The Material – Week 4 Mental Training
This is a part of a series of planned posts sharing my thoughts and experiences as I participate in a special mental training group of 12 designed and lead by Niyi Sobo.
This week is the one I’ve been most afraid of since starting out the 12 week program. It’s the week we start stating and finding strategies toward our goals. It’s actually the next couple weeks, because it’s a huge task. I don’t consider myself a “goal setter” in any real sense of that word. I hate making lists, I hate schedules, I don’t even really like plans. This isn’t an actual process or strategy on my own part, it’s more just that I avoid the constraint I feel surrounding all those things and have kind of learned to function in the periphery. I’m not sure that I “get this” from my dad in any kind of learned or passed-down type of way, but I’m like my dad in this way. He won’t even confirm dinner plans more than an hour in advance because he doesn’t want to commit to something if he ends up feeling like he doesn’t want to go later on. It’s all very “let’s see how I feel and go from there.” It’s not a good way to be, but it’s certainly not worse than overly-structured mindsets who freak out if they aren’t always on schedule. And, I’ll admit, I do live a very structured life in that I train like a madman every day in the same hours in the same gyms. I just don’t apply that structure to my future or my transformation very often.
Niyi’s process for setting goals isn’t a simple one. It’s very involved. Kevin has come on in the process to help me with this whole goal setting business because 1) he’s better at this stuff, he has an instinct for it that I value and 2) everything I do, we do together, so it totally makes sense to have him be part of this development as well. Kevin and I are a team, as a married couple we are in some ways opposites and in some ways very similar – but most important to any and all of that is that we see each other, for who and what we are. That can be very difficult at times, because Kevin doesn’t let me get away with shit that he knows I can be better at. But that’s a good thing too because without Kevin I would never be doing what I’m doing now. Kevin builds the roads, I’m the ultra-runner that covers the distances. What Niyi’s program involves at this point is a lot of that structural planning that Kevin is good at and I totally shy away from. In one of his instructional videos he put it really succinctly when he said, “if you want to build a house you don’t just go to Home Depot and buy a bunch of wood and nails and stuff to build a house with; you have to have a plan.”
I am so resistant to goal setting, despite having hit some very important and hard to achieve goals (like nearing 200 fights), that I quite honestly am that person who goes to Home Depot to buy a bunch of wood but don’t want to even figure out whether I’m building a tree house or a boat house. So sitting down and even just targeting a goal that excites me, that isn’t too low a bar (like, I want to spar every day this week) or too vague (like, I want to be better), caused me a great deal of stress. In the program, you have to identify your yearly goals, something you want to be true within 365 days, and quarterly goals, those things that will lead toward the longer term goals but kind of broken down. This works wonderfully for business type goals, like if you want to build your business to x-number of clients by next year then you need to have signed up y-number of clients by December 31st of this year. That kind of thing. But I’m not a business. I’m trying to be a great fighter, so I have to break down what the attributes of a great fighter are – as defined by me – and then figure out how to acquire and hone the skills I need in order to be closer to that ultimate vision. I think I intentionally keep it vague, for myself and for public expression, because it feels vulnerable to state a concrete vision or goal that can then be missed. You want to be a famous actress and then you never get a part, we’re taught that’s embarrassing and a failure. So to want to be a great fighter, what if I’m never great? What if I never get there? You set a number like 100 fights and you can count them, it’s on paper, it’s math. But just like fighting a great fight, which isn’t the points or the numbers, is something that comes out of a freedom of expression, so is being a great fighter. I look at Karuhat, Namkabuan or Dieselnoi and nothing about their greatness is numbers on paper – they have those, wins and belts and whatever, but I don’t care. It’s in watching them, in feeling their fights as they fight them, or watching them move now. So I’m comfortable saying “I want to be Karuhat,” but it’s less comfortable to define what that means and even more uncomfortable to break down into component parts how to go about collecting the Infinity Stones that will complete my Guantlet of ultimate power… so to speak. So when I set elbows as a goal, I’m like the player in a game who has to complete the first level – acquire the pieces of the puzzle or learn how to use the weapon that will propel her to the next level. How do you do that?
Niyi uses this phrase that I really like in order to get you to think about the component parts of your tasks. “What do you want to be true by the end of the quarter (4 months)?” What do I want to be true about myself? That’s how you find your values, your beliefs, that key into your vision. I want it to be true that I want to elbow in a fight. I want it to be true that when I feel that want, I respond to it by elbowing. I want it to be true that my elbows are so accessible to me under that pressure that I can throw a lot of them, accurately, that I can cut my opponents, but I also want it to be true that I want to cut them, because right now I have mental hangups that are in the way. I want it to be true that I become an elbow fighter, that they become a recognizable and identifiable attribute in my fighting, the way my knees are. So how do I get there? I have to work on my mind, I have to work on how I feel when I throw elbows in practice so that I start to feel really good – and then the want will be there and the feeling good will also feel good in a fight. Kevin and I decided that step one is throwing 1000 elbows, every single day, for 3 months. That will get me more comfortable in space, understanding distances and flow, mapping the movements on to my body and allowing elbows to become part of my rhythm. Like learning how to control breath, I’m learning how to control the flow for elbows. Yodkhunpon is a strong advocate for “playing with air” (what he calls shadowboxing) as a means to develop and become prolific in elbows and footwork. He’s the “Elbow Hunter of 100 Stitches,” so I reckon he knows what he’s talking about. But then I also have to get those elbows into the ring with me, so we set a quarterly goal of cutting 3 opponents in a row. So, if I cut one opponent and then not the next one, I have to start over. The aim, of course, is to become the kind of fighter who feels the desire to elbow in the moment, and have done enough practice to be the kind of fighter who can act on that desire in that same moment. Level 1 in the game of acquiring the weapons and skills required to be a fucking incredible fighter.
