Two Months Until Second Dan Begins With Rest, Wine, and Whataburger

texas whataburger

YAS! That’s how Texas black belts fuel themselves!

So it’s still the plan that I will be testing for second degree black belt in about two months. Even though I’ve had two years to prepare for this test as opposed to six months for first degree, I’m more nervous and leery about it this time around. If you’d like to read more about the psychological aspects and musings on it, read this post. I’ll continue with that theme in another post. Now I’m going to talk about what I plan to do with myself until that eagerly awaited day.

I’m kicking of my two months of training with…rest. I have a few minor lingering injuries that keep getting aggravated by training, plus I’m getting mentally burned out from taekwondo, so I’m taking the week off. No taekwondo or ballet barre although I’ve been walking and doing yoga, plus I’ll try swimming if it doesn’t aggravate my shoulders, both of which are snapping at me with memories of old injuries. I need to stop and let my body and mind heal and reset. My biggest hope is that the swelling in my sprained finger will go down, and I can wear my favorite ring again. #taekwondivaproblems.

Next week I’ll get back to reality with getting my physical fitness in gear. And boy do I need it.

My physical health and fitness isn’t quite at the level it was before first degree even though I weigh about the same, actually a little less. Most people would probably agree that I needed to gain weight this year. At one point I was below 110 pounds, and I know I’ve lost muscle tone. Maybe I’ll talk about that in another blog post. I’ve put a few pounds back on although these extra pounds I’ve put on are not muscle but rather the result of Texas-shaped waffles, chocolate, and what may very well be the best pizza in my city.  Worth it.

I still fit into my favorite short black skirt (which I couldn’t last year), and the slacks that used to be snug are still too loose, so psychologically I’m satisfied. After this forced week of rest and a few final indulgences, namely wine and the most unhealthy and delicious food I can find, it’ll be back to chicken breasts, brown rice, vegetables, and fruit smoothies. A healthier diet and an increased exercise regimen will hopefully help me build back some muscle in a few weeks. I’m also giving up alcohol until my test so I’m sure I’ll deflate in no time. Today, though, as I write this, I’m drinking a giant glass of pinot noir so I can, you know, remember what it tastes like through two months of agonizing dryness. And like a good Texan I’m going out this weekend in style with a Whataburger meal.

As for exercise, I’ll go back to ballet barre class, which is fantastic for my lower body, increase my swimming sessions, do my balancing exercises on my BOSU at home (I finally broke down and bought one after getting really good results in physical therapy), and work in extra cardio and yoga at my gym since I’ll be decreasing my time in the dojang from six days to three or four. My taekwondo classes are usually intense enough that I get a very good workout each time anyway.

I’ll go back to my regular classes although I’ll teach less other than testing and tournament weeks to avoid burnout again. As much as I love all the students and the opportunity to improve my teaching skills, I need a break. Given that I have a full-time job (which also involves public speaking and coaching) and a household to manage I really need some quiet time at home. Perhaps my introverted tendency to be drained by too much interaction has finally gotten the better of me, so for a while I’ll only attend the classes designated for higher ranking color belts and black belts. Something is telling me that right now I need to focus on being solely a student.

Rest assured the post-test celebration of Champagne and cupcakes will once again happen, and it will once again be glorious.

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Black Belt: A Year in Review

Melanie meditating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Six Month Long (and Counting) Black Belt Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jyo Kyo Neem’s On You: First Days as a Black Belt

the essentials

The essentials: Louboutins, Gucci, and a Little Black Dress, I Mean Belt. Probably not a great example of my martial arts humility, but…you know…the title of the blog and all…I couldn’t resist.

This past Wednesday I was awarded my first degree black belt in taekwondo. My years of hard work and dedication paid off! It was a wonderful, memorable moment to share with my instructors, fellow black belts, classmates, and the supportive family members who have patiently sat through countless hours of our classes.

Am I proud of myself? Sure, just as much for overcoming the mental and emotional hurdles I’ve faced over the years as I am for the physical feat of earning a black belt. Plus, I don’t know many other cubicle dwellers who willingly get sweaty, stinky, a little bit crazy, and enjoy getting in fights on a regular basis with people who are half their age and twice their size. I’ve pushed myself harder these past few years than I ever have, but unlike reaching academic or work goals, this never felt like a chore, even during more frustrating moments. It was always a privilege, always enlightening, and always a joy to train. More than anything, though, getting a black belt is humbling. I’m so honored to share this title and this martial arts practice with so many talented and brave people.

It still hasn’t quite sunk in that I’m a “Black Belt.” I’m still me. I have blue eyes, I still have my corporate day job, and my favorite gelato flavor is pistachio. I’m still me in taekwondo class too. In sparring I turn so red I start to look charcoal grey. My favorite kick is hook kick, and my favorite forms are a toss-up between Palgwe Sah Jang and Palgwe Chil Jang, although surprisingly, Palgwe Pal Jang has really grown on me over the last few months. Same old me, just with a new belt.

