Recently, I've been getting stuck into a new research project on the motivation to practice over time a form of movement, exercise, or sport. It emerged out of a pandemic-inspired U-turn that you can read more about here.
One of the things I love about qualitative research is the opportunity to meet interesting people and learn new perspectives on topics I enjoy. I think anyone can be interesting, once they give you permission to scratch beneath the surface. Everyone has something to share and insights that can benefit others. My job as a researcher is to help provide a channel for that communication in a meaningful way.
My journey as a researcher didn't start off in traditional way. You could say I was unexpectedly thrown into it during my first career as an Arabic interpreter and translator in humanitarian settings. In that role, my job was to translate (or summarise) every word exchanged in conversations and books related to prisons. Later, I took on the role of leading these conversations and writing up the reports.
For several years, I sat on prison beds, floors, and yards documenting allegations of ill-treatment and torture.
I listened to story after story, individually and in groups, then collated the information gathered with colleagues to analyse the results. How many times was prisoner X hung from the ceiling and beaten over a 21-day period? Did other prisoners report the same treatment? If so, how did their memories tally up? Were there distinct patterns of torture in this particular interrogation centre?
Those were the kind of questions I would ask myself as I sat at my desk late into the evening. I found it easy to remember prisoners' full names and case histories. I didn't realise it at the time but the fact that I cared and found their stories of interest made it easier for me to retrieve that information years later.
I also sat with interrogators and prison directors. Although they weren't quite as open, and weren't as likely perhaps to disclose any truths, they too were part of the investigations. I would eventually question who was telling the truth and who might have another motive. It was often impossible to gauge which is why many of our reports were based on allegations, not evidence we could always verify.
Fast forward a couple of decades and here I am, two Masters degrees later (some fifteen years apart), contemplating the question of, What motivates people to practice over time? While this study focuses on practice in movement, exercise, and sport-based settings (you could call it all movement with varying patterns, motor skills, and objectives), my interest in practice as a broader concept goes much deeper.
Back in my prison-visting days (mostly in my twenties), I was fascinated by spiritual practice. I had grown up in an Islamic environment and attended a predominantly Muslim secondary school. That many of the prisoners (mostly Muslim) drew on their spiritual practices as a means to cope better with the effects of interrogation and the restrictions of prison life was of great interest to me. I saw how their spiritual practices translated into rituals that they could practice together and alone, forming personal as well as collective protective factors and increasing their resilience to trauma and stress.
Of course, I didn't know any psychology jargon at the time. I was a linguist back then and my knowledge of psychology only came later in my thirties.
But as a linguist, people and what they communicated interested me. I also spent time observing those around me, perhaps as I felt I never quite fitted in. Not ethically Arab yet Arab at heart, and not totally Western in how I thought. A stark contrast in behaviour was the "practices" some of my colleagues engaged in. The frequenting of nightclubs and bars on weekends and drinking copious amounts of booze. Being a teetotaler (that's still an annoying fact about me for some), I noticed that they too seemed to cope better with the stresses and strains of humanitarian work, at least in the short-term.
Looking back, I see how group prayer and group drinking had a way of bringing people together and helped them to buffer the stress of their shared experiences. I also see how prayer in isolation, as was common during interrogation when prisoners were kept in isolation, could strengthen a person's resolve and resilience while drinking in isolation tended to spiral out of control, eroding their ability to cope. But why couldn't they stop?
My intention in mentioning these two examples isn't to yield a superficial analysis and draw a flimsy conclusion such as prayer is "good" and drinking is "bad". Or to delve into the psychological, biological, and social challenges associated with alcohol addiction. Rather, it is to suggest that practice is something we do regularly and for the most part, keeps us coming back for more. There has to be something in it if we are to continue doing more of it. Without a strong enough motive, surely a practice would fade away?
Parallel to sitting down to listen to my research study participants' stories, I also have to reflect on my own. What is my motivation to practice and, for the record, what is and what was that practice?
