I seem to spend a good portion of my time asking amateur martial artists to speak about dark, difficult subjects. Often deeply personal issues. It is hard to admit you can’t cope. It is hard to admit you can’t trust your own thoughts. It’s hard for loved one to watch this. It’s probably difficult for them to read about it too.
I do this because the number of people in MMA or it’s constituent martial arts that admit to suffering from mental health issues is surprisingly high. To date all – to a person – say MMA, BJJ, Muay Thai or whatever the individual discipline – is at the very least part of how they treat themselves. Others as is the case with Natasha Wolfe will go as far as calling it a cure.
I would imagine it’s not easy to speak about it to someone who plans to write about it. The surprise, if there is one, is how articulate and open the interviewees have been to date.
The disappointment is most regularly with myself. The question I forgot to ask. The heedless interruption that subtlety and unintentionally shifts a conversation in another direction. The research I didn’t adequately do to prepare myself.
What I find I have most in common with the people I speak to in MMA that have a few mental health problems is that we share a similiar anxiety with the casual, frivolous interactions that are the grease of everyday life. The interactions that most find easy. On the meat of subjects we are pretty good. Interested and Interesting. On the ‘ Mr Murphy got a new set of tyres for his ride on lawnmower ” type of encounters well eh……..maybe not so much. That is not to downplay the importance of harmless conversation. It is indeed very important I think. It keep us connected.
This week I spoke to Natasha Wolfe about her experience on season 2 of the Wimp to Warrior program last year in Belfast. The Wimp 2 Warrior program takes people who have no history in Martial Arts and drives them through a 22 week program that culminates in a MMA fight. Do not confuse this with white collar boxing. The training is savage and 22 weeks is no-ones idea of a quick boot camp.
Natasha was in the depths of Post Natal Depression when she first entered the SBG Belfast gym to begin the process in early 2018. Natasha’s partner saw an advertisement in one of the local facebook ads looking for candidates. Desperate to help her. Feeling helpless to do so perhaps. Whatever the reason, he applied for her. It was an inspired move.
Post Natal Depression is one of those subjects that men can get uneasy asking about. Well at least I do. As with any mental heath subject it has it’s own intricacies. Our minds are as individual and unique as particles of sand on a beach. So it stands to reason that how the diseases of the mind can present themselves and afflict us are similiarly individual and unique. It is no different with PND I suspect.
In the case of Natasha Wolfe I think her choice of music at the time, gives us a good window into her soul at the moment she entered the Wimp 2 Warrior process
Cut my life into pieces
This is my last resort
Don’t give a fuck if I cut my arm, bleeding
‘Cause I’m losing my sight, losing my mind
Wish somebody would tell me I’m fine
Losing my sight, losing my mind
Wish somebody would tell me I’m fine
- Lyrics from Papa Roach and the song Last Resort
When I caught up with Natasha earlier in the week she was getting ready for her 7 o’clock MMA class. We got straight down to business for an enjoyable and revealing chat.
” I had my youngest daughter and my partner realized that I was showing signs of depression. It got quite bad to the point where I had carers coming into my home. I had an anxiety type post natal depression. I wouldn’t let anyone touch or look at the baby. You know I would have started panicking. It got to a stage after that where I wouldn’t even let the carers into the home”
My partner was actually the one that noticed the Wimp 2 Warrior through a Facebook ad. He researched about it and was researching about how exercise was one of the best ways to help improve mental health. Without me knowing he applied for me. Then a few days before auditions he let me know that I was going to go and do a try out. Like a fitness test that they put you through.
In this early part of our conversation, as we spoke about the crippling anxiety she was going through – I thought to myself of how well Natasha’s partner seems to understand her. How he picked the exact right challenge for Natasha. I have seen people and couples break under the prolonged strain of what this couple were dealing with.
It was on a Sunday. I needed to be at Ann Street in Belfast for 11 am and at 10:30 I was still in my bed.
I said I wasn’t doing it. At that stage I hadn’t left my home in a long, long time. I couldn’t walk my daughter to school never mind go all the way into Belfast. He told me to get up and put me in the car. Drove me into Belfast and told me not to come out till I finished the trial. He sat on the step outside and waited for me till after.
When Natasha shuffled in the doors of SBG Belfast on that Sunday morning all the doubts and insecurities about herself were heightened.
When I walked in it was all men. I was the only woman and I just wanted the ground to open and swallow me up. I put myself from my most comfortable place which was at home. To the most extreme. To my most uncomfortable place. In a room with strangers and somewhere I didn’t know. Although when it was all over I was quite excited to see whether i passed. Whether I got in.
Before long she got an email informing her that yes indeed she did get in. Her reaction was again one of excitement. The way the people had treated her at the trial had left it’s mark on her. They had been welcoming. As the only woman they didn’t treat her differently, importantly they treated her the same. Surprisingly it was an easy decision to accept once the offer was made. She was going to do this.
I did horse riding when I was kid, no martial arts so this was a complete 360.
All the training for Wimp 2 Warrior was done in SBG Belfast. We done 22 weeks of 5 days a week. 5:45 to 7:15 am. Then back in the evening at the half way point for different classes in MMA and BJJ.
We would do well to remind ourselves that this was at a time in her life when Natasha would only associate with her Mum, Partner and eldest daughter. Close friends and family members she is fond of – she would not go near. I can only imagine that the first couple of weeks of training took a lot of courage and energy and that is just getting from the bed to the gym. Never mind the body shock of the training itself.
I was curious to know what part of the training she enjoyed the most and not for the first time when I am talking to people – It wasn’t the answer I was expecting.
