You Know More Than You Think You Do: What I Learned From Practicing “That Old Japanese Form” (The Poomsae Series Part 14)

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This is my last essay examining an individual form. Unless I can talk one of the senior black belts into teaching me Sipjin or Jitae I’ve gone as far as I can go with black belt forms…for now. I plan on teaching myself Taeguk color belt forms, so that will definitely give me some insight to write about at a later date. But for now this is the end of the direction I’ve been taking with The Poomsae Series.

Anyway…

I don’t even know how to spell the name of the most recent form I learned. I’m going to take a guess and call it “Nopei” (pronounced NO-pay), or as one of the grandmasters in our circle calls it, “that old Japanese form.” At my school this form is learned along with Sipjin at fourth Dan. It’s the last form performed before one attains the level of master…in our school anyway. It’s the end of one journey and the beginning of another.

Nopei is a holdover from the old days of taekwondo, or at least the “old days” of the resurgence after the Japanese occupation of Korea and the rise of Korean grandmasters in the United States. It’s a very rarely taught or practiced form in the American taekwondo world, like Koryo One (see article for explanation) and more recently (and regrettably in my opinion) the Palgwe forms.

I asked the master who trained me for my black belt to teach it to me as somewhat of a goodbye. He was leaving the school to take a full-time job, and poomsae (forms) was one of his greatest talents. He always made forms look precise, strong, and smooth, and he expected no less from his students. He’s been my mentor, leader, and friend for several years, and I’ve modeled all the things I do well after his teaching, especially the way I practice and perform forms. I won’t blame him for the stupid things I do—that’s all me.

Nopei begins simply, even more simply than the Palgwe OR Taeguk forms: one double knifehand high block to the left followed by a slight shift in weight and another to the right. Fists go the belt and the black belt takes three determined steps forward—not slides, not in any fighting stances, just straight up walking (hell, practically strolling although in a very determined manner) with precisely rolling feet.

This is where it gets interesting. In a flash the black belt leaps from the simple walking position into a graceful landing onto the left leg and holds for a breath, just long enough to make an impression. The best way I can describe this movement is that it ends up looking like the Keumgang crane stance with diamond block except with knife hands and the lifted leg more angled for roundhouse kick rather than side kick. It’s a beautiful image, and I know my words don’t do it justice. Along with simple inside-to-outside knife hand strikes, a few middle punches, and a break in dead center with a downward punch (ideally with an actual board or block), the jump is performed three more times.

Nopei ends simply and softly with three high blocks to the back and, facing forward again, those same two knifehand blocks but with the body at a slight 45 degree angle, a subtle wink to whoever is paying close attention.

There are a few more novel pieces to the form after the break, but my favorite part to watch (and to do) is the jump. It’s so different from anything I’ve done in a form or anything I’ve done in five years of taekwondo classes for that matter. It takes some adjusting in both body and mental focus.

Things have changed dramatically for me in my little taekwondo world. The master who taught me the form is gone, we’ve moved to a new location and are still adjusting to the space, and there’s now a lot more pressure on me to lead classes.  For the first time it’s begun to feel like work and an obligation rather than an energy-booster and a pleasure, and that has broken my heart. My feelings toward and relationship with taekwondo has changed.

What this form has taught me is that I know more than I think I do. I can learn a deceivingly simple form with new and unfamiliar movements. I can lead other students and black belts. I can adjust to changes that I don’t necessarily want but have to accept.

Many years ago when I first got into the organizational development industry I was fretting over a project I didn’t feel qualified or experienced for. My director at the time, who was always kind and sincere, looked at me pointedly, said, “Melanie, you know more than you think you do,” and strolled into his office. I’ve never forgotten that moment and I keep that memory as a motivator whenever I’m faced with a challenge. I know more than I think I do at work, in taekwondo, and in life. I just have to relax and trust my instincts.

