Fear of Looking Bad | Freedom and the Art of Letting Loose
Part of what makes Jaidee such a good companion for me is that he sleeps on an Olympic Gold level. He can nap and laze around for hours and when it’s time for me to nap in the day between sessions he’s a real champ of a partner, curling up with me and stealing my pillow. But what’s really amazing about Jaidee is his running. He’s not a “good” runner by any means, when I try to run with him in the mornings he rarely makes it a few kilometers before starting to drag; distance wise, Jaidee is a sub-par runner. Sprinting is something else. When Jaidee rips around off-leash it is something incredible to behold. No dog that we’ve encountered can keep up with him, he’s just so fast. His skin gets pulled back across his face and his doggy lips peel back to a wind-tunnel type grin while his tongue just flops around the sides. He’s like Flash, the fastest man alive, just this blur of black and white as he zips by.
One of my favorite things about fighting in Chiang Mai now that we don’t live there anymore is running with Jaidee up the mountain to the waterfall. There’s a turn off the main road that leads to the falls, about 3 km straight up from the mountain path. Because it’s off the main road and lined with jungle on either side, I can let Jaidee off the leash and let him run zig-zags and laps around me while I keep a steady pace up the path. If I counted up all his erratic zips to and fro on that run, he’d cover way more than the 6 km straight up and down. The freedom with which he runs when he can just spaz out, sprint here and there, go ahead and come back to get me and then take off again… I can feel how much it taps into his nature. I can feel how much his little doggy mind and heart just explode with pure joy in those moments. I feel it, too, like a ripple.
Lately in my own development as a fighter I’ve come to realize how much I stand in my own way, mentally. A lot of folks have a fear of gassing out or of pain, both of which are kind of the “starter kit” of inexperienced fighters – these are the first fears you encounter. I’ve never really been afraid of either of those things, but my great fear has remained steady from my first fight until now: the fear of looking foolish. Maybe because I’m a “pleaser” who cares way too much about making my trainers proud of me, or at the very least an acceptance from them, my mind gets really focused on not messing up or looking like an ass in the ring. Instead of looking like an unskilled whirlwind, which I imagine with horror, I end up looking like a hesitant zombie. Honestly, in Thailand the brawler with heart is valued over the meticulous creeper. But I don’t train this way. I make mistakes in training all the time – all the time – and I laugh about it. When I get tripped or punch myself in the face with my own attempted uppercut in training, it’s hilarious. I don’t find those things funny in the context of a fight (and they don’t happen in fights), but if you put my fights and my training side-by-side, my training is free and my fights are restricted.
On my most recent run with Jaidee, watching his little rat-back arch as he scurried to and fro on the path, I started thinking about these rare moments when he can really just let go. I also thought of Karuhat. He’s my idol and watching him fight makes my face melt with how excited I get by practically everything he does. One of his best moves is this really short, aggressive upward elbow in the clinch. He’s a small guy – very close to my size – and when he fought opponents bigger than himself these elbows just shredded the faces of his taller foes. I thought to myself, “Karuhat definitely wasn’t throwing those elbows in training,” as he’d run out of training partners fast. Instead, he must kind of feint them or allude to them in his mind or in small movements, but it’s in the fight that he really gets to throw them. Like Jaidee off his leash on the waterfall run, it’s in the fight that Karuhat is most free and unrestricted. This is so obvious, but it was an epiphany at that moment for me. I have it backwards: training is when you have to control your power or not fully connect with the elbow or knee, but a fight is when you get to be off-leash; when it’s okay to hurt someone for real, to throw 100% and give it everything you’ve got. When the gloves go on, the gloves come off.
I think connecting this Karuhat expression in his fights to Jaidee ripping around the path on the mountain really drove home to me the importance of this kind of freedom. In my mental training I recently discovered that I was only really focusing on what I wanted to do in a fight right before the fight, rather than focusing on all the things I want to do in fights when I’m training and then rely on that training to be able to just let go in fights. Because my fear is looking “bad,” whatever that means, I end up holding it in and that is what looks bad. If I brought Jaidee to the waterfall run and he kind of carefully navigated the paved path up the mountain, I’d think he didn’t really care for the run at all. In fact, on the 5 km run from the camp to the turn off from the road, Jaidee has to be on the leash and he’s basically just looking miserable and trying to keep up on the uphill climb. Once we turn off the main road and I unhook his leash, however, it’s like all that feigned misery just falls away and he zooms around like he’s been fired out of a gun. It’s his complete goober face and lolling tongue that let me know how happy he is; it’s his non-grace that makes me want to watch him go nuts because I can feel how free he is. It makes me happy to see him so unchained. And that’s what I love about Karuhat, too. I don’t think, “oh wow, he really controlled that kick,” instead I jump up and down and get breathless watching him because he really lets those kicks and elbows fly. They’re beautiful and accurate because he’s so experienced and the technique is beautiful, but it’s not “controlled.” It’s barely controlled, and that is exciting. It’s the difference between dutifully plugging away up the mountain and then just burning out to empty when the chain comes off. I love fighting. I fucking love fighting, but when I try to control everything and be “technical” or not make mistakes, I rob myself of the chance to really run free. It’s also less fun to watch. I think that this realization comes down to understanding context; I’m tugging on the leash and tangling the rope when I’m training, but then I’m too well-behaved when the leash comes off. In the words of Willy Wonka, “stop; reverse that.”
Read more about this run in Chiang Mai: The Power of the Path
Check out all my Mental Training Articles