fitness · Guest Post

Doing fun physical things I suck at (or, Cate learns to take instruction)

In a bizarre confluence of events, I found myself at two axe-throwing parties within 18 hours last weekend.  (“What kind of bizarre Canadian ritual is this?” asked an American facebook friend).  Sarah and Sam have both written about the experience of axe-throwing — yes, a little bizarre but quite satisfying in the throwing with your whole body, the thwack and thud of connection.

I liked it.  I posted this pic on FB on Sunday with the caption “This is what I do now.  I throw axes.”

img_4754

 

But I totally sucked at it.  That bullseye was one of maybe 2 or 3 out of probably 100 throws.  Mostly I wound up, threw, and heard the clatter of the axe thunking off the target and falling to the ground. (My abs hurt Monday from all the bending over to pick up my axe). At the bachelor party on Saturday night, I came in 7th out of 7, with 18 points in the tournament compared to the winner’s 98.  I did better on Sunday, but I was no savant like Sabrina, who gracefully hit bullseye after bullseye her first time out.

I’ve written before about this theory I have about “undiscovered biathletes,” my secret belief that if I just tried to ski and shoot, I might be fantastic at it.  That we all have things that we would be amazing at if we just found them.

Turns out, I’m a mediocre cross-country skier, and not a great shot.  Or axe-thrower.

I was not an athletic kid or young adult in any way.  I’ve written about this before, about only finding my body and intentional movement when I was 30.  The only time I’ve ever played a single team-based game is in gym class.  And I was That Girl who tried to get out of it, obnoxiously reading Sartre on the bench while nursing “cramps.” I’ve never been on any team of any kind, unless the bike rally “team” counts, but that was really for social support — it had nothing to do with how we actually rode.  That suited me.

I’ve never learned how to learn to do physical things that don’t “come naturally.” I’m  a runner and a cyclist who likes hiking and mountaineering; these are just things we do as kids, but with fancier gear and plane tickets.  I’m really lousy at translating verbal instructions to physical actions — I remember trying to learn to golf when I was 12, and being super frustrated at not being able to feel in my body the “helpful” gibberish people were saying to me.

And I felt that with the axe-throwing, too.  As soon as the group I was with realized how terrible I was, they were full of advice.  “It’s like flow yoga.”  “Hold your wrists straight.” “Let go of the axe earlier.” “Try standing on the block. Beside the block. In front of the block.”

I was good-natured about it and let people move me around like a Fisher Price Little Person who came with a Post-Industrial Axe-Throwing Barn(TM).  But most of what they said was nonsense to me.  I don’t understand how people make sense of “let the power come from your back legs” or “soft hands, loose wrist.”  If I’d been in a grumpier mood, I would have wanted all these well meaning people to shut the eff up.  I just let it roll over me, enjoying the novelty of the experience.

But then, one of the instructors said something that made a tiny bit of sense:  start out in warrior three.  Suddenly, the notion of where power “comes from” made sense to me.  I have done enough yoga to have a felt sense memory of how to move in and out of that pose.  I didn’t focus on the axe as much as on centring my body.

I didn’t get much better at it, really, but my form was better. And when I thunked off the board, it was in the general vicinity of where I was aiming. And it was more fun. I felt it in my body instead of sort of fighting with the axe.

img_4759

(This is me throwing “the big axe” to break a tie on Sunday. It was hard and I sunk it in the target. It felt GOOD).

In the past few years, I’ve let myself try to learn a few new things physically.  I learned to scuba dive about five years ago, and failed my certification the first time, until I got comfortable with feeling what was happening in my body. This summer, while canoe camping, Sarah taught me how to J-stroke, because after being the front-of-the-boat paddler for three decades, I had to stern. Again, I couldn’t get it when I thought about it, but when I let myself just feel it in my body, I sort of got it.

j-stroke

I realized something with the axes. Everyone has an idea about what will help. Which doesn’t help me much. My body doesn’t translate words to actions very well, and I’ve let this belief about myself dictate what I do physically most of my life. But if I let myself hear what’s *behind* the instruction — which is usually about focus and just centring yourself a bit — I can actually learn.

The instructor we had for the first axe episode was named Bowie, a loud, worked-up Gnome of Axes. At one point he sort of barked at us “if you are sucking, take a pause. Centre yourself . And Just. Try. To. Throw. Better.”

We all laughed. But actually, it turned out to be the words that worked for me.

Guest Post

Guest Post: Livin’ on the Edge(s)

by Sarah

Hi everyone! You’ve seen me make appearances in other peoples’ posts, but when Sam heard that I was going to be trying some unusual sports she buttonholed me to write about them in my first solo venture on this blog.

