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Cover image for Mental Strength

Mental Strength

hannahwoking1 profile image hannahwoking ・15 min read

A big thanks to Kerry Hughes for allowing us to publish this. She is such an inspiration for women in all walks of life. See Kerry's previous article on 'Body Confidence' here :

You can also follow Kerry on Twitter here, she is breath of fresh air and as real as it gets:

I didn’t plan it this way, but as it transpires that my first blog post falls on Mental Health Awareness Week, and this is a particularly emotive subject for me at the minute… I’ll talk about the link between mental equilibrium and sports performance as I’ve found it.

In July 2016 I made my return to MMA, following on from a couple of years away – formerly as the result of an injury and latterly as the hangover from an abusive/controlling relationship. Everything in my life was pretty much spot on, I’d started a new job (moving on promotion), I was loving finding my feet with MMA again, I’d got past the end of that relationship and started to rebuild a lot of burnt bridges with friends. Unbeknownst to me, in amongst the group of new friends, I’d also met the man I was about to fall for in the most spectacular fashion.

Everything about the camp was good, I trained hard, managed the weight cut well with the help of my nutritionist at the time and I had a real buzz about fighting in my home town for the first time in years. It helped that the fight was to fall on July the 23rd, which has always been a significant date for me as it was my mother’s birthday. It just felt like all the stars had lined up correctly and I was carefree and on course to win, which I did, in a convincing fashion and enjoyed every minute of it.

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The following month I was lucky enough to be a bridesmaid at the wedding of my best friend, it was a beautiful day and I enjoyed every second of it. Summer is always a happy time for me, I’m like a lizard, store up the heat in preparation for winter. Work was going swimmingly well, my finances were in a good stable position and I’d finally got my head around stabilising my weight at a sensible level for a 4-6 week cut.

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At the time I was mid-way through an abortive attempt to have a relationship with my male best friend. We both laugh about it now as a rather amusingly catastrophic idea but at the time it was kinda stressful and I spent a lot of time talking to a friend about it. Perhaps rather inevitably, we grew closer. It took me quite a while to realise I was developing feelings and when I did, of course, I refused to admit it even to myself and became obnoxious and truculent. Because of course.

It didn’t even occur to me that it might be reciprocated until he turned around over a McFlurry and pseudo-casually told me that he’d fallen in love with me. From there it became a complicated but exhilarating 4 months of the most amazing, Hollywood style, romance. The sort of connection you don’t actually believe you can have with another human being and one that leaves you smiling like an absolute imbecile for no apparent reason at totally random times. Needless to say that when you’re so relentlessly happy in one aspect of your life, the rest just seems to fall into place. I had wonderful times away from him visiting friends in Spain, my training continued progressing well and I continued to feel like nothing could really go wrong.

The honesty with us was compelling and we talked about everything – our future, plans for retirement, politics, religion and basically anything else that came to mind.

It was about December that things took a turn.

Firstly I ended up stopping work with my nutritionist after he defrauded two of my teammates. I found someone new immediately, but for the kind of extreme weight control fighters need it can take a while for someone to get to know your body no matter how good they are.

Then I had some bad news regarding a member of my family, which thankfully turned out to be a storm in a teacup long term, but for a while it was pretty worrying.

Whilst work was still as enjoyable as ever, I was approaching a really difficult transitional period where I was losing most of my experienced supervisors and didn’t know when or if they would be replaced, coupled with mounting admin for personal assessments that I’d not had the time to complete through being busy doing my day job.

I was in the process of trying to sell a property, meaning that I was wearing the full coat of the one I was renting as well as the mortgage and all the associated charges on that one and there seemed to be endless hold-ups with that and grief with the solicitors (I’m sure anyone who has sold a house can relate).

Circumstances had altered, meaning that I was now coming into regular face to face contact with an ex that I had no interest in ever seeing again – our relationship had run its course on less than ideal terms.

