When a Hiatus Leads to Victory (i.e., the Best Jump Back Kicks Ever)

split kick

Okay, I didn’t do THIS, but it felt like it.

Last night in taekwondo class I did the best jump back kicks I’ve ever done in my taekwondo career. Ever. (I’m a second degree black belt, it’s about time, right?) It’s not like I haven’t been doing jump back kicks lately, but it’s a whole different ball game when you’re hitting targets versus just kicking the air. Hitting targets, whether they’re pads, kicking pads, or people, is extremely important in taekwondo or any striking art. You can hit the air all you want and get fairly well conditioned, but it’s quite a different thing when there is weight and resistance at play, as well as the precision required with hitting a target, whether it’s moving or not. This is not only important for sparring and breaking, but it builds power and speed as well.

Now that we’re at a community center we have to bring equipment with us, meaning we don’t have access to the stacks of focus pads, shields, heavy bags, and other striking targets that we used to at our old dojang. I usually keep two focus pads in my bag, but this time I lugged in a heavy black rectangular-shaped kicking shield. There were a few students from the advanced class stretching while the orange belts practiced, and their eyes lit up with delight when I held up the pad, grinning and wiggling my eyebrows. They immediately grabbed it and started doing little drills with each other. This was going to be fun.

After some warm ups the senior instructor picked up the shield and asked us to form a line.

“Why don’t you show them what to do?” he suggested. Hmm, what’s a good drill with a heavy shield?

“Okay, listen everyone,” I said. We’re going to do a sliding side kick [I kicked the pad with my front foot] “…followed by…a turning back kick.” I turned and slammed my other foot into the pad as I talked. “Think about when you’re sparring. They’re getting close to you so you hit them with a side kick [I kicked again] and then…knock them…back.” I did one more turning back kick to emphasize my point.

I’ve been hit or miss with targets in the past (no pun intended), especially with turning back side kick. My problem is usually not chambering my leg high enough to kick right in the center of the pad (which in theory is someone’s gut) or sometimes not turning the shoulder of my kicking side down enough. That night, however, I was doing a pretty good, consistent job and had a respectable amount of power behind my kicks. Cool.

Then my Grandmaster stepped to the side with a small focus pad and gestured for me to come over to him. I saw him working with another black belt on jump turning back side kick. Uh-oh, was it my turn now?

“Jump back kick?” I asked. He nodded and lunged towards me. (Sometimes a drill the holder will “fake” towards the kicker so the student can work on timing and distance.) I took a small step back, jumped in the air, twisted my torso, and smacked the heel of my back foot squarely into the meat of the focus pad.

POP!

What?? I’ve never done that well before. Grandmaster gave a short nod of approval. I did a double take in surprise and then quickly repositioned myself.

POP! He moved towards me again.

POP! Well, I’ll be damned.

POP! “Your left side is perfect. Right side—turn the shoulder down a little more,” Grandmaster advised.

POP! Cool, maybe I could break with this kick someday!

POP! Grandmaster smiled in approval, and I trotted away, panting and pleased with myself as I straightened out my uniform.

I ended up doing about eight or nine jump back kicks across the floor and hit that little focus pad every single time. I didn’t graze the edge or tap it. I HIT it. I jumped up, chambered both legs mid-air, and kicked the crap out of that pad square in the middle every time in front my 9thdegree Korean Grandmaster. Sweet. Maybe doing all those jump snap kicks and simple but highly repetitive back kicks in Body Combat class have kept my legs in good condition over the past few months of minimizing my taekwondo training.

I don’t think I haven’t done a drill like that in about eight months, probably not since we moved from our old school. It’s been easy to get complacent lately. Meh, same old kicking drills. Meh, a few forms and sparring. Eh. Who knew giving my body and brain a break and inadvertently doing cross training (Body Combat, barre, swimming, yoga) would lead to some of the best, strongest kicks I’ve ever done? I don’t think I need to wait another eight months for target practice. I think I do need to look for more opportunities to surprise my taekwondo brain and muscles and keep up the diversity in my own training and also for my students.

So I guess these little breaks have done me some good.

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A Black Belt Takes a LesMills Body Combat Class

bodycombat-kick-shoes

Good lock of the kick, but y’all need to turn your hips and point your toes down…then again, what do I know. I’m just a black belt.

Two years ago I wrote a review of the ballet barre class my gym introduced in early 2016. I’ve since gotten the hang of it, have become pretty proficient in the moves, and have seen some improvement in my core and leg strength. I usually did a little barre and swimming on the side while I took 5-6 taekwondo classes per week.

