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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fighter's Mind: Inside the Mental Game

The Fighter's Mind: Inside the Mental GameThe Fighter's Mind: Inside the Mental Game by Sam Sheridan

In The Fighter's Mind, Sam Sheridan follows up his previous work by digging into the question of how great fighters think. Where A Fighter's Heart is mostly about Sheridan and his own experiences, The Fighter's Mind is essentially a collection of interviews and talks with various combat athletes and coaches, along with a few less combatively oriented candidates, like ultrarunner David Horton.

I unashamedly love this book. It's great. I say that as someone who believes profoundly in the supreme importance of mental strength in the success of a fighter (or anything else, for that matter), so I'm biased. As a practitioner, the challenge of combat sports has always been as much mental as physical; indeed, the thing that drew me to combat sport (and to Tony Blauer and his research) was my recognition that I needed/wanted to challenge myself mentally as well as physically. A lot of the last decade of my training has involved my own search for ways to strengthen my own mental game, and for wasy to improve the mental strength of those I coach.

For me, this book is a gem. It offers an opportunity to get in the minds of a number of legendary fighters, some of whom I'd never have the opportunity to speak with otherwise (Kru Mark Dellagrotte being a notable exception), and learn a bit about what motivates them. I felt like there was probably something useful I could take away from every chapter. It's one of the few books I've read recently tht I'm likely to re-read SOON, rather than eventually.

If you are a combat athlete, read this book. If you are interested in sports psychology, read this book. If you want some idea of how champions are made, regardless of the sport, read this book. It's worth it.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A History of Warfare

A History of WarfareA History of Warfare by John Keegan

I decided to read this one after listening to a course on Military History from the Teaching Company. I've always had a fondness for military history, and figured that this would expand my knowledge and baseline.

This book turned out to be a bit more than I expected, though not in a bad way. More than just a military history, Keegan's History of Warfare is an attack against the Clausewitzian notion that "war is a continuation of politics by other means". Instead, Keegan argues that war is a cultural phenomenon, and that culture, not politics, is one of the driving forces behind warfare.

The book itself is broken up into five main sections: War in Human History, Stone, Flesh, Iron, and Fire. These are separated by smaller sub-chapters, Limitations on War-making, Fortification, Armies, and Logistics and Supply. In each section, Keegan examines the history of warfare as it relates to a particular technology or development (the Flesh chapter, for example, focuses a great deal on the Steppe nomad cultures).

The scope of this book is, not surprisingly, quite wide. Keegan is trying to cover the history of warfare throughout the globe, which necessitates a superficial look at any particular conflict. Readers interested in an in-depth look at any particular conflict would be better served by looking at something else. On the flip side, this book is intellectually rigorous enough to not quite qualify as "light reading". This book is not a "History Channel" summary of battles and conflicts; Keegan is seeking to illustrate a particular idea, and much of his discussion and writing is focused on that notion. If you're not into military history, or if you are simply looking for a quick and dirty summary of some battles, this book will not serve you well at all.

Personally, I enjoyed the book and found reading it quite valuable. A very brief web search indicates that the book is a source of some controversy among historians, which means nothing except that it was published and some historians read it. Given Keegan's widespread popularity as a writer of military history, I think that anyone interested in the subject would find reading this worthwhile. Even if Keegan's argument does not convince you, the man is influential enough to be worth reading.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of FightingA Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting

A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting
Sam Sheridan

A Fighter's Heart has spent years on my "I need to read this" shelf without me ever actually reading it. Having finally done so, I'm very glad I did.

A Fighter's Heart is the story of Sam Sheridan's exploration into what it is that makes competitive fighters tick. Along the way, he explores Muay Thai, Boxing, Brazilian Juijitsu, Mixed Martial Arts, and (of all things) Tai Chi. He also explores dog and cock fighting, spends some time in a Buddhist monastery, and does a little bit of stunt fighting work. At each stage, he comes back to the same burning question "why is it that people like doing this stuff, anyway?".

Some of the fun of this book is just the travelogue aspect of it; Sheridan literally travels the world, meeting all kinds of strange and fun people, and his writing style gives the whole book an air of easy conversation. But it also contains some serious introspection into the mind of what drives some people to jump into confined spaces and try to beat each other up for no particularly apparent reason.

The only thing I didn't like about this book was, predictably, the section on dogfighting. While Sheridan does an admirable job of trying to find something good and noble in the activity, I just can't get behind it. Despite his best efforts, I will continue to view people who fight dogs as scum--if they are that invested in testing their gameness, they can get into the ring or on the mat themselves. Having someone (or something) else fight for you by proxy does not prove anything.

While combat athletes will doubtless enjoy this book (and find a lot of themselves in it), those are not the first people I would recommend it to. Instead, I would recommend it to those people who are close to combat athletes, but cannot, for the life of them, make sense of why they do what they do. For those trying to figure it out, Sheridan's book may offer some insight.

Overall, I really enjoy this one. If you have any interest in combat sport, it's worth the read.


Ellen Kushner

I should really like this book.

There's a lot to like about it. Action and adventure. Swordsmen dueling in darkened schools dedicated to their art. Nobles plotting intrigues against each other. A noble seeking to become a swordsman. An man with a hidden past. An opera that no swordsman will watch, because every swordsman who sees it dies in their next duel. Vengeful nobles. Mysterious benefactors, and mysterious women.

Swordspoint is fantasy only in the sense that the story takes place in a world clearly not our own. It takes place in an unnamed, but socially highly stratified, city. That this is not a real city is about all that separates it from just being a period piece; there is no magic, no fantastic creatures, nothing really "fantasy" about it. Not a bad thing, by any means, but it makes it hard to classify.

The story mostly focuses around Richard St. Vier, the greatest swordsman in the city, and his lover, Alec, who is some sort of disgraced noblemen. Herein, perhaps, is the weakness of the story for me. I don't really care for either of the main characters. Looking at the reviews on Amazon shows men that many people feel they're quite brilliant, but I just don't get it.

In a lot of ways, I feel badly. This is well-written book. Kushner crafts a story full of intrigue, populated by well-developed, and at times, unconventional, characters. The very fact that the two main characters are gay lovers sets this book far outside the conventions of the genre.

And yet, for all that it has to recommend it, I just didn't like it. I can't entirely explain why. I wouldn't steer anyone away from it, but I doubt I'd pick it up a second time.