“Let’s do Nopei together so I don’t cry.” I was chatting with my master before an evening class during the last week he taught at my dojang. I was starting to get teary and emotional about the fact that I wouldn’t get to learn from him anymore. He has inspired, guided, and pushed me further than I thought I could go in the last five years. He’s the best “boss” I’ve ever had as far as grooming and preparing me for my own leadership role, even on the days when I didn’t like him very much, ha ha. These days when I really don’t want to teach I pull from a store of confidence I’ve been able to build through my master’s guidance. I know more than I think I do. He saw that in me before I even realized it.

Moving and breathing in unison we walked through the form together. Then he had me go through it on my own so he could observe, ever the instructor. That was the last form we practiced together and a fitting passing of the torch from teacher to student.

I know more than I think I do, and I know I can do this on my own.

 

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Why I Teach (Even Though I Want Everyone to Leave Me Alone)

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I really should title this post “Why I Consult/Inform/Coach/Question/Advise/Facilitate,” but it’s not as catchy. I find it extremely funny in a karmic way that an introvert like me who preferred to read and draw rather than interact with other kids grew up to make a living out of talking to people. In my personal life I’ve grown into the role of instructor at my taekwondo school, and I love it. How could this have happened? Lately I’ve begun to feel the pressure of my role as helper and guide and wondered if I needed to take a break.

January was a very stressful month at our dojang due to certain circumstances I won’t get into. I was beginning to feel burned out in my leadership role, and I was even in tears one night when I realized it was the first time in five years that I truly did not want to go to class. It felt like “work,” which it never had before, even on nights when I didn’t feel well and even during long tournament coaching days. I kept going back, though, and each time I felt reenergized by interacting with the other students and instructors. I can’t help offering advice before class or being willing to stop what I’m doing and answer questions from a student who asks for my assistance. I can’t walk away from it entirely even though some days I just don’t want to be there. Many bottles of wine have been present during the course of what has been the most stressful month of my taekwondo career.

Meanwhile at my day job…
No one in my personal life quite understands what I do professionally so here’s an example of what I’ve done a typical week as a learning and leadership development consultant for a large healthcare system: I’ve presented company culture and strategy at new employee orientation for 90 people, had a coaching meeting with a physician in a development program who was a little apprehensive about leading his team’s first project meeting, compared notes on what’s going on at my hospital with the director of HR, advised a former leadership coaching client that she needed to be up front with her boss about wanting to move into a higher role, presented a workshop on accountability to over 60 nursing leaders, and lead team building sessions for staff at two stand-alone medical clinics. Meanwhile in the dojang I recently ran a test to promote six students to bo dan, the rank just below black belt. And those many bottles of wine came in handy.

It’s been a busy month. I’m tired.

I took some time to reflect on why I’m so drawn to what I do at work and in the dojang and what I want for my future.

I’ve been providing information and facilitating learning my entire career from my first library internship at the UT Southwestern Medical Center to my current job. I didn’t choose learning as a career; I wanted to be an animator for Disney or an artist for MAD Magazine. Over time I just sort of…fell into it. I liked finding information and I liked helping people meet their needs, whether it was determining the next course of a patient’s care or determining the next step in someone’s career. As a hospital librarian I saw how my work could help clinical workers care for their patients. In my training and development role I’ve seen how my work helps people build better relationships, take bold steps in their careers, and improve their work processes. I’m thrilled when my coaching clients from years ago give me updates on their progress. In taekwondo I get more excited about other students testing for color belt or black belt than I do with my own black belt tests. It’s fun helping people prepare. It’s awesome seeing people succeed.

But damnit I’m worn out. I’m tired of talking to people and hearing myself talk. I’m so looking forward to next week because I have NOTHING on my schedule. A meeting or two, but no speaking engagements, no team building, no orientations, no professional development classes, no coaching, no belt tests. I’m going to hide in my office and not talk to ANYONE. I’m hoping during the taekwondo classes I’ll attend that others take on more of the teaching responsibility and I can just be a student for once. I wouldn’t say this is “compassion fatigue,” which can plague clinical care providers, but I think I need to use this little break in extraverting myself to the world wisely.

