Playing the Long Game in Pool, Taekwondo, and in Life

“I’m playing the long game.”

My billiards partner glanced up at me as he said this and then narrowed his eyes at the pool table as he adjusted his stance. I had suggested he take an easier and more straight shot, but he was focused on long-term strategy. He wanted to set himself up to get multiple shots in one play. This involved taking a more difficult shot first so the cue ball would end up where he wanted it. Continue reading “Playing the Long Game in Pool, Taekwondo, and in Life”

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Taeguk 6 – Can We Pause For a Change Revisited (The Poomsae Series Part 15)

Girl with a choice near the forked road

The Poomsae Series is back! I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write individual posts for the Taeguk forms I’ve been learning (I was trained in Palgwe at my old dojang), but they’ve grown on me in the past few weeks. I’ve started to appreciate the individual experiences of learning and practicing the forms rather than just memorizing movements as part of a set. Now that I’ve gotten to know the forms better I can experience them and express them on a deeper level.

This past week I learned my final form of the Taeguk collection (gotta catch em all!) and the thirtieth in my overall repertoire. On Tuesday one of my instructors walked me and another much younger black belt through Taeguk Yuk Jang (6), and to be honest, we were all a little turned around. This form amps up the challenge to anyone trying to learn or re-learn it, even for those familiar with the Taeguk patterns.

As I did with other Taeguk forms, I first tried teaching myself Taeguk 6 with YouTube videos and reassuring myself that I’d get detailed corrections from my instructors in class.

Learning this form via video was a big NOPE for me. I knew IMMEDIATELY that I would need step-by-step help with Taeguk Yuk Jang. After unsuccessfully trying to follow what I saw in the video, I closed my YouTube app and planned on asking an instructor to teach me that form the first opportunity I had.

I like this form for its sheer weirdness. The lower level Taeguks seem to build on each other, and then right when you get comfortable there’s this funky form that blows everything up. This short but complicated form yanks you out of the trusty floor pattern and throws in weird blocks, roundhouse kicks (which are seen nowhere else in Taeguk or anywhere in Palgwe), and funny directional changes…kinda like some of the higher level black belt forms. And then, as if it were a dream, you get back to a sense of normalcy with Taeguks 7 and 8.

You literally pause in the middle of this form. It’s like you’re stopping, assessing where you are in space, and then figuring you might as well get back into the weirdness and work your way through to the end, first retracing your steps and then changing your path entirely. Taeguk Yuk Jang is not quite the mindf*ck that Keumgang was the very first time I was taught that form, but it is a delightfully frustrating puzzle of a poomsae.

Like Palgwe Yuk Jang, its Taeguk sister denotes a change in level and responsibility for the taekwondo student. After this form you are no longer beginner or intermediate. You are advanced, and that comes with a new set of expectations. Things are getting REAL. Red belt, like Ned Stark’s proverbial Winter, is coming.

When I did my meditation on the form Palgwe Yuk Jang I had the same experience learning it as I did more recently with the Taeguk form: everything seemed comfortable and normal in the beginning, and then BAM! Part of life is acknowledging that things change, and I am changed by experiencing this form. Both Yuk Jang forms have pauses, changes, and offer new perspectives.

I offer the same sentiment about Taeguk Yuk Jang that I did for Palgwe Yuk Jang:
“A pause can be a moment of decision and a precursor to change. Those frozen moments in time, whether it’s a second or a year, allow us to examine the facts, listen to our deeper intuition, and choose the next step, whether it is continuing on the same path or foraging a new one entirely.”

Sparring Multiple Partners

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Ohhh…crap, I didn’t think this through.

“Black belts, get up and make a line in the center of the room.”

During sparring class that’s my chief instructor’s cue for us to line up and let the lower ranking students take a stab–or well, I mean punch–at us. For a while he would assign one student per black belt, but lately he’s been assigning two students to each black belt for two-on-one sparring. If I get the little kids, it’s more funny than anything else, and I spend half my time coaching them on how to get me rather than really fighting them.

It becomes more serious when I’m matched with partners my size (or larger, which is often the case since I’m fairly small) or worse, with other black belts. The larger partners have more brute force, and the black belts fight smarter and know how to work together.

The basic rule of fighting multiple partners is to not let yourself get between them. If they trap you from either side it’s very dangerous unless you’re Liam Neeson, and then it’s just bad for the attackers. What I’ve learned to do is always keep the attackers in more of line so at any point I’m only facing one. I don’t let them corner me on either side, of it they do, I go after the closest one and fight my way out of the tight spot.

Seeing as I’m not Liam Neeson or Uma Thurman’s character from “Kill Bill,” I really don’t do a lot of offensive moves when I’m sparring multiple people. Even in a controlled environment like a taekwondo dojang, sparring multiple attackers takes on a scarier and more primal element. I can’t waste time seriously fighting one person if another one is creeping up on me. I just have to stay on the defensive, block like mad, and run like hell. If it were a real life situation I wouldn’t be doing roundhouse kicks anyway. Hide your eyes, hide your kneecaps, hide your crotches, cause I’ll be gunning for them.

