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.”

My How You’ve Grown

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Silence surrounded me other than the ticking clocks I love to have in my home. Afternoon sun poured into my living room as I settled into my recliner. On my lap was a plain brown envelope–my medical records. One of my physicians, a specialist I’d been seeing for years for a chronic condition, had passed away suddenly. I wanted to get a copy of my records so I could easily transition to another doctor, but I mostly wanted to see them just because. 

I was a little nervous about reading my doctor’s notes this afternoon. I was very sick when I first started seeing him. By the time I found him I was desperate. My health had rapidly deteriorated, and I was nearly out of options. I slowly opened the envelope and pulled out the stapled packet of notes. I was curious about his initial thoughts the first time he met me. He saw what my illness had done to me. He’d seen me through remissions and relapses. Sometimes he seemed concerned or disappointed with my ongoing struggles. Sometimes he was cheerful and proud of my progress. What had he really thought of me?

The last time I saw him, though, we agreed that I’d made vast improvement over the last five years. And I have. I am not the same person I was when I first saw him at age 32…or am I? Had I really changed? Were my records going to reveal the piece of me that I’d worked so hard to fight off? Was it still there? Had I made as much progress as I’d thought? Had I really gotten my health back, and would I never be able to let my guard down?

His notes not only told the story of my treatment and healing but of all the good things I did with my life during a very difficult period. His first entry of notes mentioned that I was in the process of buying a house. Later entries mentioned closing on the house, changing jobs, and completing my MBA. The next to last entry mentioned how excited I was about receiving my black belt. That one made me smile and tear up a little. I wasn’t so bad after all. I really had done something good with my life despite the ways my condition threatened to hinder me.

I have him to thank for helping me get my health back, and even more so, I have taekwondo to thank. He was a huge help, but taekwondo was the clincher. It helped me get my life and my health back on track. It is the absolute best thing I’ve ever done for myself. Getting me well was a team effort.

When I cross paths with my departed doctor in the next life I hope I’ll have a chance to shake his hand and tell him that I turned out okay.

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?

My Favorite Posts From 2016

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2016 is almost over, much to the relief of just about everyone. Thank you all for reading and commenting on my blog. It’s been a busy writing year for me. I posted to the blog every month, am in heavy editing mode of my book, and most notably I started writing guest posts for the website BookMartialArts.com. You can read them by clicking here.

In other exciting news, I got my “Instructor” patch, so now I have to act like I know what I’m doing, at least when I’m wearing the particular uniform I sewed the patch on. I cut my coaching/refereeing teeth at two black belt tests and several tournaments. Some things remain the same: I still can’t get through self-defense and hapkido practice without giggling, I still can’t do a decent spin kick, I’m still going to physical therapy, and I’m still rank and disgusting after sparring class. At least I’m consistent.

Now I’d like to share with you my favorite posts from 2016:

1.A Black Belt Goes to Barre Class – I started taking a ballet barre class at my gym in February, loved it, and have kept it up ever since. My core and legs, on the other hand, are furious with me.

2. Love is Like Grape Soda – In my Valentine’s Day post I revel in the fact that for the first time in my life being single is (1) a choice and (2) a non-issue.

3. When You Know You’ve Found Your Tribe – A sub-par art museum event showed me the importance of sticking with my true community.

4. Why Do I Still Dread Sparring Class? – I still feel this way. Every. Single. Wednesday.

5. Getting Fat Shamed as a Size Four – One of my most popular posts and one that helped me get a very hurtful and embarrassing moment off my shoulders.

6. What I’ve Learned From Coaching Children and Business Leaders – There are more similarities than you’d think!

7. You Can Rest on Your Laurels, But Don’t Stay There Too Long  – Some insight from my musician brother showed me the importance of balancing the enjoyment of our past accomplishments with the challenges and possibilities of the future.

8. How the Olympics Rekindled My Love for My Sport…But Not the One You Think – Aw, I miss the summer Olympics, don’t you?

9. Black Belt: A Year in Review – I celebrated my one year anniversary as a first degree black belt, and I learned several things along the way.

10. Dealing With Uncertainty Like a Black Belt – Since change seems to be the constant in the workplace, you might as well put on your sparring gear and brave the fight.

11. Are You Driven by the Process or the Project? – What motivates you – the end or the means?

12. The Case for Getting Your Ass Kicked – We all need challenges.

13. Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two – Teaching, learning, and leading all go hand-in-hand.

