Oh Crap, I’m Testing For Second Dan

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If all goes according to plan I should be testing for second degree black belt in less than three months. Uhhh….How is this happening now? It seems like time is going too fast! What happened to the last two years?? I’m not ready; I still have so much to practice!!

The irony isn’t lost on me that my test is tentatively set the same day as Saint Jude Thaddeus’s feast day. St. Jude, for those of you not playing Little Black Belt Catholic Edition at home, is the patron saint of desperate cases and impossible situations. I’m gonna need all the help I can get.

So what’s happened in the past two years?

My personal and professional lives have changed and in some ways become more complex they were two years ago, but I know I’m in a much better emotional place. In 2015 I was getting over a difficult breakup and dealing with a very painful acute injury. The six months between bo dan and black belt were lonely and frustrating. Over the past two years I’ve had many ups and downs, and so far I’ve landed more on the “up” side. I have taekwondo to thank for that.

One of the main changes has been my transition not only from a color belt to a black belt, but also from student to instructor. My grandmaster and masters adopted me as a de facto instructor whether I really wanted it or not. (Don’t worry, I wanted it) There was never a formal invitation. It just kind of happened, and the seeds had been planted before I even tested for black belt. My main instructor threw me into simpler things like refereeing when I was a bo dan (black belt candidate). He added more responsibility as time went by, and I got a taste for it. I started showing up to help at lower ranking classes and belt tests, and pretty soon I started showing up every day the dojang was open. They couldn’t get rid of me at that point.

These days rarely a class goes by when he doesn’t throw some assignment at me, and for the most part I can run with it without needing too much guidance. I’ve even taught a few classes by myself. I seem to have a knack for it (being a training and development professional doesn’t hurt) and I put the same effort into my craft as I do in my day job. Both of my “jobs” are based around building relationships and communicating, or at least that’s how I approach them. I think of myself as a caregiver at work and at the dojang. The kids like me, and the parents like me too so that makes my life easier.

All that being said, I still consider myself a student first rather than an instructor. As long as I have higher ranking black belts and masters above me I look to them for my training. I feel like I still have so much to learn and practice, including teaching methods. Maybe I am too self-conscious about my own taekwondo skills to consider myself an adept practitioner because I know what excellence looks like. I know there are things I can improve, and I’m frustrated when my body simply can’t do the things I know are technically correct.

Before you say, “Oh don’t be so hard on yourself,” let me be clear that I’m really not berating or being hard on myself. I know I do a good job and have gotten pretty skilled in the last few years, but once in a while I have a kind of out-of-body experience and wonder what the heck a goofball like me is doing with a black belt. Once in a while it seems weird to see myself in my instructor uniform and belt. Is this who I am now?

Years ago my instructor reminded me that we need challenges or else we become stagnant. I have certainly not become stagnant, even when I’ve hit plateaus or have felt burnt out. I work hard in every class, and I’m always trying to apply something new that I’ve learned. I’m still having fun, even on the difficult nights, so I think I’ve answered my own question as to whether taekwondo would fall by the wayside with my other previous passions that were right for me at the time until…well…they no longer were.

The nice part about being a black belt is that it’s allowed me to be a bit retrospective and work on color belt skills that I now see with a black belt’s eye.

Here are some other things I’ve learned in the past two years as a newbie black belt:

  • I love sparring. It’s kind of like how I enjoy tennis—I’m not great at it, but it’s just fun to do and an incredible workout. I hated sparring so much as a child that I was relieved when my family stopped training. It’s kind of neat how I grew to love it as an adult and even be able to coach and teach other students sparring techniques.
  • Damn, breaking stuff with my hands is a cathartic experience I have never known before or since.
  • Even when I’ve felt frustrated, angry, burned out, or tempted to quit I know taekwondo has been too good of a force in my life to walk away.
  • I love teaching. It’s truly a delight and something I never considered that I would experience when I was an anxious, lonely white belt trying to get my life on track.
  • I hate jump spin kick and always will to my dying breath. I’ll jump snap kick a joker in the face, but I’m not turning around in the air for nothing. My body don’t play. #sorrynotsorry
  • I am a fierce little poomsae queen, and Keumgang (the form I had the most difficult time learning and now one of my favorites) was made for dramatic shorties like me. Y’all wait, a new addition to The Poomsae Series is coming soon! YAAASSSSS!!
  • I love coaching at tournaments even though they are long, incredibly exhausting events.
  • I love helping at belt tests, but I’m always nervous that I’m going to do something dumb. I usually do.
  • My black belt mentality has seeped into how I carry myself in daily life. I’m more outgoing, more engaged with other people, I’m quicker to stand my ground when necessary, and I don’t take little annoyances too seriously. According to my boss, I’m funnier too. Even when I get upset I’m able to power through it just as I can with a challenging fight, tiring tournament, or difficult teaching experience. I’m also even more of an organized monster than I was before.
  • Taekwondo is the best thing that’s ever happened to me and THE main element (along with a few others) that changed my mentality, outlook, and life for the better. There was life before April 1, 2013 (my first white belt class as an adult) and my life after. Life after White Belt has been much brighter and happier.
  • There’s a lot more that I’ve learned, which is why I started this blog in the first place. Happy reading. 🙂

The anticipation for my second dan is different than what I felt before I tested for first dan. First dan felt like a major transition. This seems more like a continuation, adding more depth rather than breadth to my practice. I need more practice on the skills I know I’ll need to demonstrate, and I hope on testing day I have the same eerie calmness I experienced the day of my first dan test. I feel a different sense of responsibility since the expectations as an instructor will increase. I’m excited, but in a different way I’m not sure I can explain at the moment.

