Let’s talk about fear for a moment. There was a time when fear grabbed my jacket before I’d even left the house. My pulse would rise, the bottom of my stomach would fall and I’d walk to Judo with a sick feeling. I was the fat kid. No, not even the fat kid, I was the fat, 35 year old nerd who had no business whatsoever stepping onto the mat with chiselled young gods and goddesses with biceps, pectorals and all those other things that I’d successfully buried under a couple of decades worth of chocolate and pie.
That fear, to my tremendous surprise, has faded. I didn’t even notice it go. It left a friend though; the simple fear of reinjuring myself. I go on about this I know, but its been close to four months that I’ve been working with a busted wheel. It’s better, almost completely better but I still can’t kneel properly, still can’t move quite right, still don’t trust myself with the injured knee. There was a twang, and there was a scream and nothing has been quite the same since.
Then there’s the fear of getting beaten up. Make no mistake, I am 6’1 and over 300 pounds, but I’ve been frightened of fighting my entire life, for two reasons. The first is that, well, I’m a nerd. I talk, I actually talk for a living on some levels and the idea of solving a problem by beating someone up is something which I find massively unsettling and, well, a little uncouth.
Then there’s the other fear. Because I’m Big you see. I’ve been Big my entire life, a little too big for the world. I break things sometimes, or used to, because my spatial awareness wasn’t great because, well, I’m Big. You have to be careful when you’re Big. Careful and patient and you must never, ever under any circumstances lose your temperature. Because not everyone else is Big and if you lose your temper with someone who isn’t Big you could hurt them very badly.
I’m Big. I’m Clever. The two sometimes feel mutually exclusive.
So I’m scared when I step onto the mat. It makes sense, because fundamentally what you’re doing is learning to hurt people. And they’re learning to hurt you. And sometimes when people learn they make mistakes. And sometimes those mistakes lead to twanging. And screaming. And four months of physio.
I do it anyway. This may be bravery. It may be masochism. I prefer to think of it as a healthy respect for my art and my fellow students. And also maybe a little fear.
I’ve been scared recently for a different reason and it’s a slightly embarrassing one. I’m tough. Not in that ‘Can be punched many times without being hurt’ way but rather that I’m difficult to hurt. I’ve been seriously ill maybe three times in my life and seriously injured exactly twice. The first time I broke my arm by literally falling off the ground and the second involved a twang and a scream.
I’m scared of getting hurt again. Because I’m a cynic, and because whilst the black dog doesn’t live at the bottom of my garden he certainly plays there and most of all because I understand story on a genetic level. Now is the perfect time for our hero (Who in ths instance is me) to be seriously injured again just before he completes his recovery. In fact, the only time that’s more narratively smart for me to get injured again is less than a week before a tournament.
The thing I’m scared of is randori because randori is free practice and that means it can’t be predicted. Someone will turn the wrong way, push the wrong way, you’re as likely to do the same and before you know it it’s back to the bottom of the rehab ladder. So I don’t spar, apart from select circumstances and when I do I’m slow, I’m clumsy, I’m cautious.
Let’s talk about caution and violence for a moment. Caution in any martial art is a good thing. Fundamentally, you’re doing a combat sport, you’re fighting someone, and whilst the ‘storm in and blitz them’ approach works in the short term, it won’t work forever. No one’s Rocky, no one has fists of stone or muscles of granite. Everyone gets tired, everyone makes mistakes and everyone gets shut down when they do. So caution’s good, caution’s your friend, up to a point.
That point is when you freeze up and that’s where our old friend fear makes a return. Make no mistake, Judo is scary. Any combat sport is scary, but for me, at least there’s something visceral and frightening about the loss of control inherent in Judo. Your opponent isn’t just trying to beat you, they’re trying to throw you off your feet, hyper extend a joint until you can’t take the pain, choke you unconscious or just hold you still for twenty five seconds. Fighting hurts. Judo hurts.
So there goes the fear again, as the Doves once sang, and the way you deal with it is the way you deal with all fear. You face it. You look it in the eyes and you prepare for pain. You accept that pain, and the fact it won’t and can’t last forever, you can face your fear.
I sparred this week. More than I have for almost four months. I had two standing fights with no ground work and I lost one and won one. I threw a blue belt with Tai Otoshi, the throw that injured me, and it felt great. I turned, yanked, he sailed through the air in a perfect circle and landed on his back. My knee stung, a little, once.
I sparred on the ground too. Three times. I won two and I lost one. Groundfighting is the closest Judo gets to striking forms for me, because it’s there that things get fast. You and your opponent grapple for position, legs get thrown odd places, arms lock and you roll and turn and struggle until one of you is pinned, one of you taps or you’re both exhausted.
That last one happened. I was sparring with a black belt about six years my junior. I’ve worked with before, he’s a good guy, and like a lot of people cross trains with us and Brazilian Jujitsu. BJJ is Judo without the standing work and it excels at moving your opponent on the ground and locking in a never ending stream of extremely painful holds. I excel at being put IN extremely painful holds so I wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence when we started and locked up.
He turned under me, locked his legs around my arm and extended. This is an armbar. It’s the thing that, at the moment, former Judo Olympian Ronda Rousey is using to destroy her Mixed Martial Arts opponents as fast as possible. It hurts.
I stood up out of it. Just put my mass behind it and pulled and got my arm clear. I closed on him, put him down, got one of his shoulders on the mat and just ground. I have a lot of mass and I’m not scared to use it anymore so I pushed him into the ground, looked for a couple of holds, never quite got either and he tried his level best to get out of them.
The drill got stopped. I sort of slumped off him and we lay there for a moment before he patted my arm and said something which I think was ‘nice one’. I may have grunted. My heart rate was up. I was gasping for breath, my throat was dry and I’d not won.
But I had fought. Five half matches in one session, two good throws, a good solid choke attempt, some welcome tips from higher belts and exhaustion. Together those don’t just add up to victory, they add up to something better. Hope, possibility and the very real knowledge that I’m making progress, that I’ve earned my place on the mat. All of it, the pain, the anxiety, the fear, the caution, all of it is worthwhile because of that.