While I’ve gotten used to the concept of sparring multiple people in taekwondo class and always am aware of it as an unfortunate possibility of it happening on “the streets,” I found myself in that situation in a very unexpected place, and it was more unsettling than any physical fight. I won’t say exactly where, but it’s a place where I usually feel safe, respected, and valued.

During a gathering of people I normally got along with well, one person questioned the way I was doing something and suggested that I do something differently. I understood their argument clearly and was ready to respond that I agreed and would be happy to change course as long as I got some suggestions…but I never got that chance. Instead I got a repetitive filibuster directed at me rather than to me.

Then other people joined in, talking about me rather than to me, even though I was in the room looking at them dumbfounded and unwillingly silenced. Granted, it was not personal insults or harsh criticism, but they would not show me the respect of being quiet for two seconds and letting me respond. I actually agreed with them and was ready to say, “Yes, I see your point, and I’ll go along with that if that’s best for everyone. Let me make arrangements to change plans right away,”but apparently that would have been too simple and straightforward.

What could have been a 5 minute conversation turned into a whirlwind of anxiety-ridden arguments and hijacked conversation threads that pushed me further and further away from my opportunity to respond. It was humiliating, demeaning, and has severely damaged my trust with many of the people involved. The irony wasn’t lost on me that I saw a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” last week.

And so I found myself unwittingly having to spar multiple attackers. I silently reminded myself to stay cool (all the while hearing my chief instructor’s voice in my head saying, “Don’t let it escalate”) and look forward to an evening of taekwondo class where all of this nonsense would be forgotten.

I realized after thirty minutes of everyone talking over each other (except for me, to whom the original question was directed at) that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise (or in the TKD world, that would be a punch or a kick) so I’d have to just go on the defense, block as best I could, and run like hell before they started jabbing at me from all sides. I kept my eyes on my “partners” and waited for an opening to say something along the lines of, “Enough. We’re good. Everything’s cool,” just so we could call the match and get out.

What I learned from this incident is that your best strategy for fighting back may not always go as planned. You may be blindsided. There may be multiple attackers. They may have weapons. They may be people you know. You may have to just do what you can to get yourself out of harm’s way, heroics be damned. Don’t get between them. Get out of the way and protect yourself as best you can.

After my harrowing escape I received an online message from my brother. He had watched a video that one of the taekwondo dads posted on social media. In the video I was kicking hard, fighting harder, and smiling with pride and joy in the place where I am happiest with people I look forward to seeing all day.

“It’s very cool,” his message read. “You look like a badass.”

That’s right. I AM a badass. I know who I am and what I value. And I now have a clearer picture of who’s got my back and when I need to be watching out for wolf packs.

The Best Remedy for the Inevitable Emotional Denouement: Crazy Cardio!

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There are two things I love about this time of year: the extra hour of sleep and Thanksgiving. That’s about it.

Sure, I love my scarves and knee-high boots, but I mostly love the idea of them, not the fact that I actually have to start wearing them to stay warm. We do really have four seasons in Texas. They just happen to be ice, tornadoes, a really long summer, and rain. Now we’re in that period of a few nice days that are ruined by torrential downpours and dangerous flooding. Thanks to the rain and the fact that, uh, it’s November it’s started to get a little cool. It’s also the time of year when I begin to get grumpy until about…oh…May.

I’m a native Texan and a summer baby. I like running out of the house in flip flops, sunscreen, and a sweaty ponytail. I get anxious and cranky when I have to start wearing layers. My mood plummets from annoyance at mild chilliness in November (for me, anything below 70 degrees is “cold”) to full-blown depression during the dismal, ice-storm-heavy days of January and February. It didn’t come as too much of a surprise when, right after the excitement of my black belt test died down, my mood dropped sharply along with the decreasing temperatures.

I was wondering when the inevitable post-black belt low was going to hit. Some people get depressed right after the holidays–the weather is abysmal, there’s nothing to look forward to other than Valentine’s Day candy, and people suddenly stop being so nice to each other. I wondered if the same phenomenon was hitting me now that the family has gone home and I’ve begun to break in my new belt and uniform.

It was easy to stay motivated and upbeat while I was training. A long day at work? No problem, I knew I’d sweat it off during an intense sparring class. A tough physical therapy session? No problem, the pain was worth it as I was healing and strengthening my body. I could just zone out, visualize my board breaking sequence, and I’d sail through the day. Now that it was all over what did I have to look forward to?

When I get down, I want to shut myself off from the world. I don’t want to talk to anybody (more than my usual introvert avoidance), think about anything, or interact with the world in general. Sometimes I do need a little break from constantly thinking, observing, interacting, etc. and like to veg out with Netflix, but if I’m not careful about it I can go into full isolation mode. Last night when I got home from work that feeling punched me in the stomach and shoved me up against the wall. I wanted to crawl under a blanket and steep myself in solitude. For whatever reason I felt dull, pouty, tired, and very tempted to call it a night.

“REALLY?” I thought, irritated. “I haven’t even had my black belt for a week and now I want to shut down and hibernate? What was all that flowery stuff I said about it being just the beginning or just a small stop along a lifelong journey?” 

“But,” I whined. “It’s daaaark outside and I wanna curl up on the couch and reeeeeaaaaaad.”

