How the Olympics Rekindled My Love for My Sport…But Not the One You Think

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Most of the time I couldn’t care less about sports. I don’t go to games, I don’t watch sports on TV, and I don’t get involved in discussions about sports. My eyes glaze over when my coworkers talk about their fantasy football picks. I enjoyed watching the Texas Rangers play in the World Series a few years ago, and I enjoy watching the occasional UFC match, but that’s about it. When the Olympics are on, however, my inner jock goes into overdrive. I love it. Whether it’s the winter or summer Olympics, the TV is playing the games whenever I’m at home.

There’s one sport that kept me on the edge of my seat and motivated me to get up early and go to the gym more often.  I eagerly awaited finals and semifinals, yelled at the TV, and jumped around the living room when my favorite athletes won medals.  I watched the athletes’ form and technique carefully, eating up any tips I could gain to enhance my own performance.

Was it taekwondo? Nope! It was swimming.

Swimming was my first love. My parents had me in the water before I could walk. Dad, who was an art teacher at my small town’s community college, taught swimming lessons in the summer, so my brother and I pretty much lived at the college pool for most of the summer breaks. The pool was 50 meters long and included a high dive that I decided I needed to jump off when I turned four because, well, I was four and needed to get that done. I still remember plummeting down towards the water like a happy little four-year-old bullet.

I would swim underwater for what felt like hours, enjoying the silence and solitude (even when the pool was crowded), amuse myself with games, and scrounge around for loose change. Sometimes I played with my brother or with friends; sometimes I did my own thing. It was only when we were starving and exhausted that we would go home, watching the twinkling lights on the West Texas horizon blink in the darkness.

As I got older I made the time to learn proper techniques for crawl, breaststroke, and backstroke from Dad, and by the time I got to college I’d fallen into a routine of getting up early and getting in a swim before I started my day. I also taught myself butterfly stroke in college and have always enjoyed the heart-pounding rush of a butterfly sprint. I always liked going to the pool when it was dark and quiet, meaning there was less of a chance I’d have to share a lane (I still hate that) and that I could stretch out the solitude and solace the early morning brings me a little longer.

A few years ago I fell out of the habit of waking up early and often, and sometimes I’ll go weeks or even months without a swim. Sometimes my best laid plans are foiled by fumbling for the snooze button in a half-asleep stupor. Sometimes I feel discouraged by my relatively slow pace and weakened long-distance endurance. Unlike in taekwondo class, my mind tends to wander while I’m swimming, leaving more room to be bored and distracted. Despite all that, I get to the point where I desperately miss swimming, and I know that no matter where I end up living throughout my life, I’ll need to have access to a pool. I always need a swim fix at some point, no matter how long it’s been since I was last in the water.

Watching my favorite athletes compete in my favorite sport pushed me to jump up when my early alarm went off and race to the pool. I looked forward again to my early mornings gliding through the water. There’s still no feeling like swimming, and it’s not the same mind-body union I get in yoga or even in taekwondo. There’s something about that sensation of your body being sand-blasted by oxygen, of combining the best of strength training, cardio, and stretching all into one swift motion–ahhhh. Nothing else wakes me up quite like swimming, and I’m energized (and ravenously hungry) for the rest of the day.

I love swimming, and I love taekwondo. I need them both in my life. I just love them in different ways, and I think they complement each other. They’re both great for upper body strength and cardiovascular health. There are the mental and emotional aspects to consider as well.

For me taekwondo is a combination of exercise, study, tradition, a second job, and community engagement. Swimming, meanwhile, is just for me and me alone, and as an introvert with a fairly interactive professional and martial arts life, I need that solitude in the water and the rare moments of being totally self-sufficient and disengaged. I am not intellectually challenged by swimming the way I am by taekwondo although perhaps I should explore that possibility. There is something more primal and subconscious about swimming. I was born with gills.

I hope to both swim and practice taekwondo for the rest of my life, as long as I am healthy and active enough to move. I wonder which one will be my biggest source of comfort in my final years. Maybe they both will, in their own unique ways.

Proactive Laziness…Sometimes We Need Breaks From the Things We Love Most

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Last spring I was getting really burned out with taekwondo. I think it had less to do with the pressure I was under to test for bo dan (and later that year black belt) and more to do with crippling depression and anxiety that set in during a particularly nasty and icy February and lasted through…hmm…May. I also went through a very painful break up a week after I tested for bo dan, I was in a lull at work, and was becoming increasingly isolated at home.

