The Motto That Keeps Me Motivated (and Annoyed)

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I have a poster in my work office that reads, “A black belt is a white belt who refused to give up.” This is a popular phrase in the martial arts world, and it’s popped up a few times on my blog.

I’m kind of annoyed at myself for buying it. Every day it hangs over my head, reminding me of my power, potential, and the expectations set upon me, even on the days when I just don’t wanna.

I’ve had a lot of days lately where I “just don’t wanna.” I was pretty burned out personally and professionally at the beginning of the year. I feel like I’m finally coming out of that fog, but I’m not out entirely. All the while that stupid poster has been there, glaring down at me and reminding me that I can’t give up. I’m resentful of that. What if I do want to give up? I’m tired of having to be my own savior and champion and foundation…but here I am with my f-cking black belt.

The motto is also a reminder of my roots. As a white belt I was open-minded, eager to learn, and willing to take on challenges. You probably felt the same way as a new student or when you first started a new job. Lately as a black belt I’ve felt overwhelmed, jaded, and secretly toying with the idea of quitting. It’s helpful sometimes in class to revisit taekwondo fundamentals, skills we learned as white belts. Practicing simple blocks, strikes, and kicks has a calming effect.

In some circumstances  quitting, giving up, leaving, letting go are appropriate responses if it means choosing a new and better path. There’s nothing wrong with that. “Refusing to give up” sometimes means making a change or taking a new opportunity that takes one in a different direction. I don’t want to “quit” my current situations, but I am actively seeking a change.

What gets me through taekwondo classes and the work I’m currently doing is reminding myself of why I got involved in the first place and how much I enjoy helping people. What gives me hope is that the same discipline and determination I display in the dojang can help me take control and change other situations in my life.

So I’m going to keep the poster in my office. Every day it’s a reminder of where I came from and who I can be. It’s a reminder that if I’m not happy with my current circumstances I have the power to change them. I can control my responses, just as I do in the dojang.

We were all “white belts” at some point. What makes us black belts in martial arts or in life is the desire to keep learning, improving, making changes, and designing our own destinies.

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Little Black Belt is FOUR!

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My blog turns four today! Thank you for reading and commenting on my posts. I’m glad I could reach people all over the world and share my love of the life changing martial art taekwondo. During the past year I went through a major change at work, learned the mystery of  a lingering health problem, and passed my second Dan test. To celebrate my blog’s birthday I’m sharing my favorite posts from the past year. Enjoy!

1. You ARE Something (Other People Believe It, So It’s About Time You Did) (April 2017) A new opportunity at work teaches me about valuing myself as much as others do.

2. The Best Birthday (July 2017) My master and fellow students make my birthday one of the happiest ever.

3. You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For (August 2017) A speech at a work event teaches all of us about the power of stepping into who we really are and what we can really accomplish.

4. So I’m Eating Meat Again: a Cautionary Tale of the Rules We Place on Ourselves (September 2017) I realize that my foray into vegetarianism triggered a latent eating disorder and I take up hamburgers again.

5. Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice (October 2017) I see a lot of parallels between black belt leadership and the leadership skills I encourage people to develop at work. Just like being a good taekwondo student and instructor, being a good leader takes diligence and practice.

6. Saying Goodbye to the Parasites In Our Lives (October 2017) A little microbe I named Plankton and the relationship I had with “him” taught me that sometimes it’s harder than we think to give up things that are ultimately harmful to us.

7. Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan  (November 2017) The day before my second dan test I reflected on what it means to pass the test and the responsibility attached to actually wearing the belt.

8. Being Okay With Where You Are (November 2017) A yoga class and a botched board break teach me that it’s okay to be forgiving of myself and accept where I am and what I’m capable of doing moment to moment. (And you can do that too!)

9. Why I Teach (Even Though I Want Everyone to Leave Me Alone) (February 2018) I have a love/hate relationship with teaching and presenting, a skill I’ve cultivated both in the workplace and in taekwondo. I seem to have a knack for guiding, coaching, and inspiring people, but damnit, sometimes I just want to be quiet and not talk to anyone for a week. My blessing is my curse, sigh.

10. You Know More Than You Think You Do: What I Learned from Practicing “That Old Japanese Form” (The Poomsae Series Part 14) (February 2018) This post marked the end of both The Poomsae Series as we know it for now and the end of a treasured student-teacher relationship and the lesson I was able to carry with me.

Thank you for reading. Let’s make it another good year!

Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan

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Tomorrow, after two years of hard work and training, I test for second dan. The obligatory post-test Veuve Cliquot Champagne and cupcakes are chilling in the fridge. The dobok I will wear is clean and folded. For once I don’t feel the twinge of any lingering injuries. I feel prepared and confident in my skills and warmth and joy that my family will be able to witness this next step in my taekwondo journey.

Getting second dan has a more subdued feeling to me than getting first dan did. I can’t explain it right now and probably won’t be able to until I’ve lived in my new rank for a while (that is, if everything goes as planned and my knees don’t decide on sudden mutiny). Maybe it’s because I’ve been distracted by a busy month at work, or maybe I’m just more aware of what I’m in for this time around.

Our Grandmaster has said that you’re not really a black belt if you just test, get awarded the belt, and then quit, which is the fate of so many martial artists, especially younger students. Those students have performed color belt techniques, and that’s it. They stop before they even begin the learning process that comes with being a black belt. I am the only one from my “graduating class” who is still attending our school.  When I got my black belt a lot of well-meaning people asked, “Now what?” as if that were the end rather than a spot on a continuum of training. I don’t think I’ll be asked that question this time. Most of the people I know have realized that taekwondo is an inherent part of my life. (How could they not, since I talk about it ad nauseam?)

I was proud to “get” my black belt. I was excited and happy during my test, and I don’t want to take away the importance from that moment. It was a very important point in my life and an accomplishment I’m very proud of. But the first time I put on my belt just meant…it was the first time I was putting on my belt. I wasn’t really living and performing as a black belt yet. I couldn’t wait to show up at the next class and start learning “black belt stuff,” and I’ve been in a learning mode ever since then. 

The learning has only intensified. I feel like I’m testing for my black belt every day in class, meaning, living up to the potential and responsibility of my rank. There are lower ranking techniques I still have yet to master, and every time I do “black belt stuff,” I’m looking for ways to improve my practice. I’ve learned volumes about teaching and by default, have learned more about taekwondo technique by teaching it to other students. Teaching has helped me better understand the “why” behind what we do and ways to make what I do stronger, faster, and more effective.

Being a black belt has taught me so much beyond new forms or advanced self-defense techniques. It’s helped boost my confidence both in the dojang and in the workplace, plus patience, adaptability, leadership, and oddly enough, more compassion, especially since I take responsibility for the students I help guide and coach. When I’m facing a difficult task at work or in the dojang (and sometimes in those tough physical therapy workouts), I think, “Come on, Black Belt, you can do this!” My belt isn’t just something I wear around my waist a few hours each week. It has become a part of my psyche and identity. I’ll be a black belt for the rest of my life.

I’m excited about my test tomorrow and recognize it for the important event it is (and that Champagne tastes really damn good, so I’m equally excited about that)…but it’s just one event in that never-ending continuum. I’ll show up to class on Monday with the same big dumb smile on my face, eager to learn and ready to keep practicing. Eventually I’ll be a second dan, and I look forward to the journey.

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.

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?