And then I’ll be right back to it, and I won’t be able to help myself. A little teaching here, a little coaching there. Sure, I’ll give that presentation. Yes, I can lead warm-ups in taekwondo class. Yes, I can help you with your form. I didn’t chose this. Helping people learn chose me. My success is seeing them succeed. I’m a servant leader and a caregiver, and this has become my calling. The pull is so strong I can’t see myself doing anything else. As tiring as this is sometimes, I hope I continue to feel so lucky that I get to do what I do at work and in the dojang.

Stand Your Ground: What I Learned From Practicing Pyongwon (The Poomsae Series Part 13)

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I love poomsae (taekwondo forms), and I never miss an opportunity to practice and learn new forms. Pyongwon is typically learned at 4th Dan although at my dojang we learn it at 3rd Dan. Several months ago I talked my Master into teaching it to me shortly before I tested for 2nd Dan, just to give me a fun challenge to play with. We already do things differently by teaching Koryo AND Keumgang at 1st Dan and move on to Taebaek at 2nd Dan, so why stop there?

This form is short and linear, but also powerful and intimidating, both to watch and to learn. This form taught me to be strong and solid in my foundation, which I had to rely on recently in “real life.”

The concept of Pyongwon is twofold: (1) it represents a plain or vast field of land, which serves as a foundation and sustenance for life and (2) it’s based on the idea of peace and struggle….or, standing your ground. The physical movements of the form require core strength and mental concentration. Practicing the form itself feels like a mental struggle–which way to I go? Do I fight? Do I change directions? Do I stand firmly in place? Each movement is a calculated decision.

It’s an interesting form, but it’s not flashy like Koryo or Taebaek. This form is more reminiscent of the sturdy, complex yet primitive Keumgang, and even borrows that form’s signature mountain block. I get the same glint in my eye and twinge of quiet brutality in my stomach when I do Pyongwon as when I practice Keumgang. It challenges me to ground myself and focus on commanding the space. It taps into a darker part of my psyche.

Recently a colleague and I were placed in a very difficult position where we had to rely on our foundational values and internal strength. We faced the possibility of challenging an authority figure to defend what we believed was right. We faced with the very painful possibility of cutting ties with people we loved in order to defend and protect others we cared about. Feelings could be hurt on all sides, and relationships could be irreparably damaged.

The last few days have been stressful and emotionally draining in light of this challenge. I played scenarios over and over in my head–sometimes I was stoic. Other times I was volatile and biting. Other times I was calm and poignant. I reminded myself that whenever this situation might come to a head I would need to model the black belt tenets of integrity, courtesy, respect, perseverance, and compassion, even if I wanted to run or if I wanted to go against what had become my foundational values.

Thankfully the crisis was somewhat averted. Drama did not ensue (too much), and I felt a weight lift from my shoulders (two big glasses of wine also helped). Reflection on how events actually played out, however, strengthened my resolve to stand my ground, bravely face the internal struggle of the desire for peace and the instinct to fight, and protect the people I care about.  That is the true calling of a black belt.

The Poomsae Series Part 12: Taebaek, Or, Old is New Again

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I’m officially a second degree black belt now, and that means with a new rank I have a new form and a new addition to the Poomsae Series! Yay! Enjoy!*

“It’s like a recap,” my chief instructor said one day when we were discussing the second dan black belt form Taebaek. “Now you’re second degree,” he continued hypothetically, “So let’s make sure you remember all your old color belt forms.”

“More like a clip show like on TV,” I countered. “They’re too lazy to make new material, so they just put a bunch of random old stuff together.”

I was marveling at the fact that Taebaek, the form we at my dojang learn as a second degree black belt, seemed so much easier to learn and seemingly less complicated than the two first dan forms, Koryo and Keumgang (Some teach Keumgang at second degree, Taebaek at third, etc. We do things a little differently). I’d heard my instructor for a long time claim that Taebaek was a mash up of old Palgwe forms, but it never really resonated until I learned the form myself.

I actually learned this form last summer as a first degree black belt, and it all started as a joke wrapped in a dare. During class one night a second degree black belt, who always seemed to forget that he had to use the bathroom until about 10 seconds before break time was over, was absent from his spot in line.

“Go ahead, Melanie, fill in,” my instructor said, gesturing for me to take my place at the front of the class. “Now you’re second degree!”