Unpacking my own memories of practice to present day has involved a back-and-forth dance between various stages of my past and the present, which is continually shifting each and every day. Trying to catch the present and fix a point of understanding is a bit like trying to catch a fly with chopsticks (anyone else remember Mr Miyagi?). It's like a constant shifting of lamp posts and searching for needing in a haystack.
One of the barriers I face in understanding my own motivations to practice and my multiple forms of practice over the years has been the tricks my own mind can play on me. These usually play out in the form of stories. The first layer of such storytelling might go something like this:
"I was a child athlete, competing mostly in swimming. My athletic mother (a former competitive swimmer) threw me in the pool when I was about a year old with arm bands on. One day, someone (possibly her) gently ripped them off and I was forced to swim. I didn't stop swimming and competing until my early teens. I was also a natural at most sports and athletics and captain of multiple teams, and wanted to swim the English Channel. I loved competing and enjoyed my training sessions."
If you listen closely, you may gauge that this story is definitely in the past. It ends around the age of twelve. What happened then, you might ask.
"I'm not really sure," my answer might be. "I was thrown off a recently retired racehorse and found unconscious by the side of a busy road. A palace driver picked me up. I broke my wrist and leg, and couldn't speak for a few days. I think I was traumatised but back then, we didn't use such words. We never spoke about how my ankle got caught in the stirrup and I had been dragged along, falling off by the side of a busy road. Once I had healed physically, my mom got me back on the horse, literally. But that old saying didn't work for me. The anxiety got so bad before riding classes that I eventually quit. I then took up karate."
This is an interesting turning point for a researcher like myself. Why couldn't this kid just quit riding and do nothing? And why didn't she resume her swimming practice or take up other forms of sport?
The answer to the shifts in a childhood practice around movement and sport lies in a significant life event. Not the riding accident, although that was an important factor, but rather my exit from a sports-oriented primary school to a conservative secondary school. Academic excellence was prioritised there over sporting excellence, and my desire to achieve was eventually re-channelled.
I remember hanging on for a year, playing tennis each lunch-time with a South African classmate, but after she left for boarding school I was left on my own. This wasn't long after the recovery and exit from horse riding and getting my hands on a pirated copy of The Karate Kid (VHS, not Betamax!). Alone in my bedroom, I was mesmerised by Daniel-San's journey and the magic of Mr Miyagi's teachings. Soon after, I was renting every VHS tape on martial arts movies I could find. Then there was the luck factor that a Karate Centre existed down the road from our home. It wasn't long before my dad was dropping me off to train and soon, I was walking there alone.
I did my best to settle into this new conservative environment but my overt behaviour (now seen as unacceptable) almost saw me expelled. Thinking that my parents couldn't afford to send me to another school, and that I should be grateful to be in this one (it was an incredibly prestigious school and I studied there free of charge), I quietly retreated, studied hard, and became an A-grade student. Karate training accompanied me throughout these years but I never shared my experiences with anyone. My parents worked long hours and never came to see me train while the "friends" I had weren't into martial arts or sports. They were all rap dancers and way cooler than myself.
One of my theories is that our relationships to the concept of practice are formed during our early years. Although my riding and swimming stints came to an abrupt end after just 7 years, my relationship with karate endured for a quarter of a century.
My theory is that a basic discipline towards practice as a form of skills development and training had been instilled in me through swimming (swimming 100 lengths in practice was the norm) and this continued in the dojo. If the Sensei (teacher) asked us to do the same punch over and over again for an hour straight, we did exactly that, no questions asked. So whenever I came to learn something new, repetition was how I practiced.
This caused quite a problem when I tried to take up ice-skating as sixteen-year old. "What the hell are you doing?" my nineteen-year old instructor exclaimed. "Practicing my twirl," I responded, as I tried to fight the nausea caused by doing one twirl after the other. "You don't do it like that," he shouted over the blasting music. "You have to let go, skate freely, and practice spontaneously. See, like this!"