Now that my taekwondo training has dwindled to next to nothing, I need something else to keep me in fighting shape. About 2-3 months ago I started taking Body Combat at my gym. Body Combat is one of the latest parts of the Les Mills gym class machine, which now includes 16 different branded classes that are taught at gyms across the world. There are certain “versions” that are released every few months, which keeps both the certified instructors and participants on their toes.

Spoiler alert: I LOVE IT. I’ve taken my share of aerobics classes over the last 20 years, but I’ve never found one I wanted to stick with for the long term. Barre is turning out (no pun intended) to be one of those classes, and it looks like Body Combat will be the same. The course purports  to combine techniques from boxing, Muay Thai, taekwondo, capoeira, and karate (sorta). I like to think of it as a technique class as opposed to specific practice on things like self-defense, poomsae, or fighting. It both helps me hone my well-trained skills and let’s me spend time on techniques I rarely or never get to practice.

So what is the experience for a trained martial artist in a Body Combat class? Training pickiness aside, it’s an excellent high-intensity cardio workout, which keeps me in good cardiovascular shape for my sporadic appearances in sparring class. It hits all the major body parts–legs, butt, core, arms, shoulders and back and offers enough variety that it’s very difficult to get bored. Hell, yesterday my Tuesday instructor threw in a flying side kick! Most of all, it is pure FUN! Having absolute fun is something I’ve missed over the past six months in my taekwondo classes.

I recommend that any martial artist go into this class with an open mind and a goal of refining the basics and building speed and strength. They simplify some techniques (for example, roundhouse kicks and side kicks are only done on the front foot, there’s no turn to the back kick, and their “front stance” is most decidedly NOT a front stance)…and that’s okay. This is not meant to be for only those who have advanced fighting training.

The simplicity of the techniques gives you the opportunity to tweak and refine the foundational skills that you still rely on as a black belt. I’m short and have a hard time hearing the instructor with her muffled mic, so I intentionally plant myself in the front in every class so I can see her. The added benefit is that I can watch myself in the mirror as I punch, kick, lunge, and throw knees and elbows. I have a visual target when I punch to the side of the head or snap kick to the torso. There’s lots of repetition, so I can make tiny changes every time I strike, and I definitely take this technique training with me back to my traditional taekwondo classes.

Another benefit is this class breaks me out of my taekwondo rut. We will sometimes go through an entire tkd class without doing one hand strike, and those who know me well know I loooooove hitting shit with my hands, even if it’s just the air. My favorite breaking techniques are hand strikes, and I try to punch as often as I can in a sparring match. From a practical point of view, I’m most likely going to be using my hands in a real self-defense situation, so even though my Friday instructor is just dazzled by my head-high roundhouse kicks and the occasional spin kick I throw in (meh), I’m paying more attention to the technique of my punches and elbow strikes. And in Body Combat there are so many punches…oh the punches…so many punches…

Finally, theres’s a sense of both anonymity and camaraderie I get in Body Combat that I don’t get in taekwondo. In taekwondo I’m either an instructor or a student, and I’m constantly communicating with students or other instructors. I can’t go to class and just be. As much as I love the closeness I have with my other black belt instructors and students I also want to be left completely alone once in a while when I’m working out. There’s certainly no pressure for me to teach at the gym, nor is their pressure to perform (although most of that pressure comes from me). Sometimes I get funny looks at the gym when I’m warming up before class with a form or two, but that doesn’t bother me. I’m enjoying silently critiquing myself in the side and front mirrors. Extra practice!

Some days in taekwondo I look into the (sometimes) listless eyes of my students and realize none of us want to be there. We’re all tired of the routine. I have to repeatedly remind my black belts to do simple things like keep their hands up and bend their knees with a snap kick, which is frustrating and tiresome. None of that in Body Combat. Sure, the technique is kinda terrible, but people work their butts off. Hands are up all the time (and I think it’s cute how some of the women will wear MMA gloves). Feet are moving all the time. People are eager to keep up and try their best. I’m punching, kicking, kneeing, and elbowing my ass off like a good second degree black belt. Everyone wants to be there because they know it’s their workout and no one else is going to do the work for them. We all have off days, days when we’re tired and bored, but I wish I could see more of that self-motivation in taekwondo.

If you’re a martial artist needing a supplement to your training, give your local gym’s kickboxing class a try. You may be surprised at how much you like it.

