The War: Training, Willpower and the Eternal Opponent

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It isn’t fashionable these days to talk about training or self-improvement in terms of conflict – we often hear how we are meant to train smart, not hard; to pace ourselves; to work within our limits; to adhere to the principles of sports science throughout. And, from a physiological point of view, this is often very sound advice and we would be wise to follow it.

Yet in any physical practice there is also a war being fought: a psychological battle that we are presented with every time we step up to a jump or a movement we have not yet mastered, every time the fear of failure or falling rests its dark gaze upon us and tells us to give up, to go home, to try it another day, to excuse ourselves into accepting defeat.

This opponent in this eternal war is, of course, our own self, manifesting through the challenge of the terrain we encounter in our training. And it is an opponent that simply can’t be beaten by playing smart, or working within our limits. It has to be faced head-on, confronted in a very primal sense and wrestled with until either it, or you, submits.

This is where we need some old-fashioned ‘grunt’. This is also the part of our training that is not so easily managed. Becoming strong, or fit, or fast, or to learn to move well, is not that complicated a procedure: apply the right training regularly enough and you will see results. Simple.

Dealing with the mind, however, is anything but.

It is impossible to tell how someone is going to react to the challenge of the self in this situation – will they be cowed by the fear, or will they rise to overcome it? Will they demonstrate the inner strength required to carry themselves through these struggles, or will they look for an easier road?

The harsh truth is that until we are faced with the battle we have no idea as to how we will react. Nor will anyone else be able to gauge infallibly how a given individual will fare when in this type of situation: many times we have seen practitioners excel during ‘safe’ aspects of training, perhaps at an indoor class, only to baulk when faced with the same movements in an environment they perceive as more ‘high-risk’.

The mind is the most slippery of opponents, and the most cunning, and the most persistent. And it will use very trick in the book to encourage you to give up the fight. ‘You’re tired today’, it will whisper. Or perhaps, ‘it’s a bit wet still from the rain, best to leave it for another day.’ ‘Don’t push yourself too much, you may get injured’, it will warn. And finally it may reassure you, ‘you can always come back and do it tomorrow. Let’s finish for the day.’

But listen to this sibilant voice every time, and soon it will extinguish the fire within you completely: and one day when you really do want to make the jump, you find you just can’t summon up the strength.


How do we prevent this? By not listening to the voice – or at least not very often. You have to fight these inner battle and win more often than you lose. So listen to what the voice has to say (who knows, once or twice it may actually be talking sense!), take heed of its warnings and its advice – then file them away under ‘noted’, tell it to shut the hell up and get back to overcoming whatever particular obstacle you find in your path.

There are myriad different methods to fighting this war – I won’t say ‘winning’ because it’s not one that can ever be won absolutely – and I have seen individuals successfully employing very different strategies: visualisation techniques, distraction techniques, anger, mantras, music… but somewhere along the line, all these individuals step forward with a look of sheer determination, resolute, committed: and do the jump.

That’s the ‘grunt’; that’s the moment of willpower – and it is a moment of self-mastery in a very real sense. For everything inside them is likely screaming at them to step down, to be sensible, to play it safe, and yet they are able to master these thought processes, put them to one side and choose to complete the action. They are in control of their body at this point, and not their fear or any other part of the ‘mad monkey’ that is the mind. It’s great to see someone achieve this state, and it’s even better to feel it for yourself.

When it happens, it’s a battle won. The war will continue, however. This is a war that never ends, after all. The opponent is tireless, relentless, and remorseless. It will be waiting on the battlefield every single time we decide to set foot thereon, arms folded and with a knowing smile. It has seen us before, it knows us intimately – perhaps better than anyone else knows us in life – and it knows precisely how to break us. Conversely, though, we know it just as well, and understand perfectly the challenge it will present us with each time we respond to the call to arms.

It’s a level playing-field: we just have to play out of our skinsuser-5946-profile_team_photo_1


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