“Cool! Does this mean I can learn Taebaek?” I giggled. To my surprise (and utter delight) he took me up on it about two weeks later and taught me and a fellow first dan the form. This was the first form I had ever been able to remember in its entirety the first day of learning it.

If this form is a clip show, it’s also a video game filled with fun “Easter eggs,” at least for certain taekwondo practitioners who still do the old school beautiful and complex Palgwe forms. It truly is a mishmash of a sweet new moves like breaking an arm, which is awesome, and many signature pieces of color belt Palgwe forms, which I know quite well. (I suppose it’s new to Taeguk practitioners. If you’re curious, look up videos of Palgwes Yuk Jang, Sah Jang, Pal Jang, and Oh Jang, and see if you can spot the shout outs.) Like Koryo, it follows the very familiar Palgwe sideways H pattern. Unlike Keumgang, it’s not a directional mindf*ck.

Taebaek starts out with a new move, a crossed knife hand block (I found it a bit drill team-y but went with it) followed by a familiar front snap kick and double punch. Okay, this is interesting. Then as you turn to the front–BAM!–the double knife hand high block/strike from Palgwe Yuk Jang. What!? YAASSSS, the form with flair! Okay, um, that was a pleasant surprise! Let’s keep going. There are a few more new pieces (and in slow motion too!) and then BAM!–the signature “crescent moon” double block of Palwge Sah Jang. Oooh, this is fun to revisit, and it comes with arm break, and a punch! Get it girl, let’s kick some ass in style!

Turning in a 90 degree angle and moving to the back is reminiscent of the block/spear hand combo in both Sah Jang and Pal Jang, and then oh snap, it’s that f*cking scissor block from Oh Jang! Aw, HELL no! I thought we were done with that awkward, needlessly complex blue belt form, but noooo, it just has to get in one more jab. Y’all, I can hardly contain myself. Maybe a nicer way to refer to this form than clip show is homage.

Although Taebaek pulls heavily from lower level forms, it has a freshness and sense of humor to it. It’s a reminder that you don’t have to turn away from your roots when you want to keep growing. What got you to first degree won’t necessarily get you to second or third degree, but you can still draw on your experiences. It’s an opportunity to add black belt understanding to color belt principles. You don’t have to do away with who you are. Continue to draw on your good qualities, and just, well, turn it up a notch.

[*I actually composed this article last summer, but I didn’t want to jinx myself and post it before I got second degree…and then I learned that it’s usually a third dan form at other schools, and I’ve learned that one too already, so the hell with it, I’m writing an article on the third/fourth dan form Pyongwon. Stay tuned…]

Being Okay With Where You Are

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“Yoga is about being okay with where you are today,” said the teacher as we slowly worked our way through poses in a mid-morning class. I’m not sure the ancient Yogic scriptures included that in their philosophy, but hey, it’s a nice thing to hear on a Monday morning. I’ve been practicing yoga for twenty years, and have for the most part been totally okay with those days when I’m more wobbly or the decline in my flexibility over the years. I’m pretty chill with where I am, at least on the mat.

It was also a reminder that outside of yoga class and perhaps the workplace, I often am not okay with where I happen to be in a given moment, which keeps me unfocused, wrapped up in my own thoughts and the lies I tell myself, unaccepting and unable to let go, and unable to comfortably remain in the present moment.

I had a very profound moment of not being okay or accepting of where I was during my second dan test. Everything was going well: I had retained my balance and strength during a very difficult slow-motion kicking portion, put power and precision into my forms (and it meant a lot to me that my mom said I should compete in poomsae at future tournaments), executed my self-defense well (and kinda accidentally hurt my partner, but that’s what he gets for attacking me), and fought two bigger, stronger black belts without getting whacked in the head. Cool. I was going to ace this test.

