Don’t Forget Where You Came From

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At the end of Monday night’s class my chief instructor asked us what we thought a student needed to do to pass their next promotion test. It was a straightforward question, but everyone was a little stumped. The room was peppered with answers like “practice” and “come to class at least three times a week.”

Of course my mind drifted to adult learning theory: applying what they’ve learned and implementing changes in their technique. I knew that wasn’t the answer he was looking for, but I’ve been in the learning and development business for a while, and I don’t shut off that perspective at taekwondo. Thankfully he spoke up before I could say anything.

The answer my chief instructor was looking for was much simpler. He pointed out one of our long-time students. The student was an advanced rank, but he practiced all his forms every day before class, starting with the ones learned at the lowest levels. This student hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from, even as he inches closer to black belt. My chief instructor widened his eyes at us and planted himself squarely in the front of the training area.

“All you really have is a dyed white belt, whether it’s red, blue, black, whatever. You have to be a good white belt before you can be good at anything else.”

My chief instructor had an interesting perspective that I inherently “knew” but hadn’t meditated on in quite some time. Everyone in the martial arts world has heard the phrase (and seen the accompanying memes), “A black belt is a white belt who never gave up.” We can all rattle it off and have probably given that little nugget of wisdom to other students, but do we ever think about what it really means?

My last post was about a child who was right at the beginning of his taekwondo journey and taught me a lesson in grounding myself in the basics. It’s easy to get caught up in the more complicated (and to some, more fun) stuff, and it’s also easy to become complacent and even a little cocky…but when you think about it, everything we do stems from what we do as white belts—stances, blocks, kicks, and strikes. If you don’t master the basics they will come back to bite you later on, and it weakens your practice as a whole.

Besides taekwondo basics, the white belt mindset is something to consider revisiting. As I said in a post from 2014, “When you are a white belt your mind is open and your heart is humbled and ready for learning. You pay close attention to the new information you’re receiving and pour your efforts into practicing your new craft.” My inner white belt reminds me to maintain a simpler focus: what I’m learning, practicing, improving in this moment. I don’t need to worry about being perfect or ruminate on something that happened in the last class or admonish myself for not always performing at the level I think a respectable black belt should be.

I’ve been a white belt twice in my life—once when I was ten and brand new to taekwondo, and again when I was thirty-three and looking for a fresh start in more ways than one. Both times I was just happy to be in the dojang, no matter what I was doing or what I looked like. I loved learning new things and making time to practice. More responsibility and complexity comes with a black belt, but I will always be a student.

As an adult returning to taekwondo I desperately needed to change my life, and I knew in my gut I’d found the answer. Getting a black belt didn’t even occur to me at first. What kept me coming back was how learning and practicing in class made me feel, not the color of my belt. Of course I hotly pursued black belt later, but the real reason why I do taekwondo has never left me. When I test for second dan this fall I will do my best to keep an open, curious mind and an open, humble heart, just like a white belt.

Reflection: When can you use the white belt mindset in your life? Where do you need to slow down, refocus, and ground yourself?

Love is Like Grape Soda…or, Being Happily Single on Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine’s Day! I still feel the same about love and grape soda.

Little Black Belt

crush-soda-grape-54495 Nope to grape soda…and to crushes, for that matter.

“For me, right now anyway, a relationship is like…grape soda.”

I was talking to a trusted friend and mentor a few weeks ago, and the subject of dating had come up. After a serious relationship ended last April, I spent several months doing the exact opposite of what I used to do after breakups: I wasn’t thinking about dating at all. I wasn’t wishing for it. I wasn’t interested. I was genuinely surprised when friends asked if I was dating because it was so far from my mind. My parents knew not to ask, and they were probably glad that I was taking time for myself. Even when my ex attempted to reconcile, I was tempted but ultimately declined. I was officially closed for business.

I continued my explanation to my friend:
“Grape soda is one of those things I don’t

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Focus on Your Foundation: What I Learned From a Kindergartner

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“What are you going to do when you get out there?” I asked my first and youngest sparring competitor of the day.

My fellow coaches and I had taken eleven of our students to a local tournament and had settled in for a very long day. This student, a five-year-old yellow belt, was competing for the very first time. He was suited up and ready to begin his match.*

“Defend myself,” he answered in a very calm, confident voice as he gazed at the ring where the referee and judges stood.

I could have picked this little guy up and kissed him. I was expecting an answer along the lines of “Spar” (obvious) or “Punch and kick” (also obvious), but he had honed in on a more nuanced and surprisingly difficult-to-master aspect of sparring: blocking.

