I ordered a mouthguard last week. For anybody who is seriously boxing this is probably not a big deal as it is simply a piece of protection gear that is needed to keep yourself from punches against the jaw. I learned that it is the punches against the jaw that can easily knock you out because the nerves from the jaw go straight to the brain. This made me a tiny bit nervous ordering it, but committed to boxing, I went ahead…
I picked up the mouthguard from the mail on my way to my boxing lesson the other day. Then I sat in the car and tried to put it into my mouth. It looked like a monstrous device designed for aliens. Then, when I had finally successfully placed the black plastic thing where it is supposed to go I looked into the back mirror. My cheeks were strangely puffed up with a black airfilter between my teeth. I couldn’t help myself from thinking, “what did I get myself into with this?” When I started drooling without control while people walked by left and right next to the car, my only thought was, “how am I supposed to carry this and box at the same time?”
I promise I will not use it in the kitchen during cooking, as it probably will prevent me from tasting the food. I will also not bring it with me for tango dancing as it might not contribute to great intimacy with my dancing partner, since I resemble a Star-trek character from an undiscovered planet when I wear it. But, I promise I keep you updated on how I will put it to use in the boxing ring.
In one of my first boxing sessions my trainer was punching me and I panicked. I turned away from him, lost eye contact, forgot to keep my hands up and at the same time was trying to keep the oncoming punches away from me. He kept coming towards me, yelling, “Protect yourself, but don’t defend yourself!”
What a useful distinction, not only for boxing, but for how I relate to everything in life! I would describe myself as being defensive in general. Since I started boxing I realized that it is partly because I never really learned how to protect myself. And there is a difference between the two. “Defending oneself” is the act of having already given in to the belief that I am a victim. It is passive, closed off, a reaction. There is no power or possibility in that position.
“Protecting oneself” is active, it needs strength, attention and courage. And there is something quite vulnerable in it, because it implies being open and flexible. If I am not identified with the thought that I need to react there can even be space to be creative in the moment!
The picture of Muhammad Ali communicates the intelligence and power of staying open and flexible in the face of an oncoming challenge. Be it criticism, conflict, or a jab coming towards my head!
It was training session number 3 when my trainer put my head gear on and told me that we were trying to practice “taking punches”. I was a bit nervous, but more so I was curious what it would be like to experience this. He was punching me lightly in the head and I thought that it was better than I had anticipated until the next jab hit me quite hard. What a challenge, to just stay present, in the game, keeping eye contact, not withdrawing, not going into confusion. Just taking the punch as it was and keep moving. A punch is not a sign of personal failure. It is just a punch, and what I am learning, I have to get used to it as a part of boxing – and in bigger sense, as part of life.
This training gives me a new reference to receiving feedback, for example. We take punches all the time in life in all sorts of ways – making mistakes, getting into conflicts, facing obstacles or disappointments. Can I stay present and functional without taking it personally, without indulging the fact that “I got punched” for a split second, that is the question. I can’t afford that in boxing, because if I do, the next punch will have already hit me. It is not personal at all, and recognizing that is quite liberating.