The other week myself and a few friends at Camberley Judo Club went to watch Russell Brand perform at Camberley Theatre. Big thanks to Russell for sorting the club out with some tickets. During a part of the show Russell discussed an element of the book Tribe by Sebastian Junger, which sparked the idea for this post.
A good friend of mine, Rob MacDonald, must have been recommending Tribe to me for about a year before I finally got around to reading it last summer. My reaction, as someone that often puts things like that off, was typical, “Why the hell did I wait this long!” For me, at the stage of my competitive career that I am, the book was influential on certain areas of my thinking.
I couldn’t recommend it more highly but, here is a brief synopsis for those that haven’t read it or, those of you that are on season 2 but will get around to it when you’ve completed Sons of Anarchy 😉
“On purpose and belonging- This is a book about why men miss war, why Londoners missed the Blitz, and what we can all learn from American Indian captives who refused to go home. Using his background in anthropology, Junger argues that the problem lies not with soldiers or with the trauma they’ve suffered, but with the society to which they are trying to return. The book shows that it is one of the ironies of the modern age that as affluence rises in a society, so do rates of suicide, depression and of course PTSD. In a wealthy society people don’t need to cooperate with one another, so they often lead much lonelier lives that lead to psychological distress.”
As I begun to read I very quickly realised that I could replace a lot of the names of the case studies Junger used with the term ‘Judo player.’
For me, although not actually retired from competition but, on knowing it’s not a million miles away either, the book seem to spell out many of the elements of the competitive lifestyle that I believe I may miss; thoughts that do induce a level of anxiety. I also consider myself a people person, I’ve always enjoyed and taken light from listening and talking to others that have experience of the ‘other side of the line’ when it comes to retirement. I shall include elements from those conversations in my discussions below. I suppose, like many, the attraction to coaching may well be a subconscious attempt to combat some of these issues (in a healthy manner) and yet, although since the age of 7, I always thought I’d attempt to go into coaching after competing, in the current climate, I am the most unsure I’ve ever been to whether that will be a path I may wish to go down. At least not as a full time career anyway. Embodied also in the discussion then is the idea of walking away from competitive Judo entirely, as a player and as a coach. I have listed what has come to me naturally at the time of writing, not necessarily in order of importance.
I recall Junger discussing the rate of suicides and recorded mental health issues through the period of modern Northern Irish, Irish and British histories largely referred to as The Troubles. He claims the areas that saw the majority of the violence surprisingly had less cases of suicide and documented psychological conditions in comparison with the places that experienced lesser levels of violence. Junger concludes that conflict, somewhat paradoxically, and although in many ways absolutely horrific, can provide people and communities with “immense purpose,” be it political, survival, camaraderie, communal etcetera. Purpose which can aid keeping many negative psychological conditions at bay. Junger leans on the works of Irish psychologist H.A Lyons who heavily documented mental health through The Troubles. He quotes Lyons, “When people are actively engaged in a cause their lives have more purpose, with a resulting improvement in mental health.” Similarly, Viktor Frankl in his powerful Mans Search for Meaning discusses the incredible difficulties many of the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps faced once the war was over. Frankl, a psychiatrist and himself an Auschwitz survivor, argued that because of the unbelievable horrors so many faced in the camps that survival was their one and only purpose but, for many of the survivors, once liberated, that purpose was largely removed. He then outlays the devastatingly high suicide rates of concentration camp survivors in the period directly after the wars end.
Obviously in no way am I comparing retiring from competitive sport to the aforementioned examples, both being two of the most extreme examples of human purpose one could find. Reading on such things makes me feel very lucky to have grown up in a peaceful place. I believe though many of the outcomes can be echoed, at a lower frequency, in competitive sport. From my own personal experience I feel competitive Judo has given me a huge purpose, virtually all my life; an immense reason to push myself, to eat what and when I eat, to consistently look for ways to get better, and to learn. A huge reason to get out of bed every morning.
