Nik Lund is 19, and has been involved with martial arts since he was young. He spoke to us about the significant role it has played in his life and gives advice to others who may not have found a connection to a sport yet. Nik also has a deep interest in different kinds of music, especially the neo-soul movement. He primarily plays the drums, but also the guitar and piano. Nik is working towards becoming an audio engineer.
Dania: Maybe you can start by talking about how you first got involved with martial arts?
Nik: I think it would have been when I was in preschool. I had seen some old Bruce Lee movie and I just thought it was the coolest thing ever. So I asked my mom, “Can I go do karate?” And she had found this place, and I went there for quite a long time from preschool to about fifth or sixth grade. And then I think once the chaos of middle school started to happen, I just focused more towards other things. And then around mid seventh grade to early eighth grade, I was not really happy with who I was. I gained a decent amount of weight and just felt kind of tired of being a lazy slob, for lack of better words.
I had recently gotten into watching mixed martial arts. So I looked for gyms around, and I found one and just went in and asked them, “Can I come in tonight and take a class?” And I just instantly loved it, and it sort of took off from there. And then through mixed martial arts, I discovered all the different martial arts of wrestling and jujitsu and Muay Thai and kickboxing. I fell in love with the striking side Muay Thai and kickboxing a lot more, and I’ve been doing that now for about four or five years, I think.
Dania: Great. And tell me what exactly you like about it? What about it do you enjoy?
Nik: I always liked sports as a kid, but I was never really good at any team sports. I guess I’m not a fan of losing because it’s someone else’s fault. Like if I lose, I want it to be because I didn’t prepare well. I guess even if I lose or if I win, it’s all in my control. I don’t want to lose because someone else was doing bad. I’d rather lose because I’m doing bad, or I win because I put in the right amount of work. Also just the physicality of it really appeals to me because it’s definitely unlike any other sport I’ve done.
Dania: I’m curious — have you found community within martial arts?
Nik: Definitely. It’s more of a tightly knit community. You have a sense of community in most gyms, obviously there are exceptions, but in most gyms it’s sort of out of necessity. In something like soccer or baseball, if you don’t like one of your teammates too much, it might affect the game a little bit, but it’s not necessarily going to affect your practice and your training. Whereas you have to be careful when you’re training [in martial arts], because if you don’t like the person you’re training with and they don’t like you, that could lead to a dangerous situation where you’re trying to hurt them and they’re trying to hurt you. You could cause permanent damage, and that’s not something that can happen. So it’s definitely a tight-knit knit community, especially on the grappling side. I think it’s more like a game than anything else. It’s like, “You got me with a move now; I gotta get you back” type of thing.
Dania: Is grappling like wrestling?
Nik: Like wrestling and jujitsu. There’s no hitting people involved in it. So it’s a lot friendlier, because you can set the intensity level from very low to almost like going full speed, and you’re not really gonna get hurt compared to if you’re doing striking with someone like kickboxing. You have to be very careful as to how hard you’re throwing a kick or how hard you’re throwing a punch because we’re in there to learn. We’re not in there to hurt each other.
Dania: I see. That’s really interesting. On the social aspect, do you do things with your team outside of when you’re doing martial arts?
Nik: Yeah. I’ve made a few good friends. One of my coaches became my friend and then a few of the people I train with also became my friends. We’ll hang out with each other, we’ll have cookouts, we’ll, you know, go to birthday parties, stuff like that. And it is definitely a very tightly-knit sense of community that I do enjoy that I haven’t really found in other sports.
Dania: That’s fantastic. So do you think being on the autism spectrum has impacted friendships and participating in this sport?
Nik: It’s kind of helped almost because you don’t necessarily have to read as many social cues like in a regular conversation because both of you understand the topic that you’re talking about. So it’s more like, ”Oh, that was really cool. Can you show me how you did that?” And I really like that sort of give and take aspect of it and that’s definitely helped me a lot. And then it’s just when people are a lot more blunt in this sport. There’s more of a “point A to point B” instead of, say, like basketball is a great example of where you can try and do some fancy things or, you know, fake someone out. Whereas in wrestling or jujitsu, it’s you either do the defense right or you get choked. And that part, it tends to bleed into people’s personalities as well. They don’t sort of wiggle around when they’re talking about stuff. They just get straight to the point, which I really liked because as someone who’s had difficulty in the past and currently reading social cues, it helps when people don’t beat around the bush and just get straight to the point.
Dania: Interesting. That’s really fascinating. So have you told your martial arts community you’re on the spectrum or does it matter to you?