We ended the test with my favorite activity, breaking. We practice breaking quite a bit in classes, but it’s a rare thing to actually get to break boards. I love breaking not even so much for the challenge and creativity of putting a sequence together, but let’s just face it, hitting shit is FUN. Breaking stuff is cathartic. Black belt promotion tests are years apart so unless there’s a demonstration, actual breaking is a very rare treat. I was beginning my sequence with a spinning knife hand strike followed by a punch. I had practiced this countless times and had successfully completed it at a demo last year. Yay! Let’s do this. I took a deep breath, wound up, spun around and–

THUNK.

The board didn’t break.

Crap.

I was in shock that I didn’t get the outcome I was expecting, but I didn’t skip a beat and tried not to show my disappointment externally. I kept going, thankfully nailing my final break on the first shot, which was a flying roundhouse and the one in theory that was the most difficult. In the end everything was broken, there were shards of wood everywhere, and all was well.

Only in that moment it wasn’t. My mood dropped significantly, and I had to force myself to smile in the photos we all took after the test. Other than my breaking, I knew I did well, and I’ve known before the test that I had already earned that second degree with all the work and dedication I’ve put in over the past two years. My masters assured me that it was not a big deal and overall I had done a good job. On the way to lunch at my request for some “coaching,” my musician brother told me about a time he saw Billy Joel, one of his idols, make a mistake on national television. Billy just rolled his eyes and kept playing, and it helped my brother accept those times when he made mistakes in his own performances.

Not passing my test wasn’t the issue. I was disappointed that I didn’t perform at the level I expected, especially during my favorite testing portion. I wasn’t perfect, and I had a hard time accepting that. I was still able to enjoy a celebratory lunch (and of course Champagne and cupcakes) and a pleasant afternoon with my family, but my dampened mood nagged at me. I wasn’t okay with where I was that day.

I think my next big challenge and perhaps something I should focus my efforts on in 2018 is letting go of specific, “perfect” outcomes related to what I love the most: taekwondo and my personal relationships. Experience has proven that “letting go” and not agonizing over a particular situation opens up doors of opportunity to outcomes even better than I could have imagined with my limited knowledge. I care too much about certain aspects of my personal life, and all that does is cause me stress and pain.

I have mastered the practice of healthy detachment with my career, partially to keep myself from getting too stressed out about work and partially to spite society, which assumes that women who do not have partners or children MUST be married to their job and be absolute workaholics. I’m very good at what I do, like and respect my coworkers, care about my clients, have a fantastic work-life balance, and am happier with my job than I ever have been before. Just this year I got a big private office and the shortest commute I’ve ever had, plus twice the salary of what I made when I first started with my company…but I could walk away from it all in a heartbeat and never give that job or anyone related to it another thought.

It’s not that I don’t care about work. I’ve had plenty of moments of being upset, angry, or worried about work-related situations. But I don’t let those feelings overtake me or serve as a sense of purpose or fulfillment in my life. I love my job, but I don’t let work define me, whereas I seem to do the opposite with my personal life. I’ve made plenty of mistakes at work, but I’ve been able to brush them off quickly and remind myself that they don’t impact my overall performance.

If I don’t have work at least I still have my personal life, and perhaps that thought keeps my work detachment going. But if aspects that I value in my personal life go away or I fail or I’m rejected, I feel like I will have nothing. I’m holding on to those aspects so much that I can’t open myself up to the organic growth and opportunities that I’ve seen with my more relaxed take on my career.

I’m okay with where I am in my career. You could even say I’m content. I’m not always okay with where I am personally. Throw in one little metaphorical wobble to my personal life, namely taekwondo or the ambiguity of some of my personal relationships, and I panic. I feel lost and scared without the security of knowing that things will be okay, that I will still be accepted in my dojang and by the people I love. I berate myself for not trying harder and for supposedly disappointing the people I care about. I’ve put this same undue pressure on myself regarding my physical appearance since I was a teenager. Hell, I’m still underweight thanks to an intestinal parasite, but I habitually still look for flaws. “Thin” is such a an unfamiliar descriptor to me that I have a hard time attributing it to my physique. I’m holding myself and the rest of what I value in my personal life up to such impossible standards that the foundation threatens to crumble beneath me.

