A few days from now, I will compete in my first Thai Boxing fight. Training for this fight has been pretty difficult for me. I’m also in medical school, which in itself is a pretty busy life and adding the immense amount of athletic training required for a fight has been among the most grueling and trying experiences of my life. I feel like I’m on the verge of either accomplishing something really great, or completely falling apart. I suppose I’ll find out which on Saturday night.
Every second of my day for the past few months has been filled with things that push me beyond what I thought I’d be capable of. The entire point of my education is to teach me what I don’t know, to move me forward. And the point of my Muay Thai training is essentially the same. It’s been transformative and incredible, but there are days when it just feels like I’ll never be good enough at anything I do.
I have a little sign hanging next to my bathroom mirror that I look at first thing in the morning and just before I go to sleep. It says, “How can I get better today?” That sign has given me more joy and caused me more sorrow than anything else in my life.
I give everything I have to improving myself every day. On a good day, that sign is an amazing motivator. It reminds me that I can do better, try harder, accomplish more. There is limitless potential. But on a bad day, when I look at that sign, all it says to me is, “You’ll never be good enough. You’re not doing enough, not trying hard enough.”
It is only possible to improve myself by acknowledging my flaws. And usually, that means I ignore the things I’m doing right. It opens up opportunities, for sure, but it’s very easy to get lost in it.
A few weeks ago, I had a day at school filled with exams followed immediately by really difficult training. It was a day when I woke up and the sign in my bathroom told me that I’ll never be good enough. While I was taking an exam, I suddenly had to stop. I was about to cry and had to focus all of my effort on holding back a stream of tears. I don’t completely understand why. I was doing really well on the exam, but I wasn’t doing perfect. I found out later that I missed only one question, but I guess that was enough to prove to me that I wasn’t trying hard enough.
I came home from class and had about 30 minutes before I had to go to the gym. I spent the entire 30 minutes telling myself that I couldn’t possibly train that night. I just kept telling myself, “I can’t do it tonight. I have nothing left. I just need to rest.” When my 30 minutes was up, I got on my bike and rode to the gym.
I trained as hard as I could. I worked ridiculously hard that night. And every time my coach looked at me, without a word of encouragement, he pointed out all of the things I was doing wrong. “C’mon, James, turn those shoulders. More snap on those kicks. You’re faster than that. Hands up. Chin down. Let’s go, find your range.” Usually, I appreciate the opportunities to improve, but not that day.
In the shower afterwards, as the water was running down my face, I was asking myself why I was doing this. I’m doing all of this so I can get locked into a cage with some guy who’s going to try to hurt me, to knock me out? It’s so stupid.
I started thinking back to one of my first coaches, who used to say, “All fighters fight because they are broken.” And that’s exactly why I’m doing this to myself. I’m dedicating my life to fixing an unfixable, broken piece of who I am.
While I had an exceptionally wonderful childhood, there are a few things that somehow permanently embedded themselves into my character: I am a quitter. I am scrawny. I have ugly skinny chicken legs. I have big ears. I have a huge nose. I am not tough. I will always be mediocre.
All of these things have become unshakeable truths in my life. I work to pretend that I am not these things, but it’s only pretending. I am a quitter but I pretend that I’m not by refusing to give up. I am mediocre, but I pretend I’m not by relentlessly trying to be the best. I am not tough, but I’m pretending I am by agreeing to fight a guy in a cage.
None of these efforts fix what is broken in me, but I have to try. Realistically, I understand that my fight on Saturday will not in any way prove anything. I’m an amateur fighting another amateur and when it comes down to it, either he’s better than me, or he isn’t. If I win, it obviously won’t mean that I’m the best. And if he wins, it won’t mean that I’m the worst. I completely understand this. In a silly little amateur fight like this, winning and losing really isn’t important. It’s about gaining experience and moving myself forward as an athlete.
All of that being said, I’m absolutely terrified of losing. I can’t lose. In my head, if I lose, it will mean I didn’t try hard enough. It will mean I gave up during training. It will mean I’ll never be the best. I’ll always be scrawny. I’ll never be tough. And if I win, it will simply mean that I had an opponent who didn’t have that much experience.
Win or lose, when it’s over, I’ll climb right back on my hamster wheel, trying desperately to pretend that I’m not all of those things I know to be true. And nothing makes me happier. Because my endless effort to fix this broken piece of myself has brought me so far beyond what I ever thought could be possible. I will always be broken and I am forever grateful for that.