My involvement in martial arts came across by chance. I was recovering from a knee reconstruction and needed something to motivate me to get fit and strong again. A martial arts gym 200m from my house is where I began.
Training in mixed fitness classes for a year or so, my interest started to grow at a rapid pace and I started to take a real interest in learning the more technical side of boxing and eventually trying Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), it became a healthy addiction. I was never too interested in changing my body – I became much more concerned with working out ways to strengthen, challenge and better myself and in turn, this led me to a swift return to full contact sports and a new sense of self-belief.
For me personally, the benefits of training martial arts go well and truly beyond anything that can be seen physically, and by that I mean how your body responds (i.e. losing fat, gaining muscle) to the stress you choose to place on it. I have always been a very outspoken, confident person but funnily enough, training in martial arts has created a version of myself I would have once thought was impossible.
Not caring about how I look in any sense – my wavy hair usually looks like a bird's nest after (and possibly before) training – very recently I had 3 people at the hairdresser trying to untangle a huge knot encompassing half the hair on my head and I thought I was going to have to cut it off. I rarely wear make-up and sometimes people ask me, “Are you sick?” “Did you sleep last night?” – I am almost always healthy and well-rested, thank you.
Even a close school friend was trying to set me up on a date a few weeks ago and politely said “You do know you’ve got to like, make a bit of an effort” *insert her palm circling motion at me to reflect the embodiment of giving no fucks*. Despite giving you the impression that martial arts has made me filthy in appearance, some of the only things I take pride in is eating, having lots of showers, having an infinite supply of clean washing and deciding what gym outfit I am going to wear (ain’t no staph risk here!).
Important questions I often ask myself before packing for the gym - what gi/rashie do I choose, what sneakers can I wear, have you brushed your teeth, what socks feel nice in my boxing shoes, how can I style my hair to keep it out of my eyes and mouth?
I am known for having an endless supply of patterned tights, all of which end up costing a lot of money. Material things are nice to have and wear but paired with the not-so-optional expenses such as equipment for training, physiotherapy, remedial massage and other medical expenses associated with injuries and maintenance, I can really understand why most professional athletes who give up their 9-5 jobs begin (and often continue) with a real struggle to make ends meet. I know it’s tough, and I am a nobody.
All of those ‘important’ questions you ask yourself before the gym are not in any way important when you see others have it much tougher than you, exhausted from training people all day and then finding energy to train themselves, watching parents juggle training with taking care of their children, seeing people spend what little money they earn travelling abroad to compete internationally and follow their dreams.
My own stupid questions end up being miniscule in comparison and the least of my worries when I can’t walk up the stairs to my office at work because I’ve busted my knee/s, I can’t type well because I’ve torn ligaments in my fingers, I can’t keep my head up straight or my chin tucked because I’ve developed chronic neck pain and when I am feeling good I would really just rather be training.
I genuinely admire those who give up their jobs to focus on training. Surely being a fighter stems from much more than just love for what you do. Immense commitment, giving your chosen sport every ounce of dedication and time you have can only derive from a rare, strong passion, a real desire to fight and follow your dreams. People really discover things about themselves through training martial arts. Although I found a new sense of self-belief beginning martial arts, I have also found a great deal of self-doubt along the way, I am not a fighter, and I often do not know who I am and where I fit.
Thinking of how much time, money and dedication I try to put into my training, it would be logical for me to know why I choose to do so. On the rare occasion I am not carrying an injury, I am seen as a mentor to beginners and someone who likes to work hard, so I am often asked the question, "What is your end goal?”. This is something that makes me quite anxious. Sometimes I want to just enjoy getting an intense workout and/or learning, I have never really known what my end goal is or if I even have one.
What I can tell you is that the confidence I have gained from martial arts is only one aspect of confidence as a whole, I don’t care what I look like … but I do care what people think of me. I often feel constant pressure to perform, to be perfect, that people are sometimes watching me, comparing me and I am often so scared to let my coaches, team mates and myself down that I have stopped competing (paired with a body that is never fully functioning) and I instead try to enjoy myself during sessions.
Enjoyment of the moment is great but it only lasts so long before it is paired with your own questions about why you are here, what brings you to the mats every night of the week and if you really do have some kind of end goal. I don’t know if I will ever know the answer to these kinds of questions but I do know that my reasons are fluid and right now I am just having fun living in the moment.
On my worst days (which have now thankfully become very infrequent), I am definitely not having fun, I don’t enjoy my training session/s and switch off. I overthink, I get so down on myself and how I think I am performing during a session or why my coach has only told me everything I am doing wrong today. Once the switch is off, there is no going back to focus, I usually can’t execute what I am being told in that instance and it might take me days to understand it partially and even more time completely.
When my switch goes off, I often become silent and count the long minutes until the session is over, I then sneak off to my car and cry the whole way home, I sit in the car in the garage – sometimes for 5 minutes, sometimes for 30 minutes and I try to gather myself, I try to pull myself back together before going inside. Sometimes the slump can last for days, sometimes I am ready to go again later that same day.