Guest Post: How to be a Martial Arts Leader Without a Black Belt

different belts

Hey Little Black Belt readers! I want to share some thoughts and tips on martial arts and leadership. You might think leadership is only reserved for black belts, but your leadership training actually begins the first time you step onto the mat. Check out my latest guest blog post from BookMartialArts.com to learn more:

How to be a Martial Arts Leader Without a Black Belt

Looking for something fun to add to your martial arts repertoire? Why not sign up for an affordable martial arts training camp? From Taekwondo to Krav Maga, BookMartialArts.com has camps on various types of martial arts disciplines to choose from!

So…I Stopped Eating Meat

funny-picture-vegetarian-because-i-hate-vegetables

I haven’t eaten meat for the past three months…well, six months, really, but with a caveat. I stopped eating meat on September 12, 2016. Exactly two months later I made an exception for a gyro, pastitsio, and souvlaki at the local Greek food festival and later meatloaf for dinner. Worth it. Gyros, you guys, come on, gyros. Then I went right back to not eating meat. I had a little bit of meat over Thanksgiving and Christmas, and when I got on the plane to fly back home after the holidays I was done.

Before I move on, let me just do my instructor and other Texas friends favor and yell “HIPPIE!” Yes, yes, I know. I am a hippie.

Going vegetarian was not difficult for me. I’ve done it before, and even during periods when I ate meat, I rarely ate it every day. It’s not so much that I’m giving up meat (and most of the time dairy, but I’m still hanging on to my local farmer’s market eggs), but rather, I’m taking the opportunity to eat a boatload of vegetables and fruits plus keep up the good work with whole grains and nuts. I’m much more likely to make vegetables the star of the meal when meat isn’t an option.

Meat and I just don’t work well together. It tastes good, and I’m daydreaming about a gyro right now as I write this, but it’s not nice to me, especially beef. One year I spent a week with my then-boyfriend’s family at Christmas. While his parents were fabulous cooks, nearly all the meals were centered around their hearty Bolivian diet of beef, white rice, potatoes, and thick bread. By the end of the week I felt very sick, heavy, and unable to digest anything. I felt awful. The starchy carbs didn’t help, but I knew it was the beef that was doing a number on my digestive tract. I’d never craved green vegetables so much in my life.

Sometimes I can’t even get meat down into my unhappy digestive tract. Just about every time I eat beef, chicken, or pork, no matter how tender it is or how tiny of a bite I take, it gets caught in my throat. I’d rather not be strangled by my own food. (How ironic would it be if I choked on a baby octopus?) Plus—and this is a big reason—I’ve seen and read way too much about factory farming and slaughterhouses to in good conscious continue eating meat from nationwide producers. And I still occasionally eat dairy and eggs and own several leather accessories and pieces of furniture so I’m not going to pretend to be absolved of being involved in this process. I do what I can even though it’s minimal. My blog is not my political platform, so I’ll leave it at that. You can learn more on your own if you choose.

I can hear you asking: But you still eat fish, right? NOPE. I hate the taste and smell of fish and never eat it anyway, plus I’m allergic to shellfish, so giving that up was a non-issue. I don’t get people who claim to be vegetarian but proclaim they still eat fish. It’s from an animal, therefore it’s meat nor do I understand that question when I say I follow a vegetarian diet. My brother and I used to argue with our Catholic Sunday school teachers that eating fish on non-meat days didn’t make sense. Have you ever seen a fish gutted and cleaned alive? I’ve seen plenty, and the fish are PISSED. It’s an animal, duh! I guess if I wanted to do penance I’d choke down some fish because I hate it so much. Forgive me, Father for I have sinned, let me just skip the Hail Marys, hold my nose, and eat this disgusting packet of tuna so I can be absolved of my sins…

I feel good! I’ve lost nearly 10 pounds over the past few months. Some of that was due to some unexplained stomach problems, but I think not going to Arby’s and Jack in the Box and eating more fruits and vegetables helped.

But where do I get my protein? I get plenty of protein; I’m just fine. Animal products are not the only source of protein. I still eat eggs, plus avocado, nuts, tofu (to the point that I actually crave it, mmmm!), beans, lentils, almond or coconut milk, seeds, and of course, God’s gift to humanity, peanut butter. More plant-based food sources than you think have protein such as quinoa, steel cut oats, leafy greens, and broccoli…yes, really!

So what DO I eat? More like what DON’T I eat! I eat just about anything other than meat of course, lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and eggs and cheese on occasion (and chocolate…and alcohol). I’m not vegan although my diet ends up being vegan many days. I have plenty of energy for the taekwondo classes I attend 4-6 days a week. And I don’t care what some of these purist fat-phobic hippies in the vegetarian/vegan world say, I’m not giving up olive oil. Not because it’s a source of healthy fat but because I’m ¼ Italian and cook everything with it. I can’t give up olive oil now, not while a picture of my Nonon is glaring at me from my living room mantelpiece.