I can take disappointments at work in stride, and I long to have that healthy sense of detachment with my personal life. The fear of loss and the pain that it causes is unbearable. I never feel hatred or jealousy at work, and I rarely feel doubt. I can’t say the same for my personal life, and all that does is cause more pain.

Not breaking the board the first time wasn’t the real problem. Being so attached to things going my way was what made my mood crash when my expectations weren’t met. I’m so afraid of losing taekwondo or people I care about that I let the worry and fear overtake me before anything even happens. That causes more unnecessary stress and sometimes more mistakes.

I want to be okay and content with being who I am without those safeguards I’ve built into my personal life. I want to be able to not give them a second thought when they’re not needing my attention. I want to detach from everything and everyone in a healthy way.

Perhaps not breaking that board on the first attempt was the best thing that could have happened. It was a good reminder of where I am with the unrealistic standards I put on myself. No matter how I did at Saturday’s test, I’m still a black belt, and I’m still going to class tonight, ready to keep practicing…in a healthy, detached way of course.

Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan

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Tomorrow, after two years of hard work and training, I test for second dan. The obligatory post-test Veuve Cliquot Champagne and cupcakes are chilling in the fridge. The dobok I will wear is clean and folded. For once I don’t feel the twinge of any lingering injuries. I feel prepared and confident in my skills and warmth and joy that my family will be able to witness this next step in my taekwondo journey.

Getting second dan has a more subdued feeling to me than getting first dan did. I can’t explain it right now and probably won’t be able to until I’ve lived in my new rank for a while (that is, if everything goes as planned and my knees don’t decide on sudden mutiny). Maybe it’s because I’ve been distracted by a busy month at work, or maybe I’m just more aware of what I’m in for this time around.

Our Grandmaster has said that you’re not really a black belt if you just test, get awarded the belt, and then quit, which is the fate of so many martial artists, especially younger students. Those students have performed color belt techniques, and that’s it. They stop before they even begin the learning process that comes with being a black belt. I am the only one from my “graduating class” who is still attending our school.  When I got my black belt a lot of well-meaning people asked, “Now what?” as if that were the end rather than a spot on a continuum of training. I don’t think I’ll be asked that question this time. Most of the people I know have realized that taekwondo is an inherent part of my life. (How could they not, since I talk about it ad nauseam?)

I was proud to “get” my black belt. I was excited and happy during my test, and I don’t want to take away the importance from that moment. It was a very important point in my life and an accomplishment I’m very proud of. But the first time I put on my belt just meant…it was the first time I was putting on my belt. I wasn’t really living and performing as a black belt yet. I couldn’t wait to show up at the next class and start learning “black belt stuff,” and I’ve been in a learning mode ever since then. 

The learning has only intensified. I feel like I’m testing for my black belt every day in class, meaning, living up to the potential and responsibility of my rank. There are lower ranking techniques I still have yet to master, and every time I do “black belt stuff,” I’m looking for ways to improve my practice. I’ve learned volumes about teaching and by default, have learned more about taekwondo technique by teaching it to other students. Teaching has helped me better understand the “why” behind what we do and ways to make what I do stronger, faster, and more effective.

Being a black belt has taught me so much beyond new forms or advanced self-defense techniques. It’s helped boost my confidence both in the dojang and in the workplace, plus patience, adaptability, leadership, and oddly enough, more compassion, especially since I take responsibility for the students I help guide and coach. When I’m facing a difficult task at work or in the dojang (and sometimes in those tough physical therapy workouts), I think, “Come on, Black Belt, you can do this!” My belt isn’t just something I wear around my waist a few hours each week. It has become a part of my psyche and identity. I’ll be a black belt for the rest of my life.

I’m excited about my test tomorrow and recognize it for the important event it is (and that Champagne tastes really damn good, so I’m equally excited about that)…but it’s just one event in that never-ending continuum. I’ll show up to class on Monday with the same big dumb smile on my face, eager to learn and ready to keep practicing. Eventually I’ll be a second dan, and I look forward to the journey.

Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice

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[Warning: I was in a really corporate-y mood when I wrote this, so you’re getting a taste of Work Melanie’s voice rather than my usual silly, contemplative, self-deprecating Black Belt voice.]