Blocking during a fight seems like it should be second nature, but for whatever reason, it seems to be one of the biggest issues we have with our kids. I find myself yelling “Hands up!” more than I do anything else when I’m coaching students. They get so wrapped up in kicking, dodging, freaking out over being kicked, or trying something fancy that they forget the most important part of self-defense…you know, um, defending yourself.

Blocking is part of our foundation. Like most martial artists, taekwondo practitioners don’t go looking for fights (except at tournaments, duh). We’ll beat the crap out of you if we have to, but we don’t throw the first punch unless absolutely necessary. Defense is built into our practice: all the forms I’ve learned to date begin with a block before I’m able get into the nasty nose strikes and knee breaks. One of the first skills I learned as a white belt, before I even learned how to kick, was how to block. We do a lot of reaction drills where we have to block very quickly, but even for me it’s taken some time to hard wire my brain and body to respond faster than I can think. Overthinking slows me down most of the time anyway.

This yellow belt can punch and kick pretty well for a little kid, but he blocks like a boss whether he’s with another child or a black belt like me who is throwing him some tougher challenges. He’s zoned in on something that the older kids and adults (including myself) seem to have forgotten in the midst of our egos, frustrations, anxieties, and insecurities: simplicity and staying grounded in our foundation.

We live in a time of ever increasing distractions and interruptions. We’ve learned to second-guess ourselves because there’s always some new gigabyte of information or some lingering doubts and fears we can’t seem to shake loose from our minds. We think too much, and it slows us down to the point that we can’t respond in a clear and confident way. We’ve forgotten what makes us who we are and keeps us whole. We’ve forgotten what’s important.

What grounds you? What is your foundation? What truly makes you who you are when you strip away the external stressors, experiences, superficial accolades, and distractions? Are you able to tap into that strength when you’re pulled back into life’s sparring matches?

My competitor lost his match, but he didn’t seem to mind, and neither did we. He had fun, made some new friends, got a silver medal, and now had his first tournament experience under his belt. We were all very proud of him.

“I’ll work on my forms for next time,” he assured me with satisfied nod. He gave me a big hug, grinned for a picture, and happily ran off with his mom to go home. The rest of the day was drawn out and stressful with worries, grievances, tears, and a little bit of blood, but the lesson I learned from my youngest teacher kept me motivated late into the evening. I’m looking forward to seeing him at the next tournament and hope everyone can follow his lead.

*If you haven’t watched little kids spar, go find some YouTube videos right now because it’s the cutest thing you’ll see all day.

Thinking Too Much Makes You Stupid

I still need to remind myself of this some days.

Little Black Belt

dominos When your brain is all:  “Crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrap!!!”

I have two master’s degrees and a well-established career. I also have a first degree black belt in taekwondo. I manage my finances and pay my bills like an independent woman in a Beyonce song. That and a quarter won’t even buy you a cup of coffee anymore. Despite all these credentials, I found myself struggling to follow instructions that were intended to be simple enough for children during taekwondo class Monday night.

Being an overly educated, intelligent, complex-thinking adult brings with it the tendency to f*ck up really simple things…you know…like where to stand in line although it’s just slightly different than how we normally do it, or say…doing a series of snap kicks across the room and then immediately switching to roundhouse kicks on the way back, which we haven’t done in that exact sequence before. I swear I could have done…

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Channeling Your Power: When Brute Force Just Doesn’t Cut It

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A tall, blonde 17-year-old boy stood at attention near the back of the training area as I gave him some feedback and pointers on his form. He and his three siblings, all blue belt/red tips, were practicing the form Palgwe Yuk Jang in preparation for an upcoming  tournament.

“You have a lot of power, and that’s good,” I began. “This is a short form, but it’s expressive and strong so you need that power…there is, however, such a thing as too much power, or maybe the better word is force. Does that make sense?” He nodded.

This kid has plenty of force. He can beat the hell out of a punching bag and a sparring opponent. His flying side kick and his 360 roundhouse kick are impressive and strong. He’s a big kid, but he can be graceful in certain moments whether it’s intentional or not. So far I’d seen more on the forceful side rather than focused energy.

“When you just rely just on force that’s uncontrolled it can be loose and inaccurate,” I continued, demonstrating a floppy punch, exaggerating the torque with my shoulder. “Punch from the belt rather than the shoulder and add that twist right at the end. That puts it dead in the center and hits a softer target, plus you protect your ribs.”