I rolled my eyes and paced around the living room. Maybe it wasn’t Black Belt Blues. Maybe it was because I’d felt dull and listless at work that day and my energy was low, or maybe it was because I was feeling mopey and sad, which I tend to do if I let myself ruminate on things (regrets, worries, personal issues) for too long. Or maybe I was just being lazy. No, I wasn’t about to give up this quickly.

“You JUST started learning a new form, and you were so excited about that, remember? And you’ve been sitting on your butt at work all day; exercise will do you some good. Now put on your gym clothes and go to class!” I countered before stomping into the spare room and shoving my new uniform with the tell-tale black lapel into my duffel bag.

Moving around seems to be the best remedy for a tired body and a tired brain. One of our second-degree black belts, a transfer from another school with a background in MMA, led the class. It was one of the hardest workouts I’ve ever done in all my years of being a gym rat and a taekwondo student. He never screamed at us like a drill sergeant or an overly enthusiastic personal trainer. He just gave us our instructions with the expectation that we could (and would) do it, no questions asked. I think we all had too much morbid curiosity to not at least give it a try.

The class was fun the way riding the Titan roller coaster at Six Flags was fun: in the moment I just tried to keep focusing on what was directly in front of me without screaming, I questioned why the hell I was willingly putting myself through it, and the next day I woke up with a mild concussion and a feeling like I’d been smashed around in a washing machine. And in a sick way, although I swore I’d never do it again, I just might. (Well, not the roller coaster. NEVER AGAIN. I haven’t had a concussion after a taekwondo class….yet.)

For nearly an hour we did sadistic things like burpees, clock pushups (get into push up position and bounce around on the floor in a circle–fun, right?), and countless spin kicks in a row. With nearly every drill was the caveat, “Now, for the black belts, I want you to add THIS…” as he added something extra like finger-tip pushups or another jump spin kick. It didn’t seem like I was going to get a cooling off period, but rather a running start as a new black belt.

Any listlessness or creeping depression or loneliness had been thoroughly wrung out of my body, although at one point one of my classmates who had paramedic training began giving me a worried look. I just stared back with glassy eyes and a red face while swearing with an insane smile that I was fine. I was better than fine and so thankful that I’d pulled myself out of my Fortress of Solitude and went to class. And wouldn’t you know, my 360 roundhouse (tornado) kicks were looking pretty damn good.

This morning I dragged myself to physical therapy. It seemed like every part of my body EXCEPT my finicky right hamstring was exhausted. Even breathing too deeply sent cruel swaths of achiness across my upper back. I was hoping to get a nice long therapeutic massage, but my PT looked worse for the wear than I did. On Sunday he had competed in a half-marathon/obstacle course than involved running through mud, tumbling down hills while carrying bags of gravel, getting cut up by trees and cacti, and climbing ropes in the rain. Suddenly the clock pushups, burpees, and spin kicks I’d done on a smooth, pliable surface inside a well-lit air conditioned building didn’t seem so bad. He barely left his wheeled stool as he winced and scooted between patients.

“You’ll likely have delayed-onset muscle soreness, or what we call DOMS, which means it might be worse tomorrow. The best thing to do is some light movement to keep your muscles from stiffening up too much,” he advised while grimacing and readjusting himself on his stool. So today I have my classmate to thank for a reprieve from box jumps and kettle bell lifts: I did a low-key workout of gentle squats and lunges, the stationary bike, light kettle bell lifts, and some core work. An Epsom salt bath, some ibuprofen, and a good night’s sleep will have me ready and eager for tomorrow night’s class. As tired as I am today I was comforted to know that I have an antidote for the depression that I am never truly free from and the cold crappy weather that is just around the corner: go to class, go to class, go to class. (Well, let’s see how sore I am tomorrow.)

I Tested for My Black Belt and Ate a Cupcake: Both Were Equally Glorious

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After weeks of brown rice and vegetables I needed a treat…What? I’m just carb-loading for the next class!

My much-anticipated first degree black belt test was on Saturday. Six members of my family had traveled from out of state, more family was joining us Saturday night for the after-party at my house, my favorite dobok (as in, the one that’s less baggy and has fewer sweat stains) was clean and folded, and I hadn’t had any more unsettling dreams about forgetting a form, or worse, my pants. I felt physically and mentally prepared, and I was so grateful and happy for the opportunity to test that I wasn’t worried in the slightest. All was right with the world.

The last time my family had gathered just for me was at my graduation for my master’s degree twelve years ago. Graduation is different from a belt test, though, because when I received my diplomas I was essentially severing my relationship with my institution. (Ninjas don’t join alumni associations.) I was so sick of classes and exams and paperwork and projects. By the time I donned a cap and gown I couldn’t wait to get as far away from my schools as possible.

When I got my MBA in 2012 I skipped graduation altogether and instead fled out of state to my parents’ house, where I celebrated my new degree in a much more understated way by drinking wine and smoking cigars in the backyard with my dad. No crowds, no fuss, no boring speeches, and I had a nice little buzz going. I didn’t even wear shoes.

