The thought drifted through my mind as I was burning out my legs in ballet barre class at the gym last weekend. And then I caught myself and re-worded my thought: “Nope. I’m doing this for Second Dan. I’m going to be the best damn Second Dan I can be.” Either a smile or a grimace crossed my face. I don’t remember which; barre can be a pretty grueling workout.
Our culture pressures us to constantly chase after what’s next or what’s better. While I think having ambition and setting goals is important, taken to an extreme we can lose focus on what we are doing in the present. We tout climbing the leadership ladder as the only admirable career path. We expect seventeen and eighteen year olds to choose educational tracks that will shape their adult lives and get it right on the first try. I always internally gagged at the “see yourself in 5 years” exercise I had to present in a professional development course I used to teach (and obviously did not write). We never stop and examine what we’re doing RIGHT NOW.
Can we be satisfied with and put our best efforts towards where we are right now?
Ever since I watched a black belt test at my new dojang in December I have had my own third degree test (date/year to be determined) lurking in the back of my mind. I knew I needed to improve my overall conditioning, my sparring skills, and hone my technique. I hadn’t practiced defense against weapons in a year and hapkido/self-defense in almost as many months. I knew I needed to not just step up my game, but JUMP up my game.
Third Dan is my long-term goal, and it helps sometimes to corral my wandering mind during taekwondo classes or my non-taekwondo workouts into the idea that everything I do is building a better black belt. Every ballet plie strengthens my legs. Every freestyle swimming stroke powers my lung capacity for fighting endurance. Yoga keeps me mentally balanced and undoes the damage I do to my hips, back, and hamstrings all week.
[Disclaimer for the yogaphiles reading this: I don’t consider yoga a “workout.” I’ve been practicing yoga for 22 years and am fully aware of the mental, physical, and emotional complexities of it. Let me reword it: the asanas of yoga, which are only one aspect, keep my body toned and stretched…and ready for meditation. Happy now?]
I’m pretty satisfied with my current job. I could do that for a long time (with merit raises and bonuses, of course.) I love the city I’ve lived in for the past 14 years; I could spend the rest of my days here. I can certainly apply my physical and mental fitness to the taekwondo rank I am right now, can’t I? If I stayed a second Dan forever could I be satisfied with being the best damn second Dan I can be?
I can’t lose sight of my current rank and its responsibilities and possibilities. I got plenty of teaching experience last year that I hope helps me live up to the Korean translation of my title “Kyo-sa-neem” (instructor). Now that I’m no longer teaching I have the ability to focus on physical training and really understand and demonstrate what a proficient Yi Dan looks like. To be honest, I’m not sure if I can articulate that right now. That tells me I need to back off from looking forward to (and dreading) my future third Dan test. There’s plenty of time to prepare for that. I think I need to do some reflection on what my current rank means.
Every color belt rank was a different learning and growth experience with different expectations. It seems like that is also true for black belt ranks. That makes me happy. It gives me something to explore and build on right now, in this moment.
Whatever journey you’re on, pause and take a look around. Where are you developmentally RIGHT NOW and what can you do to make your NOW better and more meaningful?
My blog turns four today! Thank you for reading and commenting on my posts. I’m glad I could reach people all over the world and share my love of the life changing martial art taekwondo. During the past year I went through a major change at work, learned the mystery of a lingering health problem, and passed my second Dan test. To celebrate my blog’s birthday I’m sharing my favorite posts from the past year. Enjoy!
5. Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice (October 2017) I see a lot of parallels between black belt leadership and the leadership skills I encourage people to develop at work. Just like being a good taekwondo student and instructor, being a good leader takes diligence and practice.
6. Saying Goodbye to the Parasites In Our Lives (October 2017) A little microbe I named Plankton and the relationship I had with “him” taught me that sometimes it’s harder than we think to give up things that are ultimately harmful to us.
8. Being Okay With Where You Are (November 2017) A yoga class and a botched board break teach me that it’s okay to be forgiving of myself and accept where I am and what I’m capable of doing moment to moment. (And you can do that too!)
