Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mental Health and My Jiu Jitsu

It's world mental health week and today and I've pulled up a bit sore after yesterday's Brazilian Jiu Jitsu demonstration. I like to use my proficiency in Jiu Jitsu to preach the benefits of sport and movement skills for mental health. And the fact I've pulled up sore should tell you I haven't been practicing what I preach.
Anyway, that's not what this is about. It's about mental health and how you need to get a damn hobby.

I started back into the martial arts in 2004.  I had been a champion in a couple of disciplines in my youth and had studied numerous systems throughout my twenties. I had always been interested in competing in Mixed Martial Arts, but a very fast-paced job stressed me out. The period of unemployment that followed sent me the other way - into a state of depression. I pretty much ate myself into a stupor. So, MMA was not going to be an option.

Several months later, though, I had a good job and lived right near a tropical Queensland beach. Things were looking up. I got back into some decent shape and decided I was going to start training again.

A younger workmate had been studying karate for some years and wanted to learn grappling. I had some grappling experience, so we began training together.I'll call him Paul. Paul had been diagnosed with ADD and struggled with concentration. Even in his karate class, where he felt most at home, he couldn't maintain his concentration for an extended time.

But you know what? Nothing makes you concentrate quite as hard as a 120kg man crushing your chest and trying to twist your arm out of its socket. So it was that Paul learned to focus. That focus began coming into his work and home life and he began to settle.

With Paul's help, I prepared for my first professional MMA fight. I travelled to Toowoomba - my old home town - and came in with the crowd behind me. I walked out to raucous applause, touched gloves and had my head caved in in less than 40 seconds.

That's not an exaggeration the right hand side of my face was damaged enough that my wife couldn't bear to look at me. My son didn't recognise me and freaked out when he finally did and I was wearing mirrored aviators three months later to hide the bruising that was still there.

But I loved it...... The unbelievable rush of endorphins is something no drug could ever come close to. Despite the terrible damage done to my right eye and everything around it, there was no pain. I had tested myself and had come up short physically, but not mentally. I was now a professional MMA fighter. One of a select few in Australia back in 2004.

I had been introduced to a bloke named Ross through Paul. Ross was Paul's senior in his formal martial arts classes. He was like me in that he'd been very successful earlier in his martial arts career and wanted to broaden his horizons. He brought along a bloke named Harry. Harry was huge! And a very proficient Judo player. Together, we formed the imaginatively named Boyne BJJ club.

Since we had no mats, we trained on a tarpaulin in my back yard. That was tough work. Especially when Harry smashed you into the ground and came down with his 140kg frame on top of you. But we figured it would toughen us up - and it did. Once that happens to you a few times, competing in your weight division on mats feels a lot like relaxing on a mattress.

It was hot, too. The Central Queensland summer is 40 odd degrees and extremely humid. We'd be on the tarp - in the sun - straight after work at 4pm.

The lack of mats, and ridiculous training conditions - not to mention the lack of formal instruction - would have turned normal people off. Our attitude was different, though. We figured that the heat and humidity would improve our endurance. And it did. In Brisbane competitions, when others were complaining about the lack or air-conditioning, we felt marvelous.

When a qualified instructor named Dom moved to our area, we began training in his garage. We continued training just as hard and we had a number of people come through. Most didn't like the up close nature of the sport or the intense physical work required to excel. We managed to expand the number of regulars, though. Ray was a bit older than the rest of us and tough as nails. He was physically fit and intense and was immediately addicted to the physicality of the sport of Jiu Jitsu. Keith was an acquaintance from work. Long-haired and quite carefree, Keith loved to travel and play guitar. He was the smallest of us (by far) and loved the way the sport offered him the opportunity to use his superior speed and flexibility to get the better of the rest of us. He brought his wife-to-be along and Kel became a lynchpin of the crew, as well.

This crew helped me prepare for the three much more successful professional fights I had during 2005. I became a contender for the XFC Super Heavyweight and Heavyweight titles and I appeared on national television when my July 2005 fight was broadcast on Foxtel. I was in the local news a lot and I even appeared in a Ralph magazine article on Mixed Martial Arts.

Ross had started fighting MMA and had similar success, as well.

When Dom moved on, I took over the running of the club again and the regulars kept coming. A new bloke, Stef started doing extra training with me. Stef would get so stressed in training that he sometimes couldn't sort his left from his right. But, within a couple of years, he was a state champion and national runner-up.