Everything kinda sucked, and it followed me to the dojang. I was unmotivated, cranky, disappointed in my performance, and tired of dragging myself to class. I needed a break. I took a little time off, although I didn’t feel much better. Life in general started to improve in June, and by the time my black belt test rolled around in October, I was a much happier and more confident version of myself. I never told anyone how bad things were in the early part of last year. As I always do, I kept the worst parts to myself and dealt with my pain privately and independently. That’s how I prefer to handle things.

This time I’m taking a break so I don’t…well…break. Things are actually pretty good at the dojang. I’m having fun, being challenged, and love helping other students….buuuuttttt…..weeeeeelllllll….I need a break. I’ve sensed the tiniest hint of burnout over the past few weeks, not too dissimilar from what I feel at work if I’ve gone for a very long time without a day off. I’m tired of my routine and of being held to a rigid schedule most of my evenings. I’m hovering around a plateau. My favorite training partners have disappeared, and I haven’t quite gelled with my new ones. Most recently, to my dismay and confusion, I had a very distinct thought the last time I was in class:
“I don’t want to be here.”

Note that I didn’t say, “I don’t want to be here ever again,” or “I don’t want to do this any more.” I just didn’t want to be there in that particular moment. I was dreading the nights I had class rather than looking forward to them. I was ready to go home the moment I got to the dojang and changed into my uniform and wrapped my treasured black belt around my waist. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t burned out, but I am. I’m burned out. It’s a disheartening feeling, but at least this time I caught it early.

Add to the mix that I have a lot of work events this week, including speaking in front of large groups, a conference, coaching meetings, and meetings with company executives. It’s only Tuesday and I already feel the need for a lot of introvert decompression time. My short term memory is shot. As much as I love my job and am incredibly fulfilled by the work I get to do, I’m feeling more and more drained. Sometimes I secretly hope for a bout of summer bronchitis or strep throat to knock me out and take me out of commission for a little while.

Taekwondo, which is also highly interactive and requires me to be “on” 100% of the time, has also felt draining as of late, and that’s a new sensation. Usually it lifts me up and invigorates my spirit. Not so much right now. Being an introvert who happens to love interacting with and helping people is exhausting.

So, yeah, I’m taking a little time off and hoarding all the alone time I get when I’m not at work. I need to recharge and refresh. If I’m worn out and disengaged then I don’t really need to be bringing that energy around the dojang anyway. I’d like to think I’m doing myself and everyone else a favor by removing myself from an increasingly unhappy situation.

The only true “breaks” I’ve had from taekwondo since last year’s very unpleasant spring were when I took about a week off due to my hamstring injury and the two weeks the dojang was closed over the Christmas holidays. They were forced breaks. This time, I’m being proactively lazy and proud of it. Maybe I’ll take an extra barre or yoga class, go out to dinner or the movies, or maybe just enjoy the extra time at home in my Fortress of Solitude. I’ll definitely be watching the taekwondo Olympic finals later this week.

Taking a break can be a very healthy thing for an athlete, hobbyist, artist, or employee. It can be just what we need to recharge our batteries and help us come back to what we love fresh, strong, excited, and ready to work. I have a feeling absence will make my heart grow fonder. They’re still my tribe and my second family. I miss my taekwondo instructors and classmates when I’ve been away for a while (and sometimes even when I’m only absent for one or two classes). Too much time in my Fortress of Solitude gives me tunnel vision after  a while…but for now it’s exactly where I need to be. The ice will melt eventually, and I’ll bloom once again.

Guest Post: Keeping an Eye on Taekwondo in the Olympics

Are you gearing up for next week’s taekwondo matches in Rio? Then check out August’s guest post on the martial arts travel site BookMartialArts.com for a quick guide to Olympic taekwondo:
Keeping an Eye on Taekwondo in the Olympics

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Thinking of starting your own Taekwondo journey? Interested in honing in your martial arts skills? From Kung Fu to Capoeira you can find, browse and book a vast selection of martial arts training camps at BookMartialArts.com, the world’s leading martial arts travel website.

Why I Like Mean Girls

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“So I was working with this cute little girl who looks just like Tweety Bird. She kept wanting to do the one step [self-defense technique] with the takedown. She had this crazy smile on her face and kept saying, ‘Takedown! Takedown!’ I like this kid!” I said to one of my fellow black belts. He paused for a moment and then looked pointedly at me.