I try to stay away from refined carbs and processed foods, although I have to have a little bit of the junk poison from time to time…okay, sometimes more than a little bit. I once knew a “vegetarian” who only ate mac & cheese and cheese pizzas so it is possible to avoid meat and still have a very unhealthy diet, but I haven’t quite fallen that low yet…well….Uh…I had a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch for dinner Sunday night and okay, so I had a grilled cheese sandwich and fries Monday night, but that was after a REALLY hardcore taekwondo workout, shut up, whatever! (Sigh) Was it vegetarian? Yes. Was it full of helpful nutrients? NOPE. Will I eat that stuff on the regular? Nah, probably not. I did put fresh raspberries in my cereal and used an almond/coconut milk blend. That should count for something, right?

During my little meat-eating holiday interlude did I my mother’s delicious Thanksgiving stuffing made with Italian sausage? OH HELL YES. Did I eat her Christmas Beef Wellington? F-ckin’ A, you know I did, and I even took on the job of wrapping the tenderloin pieces in puff pastry. If I go to someone’s house and they make a special meal just for me that includes meat, will I eat it? Yes, I probably will to be polite although I’ll be piling on the veggie side dishes. But 95% of the time I’ll pass on the meat and load up on plants. But then there’s this BBQ place I’ve been stalking for a while. As a Texan it’s my duty to try it out…maybe on my birthday. Just one time.

So what did I eat today? I had egg and veggie tacos for breakfast with some raspberries on the side, brown rice/quinoa pasta with homemade marinara for lunch plus a clementine, and Thai vegetables and tofu with brown rice for dinner and a big fat juicy navel orange afterwards. Yummy and satisfying! (And a tad more healthy than sugary cereal and fries)

Should you go vegetarian? That’s entirely up to you. If you’re into fitness and want to explore a vegetarian diet a good blog to check out for tips is No Meat Athlete by Matt Frazier. Frankly I don’t care what anyone else eats so I’m not going to judge anyone for eating meat. Like sexual orientation, reproductive choices, and religion, what other people eat is none of my business. I just know this works well for me. If you’re looking for something to shake up your diet and help you eat healthier, then consider joining me on the green side and giving a plant-based diet a try.

Guest Post: The Best Sports to Complement Your Martial Arts Training

running on the beach

Hey Little Black Belt readers! Do you want to supplement your martial arts training with another sport or activity? Check out my latest guest blog post from BookMartialArts.com:

The Best Sports to Complement Your Martial Arts Training

Looking for something fun to add to your martial arts repertoire? Why not sign up for an affordable martial arts training camp? From Taekwondo to Krav Maga, BookMartialArts.com has camps on various types of martial arts disciplines to choose from!

Finding Fresh Ways to Learn…Or, I Geek Out at a Forms Seminar

get-excited-and-start-learning

This past weekend I attended a poomsae (forms) referee seminar sponsored by USA Taekonwdo, the national governing body for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and is a member of the World Taekwondo Federation. I’m not really interested in judging or refereeing at tournaments, but since forms are one of my favorite aspects of practicing taekwondo, I was curious enough to sign up.

I figured it would be good to know what judges were looking for so I could prepare our students (and myself) to compete in forms at the next tournament and just improve our daily practice in the dojang. Plus I get a little tired of always being on the facilitator side of training, so once in a while I like to be a participant and learn something new.

Oh my, the math and the details! I knew when we were handed a sample of the official scoring sheet that our brains were going to be spinning. We discussed accuracy and presentation (and the sub-categories of each), major deductions versus minor deductions, disqualifications, and rules for recognized forms versus freestyle forms. I didn’t realize how much and quickly forms judges need to react, calculate, and recalculate all within about a minute of a competitor performing a form.

The fun part began when the instructor began demonstrating details (both mistakes and what judges want to see) of kicks, blocks, strikes, and stances. “Is that a major or minor mistake?” he’d frequently ask. As the morning went on our answers were more confident, and we’d nod and smile in recognition. He then began performing combinations of forms and asked us to critique through the lenses of accuracy and presentation.

While the instructor used Taegeuk forms for most of the examples, which I am not familiar with (we practice the older, more traditional Palgwe forms at my dojang), he did make several references to the black belt forms Koryo and Keumgang, so I had light bulbs exploding over my head during those moments…if anyone saw me nodding and whispering “Ah-haaaa” while scribbling down notes it was probably during the Keumgang examples.

