Do you like my mouth guard?

It’s an odd feeling, to train relentlessly at something. Because you’re inside yourself, you don’t notice the small, incremental changes that are happening to your skill level. But that doesn’t mean they’re not happening. Intellectually you know this. But you can’t quite know it.

Until you see it, that is.

On Saturday I was in London for the Ontario Grand Nationals tournament, where I’d competed the year before. Last year in my sparring division there were only two of us; a woman I compete against often – we tend to go back and forth a lot, she wins some, I win some, we’re pretty evenly matched.

Last year I defeated her in sparring, in overtime (in black belt divisions, fights have to be won by a two-point margin, and if at the end of the regulatory two minutes it’s even or up by one point, we keep going until one is ahead by two). We ended up with a ridiculously high score, like 13-11, and we went on for nearly four minutes. My reward for winning that division was to fight in the grand championship against the winner of the younger women division – just a multiple world champion in her early 20s, no big deal. At the time I told myself, look, self, be real. This woman will win the fight, no question about it. But here’s the deal: I will consider it a victory if I either score one point against her or last at least one minute before being mercied out (we have a 10-point mercy rule).

I didn’t score, but I lasted 1:40 before losing 10-0, which I considered pretty good.

This year? Ah. This year, there were four of us fighting in the old ladies division, including the one from last year. As luck of the draw would have it, I didn’t have to fight her. I won my first fight, which allowed me to fight for gold medal against the winner of the other fight between a newer woman and my habitual sparring partner. The newer woman won.

She’s pretty good, and we went into overtime. I ended up winning our fight 14-12 to win the division. There were three women fighting for the grand championship, two young women from two different weight divisions, and me. Luck of the draw gave me a by, and I watched the youngins fight. I would have to take on the winner for the title and the money that went with it, and I wanted to have some sense of their styles.

Their styles were hard, fast, and very kicky... These young women are a lot quicker than some of us forty-somethings, and their hits are very solid.

Well.

Complicating things was the fact that – as I’d noticed during my very first fight – the refs in our ring didn’t seem keen on kicks or jabs. They tended to give points for reverse punches a lot more than to anything else. I noticed this after my kicks failed to score but my opponent’s punches did. So I started punching and what do you know, I started scoring, too. I used the same strategy for my second fight and my fight for the grand championship as well.

Problem is, I’m not a natural reverse puncher. I favour side kicks and jabs to the face. But these weren’t scoring. So I would have to switch to a style of fighting I don’t like as much in order to win.

It worked – I didn’t win the grand championship against the scary fast very young woman (she was probably about 20 years old; I’m 46 and five sixths), but I held my own, losing the fight 8-6. This is way better than I did last year, and I am very pleased with the results. Obviously I would have liked to win the money, but hey, to come this close against an opponent a quarter of a century younger than me tasted like sweet victory. But that’s not the best part.

The best part is the simple fact that I was able to switch styles to accommodate my refs’, er, vision and score with a technique that doesn’t come naturally to me. That’s not something I would have been able to do a year ago. I don’t know when, exactly, I became this much better, but it did happen somewhere along the way, and I didn’t feel it at all.

I never knew it was happening. Week after week I train and fight guys who are not only much younger than me but also much better as well. I always feel pretty hopeless against them and fail to see the improvements I’m making. Until one day I see them.

There are days when I wonder why on earth I keep pushing myself like this, at my age, all for the fun of getting punched in the nose (and the bruises! my, the bruises we get…), but then stuff like that happens and suddenly it’s clear. I keep pushing myself like this because even though I’m already old and creaky, the relentless training is making me steadily better at a game I love playing.

It doesn’t get much better than that.