“Why, because she’s like you?”

Absolutely.

There’s a running joke at our little dojang that all the females are mean and crazy. We move fast, fight hard, and go for blood….all in the spirit of good sportsmanship of course. One teenage girl has earned a reputation for kicking everyone in the face during sparring. It’s like a right of passage to get smacked in the head by her. Another woman regularly kicks the crap out me, and to add insult to injury, she punches me right in the chest. (It just HAS to be there instead of my stomach for some reason. And this is during “no contact” sparring, mind you.)

Meanwhile, tiny Tweety Bird, with her glasses and giant blue-green eyes, kicks really freaking hard for a little kid and ki-yahps with loud maniacal glee, especially when she’s tossing around her older sister. My instructor has trained me to be aggressive during fighting and move in quickly on my opponents during self-defense practice. I get a sick pleasure from breaking boards with my hands. Sometimes he seems surprised that he’s created all these monsters.

The underlying theme in our Taekwondo Mean Girls Club is CONFIDENCE. We might not all be the best, but we won’t go down without a fight.

Nothing makes me prouder than to see a girl kick ass, but it’s not for reasons you might think. Sure, I want to see them stay out of trouble, build healthy minds and bodies, and earn their black belts. More so, they have the power to avoid the pain I’ve experienced by being a lifelong doormat. Since childhood I’ve been bullied, teased, humiliated, and harassed. Other than crying or getting angry I never fought back. (Except that time I slapped a boyfriend in the face for calling me fat. God, that was satisfying.)

I let myself be abused in various ways over and over again, and that is my deepest regret. I was a lonely, sensitive child and a jaded, skittish young woman who retreated further and further into herself as the only means of self-preservation. I didn’t think I could defend myself. I didn’t know how, and my mind didn’t work fast enough to save me. Even to this day in all my black belt glory I find myself in situations where I later regret not saying or doing something to stand up for myself. I still have a moment or two of being in shock when someone crosses my comfort zone and chips away at my dignity. Do people really think it’s OK to act like that? I’m reluctant to get close to anyone again, be it friend, romantic partner, or otherwise for fear of being hurt again. My outer shell grows thicker by the day.

I have pain and damage to undo despite the huge strides I’ve made in taekwondo. I’d like to think most of the young girls I work with in the dojang aren’t burdened with that, at least not yet. It hurts my heart to think of them feeling scared, angry, in pain, or helpless. I can’t protect them all the time, and neither can their parents. They are going to make mistakes. They are going to get their hearts broken. They are going to do and say things they regret. What I hope they can avoid is the pain and shame of not standing up for themselves when they felt threatened or mistreated.

So yes, I like mean, aggressive, and most of all CONFIDENT girls. They are proud of who they are and won’t compromise to please someone else. They have self-respect and know when to speak up and speak out. They can value themselves highly despite what a friend, a boy, a teacher, a boss, or total stranger might think of them. They can avoid the mistakes I made and the missteps I took. They can have bright, bold futures filled with love and happiness. I can’t change my past behavior, but going forward I can be as tough and fearless as these girls I admire so much.

Feeling Stupid? Good! How to Stay Motivated When Learning Seems Hopeless

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“I feel like a dumbass.”

The tall, grey-haired white belt sighed with frustration. Adults in our small dojang are few and far between, so when one shows up I make a beeline for them, try to get to know them, and make them feel welcome. I was waiting for the advanced class to start, so I was chatting with this man about his upcoming orange belt test and what he had learned so far. He had been meticulously practicing fundamental blocks in the white belt class and was struggling with getting the movements just right.

I remember that frustrating feeling when learning blocks as a white belt. Inside-to-outside middle block was one of the hardest things to master. How could a simple twist of the elbow and flick of the wrist be so damn complicated? Suddenly I didn’t know my left from my right, and my brain felt like it was trying to wrap itself around quantum physics. Girl, bye.

“It gets better,” I assured him. “It just takes time and practice. You’ll be frustrated for a while. I still feel like a dumbass with some of the stuff I have to do.”

Sometimes we just have to sit with discomfort, whether it is frustration, grief, uncertainty, or feeling like a dumbass. We can’t bypass it or take a shortcut. We can’t wish it away or admonish ourselves for our sins of omission. We just have to get through it.