Toronto is a bit of a haven for all things hipster, including, shall we say, “sports of hipster origin”. Bowling, shuffleboard … and throwing sharp things. In the past few weeks, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of throwing both axes, at the Backyard Axe Throwing League (BATL), a fixture on the Toronto scene for nearly 10 years, and knives at newer arrival Toronto Knife Throwing (TKTO).

tko
Although BATL really did start in backyards, it has now moved indoors and expanded to warehouses all over Ontario. TKTO has just one location, also in a warehouse. Both offer both group booking and league throwing, as well as a drop in option. I participated with friends in a group booking at each location. Both sports seem to have a similar format, where you’re on the range for a few hours with an instructor that teaches you about safety and proper throwing technique. You then rotate through to practice while being coached on technique, and finally there’s a mini-tournament for you to test your newly acquired skills against your friends’.

Both sports are similar to darts in that you’re throwing a sharp object governed by specific rules regarding size and shape, at wooden targets. Knives must be a minimum of 12″ long with no sharp edges – just a pointed tip. Axes must have a 1.5lb head and a wooden handle, and have a sharpened blade. Unlike darts, both knives and axes are thrown overhand, with spin, turning end-over-end before striking – and hopefully sticking into – a target. Knife throwing targets at TKTO were built with the end grain facing out, like a butcher block. Axe targets at BATL are vertical 2×8 planks on a frame. Painted rings on the targets have different values, with the bull’s eye worth a big 5 points.

 

axe
Novice axe throwers are taught to throw over their heads using a two-handed grip. This is the safest and most controllable throw, and easiest to stick because it aligns the blade of the axe with the grain of the wood. While more advanced throwers seem to favour a one-armed throw that looks a little like a baseball pitch, I liked the symmetrical feel of the overhead throw, and it helped with endurance through a whole session of throwing. For safety reasons, after you throw your axe at the target, you wait for the person in the lane next to you to throw before walking to the target to collect your axe for the next throw.

With knives, you throw three knives per round, one at each of three targets. Because it’s harder to keep track of when all the knives are thrown, there is a range master who announces when to advance to “score your knives” and when you can start throwing again. The basic technique we were taught also uses an overhead throw, but it’s a single arm version that leaves your off hand free to hold your other knives.

In addition to the basic techniques, both sports offer some fun add-ons. At BATL, if your game is tied at the end of regulation throwing, you throw a “Big Axe” from further away in a sudden-death tie breakers. At TKTO, if you tire of throwing on the regular range, you can take a friend into the “Quick-Draw Cage” and see who can pull a knife from a holster and hit the target fastest.

 

TKO3

One of the things I really liked about both axe and knife throwing is that although one definitely uses not just upper body muscles, but core and even legs to make strong, consistent throws, and endurance over the course of a session plays a role, throwing is definitely accessible to people of a large range of fitness levels and physical abilities. Skill is more important than strength to success and in league play for both sports, people of all genders compete against each other.

Despite their being perceived as having a macho image, I found that throwing sports are accessible and welcoming. The women and trans friends that I went with all had a great time, and our coaches at both locations, despite their gruff appearance and well groomed beards, were never intimidating or condescending. BATL Toronto East has people across the gender spectrum on staff, and the bachelorette party on the range next to ours blew any remaining stereotypes out of the water with their enthusiastic participation and raucous cheering. There is no question they had the most intense competition of the day.

There are some ways in which I found that throwing sports were less accessible. Certainly, the cost of throwing at an indoor facility isn’t necessarily financially accessible to everyone. That said, two friends that said they wouldn’t be able to afford to join a league but that they thought they might buy an axe and build their own target. I also found both the crowd and the staff at the locations I went to were largely white. I’m hopeful that as these sports grow in popularity, that participants and organizers alike will reach out to other communities to increase diversity and further add to the great sense of community that both sports claim as their hallmark.

Indeed, despite differences in sharp thing and throwing technique, I found that axe and knife throwing are pretty similar when it comes right down to it. They both share the distinctive characteristic of a laid-back, social vibe, even during intense moments of competition. There’s a real sense of fun and that coaches and participants alike create a supportive and encouraging atmosphere. The laid-back attitude extends to bringing your own snacks and drinks, although alcohol is no longer permitted at BATL and I was told that getting cupcake frosting on the axe handles is frowned upon. Nonetheless, I’ll be sure to return to try both knife and axe throwing again, and I’ll bring more friends for even more fun!

axe2

Sarah Hinchcliffe is an engineer with a penchant for collecting sports. She doesn’t fence or play field hockey any more, mostly spends her winters on skis and summers in a canoe, and is renewing a life-long love of cycling to join the feminist bloggers on this year’s Friends for Life Bike Rally. Friends might say she is a primarily bacon-fueled athlete but the truth is she doesn’t discriminate between delicious snack foods.