“For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length–and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly.” – Carlos Castaneda
Sirens were going off everywhere. Barbells were slamming to the floor, young children were bowing to judges, people were punching each other, and others were eating hotdogs. If it sounds like a madhouse, that’s because it was. This was the Hampton Sports Festival that was hosting the World Kickboxing Association’s (WKA) National Championship Tournament. My team and I had traveled from North Carolina to compete in the Muay Thai championships.
Lights were flashing, sirens were buzzing, athletes and spectators were everywhere. It was as busy and loud as you could imagine. Three rings were set up in the middle of the arena, all showcasing fights at the same time for different weight classes. Our small changing and staging “rooms” consisted of a rectangular shower curtain essentially, with no sound dampening or lockers to speak of. Fighters were sprawled out everywhere getting their hands taped, stretching, getting massages with tiger balm, and warming up on pads or with light clinch work. It was extremely difficult to concentrate. My coach at the time (I still consider him a friend, mentor, and even call him Coach to this day) Clayton Roberts, took me outside where it was quiet so that I could warm-up on some pads before my fight. My fight… I had looked earlier at the brackets… it was against some name I could not even pronounce.
I finished my pad work, listened to my coach talk to me, calm me, center me, and then approached the ring. The hardest part about fighting, to me, is walking to the ring. Months of training and mental visualization of your opponent all coming to a head in that second. The crowd is watching and cheering, your heart is racing with adrenaline and anxiousness, all eyes are on you. It is the last second to stop, to turn around and walk away, to avoid the impending moment of violence that is about to thrust itself into your life. But you can’t. You can’t turn around… for fear of facing a cowards death. Sometimes, the thing you lean on is the fact that your team is behind you, your friends… and your coach, who has walked this entire path with you. He/she has watched you train, watched your climb… your rise and falls, your victories and defeats… they have poured themselves into you as much as you have poured yourself into this moment.
I walked up to the ring, climbed up, pulled the ropes aside, and entered. I slowly walked around the ring as my opponent watched me, keeping my right hand on the ropes as is customary for Thai fights, bowed in each corner, and then walked to mine and faced my opponent. My Coach, Clayton, looked at me and said, “Get ready Ben, this dude looks game as fuck.” He was easily a foot taller than me, more experienced, staring straight at me, and was ready. I nodded at Coach, the bell rang, and my opponent and I moved towards each other. The first moments we felt each other out, simple, safe combinations meant to feel out distance and movement. Then we started to really fight. I noticed early that he liked to set up this huge “windmill” haymaker. I could tell he had practiced it, and given his height the momentum it would be devastating if it connected. He missed me with it a couple times as we moved around each other. Then I aimed to set it up. I watched his movement, threw a jab, then a cross, landing both.. I stunned him, I could hear my coach yell at me to put him down. As a good fighter does I chose to side step and then throw a round house (typically in fighting you want to move around your opponent to create angles, not back and forth), and as I wound up my hips for the kick he threw that huge haymaker. *CLING* was all I heard, and for a moment everything went black. I had stepped right into his blind haymaker.
The world of Weightlifting is filled with programs, teams, training facilities, and coaches. All with their own approach to training, programs, coaching styles, and methodology. Some are better than others, or perhaps just better for some than others. It can be a mind boggling arena to explore and navigate. This is where coaching is so valuable. I’m not talking about a CrossFit style coach. While they do serve their purpose, that, in a sense, is a fairly ostensible layer of coaching. They are there to guide you through that hour, or perhaps some extra questions or pointers, but they are there for such a large amount of people it has to remain fairly impersonal to an extent by default. I’m talking about a team coach. Someone that you work with directly or with a small team for months, or years. Someone that gets to know you personally and has taken you on as a personal pupil where they pour all their knowledge into you in an effort to not only make you a better athlete… but an extension of themselves. Art in the arena of sports.
Often, I see athletes not fully commit themselves to a program or coach. They will pick up extra programming outside of their own, or not listen to the instructions of their coach because they have an idea of something else. This is being a poor pupil, and can be a sign of being uncoachable. A bad place to be. I like to envision my relationship with a coach or program like being a canvas. Maybe you are blank, or maybe you have some base coloring for the artist (coach) to build off of. You have to let yourself go in order for this relationship to work fully. You have to clear your head, and let the coach begin his brush strokes. The artist, unlike the canvas, know where they want the painting to go and what the final product may look like.
Let go of any other ideas, of any other interferences or doubts, and let the artist paint. You are the canvas upon which the coach will paint their picture. If you try and redirect that, or grab the artist’s hands and move the stroke for them, then the painting is ruined… or, maybe not ruined, but certainly not what the artist intended it to be. By adding programming or doing things other than what your coach has intended, you skew the result of what they are pursuing… which is often a better idea than yours, since they can remain objective. Let yourself go, let the coach paint. If, in the end, you do not like the painting, you can move onto another artist. However, if you do not let the coach direct you in the way they have intended, then you’ll never know the real picture.
After the hit in the ring, I felt myself land on the canvas ass first… like I had been hammered down into it with a sledge hammer. I stood up, a bit dazed, and listened to the official count out the numbers. After 10, he looked at me, asked if I was good, I nodded yes, and we went back to it. That round ended with me just trying to survive, moving around the ring in order to regain my composure. My Coach, Clayton Roberts, sat me down in the corner between rounds, gave me pointers, made me focus, built me back up, and encouraged me. I could also hear my team mates yelling at me and my own father was the cut man. The second round I faired better, and tied it. The third round I figured out my opponent and after caving in his lead leg and taking away his reach, I won the round. I ended up losing that fight to split decision because of the knock down in the first round and the points he scored. I was able to come back because of the support I had… it was invaluable. Without my team and coach I would have been murdered. Afterwards my opponent came up and gave me a quick hug and shake out of respect. He ended up winning the tournament.
Today it is a much more lonely time for me. I am masterless. As a Weightlifter in a CrossFit gym, you tend to ostracize yourself. I take up my residence within a small platform in the back corner, out of the way of the daily WODS, and follow my programming (Flight, Barbell Shrugged). As a result, I end up coaching myself a lot, or falling on the small community that Barbell Shrugged has created for us via social media… and while that is welcomed and helpful, it is a far cry from having my mentor in the corner with me. Fortunately I know enough about Weightlifting to where I am not completely handicapped without a coach, but having one there is extremely invaluable for so many reasons other than the immediate instruction. It is, nonetheless, a lonely fight. I miss my team, and I miss my Coach. I am left to my own devices, or the support I find in small tastes throughout my life, but largely I am alone in this endeavor. The barbell is always there for me, to guide me through my life. A cold piece of steel with which I can channel myself into, and set myself on fire upon when the time comes. Perhaps it is no longer my time to be coached, or else there would be a coach for me. Perhaps it is not my time to be coaching, or I would have pupils. It seems, at this time, it is just destined to be the barbell and myself. For that I am sure there is a reason, and one I am searching to find. I am masterless.