The discomfort of not knowing and stumbling as we learn can be an opportunity to think outside the box and deepen our understanding of an unfamiliar concept. I was recently working with a group of nurses on a communication tool they commonly use when calling physicians or during shift changes. This time, however, we were using the tool with a non-clinical scenario. The nurses remarked how weird it felt to use the tool out of their normal context. Suddenly they weren’t the experts, and that felt very uncomfortable. They had to think differently and be more mindful of how and what they communicated than they typically do when they are in the hospital. Hopefully they now have a deeper understanding of how they communicate when sharing vital information about their patients.

Not knowing can also be an excellent lesson in humility. Getting a black belt is a great ego boost, don’t get me wrong, but much of BEING a black belt is realizing what I DON’T know and adding to the list of things I need to work on. If I knew everything and did everything perfectly that would get boring after a while. Not knowing means I have room to grow and opportunities to see my practice with a fresh perspective. It’s kind of fun to go back to techniques I learned as a color belt and tweak them with the skill I now have as a black belt. It’s like getting to learn what I love to do all over again. I still have so far to go. At least I am a self-aware dumbass.

I have no doubt my new white belt friend will be practicing his blocks with great effort and concentration over the next week. He will work hard and try his best, which ultimately will make him a better black belt than if he just breezes through the motions. The learning process he is building now will be a foundation for him as he moves up the ranks and learns more complicated kicks, sparring techniques, and self-defense. If he’s anything like me, he will have many more moments of feeling like a dumbass, and that’s okay. It will make that moment of realizing he mastered something so much sweeter.

Guest Post: Using Martial Arts Forms As Moving Meditation

Check out July’s guest post from Book Martial Arts!
Discipline of the Body and Mind: Using Forms as Moving Meditation.

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Nothing, and I mean nothing has helped me practice presence better than taekwondo. This month I go all hippie in the dojang and discuss how the martial arts student can use their poomsae, kata, or other type of form to quiet the mind, focus the body, and ultimately improve their practice.

Thinking of starting your own Taekwondo journey? Interested in honing in your martial arts skills? From Kung Fu to Capoeira you can find, browse and book a vast selection of martial arts training camps at BookMartialArts.com, the world’s leading martial arts travel website.

Martial Arts Ruined My Love Life…or at Least Ruined What It Used to Be

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“Keep your heart open,” my mom said with a fake-sappy smile as I hugged her good-bye at the airport last week.

“Oh gross, don’t let that be the last thing you say to me!” I said. Since Mom and I primarily speak in sarcasm and South Park references, we both knew it was a joke. A few days earlier and after several glasses of wine, I had admitted to my parents that I rejoined an online dating site that I’ve used in the past, so Mom was probably just half-heartedly teasing me about the reservations I expressed about dating again (although I sensed a glimmer of seriousness in her voice). Now I didn’t actually rejoin the site after several glasses of wine–that was merely brought on by a short bout of temporary loneliness and boredom, a blip of having my guard down in my otherwise very busy (and guarded) life.

I was genuinely curious to see if my feelings had changed since I published my “Love is Like Grape Soda” post on Valentine’s Day. At the time of that post I had absolutely no interest in dating or getting into a relationship after being out of a serious relationship for nearly a year. I didn’t dislike love or relationships. I regarded it as a neutral, non-meaningful entity, much the same way as I regard grape soda: I don’t really like it or dislike it. I simply can’t be bothered to care. It doesn’t interest me. I fully support other people’s decision to drink themselves sick on grape soda, but none for me, thank you. I don’t know if I’ve ever even had grape soda.

I’ve been out on a few dates, talked to a few guys, and have had a nice time. The men were warm, funny, good looking, and accomplished, and I’ve enjoyed some great conversations…and I also didn’t feel any connection, spark, whatever, and I doubt they did either. I haven’t heard from any of them in a while, and for once, I’m not upset about it. At first I actually felt pleased at my feeling of no-feeling because I proved to myself that I had broken my habit of instantly falling for whichever guy happened to be nice to me and putting them on a pedestal while devaluing my own worth. It truly is a case of “It’s not you, it’s me.” I am not going to force myself into a relationship just because I’m lonely or just because a man pays attention to me for a brief moment in time.

Maybe at this point for me love is less like grape soda and more like popcorn and ice cream. I’m interested, but not so much that I’m willing to pig out. I like popcorn and ice cream and even have both in my house, but…still…meh. I forget they’re there. I don’t get the allure. I roll my eyes when people say they’re giving up ice cream for Lent. I don’t understand how people go absolutely apeshit over the free popcorn at the hospitals where I work. There’s even a sweets shop in my city called “Popcorn and Ice Cream,” but I have yet to walk through its doors. I like popcorn and ice cream more than I like grape soda and even crave a taste now and then, but I don’t want to commit to a whole bag or a whole carton.