Unlike graduation, the black belt test was an event that further deepened my commitment to my dojang.  It was more like when I was thirteen and received the sacrament of Confirmation in the Catholic Church, which ironically happened not long after I quit taekwondo as a child at blue belt/red tip. The Confirmation ceremony is the opportunity for young people in the Church to take responsibility for their faith and their ability to choose the right path.

We Catholic children didn’t really get a say when we were baptized as babies, so Confirmation was the chance for us to state, “Yep, I’m in it for the long haul.” Kind of the same thing with a black belt test: you’re making a commitment to stick it out for the tough stuff and reap all the great spiritual and emotional rewards.
Either way, your Grandma is there, you have to stand a lot, your forehead ends up greasy, and if you’re lucky you get cake afterwards.

Testing Day
I was wondering if my standard testing day anxiety was going to pop up. Even though I’ve always felt well-prepared and eager during a color belt test, my subconscious or sympathetic nervous system  or something dialed up my nerves. I would always feel stiff, shaky, sweaty (more than usual), and breathe a little more shallowly when I was gunning for that new color belt or stripe. It turned out that between doing damage control on my ever-troublesome right hamstring and a strained lower back this past week and surviving a treacherous drive home from class during torrential rainfall and flash flooding Friday night, I didn’t have time to worry about a belt test.

After a good night’s sleep I spent some time with a heating pad and electric massager on my right leg, and did my usual testing day calm-down ritual: I shoved a soft cloth ice pack down my sports bra while I sipped ginger ale. Of course I also wore my lucky testing shirt: a faded black tank top from The Gap. Unlike some superstitious athletes who wear certain items of clothing on game days, though, my lucky shirt was nice and clean.

Testing for first degree black belt is a little like what I imagine freshman hazing to be. Multiple people are yelling at you, and you’re literally jumping on command. They could yell at me all they wanted. I just wanted to (1) remember which foot was which during the flying kick portion and (2) nail my board breaking. Everything else was gravy. As my classmates and I were warming up and practicing before the test began I wondered if my heart was going to pound and my breath was going to quicken, not from exertion, but from nerves. So far, so good. I didn’t feel nervous at all.

A black belt test, at least at the first degree level, is pretty much a blown up version of a color belt test: there are kicking requirements, forms, one-step sparring and self-defense, sparring, and breaking. I decided to psyche myself out and pretend that it was just an extra-long class. I was in my familiar dojang, where I hung out four days out of the week, and I was with classmates and instructors who knew me very well. Nothing out of the ordinary about that. Nervous? Nah.

We had to do every kick and every combination of kicks we had learned since white belt. We did kicks that snap and kicks that slide, kicks that spin and kicks that fly. Why, I could write a whole Dr. Seuss-esque book on all the kicks we did. I was worried that my endurance would run out, but I felt just fine. Apparently I was in better shape than I thought. Sweaty and red as usual, but it would be weird if I DIDN’T look like a swamp monster in the dojang. Nervous? Nope.

Forms and one-steps went well, although I had one blip of a moment of forgetting what I was doing in the simplest of the five forms we performed. Suddenly, as if I had awoken from a dream, I was caught wide-eyed and blank-minded in the middle of a back stance. Wait a minute, where am I? Why am I dressed like this? Who are all these people? Crap! I quickly recovered, though, and did my little drama queen laser-eyes thing with the rest of the forms portion. Nervous yet, especially after that little flake out? Nope.

Oddly enough, or maybe not, the sparring portion of a belt test has always been when my mind is the most relaxed. Sparring forces me to be completely present and single-minded. If I spaced out for even a second I could suffer an unanticipated (and hard) blow from my opponent. Even though I’m fighting with my friends I always like to add just a teeny dash of crazy to keep it interesting. Swiping a hook kick at someone’s face keeps them at bay for just a moment so I can figure out what to do next, and it also makes me look like a psycho. I’m small, so it’s funny when I go all Tasmanian devil. In those moments I’m always reminded of a joke my instructor once made: “Crazy beats big every time.” Nervous since I was fighting people bigger than me? Who, me? NOPE.

The board breaking portion, which was the finale of the test, was especially meaningful. Albeit brief, there’s a deep level of trust and intimacy between the testing student and the board holder. The person holding for the first of my three breaking stations was a long-time friend from the past. My childhood instructor from my rural west Texas hometown reports up to my Grandmaster in my current Big Texas City (still trying to keep it anonymous), and he had traveled the 250 miles to help serve as a judge. He knew me as a soft-spoken, sensitive ten year old and was now seeing me finish what I started as a shrieking, sweating grown woman. Not only was he watching me complete my testing requirements, but he was also holding a piece of wood that I would soon snap in half with a jump roundhouse kick. Cool, right?

I followed the roundhouse kick with a spinning back fist (that means I did a little half circle and bashed through the boards with my knuckles, ouch) and ended with a flying snap kick, which meant I took a running start, jumped into the air, and hit the board with the top of my left foot. My cousin’s fiancee recorded a video of it and added slow-motion to the end, so I had my own little Matrix moment. Was I nervous? NOOOOOPE.

My family all adjourned to my condo to relax and celebrate. We popped open a bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne, and I joined my father and cousin on the balcony to sip our drinks and smoke cigars…you know, like a good athlete would do. I was very proud and satisfied with how I performed that day. Having people who cared about me, both my family and my instructors, definitely added to the unbreakable positive mood I’d had that afternoon.

