Thursday, 12 November 2015

Focus, Focus......FOCUS!!!

After much though I have decided to take part in the Helsinki Open tournament (longsword) in January 2016. I have taken part in one competition, Swordfish 2008 (!). God, tempus fugit! Here's how I did (cringe)..

In short, shite! Still, it was a super experience and quite an eye-opener in terms of how to move, how to think tactically, levels of aggression etc. Basically nervousness took over and I just stood there like a lemon and let my opponent bring the fight to me, only reacting after he had attacked. Why? Because we had been taught that we should wait for a committed attack before parrying. Nothing wrong with that in a medieval duel context, not so useful in a modern tournament one. Hmm, back to training!

Fast forward a few years to a sparring camp in Jyvaskyla in 2014 (footage from 11:00 onwards).

Different scenario, much more relaxed and with friendly sparring with fellow THMS member Ikaros A.  I moved a lot better and there is a sort of flow to the exchanges. There was still the tendency to stand too still for too long and to come to too close measure, look at each other and then see what the other would do. We didn't snipe the hands although we could have done so easily. Instead there are some feints in largo and pommel strikes by entering into stretto, including a bit of grappling. Still lots of room for improvement but it looks more like I want to look like when fencing Fiore. And the bout was FUN! I highly recommend attending the sparring camp in Jyvaskyla: good people, nice salle and a really good and useful  way to test your fencing in a not-overly competitive environment. I also attended the camp in 2015 and it was also lots of fun. Such camps offer a brilliant opportunity for fencers of all levels to test their skill sets against other of varying levels. Do not worry if you think you don't know much and are nervous about sparring with someone of a higher skill level/experience. They will happily reduce the speed/intensity to suit you and very often you will get an informal coaching session! And they are also really nice folks!

In January 2015 a few of us got together and rented out the badminton court at a local gym to specifically practice sparring in full gear. It was funny walking through a gym holding swords and sparring gear and we got some funny looks from those people pumping weights! However, the staff at Sali 82 were very friendly and seemed quite happy that their badminton court was being used for something new. We would quickly warm up, gear up and set to. Two of our group were planning on taking part in tournaments and so were quite motivated, while others (including myself) were along for the experience. It was a bit tough adding an extra training evening to but overall a worthwhile exercise and well worth the effort. There was also the added bonus of kettlebells for use in the space we were in. Result!

It's now November and approximately 2 months until the Helsinki Open. I go to regular trainings and have started to do stretches, clubbells and kettlebell workouts most days. I also got a swingblade so I can do all the cutting practice I want without putting holes in the walls or breaking the lampshade. How am I feeling mentally? Good. Focused, but scared, very scared. I am afraid I will look a fool, that it will not even look like Fiore but some mad flailing. Do I expect to win bouts? Honestly, no. I do not expect to do "well" if that means winning points. I hope to hold my own and if I do that I will have done well. So,  you might ask, "why bother?"  It's a fair question. There are 2 reasons. First, it gives me the focus and drive I need to train as well as go to regular training. I enjoy the training too. I want to make it a good habit that will help to anyway keep me stronger, healthier and happier, not just benefit my fencing. The second reason is simply "because it scares me". I have been critical of tournaments before and following my tournament debut at Swordfish in 2008 this has been a background but ever present reason for being critical and not participating more. I need to put myself out of my comfort zone. The funny thing is that it's all in my head! I am pretty sure that I could go to the upcoming tournament and do really badly and actually no-one else will bat an eyelid! They have their own things going on that day and will not think less of me if I am not successful. It really is the taking part that counts. It will be interesting to see how my focus will be affected by the Christmas break!

