January 18th 2010
I’ve been ill for the last four weeks, with something which if it wasn’t swine flu certainly knew where swine flu lived. It’s been hugely frustrating at times, because by nature, I’m pretty robust. I get ill maybe twice a year, get very ill once every decade or so and hopefully this is my big illness for the next few years. Regardless, the end result is a hacking cough, having to take naps in the afternoon and not being able to get to Judo. To make matters worse, every successive week meant that the psychological barrier to going back got a little higher and the words written on it got a little bigger. Words like; fat, overweight, unfit, failure, coward. I wasn’t good enough, I would never be good enough and there was no point even trying to be because I was ill. Better to stay at home, watch TV, read, get more sedentary, get slower. The worst elements of me, standing across the mat, telling me there was no point us even sparring because I would lose
I went. I went and each step towards the station where I was going to meet Steve was exactly as hard as the ones before it. So, I did what I’m trying to do at every stage of this process; be honest. I told Steve I was nervous, I told him I still wasn’t quite well and he sympathised, suggested I take it a little easy and, like any good training partner, kept me moving. We got to the gym and got changed and the first major event of the evening took place; I put on my gi to train for the first time.
A gi is the traditional white outfit worn when practicing Judo. It’s a pair of thick white trousers and a huge jacket with a slightly quilted collar that runs all the way down the body. You tie your belt around your waist and, provided you’re not wearing jewellery, shoes, socks or, if you’re a man, a t-shirt underneath it, you’re set. My gi, and I’m deeply satisifed about this, is a little storied. It’s actually a Karate gi for a start, inherited from Steve after he bought a new one and it fits pretty well which is a relief all by itself. The one exception is the trousers which fall down pretty much instantly at the moment, so for now, my ‘gi’ is in fact my gi jacket. That’s fine, that’s what draw strings are for.
What’s interesting is how putting the jacket on changed my mindset. It’s not that I wasn’t frightened anymore, it’s that I felt…equipped. There was no ego boost, no stirring music and moment of ‘YES, I will win local contests in this jacket one day’, just a sense of being…armoured. Ready. Equipped. No longer quite as much of an outsider.
Because make no mistake, I feel like one sometimes. I’m a 34 year old overweight nerd with appalling eyesight, a lingering cough and cardio vascular fitness which is better than it should be for someone my size but remains uniquely unsuited to fighting anyone, at half speed, for more than fifty seconds. The last time I went, I wrestled a marine. Who was also a fireman. This is not even a little inside my comfort zone.
But I went, and I showed up and we got told that we’d be put in with the main group for the first time and at no point did I whimper. For the last two sessions I’d attended, Steve and I had been off to one side, being walked through basic techniques and breakfalls at a gentle pace by Phil, one of the black belts who specialised in training beginners. It was hard work but it was relaxed, focussed on the technique rather than the environment to execute it in.
The rhythm of training with the main group was completely different. Instead of two or three techniques split over ten minute chunks and finishing with a little sparring, all with the same partner, we went through three techniques, a counter to one of them and sparred using every single one. The pace was, for me, relentless, five minutes theory, five minutes practical and to make matters worse? We were going to rotate partners. I’d be fighting people other than Steve. I’d be trusting other people to not hurt me. They’d be trusting me, and remember, 34 year old mole-eyed overweight nerd, to not hurt them. I was concerned and it didn’t matter, because, as it turns out, sometimes, inexperience is a good defence.
The technique the main club were taught first is called seo nage. It’s an iconic Judo throw where you grab your opponent’s arm, turn into them and pivot them over your shoulder and straight down into the mat. If you land it properly, if both their shoulders hit the mat? You win. It’s an amazing technique, visually impressive, requiring great strength and completely outside our abilities.
So instead we got taught koshinage, the hip throw, which is another iconic Judo throw. Here, you step into your opponent, grab their back and roll them over your hip into the mat. Like a lot of techniques it’s simple and elegant and done right? It’s brutally effective. It’s also, on my current skill level, very difficult to practice. Steve and I are the tallest, bulkiest people there by a good margin and that, combined with our inexperience, meant that it wouldn’t be entirely safe for us to try this on the rest of the group yet or, more importantly, for them to try and practice on us. So, we walked through the four basic movements a few times, and Steve got it pretty quickly and I…didn’t. It’s interesting because I’ve been aware, going into this, that there was an inevitable moment where one of us began to pull away from the other in terms of ability and this, combined with the fact that Steve is going to two lessons a week rather than one, gave me a choice between getting frustrated at him for going twice a week when I can’t, frustrated at me for not being Batman straight away or accepting it was going to take a while, that I had less than three hours instruction under my belt and that in time, things would change and I’d get better. All I had to do was keep moving, keep showing up, keep breathing.
We were put back into the group to be shown a sacrifice throw next and again, this, I just didn’t get. Like all the moves I’ve been shown so far, it’s surprisingly simple, four motions strung together which take you from standing in front of your opponent to shoving them forward, then back, then dropping them onto the mat first, you landing a split second later and covering them for a pin or submission attempt. Unless you’re me, in which case the four motions look a little something like this:
1.Grab your opponent’s arm and yank forwards.