I’m a learning and leadership development consultant, which in a very tiny abstract nutshell means that I listen, diagnose problems or needs, and help people make decisions and take actions that improve their performance on the job. As a bonus they very often end up happier too, which is my favorite part.

Since I’ve become a black belt and am nearing my test for second dan, I’ve seen many parallels between how leadership is managed where I work versus in the dojang. One positive point for the dojang (and an example I often use in the workplace) is how my chief instructor began grooming me for a leadership role before I even tested for black belt. That way I was prepared to adapt quickly to the new expectations and responsibilities of a black belt. That doesn’t always happen in the workplace, which results in leaders who feel overwhelmed and unsupported.

Another difference I’ve noticed is that in the workplace change or improvement is expected to happen with one shot: one meeting, one email, one workshop, one team building event. This year on two separate occasions I’ve had executives come to me after I’d already worked with their leadership teams to help address ongoing challenges. I was actually glad this happened, because it proved that you can’t expect change to happen overnight, no matter how fun or interesting or engaging the workshop/team building event was. My learning events didn’t “fail.” They were just a set up for longer term work, the beginning. So now I’m digging into their ongoing challenges and helping them better apply and practice the skills and concepts they learned earlier. It’s time to get real.

In the dojang, learning, practice, and application are blended seamlessly and are ongoing. Sh-t’s real all the time. If we are presented with a new concept that promises an improvement in skills or change in behavior, we can’t leave it at one demonstration and expect to see change. It takes ongoing practical application, feedback, and refinement. I still practice technique I learned as a white belt, and I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching and leadership skills. My instructors provide constant feedback, so I know where I stand in my performance. Just as a manager shouldn’t look at their new role as a stopping point, they should continue to learn, practice, and encourage their staff to do the same, just as a black belt does.

If you are a leader in the workplace (or your martial arts school of choice), you are responsible for implementing and supporting change, whether it’s a new process or a new standard of behavior. It requires not only daily practice from your team to develop a new habit, but it also requires you to practice your influential and strategic skills to ensure the change is successful.

Here are some ways to practice those leadership skills and be a black belt in your chosen field:

Support
Are you providing support for behavioral change? Have you set clear expectations? Do your staff or students have the resources they need to do what you’re asking them to do? Are you thinking ahead to the finished product or event? Are you helping them overcome barriers? And are you seeking support from your own leader? (Unless you’re self-employed, ha.) I ask my instructors for help fairly often, especially with teaching. I’ve developed my own style of teaching and coaching, but sometimes I just pointedly ask how to teach something that I find confusing or difficult. Leaders need support too to improve their daily practice.

Rewards and Recognition

While you don’t want to reward an employee just for showing up and doing the tasks that are on their job description, make the time to point out when they’ve gone above and beyond. “Catch them in the act of doing it right,” as one of my coworkers can say. So often on teams leaders focus on the low performers and don’t give feedback to those who are doing well or far exceeding expectations. If we black belts chose to focus all our energy singling out the kid who’s doing it “wrong,” it would be discouraging and frustrating to us and that student, but also other students who would benefit from positive feedback.

Be specific with your positive feedback. Depending on the age of the student I’ll point out exactly what they changed and improved to reinforce the behavior.

Leaders like recognition too, whether it’s public or private. The other day my grandmaster corralled the black belts (who all happened to be first dans) together to work on our forms. Right after we finished Keumgang, he told us to turn and face one of the black belts. He had been spending extra time over the past few weeks with this black belt, chipping away at habits that needed to go and encouraging skills that were improving. Grandmaster praised that black belt for hard work and told us to applaud—literally. That was a nice feeling. I’m looking forward to a reward (that I will hopefully earn fair and square) after my second dan test.

Continuous Improvement

Once you’re in a leadership position you don’t have to learn anything new, right? You don’t have to teach anything new because people should know how to do their jobs (or manage their own martial arts practice), right?
Nope.
While you’re helping the people around you, look for ways to improve your own skills. Read, research, ask mentors, and above all practice. Practice will help you make your knowledge a habit and an integral part of who you are as a leader.