Seems like yesterday when you started school and already it’s time for college. You must be feeling the nerves, though I know you’ll never let on. So, I thought I’d write about fear in this year’s Father’s Day letter to you.
Last year, around this time, I finally started learning a sport I have loved watching since childhood. Boxing for me was not about the ability to hit but about overcoming the fear of being hit. And I finally decided to cross that bridge.
Growing up as a nerdy, bespectacled kid, getting hit was a real possibility. It was perhaps my biggest fear. I went out of my way to avoid conflict, giving in when I should have stood up for myself – even when there was no danger of violence. I didn’t want to get hit – physically or emotionally.
But here’s the thing: fear is part of life and it is, in fact, one of the reasons we have survived as a species. Imagine our ancestors coming up against a prehistoric carnivore and not treading cautiously. We wouldn’t have lasted, leave alone thrived.
As I’ve discovered as part of my love for sport in general and boxing in particular, all the greatest champions experienced the fear of getting hit. Without it, they wouldn’t have been champions in the first place.
Why are we afraid of punches? They hurt, the pain lasts – as I’ve discovered in training – and whatever hurts you, scares you.
Secondly, the ones that land are unexpected. You don’t see them coming. It’s like hearing a creaking from the attic at midnight; you don’t know whether it’s a loose floorboard or a brain-chomping monster. It’s creepy, it’s scary because you don’t know what will come next. Ambiguity isn’t good for your mental state.
So, how do you conquer that fear? How do you accept that you’re going to get hit but you can carry on nevertheless? Preparation.
That’s why we train – both physically and mentally. In the ring, we train to think more than act. What will my opponent do next? How should I react? We learn to control, more than anything else, our attitude. And we get hit – it’s part of the sport. Slowly, the fear ebbs away. You get struck, hard, but it’s no longer the pain that you think of; you wonder what opening you gave the opponent, what you’re doing wrong and how to get it right.
You learn, most importantly, how to keep going on – you take the blow, skip out of reach, get your vision back into focus, step in, jab, feint to the left and let loose with your right, land one of your own. Every small victory adds up.
Training, or preparation, is the key to conquering fear. It’s a process – it allows you to get better, have greater control, correct your flaws, grow in confidence.
There’s a lot to learn from this, isn’t there? Preparation, thought, grit, persistence are necessary for life in general. And remember to take your time to develop these. To use a boxing term, slow sparring helps you develop form, power and technique, and it’s a lot better than a frenzied, burn-yourself-out-in-two-rounds approach. You can be highly intense even when you’re taking it slow – it helps you see things better and think them through.
But, let me come back to fear. As you start college, it’s natural to be nervous – it’s probably a good thing. Being switched on means our senses are sharp, that we’re thinking hard about what we’re doing. Fear propels us, enables us to do things we never imagined. It shows us that we have power, that we can endure.
As I started boxing, I was sometimes paralysed by not just the fear of being hit but also of hitting someone. For the longest time I would only defend, moving backwards instead of forwards, and apologising every time I did land a punch. But I made it a point to never stop sparring, always going up against better, more powerful punchers. Then one day, the fear melted away. I didn’t care if I was hit. I didn’t care if it hurt. I… just… didn’t… care.
All I wanted was for my body to move, achieve a rhythm, feel like one unit as I channeled power and accuracy from the ground up into my gut and then into my fist. When I struck, it wasn’t about hitting someone; it was about the science of it. I stopped apologising; the opponent knew what he was getting into and his aim was the same as mine.
On one weak day, sensing my reluctance, my opponent just stopped and said: “Aap sirf maar khaoge ya khilaoge bhi?” (“Do you plan to simply take punishment or dish it out too?”) That was it. He was hit on the head, nose and face as often as he did the same to me. He was 17 years old, but a national-level fighter (I learn a lot from the young) and the experience proved that it doesn’t matter what we fear or why. It matters only how we respond to it.
PS: I love you.