My male best friend had recently got a new girlfriend, unfortunately, that effectively put paid to our friendship. She was hugely jealous and could not understand our relationship, we went from speaking at least once a day and seeing each other regularly to barely speaking for months and him getting told off every time we did.

To top it all off, things in my relationship became slowly more complicated. We didn’t see or speak to one another over Christmas for a variety of reasons. I went down to see my Dad, which was lovely, but short-lived as I had to work over the holiday period.

As cliched as it sounds, I suddenly sat there over Christmas, which I’ve never really enjoyed as I have minimal contact with my family and I’m not religious, and felt so overwhelmingly alone that I didn’t know how to cope with it.

At the time I don’t think I realised why I was feeling like I was. Mainly because when I looked at any individual element of what was going on it seemed almost insignificant. But I continued to feel progressively more and more down. At this point I started the cut for my next fight, meaning my calories were restricted and I had to watch everything I ate and drank.

In the middle of January things ended with my boyfriend, it was desperately sad knowing that we both loved each other so fucking much, but the relationship couldn’t go any further – I think it would have been far easier if something negative had happened and made me hate him.

I was sent away on a couple of work related courses, taking me away from training for days at a time and trying to do the best I could.

The now ex and I were still talking daily, unfortunately this prevented any sort of closure on the subject and meant that it was still at the forefront of my mind constantly. It’s funny how these things invade your life when you’re trying to concentrate on even the tiniest thing.

Added to this, I managed to pick up a lovely lower back strain, just to make everything a little more demoralising.

By the time the start of February rolled around I was barely functioning. I went to work and did my job, I doubt anyone would have picked up on how I was feeling because I didn’t allow it. When I went to the gym I did my level best to bury it and put on a smile as best I could – that’s probably the only time I got a bit of respite from feeling completely numb and could occasionally have a laugh.

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When I left though it was completely the opposite, as soon as I got through the door I just sank into my dressing gown on the sofa except for the rare occasions my ex and I were able to see one another – where again I’d slap a fake smile on and pretend I was fine.

Any little thing would reduce me to tears, and I do mean anything. If I spilled the tea I was making, if I was running late for my train, if the dogs wouldn’t come when I called them… it was ridiculous.

I was constantly tired, seriously exhausted, but as soon as I tried to sleep I would suddenly be wide awake and incapable of settling.

My concentration span was non existent and I was irritable and hyper sensitive.

That weight cut was the hardest I’ve ever had to do, I struggled to get cardio in with the injury and I had zero motivation. The night before the weigh in I was sobbing in my coach’s arms between salt baths to try and leech more water weight off.

I made weight, of course, but even then I didn’t feel any sense of achievement, usually at this point I start to really switch on, visualising my opponent and how I’m going to win. I was completely indifferent.

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The morning of the fight I woke up with a full blown head cold. I could barely drag myself out of bed to get up and go to the venue – ten minutes away. I remember thinking to myself that surely the doctor wouldn’t allow the fight to go ahead when I was running a high temperature and so clearly ill, but I passed the medical and was cleared to fight.

I didn’t realise it at the time but I was mentally looking for ways to not have to go in there, because I knew that I couldn’t summon up enough energy to actually care whether I won or not.

None of this is conscious, it’s all stuff I’ve realised with the benefit of hindsight. All I knew on the day was that I was leaving everything until the last possible minute and I didn’t know why – the handwrapping, the warm up – everything just felt wrong and I couldn’t find that spark that I needed to light the fire.

Inevitably I lost that night, I don’t even remember it. But I do know the worst part was the crushing sense of having failed everyone who had put their effort and time into me – coaches, friends who had paid to come and watch, fans who had tuned into the live stream and my opponent who had worked hard for months and deserved a hell of a lot more of a challenge than I was capable of that night.

MMA is a little different to most sports in terms of the physical impact of a bad day at the office too:

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Coming away from the fight I spoke to my coach and asked him if he still wanted to work with me, he’s a blunt sort of chap and we are best friends, so I expect nothing but honesty. His response surprised me, he told me the only way he would corner me again is if I went and saw a sports psych.

