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Chinese Lion Dance - Barry Hayes - The Ocean Rower

Lessons from the Shaolin monks

As I drove through Manchester earlier today with a car full of disturbingly muscular Shaolin monks with their shaved heads, orange robes and associated weaponry as my passengers, I couldn’t help but take a moment to consider how I keep getting myself into these ridiculous situations.

18 years previously I used to hang around with a guy called Bao Tieu. When he moved down to London, we lost touch. Fast forward to 2019, Bao is an actor and martial arts stuntman in the movies…and consequently one thousand times cooler than me.

Bao got in touch via Facebook because he was helping to put a team together to race at the UK Chinese Dragon Boat Festival in Salford Quays and he had heard about my ocean rowing so asked if I could join him. I immediately said yes, partly because I’m an idiot, but also because I firmly believe you should say yes to as many new experiences as possible. Bao explained that his Kung Fu Master would be in touch with the details.

Dragon Boats - Barry Hayes - The Ocean Rower
Huron Basin, Salford Quays – our dragons await.

So this morning I turn up to the location Master Chen gave me, looking forward to the fun and relaxed atmosphere of a dragon boat festival.

The seven year old that then overtook me whilst in the process of repeatedly back-flipping should have given me some clue that the sort of people I was about to meet were not your average Joes…but I carried on walking regardless.

Backflipping child - Barry Hayes - The Ocean Rower
Not normal…

As I met with Master Chen and he introduced me to six team members I was (over)excited to learn that they were all Kung Fu martial artists. I know nothing about martial arts other than from old Bruce Lee films, but Kung Fu is unquestionably cool. I couldn’t help but notice though, that all the other teams had eleven team members, and we only had seven so I asked where the rest of our team was.

“Oh, just over there” I was told and was pointed in the direction of a group of remarkably under-dressed gentlemen who were doing a variety of activities including, but not limited to, backflips, spending far longer in the air than gravity should allow, and attacking each other with swords which fell very much outside of the legal limit of a foldable three inch blade…the unmistakable Shaolin Monks.

Shaolin Monks eat steamed buns - Barry Hayes - The Ocean Rower

If I wasn’t already believing myself to be slightly Kung Fu just by association then I would have thought they were joking. But no, this was the team, six Kung Fu specialists, four Shaolin monks…..and Barry!

Before the race I found myself in a huddle with these guys, all hands in the middle doing a chant that started as a whisper of “warrior spirit”, repeating it over and over, getting louder and louder, until we were screaming “WAARRRIIOORR SSPPIIRRIITT” at each other. It was undoubtedly rousing, but never was a spirit inside such a rubbish warrior as today – I was Barry from the post room, surrounded by true warriors…I felt entirely fraudulent!

Barry's new friends - Barry Hayes - The Ocean Rower
Playing it cool…

The guys made me feel like one of the team though and very quickly we got to the business of actually rowing.

It turns out that dragon boat racing is ridiculously fast paced, incredibly difficult to be really good at, but also a lot of fun. Amazingly, even with Barry the pretend warrior on board we won the first race, and this gave us a bit of confidence.

As we waited for race number two I was chatting with one of my new orange friends:

“So, how often do you train?” I asked, desperately trying not to say anything that would make me seem even less cool than I already am.

A wry smile came across his face.

“Every day, all day. If I’m not training, I’m teaching”

“Oh…oh, yeah….that’ll be why you’re so, like, good at it then” silently cursing myself for being so naive.

Child with ridiculously large sword - Barry Hayes - The Ocean Rower
Terrifying what the kids of today are carrying in Salford…

I later discovered that the leader of this group, Matthew Ahmet, was the UK’s first and only Shaolin monk, and these were his students, he spent years and years in the Shaolin Temple in China enduring endless challenges until his endurance was almost limitless. He has iron bars broken over his head, spears snapped against his neck and was the first westerner to be able to do a one finger hand stand….and here was me asking one of them questions like they were going to an intermediate Judo class on a Wednesday after school to keep fit.

Throughout the day we watched people racing the dragon boats, often unsuccessfully. We didn’t win any more races, but had a good time trying.

Sinking Dragon Boat - Barry Hayes - The Ocean Rower
The experts in dragonboat racing explained to me that this is not the optimum position for the boat to be in for maximum efficiency

As the day came to a close, and I started to say goodbye to everyone, the monks asked if they could grab a lift with me to the train station. I don’t know why this surprised me, I guess I imagined they had a flying carpet or could teleport, but it turns out, no, they have to do battle with British public transport like the rest of us.

So I come back to the beginning of this story, car full of monks, heading to the station. As we chatted, Matthew asked me about what I did for a job and I told him about my motivational speaking career which lead on to talking about the ocean rows. They seemed amazed at the story I was telling them, which I found difficult to get my head round….Shaolin monks, literally some of the most amazing people on the planet, amazed at me splashing about in the sea for a bit. And then the clarity hit – Matthew, and indeed everyone in that car grew up very ordinary people. All had their issues, none of them ‘born special’. Mindset was the only thing that set them apart from the next person.

I am completely comfortable with the fact that I am not, and never will be a Shaolin monk, but I know I am the only one in control of my mindset, I can wake up tomorrow and just decide to be the person I want to be – everyone can do it. You can decide to be bad, decide to be good, you can decide to go to work dressed as batman, you can decide to get up at 3am, not press snooze, and train to breaking point and repeat that until you are beyond anything you ever imagined and you can do one finger handstands in the hope that you get an invite to the Shaolin temple. If I think I am that warrior, and I give myself the mindset of a warrior, I’m a warrior – it’s as simple as that – the ‘rubbish warrior’ business was purely my failure to decide I was a warrior.

All of a sudden the self imposed barriers that I had put up, the pedestal I had put them on, came tumbling down. I was now in a car with three lads from North East London who were incredibly passionate about what they do, and who taught me a valuable lesson: There are 7.7 billion people on this planet of ours, and not a single one has been born with super powers. Every single person that we put on a pedestal; the celebrities, the athletes, the musicians, the business leaders – each and every one of them is there through the decisions they have made, and the mindset that they were absolutely going to be successful.

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