With each goal you write down you have to break it down into pieces. So you have to identify what you’d have to believe in order to achieve it. You have to figure out what values you have that will propel you toward this goal and anticipate the chokeholds and obstacles you’ll come across as you try to achieve it, and therefore you have to plan for how you’ll address those problems as they arise. Figure out how much wood you’ll need, as well as have a plan for if some of your planks are too short or if the neighbors complain about noise, etc. Plan for everything so you’re not pushed too far off-track when issues arise.
So that’s the practical part of the week that’s been difficult. Just the sheer investment in time and effort in working through the files that help you break down and plan out your goals. They’re amazingly detailed and if you actually commit to figuring out what your beliefs are and what they need to be in order to answer those questions, you’re setting yourself up for a very good chance of achieving your goals. If you just fill out the blank spots with whatever leaps to mind (“if I run out of nails I’ll go buy more nails”), you’re wasting time. Your time. Kevin and I have been really dedicating ourselves to the process of the paperwork. It’s hard on Kevin because he’s making me do a lot of the thinking, like a parent helping a kid with homework but forcing her to come up with the answers instead of just doing the project himself. And I’m like a frustrated kid, so it’s stressful for both of us but it’s nice to be working together. On my part, the emotional response I have to this kind of mind-shift is pretty intense. My brain does not work this way and, in fact, I’ve developed as a person to actively resist this kind of process.
On Saturday morning I was sitting on the cold tile floor of a hotel in Hua Hin. Kevin was asleep and Jaidee had decided to pass out on the floor somewhere between the bed where Kevin was sleeping and the hall where I was seated, kind of splitting the difference between the two of us. We were in Hua Hin to see Kaensak and train with him for my Patreon Muay Thai Library and I was up at 6:00 AM for a “live Q & A” with Niyi and other members of the mental training group, which is something he offers as a way to keep us on track and help direct us if we need it between our weekly calls. I’d just expressed to the group how difficult I was finding the past two weeks, mostly because the sheer amount of emotional work – for me, because of where I’m coming from – was indicating to me that this is very significant and valuable work for me. As I was sitting there on the floor, listening to the other people in the group talk about their various degrees of completion for the week, I came up with this comparison that I thought was really good. So I’m going to finish this post with it as a way to illustrate why this transition is so difficult for me.
Imagine you’re an athlete with an injured knee. Like, long-time, chronic injury that you haven’t treated but instead have learned to work around. You’re still active and it’s pretty impressive all you’ve accomplished or achieved with a bum knee – you’ve complete marathons on it, you still play basketball on a team… whatever, but you do all this with pain and inconvenience and maybe a kind of limp that some people can detect from time to time. That’s me and my ability to achieve some pretty huge landmark goals with the kind of allergy to planning that I’ve worked with for years. But then you see a doctor who says she can fix your knee and you’ll be super-human with the new tendon or whatever they’re going to put in there. Great. You get the surgery and now you don’t have to limp anymore because that developed out of having to adjust to the injury. But you still limp because that’s how you walk – you’ve developed other muscles in order to accommodate that bum knee and now your gait is a little wonky since you don’t need to walk that way anymore. And you just had surgery so you’re recovering and you can’t go straight back to whatever sport it was you were doing – running marathons or whatever – and you have to spend some time, significant time and effort, just learning to walk again. Picture the exact wrong mindset for this: thinking, “damn, man; I’m supposed to be super-human after this surgery but I can’t even walk. What’s wrong with me that I can’t even walk?” You feel like you’ve gone backwards or like you’re right back at the beginning. The right mindset, of course, is that you have to make adjustments to the new knee and once you’re healed and have done the physical therapy, then you will be stronger than before. That’s me in this process, but I’m of both minds. At times I’m incredibly frustrated and yelling at myself for not being able to walk. This process is supposed to take me to another level, just fucking imagine how awesome and unstoppable I can be if I can actually set goals and write out all the steps to achieve them – it’s like having a healthy knee! But I’m learning how to walk and I’m nostalgic for my limp, I was “getting by” on the crap knee. It’s frustrating to have to start from such a low rung on the ladder, but it’s a good thing, too. Hard, but good.