The humility of sport

The return to sport, post-pandemic, comes with challenges. The hardest one, we find, is to resist the impulse to participate for ‘fear of missing out’.

Just before and during lockdown, we picked up battodo – an arcane Japanese sword art using bokken (wooden sword) and katana (blunt and sharp) – having been recommended it by a friend when we asked around about a totally different sport: kendo.

The difference is the former is rooted in a specific spiritual practice, whereas the latter is a competitive sport overseen by Sport England. We picked up a few useful skills in battodo, but for our fitness and social objectives, that is to have fun, and to have fun acquiring knowledge and skills, we opted for kendo. Also, severe delays on the overground to East London forced us to consider a location closer to where we live.

Sketches in my kendo journal. Yes, we had a vision.

Kendo comes with the structure similar to the sports that I had done competitively in the past. It has governance written down to explain ethics, health and safety, grading, qualifications and competitions to its participants. In this sense, it provides me with the clarity I got from taekwondo, rowing, running and multisport.

Challenge 1: I am getting old and specific

Of course, at this point, post-pandemic and having reached the middle phase of my life, I have different needs out of sport. I don’t want habitus anymore. I don’t need courtship. I don’t need to be a part of a clique. I want space. I want to enjoy and learn. The best sport for me, however, isn’t necessarily one that is acquainted with spiritual practice like yoga (though I love yoga). A secular sport is fine as long as its values and my values match.

Challenge 2: I am out of shape

As with triathlon and rowing, my mind was eager to participate but my body was a shamble. Thirteen months of reduced mobility and Covid took a toll on the body. My sister and I walked a great deal during lockdowns. We did yoga. We meditated. To an extent, they took care of anxiety management. However, that first session in July 2021 during a hot, sweltering evening almost did us in. It was like my first ever 5k running competition: painful, thirsty, breathless, hot and humbling.

Challenge 3: Physical and geographical distance

During the lockdown, we had to do battodo using a combination on onsite and online sessions. The new social distancing measures in place when we returned to the dojo proved to be difficult. Fortunately, it is a sport that ensures you are a sword away from other students. But the distance from our home to the dojo made us decide to go back to Plan A: kendo. That kendo dojo asks us to perform lateral flow tests prior to a lesson to prove that we have no Covid-19. Because of the tube travels taken for this, we are careful to limit our mobility and exposure to viruses before and after the day we take our kendo lesson. So travelling on public transport is done sparingly just to be safe.

Cycling at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

Words of wisdom

By knowing the bad shape we were in physically, I could compare my current baseline during the pandemic with my baseline before. The margin is wide. I transcribed my kendo aspirations in December 2020 in a journal. I wrote down my desire in my regimes for aerobic, anaerobic, core fitness and flexibility. I am shit in all. I am not where I was before the pandemic. For a while after that July session, I felt bad and dejected.

A few things still encourage me to pick up the 400g shinai, which currently feels like 4kg. These are the words from my previous coaches, team mates and therapists:

  • “Strength comes in recovery”. You break your muscles when you exercise. Your body heals in order to be stronger. You don’t become strong when you are breaking down your muscles. You become stronger when you rest.
  • “The floor is your friend”. As a taekwondo student, I was always afraid of falling on the gym floor. But one of my coaches told me to focus on balancing and treat the floor like an ally in a fight. You cannot stand without the floor. If you fall, then learn to fall properly.
  • “Breathe”. My therapist told me an emotion can be regulated by breathing. Breathe shallow and fast, and you will get excited – or angry. Breathe deep and slow, and you will relax.
  • “You run to be with one with nature, not to outrun your worry”. Don’t bust your knee because you’re worried about work and feel compelled to run long distances to calm down.
  • “If you can’t say no to something, it’s a sign”. Learn to say no to coffee (the most wonderful brew in the morning!), to emotional dependency on social groups, to presenteeism, to retail therapy (I have 12 pairs of running shoes and too many cycling kits) and to the fear of missing out. Do something because it is necessary and because you feel good about it. Acquire the impulse to resist your addiction.

It has not been easy to follow the gems above. But these are the golden words that take me to the dojo, although I look like a complete twat on the floor. I would like to be the better version of myself. I would like to attain pure joy. That better version, however, needs to have plenty of humility to get to its destination.

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