The confidence I usually carried with me as I trotted up to the line of scrimmage was gone. The guy across from me, wearing the same number on his jersey as I had on mine, was just better. It wasn’t just about being bigger or stronger, though he was, it was about skill and aggression.
It was the end of my first season playing ball for the Marine Corps; the Championship game that would put the icing on the cake of our undefeated year. It was a close game, and for the first time all season, the idea that we might lose was creeping into my head.
With more than two decades of contact sports under my belt, I’d played against plenty of stronger guys. I’d also played against more talented ones. Usually, the really talented guys tended to be a bit soft, the really strong ones tended to lean too hard on their power, and I was able to find a way to win, to work around their advantages and make mission. This was different. I couldn’t out-fight him, I couldn’t out-think him, and with each snap of the ball, I was met with another brutal reminder that this monster was my better, and I was letting my team down.
If you stay in the fight for long enough, whether it’s football, rugby, MMA, or competitive ice dancing, you’ll eventually find yourself in a no-win situation. If you’re incredibly unlucky, it may even be in a fight for your life. Not every loss comes as a result of being outclassed by your opponent – sometimes it’s just about the way the dice fall – but sometimes, sometimes you’re just not good enough.
The internet would have you believe that every failure is a learning opportunity, and while there is certainly some truth to that, sometimes the only lesson there is to learn is that you have limits, and when you meet them, it doesn’t matter how bad you want it, or how hard your drive is.
We live in a society that tells us that we can all achieve whatever we set our minds to. We live in a culture that shushes away the idea that you might not be good enough for anything. Each of us is “the chosen one” in our own movies, each of us is the hero of the day; until the moment comes that you realize, all you are today is a supporting actor in that other guy’s story. You’re nothing more than a speed bump between him and victory.
If you’re training to stay in shape, to keep your weight down or because you enjoy the great outdoors, you don’t have to put much thought into those kinds of days. Fitness is, after all, a personal journey based on personal goals, but if you’re like me, training is about more than maintaining a waistline, it’s about staying functional. It’s about staying capable.
There’s a common expression that goes something like, “walk a mile to avoid a fight, but when one starts, don’t back down an inch.” I thoroughly believe in that mentality. While I’ll admit to being in (and maybe even picking) my fair share of bar fights in the dimly lit drinking holes of Southern Vermont and Upstate New York where I hail from, I’m not that guy anymore. I have nothing to prove to a world full of tipsy egotists hoping to prove their own mettle in a parking lot.
But if I can’t avoid the fight, if my family’s in danger, I train to know that I can still hold my own, that I can keep them safe. I haven’t been in a (non-competition) fight in years now, but I work to keep the assholes of the world on notice that I haven’t forgotten how. This mindset begs the question, though: what happens when the day comes that I find myself in a fight I can’t avoid, and I have no choice but to square off against that guy, my better, the protagonist of tonight’s movie? What happens when I find myself in the fight I know I can’t win?
That’s the fight I train for.
If you’re training for a fight, whether it’s a competitive one or the life-and-death variety, it’s important that you consider the likelihood that someday you’ll find yourself facing down a threat that’s too big, an opponent that’s too strong for you to handle on your own. In those instances, you may be fortunate enough to have a team, a squad, or a group of friends to lean on – but if you aren’t so lucky, you may find that your choices are simple: stand, fight and lose, or surrender and lose anyway.
Maybe surrendering is an option you’re willing to entertain, but if my family’s on the line, it’s not one I’m going to consider. That means I’m left with no choice at all. In that football game, simply stepping aside and letting that monster have his way with my quarterback was never an option. In real life, stepping aside and letting someone have their way with my wife and daughter isn’t even a possibility my brain can wrap itself around. That means there’s only one option left on the table: you fight with all you’ve got. You last as long as you can. You give your quarterback enough time to get out of the pocket. You give your family enough time to get to safety.
You know you’re going to lose this fight, but if you can stay in it for long enough, you’ll achieve a more important victory. The quarterback breaks a tackle and throws for a touchdown. Your wife makes it to the car and gets your daughter out of danger.
You’ll lose, but the team still wins.
Training for that day means working yourself to the point of failure before you really get started. All too often, what stops us from running another lap or doing another set under the bar isn’t real physical exhaustion, it’s the mental anguish of weathering the pain. Your body can do a hell of a lot more than you think it can, and as the warning lights are flashing in your mind, telling you that you’ve got nothing left in the tank, you can opt to listen to it, or you can push through and see what that old truck you call your body is really capable of.
When you hit that wall on the trail or in the gym, think about that fight, the one you pray never comes. See yourself as the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, as Hal Moore’s 7th Cavalry in la Drang, as the mother, husband, sister or son that you are, facing a fight you have no right to win and start pushing harder. Your workout starts there. Not after your warmup.
With the game on the line and a three-point deficit between us and a championship, I came to accept that I simply couldn’t beat the big bastard across from me. There were a few minutes left on the clock, and we needed to score – that was never going to happen if I kept trying to play the game as I knew it. So, as the ball was snapped, I stopped trying to beat him. We collided, just as we had a hundred times before, but this time, I crumpled under his weight and we found ourselves heaped in a pile at the line of scrimmage. As he tried to scramble to his feet, I rolled with him, keeping my body in the way of his progress, and as he stood, he angrily stomped on my knee just as our quarterback, Sergeant Jefferson, released one hell of a beautiful pass.
In the fight between lineman wearing the number 52 on their jerseys, I unquestionably lost but I’m the one with a championship trophy on my mantle. I also ended up having surgery on that knee. Some fights you just can’t win, but sometimes, that’s not the most important thing.
I train hard in hopes that I won’t run across another no-win situation like that, but I know, deep down inside, that it doesn’t matter how strong I am, how fast, or how fit. Somebody out there is bigger, stronger, and faster.
But even if that day comes again, when I know I’m going to lose, you’d better believe the big bastard that takes me down is going to remember me. You’d better believe my wife and kid will make it out of there.
I train to win fights, but when I know I can’t, I train to protect what’s important.
And that’s why I’ll see you on the blacktop.
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