He then showed me his effortless skate and twirl while I looked on in confusion. I attempted to do as he said but he was right. Something in me just wouldn't "let go". Suffice to say I didn't last long in the rink but I did in the dojo.
One of my other theories is that a physical practice eventually becomes us. What we repeatedly do will inevitably show up in other forms. Not quite as black and white as one of my favourite Zen sayings goes - the way you do anything is the way you do everything - but sufficient to have an impact on how we look, feel, think, and move.
With physical practice, we're engaging mind, body, and spirit in movement. Emotions fall somewhere in between. The process eventually shapes us, literally and metaphorically.
Habits are formed and over time, these habits wear off on our character. The discipline I gained through karate training helped me to control my emotions, be organised, and get things done quietly without complaining. Now some might question if that was already a natural part of who I was. Did karate make me or was the person I happened to be keep me in karate? It's a valid question and I'm not entirely sure of the answer. I'm also not sure if keeping quiet is really a good thing for a young girl!
What I do know is that this way of practice didn't last after I began a judo practice in my mid-thirties. I had taken up judo as an experiment of sorts while writing a book on martial arts. I wanted to understand what it felt like to be a white belt again. The plan was to do judo for a few months then call it quits. I was a karateka after all - someone who practices karate - wasn't I?
Only it didn't turn out that way. I fell in love with judo during my first class and wanted to learn more. It might have been the training environment. While I had always practiced karate within a karate-focused room, now I was practicing judo in an open-plan martial arts centre. In front of me were people rolling in the Brazilian jiu jitsu class and our boundaries often blurred. To the right were MMA fighters in the cage. Diagonally were the boxers in a ring and just behind them, the Muay Thai fighters.
The energy in the large room was aggressive and contagious! It seemed to bring out a dormant part of myself, the part that had been silenced in the conservative secondary school and struggled to let go of control. After years of self-controlled practice in karate, and some two decades after my failed ice-skating attempt, I now felt a pull towards letting go and learning to practice something new. Maybe it was the book I was writing and a subconscious desire to write a new story. Who knows. But I do know it ended up being a gateway to another way of life. One that became more chaotic and disorganised yet fascinating and rewarding at the same time. I also met the love of my life not long after, something I might not have done had I not taken up judo.
As my martial arts practice broadened, my karate practice also changed. After years of being stuck at first dan, I soon powered through to my second dan. My confidence in karate grew as judo training increased my size and strength.
I also noticed a change in my art work. I had been an amateur Arabic calligrapher since my teens and now, I was suddenly drawn to abstract. I began to paint wild and untamed flashes of colour on large canvases instead of carefully reed-penned words. I was less interested in understanding the meaning the paintings held and more interested in the enjoyment of their creation as a form of pure indulgence.
Fast forward to today. This month marks three years since my last judo class. It isn't a pause I have willingly chosen and I'm not sure yet whether I have stopped for good. I also haven't picked up a paintbrush or reed pen for the same length of time.
A geographical move and inability to find a class nearby that catered to adults was an excuse for not continuing training in the UK. A painful injury and time to recover was another excuse. Then there was a loss of confidence in teachers and a subsequent search for the teacher within myself.
These days I take care of my own practice. I don't rely on a group or teacher to motivate me to engage. You could call my practice an eclectic mix of Crossfit and self-defence with a bit of yoga and foam rolling thrown in.
I'm lucky as I have a strong knowledge base of how to practice various forms of movement. I'm a trained yoga teacher and qualified fitness instructor, self-defence instructor, and personal trainer. Years of martial arts practice has given me a good sense of where my body parts lie (proprioception) and complex motor skills while yoga practice has increased my awareness of what lies within (interoception) and how to breathe, while my fitness and yoga training have offered an adequate grounding in anatomy and physiology. I'm also quite high in self-motivation to move.