Stef was promoted to blue belt not long after I left the area. I always wish he'd received his blue belt from me - because he deserved it then. A blue belt takes in Jiu Jitsu takes as long to achieve as a black belt in some systems. Keith had become the first person I promoted to blue belt some time before and Harry had followed just before I left.

When I look back on this crew, I often wonder what made the group what it was. Knowing each person's history, though, you could easily infer that we each felt an affinity through emotional turmoil. For each of us, Jiu Jitsu became the glue that held our minds together. We had all been through so much. Several of the members had serious, diagnosed conditions. The rest had been through some very difficult emotional times.

Our crew was an extremely functional group of somewhat dysfunctional individuals who knew they had a place where they didn't have to be beholden to the stresses and anxieties of their life. A place where they could learn new skills and test themselves against each other. Mostly, though, I think they could immerse themselves so fully in the activity that nothing else mattered.

Talk to some surfers, chess players and others who seem to have a different kind of connection with their pastime. They'll tell you the same thing. OK, not exactly the same thing. I'm pretty sure surfers and chess players think a little differently. But they'll tell you it's about the "Zone". It's about relaxing and focussing intently on the task at hand. And they'll tell you that nothing is more relaxing.

There is a very sad side to this story, though. I had never considered that emotional connection the old crew had and why we bonded so well until this year. Some five years after I moved away and the club folded. Earlier this year, we lost Keith to the spectre of mental illness. It has been cause for some serious navel gazing on my part.

I have come to realise that while the focus we're putting on mental health this week is a major step forward, there is a simple and critical step to managing your own mental health that we all need to do. Find your release valve. Find the activity that motivates you to excel. The activity that allows you to concentrate with laser focus. The activity that relaxes you and takes you away from your stresses and anxieties.

This mental health week, start looking for your Jiu Jitsu.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Apparently, the Fat Man Stayed After Christmas

So, the other day, I stood on the scale. It said "Get Off".

That's an old joke, but it's pretty much actually what happened. For the first time in history, the scale couldn't measure my weight. The worst bit? It measures up to 150kg (330lb).

So not only was I at a new record weight, I wasn't even sure what that weight was.

I tried hard to find out what my weight was. I couldn't go down to the pharmacy at 5 in the morning and strip to my jocks to get my morning weight. The ladies there probably wouldn't appreciate it anyway. At least not in the shape I'm in.

I had to come up with a novel way of working out my weight. I have been using a network of medical and industrial scales during the day until my weight came down far enough that I could measure it with my set at home. Then, I compared it.

The results say I was somewhere between 153.2 and 155.6kg (337.6 - 343lb).

Most people will never know how demoralising it is to stand on a scale and see that sort of error. And try explaining to your friends the reason you're standing on an industrial scale every day and occasionally bringing your bathroom scale to work with you.

"Well, thing is, I'm too damn fat to measure my weight at home, so I have to do science to work out what my weight really is."

Well, I'm down to a svelte 146.7kg (323lb) today, 13 days after deciding enough is enough.

I figure I'll use this blog to track my journey back to fight fitness and tell funny and tragic stories about how someone who used to be in pretty good shape comes to this point.

Stay tuned. There is even a risk you might learn something or pick up some resources along the way.

Friday, December 24, 2010

How Could You Not See It Coming

I remember what I said to a friend at work when I first saw Power Balance Bands (or whatever they're called) for sale. I thought there must have been a marketing meeting where everyone had a bet. The person who could sell the cheapest, crappiest item for the most money would win.

Seriously, I couldn't think of another reason they would come up with the idea.

The most vehement anti-power band campaigner in our area has been my twelve year-old son. How does that make you feel, Shaquille O'Neal?

In my search for guitar parts from across the world, I had found the exact items available from the Chinese manufacturer for 15c a unit. Yes, these were the same items being sold for $60 in Aussie sport stores. The total amount of money made on this rort must have been obscene.

For a while, I considered buying 10,000 of them and selling them for $10 each. No-one would believe it would work, though. It just wouldn't be expensive enough to work.

I know a number of guys who bought the bands. Some believed they worked, some decided to eat the loss and pretend they never saw the damn things. The ones who believed they worked referred to the "tests" that the makers published with the bands and that were touted as proof they worked.