“Also, your snap kick will be a lot stronger if you pop it from the knee rather than slinging it forward, which can mess up your balance.” I hiked my right knee up towards my chest and shot out a front snap kick toward an imaginary opponent’s torso. I bent my leg again and landed softly into a solid front stance.

“Channel your power, and that will make a big difference.” I smiled at him.

“Yes, ma’am.” He smiled back, and we bowed to each other before he trotted back to join his brothers and sister.

His sister, meanwhile, needed to use a bit more power (or force). Palgwe Yuk Jang is a beautiful form, and she made it look pretty, but there was no edge.

“Think about it. Every single move you make, whether it’s a block, kick, or strike, is making impact with someone else’s body,” I said to her, snapping my arms into a double knife hand high block. “You should feel like you’re hitting someone Every. Single. Time.” She and her brothers nodded thoughtfully and tried out a few blocks on their own.

Power is a funny, fickle thing. Too much of it can lead to abuse and tyranny. Too little of it can leave one too vulnerable and at risk for loss. We all have power or at least potential for power, although it may not be evident in the same ways. Some people make more money, have more people reporting to them, have more physical strength, or may have other talents and skills. That doesn’t mean those without those superficial markers can’t be powerful. It also doesn’t mean that those who are “blessed” with those advantages know how to channel their power to the best of their abilities.

Once in a while brute force is a good thing. If I’m trapped in a burning car there better damn sure be someone using brute force to rescue me. The poor movers who had to lug heavy furniture up my steep and precarious stairs used every ounce of brute force they had (for which they were well tipped). I wish I had more pure brute force when fighting people larger than me, but since I don’t, I’ve had to learn to channel my power in more concentrated ways.

Sometimes brute force just doesn’t cut it, at least not in the long term. It doesn’t have to just be physical force that some people misuse. People forcefully brutalize others emotionally, mentally, even financially (think Bernie Madoff). Eventually, though, bullies and abusers are exposed. People stand up to them, or through their own hubris, stupidity, and unchecked power, they create their own downfall.

What is your source of power? What is your strength? Is it loose and inaccurate, or is it controlled, concentrated, and calculated? Being more mindful of your own power AND how to use it (for good, not evil, folks) can help you hit your target more accurately over time. Maybe your target is a sparring opponent. Maybe it’s a college degree or a raise at work. Maybe it’s improving your cooking skills or learning a musical instrument. Maybe it is overcoming emotional struggles.

Whatever that target is, channel your power, aim, and fire!

Guest Writer: How to Turn the Great Outdoors into a Martial Arts Ground

Hello Little Black Belt readers! I’d like to introduce my very first guest writer, Diamond from the health and wellness website eHealthInformer. Enjoy!

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Some of the most influential martial artists preach that no matter what form you practice, you can take it anywhere with you. Martial arts are about physical and mental health, radiating balance and positivity throughout the student’s life. This opens up a huge amount of opportunity for the martial artist, as it means they can and should practice anywhere they please. Ideas such as this also help students to reinvigorate their love for martial arts, as repetition and constantly similar surroundings can cause boredom that leads to bad form and concentration levels.

Martial arts can’t be confined to a dojang or studio. They can certainly be taught and practiced there, but it’s a lifestyle choice, not a hobby. Now we’re going to explore the possibilities and opportunities for how you can turn the great outdoors into a martial arts ground.

Use Your Imagination

When you put your mind to it, almost any environment can be transformed into an area to practice martial arts. Whether you’re in a forest or a field, it doesn’t matter; nature has everything you need to master certain elements of your chosen style. Fulfilling an exercise routine using what you have around you in nature can be a fun and educational experience. Try using strong tree branches for pull ups or utilizing the exercise equipment at your local park.

Also, many teachers advise students to use meditation as a part of their daily routine. Why not meditate in an undisturbed, peaceful environment, such as near a lake or on a hilltop? Get creative with your local area and see what ideas you can come up with.

If you’re already outside in the wilderness and are finding it difficult to use your imagination, you can scan YouTube and the rest of the internet for ideas, as there are many martial arts based exercises, drills and meditation techniques you can learn from the platform.

Be Safe

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Nobody wants to be a spoilsport, but it is worth mentioning that the risks and dangers of injuring yourself in an unsecured environment are higher than in the dojo. Without safety mats and your Sifu, Sensei, or Sabumnim (depending on your chosen style) present, you must take precautions and be realistic as to what you take outside of your regular studio sessions.

