Start To Be Great – The Poomsae Series Part 1


The Poomsae Series is intended to glean lessons from the meaning of each form or “poomsae.” My school studies the palgwe forms (as opposed to taeguk) so that’s what I will use for each post. Descriptions are taken from the book “Complete Taekwondo Poomsae” by Dr. Kyu Hyung Lee and Dr. Sang H. Kim.

Palgwe Il jang is “keon,” meaning the sky or heaven, which, according to Lee and Kim symbolize the “beginning of the universe.” Up until this time the student typically learns the blocks, punches, and kicks as stand-alone movements. They spend months sliding back and forth into front stance doing a single spear-hand thrust or knife-hand block like a toddler learning single words at a time before stringing together sentences. This form, the foundation for all others, is the beginning of expression through taekwondo. Sh*t just got real.

At first glance it’s a bunch of inside middle blocks, which was the hardest block for me to master as a white belt and incidentally is my least favorite (and least forceful) block. It’s fitting that the most complicated block forms the basis of the first form. It’s so much easier to go with what’s familiar, comfortable, and unchallenging. When we do that we keep getting the same results. We find comfort in stagnation. Our minds cloud so much that we even stop asking “What if?”

Trying something new is difficult. Putting yourself out there when you barely know what you’re doing is difficult. Breathing life, beauty, and power into this simple form is difficult.

My favorite yoga teacher once said, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you can start to be great.” You’re not expected to perform at black belt level on day one in taekwondo. There’s a little yellow belt who has been coming to the cardio class on Monday, which for months has only been occupied by red and black belts. Most other lower ranking students avoid that class. She clumps through flying kicks and 360 roundhouses with the rest of us, and although she’s self-conscious she never stops smiling. She inspires me to work hard and tackle my challenges head on. How often do we put off something—a new career, a new relationship, a new hobby—because we don’t think we’re good enough? As someone once told me, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”

Black belt isn’t the pinnacle of perfection. It’s the beginning of another universe. Adopt a black belt mindset when you feel stupid, out of shape, unloved, boring, or when you think you’re the worst white belt in the room. Adopt a white belt mindset to humble yourself and open your senses. Find the beginning of your universe. Start to be great.


Will This Be On the Test?


For the last four months I have been preparing to test for my black tip. As the days draw closer my anxiety creeps upward. When asked what I want to work on in taekwondo class I immediately jump to testing requirements. Is it my responsibility to practice outside of class? Absolutely. Does it happen every day? No. I read my one-step instructions daily and practice all the forms I’ve learned to date on the weekends. It’s a little harder, though, to work on my flying side kick when I have a creaky floor plus downstairs neighbors and would look like a crazy person if I practiced them outside on the parking lot of my condominium complex.

Preparing for the test can give me tunnel vision. I’m so focused on practicing the particular kicks, forms, and one-steps I’ll have to perform that I let the rest of my technique slide. Ironically my schoolmates and I used to admonish our 10th grade English teacher for “teaching to” the state standardized test. Here I am 20 years later doing exactly the same thing.

How often do we direct our actions towards other “tests” in life that hinge on someone else’s approval? That’s not always a bad thing based on the thousands of articles out there on how to ace a job interview or how to compromise with your spouse. It becomes detrimental, though, when we lose sight of the big picture. We become so concerned with pleasing others and snagging that one particular golden outcome that we lose sight of our own stake in the game. Eventually we can no longer benefit from the richness of the journey since we’re focused on a sole non-negotiable outcome. It becomes a performance based on ultimatums: I’ll do this if you continue to pay me. I’ll do that if you continue to love me.

Sure I want to do well and impress my instructors and pass my test. But I don’t want to cast what I’ve learned aside in order to cram for the next test. That’s not learning; that’s regurgitation. Taekwondo practice draws from a comprehensive body of knowledge, not a single kick or a punch existing in a vacuum.  Only one student from this past spring’s black belt test has continued coming to class. He understood the connection to the bigger picture, and I have enjoyed watching him mature emotionally in his practice (plus his mom drives him to class so he kinda has to).

Cramming for the next “test” is akin to chasing the carrot on the stick. It’s always juuuuust out of our reach. When we do catch it we’re immediately dissatisfied and are chasing another carrot. Our self-imposed blinders keep us narrowly focused on a fragile dream. We stop connecting the dots. We miss out on the rest of life happening around us.

Let’s get real. I WILL be cramming for my black tip test over the next two weeks. The REAL test will occur later when I’m able to demonstrate (or not) that what I performed on the test is an easily accessible and repeatable piece of my taekwondo toolbox. Passing that knowledge onto others will seal the deal.

…Oh let’s cut the sanctimonious crap. I’ll start cramming for my bo dan and black belt tests.

How I Would Teach a Taekwondo Class – A Parody

By day I am an organizational development consultant for a large healthcare system. That means that among other things, I practice the art and science of adult learning. Meanwhile as I advance in my taekwondo career I am asked to help with warm-up exercises, teaching forms, and coaching lower ranking belts. At times my two worlds of facilitation and instruction collide. I’ve learned that asking seven-year-olds about the finer points of blocking usually results in blank stares. I do however find that threatening my professional adult learners with push-ups fills me with sadistic glee.

So if I followed the rules of adult learning what would a taekwondo class look like?

Opening – Icebreaker and Introductions
After bowing to the flags and a quick meditation each student introduces himself or herself and state one thing they’d like to get out of today’s class. I tell some self-deprecating joke and a little bit about my background and the overall purpose of today’s class. I assure the one student grumbling that she’s just there because her mom made her come that she too will get something out of the class and ask her to approach it with an open mind. The other students nod sanctimoniously and are secretly relieved that I didn’t single them out. After five reminders and passing the sign-in sheet around twice all students are accounted for.