The results of the tests are easily explained by two things. One, placebo effect and two, practice. More so practice, I suspect. I never met anyone who did the tests with the Power Band first. The tests seem to always be done without it first. Have you ever done a complex task worse the second time you did it?

No, would be the answer in most cases. You could wrap yourself in toilet paper and do the tests. You'll still do better the second time. That'd make toilet paper prices go up, as well.

So, the ACCC have declared the bands a rort and told the maker to refund everyone who bought them.

Prepare for phase two of the rort, where athletes and celebrities claim to have been duped like everyone else into purchasing the bands - rather than having been paid to participate in the deceit.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Of Drought and Flooding Rain

I've got a note book of dozens of posts I need to get up here, but I want to take a moment to reflect on the forces of nature and how much we depend on them. No matter how powerful we become as a people, nature can change our world in an instant.

For the last God-knows how many years, the area we live in here in the middle of New South Wales, Australia, has been in drought. This is a farming community. When there's no water, there's no crops. When a crop fails, a farmer and his or her employees suffer. Then, the town does, too.

In fact, everyone does. Prices rise, quality falls. Consumers demand lower prices, so the supermarkets offer the farmers lower margins. And so, the cycle continues.

For years, now, the people around here have been praying for rain. When I arrived here, my friends would joke about the cardboard plains surrounding Parkes. The place really was the colour of cardboard. There were no emerald-greens grassfields here.

A year ago, farmers were receiving government drought assistance.

Then, in Febraury this year, we got rain. 150mm of it. And it kept coming through the year. A fantastic season was upon us. The rain held off enough for the farmers to get their crops in and then it came back to make it grow. The whole place has been full of hope and optimism.

But to harvest those bumper crops, you need some dry weather. Harvest hasn't happened the way it should, this year. The rain has continued through the harvest period. This means the crops - especially wheat crops - had to be left longer than they should have.

Then, to add insult to injury, the big rains came. Massive rains. A week ago friday, we were ferrying people out of the mine site to get them home from work. Roads were closed. Telecommunications services cut off (a good story for another time, right there). One of the guys on my team was isolated and couldn't get to work. Another couldn't get home.

There was even a fatality due to the flooding not far from where I work. A sober reminder of the realities this kind of weather can bring.

Then, it got worse. More rain. More flooding.

The upshot? Those bumper crops are ruined. Those that aren't can't be harvested because the ground's too soft. In some areas, they're letting fruit di on the tree. Many wheat farmers are planning to cut their wheat and let it lie.

I'm no farmer. But I know a few. I know the devastating effect the weather has on a community like this one and I see the hardships that those who rely on the weather endure.

Most of all, I realise that a few years ago, I had no idea. I had opinions, but I didn't have a clue. Neither do most of us in our comfortable offices and homes.

That government drought assistance, less than a year on, has turned now to natural disaster assistance. Just a month after residential water restrictions were lifted, I was up to my hips in water crossing a road. The farmers just can't take a trick.

A land of drought andf looding rain, indeed.....

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Why Am I a Freak? (Why I don't like basketball and animal biscuits)

If I'm approached in the street by a stranger and told how good I must be at basketball one more time, I might just fold that stranger up and take a three point shot with his contorted body right under a passing truck.

OK, maybe I wouldn't go that far. I might well scream, though. You see, I'm not very good at Basketball. I don't even like the game. I've never watched a whole game all the way through. Even when my parents took me to see the Harlem Globetrotters as a child, I was bored. And they had trampolines. TRAMPOLINES, PEOPLE!

I succumbed to the peer-pressure a few times, though. In high school, I joined the Basketball team and rapidly found out I was better suited to Rugby. At least it seemed that way from the extraordinary number of opposition players missing skin and teeth. Oh, and the amount of time I spent on the bench.

But, when there was an opposition player really tearing us apart, coach knew what to do. Inside a couple of minutes, that hotshot would be laying on his backside twitching and I'd have a referee pointing me to the showers - usually in a very animated fashion. It wasn't that I set out to hurt people, though. It's just that I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't know the difference between screening, blocking and charging (and still don't). Since I had to play, coach took advantage of my considerable ham-fistedness.

When I was in the Army, I played a whole season in the local competition with the base team. I'd improved, though, and became a valuable member of the team. I still knocked people around a bit and got benched a lot for said knocking, but I led the entire competition in rebounds.

