5 Tips on Becoming a Pro in 12 months – from the documentary ‘Fighter’ with Idris Elba

5 Tips on being a Pro in 12 months

I recently watched a documentary that starred Idris Elba, a Golden Globe and Emmy Award winning British actor. He set himself a goal to become a pro kick-boxing fighter within the short timeframe of 12 months. Idris was reasonably fit and he had the support of a pro coach and trainer (Kieran Keddle) introduced to him by his friend and co-actor, Warren Brown, two-time World Champion Thai kickboxer. Apparently, when Idris announced his intention, Warren's response was that it was a “ridiculous idea”. Not only was he missing the relevant (years of) experience, the odds were stacked up against him from a physical perspective. Arguably, one of the most essential tools in aiming to be a pro kick-boxer is your body and being aged forty plus with no prior experience in the sport, this was a steep challenge. For Idris, it wasn’t just a question of does he really want to do this but a question of can he do this?

As a professional life and career coach, I was deeply interested to follow Idris’ journey and it was interesting to draw parallels with the work I do with clients. When people come to me with a goal, be it a life or career goal, there is often a pressing sense of urgency to be successful in a short period of time. There is rarely a grace period when it comes to paying a mortgage and supporting a family; failing is not an option. When someone is pursuing a career change mid-life, they typically lack relevant experience and have to learn new skills. So Idris’ challenge was representative on a number of levels; can you become a pro with little to no experience? The other important question is can you do it if you don’t have the typical profile of the average pro (e.g. in this case; age and experience)? How possible is it to beat the odds and overcome any personal limitations you might have? Following a remarkable effort and arduous journey, Idris shows us that yes, it is absolutely possible and he surpassed the expectations of others with a momentous KO in a pro kick-boxing fight. His story is just one example and whilst his case might seem extreme, sports coaching techniques have heavily influenced the field of coaching psychology and definitely show us what is possible. Idris’ journey offers useful insight for anyone attempting a new life challenge therefore I’ve summarised below 5 lessons drawn from his story:

1. Prepare for a period of shock

If you are going to be attempting anything new, expect a period of discomfort (and potentially shock) while you adapt to the new challenge. Whether it’s a physical or a mental challenge, inevitably there will be a feeling of pressure. You will be heading into uncharted territories, your mind and body won’t know what to expect and will be constantly evaluating, learning, adjusting and growing. This will mean an increased demand on your resources and in Idris’ case this translated into an excessive demand on his mental, emotional and physical resources. He experienced a great deal of physical pain and his body went into shock as he wasn’t prepared. The more preparation you can do, the less 'shock' you will experience but inevitably, you will experience low periods, distractions upon your time and mishaps that may prevent you from being fully prepared.

2. Develop your mental resilience

Know what you need to overcome difficulties and to push through adversity. There is likely to come a time when you feel at breaking point. Recognise the signs, how do you react under pressure? What are the early warning signs? What can you do to minimise the escalation of tension and how can you bring yourself back? When Idris’ mental toughness was pushed to breaking point, his coach attempted to restore his confidence through the use of familiar faces and exercises. What can you fall back on during tough times to regain your confidence? Knowing your strengths and leveraging them to boost your morale is a great technique when faced with setbacks; go back to doing what you do best for a while. Experience that familiar feeling of mastery and accomplishment. And most importantly, keep your support network close. Who are the people that keep you feeling at your best and who cheers you on? Draw on their encouragement and inspiration when you need to.

3. Address self-limiting beliefs and other people’s lack of confidence

We all experience self-doubt. It’s an in-built survival mechanism that serves to protect us from taking on goals that are unrealistic and failing. While this can help you in some situations, in other situations it is not so ‘black and white’ and there is a grey area where it can prevent you from taking important steps forward. Idris Elba’s self-limiting beliefs were that he was too old and that he was an actor, not a kick-boxer. These beliefs were heavily influenced by his social network and the kick-boxing community who were very verbal about why he would fail. He may not have truly believed that these factors would hold him back (if he did, he was determined to prove everyone wrong) but the fact that everyone kept saying it to him made it a real doubt. In the end, he had to visualise his success and believe that he could do it in order to succeed. He had to walk, talk and think like a pro. Believing these limiting factors was of no use to him at all and it was much better to engage in positive self-talk and expect things to go well. If you are trying to achieve a difficult goal you will need to learn how to tune out the inevitable criticism and doubt and stay focused on the end vision. Believe in yourself in the face of opposition, put your heart and soul into it. While Idris' coach may have had initial doubts about him, when he saw that Idris was genuine in his intentions, he backed and supported him completely.

4. Master the art

Succeeding in anything means you have get really good at what you do. Perform, evaluate and improve. Seek feedback from experts and coaches, understand your unique contributing strengths and learn how to leverage these. Understand where you’re going wrong and what you can do differently. For Idris, his coach advised him that his long legs meant he could punch effectively from a distance and Idris learned how to use this to his advantage. Watching and learning his opponent’s techniques and getting into the correct stance were essential steps to Idris’ eventual success. He had to practice and practice to form ‘muscle memory’ so that his actions and responses became instinctual rather than contrived. This repeated effort also ‘toughened’ his body to deal with the blows. Nothing can replace hours spent mastering the art of what you do. It also has to be noted that Idris had connections within the industry and even though being an actor did cast doubt on his potential for success, his fame meant that opponents were eager to fight against him. Consider what existing connections you have and how your past could support your new direction or challenge?

5. Persevere and keep going

The best way to deal with tough times is to expect them and practice in the worst conditions. Idris trained in forty degree heat and he became aware of how the environment affected his performance and ability. When he felt like quitting and it was unbearable, he pushed on and broke through the wall even though it felt like “hell”. He learned that there was no other way to succeed than to put the time into the sessions and that walking off when he felt like it was detrimental to his performance. With the best laid plans sometimes life can throw up unexpected challenges. If you can perform in the worst conditions and keep going, then you know what you are capable of and can handle anything after that.

If you are deciding on whether to pursue a dream or goal; there is a fine balance between ambition and reality. You can weigh up the odds and decide against it or you can decide the odds are low and go for it anyway. At the end of the day, it really comes down to you and what you are prepared to invest (and potentially win or lose). Below are some questions that might help you decide:

Why are you doing it? What does the goal mean to you? What are you prepared to suffer for? What would inspire you to keep going when you are feeling the pain points and being told you can’t do it? If you don’t have a clear purpose then you will most certainly veer off track or quit when the going gets tough.

Are you prepared to put in the hard work and effort? Are you prepared for discomfort? How will you overcome these feelings of difficulty? Building your personal resilience and learning techniques to overcome pressure and stress will further boost your staying power.

Who do you have to lean on for support and encouragement? What professional support or expertise do you have access to? Who can support you in your journey? Seeking help from your personal and professional network will steer your learning and be a source of strength and guidance.

Do you believe you can do it? Do you believe you can overcome adversity? When and how have you overcome challenges in the past? What does it take for you to give up on a goal? Learning to draw from your own personal strengths, resources and motivation will be critical to achieving your goals.

And finally a big question to ask yourself is what does FEAR mean to you? I think this quote sums it up nicely…

“F-E-A-R has two meanings: ‘Forget Everything And Run’ or ‘Face Everything And Rise.’ The choice is yours.” - Zig Ziglar