I think part of my success also came from the fact that I didn’t put an insurmountable amount of pressure on myself. It was a strange although pleasant feeling; this was the first test when I hadn’t felt nervous at all. I weirdly calm the whole time. I was so grateful for the confidence and happiness that I’d gained that I could barely keep myself from smiling all through the test. I was just too damn cheerful to be nervous. I didn’t get into taekwondo to get a black belt; that was never the end goal. I did it to get out of my house and more importantly, out of my self-destructive head. I desperately needed to do something good for myself. This was just a milestone in what I hope is a lifelong journey.

Finishing a college degree usually came with the feeling of being burned out. I’m far from being burned out with taekwondo: I’m on fire and can’t wait to go back to class tonight.

Yep, I’m in it for the long haul.

Day Before the Black Belt Test: It’s Rainy, So I’m Feeling Contemplative

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Stats For the Week:

Weight: 115 pounds
Number of early morning swimming sessions: 3 (YES!! Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, I’M BACK!! Get outta my lane!)
Number of therapeutic massages because I think I’m younger than I am, but my body says otherwise: 2
Number of times I’ve done a round of heat and ice on my back today: 2, but the day is young
Visible bruises: 4. The rest are fading so right now I kind of look like a washed-out leopard
How much I want a cheeseburger, fries, and a Little Debbie oatmeal cream pie: Infinity
Number of unsettling dreams I’ve had this week about taekwondo: ZERO!!

About the unsettling dreams:
For the last few weeks I’ve had at least one weekly dream about taekwondo mess ups, and not all about the black belt test. There was the one where I was at my childhood home trying to practice a form, and I kept running into furniture, plus, I couldn’t remember the form. Then I had another dream that none of the students had turned in their paperwork for the black belt test, so we just did a demonstration of one-step sparring with our partners and all went home feeling sad.

The worst dream was the most recent one: my classmates and I were flying (Southwest of course) to a tournament in Houston. I have two doboks (uniforms), and instead of packing the top and pants, I realized at the gate that I had packed two tops but no pants. The look of disappointment and frustration on my Grandmaster’s face was something I never want to see in real life.

While I didn’t have any creepy TKD dreams this past week, I did have a rough night on Wednesday. My back and legs were protesting loudly and warning me that their patience with my abuse was running out. I got winded and loopy much earlier than usual during sparring class, and it seemed that I could do nothing right with one-step sparring or hand-to-hand in the later class. The one thing I was really proud of was my breaking practice. I’ve been having trouble getting the distance just right for my flying snap kick, and last night, finally, it felt precise and powerful. At least something went right.

I’m not too bummed about it though. Sometimes it’s good to get all the worries and wiggles and dumb mistakes and crap out of our system before a big event, whether it’s a play, a speech, a competition, or a black belt test. The day before my bo dan test in April I ate the floor during a spin kick I was practicing for the breaking portion. It happened so fast I didn’t realize I’d fallen until I found myself dazed and staring up at the ceiling. The next day at the test I did a perfect kick and got a second black stripe on my belt. Spin kick has been a thorn in my side from the beginning, so I was especially proud and grateful that I had pulled it off.

Maybe my dreams and real-life flub-ups are my body and mind’s way of working out any remaining tension and anxiety about what is going to be a wonderful day. I get to hang out with people I care about (my blood family and my taekwondo family), and I get to spend a few hours doing something I love. I think that’s a pretty nice way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

It’s TendonOSIS Even Though Spellcheck is Being a Jerk About It

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“So, even though I’m not getting an MRI I’m still curious about what’s wrong with me. The doctor said it was either a tear or tendonosis. What do you think, based on what you’ve seen with me so far?” I asked Cody*, my physical therapist, during Tuesday’s session.

A little backstory: I had turned down my orthopedic doctor’s suggestion from two weeks prior to get an MRI of my right leg.  It seemed unnecessary since my pain in both the front of my hip and top of my hamstring had lessened quite a bit thanks to therapy, and the thought of being shoved into a tin can coffin for forty five minutes was a big NOOOOPE. I’m not anywhere even remotely close to needing surgery, so all we’d get out of an MRI was a confirmation that my leg’s f-ed up. Yeah, I know already.

The only solution the doctor had offered was a shot of lidocaine into the front of my hip or hamstring, whichever hurt more. What good would a temporary numbing agent do for true healing? The impingement on the front of the hip was barely noticeable anymore and was something I could live with, and I’d already seen vast improvement with my hamstring with only eight weeks of therapy. Besides, the last time I had a needle shoved into my ass was a vaccination as a kid, and I wasn’t exactly looking for new opportunities. No thanks.

I brought up the subject to Cody while I was lying on my stomach on a padded black table in a small exam room and resting the side of my face on my hands. Cody had just started a deep tissue massage of the back of my leg in response to the sharp pain I’d felt the night before in taekwondo class when doing a flying snap kick with the right leg.

When executing a flying kick the TKD student takes a running start, jumps into the air, and pops the leg into a kick. It’s our one little moment of feeling like we’re in The Matrix. I felt a sudden burst of pain when I jumped and shot my foot into the air, and my leg remained irritated for the rest of the night. I hadn’t felt that type of pain in several weeks.

