Actor Neil Jackson: Why I Love/Hate Being Competitive
Welcome to Love/Hate Stories, the 657Journal’s series exploring our unique relationship with exercise, by those who’ve fallen for it after years of stubborn resistance.
Neil Jackson was born into a family of sports lovers. It’s in his blood.
Having starred in TV shows Make It Or Break It and Sleepy Hollow and films including Push, Nocturnal Animals and Quantum Of Solace alongside work as a musician, writer and director, Jackson knows what it’s like to sustain stamina in his place of work.
And away from the filmset he’s tackled everything from rugby and mixed martial arts to competitive boxing. In the ring he excelled, taking gold at the British Universities Boxing Championships in the light middleweight class.
We caught up with Neil to find out what he loves about staying active and how no matter what he’s doing, overcoming inner demons is a constant battle he relishes.
Sport was a release for me and my family growing up. I’ve always enjoyed being active. My parents were both very active. My dad was reserve keeper for Arsenal FC, my mum was in the GB Olympics squad as a swimmer. I’ve got three brothers so farming us out to sports clubs to burn off excess energy was the best way to keep my parents sane.
I was motivated to play hard by sibling rivalry. We all followed in each other’s sporting footsteps. We had this healthy/unhealthy rivalry. I’d have to beat my brother’s time in the fun run, beat the team he lost to playing rugby. Everything was a competition.
I fell in love with martial arts through action movies. I loved Bruce Lee movies and going to see everything from China O’Brien all the way through to Jean Claude Van Damme films. I loved them. So I started a martial art called Tang Soo Do. I became obsessed with it and wanted to do the splits and back kicks. I competed in that and won a national competition, so was English champion at my age.
I almost became a Royal Marine at 17. My brother’s a fighter pilot in the RAF and had friends in the army and I’d always been physical so taking that to the next level seemed logical. The Marines told me I was great physically but too young so I needed to go away and get a degree and come back when I was 21 to train as an officer.
I became obsessed with making it to the Commonwealth and Olympic Games.
At Cardiff University I discovered boxing and set my sights on the Olympics. At Cardiff I quickly realised I didn’t want to be yelled at by a hairy drill sergeant so decided to stick out my degree. Instead I used boxing to fill the active gap and signed up for this tournament against all the universities in England. I did three weeks of training, got in the ring and won the light middleweight gold. It was unreal. I thought then and there I was going to be a boxer. I became obsessed with it. I’d train five days a week, compete every four weeks. I became obsessed with making it to the Commonwealth and Olympic Games.
A televised knockout ended my desire to be a professional sportsman. I had 18 fights and did reasonably well. Then in one fight in the Welsh Championship, with the winner going to the Commonwealth Games, I got knocked out. I was out before I hit the canvas. I was out long enough that it was my mum who got into the ring to wake me up. She patted me on the face like it was the first day of school. They never cut the TV feed, so my friends watching it in the pub saw it all. It was actually one of the best thing that happened to me because it stopped this path I was on.
But I still hate not being competitive. Two years ago I started doing Jiu-Jitsu. The first class was the hardest training I’d ever done. It destroyed me. My muscles hurt at a level I’d never felt before, I couldn’t breath, it was like I was having a panic attack while having a panic attack. I was rolling with the instructor and he got me in a scissor lock, crushing my innards with his thighs. I tapped out and slunk off to the showers, defeated.
The thing I hate most about training is also the thing that in a perverse way I love.
I found out later that day this was his induction into the school. He was testing my mettle. The next day I turned up early, standing front and centre and I went back to every class for the next three weeks. I wanted to overcome this sensation of it being alien and scary. So the thing I hate most about training is also the thing that in a perverse way I love. Exercise forces me to confront demons and out of my comfort zone. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.
Being physically active isn’t just a point of pride for me, it’s a sense of identity. It’s a way of life. I’m so used to training, so used to being fit that I feel like I have to carry on.
I love beating my brain everyday. That’s the best thing I get from training and everyone should try it. When you’re doing something difficult it’s normal for the self-preservation side of your brain to say, “You don’t need to run or lift that heavy thing, just sit down and have a cream doughnut”. Training for me is a way of beating my brain that day. I’ll go to the gym when I don’t want to or go running when it’s raining outside. I’ll do something that’s the opposite to the way comfort would feel. It sets a pattern that helps with everything else in my life. If I’ve got a tough meeting that I think is impossible, I’ll remember I’ve already beaten my brain in several little ways that day so the big ones don’t feel so daunting.
The limits we set for ourselves are only the beginning of our potential. If you can constantly push those boundaries back a little bit of where you perceive your potential to be you can do and become so much more. Fitness and exercise has given me that outlook on life.
I don’t like to take the easy option. I like to trick myself that the path of more resistance is actually more interesting and doable. So, for example, I never take the lift. Unless it’s to a ridiculous floor like 17. I know that standing in a lift and pausing for a few seconds is easy, but I don’t want that easy option to seep into my brain. I want to trick my brain to take the hard option, this way I know I’m not being lazy when it really matters.
Ten years ago I wish I’d known that eating better helps you train better. A few years ago I was training eight or nine times a week, twice a day sometimes. At the time I got what looked like a zit under my nose. It got bigger and bigger so I went to a dermatologist where they took a biopsy and discovered it was pre-cancerous cells. That got me investigating my the impact of nutrition. I cut out everything from my diet. I did that for a week then started reintroducing things gradually and noticed how my body reacted to each one.
Had I known that ten years ago I wouldn’t have put my body under so much stress and rigour.
As soon as I put sugar back in my diet my nose started itching. It sent me down a rabbit hole of research until I found the documentary Sugar: The Bitter Truth. It’s a filmed lecture by a leading nutritionist, breaking down the history of why sugar is in our diet. I became fascinated by it and it changed the way I looked at food from that point on. I discovered that I could do half as much training if I was eating right, because I was fuelling my body the right way. Had I known that ten years ago I wouldn’t have put my body under so much stress and rigour.
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