Nik: A few of them. I don’t really care if they know or don’t. I don’t try to bring it up too much. I’m not going to be like, “Hey everyone — I’m on the spectrum,” blah, blah, blah. But yeah, some of them know and I’d say I’ve told my coaches, because when they first came in, they thought I wasn’t paying attention. I don’t necessarily make a lot of eye contact with people, but over time they picked-up that I am listening, even if it doesn’t look like I am.
Dania: So your coaches sort of accommodated a little bit for your difference in thinking. So besides that, were there any other things that they changed a little bit for you to help out?
Nik: Well, my head coach, actually, he didn’t change anything, and I think that actually helped. He was one of the first people that actually just talked to me like a normal person instead of trying to understand me as someone on the spectrum. And I think that actually really helped me. It helps to have someone have a conversation with me like they would anyone else as compared to social workers being like, “Okay, Nik. What are we going to do now?” But yeah — not attempting to normalize me, but talking to me normally and just talking to me like I’m just another one of the people training definitely helped me out a lot.
Dania: That’s a really interesting thing that you brought up. So you appreciated being treated like you were just one of the crowd. I’m just curious, when you were in school, do you think you were treated sort of differently and people expected different things or talked to you in a different way?
Nik: Definitely. Yeah. I’d say a lot more in the middle school years. Social workers really didn’t expect much for me and in turn, I really didn’t give them much. I felt well, if not much is expected of me, then I’m not going to do much because that’s how they view me, so I might as well play the part.
Dania: And do you feel pretty good about yourself now? I mean, it sounds like middle school was really a difficult time for you.
Nik: Yeah. I think it’s a difficult time for everyone. I’m not going to say it was anything special for me. I mean, I’d say I probably had a harder time than most kids, but that’s middle school. I think compared to what I thought of myself in middle school to what I think of myself now, it’s definitely almost two different people. I think a lot more of myself now than I did in middle school.
Dania: That’s fantastic. So if you had advice to, let’s say, to middle schoolers, who are on the spectrum, what things should they know?
Nik: I’d say middle school doesn’t last forever, you know. Everyone’s an idiot. No one knows what they’re talking about in middle school no matter how much they sound like it. And you just gotta put your head down and just embrace the suckiness of it. For me, I was just thinking so much in the “there and now” that I didn’t even realize middle school’s not going to be forever. It’s only three years and I just thought, I’m not happy now, so I’m definitely not going to be happy EVER. And that was definitely a thing that I struggled with a lot. Obviously, I didn’t think that in the moment, but looking back on it now, it’s kind of a ridiculous way to think — just because in the here and now life kind of stinks doesn’t mean it’s gonna stink a year from now or two years from now. But it will if I just keep thinking in that mindset. I know a lot of people hate the words, “fake it till you make it,” but you really have just be like, “Well, this is great. I’m having a great time.” And eventually you’ll start to believe it. And that’s what helped me.
Dania: Great advice. So for a person who is young, or maybe even older, who is just sort of looking for something, some activity to do. Do you think martial arts would be a good thing? Who would it be good for?
Nik: Yeah. Get into it. I mean, you’d be surprised the type of people who do martial arts, especially jujitsu. People that are more into comic books and video games are really drawn to it because it is kind of like a video game you do with your body. There’s all the moves to learn. There’s chaining moves from one to another. Like, if I sweep you this way, that means I have to get up this way and then put my knee here and shoot my arm through here. And there’s a lot of that in that sport. There are a lot of chances to be creative. So I think everyone should try it because the worst thing that happens is, you know, you don’t like it and you find out it’s not for you.
Dania: For somebody who might be a little less athletic or less comfortable in their body. Can they do martial arts?
Nik: Yeah. So when I first walked into the gym, I was incredibly out of shape. I hadn’t played a sport in like three years. I was definitely overweight. I was like 230 pounds. I was very uncoordinated, and I was for the first couple of months, but then you start to get into it. You start to build that muscle memory. I’d say the biggest thing that upsets me is everyone thinks like, “Oh, I need to get into shape before I do this.” You don’t. You don’t need to be in shape. One of my head coaches said something that really spoke to me. He was like, “It’s fine to be in the back, huffing and puffing. Cause as long as you’re in here and you’re learning, you’re slowly making progress.” And that’s, what drives you forward — it’s that sense that all you have to do is be better than you were yesterday.
Dania: What a great thing to say — that you just have to be better than you were yesterday. So is there anything else that you think people might want to know either about you or about martial arts?
Nik: I’d say for people that are looking for a sense of community, it’s definitely a great, great sense of community. Most people expect kickboxers or wrestlers to be like mean guys, like sort of like culty and there still is that aspect of the sport, but it’s rapidly becoming almost like a chess club type of community. I think it’s people just looking to try a new thing and those that like it stay in it. If you don’t like it, then that’s fine. You know, at least you tried.