I was very disappointed that I was still having intense pain, but I reminded myself that we weren’t really warmed up for highly aerobic and explosive movement. We had spent most of Monday night’s class doing forms, which is a workout on its own but very low key compared to repetitive kicking and jumping. Even though I’ll only have to do flying snap kick on the right side once during my black belt test on Saturday I wanted to figure out what I could do to minimize pain that might linger during the rest of the test after the long kicking portion was finished. Cody and I were on a mission.

“Well, I’m not sure it matters at this point since you’re not getting an MRI, and the treatment would be the same…a rose by any other name, you know…hmm…” Cody’s hands lingered in one spot for a moment while he thought of what to say.

“Based on where you’re feeling the pain, it presents itself as more of tendonosis. ‘Osis’ means a degenerative state, in this case of the…” He waited a beat for me to answer.

“Tendon!” I replied, playing along with the anatomy lesson.

“Yes, and we’re doing exactly what we should do for tendonosis: repetition, strengthening, and damage control. Tendon-itis, which is inflammation of the tendon, is usually treated with the RICE method: rest, ice, compression, and elevate. If it were really a tear you’d feel it more in the belly of the muscle.” Cody dug his sharp elbow into the meaty middle of my hamstring as if to illustrate his point.

“How long do you think it will take to heal?” I shifted my hands out from under my head and rested my cheek against the pillow. Cody paused from stabbing me with the point of his elbow for a moment and considered my question.

“Six to ten months, maybe a year,” he murmured as he began making deep circles in my thigh with his fingers. “High hamstring tendonosis can be the kiss of death for a sprinter. They injure themselves when they’re pushing really hard towards the end of the season, or in your case, for a black belt test, and if they don’t treat it properly there’s a chance they’ll re-injure themselves during the next season. The tendon likes consistency, so we want to continue doing repetitive exercises. It will also get cranky if you completely stop what you’re doing with it, so you have to keep doing at least some kind of activity. What we’re doing and what you’ll need to continue doing on your own will minimize the risk of re-injury.”

“So…is he comparing me to a sprinter?” I thought as he continued massaging the back of my leg. “I guess I kind of am given the short bursts of speed and power I have to exhibit for sparring and the more demanding jump kicks…Cool.” 

“How does that feel?” Cody asked as he shook the back my leg a few more times and gave my ankles a reassuring pat.

“Good and painful at the same time if that makes sense.” I grimaced as I groggily sat up on the table. Cody smirked and ushered me out of the exam room so I could do my usual exercise routine on my own: side leg lifts while lying on a table, one-legged dead lifts while holding a kettle bell, and stepping up on a box with one leg while raising a kettlebell and lifting my opposite knee.

I took a break from the routine to try a little experiment Cody suggested for dealing with front snap kick, the current bane of my existence. I positioned myself in fighting stance, fists raised and all, and did a short series of front snap kicks with the right foot: ten to the ankle, ten to the torso, and ten to the face. I had to clamp my mouth shut so I wouldn’t ki-hap on instinct and startle all the other patients in the clinic. I felt a sharp burst of pain when I did the first few low kicks, but the leg seemed to relax once I’d warmed it up. By the time I got to the face kicks I could do them without the ripping sensation I’d felt the night before.

I excitedly ran back to the office and told Cody what I’d discovered. We both determined while I wouldn’t be magically healed by the weekend, it was likely by the time I reached the flying kicks portion of the test I’d be fully warmed up, and I shouldn’t feel the amount of pain I’d experienced the night before. Hooray!

So perhaps the saga of my messed up hip and hamstring is coming to a close (for now). We’ll continue therapy until the end of the year, and then I will fly from the physical therapy nest. I have enough exercises in my arsenal to address the problem on my own should it flair up in the future. Or I can call Cody again; I won’t let just anyone poke around my ischial tuberosity.

Now I can focus on other things athletes above a certain age have to worry about: not throwing my back out or getting the flu before the test on Saturday.

And then I can have cake.

*Name changed

Two Weeks Till D-Day: A State of the Union Address

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Let’s hope I have some of this fierceness on the day of my black belt test.

I sighed as I looked at my lunch today: brown rice with roasted vegetables, topped with a chopped boiled egg and seasoned with low salt soy sauce. A small side of bland sweet potato chips and two clementines for dessert. To wash it down? A bottle of prickly pear flavored kombucha I bought on a whim at Whole Foods. (I live in Texas; we enjoy both looking at our cacti and consuming it…especially in margarita form). And for dinner? I had a protein bar, an apple, and some toasted nuts.

What I really wanted was a Whataburger value meal with a Little Debbie oatmeal crème pie for dessert and washed down with a glass of Gentleman Jack whiskey, but that would be giving in too quickly. I now officially have less than two weeks until I test for my black belt, and I’m not going to let something like fries and liquor, as glorious as they are, deter me from my goal. I’mma be one thin, cranky, slightly malnourished B by the end of two weeks. I’ll have to have some Halloween candy on standby for my after party.

