A girl comes flying in at me, her arms whirling like a pinwheel, throwing punches and kicks all at the same time, a writhing ball of fury and rage.
What did I do to this girl again? I search my mind for some past offense. Did I make fun of her poor arithmetic skills back in fifth grade? Or did I unwittingly erect a shopping mall on top of her ancestral homeland? Did she think I was flirting with her boyfriend? Because I definitely wasn’t, but you know how some girls get. Or maybe she overheard me making a dismissive comment about her pink boxing gloves…
Oh right—this girl wants to beat me up because we are in a kickboxing tournament. So I suppose that’s her job. Come to think of it, wanting to beat her up is my job, too.
Why did I want this job again?
In the moments before this fight, I thought: I am going to lose, and I don’t care at all. Actually, that sentiment might be backwards. What I was really thinking was, I don’t care at all, and so I am going to lose.
I knew that’s a bad way to think, so I began saying a mantra to myself: Want to win, want to win. It wasn’t a statement but a command. You need to want to win.
I felt like I was faking wanting to win through the entire fight. I knew that body kicks were supposed to score the most points, so I thought, You want to win, so throw more body kicks. I made sure that every time my opponent threw any punch or kick, I would throw one or two body kicks in return.
That should be enough to win this thing, I thought, counting up the kicks. Because I want to win.
But this girl wasn’t counting her kicks. I’m not sure what she was thinking, actually. She was flying around so quickly that she never planted enough to hit me with anything that hurt at all. So I don’t know if she was really trying to hurt me—if that were her goal, she probably could have done it. (And I don't say that to dismiss her abilities, because I wasn't trying to hurt her, either). But she definitely wanted to win, wanted it with all her being; every movement manifested desire to dominate, to aggress, to be the best, to be on top.
This desire for dominance is perhaps something I just don’t have in me. I love “friendly” sparring, with my friends or with strangers. I love seeing if I can keep up with an opponent, seeing if I can withstand whatever that opponent throws at me, figuring out ways to trick that opponent into opening himself--or occasionally herself--up for a kick or punch.
I don’t know if those feelings will ever translate into me being a good competitor. I do get angry and competitive when I spar sometimes, usually when I feel like someone is hurting me. That never happened during my fight. I never felt scared, hurt, attacked, all the things I am used to feeling during my regular sparring with people who are bigger and stronger than me. I felt more annoyed, irritated, like being poked over and over by an annoying twelve-year-old playmate.
I had anticipated that once something hurt, my desire to hurt my opponent back would kick in. That’s what fighters always tell you: You think you don’t want to throw hard punches at this person, until he starts throwing hard punches at you.
I have experienced this enough times in my training, times when I was terrified, when I felt, with good reason, that someone was trying to hurt me. The thought that always comes into my head at these moments is: I am going to fucking kill you.
I've always thought I would be scared of my competitor in a tournament, and always expected that this desire to kill would be a central feature of any competition I did, for better or for worse. But that self-defensive rage never kicked in during my fight against this 106 pound ball of antagonism. I mean really, can’t we settle this in some more civilized manner? Why am I fighting you again? I felt completely calm, logical, aloof. That’s actually how I had wanted to feel, and I had worked very hard on being calm and collected as I approached the tournament. Unfortunately, being calm and collected may not actually be the best way to goad oneself into an irrational fury.
The worst part about my want to win mantra is that I then did feel angry and upset when I lost. But I was counting, I thought, indignantly. I threw like a million body kicks! If I just needed to look more aggressive to win, I wouldn’t have bothered throwing all those kicks.
Being disappointed that you lost is the most horrible part of not wanting to win enough, because then your not wanting to win seems like the most pitiful sort of sour grapes: well, I didn’t want to win anyway. So really, I am not sure if I did or didn’t. But I do know what I thought as I watched my opponent jumping up and down before each round began, barely able to contain herself, as I stood waiting quietly: Whatever she’s feeling over there that’s making her act that way, I can’t imagine feeling like that.
One of my teachers told me that I needed to do at least one more competition. “You need to do one more so that you can win,” he said.
“I won’t win,” I said. “If I’m doing it just to win, I’ll lose, and then I’ll have to keep doing them and it will just make me lose more and more.”
“Don’t think like that!” he chastised me.
But it’s true, or at least I can’t see any other truth at the moment. I know this is not a particularly objective or logical moment, a week after this fight, when I am trying to process what it meant and how to think about it. And I know that these conflicting feelings are part of the point of competing, that it is supposed to teach us deep lessons about who we are and what our place in the world is. Right now, I feel my place in the world is not in a competition or a performance, not testing myself in some formalized public way, or that if I do so, it’s only for what I got from this, which was some really helpful video footage that I can study to improve my sparring. Right now, I feel that I will always lose, because I just can’t imagine wanting to win enough to make it happen.
One of my favorite things I got from this fight are the photographs my friend Amy took of me, with perfect lighting for drawing. And yes, I did this one myself, with heavy coaching from Adam. I have been working on my coachability.