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.

The Six Month Long (and Counting) Black Belt Test

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Next week two of my classmates will be testing for first and second degree black belt, and several other students will be testing for various color belt levels. In addition to our normal training, much of our practice time has been devoted to preparing these students to test.

It’s nice not to have the heat on me as far as being a testing student, although if time flies as quickly as it has been, it’ll be my turn to test for second dan before I know it. These last few weeks have been a test in a different sense though: do I continue living up to my black belt duties?

First degree black belt is just that: The first among many levels. The beginning. Ground zero. I still have a LOT of work ahead of me. There’s no rest period. While the black belt test last fall was physically strenuous, mentally I was more calm and poised than I’d ever been for a taekwondo belt test or for that matter, the presentations I do for work. Kicks, forms, self-defense, breaking, sparring, no problem. I had done these movements over and over again, and my body knew what to do. It felt like the real part of the test began after I was awarded my black belt.

After I was awarded my belt it was application time: new forms, more complex self-defense including weapons defense, the expectation that color belt skills be performed at black belt caliber, and of course coaching and refereeing. For the first few weeks I felt like my brain was melting, much like my first few weeks as a red belt. The red belt test was a pivotal moment in my taekwondo career, but the real test was when I nervously attended my first red and black belt class.

As a learning and leadership development professional, I always preach to my clients that the real work begins after the meeting, workshop, or team building event ends. That also rings true in taekwondo and very likely other martial arts. In every class I build upon what I know and make the conscious effort to improve. Every class is an opportunity to use my technique to master a new skill, get creative with what I already know, and to demonstrate my understanding by teaching another student.

I feel like I am earning my black belt every day in class as much as I was that Saturday afternoon in October. 

This should go without saying, but in case anyone assumes this is undue pressure I’m putting on myself to be perfect or I’m anxious or self-conscious about taekwondo…I’m not. My taekwondo practice is as much as spiritual practice as it is physical. It is a joy to do, and I love challenging myself. As I continue to evolve and change, so does my practice. The more mindful I am of my taekwondo practice, the more I fulfillment I gain from it. Okay, I can’t do a jump spin kick to save my life, but everything else is peaceful, floating cloud, enlightened hippie bliss. Ahhh.

Anyway, last night’s class was dedicated to helping our testing students. As a group we ran through a good chunk of the kicking requirements that our lone bo dan will have to do at next week’s test to earn his first degree black belt. You know all those kicks and combinations you learned over the years in taekwondo class? Yeah, do them ALL in succession without stopping other than taking a few seconds to wipe steaming sweat from your face. Although my instructor paid most of his attention to testing students, I took it seriously, giving it my all and performing each kick as if I were the one testing. Power, speed, and strength never go out of style. Black belts can’t afford to get sloppy.

When we switched to breaking practice (hitting pads to simulate the precision and power necessary for board breaking) I grabbed a sturdy red pad and was assigned a tiny girl who wore glasses and a silk flower clipped to her curly hair. This was a black belt test of a different kind. I had cast to my own training self-interests aside and go into coach mode. How would I talk to her? How would I draw out the personality of one of our quietest students? How would I help her make decisions? How would I demonstrate and coach in a way that she could understand and follow my instructions?  I prayed that I wouldn’t have to re-tie her belt, which is the hardest thing to do with a wriggling little kid.

When the testing students were asked to demonstrate their breaking techniques in front of the entire class, I watched my little charge with anticipation, hoping she did everything we practiced. She did great job and had a big smile on her face as the class applauded. (Thankfully her belt remained intact.) Whew. Our work had paid off. I’d just passed another black belt test. I’m ready for the next one tomorrow.

Why? How Understanding Leads to Inspired Action

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“Why do we do this?”

I was in taekwondo class and had corralled a small group of students to the back of the room to teach Palgwe Pal-Jang, one of the most complex forms of the color belt repertoire. It was the most difficult form for me to learn (Even Keumgang didn’t make me weep with frustration the way this one did), although since then it’s become one of my favorite forms for the very same intricacy and complexity that frustrated me in the beginning.

The student asking me the question did a backfist with her right hand, a movement that immediately follows the low block that opens the form. She wanted to know why she was supposed to do that. I could have just told her, “Because that’s part of the form,” or “Because I said so,” but I thought it would be a fun opportunity to help her and the other students develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of something they would be doing over and over again.

“Ah!” I said, “Because of this. Do a low block in front stance.” I kicked at her so she would block my foot.

“See?” I continued. “I just kicked you, and you blocked, but I’m still not out of the way. I might attack you again. You have to strike back, and that’s when you do the back fist.” She swung her fist through the air, and I nodded approvingly.

As the lightbulb went off over her head I remembered when Pal-Jang finally clicked for me. One night Grandmaster had corralled the red and black belts to the back of the room much in the same way I was working with the young students, and explained the purpose of the form piece by piece. Someone grabs your arm. Someone tries to choke you. Look out, your attacker is still behind you. Click!

“Forms help us practice self-defense. That’s why you have to be strong in your blocks and strikes in a form. They’re not just pretty movements.” I demonstrated a few of the particular forceful motions of the form to emphasize my point.

Over the rest of the hour the students asked more questions about why we did certain movements in the form. Every time I acted out the reason behind a block, strike, or escape move I had some lightbulb moments of my own. It helped me fill in an outline with energy and intention. I know my understanding of all those “Whys” will influence the way I do the form in the future.

The next morning at work I was sitting in a planning meeting for one the most complex projects I’ve ever worked on in my career. My team and I were making decisions about an extensive program that would impact the future of many people in the company. It’s been in development for nearly two years and is ready for launch, but as we dove deeper into the finer details we found ourselves asking the same questions the young taekwondo students had asked the night before:

“Why do we do this?”

The danger my colleagues and I could have fallen into was just accepting things “as is” because a decision had been made six months ago or twelve months ago. We could have just gone through the motions the way a taekwondo student might half-heartedly breeze through a form, both of which would result in inefficiency and lack of understanding. Instead we chose to be intentional about our decisions and actions.

With a deeper understanding of our program we realized we had the power to shape it into something that was effective and meaningful. We had a thoughtful discussion that did exactly what my “Pal-Jang Theory Workshop” had done for me and my students the night before: it filled in the outline. We made solid decisions and figured out what exactly needed to be done to make our program successful. It wasn’t quite as much fun as elbowing someone in the stomach, but I had the same sense of satisfaction after that meeting as I did after my Pal-Jang lesson with the kids.

The takeaway? Ask why. Seek clarification and understanding. Question the status quo. Use your newfound information to set your intentions. Don’t just react blindly. A deeper awareness of the “why” behind our actions will help us be more mindful and tactical about the decisions we make.

And if you ever get a chance to elbow someone in the stomach, it’s awesome.