From a rational standpoint I know (with Tribe’s help) that I need only find something else to give me purpose and yet I cannot hide that it scares me to think of not having the one thing that has been with me nearly all of my conscious life. Will anything else fulfil me like Judo does? That is a question I begin to ponder more frequently. To me at least, Judo is some form of soldiering like existence; discipline, hard work, following learned instruction, regularly travelling and fighting, surviving on little funds and calories through periods. As demanding as the competitive days are I still hear so many former fighters talk about them with an obvious longing to return to that point of their lives, the ‘best years’ many exclaim.
For those fans of Irvine Welsh and Trainspotting I feel I am definitely someone who chooses life; Love Island and the X-Factor were never cutting it for me. I suppose I fear whatever comes next not doing the same as Judo. My friend, former World Champion Craig Fallon, talked to me on a number of occasions about a period he had working in a petrol station shortly after retiring from Judo, one of those chats sticks with me. Craig delivered some technical sessions on a Judo education course I was on, we went out for some food after and he told me that he thought it was great that I was setting myself up for potentially coaching after competing. He said to me that I had to make sure I found something I enjoyed for after; how we experience deep passion for what we do and, at the time, find great meaning in it. He again relayed to me how much he felt like he was just floating after finishing fighting, particularly in those times where he went to work with very little involvement in Judo. Craig was a personal hero of mine growing up, he remains a source of inspiration long after he finished fighting, and since he has left us.
Not that I don’t feel motivated to embrace other challenges. I’ve lived a pretty frugal and raw existence as a full time player. It’s only now in my early thirties that I begin to consider putting money together for a property at some point, having spent the majority of my adult life living in the Judo club or in bed sits. The idea of earning more money and saving motivates me now more than it ever has, and yet, again, having talked to former players that walked away from Judo and made a lot of money, I know I may get to a point where I’ll have the things that I want and will think, “Is that it?” I’ve learned that one competing, I achieved some of the things I initially set out to do and, after virtually every one of them, I felt somewhat empty. It is the old cliche, and somewhat cheesy, but the more I’ve stayed in competitive sport I have enjoyed elements of the journey more than any outcome. I say that not to detract from the main objective of performance sport, results, but, in terms of fulfilment, successes seldom brought me what I thought they would. So, I project that when I potentially get to a financial position I’d be more comfortable with I’d still be asking “what’s next?”
A friend of mine, who has been very successful in business teaching Judo in schools, after downsizing and after 10 years of no tournaments, has begun to regularly travel to competitions with his students. He said to me recently, “I turnover much less money but am the happiest I have been in years.” Only those that have been through the wringer of full time training and all that entails fully know how hard and demanding that lifestyle can be. When many finish they walk away from the sport entirely. Many return later on and if I had a pound for every person that told me about how they felt directionless and unfulfilled away from the sport I’d be a minted man. On the flip side of that many of those that finish and go into coaching, although not always initially easy, seem to maintain some form of direction and purpose.
Obviously it’s a personal thing, not everyone experiences the same. Some people can finish competitive sport and settle into a normal-ish style of living. Without getting too philosophical on it I never want to feel like I’m just waiting to die. I begin to understand that outcomes don’t necessarily bring fulfilment yet, I still want to get after things. My coach likes what George Mallory said when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, “Because it’s there.” Living up to my old nickname of ‘Chav’ I prefer what Danny Dyer’s character says in Football Factory, “What else are you gonna do, sit in your fuckin’ armchair wankin’ off to Pop Idols?!”
Again, although still individual, for me at least, when the competitive jacket is eventually hung up, all hands seem to point to remaining involved in Judo; in some avenue, in some degree. As Junger argues, finding purpose and connection in whatever one does is vital to a happy existence.
Growing up I always had a wide circle of friends, what you get for being so bloody popular 😉 The older I get though, aside from a few exceptions, the less I seem to have in common with non-Judo/combat sports people.
