Return to the ring, part II

Last time I laid out the themes that were informing my preparations for returning to the Savate ring for the first time since winning the World Championships last year. Here, on the voyage home, I reflect on what came to pass.

Part II – homeward bound

I am writing the concluding part of this piece lying in the padded windowsill of a cross channel ferry from Calais back to Dover. The bright winter sun is warming my face through the glass and an endless series of emerald green waves and white horses are rolling towards the boat, crashing against the flat metal hull beneath me and causing a pleasing spray.

“A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection”. Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk 1

The setting might be expected to put me in a philosophical mood, not least because I am reading Kierkegaard when not attending to writing. But the second purpose behind describing the weather is its bearing on my travel plans. Yesterday, storms and high winds delayed my outbound trip and nearly managed to cancel it. In the end it was frustratingly and expensively rerouted. In more ways than one, I am now experiencing the calm after the storm.

I won twice in two matches in Outreau yesterday at a competition called the Coup de Joel Feucher. Echoing the conditions of my voyage that morning, it wasn’t all plain sailing. I felt stiff, not in control and thought I did not do myself justice. Maybe that last bit is not entirely true, as follows.

The difficulties I experienced I attribute to facing high quality opposition and to a lack of depth in my own preparation. The strikes against me seemed to come out of nowhere: I wasn’t able to anticipate them. My opponents were highly skilled and able to discharge their weaponry to precise effect, but this doesn’t account for my lack of awareness. That is explained, I think, by me failing to look my foes in the eyes. As I have explored before, to (focus) properly on the opponent is to have the chance to know their inner state, perhaps glimpse their intentions and thus to select the right defence or attack for the moment. In possession of this information, my anxiety subsides. Even if I am not able to respond effectively, at least I act from a position of knowledge and I am not caught unaware.

From experience I know that when I feel unaware it is because I am concentrating too much on myself and not enough on my opponent. I do this, I believe, out of fear. Fear that I might not be able to contain them, fear that I might lose, fear that I won’t be good enough. A human face is an intimidating thing to behold and it takes guts and a certain self-belief to look deeply at someone. Clearly I need to examine my fears in more detail before the next outing. When I sit comfortably with my fears, I can concentrate on my opponent’s eyes, react accordingly and be strong enough to let the chips fall where they may. In a sense I tried to protect myself this time by not reaching openly into the encounter. I stayed on the surface, not getting to the bottom of things. This may be accounted for by a paucity of sparring opportunities over the Christmas break, putting me out of practice, but the psychological explanation complements the practical one. Plus it tells me something about myself – which is, over and above winning, my real purpose in competing.

In redemption, even if I didn’t plumb the depths of my fears, I think I applied close to full competitive effort this time. In part I, I discussed the need for humility in order to be able to rally full effort. I wasn’t fighting my best, as I explained above, but I utilised everything that I had available that day. The resulting work ethic was what carried my fights. Rather than holding back to keep my performance error-free or to preserve self-esteem, I seized the moment and kept at it. I wasn’t going to give anyone an easy time. There is a sense in which this was papering over my fears, but I still feel it was the right thing to do. I went for the win rather than for perfect technique and that without a moment’s hesitation. This is the lesson I learnt en route to the World Championships – to put everything into the ring without concern for what is at stake. On a few occasions I saw that my adversaries were bothered by the work rate made possible by this attitude.

From Outreau I take two opposites of weather and two lessons for future preparation. 1. Regardless of the storm, keep going. Whilst sailors might need to be more circumspect about such steadfastness, I have found it applies to the competitive encounter. 2. There are hidden fears that I must attend to before the next outing. I shall engage in deeper meditations and a more probing look at my inner state between now and the next time I lace up my boots.

With thanks to Bertrand, Boxe-Francaise Le Portel, Kamel, Smael, Michel, Sian and Vittorio for being part of it (respectively for being great hosts, opponents, corner and cameraman).

1 Vintage, London, 2006

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