14. How Eating a Bunch of Carbs Helped Me Stop Hating My Body – I finally had a body image breakthrough over the Thanksgiving weekend, of all times. I also sneak in my recipe for gnocchi.

 

 

 

Am I Replacing One Vice With Another? Part I

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These are a few of my favorite thin–oh you guys, lighten up, I’m joking!

A few years ago I questioned whether taekwondo was something I was going to stick with for the long haul or a hobby I was going to toy with for a while and then set aside. I’ve since proven to myself that taekwondo is most certainly not a “passing fancy.” It’s what I turn to for physical and mental fitness, it has pushed me to and beyond my limits (and many times my patience), and I’ve achieved milestones and goals in the dojang and elsewhere I never would have thought were possible a few years ago. It’s not just a hobby or a sport. It’s a calling and a community. I want to practice taekwondo until I die.

I once told a friend that I get from taekwondo the same feeling I had hoped to get from church–it has nothing to do with my Christian faith, which is very personal and private, but rather it gives me a sense of belonging and a desire to serve with like-minded people I care about. I always felt alone and guarded everywhere else but the dojang. I still do.

These past few weeks I’ve noticed a heavy weight sinking onto my shoulders and an increasing sense of emptiness. I put on a good front when I’m in public, but often when I’m home I deteriorate quickly. I’m struggling. I don’t completely fall apart though. I never allow myself to because I’m all I have–falling apart is not an option, but I know I don’t feel content in my Fortress of Solitude like I used to. Weekends and long nights have been hard. I don’t want anyone’s help though (and if anyone from my real life asks I’m going to give you the same answer). The thought of spending extended periods of time with people annoys me even more than the anxious thoughts that swirl around in my brain when I’m trying to sleep. So what should I do about this uneasy feeling?

Lately the only place where I’ve truly felt good is at the dojang, and this has been an excellent time to “throw myself into work,” as one might say. Last month we prepared students for a tournament and two other students to test for black belt. This past week we’ve been helping a number of lower ranking students prepare for a color belt test. I’ve been busy teaching, coaching, refereeing, fighting, kicking, sweating, and sometimes having a really hard laugh. Guys, I’ve sometimes felt so “high” I probably shouldn’t be allowed to drive after taekwondo class.

And then I go home, and the dark clouds rush back. I’m ready for my next hit and wishing it were time for another class again because it feels so damn good and more importantly, it keeps me distracted from what I don’t want to face. Hell, after the color belt test on Friday I went home feeling what comedian Katt Williams so eloquently described as, “Hungry, Happy, Sleepy,” although he wasn’t attributing those feelings to taekwondo. My problems and worries seemed so insignificant! I was elated, if only for a few hours.

Things started to make sense when I asked myself a tough question I’ve been avoiding for quite some time:

Is taekwondo is just a replacement for other pain-numbing vices?

I can get addicted to things fairly easily–substances, people, exercise, ideas, hopes, feelings, beliefs, thought patterns, activities. I have poured my heart into taekwondo, but perhaps I set myself up for a new addiction right from the beginning. I went back to taekwondo because my life was in shambles, at least beneath the surface. At first it was a solitary activity. Getting a black belt was an afterthought. I went to class, listened intently to instructors, and practiced my techniques. Then I started to open up to my instructors and accept them as friends, and I also realized I had a talent for leading other students. Nothing has ever felt so natural. This little mistrusting, very guarded introvert was making connections.

I fell in love with taekwondo for many reasons, but the largest one was how it made me FEEL. Even on nights when I was frustrated, I still felt that endorphin rush, soul cleanse, mind rinse off awesomeness that I get out of just about every class. That’s why I continue to go. Yes, I definitely want to test for second degree, but I still mainly go to class because it’s FUN and I feel SOOOO GOOD. I love the physicality, practicing the techniques, seeing myself improve, and especially helping my instructors and other students, not to mention hitting stuff with my hands is indescribably, viscerally satisfying. I like to tell myself that the dojang is the one place where I can give selflessly. Or maybe I’ve found myself to be in a one-woman cult of my own trapping.

I think the real cause of this overwhelming, sinking feeling of loneliness and emptiness is a combination of things: illness among family and friends, the death of a young coworker, job insecurity, this ugly and frightening American political landscape, and just within the past few days, a death in the family that has hit me much harder and haunted me more than I thought it would. I am emotionally and physically exhausted. But let’s face it, 2016 has been hard on everyone. It started off with David Bowie’s death and pretty much fell to absolute crap after that. I suppose breaking from the weight of this awful year was inevitable.

