A Fighter’s Fear, Like Feathers Stroking Your Face | How to Accept it

One of a fighter’s greatest and most difficult tasks is dealing with fear. I always get nervous before fights and at the beginning of my fight career I rejected...

One of a fighter’s greatest and most difficult tasks is dealing with fear. I always get nervous before fights and at the beginning of my fight career I rejected the word “fear” to describe what I was experiencing. I didn’t want to acknowledge it I would shut it out – because I shouldn’t be afraid, because a fighter should be fearless. In truth, I was shutting down that feeling in order to pretend that I was calm and focused; and while I was calm, I was entering into fights “too low,”  or flat, in my energy. This is one of the benefits of fighting a lot. Fighting is a process, a discovery. I learned, maybe 25 or 30 fights in that I needed that fear and I needed those nerves to help propel me. But I’d judged those emotions as being a deficit and out of place. So my focus was on avoiding the feelings rather than accepting them. And when you try to avoid something or make it go away, the focus can become greater than if you just let it be. It takes energy to suppress something like fear or anxiousness. I was maybe a little prideful that I was so “calm” going into the ring, but there were levels of awareness I was yet to go through.

The Mental Advantage of Accepting Fear

With much more experience I learned to just call these feelings as they were: fear and nervousness. But it still took a long time to accept them, to stop trying to shoo them away as being evidence of my failure; failure to prepare, failure to be tough, failure to be a fearless warrior. That’s all bullshit. It’s as ridiculous as believing that someday you’ll just reach a point in conditioning when you never fatigue. You can push that line to have great cardio, you can condition yourself to keep going despite pain and fatigue, but you can’t get rid of them all together – and you don’t want to. Once you accept fear into your reality, at that stage, the trick is to teach yourself how to keep going despite fear; how to believe in yourself despite it and to stop perceiving it as a “sign” that you’re ill prepared, unready, or unworthy. Before every single fight I feel a few waves of nervousness and fear, almost like clockwork as the hours draw near to the event. I don’t like feeling it, but I accept it in the same way I accept that I’m going to have to pee 100 times prior to getting in the ring. Being nervous actually gives me a small sense of confidence, because this fear has never stopped me. Not once. It can come with me into the ring but it can’t make decisions for me, it can’t be the most important thing – and that includes taking energy and focus to try to chase it away.

Three very basic things you can do:

  1. Breathe slow and long until you are more calm.
  2. Find a positive thought that is stronger than the fear, anything you truly believe (about your work, your capabilities). Do not push negative thoughts away or deny them, allow them instead to be supplanted.
  3. Let the fear be there, it’s okay and natural.

If you are a fighter, or are a serious student of Muay Thai I encourage you to do some mental training, this is what I do. But the basic principles above are a simple place where you can start to take a hold of fear.

This passage below is from a book my brother gave me for Christmas last year. The author describes how the effort toward trying to chase fear away is counter-productive. I’m still on the path of development as a fighter, but the quote talks about what may be beyond simple acceptance of fear, a time when the fighter may grow to just feel fear “like feathers stroking my face”

“If you’ve seen The Proposition, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It is a grim and extremely violent Western (brilliant, but horrific) set in the Australian Outback in 1880. It was filmed  on location in the middle of summer, and the actors had to cope with blistering heat and huge swarms of flies constantly buzzing all around them.”

“Now, obviously the actors couldn’t keep waving the flies away, or they’d ruin all the shots; they had to let the flies crawl on their faces without reacting. This also made it more authentic; the historical advisers on the film believed that people in that era would have been so used to flies crawling all over them, they wouldn’t have been constantly shooing them away. One of the lead actors in the film, Ray Winstone, said he’d always wondered how those lions in wildlife documentaries seemed so oblivious to all the flies. However, after a few days of filming, he got used to them. Soon he was able to let the flies be there without being bothered by them. He said the felt “like feathers stroking my face”.”

Lion with Flies on His Face - Fear

“That’s an amazing attitude shift, isn’t it? Under normal circumstances, we try as hard as we can to get rid of flies. We swipe at them, swat them, and spray them. We may install clever traps, put up screens, and do whatever we can to keep them out of our houses. And this is only natural; we know they are dirty and carry germs, and that if they contaminate our food, we can get sick. So of course we hate the idea of letting them crawl on us. And yet, when Ray Winstone defused from all those thoughts and mindfully noticed the actual sensations of flies crawling on him, he discovered it was nowhere as bad as he expected.”

from The Confidence Gap – Chapter 15, Plenty of Space

I read this chapter while lying in bed the other night. It happens that “The Proposition” is one of my favorite movies and the consideration of flies is, for me, minuscule compared to the overall and considerable grit, violence, and quiet despair that is the general ambiance of the story itself. However, the flies are a perfect real-world example of one’s mentality determining experience. At one of my fights I sat under a hot blanket, covered in sweat, Thai oil and Vaseline while a doctor stitched closed a cut on my forehead; and all I could think about was the swarm of mosquitoes that were still eating me alive despite all the gunk on my limbs and the blanket covering me. It’s this tiny thing, this pestering thing, that overrides even more significant matters – like getting your face stitched closed without anesthetic. All I remember are the mosquitoes.

And yet, over time one becomes desensitized to these pests. You stop shrieking every time you see a rat on the rails of the subway in New York. You don’t swat at the flies anymore and instead of being this impossible torture of disgusting creatures buzzing around your face, you simply accept their presence and the actual sensation is “like feathers, stroking [your] face.” The authors argument here is that fear is a natural and inevitable part of life, just as insects or dust or rain is. Because so much of our modern lives is about comfort, we’re fortunate to spend very little time being uncomfortable. Pain, sadness, and fear are uncomfortable; when we feel these things we want to find ways to stop feeling these things. In fact, the discomfort of these emotions even makes us think that something is wrong and so we try to avoid the feeling – we swat at the flies, rather than letting go of the idea that we can get rid of them and just accepting their presence.

There is Nothing Wrong With Fear

I’ve fought 130 fights now and in three days I’ll have another one. I still feel nervous before fights; every one of them. There’s no reason why I should believe that desensitizing myself completely to this emotion would be a benefit to me, but focusing on this emotion, I know, isn’t helpful. Consider the stomach-churning feeling of standing in line for a roller-coaster. I don’t like roller-coasters, but I’ve been on probably a dozen of them. When I’m waiting in line I go through boredom, distraction in talking with whomever I’m at the park with, and nervousness and fear with thoughts like “why am I doing this? How can I get out of this?” I tolerate these feelings because I tell myself it will be fine, but I never wonder to myself why I’m feeling this nervousness. It’s obvious; I’m about to go on a ride that’s designed to give me a thrill. People pay good money to watch scary movies, go to haunted houses, jump from incredible heights – we don’t wonder why we’re feeling scared or nervous. So why would we wonder why we’re scared or nervous when standing at the precipice of getting into the ring to fight someone who has every intention of beating us? It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to feel, every time.

There’s nothing amiss when you feel nervous for a fight. But if you obsess over it and try to avoid the feeling, like swatting the flies, you’re putting a great deal of energy into something that you don’t have a lot of control over. If you accept the fear as part of the process and just be sure not to hold on to it – acknowledge its presence and its purpose but focus on more important things, like things you can control – then you can still experience the feeling without being pestered by it; it’s not a buzzing fly but the tickle of a feather.

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Mental Training for Muay ThaiMuay Thai

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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