work, while she is doing everything else, is remarkable to me…and necessary.
The biggest change out of all of this has been laughter. Sessions that in the past may have been testaments of endurance and overly critical diagnostics, now become finessed into fun, creativity and experimentation. If she is fortunate enough to fight 200 fights this change in tension will be a big factor in contributing to the capacity to do so. This may be the ultimate lesson of all.
It’s the backup Engine that you know will always kick in when all else fails, when you want to give up, or others want to give up on you. I think Sylvie (and perhaps other fighting women too), have an immensely powerful Dark Engine, gears that just know how to churn no matter what – some rely on the Dark Engine more than others.
The Dark Engine, The Bright Engine
I think when you are a sculptor and the clay you are working with is your own pain and fatigue, your own limitations, it is very tempting, and even extremely useful to rely on your “Dark Engine”. Your Dark Engine is the one that feeds off the fuel of your pain, off of the negative, the harshness of things. Everyone has a Dark Engine. It’s the backup Engine that you know will always kick in when all else fails, when you want to give up, or others want to give up on you. I think Sylvie (and perhaps other fighting women too), have an immensely powerful Dark Engine, gears that just know how to churn no matter what – some rely on the Dark Engine more than others. The two elements above, working with physical pain and with negative thoughts are examples of working with the stuff of the Dark Engine. I think the deep challenge for everyone with a powerful Dark Engine is to learn how to switch the Bright Engine on. This is the most interesting thing about fighting for me, about watching my wife Sylvie fight, and train to fight. There is only so much that can be accomplished with the Dark Engine grinding away powerfully in low, negative gears. Fighting, ultimately, requires that the Bright Engine turn on. It requires that you begin to express yourself and hunt for freedoms. If you fight long enough, if you fight enough fights, you begin to see the difference between the Dark Engine and the Bright Engine. I think, somehow, Sylvie’s struggles with physical pain and mental attitude originally were working with the Dark Engine on. There was nothing that could stop her, no mental pain she would not grind through, no matter how difficult. But really finding the boundary and the path along the border of those things engaged the Bright Engine, woke it up, and created an entirely different possibility for fighting and training – and Engine that feeds on the fuel of brightness, freedom of moment, open direction. The Dark Engine will forever be on, running in idle, for some people. With both engines running the entire trajectory changes. This is what I believe is happening. In the end, I think this is what technique means. It is the form of adjustment under pressure, the beauty and the mind of a small movement, position or angle, that hoists all that energy toward the desired result. Somehow Sylvie has found the techniques of pain, and of thoughts, channels through which Muay Thai is asked to flow. Count me as unbelievably impressed.
If you’d like to read more in my Husband’s Point of View series click here.