I’ve learned the hard way  that no one and no thing (not even taekwondo) can save me from this exhaustion but myself. I’m pretty good about reminding myself that when I’m feeling down. I know I sometimes put too much stock into taekwondo to give me those happy feelings. Taekwondo is not magical. It’s just like money, weight loss, or a relationship–feels good in the moment, but at the end of the day I’m stuck with myself, so I’d better be happy with who’s looking out at me from the mirror.

These dark clouds will pass. These painful situations I’ve been in will lessen. As my dad said to me about this time last year when I was feeling low, spring will come. Things always work out for me in some form or another, and like a good black belt, when I fall down seven times, I get up eight. It’s time to get up, Black Belt.

I’m tempted to take some time off from taekwondo to see how well my emotional coping skills work without it, but right now I just can’t. If this is my new vice, then so be it.

Black Belt: A Year in Review

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Photo by Alfredo Delgado Photograpy. The Trying-Really-Hard-Not-To-Laugh expression is all me.

I tested for first degree black belt on October 24, 2015. It was quite a trying month in more ways than one. By the time I tested I’d driven through enough torrential Texas downpours (of course this year it’s nearly 90 degrees and sunny) and gritted my teeth through enough hamstring and hip pain that I wasn’t nervous at all. I was definitely excited, but I wasn’t nervous. A few days later on October 28, 2015, I was officially awarded my black belt. It was one of my proudest moments and signified a beginning rather than an end.

“Now what?” Many people asked me this right after I tested. Those unfamiliar with martial arts may assume that a black belt is IT. It’s the pinnacle of your training, and you don’t need to do anything else. Of course that is the furthest thing from reality. Some may have expected me to move onto another hobby or to take a break for a while. No way. Black belt wasn’t even my goal when I started taekwondo lessons at age thirty-three. I needed something positive in my life, and I wouldn’t trade what I found for anything. I keep coming back to class because of how it makes me feel, not because of the belt around my waist. Besides, there’s quite a learning curve as a new black belt! In fact, much of my first year of being a black belt has been spent figuring out what I don’t know and then finding a solution. So my answer to the question my friends asked was, “Go to class on Monday!”

It seemed fitting that the one year anniversary of my black belt fell at a very busy time for our dojang. Lately I’ve spent much of my time teaching, coaching, and refereeing other students. Last weekend we hosted a large tournament, and I spent 14 hours running around coaching (including other people’s students who were in a pinch), giving pep talks, drying tears, and even dabbing up a little blood. This past week I helped prepare two students to test for first degree black belt on Saturday, and of course I attended the test and ended up being a sparring partner and board holder like a good black belt (and I only got kicked in the hand once).

“Jyo kyo neem,” the Korean term for first dan black belt, roughly translates to “assistant instructor,” so I suppose I was living up to my title. I take that role seriously, and I enjoy it very much. It’s fun, and I seem to have a natural calling towards coaching and guiding whether it is at work or in the dojang…But there’s a surprising downside. While it’s true that teaching and explaining techniques helps me improve my own skills, I think I’ve been hiding behind it for the past several weeks. If I’m focusing on another student I don’t have to focus on myself and continue to chip away at my own technique. I’ve spent more time working with color belts on their own technique than I have working on my own black belt stuff like advanced self-defense techniques and my two forms Koryo and Keumgang. It feels like a very loving form of procrastination. If I get too comfortable being in teacher mode then my own fitness level, drive, and desire to improve might start to slip.

This weekend’s black belt test seemed to recharge my desire to learn and deepen my own practice. As I watched a young man testing for second degree black belt suddenly a thought boomed from deep within me: “I WANT THIS.” I WANT to move to the next level. I truly love being an assistant instructor, but I also want to improve my own intellectual and physical black belt skills. I want to be a faster, stronger, and smarter martial arts practitioner. I have a lot of work ahead of me.

At the end of the test our Grandmaster made some very poignant remarks about the significance of being a black belt. I’d once heard a master say that you don’t really earn your next belt at the test. You do the requirements and might be awarded the belt of course, but your really earn it afterwards. Grandmaster’s words had a similar sentiment.

“If you just get your first dan black belt and quit,” he said to the exhausted and excited bo dans,”then you’re still a color belt. Wait another two years to second dan–then you’re a black belt. You should always be learning. I’m still learning.”

