Dark Clouds: When Motivation Wanes

Sometimes it’s hard to love the things you love.  You don’t “choose” to love something, necessarily, but you do choose to believe in the love you have for it...

Sometimes it’s hard to love the things you love.  You don’t “choose” to love something, necessarily, but you do choose to believe in the love you have for it at times when you are not feeling the love.  Muay Thai is like that for me.  I think people mistake passion for inspiration, but to me the word “passion” connotes a degree of obsession that includes dark designs.  An artist who is “obsessed” with a project, for example, may refuse food, drink and sleep in order to continue on with work, not because this artist is inspired, but more that the artist is possessed.  It’s not necessarily a good feeling.

When Rainer Maria Rilke wrote the Duino Elegies, it took him years with long periods of depression halting his work.  Then, at some point he was struck with what he described as a “boundless storm, a hurricane of the spirit,” and – his own hands unable to keep up with him at times – he dictated the words as they poured out of him as he stood atop a chair, seemingly channeling the poetry like a lightning rod.  Much of the content of these beautiful works is wrought with pain, existential torment and suffering of man in contrast to the perfection (and seeming disinterest to human suffering) of angels.  That’s not so much a glorious experience of inspiration.  I’m not sure that’s the kind of inspiration I would pray for, I mean.

Last month I was interviewed a few times by different fellows, many of whom asked me the same question, with some variation, on the theme of how I stay motivated, or how I avoid burn-out.  My answer to most was a variation on how I love what I do and feel so lucky to be doing it, so it’s hard for me to conceive of “burn-out,” but there’s a simpler answer as well: I don’t need to be motivated to train.  That probably sounds strange, but I think some looking into how I view motivation as a concept will bring some sense to it.  Motivation, for many, is the same as inspiration.  “I’m so motivated to get to the gym and kick pads!” some might say.  Or “I just saw Sangmanee’s latest Lumphinee fight and I can’t wait to train!”  These, to me, are inspired moments.  I’ve totally had them.  I also get inspired by very generous people around the world who say encouraging things to me after watching my latest fights – I’m all amped to get back to work and improve.  It feels great, but obviously a lot of us train through the times when inspiration is muted, or absent.

“Amateurs wait for inspiration. The real pros get up and go to work.” – Harvey Mackay

I read somewhere that “Motivation is 80% expectation.”  I agree wholeheartedly.  If I expect to be tired and sore and shitty in my performance, I tend to not feel super motivated.  Luckily for me, I don’t have to be motivated to get my butt to the gym and train hard anyway.  What keeps the fire going, however, is that my desire, my main motivation for everything I do in Muay Thai, from roadwork to fighting, is just improving.  And I expect that everything I do is making me better, so that alone is a kind of motivation.

The problem shakes out sometimes that I don’t feel good about my progress.  These past two months were tough.  I had four fights in October, all of them within 13 days, and will have four fights by the end of November.  That flurry of fights in October was a great experience for many reasons, not the least of which is that the frequency of fighting every few days kind of cools your beans a bit in the “I should be growing between fights” thought category.  How much do you really expect to change in a few days with only time for one or two training sessions in between?  And I was on a winning streak with seven victories in a row, so I was feeling pretty good.  I always have a high-level of criticism for myself after fights because I’m never doing all the things I want to, or believe I’m capable of doing, but winning at least adds a degree of cushion around those thoughts.  And then I lost my last two fights, one against the biggest opponent I’ve ever faced with a 13 kg weight advantage over me and one against an opponent I beat before who is just a better fighter and I’m going to have to be smarter against next time.  Neither loss should be devastating – one is against a giant and the other is against one of the top fighters at my weight.  But the combination of the two, the increase in my fighting (which was both awesome and difficult because it greatly affected and reduced my training), and some serious disagreements between my husband and I about how we should each be responding after fights like my most recent one, all led to a huge, dark cloud looming over me for the past week.  And then I got really sick.

There are a couple things that, for me, cause serious mental-strength difficulties.  One is not being able to kick in training.  It’s a little bit funny because I’m not a big kicker in how I fight (yet), so it’s not like taking away my bread-and-butter strike, but for whatever reason not being able to kick drives me batty.  I actually feel inadequate, like there’s something wrong with me when I can’t kick due to knots on my shins.  This is one reason I do everything I can to get back to kicking more quickly, including a few “cheats” like putting kids’ soccer shinguards under my sparring shinpads.  But when another fight is coming up, there’s just simply a point where I have to lay off the legs and let them heal up for the next fight, otherwise I just accept that I’m going into the fight with sore shins.  But that’s easy for me.  Training through physical pain and injuries is simple and I’ve written about it before – you just train around things; if you can’t kick then work your boxing, etc.  But training through mental weakness is much harder.  You can still train through it, but you can’t really train around it because doing so actually makes that weakness worse.  It’s the opposite of training around a physical injury, giving the bone or tissues time to heal.  In contrast, if you’re mentally weak in sparring and so you train around it by not sparring, that mental hang-up will just fester and get stronger.  You can only heal fear by facing your fear.  And that kinda sucks, but it’s also amazing.  It’s probably my favorite thing about fighting: there’s nowhere to hide.  You have to approach mental weakness by training straight into it.

I’ve missed a few days of training in the past two weeks.  First was right before my last fight, in the final week.  I just crashed and slept for 30 hours straight.  That happens sometimes, every few months my body just shuts down and I have to hibernate.  But it usually rejuvenates me.  I’d had muscle aches and joint pain, which I also sometimes get just out of nowhere.  I have a weird nervous system – there’s nothing abnormal about it but it’s a head-scratcher.  I got Chicken Pox four times as a kid (what now?) and then Shingles later on, which produced a “dead spot” about the size of a silver dollar on my back.  I literally can’t feel anything on that spot and then randomly all the nerves will awaken at once and I’ll feel like I have a branding iron pressed against me.  Just one of those things, I guess.  But so I see these flu-like symptoms with no flu to be a similar type thing – it just comes up sometimes and I do what I can and just wait it out.  Like the weather.  And now, a week later, my lymph nodes are like tiny baby fists pinching my throat closed and I can’t swallow.  I finally started taking some antibiotics and already it’s improving significantly, but I’m taking a day off from training and have Sunday off, so two days in a row to fully recover.

Resting is like training.  You have to really commit to it.  There are times when I rest, but I feel guilty for resting or something and then my rest isn’t restful.  You can’t half-ass resting and expect results just as you can’t half-ass training and expect improvement.  Given my gloomy state of mind over the past week, it’s been difficult to get myself right in any direction.  I tried mixing up my training, deciding to have a few days per week when I train a shorter duration but at only high-intensity and only focusing on the things I’m most uncomfortable in.  So, for example, very high fight-energy sparring and padwork, then drills of techniques or strikes that I have difficulty with only, rather than a full 3-4 hour workout with more flow, combinations, repeat drills, conditioning, etc.  I did this for two days and it was excellent.  It changed up my mindset, too, because I know I’m not yet skilled in these things, so the binary of succeed/fail could blur out into a more beneficial attempt/recover cycle.  You just keep working and let the clouds build, knowing they will disperse eventually.


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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay


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