As ridiculous as it sounds, it was the first time I connected the various things i had going on in my personal life with my shitty performance.

I’m a very self sufficient individual, always have been, I don’t like to tell anyone when I’m struggling and I’ve always been the kind of person who will help others in any way I possibly can – but I’d rather bathe in acid than ask for or accept help from anyone else. I spent a solid 24hrs doing nothing but thinking about what came next.

The day after the fight was bittersweet, I spent the most amazing day with the ex and it was like nothing had ever gone wrong. But it also made me realise that the situation was destroying me.

When I got home I took a deep breath, summoned my courage and put a Facebook post out asking for recommendations for a sports psych. It was the first time I’d been able to admit to anyone, even myself, that I wasn’t able to fix what was wrong alone. I was absolutely mortified but I had decided that I still wanted to have an MMA career and that meant that I had to reach out and try to find a solution. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to find someone that I could work with, I’m not exactly famed for being tolerant of other humans or the easiest of people to get along with. But mostly, at this stage I still thought I was just suffering with nerves and performance anxiety – I was convinced that everyone would think I was being pathetic, see it as a weakness or think I was making excuses.

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I sat and burst into tears, shaking after I posted this, convinced I’d just made myself a laughing stock. Then miraculously, within minutes, I started getting dozens of positive messages. Some with suggestions of people I could work with. Some people offering messages of support and offering an ear to listen if I needed it… but then there were the messages from people I knew well, telling me about panic attacks they’d suffered, anxiety, depression – people I would never have guessed it of in a million years.

For someone who has a pathological hatred of sharing emotions or relying on the support of others, it suddenly seemed like the best decision I’d ever made, even that tiny step had taken a sliver of the weight off of my mind.

I took a decision there and then that I needed to get away from everything and clear my head. I felt like distance from the situation would at best give me some clarity and at worst a brief respite from having to be faced with the ongoing issues on a daily basis. Plus it was cold, and I really hate being cold. I spoke to a girl I’d met in Vegas the previous year, who I knew was out training at JacksonWink in Albuquerque – I liked the sound of it, so I booked flights there and then.

It was my birthday a couple of days later, I went to work after sitting at home on my own pretty much all day. Given my mentality at the time, the after work drinks at 0730hrs may have been a bit of an own goal. Being blind drunk and in the middle of a roadside press up competition at 1400hrs was certainly not my finest hour. Then the inevitable embarrassment just made me feel even worse.

I took some time researching some of the names I’d been given, discarding some when I made initial contact and some after a little further conversation. I knew I needed to work with someone that I gelled with and who could understand my dark humour and warped way of thinking – or there was no chance of success. I tried to remain positive, but was starting to despair of finding someone that I felt I could work with… the last person I managed to speak to was Rob Dawson, of Mindsport Consulting. I knew he had worked with a couple of people I know, some of whom are very similar in mentality to me.

Rob was busy with some stuff for a week and sent me through a couple of sample exercises. We arranged that we would speak the following Thursday, and in the interim I set about arranging last minute leave from work, a dog sitter and all the other administrative bits needed to suddenly elope abroad for a month. I noticed that with every positive step I made toward helping myself I was feeling a tiny sliver lighter and more positive.

Before I went away I saw the ex one last time, I’d already made the decision in my head to give the situation a bit of distance and not message him unless he contacted me. We had a lovely chilled out morning and I left feeling good about life, the next 24hrs were a bit of a blur. I worked a night shift, then straight home, where I met my friend, got all dolled up and drove to Norwich to watch my friend win his second pro boxing match. We had the loveliest girls night and I realised how long it had been since I laughed and smiled properly with my friends.

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From there it was straight back home, where I gave my bestie a nervous break down by packing my suitcase in fifteen minutes flat, I then dropped her in Kent and went more of less straight to the airport.