If a ninth dan Grandmaster who has practiced taekwondo for over sixty years realizes he still has room to learn and improve, then the rest of us certainly do. I feel like I have been earning my black belt every single day for the last year. Each time I go to class I discover something new, try to do something in a different way, and make mental notes of what worked well for me and what didn’t. Black belt, especially first degree black belt, is far from IT. There is so much to learn, so many mistakes to make, so much to improve, and so many opportunities to take.

I’m ready to go back to class on Monday and continue earning my black belt. Getting a black belt, as in, going through the requirements and being awarded the belt, is a one time thing. Being a black belt is a lifelong process, and for me, that is a life well spent.

How the Olympics Rekindled My Love for My Sport…But Not the One You Think

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Most of the time I couldn’t care less about sports. I don’t go to games, I don’t watch sports on TV, and I don’t get involved in discussions about sports. My eyes glaze over when my coworkers talk about their fantasy football picks. I enjoyed watching the Texas Rangers play in the World Series a few years ago, and I enjoy watching the occasional UFC match, but that’s about it. When the Olympics are on, however, my inner jock goes into overdrive. I love it. Whether it’s the winter or summer Olympics, the TV is playing the games whenever I’m at home.

There’s one sport that kept me on the edge of my seat and motivated me to get up early and go to the gym more often.  I eagerly awaited finals and semifinals, yelled at the TV, and jumped around the living room when my favorite athletes won medals.  I watched the athletes’ form and technique carefully, eating up any tips I could gain to enhance my own performance.

Was it taekwondo? Nope! It was swimming.

Swimming was my first love. My parents had me in the water before I could walk. Dad, who was an art teacher at my small town’s community college, taught swimming lessons in the summer, so my brother and I pretty much lived at the college pool for most of the summer breaks. The pool was 50 meters long and included a high dive that I decided I needed to jump off when I turned four because, well, I was four and needed to get that done. I still remember plummeting down towards the water like a happy little four-year-old bullet.

I would swim underwater for what felt like hours, enjoying the silence and solitude (even when the pool was crowded), amuse myself with games, and scrounge around for loose change. Sometimes I played with my brother or with friends; sometimes I did my own thing. It was only when we were starving and exhausted that we would go home, watching the twinkling lights on the West Texas horizon blink in the darkness.

As I got older I made the time to learn proper techniques for crawl, breaststroke, and backstroke from Dad, and by the time I got to college I’d fallen into a routine of getting up early and getting in a swim before I started my day. I also taught myself butterfly stroke in college and have always enjoyed the heart-pounding rush of a butterfly sprint. I always liked going to the pool when it was dark and quiet, meaning there was less of a chance I’d have to share a lane (I still hate that) and that I could stretch out the solitude and solace the early morning brings me a little longer.

A few years ago I fell out of the habit of waking up early and often, and sometimes I’ll go weeks or even months without a swim. Sometimes my best laid plans are foiled by fumbling for the snooze button in a half-asleep stupor. Sometimes I feel discouraged by my relatively slow pace and weakened long-distance endurance. Unlike in taekwondo class, my mind tends to wander while I’m swimming, leaving more room to be bored and distracted. Despite all that, I get to the point where I desperately miss swimming, and I know that no matter where I end up living throughout my life, I’ll need to have access to a pool. I always need a swim fix at some point, no matter how long it’s been since I was last in the water.

Watching my favorite athletes compete in my favorite sport pushed me to jump up when my early alarm went off and race to the pool. I looked forward again to my early mornings gliding through the water. There’s still no feeling like swimming, and it’s not the same mind-body union I get in yoga or even in taekwondo. There’s something about that sensation of your body being sand-blasted by oxygen, of combining the best of strength training, cardio, and stretching all into one swift motion–ahhhh. Nothing else wakes me up quite like swimming, and I’m energized (and ravenously hungry) for the rest of the day.

I love swimming, and I love taekwondo. I need them both in my life. I just love them in different ways, and I think they complement each other. They’re both great for upper body strength and cardiovascular health. There are the mental and emotional aspects to consider as well.

For me taekwondo is a combination of exercise, study, tradition, a second job, and community engagement. Swimming, meanwhile, is just for me and me alone, and as an introvert with a fairly interactive professional and martial arts life, I need that solitude in the water and the rare moments of being totally self-sufficient and disengaged. I am not intellectually challenged by swimming the way I am by taekwondo although perhaps I should explore that possibility. There is something more primal and subconscious about swimming. I was born with gills.

I hope to both swim and practice taekwondo for the rest of my life, as long as I am healthy and active enough to move. I wonder which one will be my biggest source of comfort in my final years. Maybe they both will, in their own unique ways.