Did I not have a clue about accuracy or presentation during the Taegeuk combinations? Of course not. It turns out that technique is technique is technique, which I suspected all along. It’s not like the Taegeuk forms have completely different movements. A low block is a low block no matter where it falls in the form. Alignment, accuracy, tempo and rhythm, power…those are key elements we teach as well with our Palgwe forms.

And lest anyone think I’m cheating on my own home dojang instructors, I still defer to their teaching methods when I’m practicing my own forms or coaching another student. However, it’s nice to get an outsider’s perspective once in a while, even when I disagreed on some of the finer details. For a poomsae nerd like me, talking about nothing but forms for four hours was heaven.

Now to truly prove that one can use transferrable knowledge to a new situation (meaning, I can perform and judge a form blindly) I probably should have stayed for the second part of the day when the class was going to perform several Taegeuk forms. Technique is technique, right? I should just be able to learn and perform the form on the spot since I’m supposedly good at forms and pay a lot of attention to detail, right?

Well…yeah…but I opted out, mostly because I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time since I’d just slow down the process (everyone else knew the forms). I also knew my Koryo and Keumgang were different enough stylistically that I’d stand out if we did the black belt forms, and I happen to prefer my ways of doing Koryo and Keumgang. And…well…I had company coming that afternoon and figured opening a fresh bottle of wine would be a better use of my time.

I thanked the instructor, told him the lecture and demonstration portion was fabulous, and assured him that I could apply everything I learned that morning back in my home dojang. The seminar inspired me to refine my own forms practice even more, and it gave me some language and talking points to use when I give feedback to other students.

The moral of the story: seek out continuing education in whatever it is you love to do whether you’re feeling stale, looking for a new perspective, wanting to learn a new skill, or simply want to enhance and revitalize your practice.

Guest Writer: Should Adults Begin Martial Arts? (I bet you can guess the answer)

BJJ white belts

Hello Little Black Belt readers! Have you always wanted to try martial arts but feel like life keeps getting in the way? Do you feel like you’re too old or out of shape or just plain busy? Or are you like me, who did a martial art as a kid and never though you’d return to it?  

Now is the time to start, and I have a treat for you! I’d like to welcome my second guest writer Richard to the blog. Richard runs the fantastic BJJ and MMA blog Attack the Back and shares his thoughts on what it’s like to start a martial art as an adult and the benefits he has experienced. Enjoy!

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When people think about martial arts, they normally think of a few things, poorly dubbed kung-fu movies and a class full of children shouting “KAI.” But not everyone who does martial arts started off as a child. My story is a little bit different. I am a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and for those who don’t know the belt system in BJJ it’s a follows:

White
Blue
Purple
Brown
Black

Not many belts huh… The thing is it’s not about the amount of belts, it’s about how long it can take to get to each BJJ belt. Like I said, I’m a blue belt, but BJJ has been a big part of my life for around 6 years now. I train on average 3 times a week, and while my journey is a little slower than some, it takes around 10-15 years to get your black belt, most people can go to university and become a qualified doctor in the same time.

Anyway, that is a little background story, what may surprise you about me is that I started my martial arts journey in September 2010 at the ripe age of 24. Which maybe surprising for some, not a lot of people decide to take up a martial art so late. My story may sound familiar to a lot of people. I was stuck in an unfulfilling 9 to 5 job, I was working my job, coming home, having tea, going on the computer/watching TV, going to bed, wake up, rinse & repeat.

I needed something more in my life. I had an interest in MMA and used to watch it in University in the evenings (but I didn’t want to get hit in the face.) I remembered my friend used to harp on about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu; in fact that friend is now a black belt and runs his own academy, so I got in touch and decided to give it a shot.

And that’s where my life changed and Jiu-jitsu became my obsession. I gained more confidence in my day-to-day life, partying and going out become a low priority (why spend money on booze when you can train?), and overall I felt healthier.

Should adults start martial arts?

So if you were reading this and were thinking about starting a new martial art or sport, then I would recommend that you at least give it a go. You may find something you love, you may not. What I do suggest is that if you’re looking to lose weight, get healthier, and fitter, find something that you love doing that’s active. That way anything lifestyle choices are done because of your new hobby, not because you’re forced into it. For me Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was a new lease of life, which is why I started my blog Attack The Back, to give back to the community. So what are you waiting for? Have a go, it maybe the best decision you ever made.