You are probably wondering why I torture myself by going to training if it hurts me physically and upsets me emotionally, but I can tell you that every other time it doesn’t hurt or upset me I am a happier, stronger and better version of myself than I was before that session. All of the things that hurt are only hurting in that moment in time, everything passes and you learn from every experience and piece of advice you receive whether you like it or not.
On my less worse days, I realise how often I am the only female on the mat and I am often the smallest person on the mat. I am often shown sympathy from males who are scared they are going to hurt me in sparring and I am even more often a victim of them expressing frustration through actually trying to hurt me, deriving mostly from a shattered ego (and you wonder I cry sometimes).
I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by a gym that does not tolerate this type of behaviour and weeds out those who do not hold the same sense of respect for their team mates. Aside from all this, there are mostly times where the balance is just right, times where I am happily boxing or rolling with people close to double my weight and we are both learning from one another. Sometimes being a small female in a male dominated sport is really challenging but I will continue to find ways to work around it.
After reading this far you might be wondering what my preferred style of training is as I tend to partake in most disciplines and my focus seems to be a little bit all over the place. I still do striking sessions and weights with a focus on strengthening my crappy knees (inconsistently). Yet I continue to train Jiu Jitsu, even if I have to sit out and watch. I have never been too open in expressing my reasons for giving it a go in the first place and now strongly favouring it, but here is one: I have been walked over and had my trust broken several times by people in the striking circle and experienced times where I couldn’t face the classes.
The association of boxing with letting myself hurt as bad as I did in some of those moments was not an option so I took it out of the equation. I was always going to start Jiu Jitsu, I was so curious about it but this gave me a real push. Jiu Jitsu gave (and continues to give) me mental and emotional strength, something I needed so badly at the time and it was the perfect avenue to help me focus on myself again. I might not know who I am or where I fit at training sometimes but I know who I am as a person, I am independent and resilient to say the least and Jiu Jitsu continues to help shape a better version of me and this is one of the many reasons why it is my preferred style of training at this point in time.
During my time training martial arts I have met sociopaths who come across quite charismatic initially but use their individually molded social skills in self-centered ways, pathological liars who very convincingly lie for absolutely no reason or purely because they love to manipulate and trick people and completely lack empathy for others, compulsive liars who lie out of habit and definitely have an underlying psychiatric disorder (who I always feel sorry for).
Some of the most selfish people I have met in my life have been those who are fighters, I strongly understand the need to make sacrifices but some people tend to lose their sense of humanity in the process. I am a lot of things but I am not selfish and I am not a liar, I naturally care too much about other people often putting their needs before my own and like to think I speak words of truth or not at all.
I have come across these kinds of people throughout my life but in an abundance whilst being in this circle. I couldn’t tell you whether there is an increase in people who just don’t care about others, whether some law of attraction brings them together or whether I am only noticing it now.
But in saying all of that, I have met the most beautiful and amazing life-long friends (few and far between) through striking but almost every person who has done Jiu Jitsu alongside me exhibits one or more admirable traits of selflessness, patience, consideration, genuineness or respect. If you are self-absorbed, narcissistic or completely lack empathy, we probably won’t ever be training partners (if I can help it) or friends. This is my experience surrounding some of the people I have met in my martial arts journey and am in no way implying that the majority of people who train martial arts exhibit any of these behaviours.
On less of a personality side of things, I have also met a lot of people who suffer from mental health conditions who use training as therapy for conditions such as depression and anxiety, people with disabilities and people recovering from serious illness and injury. I can tell you from the bottom of my heart I look up to you every single day and would highly recommend training martial arts to anyone as I have seen people overcome some considerable obstacles in the process. Martial arts is for everyone and will do you a world of good!
No matter how many times I get told in a week to smile or that I come across very intimidating, “I thought you were such a bitch but you’re actually soooooo nice”. I am approachable and genuinely happy; even if my face of concentration/frustration/exhaustion/blank-ness doesn’t show it. No matter how much I take a bad training session to heart with an outburst of tears, these are only my reactions in that moment, thinking I need to be perfect and no matter how much you or I try to tell myself it’s not possible, I will always strive for perfection. What I am trying to say is that it won’t change so don’t worry about me because that is just who I am!
This somewhat sombre expression of my thoughts and experiences was shared with sincerity and just for the record, 99% of my experiences training martial arts have been nothing short of wonderful. Which is why I continue to travel the world and explore martial arts (finishing this piece as I pack a suitcase with gloves and another gi).
You may resonate with me, you may not understand me, you may judge me and on this rare occasion I can accept that. Funnily enough I just asked our photographer for some photos of me for this piece and he told me I have a blank face in every single photo so I found a few of my own, I am often good at hiding my emotions but as you have read, they are definitely there in private and some of my regular training partners would have definitely seen them mid-roll!
I will leave you with words of wisdom I was recently gifted with, “Expectation is the thief of all happiness”. Which I interpret as strive for greatness but don’t expect anything to go a certain way, put your pride and ego aside and rather be in each moment and most times you will get what you deserve – what a relief… it has helped me to be less of a perfectionist.
- Jade Kerr