By the way - I don't really know what a rebound is, but it's one of two things. Either it's catching a ball that bounces off the backboard or it's shoulder charging someone so that they bounce into the crowd. Since that last one was frowned upon, I'm pretty sure it's the first. For the record, though, I led the league in both. I don't remember ever scoring one basket, though.

The truth of the matter is that I don't like Basketball at all. I don't like to see kids with their hats on sideways wearing giant pants and speaking with an American accent. Especially since I'm in Australia. But more than that, I just plain don't like watching or playing the game at any level. I don't begrudge the sport - my son enjoys the game - and I've never had any truly bad experiences. It wasn't that I was bad at it, either. When I decided to learn some rules, I became quite useful.

So what is it that put me off? I put it down to society's double standards and pressures around height.

I'm two metres tall. That's around 6'7" for Americans and older folk. Or four-and-a -half cubits for ancient Romans and any members of the Rolling Stones that may be reading this.

If you're still having trouble putting that together, that's the same height as Andrew Gaze and Michael Jordan. It's also seven inches taller than the average Australian (That's almost half a cubit!). So, I'm regularly seen as some kind of freak. When you think about it, I suppose it's true. If a man is only four-ish cubits tall (I'm starting to like cubits - the rest of you can use 5'4" or 163cm), he'd be viewed as a little unusual, too. He'd probably even be typecast as a jockey or a chimney-sweep.

So, why aren't there any four cubit tall, squeaky voiced guys complaining that complete strangers that strangers tell them they'd look great in multi-coloured silk? The answer is simple. A complete stranger wouldn’t do that. Some self centred teenage jerk might for a cheap laugh, but no-one respectable would.

I've never seen an old lady in a supermarket walk up to a dwarf and say "Excuse me, I can't bend down. Can you get that jar of coffee off the bottom shelf for me?" It's just not socially acceptable.

It's not socially acceptable to tell a skinny stranger with an Afro that he'd make a great toilet brush. It's not acceptable to tell a catatonic kid's family that they should enter him in a staring contest. And nor should it be. Those are things that weigh on the minds of the people they're aimed at. It may be less dramatic to draw attention to a short person's height, but it is no less damaging to them emotionally.

So, why is acceptable to draw attention to a tall person's differences? It's even OK to do it loudly and publicly. A case in point is the loud "You're just f-in' HUGE!" I once got from a complete stranger at a party. Immediately, all eyes are on the big guy in the middle of the room. And it's not like you can hide behind someone. Unless the Harlem Globetrotters have turned up. But with all the snazzy uniforms and trampolines, I guess that's about the only time a freak like me doesn't get noticed.

So, next time you think about drawing attention to a stranger's height, have a think about the effect it may have on them. You might even pick the wrong person to ask at exactly the wrong time.....

"Say, you're tall. You'd be a good basketballer."
"Say, you're ugly. You'd make a great gorilla biscuit mould."

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Grammys finally get an AC/DC

So, after the better part of 40 years' trying, AC/DC have gotten a Grammy.

I don't know if they're too ugly, too Australian, not Australian enough, drunk, loud or some combination of the former - but they were just awarded the Best Hard Rock Performance gong and they're still in the running for Best Rock Album.

My question is, who is this rewarding? Is it really an accolade for for the band or are the Grammys' organisers trying to cash in on a massive audience of half-drunk thirty-something Bogans - Cashed up or otherwise.

I can call  AC/DC fans Bogans because I am one. I'll be in Melbourne in a few days time bouncing my head up and down. I'll probably even wear a flanellette shirt for the occasion.

I wasn't always a fan, but into my late twenties, I realised just how much I enjoyed the very things some people can't stand about them. Simple, repetitive riffs, powerful, precise rhythms, really, really good guitar playing and some lyrics that spend most of their time hovering around barely acceptable and some time well below the line.

And I can tell you, I'm not alone. Generation X are cashed up at the moment and that includes Flanno wearing Acca Dacca fans - just the type of people the Grammys traditionally aren't aimed at.

They have also just sold out what is ostensibly their last world tour - mostly to that very demographic.

So, is this really about AC/DC being rewarded or is it about trying to get a chunk of those tens of millions of fans to tune into the awards ceremony?

I hate to be cynical. Wait - no I don't.

Well done, AC/DC - not necessarliy on the Grammy, but on an outstanding four decades of bringing the spirit of  Rock 'n' Roll to the masses.