Monday, August 12, 2013
The Fighter's Mind
The Fighter’s Mind
The mental game, especially in combat sports, is an oft-discussed topic. But to a layperson it all sounds pretty vague, sometimes mysterious, and at times even absurd. What would motivate an individual to push his or her body to its absolute limit in order to gain a seemingly arbitrary prize? More than that, what is it that keeps the spirit going strong in those truly exceptional individuals at the top of their field even when the flesh has begun to yield to the ferocity of the contest? These are the questions Sam Sheridan looks to answer in his book The Fighter's Mind, in which he speaks to some of the world’s most prominent martial arts practitioners, coaches, and ultra-athletes to shed some light on what goes on between the ears of the world's toughest men and women.
Sheridan is no stranger to combat himself: in his previous book, A Fighter's Heart, he flew to Thailand to compete and train in Muay Thai kickboxing. He has sparred and competed alongside MMA (mixed martial arts) world champions in Iowa and boxed with Olympic gold medal winners. These first-hand experiences give his writing a more grounded feel—you know you're listening to the experiences of a participant in the pugilistic arts, not just an armchair athlete. Sheridan writes with a studious, impassioned enthusiasm, and inspires readers to experience the struggle for themselves in spite of its difficulty. While offering a wealth of insight, he doesn't hide that there is a certain visceral, phenomenal nature to the conflict which simply must be experienced and can only be truly understood and internalized firsthand.
The Fighter's Mind is an attempt to examine two seemingly diametrically-opposed concepts: the violence and the elegance that are simultaneously present in in-the-moment struggle. What results is a piece written from a surprisingly reflective, calm place, although upon further scrutiny I suppose it shouldn't be surprising. How else would a fighter maintain composure while feeling his face splintered by an opposing fist, other than by creating an emotional center of calm amid the chaos? How else could an ultra-marathon runner find the will to put one foot in front of the other, faced with the prospect of another 50km of ragged lungs and screaming tendons, other than by creating a deeply personal reason, a need to do so? The frank honesty of pain and conflict and the possibilities for self-discovery they pose are a recurring main theme in the book, and Sheridan's prose is suited to describing it, philosophical while pragmatically acknowledging the brutality inherent in the competitions he describes.
That's not to say that The Fighter's Mind doesn't offer up a thieves’ bounty of wisdom from a number of other diverse, wizened voices. Those interviewed range from famed MMA coaches Greg Jackson and Pat Miletich and combat legend Randy Couture, to chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin (who helps deliver my personal favourite chapter, where he ruminates on the process of learning and the art of remaining cautious on the verge of victory), to art critic Peter Schjeldhal and sports psychiatrist Michael Landon. A wide spectrum of perspectives is covered, from the ultra-practical to the calculatingly cerebral to the spiritual and even artistic. Sheridan does a great job of knitting them all together within a cohesive, entertaining, and eminently accessible narrative. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone interested in the human mind and its ability to overcome and improve.
After all, we're all fighting something.
- Vincent Smith
Vincent Smith is a taoist, aspiring writer, and dyed-in-the-wool psychology geek at the University of Guelph. You can find his writing on video games, comics, movies, and all things geek over at The Rogue's Gallery.