I definitely feel even more at home now than I did two years ago. That’s a nice feeling. And rest assured, cupcakes and Veuve Cliquot are happening after my test this year. It’s my black belt tradition.

The Best Birthday

Happy-Birthday-Cupcake

“Turn. Face Melanie,” my instructor said at the end of class. It was a Friday night and we had practiced my favorite techniques: hand strikes, forms, and breaking. What was coming next? Wait a minute, we’d already done the standard bow-to-the-black-belts part of our closing ritual: master, second degrees, first degrees. What’s going on? Is there something spe—oooohhh, right.

“Start singing,” he added, giving me a smirk as he strolled to the front of the room. The whole class sang “Happy Birthday” to me. I grinned and covered my face.

“Be sure to thank her and wish her a happy birthday,” my instructor continued when the students finished singing. “She helps out a lot getting you ready for tests and tournaments and teaching in class.” My grandmaster added his sentiments, reminding the class that I’d been an assistant instructor for two years and that I was always hanging around to help, making me, in his words, a “special” person. I couldn’t make a sound other than blush and do a little “Namaste” bow to him and my classmates.

Grandmaster and my instructor got to work setting up a table with drinks and cake (a cake! With my name written in blue icing–my favorite color! For my birthday!) and I smiled primly as my classmates shook my hand and wished me a happy birthday. I was truly touched and humbled.

Okay, let’s pause for a minute. A bunch of kids (and a few token adults) singing “Happy Birthday” and a cake doesn’t seem like that extraordinary of a birthday, but for me it meant a lot. No one had ever surprised me like that on my birthday, and the fact that I shared it with my taekwondo family made it especially meaningful.

My birthdays have been pretty quiet as of late. Even though I’m a grown-ass woman I’ve spent the last couple of birthdays either completely alone or with my parents. Now I know they’re reading this so disclaimer: I love my parents and very much enjoy spending time with them….but….They’re supposed hang out with me on occasion; that’s their thing since it’s kinda their fault I have a birthday and all.

Last year I spent my birthday out of town with the parents. It was fun but still a little lonely. The year before I was at home alone; I don’t remember if I even treated myself to fast food. The year before that when I was in a relationship I spent my birthday with a mean-spirited boyfriend who ruined the day with his constant negativity and criticism. Trust me, I was thrilled to spend this year’s birthday with other people’s kids and cake.

My little birthday celebration helped me get past a difficult place I’ve been in for a while with my practice. Over the past few months I’ve had a bit of an existential crisis around taekwondo. At first I wondered if I was using it as a vice like alcohol to avoid internal pain (I was). I wondered if I was using it to avoid maintaining real relationships (I was). I wondered if I even deserved to be there at all or if I was just a disappointment to everyone. Sometimes I even considered quitting.

But this seemingly small gesture of celebrating my birthday reminded me that I touched more lives than I gave myself credit for doing. It reminded me that I was loved and valued. It encouraged me to continue showing up for them, even on the days when I didn’t want to do it for myself. It was, in a sense, a rebirth of my commitment to my taekwondo family and my own practice. I felt reconnected to something I genuinely felt was slipping away.

And you guys, the cake was really good. Chocolate with whipped cream icing, mmmmm, who could walk away from that?

Little Black Belt is Three! My Favorite Posts From the Past Year

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Hello readers! Today celebrates THREE YEARS of my blog! Thank you so much for reading, commenting, and supporting me on my continued taekwondo journey. During the past year I cut my teeth coaching at a few more tournaments, proudly saw fellow students test for and receive their black belts, wrote several guest posts for the martial arts travel website BookMartialArts.com, and I even had two guest writers contribute to my blog!

To celebrate my blog’s third birthday, here are my favorite posts from April 2016-April 2017:

1. Getting Fat Shamed as a Size Four (April 2016) One of the most popular posts of my blog and one of the most difficult for me to write. I didn’t let a humiliating insult keep me down.
2. 10 Signs You’re Dating a Female Martial Artist (June 2016) This one always shows up in my blog stats for some reason. People keep reading it. If and when I’m ready to date again maybe I’ll refer them to this post.
3. You Can Rest on Your Laurels, But Don’t Stay There Too Long (July 2016) A lesson I learned from my musician brother. 
4. Why I Like Mean Girls (August 2016) My instructor has a knack for turning his female students into mean girls, and it’s awesome. This post explains why.
5. When Life Takes a Swing at You (September 2016) Shit went down in my personal life, and I maneuvered through it like a black belt.
6. Turning Lemons Into Limoncello (October 2016) The second worst yoga class of my life taught me a valuable lesson in self-reliance.
7. Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two (December 2016) The most meaningful part of being a black belt is sharing what I love with others.
8. In Defense of Complacency: When Good Enough Is Good Enough (December 2016) Another popular post that argues the case against striving for perfection every single time.
9. Channeling Your Power: When Brute Force Just Doesn’t Cut It (February 2017) How teaching a teenager the nuances of poomsae helped me appreciate the nuances of approaching life’s challenges.
10. Don’t Forget Where You Came From (Feb 2017) The case for always being a “good white belt.”