(If love were like Doritos and cookie ice cream sandwiches washed down with cabernet, on the other hand, I’d be married by now.)

Then it happened a few more times–that feeling of no-feeling– and I was struck with a confusing and profound sadness. While these dates had proven that I can wait to see if someone is right for me rather than jumping prematurely into a relationship and hoping for the best, it’s also hinted to me that perhaps I’ve become so independent and self-sufficient that I am not capable of sharing space, time, energy, and love with a man. It has proven to me what I’ve been casually tossing around since my tongue-in-cheek Valentine’s Day post: I want to be single and alone. I cannot have a relationship again, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s over. I’m done. That part of me is dead…or okay, maybe undead and waiting to come back years from now. It wasn’t the loneliness or longing for a relationship that made me sad–it was the absence of that longing that confused me and broke my heart just a little.

There is a part of me that is afraid if I enter into a relationship again I will lose the gifts taekwondo has given me: confidence, self-respect, independence. The feeling I get in taekwondo class feels so damn good that I don’t want to let anything bring down my high. It’s been my savior and my drug. I don’t want to lose that unique feeling of elation I get in class. It’s a high that lasts longer than any kiss or coveted text message.

I don’t want to go back to being the Old Me. I don’t like who I was when I was in relationships. I was needy, self-conscious, self-deprecating, and sad. I let men treat me like dirt. Rejection destroyed me. I didn’t have the peace that I have now as a single and unattached woman, and if relationships only bring out the worst in me then I want no part of them. I’d like to think I’ve changed enough that this time around things would be different, and I think most of the men out there are genuinely good guys, but without solid proof it’s hard to want to take the risk.

I like who I’ve become. I’m stronger, more confident, funnier, and frankly, much nicer and more pleasant to be around. I’m happy with who I am and have started to open my eyes and see how I can help the people around me. I’ve found my niche and how I can contribute to the world. Taekwondo has made me more empathetic, mindful, and hopeful. It’s help me accept and appreciate my body. It saved me from self-destruction, some of which was wrapped up in how I handled relationships. I’ve learned to find happiness within myself.

Several years ago a priest asked me if I considered the thought that God might want me to be single. I was furious and felt like he was giving me a death sentence. Now, after many years and many more emotional growth spurts, I’m starting to wonder if there might be a grain of truth to his question. I’ve considered the thought, and at this point, I’ve accepted it if that is indeed God’s plan for me.

I’m okay with it now. I would rather be alone than stressed out over whether a man approved of me or not, whether he was attracted to me, whether he wanted to spend time with me, whether he thought I was worthy. I have found a rhythm to life that works for me. I don’t want to compromise who I’ve become and what I’ve gained with something that I have learned the hard way won’t bring internal peace and happiness. I’ve found my bliss and have become the woman I used to hope would be magically conjured up by a man’s love and approval.

Maybe it’s not so much that I am incapable of dating, but that my standards have changed, and I still don’t quite understand how to navigate the dating world armed with them. I know now that I deserve respect, honesty, and compassion, not just fleeting attraction and hollow promises of love. That’s all thanks to taekwondo, and if I have to be unattached to be the New Me, then so be it.

I’ve since cancelled my online dating subscription. At some point I became bored with the whole process and eventually forgot I had my profile up altogether. When I first got into online dating I was delighted about how many interesting men I was able to meet that I would have never encountered in my regular daily life. Now it just felt limiting and like a chore. If and when I do “meet” someone again, I think I’d like it to be the old fashioned way. For now I’m going to continue to enjoy doing whatever I want whenever I want. I have a book to finish writing, after all.

The only person I initially told about my tentative foray back into the dating world was my brother. I expressed doubt and regret over restarting my profile and wondered if it was just misguided loneliness. He cautioned me to not get into something I didn’t really want to do, and added this statement:

“We just want you to be with someone who deserves you.”

Yeah, that’s what I want too. If I meet that guy who makes me feel as good as I felt in class Monday night or who even makes me want to skip class to spend time with him, then maybe, just maybe, I’ll consider taking a swig of the proverbial grape soda. Until then, I’ll see you in class.