Another chapter I found particularly powerful in Tribe was the discussion around the societies that war veterans, suffering psychologically, reenter. Junger argues that most western societies are ill equipped to provide adequate recovery to such people because of an extreme lack of empathy and how isolated most individuals are in our modern way of life. A harrowing description that sticks with me is Junger describing a suffering veteran, living alone in New York, travelling on subways and walking through crowded streets filled with people wearing headphones; surrounded by millions yet feeling deeply, desperately alone. Junger then compares this to the country he considers best at aiding returning veterans, Israel. He puts forth that because of national service and because of the country basically being on the front line of the conflict that, virtually every citizen can empathise, the returning soldier is not made to feel crazy, isolated or different. This goes inline with renowned author and speaker Johan Hari’s concepts that addiction and such issues are developed from a deep feeling of disconnection from other human beings; he states, “If you’re depressed or anxious, you’re not weak and you’re not crazy—you’re a human being with unmet needs.”
I find the people that I am close to in Judo get me. They fully understand gearing ones whole existence to wining pieces of coloured metal hung on the end of ribbons, snubbing financial security to follow the burning desire in which to do so. I have discussed before my friends that have supported me morally when I’ve been having it tough or, put their hands in their pockets and gave me money when I had none, acts I have tried to reciprocate. The memories and connections I have with those people run deep. I look at some individuals that finished Judo in their teens or early twenties and still remain close friends with people from other ends of the country, peers they met through Judo. I think it’s brilliant, I completely get that.
I have discussed previously some of the personal struggles faced as a self funding athlete that chose not to centralise. I have also talked about, particularly from the listening of other peoples stories via the More Than A Fighter and Judo Talk podcasts, how fortunate I have personally been to have the total support of Camberley Judo Club, support that many faced with the same predicament did not have. A former British team team-mate of mine, that also chose the self funded route, talked to me of the psychological help that they had to get on eventually walking away from the sport; how the professional they talked to was absolutely steadfast in getting them to see that what they had experienced was trauma; to dedicate ones life to a goal and after decades of sacrifice that vital support required to go that last mile was ripped away. How they were left feeling utterly disconnected from the British team; becoming and being a member of which had filled them with such motivation and pride for many years, most of their life. I recall sitting down with that person and both of us saying temporarily how good we felt for talking about it. It is still something that many self funded players that have been on that similar path, on seeing each other, becomes one of the first topics of discussion. It obviously still bubbles very close to the surface for most. Again, I felt fortunate that I had many others at Camberley that could empathise with me, and me with them, because we’d all come through those similar circumstances. That understanding and connection was there, even if we didn’t, at the time, fully realise what we were going through.
To close, Junger opens the book with the discussion of the high levels of early European settlers, captured by Native Americans who, then on being liberated by their fellows, eventually went back to rejoin the Indians. Junger cites numerous reasons why these people chose to reject affluence and civilisation however, the one that hit home for me was, “For all the temptations of native life, one of the most compelling might have been its fundamental egalitarianism.” Aside from the chief there was no other formal hierarchy, material accumulation was minimal because of the travelling nature of life, therefore no inheritance so, any social status was largely gained through war or hunting. One of the things I love about being a combat sports athlete is everyone around you is tested, there is quite literally nowhere to hide. Bullshit is nearly always eventually outed. Not to say that fighters are egoless or angels or solid in every area, not at all, but no-one avoids the questioning. My uncle works in a local council and a close friend spent years as a successful banker, the many horror stories they have relayed to me about narcissistic incompetents makes the dole seem attractive again! Obviously sport is not free from politics but I’ve always liked that, when training or fighting on the mat, we’re all just limbs in a Judo kit and, you tend to quickly find out whether those that talk the talk, are willing to walk the walk. I will not turn around and say that all people I’ve met in Judo have been genuine but, many of the most genuine people I know I’ve met in Judo.
Anyway, just some ramblings on pondering retirement. I met with a couple of Judo friends the other day, one of whom has recently made the decision to cease competing. I got emotional feeling the emotion of them discussing it. I suppose if I think about it, it’s always something I’ve thought on to some degree, even when starting out; what will I do when I come to the end of this? And then when I think on it some more it is not surprising that that thought lives in the back of most players mind, it is everything while you’re in it. Your purpose and, your Tribe.
“Part of the trauma of war seems to be giving it up.”