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?

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.

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.

Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two

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You’re never too young to learn a good palm heel strike to the face.

A few weeks ago my Grandmaster presented me with a small patch for my uniform. In bold yellow letters it read, “INSTRUCTOR.” Technically as a first dan black belt I’m an “assistant instructor,” but Grandmaster and the other instructors decided to give me a little promotion since I always helped out in my own classes and classes for lower ranking students. Or maybe they just figured they’d better give me something to do since I hang out at the dojang so much. Either way I was pleased and very humbled.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned a year into my black belt tenure is that learning has intensified in a way I didn’t experience as a color belt. Other than occasionally refereeing sparring matches and yelling at students to turn their hips more during kicking drills I was mostly focused on my own practice as I edged closer to testing for black belt. Things changed after I earned my new rank. While I have learned more advanced techniques as a black belt, just as much if not more of my time has been devoted to helping lower ranking students.

Teaching and practicing with color belt students as a black belt has given me a greater appreciation and deeper understanding of the foundational techniques of taekwondo. It’s like when I took AP English as a senior in high school. As a native English speaker I considered myself fairly adept at the language and a pretty decent writer…but after ten months of analyzing and dissecting poetry and prose and writing essay after essay I realized how much I had grown. I was almost embarrassed to read the first essay I had written when the school year began.

I often find myself reminding color belt students that they can’t just learn something and then forget it after they pass their next belt test. Taekwondo like any other martial art is comprehensive. The same basic techniques we learned as white belts pop up in advanced self-defense, complicated forms, and sparring matches. We’re developing subconscious reactions and muscle memory. We never stop learning. Even my Grandmaster, a ninth degree black belt and very highly respected in the taekwondo community, often reminds us that he never stops learning.

I had a chance to pass along the importance of continuous learning and practice when I was tasked with teaching side kick to two freshly minted orange belts, which at our school is the rank just above white belt. Side kick, at least the way we do it, is surprisingly difficult to master. It requires precision, balance, and force. It has taken me years to improve my side kick, and I still have room to grow. Side kick is incredibly powerful but also so delicate in its mechanical intricacy that it’s easy to mess up.

“How long do we have to keep practicing this?” asked a tiny five-year-old orange belt. He and an older student were perched at the barre along the wall of the training room and had been painstakingly going through the individual pieces of a broken down side kick. I had bribed them to keep going with the promise that some day they would break a board with a side kick, but eventually they were getting bored.

“Well, class is almost over, but remember, you always have to practice side kick. Even black belts have to practice it,” I said, crouching down to his level. His eyes widened and he gaped in surprise.

“BLACK BELTS have to practice?” He shook his head in awe. Mind. Blown.

This past Friday I found myself once again teaching side kick to lower ranking students. This time I had the same ten-year-old girl orange belt, a different little five year old who quickly abandoned us to use the bathroom (you have to let them go at that age or you’ll be sorry), and a teenage yellow belt. I had been instructed to practice a low side kick so they’d get the hang of chambering their feet and shooting them out, heel pointed downward, into a strong kick.

“But I’ve been doing side kick at mid-level,” protested the teenager.

“I know, but now you’re the example. You have to help lower ranking students too. That’s why I put you in the middle so they can watch you,” I explained. “Now do it again, by my count.” I barked out a command and then glanced over at the girl and glared.

“Is this how we break a board with side kick?” I asked, raising my eyebrows and pointing my toes like a dancer. She smiled shyly, shook her head, and flexed her foot. I turned back to the teenager to continue my lecture.

“Low side kick can be just as powerful as a higher kick. If you break someone’s knee they’re done. That’s what I want you to work on–power and locking out the kick. Besides, when you’re a black belt you have to do a form that has double side kicks, and that’s not easy.” I demonstrated a low side kick immediately followed by a higher kick. He perked up at the prospect of becoming a black belt, nodded his head in understanding, and crouched into a back stance, ready to try the next low kick.

I learn something new in taekwondo class every day, whether it’s something I can improve in my own practice, or reminding myself I need to practice what I preach and do what I tell the students to do. I file away in my brain the tips I give for later use. There’s more pressure as an instructor now. The students’ eyes are on me, as well as those of my instructors and the students’ parents. I have to earn the trust of all of them. It’s not a bad pressure, though; it’s more of a healthy challenge. And what a wonderful opportunity this is–I get to share what I love doing with other people, and I get back what I give tenfold.