So, how does one prepare for a black belt test besides the obvious: practicing taekwondo at every chance? It’s not like I haven’t indulged over the past few months, but since the clock started ticking really loudly about two months ago I’ve gotten my act together on what I eat. I haven’t had a drop of alcohol since late March of this year, and I want it to stay that way until after the black belt test. I try to get about seven hours of sleep each night, I guzzle water, and I supplement my taekwondo workouts with swimming and yoga. It’s not a matter of looking good. I feel like crap when I eat too much sugar and processed foods (and drink too much alcohol), so as boring as brown rice and vegetables and drinks-that-aren’t-alcohol are, they make me feel better from the inside out.

This morning before I swam (Hallelujah, I actually got out of bed when the alarm went off!) I clocked in at 117 pounds, and my waist is down to 26 inches. I’d like to weigh a little less because the smaller I am, the less I have to haul into the air during jumping and flying kicks, but I feel leaner at this version of 117 than I have in the past at that same weight. Hopefully all those squats and jumps I’m doing in physical therapy have built up some muscle, or at least that’s what I’m going to keep telling myself. Not bad for a thirty-six-year-old cubicle dweller.

Speaking of physical therapy, I’m responding to it very well. My doctor determined that I have two problems: hip impingement syndrome, which is caused by damage to the labrum, the squishy stuff between the femur and hip socket, and is identified by a pinching sensation on the front of the hip when the leg is bent. I also have proximal hamstring tendonosis or maybe a tear, which could take about six months to a year to heal on its own. His solution was to stuff me into an MRI machine and shove a needle full of lidocaine into my hip. I politely declined and decided to keep going with a more conservative approach to treatment since I’ve improved drastically with just a month of physical therapy. I don’t need a digital image of my insides and a temporary numbing agent; I need my f-ing little dinosaur leg to heal.

Sometimes my PT has to do the hip flexor massage from hell, which I’ve dubbed the “psoas spaghetti twirl” (his fingers are the fork, my muscle is the spaghetti; enjoy the visual), to loosen up my left side since it takes on the bulk of the work thanks to my lazy weak right side, but I’m not as knotted up as I have been in the past…except for one recent time when it was so bad I wept during the massage. Perhaps I could view times like that as some kind of catharsis or an opportunity to imagine myself pain-free and wearing a brand new black belt. Either that or just keeping doing what I normally do: silently spew curse words and cry, you know, like a grown up.

As for taekwondo itself? I’m feeling pretty good about it despite weird, unsettling dreams I keep having about the test. My endurance and strength are consistent, and I have a good grasp on all the forms and self-defense I need to demonstrate during the test. During my down time I read through the testing requirements and visualize myself going through all the motions. Lately in our school the focus has been pulled away from test preparation and instead pointed towards the tournament, which was held this past weekend. Even though it was a very long day that required a lot of energy and hard work, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was nice to take a break from obsessing over the black belt test and funnel my efforts into helping the other students.

For the tournament I served as a coach, which meant I could wear my teaching and pseudo-mom hats. (The best part about being a pseudo-mom is that I can give my little ducklings back to their real moms and go home to a quiet house.) I spent a lot of time yelling during sparring matches and holding boards for breaking, both of which were new and welcomed experiences for me. (I’m a little nicer when I referee during regular sparring class). I was just as proud of wearing my coach’s pass as I was wearing any of my taekwondo belts, and I was even prouder of how well our students did. My boss always tells me that it’s his job to make me successful. Perhaps the same can be said as a black belt and an adult taekwondo student: yes, my own performance is important, but a real sign of my dedication is how well other people who are in my care perform. That’s a good feeling.

Will I be nervous next week during the test? Yes. Will I be physically exhausted? Yes. Will I be ready for fries and liquor after it’s over? A resounding YES. Will I give up if it’s scary or difficult? HELL NO.

The Distraction That Won’t Die

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“What distracts us?” my yoga teacher asked last week as we sat on our mats waiting for class to begin.
“People’s cell phones going off in class,” I thought darkly, wishing I could throw a few punches at the perpetrators as if I were in sparring class. What’s really been distracting me lately is physical pain. Usually when I’m distracted it’s more of the emotional or mental type—anxiety, anger, sadness, or simply my brain wheels clicking as I solve problems. But right now it’s good old-fashioned pain, that pain in my right hamstring that’s been bothering me for a few weeks now. I don’t know if it’s a tear, a pull, or just irritation from over-use but it’s starting to be a real pain in the…well, you know. Literally and figuratively.

The pain isn’t THAT bad—I can walk and run just fine, and if I have enough adrenaline pumping I can hop around in taekwondo class without feeling a thing. Sitting for a long time such as in a meeting at work or in the car makes it feel irritated and crampy, which makes standing up after prolonged sitting a bit of a chore, and after the feel-good chemicals of a hard workout subside then I feel the pain shooting through my leg. It makes me miss my old hip pain. I use my legs a LOT in taekwondo so it’s not like I can completely avoid aggravating the injury in class.

Sometimes we can simply ignore distractions, and they will die down. A fleeting thought, an unnecessary worry—those are things that don’t need to be given more power or recognition than they deserve. The point my yoga teacher was making was that through our practice we can discipline our minds and bodies to focus and be present rather than be pulled in a million different directions by unnecessary distractions.