What I would have enjoyed the most is the discipline side of it. It started off as a want and then it developed into a need. You know I need to do this. I think that was the best thing that came out of it for me. The fact that it has helped with my depression. You know I am not on any medication no more. It’s all done thru my training. I got everything stopped.
The other thing would be the men that I done it with and the coaches and mentors. They went above and beyond to make sure I was OK. It wouldn’t have been the same for me if I didn’t have that group of men around me. I am still very close to all of them.
I wondered aloud had she a reaction to the drop off in training once the whole process finished.
I still train 6 days a week. I am nearly forced to take a Sunday off! – but I like to be out and about with the family on Sunday. Again that is something I couldn’t do before the Wimp 2 Warrior. I couldn’t go out with my family and enjoy it. I have started my daughter in SBG as well. so she does her Jiu-jitsu in there now as well too.
I look at it like a cure in a way for people that are struggling. It’s definitely my cure and it’s helping me stay stable. The more I am getting into this world, the more I meet some people that do have some mental health issues. And it’s not being spoken about enough especially not with women.
The Wimp 2 Warrior event was held in the Europa in Belfast. As the only female in the group an opponent had to be drafted in for her fight. SBG Head Coach Damien Mulgrave arranged for a fighter to come up from Wicklow to compete against Natasha.
I had never seen this girl as she wasn’t part of the process up to that night. Fight night was a big learning curve for me. I went into the cage and it’s kind of funny because I started smashing the canvas with both my hands. In a sign of me like that’s the old me gone and this is the new me. A big Highlight.
After the fight I walked back to the changing rooms and all the boy’s were there and they all gathered around me. That’ll be something I’ll never forget.
Natasha lost the fight via stoppage at the end of round 2 but as I am sure you have gathered by now the relevance of that is neither here nor there as far as this story goes.
I was curious to find out from Natasha at what point it began to dawn on her that the Wimp 2 Warrior process and training were having a massively positive effect on her mental health.
Believe it or not it only really hit me when I stopped. I can say that while I was doing it – it was great, I got myself into a routine and all that, I knew it was helping me, but the moment I knew it was my cure was when I stopped. I took two or three weeks off after my fight and I started going back down and falling into my old ways again.
My personality changed in the Wimp 2 Warrior, I started coming out of my shell and found the old me again. So yeah, once I stopped I felt myself slipping back and the anger building up again. My head was going to explode.
Natasha didn’t waste anytime steering the ship back towards calmer waters. She got back training and goal-setting. Moving forward.
I set myself goals for the year. I want to have my blue belt in Jiu-jitsu by the end of this year. Christmas time. Recently I was graded Blue and white with 4 stripes so my next belt is a blue. So I’m ahead of where I am supposed to be and hopefully I will be there soon.
That’s just down to dedicating myself. I can say to myself I do work hard and I have earned it. I wanted to improve the ground game and I improve my striking. I have also started judo as well So I am flat out!
I have been competing in Jiu-jitsu competitions since Wimp to Warrior and have won a gold in a recent competition. I have a competition coming up soon for the Northern Ireland championships. Last year I won silver and this year I am going for gold but sure it never always happens that way. The motto is you don’t lose you learn.
Although Natasha loves competing in jiu-jitsu she is definitely going to be coming back to the cage this year. She along with Head Coach Mulgrave will sit down and plan out exactly when this will be.
I haven’t previously spoken to anyone from SBG Belfast and Natasha name checks Damien Mulgrave several times through out our conversation. The ethos and values of any organisation can only shine when the people running it are living them. I asked Natasha to describe SBG Belfast for anyone that might think about joining them.
As soon as you walk into the gym you get a family-friendly vibe that’s what you get. Whether it’s your first class or you’re there ages – it’s the same. Everyone is trying to be helpful. Trying to help each other improve. There is no spitefulness. For someone like me to put my daughter into SBG shows how much trust I have in the people there.
For me it’s a home away from home. They have such a wide range of classes. children from 4 years old right up. Jiu-Jitsu, Wrestling, MMA, Judo and Muay Thai. And the best coaches around. They go above and beyond to help you. Even outside of the gym. And besides all that it is Fun!
Finally I wanted to ask a question that I have forgotten to ask a few other people I have interviewed.
Was she afraid facing that first time of getting hurt or punched in the face?
It took me right up until the fight camp, which was the last 6 weeks – I was still curling up in a ball and walking back. So the fear still was with me during the fight camp and doing all the rounds and stuff.
But on fight night I don’t know what happened but I kept coming forward , I didn’t shy away the whole time. it was like a different me.
There was definitely the initial
‘ I’ve never been hit before what’s it going to feel like ?
‘ Is this going to hurt much ? ‘
I remember eventually just saying to the boys…..just hit me…we’re just going to have to get this over and done with. It was one of the mentor’s Paddy ….I said come on just hit me….and he was like errr…right…eh….OK.
You get used to the black eyes and the marks that’s what sunglasses are for!
To say Natasha Wolfe has come a long way in a short time is an understatement. In addition to all of the above she is acting as a mentor for season 3 of Wimp 2 Warrior that is already underway. This year there are 4 women in the line up. I would be surprised if her story wasn’t the inspiration for one or two of the them to go for it this year.
I was saying to my partner Alex last night. If you would have looked back 2 years ago and said I would have been in my dream job and found a sport that I am in love with and dedicated to – who would have thought that was possible.
Long may it continue.
Maybe mental illness most often targets the warrior because at the end of the day where’s the challenge in tangling with a wimp.
Season 3 of Wimp 2 Warrior is underway and the Finale is the Europa hotel in Belfast in July click here for more info
Wimp 2 Warrior Photo Credit to Nicky Johnson Photography