KEEP CALM AND BOX ON

Ten days out from the fight, things are starting to come together for me. This may be the fourth time I’ve written that things are finally starting to click, but maybe that’s just how boxing is: like life, you’re forever learning and always a step (or, at times, several miles) away from having it together. As soon as you think you’ve sort of figured it out, life fakes the cross and comes with a left hook to the body, and you find yourself in the fetal position on the mat.

My trainer seems to think I’ve come light years from where I was a couple months ago. In general, everything feels a little bit more natural in the ring. I’m throwing more punches and landing a higher percentage of them. I’m moving more around the ring and getting my head out of the way of my opponents fists. My fakes are more convincing. I’m turning my hips when I throw my cross. I’m mixing up combinations here and there, going from head to body or body to head, trying to remain unpredictable. I’m not getting hit as hard (or else I’m getting used to getting hit hard), and I’m countering sometimes when I get hit, instead of freezing. On Friday, I even successfully threw a left hook!

The biggest difference for me though is that I’m not afraid of anyone anymore. I used be overcome with nerves when I went up against certain boxers. My heart would start racing, and the butterflies in my stomach would transform into a flock of angry sea gulls. This would cause a sort of clog in communication between my body and my mind, slowing messages and preventing my body from doing what it knows how to do. Even now, immediately after I find out that I’m sparring with one of these women, a tiny fear monster springs up inside me out of habit. Instead of taking over my mind and body as it used to though, I manage to pacify the creature by reminding myself that I will fight these women just like I fight the boxers I’m not afraid of. I envision a sort of circular folding in on myself like a fountain in reverse, pulling in what I need with deep breaths, washing away the noisy monsters, and allowing the calm to spread from my slowing heartbeat through my limbs to the tips of my fingers and toes. Then, when the bell rings and I start fighting, amazingly, I have fun.

Learning to relax in the ring has been the biggest challenge for me, but I honestly believe that the progress I’ve made over the past month or so has largely come as a result of learning to calm my nerves. I can’t help but wonder if the same is true outside the ring. Maybe they’re right—perhaps worrying really doesn’t help anything. In fact, maybe getting all worked up and anxious actually makes life’s blows hurt more. Maybe if I could let go of my fears and anxieties, I could be a better human, and I could have a happier life. (I know, you’re thinking, “well, duh, Hannah. It only took you 31 years to figure this out?” Well, I’m a little slow about things like this). Anyway, I am trying to adopt the principles I’m learning in the ring into my daily routine. After all, the worst it could do is lower my blood pressure a little bit.

I’ll start by saying that, being prone to anxiety and depression, and having an overly active imagination, remaining calm is not my forte. I think this whole “centering practice,” as some people call it, is a great idea when I’m already relaxed and in good humor, when things aren’t going too badly, when my opponent isn’t so scary. I’m really not too bad at breathing, relaxing, letting go of the little things. Until, that is, life throws something at me that I’m not expecting. Then it all goes to shit. The fear monsters spring up from every direction and feed off my anxious mind, growing and multiplying until they’ve crept into every dark corner of my being.

So how do I learn to find calm in life’s chaos like I can in the ring? How do I quiet the fear monsters in real life? If you were hoping I’d have the answer, I hate to let you down. I don’t know how to do this, but, scientist that I am, I’m trying an experiment. My hypothesis is that the same thing that changed my life in the ring may help me in real life.

My trainer has told me from the start that I need to relax in the ring, but to be completely honest, I couldn’t imagine what that would look like. It was hard for me to even tell that I wasn’t relaxed. So I started observing when I sparred with boxers I wasn’t afraid to fight: the little boy, the guys at the gym who are so gentle with me. I began consciously focusing on how my body feels when it is calm. I felt it’s strong and steady heartbeat, I felt my core engaging with every punch, I felt how my hips turn when my body is loose, I felt my body respond to my sparring partner without me telling it to. I practiced calm. And then, one day, when I stepped into the ring with the big, scary opponents, I remembered what calm felt like, and I tried to imitate it. I moved and breathed like I was not anxious. Miraculously, this resulted in me taking fewer hits, or at least, the hits felt less hard. This boosted my confidence. It made me believe I was perhaps less bad than I had originally thought, which allowed me to relax a little more. Still, these days, sometimes when I get hit, I start to get worked up like old times. My muscles tense, and I find myself caught again on the wrong side of a flurry of punches. But then I back off for a second, breathe, and remember calm. I cannot say I’ve mastered this, but I can say that calm is feeling a little less foreign.

So I am trying to practice calm outside of the ring every day when life is not so scary. I’m trying to feel what calm is like. Then maybe when I find myself up against the big opponents, the really hard stuff of life, I’ll be able to remember calm and call it back. Maybe I’ll be able to imagine being calm, and maybe this will actually help me relax even as fists are flying around me. Then maybe I’ll be able to roll with the punches instead of rigidly resisting them. And maybe, just maybe, the punches will hurt a tiny bit less. I don’t expect this is something I’ll ever master. Rather, I suspect it is something I’ll have to practice and exercise for the rest of my life, as I meet bigger and better opponents. But perhaps practicing calm will allow me to reign in the fear monsters and enjoy this adventure a little bit more.

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