Other things, though, will poke and pry and vie for our attention until we can no longer ignore them—a gut feeling that something is very wrong, a pattern of behavior from someone who isn’t treating us right, an illness or pain that refuse to be ignored.

Pain in any form, physical or emotional, is a warning sign telling us that we need to listen. Distractions might be more than just mental clutter; they might be trying to tell us something. Maybe it’s time to leave a draining relationship or job. Maybe it’s time to take it easy with your body. Maybe it’s time to simplify your life and say ‘no’ to all those obligations while you focus on what’s really important. A sign of emotional maturity is having enough self-awareness to listen to what’s calling us and carefully deciding whether it should be addressed or not.

A sign of emotional maturity in an athlete is having enough self-awareness to listen to what our body tells us and carefully deciding whether it should be addressed or not. I could keep brushing aside my pain and sit on ice packs every night, but my body is no longer letting me ignore it. I can still do a front snap kick even though now it comes with a wince and a sharp inhale. I don’t want to get to the point where I can’t do one at all without searing pain, especially as my black belt test looms nearer and nearer.

So what am I going to do? Am I going to heed this distraction or ignore it? My hip pain became so bad several years ago—as in so distracting that I could barely function—that I ended up going to physical therapy, which turned out to be the best thing I could have done for it. Now is the time to be a smart athlete and a responsible future black belt. As much as I don’t want to I will probably sit out of some of the more vigorous classes and use that time to heal so I don’t end up back in a clinic.

The only thing that bums me out more than having to miss out on the fun I have in class is how I should probably cut down on how much I eat during these upcoming low activity days. I won’t be able to indulge in my normal “if Michael Phelps were a martial artist” diet if I want to stay my same petite ladylike size. Damn.

Little Black Belt is ONE! A Year in Review…

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Eating cake like a BOSS.

If you’ve completed filing your income tax returns then I’d like to invite you on a retrospective journey through the evolution of this blog—the discoveries, the triumphs, the tears, the deep questions, and most importantly, the jokes. If you haven’t completed filing your income tax returns….what the hell is wrong with you?? Get back to work!!

A year ago today I tentatively uploaded my first blog post “Fear of Flying Kicks.” I didn’t share it with anyone other than whoever might stumble across it on the other side of the internet. For a month I walked around with the secret tucked in my pocket until I shyly told one trusted person about it and then started sharing the posts on Facebook. Since then I’ve gained some followers, and my posts have been very meaningful to them. I’m delighted that my words provided some insight and comfort to others even more than they have been to me. I’ve received a little criticism too, which is just par for the course of sharing one’s thoughts with the world. Most importantly it’s given me a platform to share all the learnings and epiphanies that were bubbling up inside me so ferociously I thought I would burst.

“Does it give you peace of mind?” a coworker asked when I was trying to convince him to enroll his little daughter in taekwondo when she gets older. I was about to go into a long spiel about how it made me more focused, confident, self-aware, etc., but he continued with his question. He was asking if it gave me peace of mind as far as physical safety….oh yeah, there’s that part of it too! I told him if I go through life never having to use it in a real combat situation then I will be very happy. Confidence, staying cool and calm, and making safe choices are my first lines of defense against attack. As far as gaining the other type of peace of mind, something I had been pursuing my entire life—yes, I get that from taekwondo. A thousand times yes. More than I thought was possible.

I came a across a quote on the blog Runs for Cookies. The author shared a weight loss story of a running friend that included this quote:
“Running didn’t change me. It just helped the real me find my way out.” I can say the same for taekwondo. The real me has been dormant for many years and it has literally kicked its way out into the sunlight.

The Best of Little Black Belt
This was tough, but I pared down the list to my ten favorites. Why ten? As the great George Carlin said, ten is a “psychologically satisfying number.” And he said a lot of other things that I can’t write here.
1. Accidental Elle Woods – the one where I discover with horror that my life is the plot of a romantic comedy. NOOOOO!!!!
2. Style Guide for the Fashion-Forward Fighter – the one where I write a funny list about juicing, makeup, and stretch pants
3. Everyday Struggle – the one where I first explore the concept of resistance…and yes, I’m quoting a Biggie Smalls song
4. I Traded Magical Thinking for Martial Arts – the one where I stopped being delusional
5. Sparring with Demons-A Response to the Death of Robin Williams and the Societal Stigma of Mental Illness – the one where I get super serious
6. I’ve Become the Person I Hated and I Couldn’t Be Happier – the one where I stop thinking I’m fat
7. Having an Attitude of Gratitude When Cynicism is So Much Cooler – the one where I delve into the law of attraction and make a sarcastic argument for smoking
8. Back to Basics – the one where shit goes down in yoga class
9. Ain’t That a Kick in the Head – the one where I get some sense knocked into me
10. Why I Chose to Pursue a Black Belt Instead of a PhD – the one where my pocketbook and waistline thank me

If you want more on the actual gritty details of taekwondo practice, check out the 8 posts in The Poomsae Series or anything tagged with the categories “Class Diaries” or “Training Tips.”

Thanks for reading, everyone! I’m bowing to you right now, you just can’t see it. 🙂