My much-anticipated first degree black belt test was on Saturday. Six members of my family had traveled from out of state, more family was joining us Saturday night for the after-party at my house, my favorite dobok (as in, the one that’s less baggy and has fewer sweat stains) was clean and folded, and I hadn’t had any more unsettling dreams about forgetting a form, or worse, my pants. I felt physically and mentally prepared, and I was so grateful and happy for the opportunity to test that I wasn’t worried in the slightest. All was right with the world.
The last time my family had gathered just for me was at my graduation for my master’s degree twelve years ago. Graduation is different from a belt test, though, because when I received my diplomas I was essentially severing my relationship with my institution. (Ninjas don’t join alumni associations.) I was so sick of classes and exams and paperwork and projects. By the time I donned a cap and gown I couldn’t wait to get as far away from my schools as possible.
When I got my MBA in 2012 I skipped graduation altogether and instead fled out of state to my parents’ house, where I celebrated my new degree in a much more understated way by drinking wine and smoking cigars in the backyard with my dad. No crowds, no fuss, no boring speeches, and I had a nice little buzz going. I didn’t even wear shoes.
Unlike graduation, the black belt test was an event that further deepened my commitment to my dojang. It was more like when I was thirteen and received the sacrament of Confirmation in the Catholic Church, which ironically happened not long after I quit taekwondo as a child at blue belt/red tip. The Confirmation ceremony is the opportunity for young people in the Church to take responsibility for their faith and their ability to choose the right path.
We Catholic children didn’t really get a say when we were baptized as babies, so Confirmation was the chance for us to state, “Yep, I’m in it for the long haul.” Kind of the same thing with a black belt test: you’re making a commitment to stick it out for the tough stuff and reap all the great spiritual and emotional rewards.
Either way, your Grandma is there, you have to stand a lot, your forehead ends up greasy, and if you’re lucky you get cake afterwards.
I was wondering if my standard testing day anxiety was going to pop up. Even though I’ve always felt well-prepared and eager during a color belt test, my subconscious or sympathetic nervous system or something dialed up my nerves. I would always feel stiff, shaky, sweaty (more than usual), and breathe a little more shallowly when I was gunning for that new color belt or stripe. It turned out that between doing damage control on my ever-troublesome right hamstring and a strained lower back this past week and surviving a treacherous drive home from class during torrential rainfall and flash flooding Friday night, I didn’t have time to worry about a belt test.
After a good night’s sleep I spent some time with a heating pad and electric massager on my right leg, and did my usual testing day calm-down ritual: I shoved a soft cloth ice pack down my sports bra while I sipped ginger ale. Of course I also wore my lucky testing shirt: a faded black tank top from The Gap. Unlike some superstitious athletes who wear certain items of clothing on game days, though, my lucky shirt was nice and clean.
Testing for first degree black belt is a little like what I imagine freshman hazing to be. Multiple people are yelling at you, and you’re literally jumping on command. They could yell at me all they wanted. I just wanted to (1) remember which foot was which during the flying kick portion and (2) nail my board breaking. Everything else was gravy. As my classmates and I were warming up and practicing before the test began I wondered if my heart was going to pound and my breath was going to quicken, not from exertion, but from nerves. So far, so good. I didn’t feel nervous at all.
A black belt test, at least at the first degree level, is pretty much a blown up version of a color belt test: there are kicking requirements, forms, one-step sparring and self-defense, sparring, and breaking. I decided to psyche myself out and pretend that it was just an extra-long class. I was in my familiar dojang, where I hung out four days out of the week, and I was with classmates and instructors who knew me very well. Nothing out of the ordinary about that. Nervous? Nah.
We had to do every kick and every combination of kicks we had learned since white belt. We did kicks that snap and kicks that slide, kicks that spin and kicks that fly. Why, I could write a whole Dr. Seuss-esque book on all the kicks we did. I was worried that my endurance would run out, but I felt just fine. Apparently I was in better shape than I thought. Sweaty and red as usual, but it would be weird if I DIDN’T look like a swamp monster in the dojang. Nervous? Nope.
Forms and one-steps went well, although I had one blip of a moment of forgetting what I was doing in the simplest of the five forms we performed. Suddenly, as if I had awoken from a dream, I was caught wide-eyed and blank-minded in the middle of a back stance. Wait a minute, where am I? Why am I dressed like this? Who are all these people? Crap! I quickly recovered, though, and did my little drama queen laser-eyes thing with the rest of the forms portion. Nervous yet, especially after that little flake out? Nope.
Oddly enough, or maybe not, the sparring portion of a belt test has always been when my mind is the most relaxed. Sparring forces me to be completely present and single-minded. If I spaced out for even a second I could suffer an unanticipated (and hard) blow from my opponent. Even though I’m fighting with my friends I always like to add just a teeny dash of crazy to keep it interesting. Swiping a hook kick at someone’s face keeps them at bay for just a moment so I can figure out what to do next, and it also makes me look like a psycho. I’m small, so it’s funny when I go all Tasmanian devil. In those moments I’m always reminded of a joke my instructor once made: “Crazy beats big every time.” Nervous since I was fighting people bigger than me? Who, me? NOPE.
The board breaking portion, which was the finale of the test, was especially meaningful. Albeit brief, there’s a deep level of trust and intimacy between the testing student and the board holder. The person holding for the first of my three breaking stations was a long-time friend from the past. My childhood instructor from my rural west Texas hometown reports up to my Grandmaster in my current Big Texas City (still trying to keep it anonymous), and he had traveled the 250 miles to help serve as a judge. He knew me as a soft-spoken, sensitive ten year old and was now seeing me finish what I started as a shrieking, sweating grown woman. Not only was he watching me complete my testing requirements, but he was also holding a piece of wood that I would soon snap in half with a jump roundhouse kick. Cool, right?
I followed the roundhouse kick with a spinning back fist (that means I did a little half circle and bashed through the boards with my knuckles, ouch) and ended with a flying snap kick, which meant I took a running start, jumped into the air, and hit the board with the top of my left foot. My cousin’s fiancee recorded a video of it and added slow-motion to the end, so I had my own little Matrix moment. Was I nervous? NOOOOOPE.
My family all adjourned to my condo to relax and celebrate. We popped open a bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne, and I joined my father and cousin on the balcony to sip our drinks and smoke cigars…you know, like a good athlete would do. I was very proud and satisfied with how I performed that day. Having people who cared about me, both my family and my instructors, definitely added to the unbreakable positive mood I’d had that afternoon.
I think part of my success also came from the fact that I didn’t put an insurmountable amount of pressure on myself. It was a strange although pleasant feeling; this was the first test when I hadn’t felt nervous at all. I weirdly calm the whole time. I was so grateful for the confidence and happiness that I’d gained that I could barely keep myself from smiling all through the test. I was just too damn cheerful to be nervous. I didn’t get into taekwondo to get a black belt; that was never the end goal. I did it to get out of my house and more importantly, out of my self-destructive head. I desperately needed to do something good for myself. This was just a milestone in what I hope is a lifelong journey.
Finishing a college degree usually came with the feeling of being burned out. I’m far from being burned out with taekwondo: I’m on fire and can’t wait to go back to class tonight.
Yep, I’m in it for the long haul.