The Value of Empowerment

After getting a concussion from one of my MMA fights, I started having some hesitation in striking. It was like I could not decide if I want to move in or out. If my opponent attacked me I would try to circle out and sometimes just kind of freeze and get stuck. At that time I did not have a striking coach. I trained at different gyms and attended different styles of striking classes.

I learned different combinations I could use to counter, ways to close the distance in my favor, new footwork, etc. There are all those answers that could work for me - I just could not make them actually work in sparring.

I was focused, disciplined and determined to do what it takes to break this pattern. Until I got overwhelmed again and this freeze response kicked in. It was more of a reflex than a real decision I made. Like when someone claps their hands in front of your face and you just blink even if you told yourself you won’t blink this time. This freezing response of my body just did not want to go away.

It became a year, almost two years in which I was still struggling with that response. It started getting to me. There was improvement, just not in a way that made me feel confident though. There was always this fear left that I will freeze again and indeed, I still did.

At some point I decided not to focus on it at all anymore. I accepted that by focusing on it that problem only becomes bigger. Instead of trying to ‘fix’ myself in a way that I will be able to go out there and fight again I just let it go and started to get comfortable with the idea that if it does not come back naturally I might not fight again.

After travelling for a while I ended up staying in a gym for about three months. My Coach there was called Chris and I liked his stand up style a lot. He knew how to properly break the rhythm of the opponent and the style is very kick heavy, just as I like it. For him there was no difference in coaching men or women. He just saw the fighter inside of them.

In sparring he started noticing that I had those moments where I just suddenly froze and looked like a total different fighter. He never said anything negative about it though. He gave me a few combinations that might suit me and told me to just relax and try my best.

That already was so helpful. In the past I used to pressure myself too much.

Since my first week at his gym, Chris only said things that empowered me. He told me that my technique is clean, that my movement is great and he pointed out a few weak points in my game. We slowly worked on them and I had fun working on my weaknesses again. And no, he did not take it easy on me - when we sparred I felt weak and exposed. At the same time I also felt encouraged to try new things out and that is something I was missing.

That happened over and over again. Critique, me working on what he told me, feedback, sparring. Again and again. I mainly sparred with other women and people my size and that helped me a lot. I was able to pull off the new combinations I learned and my footwork and timing started to become better and better.

There was a visible curve in my improvement, slow but significant. From time to time I would still have that freeze response in sparring though.

I think Chris could sense that. Maybe he just coached enough people and knew what was going on or maybe it was just his intuition. Once when I experienced the freeze response again, I expected him to say something that expressed disappointment but he put his hand on my shoulder and just said ‘Raffaela, you are a very good fighter and I want you to know that.’

The tension just left. I wasn’t able to do better on this day but I kept going. However, I could feel a significant change in me on my way home from the gym. Something just felt different. Like this fear had disappeared. He saw through it and saw me, he didn’t even pay attention to the fact that I froze. In this very moment I experienced that even in that moment, my skill and my passion for fighting is still there. It is still visible, not only that but it is what I am when I fight.

Being seen like that brought back the confidence that I was looking for.

I improved quickly each session, especially during sparring. I was able to go for it again, I did not freeze anymore. Controlling the pace, going forward, keeping calm when I got cornered and slowly getting back control was a huge improvement. Not only was I back, I was able to do most of the things I was working on in the past two years in sparring. Like they have been there under the surface, waiting to come out. That was quite emotional for me. Chris also suggested that I should fight for his team some tiem soon but I continued my travels before that.

I told him that he helped me overcoming that response and that he is a great coach.

I am not saying here that you should look for confidence outside of yourself, just that the environment also really matters. That having a good coach is really valuable. That sometimes things take a long time to heal, that it is hard to break a pattern, that your body and your mind need rest and that a coach should empower you. There truly is a power in empowerment and in optimism. Especially as a fighter we are so used to be hard on ourselves, my point is that being gentle to yourself is just as valuable and important for making progress.