Some days are good. Some days are bad. For assistant professor of English Kathryn Gardiner, things could be worse. Like getting punched in the face worse.
“I’ll think sometimes if I’m having a bad day or something like that, I’ll say ‘What’s the person going to do? Hit me in the face,’” Gardiner said. “We’re in a civilized society. They can scream and yell at me, but at the end of the day no one is punching me.”
While Gardiner wasn’t expecting punches at work, she isn’t a stranger to combat. From 2008-11, she participated in various forms of martial arts, ranging from Muay Thai to competitive cage fighting.
As her involvement in martial arts began to grow, she began to learn more about herself, specifically what her body and mind could withstand. While she said the hits hurt, her mind began to grow.
“My body can do a lot of things, but it’s not exceptional,” Gradiner said. “My mental toughness was where I was able to excel past my teammates in my sheer ability to stand discomfort.
“It has aided me more times in my life than I would’ve liked. For example, I'm a screenwriter, so I spend hours on a script ... That takes a certain type of toughness to say ‘I’m doing this now because, at the end, it’ll be worth while.”
Out on the floor, the discomfort that some of these fighters are put through is what continues to push them in their respective martial art. Max Burt, Ball State alumni and founder of Muncie Brazilian Jiu Jitsu said it’s the aspect of being OK while in those situations that separates the beginners from the veterans.
“When people start jiu-jitsu, they aren’t used to being in those situations because they aren’t used to that close contact,” Burt said. “You tend to find a way that you can survive in those situations. Nothing is going to kill you and you’re going to be OK. You just need to make it through that period of time.”
The focus within the game is not something that holds value strictly in martial arts. Across the sporting world, the management of pressure and endurance plays a key role in any athletic performance.
“Handling pressure is huge in the mental aspect of sports,” said Jean-Charles Lebeau, assistant professor of sport and exercise psychology. “When you look at the history of sports psychology and the strategies, the original goal was to decrease your stress and use various stress-reducing techniques. What we found out is that it doesn’t work for everyone ... The new trend now is to implement those stress symptoms into excitement.”
The duality of excitement and stress has been worked on not only to help performance in all facets of sports, but everyday functions as well. Jumping into the cage for the first time, Gardnier didn’t know if her opponent was going to be “the next Rhonda Rousey,” or just someone who was fighting for fun.
In that first fight, she began to use the one aspect that has driven her entire life, something she said she wants to face and not run away from: fear.
“I felt nervous, but very ready at the same time,” Gardiner said. “I still have this philosophy of going towards things that frighten me. The fighting really didn’t scare me, but the unknowns of going in front of an audience and handling myself as an athlete. The fight only lasted 45 seconds.”
That drive pushed Gardiner through a successful run in the sport, finishing a three year cage fighting career at 2-2. Lebeau said the aspect of drive in sports is key to an athlete's performance at any time.
“Drive is a type of motivation,” Lebeau said. “The definition of motivation is the drive to push you to do something or push you away from it … the drive can be related to the passion of the sport in getting on the field and playing the sport and repeating it over and over again. The other aspect of passion in the drive in getting involved early in the sport and enjoying it while you are young.”
That drive proved to be important in Gardiner’s career, and eventually that sense of fear began to wear out, taking her passion with it. While she would step inside the cage or on the floor, she struggled to feel the same fear.
“I had a brother that passed away, and when I fought I was dealing with a lot of grief in there,” Gardiner said. “It was a place to punch the universe and release all that anger and fear. In what was my last fight, I wanted to see if that fear and drive was still there. If it wasn’t fear, I was going to stop. I wasn’t afraid, and I was just done.”
Whether it’s a burnout or loss of motivation, it’s not uncommon for athletes to lose interest. Lebeau said it’s especially common in individual sports such as swimming and tennis to see this burnout happen.
“There is a small percentage of athletes who burn out and have to stop for a couple weeks or a whole season,” Lebeau said. “They might even stop altogether and take another route or start another sport.”
In combat sports, it’s easy for that draw off to happen, especially early on. In his eight years of teaching jiu-jitsu, Burt said that the hardest part of getting involved in the sport is the damage it can do to your ego.
“The most important thing is you need to walk in the door the first time,” Burt said. “Jiu- jitsu can tear your ego down a lot, which is good in the long run, but hard for people in the beginning. You have to be prepared for that. You can’t think that you’re going to be the king of the class. You want to come in with an open mind.”
While she has closed the cage doors and her fire has died out, Gardiner still has a deep love of the sport. She may not be getting hit in the face, but hearing the rattle of the chain holding a heavy bag sparks joy in her.
“There will be a few things I love more than boxing,” Gardiner said. “I don’t get to do it as much anymore because I injured my elbow and couldn’t keep going. However, I can’t get myself to get rid of my equipment. I keep thinking I should go for it.”
Contact Jack Williams with any comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @jackgwilliams.