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

It's better to burn out than fade away! No, it bloody well isn't!
I started to wonder about this blog a while back as it feels like I am just sending it out into the void and apart from one soul replying (Thanks Risto!), I may as well have just been talking to myself. So, what is the point???
Since the last post, my shoulder is back to normal but I buggered up my back at work and I was off work for a spell due to burnout. Thankfully, both are now things of the past and I am healthier, fitter and happier. There have been some bumps along the way (my work contract will not be renewed in January, so I am back on the dole fuuu...!) but such is life!
Burnout is a funny thing. As in funny peculiar, not funny haha. You slide into it gradually and when there only then do you realize it and then comes the "oh, SHIT!" reaction. Weirdly enough though, burnout in general doesn't seem to be taken seriously as a disease/sickness. I know I didn't prior to succumbing to it myself. I now realize that even though there may be similar patterns to burnout, each case is individual, thus making it difficult to both diagnose and recognize.
I won't go into the details about the bad time but the realization came that I had to do something when I was using a carpet knife to open a cardboard box and started thinking about using the knife to self-harm. In my job we have to solve problems all the time and what scared me most was not the act but how I coolly and analytically considered the problems of numbing the pain and the mess the blood would cause. Problem solved. I did not follow through with these thoughts but kept the knife in view for a while to remind myself that this was NOT the way I would deal with the issue. I HAD to find another way. Now I write this on the other end of the experience I can say that I have come through it, learned a lot about myself and I am very glad I am still here.
The main thing is that I am a nice person, sometimes too nice. I want to help and please others. Not a bad thing per se, but when I push myself to work harder and longer just so others think I am a good guy then we have a problem. This in large part is the reason for my eventual burnout. It's like the line from the song, "And we don't stop, 'cos we can't stop". Then there is the work itself. Long hours and long days with little or no positive feedback for the work done, combined with deadlines which can shift forwards or pop up out of nowhere and to be told that this is the new priority, get it done! While the work was sometimes really tough and made me feel bad, in actual fact it had more to do with my personality than the work itself. To top it all off, I have SAD (seasonal affected disorder) which means that the dark Finnish winters give me the winter blues. This was one more nail in the coffin.
How did I come out of it? The climb-out? Therapy sessions, rest/exercise and drugs. The first two helped me no end, I think to be able to talk about the fact that I had a problem and that someone was there to listen to me was great. My wife and friends had heard me moaning already for the previous 2 years and were probably sick of hearing it, I was sick of me moaning too! To have someone neutral and who could ask the right questions was great. They could say "yes, your situation is crap, no wonder you feel like this" and I knew I wasn't being unreasonable or going mad. The drugs were less helpful. I got some tablets which were supposed to level off extreme feelings making it easier to cope. Well, after 3 days of wandering around the flat like a zombie with huge dilated and fixed pupils, I decided that wasn't my route to recovery. It also gave some weirdly positive perspective: I was not so bad that I wasn't able to feel the feelings! It felt better to feel bad than feel nothing. This was the start of the climb-out for me. Having time to rest and sleep or walk or look at the sky for half an hour was also very beneficial. I started to see time differently; not how much I have to do and how little time I have to do it, instead, time to enjoy a cup of tea, read a book, look for a geocache, walk around town and look at people. To be IN each moment (livelines), not thinking ahead to a random future moment when stuff must be done (deadlines).
Burnout affecting fencing...
I have put a lot of time, money, sweat and effort (and bruises!) into fencing since beginning in 2004. I guess I have made some progress in that time but when I tested my skills in free sparring sessions, I could see that I wasn't very good. Why not? What have I been doing wrong all this time? What was the solution?
The syllabus we follow is interesting and extensive covering most of Fiore's material. I have done drills in their various iterations since the start and I can do most of them fairly well but when pressure is added to the mix it all goes out the window. It's a familiar question for most martial artists: "Is it better to know all of the techniques or only know 3 but be able to effectively use those 3?". The simple answer is "it depends on the person". What is the goal of training? To interpret and train in that particular style? To fight in tournaments? To get fit? To learn self-defense? All of the above and probably more. There is no "one true way". One's own goals may well change over time too. I was quite content for a while to do cutting practice and sword handling all night, I still am mostly, but now I want to know how it feels to chain attacks against a training partner at varying levels of cooperation. I see the syllabus as the numbered dots which you need to join to see the picture of what Fiore's (or any other) system is.
Much like work, there is an amount of effort expended followed by an expected result. I have felt like I am busting my ass and getting nowhere leading to feelings of disillusionment, frustration, indifference and disappointment.  I am not a very confident person and quite self-critical and these have also been impediments in my development. One mantra I have learned since my climb-out is "Be more kind to yourself". If I don't do well in fencing or indeed anything, if I have made a good effort then that is good enough. It has to be. Burnout tends to make you negative all the time about yourself, about everything. With my burnout I could point at my work situation and say it is the work that is the problem and surprise, surprise, I did exactly the same thing with training. It was lazy thinking to just complain about the training and not do anything else, yet somehow expect myself to magically improve. Embarrassing to admit, but true.
In the last few months, I finally feel like I have been joining the dots. At the beginning of 2015 with a few others we stopped complaining and organized our own sparring group once or twice a week (in addition to regular training) to go through sparring and more intense training than we normally do, thanks to all of us having full sparring gear. This sparring and dynamic training left me coming away happy from training, not feeling like I was just going through the motions and learning nothing new. Then burnout struck. I dropped fencing and almost everything for the whole summer and didn't even touch a sword. I needed that break to concentrate on my own health. Thanks to my burnout though, I have also come to look at regular training differently. Each session, regardless of content, can teach something new. If your headspace is correct then you are much more open to see things you didn't notice before. It also make you (I feel) a lot better training partner.
  • Everyone has worth: this is not measured by how many hours you work
  • If 8 hours of work are not enough to get finished, tomorrow is another day, the world will not end
  • Be kinder to yourself and others (you have no idea what they're going through)
  • Know when to say "Enough!": If you have put in good effort, this HAS to be good enough
  • Let stuff go. I call it my "Ah, fuck it!" philosophy. Life is too short and there's always more fun stuff to do
  • If you have suicidal thoughts or think of self-harm, talk to someone and get help
  • Live in the moment and ENJOY stuff!
  • Get your ass to training!