2.Grab their belt at the back with the other hand.
When the instructor added in a variation where you actually run in front of your opponent and use that to aid the throw, I was completely at sea. Tall, overweight, older than most, fatter than pretty much everyone, no one’s head recognisable as anything other than a pink balloon, hot, sweaty, at the top edge of my endurance and with no idea how to do the thing everyone else could do. On the other side of the mat, the version of me that didn’t want to move in the first place smiled, I could tell even through the blur of my vision.
So I called Phil and asked whether we could go through it and we did and it sort of clicked. Judo has a grammar, it’s a language of push and pull, step and grab and turn and I’m starting to see the commonality of set up and execution even across the six or so moves I’ve been taught. By the end of the practice, I was starting to understand how the move fit together physically, if not how to execute it physically. The blocks are in front of me, I just have to arrange them A, B, C and D, if you like. The process has started, all I have to do is keep my eyes open, keep moving, keep breathing and most of all, know my limits. That’s what the other version of me uses, my limits, my fear, my lack of confidence. He uses them to get me to stay inside my comfort zone, colour in between the lines, don’t take risks. But what struck me, a few minutes into Monday’s session, was this; if I go up to my limits, if I push myself? Then stop? Take a breather. It’s not a failure, and it’s something which was directly addressed by Phil in the session. To be honest, I suspect I was pushing myself a little too hard, as on a couple of occasions, both he and Steve suggested I sit out for a minute and, as Phil pointed out ‘No one’ll thank you if you pass out in the middle of the mat.’ So, my big realisation this session was this; that I’m unfit, that I’m going to hit my limits before very nearly everyone else and that those limits? Will expand, literally as my lungs finally clear four weeks of flu gunk. Because all I have to do is, of course, keep breathing.
The thing is, though, that breathing is a little difficult when you’re in a fight. The sheer impact of your body slamming against your opponent’s, even before you throw or are thrown is hard, you’re always in motion, always looking to counter their attacks and launch your own. It’s a dance that isn’t choreographed and if you get a step wrong, then you lose the fight. That’s even before you get to the barely contained terror of watching someone swim into focus as they approach, arms up, eyes on you, intent on slamming you into the ground as hard and fast as possible. It’s a stress reaction as well, something which one of my opponents and the instructor told me afterwards, it’s terror as you tense up in fright at the thought of being thrown, being pinned, being hurt. Being beaten.
Those two words, in the week since the session have come to mean a lot to me. It passes. You’ll get better. There’s no judgment or expectation in there and that’s like looking at a clear sky for the first time. My whole life, physical activity has either been about getting a slot because I’m big enough or that size hanging like a millstone around my neck. I’m not confident in my body, let alone in a physical environment and it would be easy for the base level of competence at the club to frighten me off. It would be easy for the other me to win but I won’t let that happen. I can’t let that happen because I’m coming up on 35 and I want to be fit by the time I’m 40.
What’s fascinating is the other side of that coin, where I’m molly coddled. One of the things that got me through the session was the fact that every time we changed sparring partners, the instructor reminded people that we were white belts and not to try anything unusual that we might not know on them. The effect that had was startling; three of my opponents introduced themselves, asked what I knew and let me work through it. One of them tried a shoulder throw on me, got me exactly three inches off the ground and then gave up and I felt a certain joy in that. I was big. That would help. It was that thought I held onto, even as I staggered and retched off the mat.
It was only after I’d done that that I realised I hadn’t thanked my opponent. It was something I made a point of doing, because every time you spar, you’re being helped out, shown what to do, what not to do, what attacks to take and this guy, I hadn’t managed that with. To make matters worse, I now couldn’t distinguish him from any of the dozen or so pink balloon-headed gi-wearing people in the room. To make matters even worse, I apologised for not thanking him after the fight to the same guy. Who wasn’t the one I was looking for. Twice.
The final sparring session we did, known as randori, put me against someone I’ve not fought before who, after being told specifically to not try anything new on us, proceeded to throw Steve using tomoe nage, the classic Captain Kirk throw and me using seo nage. He threw me fast too and I hit the mat hard. Then got up, finished the bout, bowed to him and sat out for a minute. Be respectful, know your limits, breathe.
I finished the session sparring with one of the instructors and I was one of the last out. I found the guy I’d fought and not thanked and we got talking. He reassured me the breathing thing would come, told me how they’d taught kids to get over it at his old club and treated me like, for want of a better word, a fellow traveller. The instructor who’d taken the lesson was the last one out and he spent some time talking to me too, about how the sheer physical impact of body on body is hard and again, how the breathing will come. The last thing he said was asking if I’d be there on Friday and I told him no, but Monday for sure. He grinned, said he’d see me then and headed off.
I’m 34, I’m overweight, I have appalling eyesight and I’m unfit. But sitting there felt right, it felt like I’d put an obstacle at my back and the way was a little clearer. In the short term future are extra fitness programs like yoga on the wiifit and free running. In the mid term future is grading for my next belt, competing in a local tournament and beating the other version of me, the version that wants me to stay as I am. In the long term future? I have no idea. But as long as I keep breathing, I’ll get there.