We start off with a leap into the dark when we begin our martial arts journey, not knowing what lies ahead, but not fearing its form either. We join the gym for a year and get the required equipment over the months, an orb of joy glowing when we buy our first hand wraps, pair of gloves, our first set of Gi, our first pair of shinguards. How long will they last us? We have no idea; we are just glad enough to have our own gear, finally part of the tribe, looking the part even if we do not move like the part.
The days pass. They become months. Maybe a year or two. It is a habit now, reporting to Onyx MMA, 3 to 4 evenings a week, grabbing the ropes and tuning out for 15 minutes as a warm-up. We start being able to do more than before. 50 kicks used to be intolerable, now 50 double-kicks will get us panting, but we have a facade to maintain now. We do a little bit more, like a run before trainings and staying after to ask the trainers questions, or extra work on the bags/the mats. Deep inside, we think, maybe we could do more? Maybe we could go further? Maybe we could compete? We do our best and wonder if we could be up there on the ring as well, one day.
So we continue training, harbouring both hope and hesitancy in our hearts. By then, the determination has cooled into a steel rod, silent and strong and unyielding. It will be nice to get out there one day. Some day. And one day out of the blue, the coach approaches and asks in an offhand manner, if we would like to join the fight team. The coach watches on in confusion as we do an exuberant celebratory dance and wonders if he/she has made the wrong decision… But no matter, here was a chance! To prove our worth, to train more intently and purposefully, to get a shot at walking out with the gym’s name on our backs.
But the going is tough, and the progress is slow. The days pass. They are filled with runs, jump knees, hundreds of roundhouses, hundreds of push kicks, hours of clinching, hours of pad work. They become months. We improve (we hope), but it doesn’t feel enough. It never does feel enough. We sort out one aspect,—shifting our weight on the front foot to execute the roundhouse— but leave out the other— dropping the guard, an elementary mistake. It is like piecing together a puzzle, and finding the jigsaw pieces in different rooms, one jagged corner at a time. What may feel worse, which is difficult to voice because we are all on the same team: other people who have joined the fight team later having a competition lined up before us. When our muscles and nerves are frayed from the constant training, the constant proving of our worth, everything feels intensely personal and tender.
Through this cycle of draining and refilling, we build ourselves up physically and mentally and emotionally. The motivation ebbs and flows; it just has to flow more than it ebbs. When your trainer tells you it is not the time for you yet, listen, even if it is difficult to hear through the self-doubts and anxieties. When your trainer tells you to train for a longer period of time, train first. When your trainer tells you not to compete this round or placed you on the “bench” from the fight team, cry it out and then do as they say. Because ultimately, martial arts is not a game. A competition is not just a decked out sparring session; it is a showdown between people who have serious intentions about landing blows on each other. Even though the words hurt, their opinions hurt, our trainers mean well and only want the best for us. They have been through it before, the whole process of being built up and broken down. They have seen it play out all those years before, and all the years in between since, on themselves, their friends, their community, their fighters. Sanding people down to their core, that’s what a discerning trainer does.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the trainer’s judgment is final and unalterable. Talk to them, talk to the other trainers, get their feedback, find out why they think that way, what they view is lacking. Maybe it is just a slight tweak that we need. Maybe it is showing that we can dish the straw to break someone’s back (figuratively, not literally). We stand alone in the ring, but the consequences of the fight are a collective responsibility, shouldered by the trainers, by the gym, by the people who have poured their souls and time into our preparation. It is not a drill. There is real pain to be felt; our trainers are just protecting us from unnecessary ones.
So, even if it deals a blow to the ego, when your trainer tells you not yet, they mean you well. There is no shame in not being ready yet, or taking a longer time to compete. The glory is in the journey; the honour is in the struggle. Patience is a quality that is difficult to practise in this fast-moving world. And it stings, the inevitable comparisons to other people. But stick with it, even if it hurts, especially if it hurts. After all, we had started off with a leap into the dark all those months ago; there is a compass somewhere within. We just have to trust in ourselves and in our trainers to guide us along the way. That day will come.