“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.