There’s a misconception that a black belt means the end of one’s training. I’ve reached the pinnacle of my martial arts prowess, at least according to the well-meaning folks I’ve talked to. If first degree black belt were “it” that would be the equivalent of peaking in high school, and who wants to be that girl? Several people have asked, “Now what?” as if I’ve gone as far as I can, and now it’s time to quit and pick up a new flavor of the month. Some people also assume that suddenly I can go all Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill” and knock out ten people with a cartwheel or something. And don’t get me started on the registering my “deadly” hands jokes, UGH.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. In, fact the little mnemonic we have around the dojang is that “jyo kyo neem,” a Korean term that very roughly translates to assistant instructor/first dan black belt, means that you’re a “joke” because you’re at the bottom again. I won’t go into how being a first degree black belt means that the journey is just beginning, because you can find many articles and blog posts about that concept by martial artists who are much more experienced and eloquent than I am. I’ll just tell you how it feels from one little jyo kyo neem’s perspective…

There are several different meanings of the black belt floating around, so it will take some digging to find an authoritative resource describing what the black belt represents. (Sounds like a job for an ex-librarian!) Black Belt Magazine has a beautiful parable about the black belt symbolizing a dark time: the practitioner has skill but not necessarily the wisdom to make the right choices all the time. Another resource states that a martial artist who achieves black belt acts from a place of humility and serenity. Another mentions that a black belt has a high level of skill, including a rejection of darkness and fear. Serene, humble, fearless…that’s pretty sweet. I imagine that, like any other form of leadership, a black belt also requires a heightened sense of self-awareness, both of one’s strengths and of one’s deficiencies. True leaders know when to swallow their pride, ask for help, and be humble enough to lean from others.

So that’s where I am right now. I’m a black belt puppy, a freshman. I’m that toddler who’s really good at running around, screaming, and breaking stuff, but is stumped by skills that require more refined motor skills and intellectual prowess, like buttoning a shirt. (For me, in the realm of taekwondo, that would be hand-to-hand self-defense techniques. That part of my brain moves much slower than the one that handles forms and fighting.) I’m not discounting the skills I’ve demonstrated so far. I just know that, like the book by Marshall Goldsmith says, what got me here won’t get me there, i.e., the next black belt level. This will hopefully be a lifelong and ever-evolving practice. My instructors and classmates are stuck with me.

There is still so much more to learn and so much room for improvement, and becoming a black belt opens up opportunities to do that. I’m just now starting to break some bad sparring habits. I’ve only had a few months of getting to play with weapons defense, half of which I’ve spent flapping my hands and giggling and getting “killed” because I can’t think or move quickly enough when my opponent slashes at me with a rubber knife. I still can’t quite remember all of the color belt one-step sparring techniques. And my jump spin kick? If that’s all I have to defend myself with then I’d better just go full Texan and buy a gun.

After our awarding ceremony Wednesday night my chief instructor started teaching me and one of my classmates one of our new forms (which means there will be a revival of The Poomsae Series!! Stay tuned!!) and hand-to-hand self-defense. I spent most of the time nodding dumbly and watching him with the wide, glowing eyes of the proverbial deer in the headlights. I’ve accepted that that’s going to be my expression for the next few months.

Being a newbie again is actually refreshing. It keeps me fresh and on high alert. One of my favorite songs by rapper Jay-Z is “My 1st Song,” especially the introduction, an interview with Biggie Smalls talking about how to approach a project: stay humble, work hard, and act like you’re an intern, like it’s your first day on the job, and it’s your first project, “just stay hungry.” That’s how I want to approach taekwondo: black belt maturity on the outside, white belt curiosity on the inside. I’m a martial arts Oreo. Mmm, Oreos…

So now what? It’s life as usual: attending class four days a week, continuing to strengthen my right hip and hamstring, continuing to teach and coach the lower ranking belts, and continuing to learn and practice. I’m glad the heat’s off me at least for being a testing student, and I’m looking forward to watching the progress of other students. I still need to learn how to hold focus pads the right way, so I imagine that’s how I’ll be spending some of my time in the dojang. I’m not joking; it’s confusing.

I definitely have my work cut out for me. There are EIGHT levels beyond first dan (and possibly one more, but I’ll let the TKD historians confirm that), each one requiring an increasingly difficult level of physical and intellectual mastery, not to mention decades of training. Were I to seriously pursue the progressive black belt path I wouldn’t be eligible to even think about testing for the level my own Grandmaster is at 9th degree until I’m eighty years old, and that’s not happening. If I make it to eighty I’m going to be busy eating bacon sandwiches every day and sipping from a flask of whiskey in my old lady purse—not really Grandmaster material although hopefully I’ll still be yelling at little kids and throwing teenagers on the floor in taekwondo class. I’d love to progress to at least fourth or fifth dan, but if I’m a first degree black belt forever I’m happy with that too.

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

hamstring

“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