I've also been exposed to some brilliant movement teachers, including my partner who is something of a kinaesthetic savant (he only has to learn a movement once!). And with a Masters degree in Exercise and Sport Psychology and training as a Positive Psychology Practitioner, if there is anything I don't know about the psychology of movement I have plenty of skills at hand to search for the information myself.
I know what my practice has been and what it looks like today, but I can't tell you where it is heading next. I haven't thought about that in a very long time.
As for my motivation to practice today, I only know that movement is just something I have to do. It is something I wish I could do more of. I miss teaching movement to others and I sometimes (ok, often) feel resentful that so much of my work involves being tied (metaphorically-speaking) to a desk and chair, staring at a computer.
The pandemic has changed so many lives, and the reduction movement and social connection through movement is one smaller way that it has affected mine. We have all had to adapt in small or big ways.
What interests me moving forwards (in relation to this research study at least) is how a year of living through a pandemic has affected how and why I move. In recent months I have felt an overwhelming urge to swim in a pool. Memories of swimming in an Olympic pool after judo practice on Saturdays fill my senses. I remember the drive through the desert to get there, the emptiness of the women's changing rooms, and the moment of lowering myself into the cold water to knock out one length after the other.
I have also caught myself looking sadly at my multiple martial arts suits ranging from black and blue to white and pink. They sit at the bottom of my wardrobe, carefully folded. My self-defence teaching attire is hung up above. All untouched as the pandemic (and my quest to find an inner teacher) continues.
I sometimes worry if I will lose the movement abilities I spent so many years acquiring. I also wonder what impact the lack of movement variety and social forms of movement have had on my state of mind. It could be the longer hours spent at a desk but I know I don't feel as creative as I once was. Perhaps it isn't a coincidence that it has also been three years since I picked up a reed pen or brush.
Last weekend, my partner urged me to try something new. Instead of working on a Saturday, he made me sit down to create.
I resisted at first by "needing" to clean the entire house, as he waited patiently. Then I tentatively approached my work desk - cleared of its computer - to sit down to create. He had bought me a pyrography set (for those like myself who haven't heard of this before, it is "writing with fire" - in other words, burning into wood, a bit like etching) and my task was to create a design on a wooden jewellery box.
Rummaging through my past Arabic calligraphy creations, I pulled out one and drew it in pencil onto the box. Then I spent a good fifteen minutes cursing the pyrography pen for being difficult to hold. I wanted to flip the box upside down and throw the pen away. The pen wasn't following the lines and that annoyed me immensely. But I persevered and within half an hour, I had found a flow that I could manage.
Looking ahead, there is so much more to unpack, particularly in relation to how our movement practices and our memories of them influence how we look, think, feel, and move over time.
I still remember the difference in movement and energy between prisoners who prayed with full body prostrations and those who prayed kneeling down in one place. I remember the difference in movement and energy of those colleagues who danced in clubs compared to those who stood up drinking in bars.
I remember how I could sense what a person would be like based on how they moved. Sometimes I could close my eyes or have my back turned and "know" what kind of character had stepped in the room. I knew instinctively if I liked them or not, and if I should run a mile. I didn't always listen to that inner knowing but the knowing was still there all the same. Years of karate training had wired this way of being into me.
Today, as I sift through my research interview notes and map out the relationship between movement and motivation, many questions come to mind. What becomes of our thoughts and emotions in movement over time? What happens to our character and sense of self with repeat practice or movement? Do our movement patterns make us who we are and if they do, at a more personal level, what will become of me over time if I don't return to my childhood love of martial arts and swimming? Will I explore new movement patterns and as a result, become someone else?
I'm tempted to say these are questions I need to sit with a little longer but something in me tells me I should move with them sooner rather than later!
Claire Higgins is a Positive Psychology Practitioner & Researcher and Self-Defence Instructor. She holds a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology and directs Inner Athletics.