The second the plane took off I started to feel a bit more positive, but even arriving in America didn’t do much to lift my spirits, I just couldn’t seem to find the ‘happy’ switch, no matter how hard I tried. Even the things that did lift me, still felt like I was submerged under the water and unable to express any kind of strong emotion.

A few days later I spoke to Rob for the first time, I remember us having a big or random chatter and then he asked me the most open question in the world:

“So, the last fight, what happened there?”

I started to explain that I’d had a few little stresses in the lead up to it, and he got me to elaborate. Before I knew it I had basically been talking non stop for an hour. Rob had the background on my work, my relationships, my whole life. I was convinced he would think I was the most melodramatic, over reacting, hysterical person to ever walk the face of the earth. Then he absolutely floored me by saying:

“You know, any one of the circumstances you’ve described there would be enough to stop some people functioning, I don’t know how you’ve been getting through the day.”.

He went on to pose any number of ridiculously challenging and thought provoking questions. By the time we got off the phone I was a mess, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the stuff we had been discussing and about 24hrs later I suddenly felt a shift in my mentality. I realised that I wasn’t being weak and that all things considered Rob was right, if any of my friends had sat and described everything I’d talked through with Rob, I would have been hugely concerned at how they were coping.

The rest of my month in Albuquerque was amazing. Every time I talked to Rob I came away thinking and then things regulated themselves a little better. I relaxed for the first time I can remember in my adult life and I started feeling my emotions again. Most of all I reached a point where I was able to control my reactions to events and make a decision to be positive and set goals.

I’m privileged to have trained with the best in the world and made some amazing friends whilst doing it. I learned a lot about myself whilst I was over there too.

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I’ve been back a month now, and I’m a different person in every aspect of my life. One of the biggest changes though, is that I’m not afraid of shy to talk about how I’m feeling and I have coping mechanisms in place for the days when it all feels a bit much.

I’ve an understanding of pressure and how to use it to my advantage. Of anxiety and how to dispel it. Of how intrinsically linked my self esteem and cognitive fictions are and crucially, how important it is to look after your mental wellbeing as robustly as your physical. One of the things that helped me most was the talk about decision making processes, that helped me to proactively terminate contact with the ex and allow myself to move on. To prioritise what I needed to at work and to make difficult decisions about occasionally putting myself first and not being available to people who won’t be for me.

The stigma attached to mental fatigue is huge, but yet nobody would refuse to talk about a back injury or get it treated for fear of what people might think.

I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason, crashing the way I did is possibly the best thing that could have happened to me. It showed me who the truly important people are in my life, helped force me to start letting people in and being open with how I feel – it’s also made me a whole hell of a better fighter and removed the limitations I thought I had in my game. I cannot fucking wait to get back in that cage.

One of the first questions Rob asked me, in his own inimitable way, was:

“When was the last time you looked at your achievements and acknowledged that you’re a fucking badass, realised exactly how fucking far you’ve come and what you’ve had to get through to get here?”

At the time, the answer was honestly that I never had. It hadn’t occurred to me at all that by anyone’s standards I’m a pretty high flyer. Now, I can answer that honestly and say that I’ve done well to get to where I am in life and I’m able to acknowledge that and be proud of it.

This isn’t a mawkish misery memoir so I haven’t set out even a tenth of what’s happened in my life to make me who I am today in the above. But I count myself so lucky that I had the right people around me to help me catch myself before I imploded completely and support me whilst I got my head straight.

I didn’t set out to write a huge long essay about this subject, but hey, if it helps one person get the help they need a bit earlier then it’s been worth it. I promise the future posts will be less heavy – thanks for reading!

Discussion

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jacobmelleor1 profile image
Jacob

Bloody brilliant!

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ajoan369joan profile image
Joan Adams

Wow. no words, what a share.

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taliashaw_962 profile image
Talia Shaw

Brilliant story. Very inspirational