I show a funny video on all the silly (and incorrect) ways people try to do push-ups. The students partner up and discuss for 2 minutes all the mistakes they saw in the video that they’ve seen in previous classes. I capture the information on a flip chart. After reluctance and a joke on my part that if an introvert like myself can get up and talk anyone can a student timidly offers to demonstrate the proper way to do a push-up. I lay on the praise as if he had cured cancer.

Kicks and Strikes
We discuss the mechanics of a front snap kick. Students are put into teams to discuss the pros and cons of using front snap kick in sparring and list them on a flip chart.
The teams then choreograph a 2 minute sparring sequence using all kicks, strikes, and blocks learned up to this point.

Everyone buries their faces in their smartphones and comes back from break 5 minutes later than I asked them to.

Half the class performs their current form. The other half does a SWOT analysis of the group’s performance and coaches them using the GROW model. Are you satisfied with your knife-hand strike? What have you tried so far? So in a perfect world with no restrictions how would you execute that strike? Students will set a SMART goal regarding what they’d like to see in their future form performance. Switch roles.

I giddily promise a follow-up email that I don’t send. Everyone is enthusiastic until the following day when they revert to the passive routine of their busy lives and don’t make any changes based on what they learned. Their moms continue to make them go to class. I buy more flip chart paper.

White Belt is the New Black

gucci belt

Now that’s a white belt I could wear all the time.

White belt is probably the most trying time for most students even though the upper belts are full of complicated techniques and memorization. It’s doubly trying if you’re an adult in a class full of spazzy little kids and awkward teenagers who actually say “ki-yahp” when they ki-yahp. Being a white belt is like being a freshman in high school or college. Everything is new, the instructors are intimidating, and your body behaves like a clumsy newborn calf. You’re on information overload, and it takes months or even years for the muscle memory of your body to catch up with the cognitive understanding of your mind. Doing the same basic movements over again can be pretty boring, so it’s up to the student to dig deeper and find ways to improve and refine them.
Not knowing what the hell you’re doing is more uncomfortable than control-top pantyhose. I experienced a career change a few years ago and am just now feeling confident and well-versed in my new profession. If you grew up in the 1980s you learned that if you said “I don’t know” you’d get doused in a bucket of Nickelodeon slime. Admitting you’re lost or you’re scared or you lack confidence is a rejection of our collective cultural worship of American bravado.
The great thing about being a white belt IS the fact that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. 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. I see this passion in a coworker who wants to be in the same role as me and my colleagues after she completes her education. She is hungry, enthusiastic and reminds me of what I like about my profession when I’ve become jaded and complacent. 

At the beginning of each year my taekwondo instructors spend a few weeks revisiting the basics. We meticulously and repetitively work our way through kicks, blocks, strikes, and stances the way one might do with a group of white belts. My greater knowledge and skill is met with the patience and curiosity of a new student. Incidentally I tore my rotator cuff doing a low block during one of these “back to basics” classes. Nonetheless I look forward to our time of revisiting and refining our foundation. Perhaps I’ll rip my right shoulder so I’ll be even.
I’ve held up the facade of accomplished independent professional for so many years that it’s a no brainer. While embracing the Black Belt Mindset of confidence and grace can enhance our lives it’s dangerous to forget where we came from. Even though I’m advancing in my taekwondo practice my inner white belt gently reminds me to relax into the role of student and forgive myself for not being perfect. It’s refreshing to scrub off my makeup, slip into a clean dobok, and smile at the fact that I still have so much to learn.

The Point of All This


Despite despising my grad school marketing class I did get the message that you have to be clear about the market you want to target. That being said I haven’t quite found my “niche” with Little Black Belt. While the motif is taekwondo the deeper purpose is personal growth through self-awareness and reflection. It just happens to be written from a female perspective. That’s all good and well if I want to keep an online public journal (the paradox of that is staggering) and shout into the abyss from my soapbox, but it doesn’t make much of a contribution to other people other than having something funny and possibly thoughtful to read for 20 seconds.

Bottom line premise: I’m an average jane with an education and a job who decided to pursue a black belt in taekwondo. Hilarity ensues. Curious?

Beneath the surface:
Self-awareness leads to change which leads to different and positive outcomes.
If I hadn’t bought into that concept I’d either be dead or miserable and making everyone around me miserable. The help of yoga, taekwondo, and a trusted guide has changed who I am inside and out. The learning and mishaps haven’t stopped, but I’m becoming less of what Eckhart Tolle would label as “unconscious.” I saved my own life and my sanity, so if I can help someone else get there then my work on this planet is done.

So who can get something useful out of this blog?

-Women who like martial arts
-Men who like martial arts
-Men who like women who like martial arts
-Women who need encouragement to be the strong badass females they have the potential to be
-People who want to escape the cage of depression, confusion, and being ruled by emotions
-People who want to find purpose and peace but are cubicle-dwelling commuters and can’t take off time to chill in a cave for a year
-People who have been chickening out of writing a blog

Hmm. Not seeing how I’m saving anyone money or selling a catchy concept. But maybe that’s not the point right now.

I’m still searching for the keys that unlock confidence, contentment, and meaningful living. The scavenger hunt has gotten a little easier each year, and that’s what I hope I can help others do. Even as a die-hard cynic I do believe everyone has the right to chase their passions and their dreams. Too often life gets in the way of that. I’m on that quest, and I invite you to join me. Pack a sandwich.