Also, understand the laws in your area. If you aren’t allowed to take certain weaponry out into the open (especially without the correct licensing), you could be arrested or have your equipment confiscated.

In the spirit of safety, it’s worth mentioning that if you do choose to use YouTube while outside to learn exercises and drills, you’ll be vulnerable to hackers. It is worth hiding your IP address so that your information is secure and can’t be stolen.

Embracing the Unknown

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Practicing your martial arts outside is beneficial for many reasons, one of which is conditioning the body to react with accuracy in all types of weather. The outside training ground gives us a unique and unpredictable area to practice in, which heightens our senses and spatial awareness. Also, the predictability of the environment in a dojang is obvious to most students, since the temperature, ground condition and personal space is so familiar.

In the outdoors, the ground may be uneven, the temperature is constantly changing, and who knows what will enter our personal space. We can put ourselves in situations that test our abilities to the next level outdoors, as there’s a wide range of circumstances and environments to explore.

Nature gives us a new dimension to experience when practicing martial arts outside. Hearing wildlife, water and the sounds of your surroundings induces a sense of connection and wonder into your immediate location. You might find yourself conjuring up images of Kwai Chang Caine from the legendary series “Kung Fu.” However, don’t let this take away the seriousness of the practice. The fact that you’re learning a way of life that will protect you and give you a sense of balance and health in life means a great deal.

Have any tips or experiences for training outdoors with martial arts? Please leave us a comment in the section below.

About the Author: Diamond is a martial arts practitioner who enjoys spreading the lifestyle and its many benefits through blogging. She also likes to practice in all environments and believes that the “dojo” is taken with the student wherever they go. Check out more of her articles on fitness, healthcare, nutrition, and technology at eHealthInformer.com.

Screw Up With a Smile

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“Um…” A tall teenage yellow belt tentatively raised his hand. I had just walked him and his fellow yellow belts through their new form, Palgwe Il Jang. As newly promoted students they had just started learning this form and were still getting the hang of it.

“Yes?”

“Isn’t the middle part supposed to be this?” He stepped into a back stance and did a double knife-hand high block.

“Ah yes it is! Thank you for pointing that out! Sorry about that, guys. Black belts make mistakes too!” I said with a laugh. Apparently I had told them to do a low block in a front stance rather than the correct move, a double knife-hand high block in a back stance.

“Black belts have to practice too,” piped up a five-year-old, nodding his head gravely. I told him that once, and now he takes every opportunity to remind me.

To date I have learned 20 forms and even more self-defense techniques. As I’ve moved up in the ranks it’s become easier to store more complicated patterns and techniques in my body and brain, but once in a while all those forms swirling around in my head can lead to errors.

The thing is, I had no clue I had done the wrong thing until the student pointed it out. I didn’t question myself when I was leading the students through the form, nor did I hesitate when I changed directions and threw blocks and strikes. I was confident, damnit! My misplaced front stance and low block looked pretty darn good: my front knee was bent in a 90 degree angle, my back leg was straight and sturdy, my shoulders and hips were square, and I know that low block would have worked against an attack. It just wasn’t the correct step in the form. Oops.

I’m glad it happened. It not only showed me that I can still be confident when I mess up, but it also gave the teenage yellow belt a chance to speak up with confidence as well.

We all make mistakes. We screw up, forget things, do the opposite of what we intended, and that’s just part of being human. There’s no way around it. What helps is a dose of confidence. That’s not the same as arrogance. I don’t think I’m any better than the lower ranking students in class, and my job is to serve them, not the other way around. Confidence means you respect, love, and trust yourself and have a positive outlook on your own capabilities. There is SO much I still have to learn nearly two years into my gig as a black belt and so many fundamental techniques I need to tweak. Even when I screw up and do the wrong thing or teach the wrong thing, though, my heart is in the right place. I’m confident in my abilities and trust myself to do the right thing (most of the time).

If I don’t trust myself how can the students trust me?

You’re not always going to get it right (or heaven forbid, perfect) the first time. You still have to keep moving. In the martial arts world, sparring is the perfect laboratory for trying out new and different things—sometimes what you choose to do works, and other times it doesn’t, but you have to keep moving. Failure, whether big or small, can teach us valuable lessons we’d never gain if we stayed on a steady, unwavering, but also unchanging and kinda boring plateau forever. Mistakes are going to happen so you might as well brush it off and not let them rattle your confidence. If you fail, do it with grace and make your second (or third or fourth) attempt even stronger.

I still think my low block and front stance looked good.