9. Why I Teach (Even Though I Want Everyone to Leave Me Alone) (February 2018) I have a love/hate relationship with teaching and presenting, a skill I’ve cultivated both in the workplace and in taekwondo. I seem to have a knack for guiding, coaching, and inspiring people, but damnit, sometimes I just want to be quiet and not talk to anyone for a week. My blessing is my curse, sigh.
“Yoga is about being okay with where you are today,” said the teacher as we slowly worked our way through poses in a mid-morning class. I’m not sure the ancient Yogic scriptures included that in their philosophy, but hey, it’s a nice thing to hear on a Monday morning. I’ve been practicing yoga for twenty years, and have for the most part been totally okay with those days when I’m more wobbly or the decline in my flexibility over the years. I’m pretty chill with where I am, at least on the mat.
It was also a reminder that outside of yoga class and perhaps the workplace, I often am not okay with where I happen to be in a given moment, which keeps me unfocused, wrapped up in my own thoughts and the lies I tell myself, unaccepting and unable to let go, and unable to comfortably remain in the present moment.
I had a very profound moment of not being okay or accepting of where I was during my second dan test. Everything was going well: I had retained my balance and strength during a very difficult slow-motion kicking portion, put power and precision into my forms (and it meant a lot to me that my mom said I should compete in poomsae at future tournaments), executed my self-defense well (and kinda accidentally hurt my partner, but that’s what he gets for attacking me), and fought two bigger, stronger black belts without getting whacked in the head. Cool. I was going to ace this test.
We ended the test with my favorite activity, breaking. We practice breaking quite a bit in classes, but it’s a rare thing to actually get to break boards. I love breaking not even so much for the challenge and creativity of putting a sequence together, but let’s just face it, hitting shit is FUN. Breaking stuff is cathartic. Black belt promotion tests are years apart so unless there’s a demonstration, actual breaking is a very rare treat. I was beginning my sequence with a spinning knife hand strike followed by a punch. I had practiced this countless times and had successfully completed it at a demo last year. Yay! Let’s do this. I took a deep breath, wound up, spun around and–
The board didn’t break.
I was in shock that I didn’t get the outcome I was expecting, but I didn’t skip a beat and tried not to show my disappointment externally. I kept going, thankfully nailing my final break on the first shot, which was a flying roundhouse and the one in theory that was the most difficult. In the end everything was broken, there were shards of wood everywhere, and all was well.
Only in that moment it wasn’t. My mood dropped significantly, and I had to force myself to smile in the photos we all took after the test. Other than my breaking, I knew I did well, and I’ve known before the test that I had already earned that second degree with all the work and dedication I’ve put in over the past two years. My masters assured me that it was not a big deal and overall I had done a good job. On the way to lunch at my request for some “coaching,” my musician brother told me about a time he saw Billy Joel, one of his idols, make a mistake on national television. Billy just rolled his eyes and kept playing, and it helped my brother accept those times when he made mistakes in his own performances.
Not passing my test wasn’t the issue. I was disappointed that I didn’t perform at the level I expected, especially during my favorite testing portion. I wasn’t perfect, and I had a hard time accepting that. I was still able to enjoy a celebratory lunch (and of course Champagne and cupcakes) and a pleasant afternoon with my family, but my dampened mood nagged at me. I wasn’t okay with where I was that day.
I think my next big challenge and perhaps something I should focus my efforts on in 2018 is letting go of specific, “perfect” outcomes related to what I love the most: taekwondo and my personal relationships. Experience has proven that “letting go” and not agonizing over a particular situation opens up doors of opportunity to outcomes even better than I could have imagined with my limited knowledge. I care too much about certain aspects of my personal life, and all that does is cause me stress and pain.
I have mastered the practice of healthy detachment with my career, partially to keep myself from getting too stressed out about work and partially to spite society, which assumes that women who do not have partners or children MUST be married to their job and be absolute workaholics. I’m very good at what I do, like and respect my coworkers, care about my clients, have a fantastic work-life balance, and am happier with my job than I ever have been before. Just this year I got a big private office and the shortest commute I’ve ever had, plus twice the salary of what I made when I first started with my company…but I could walk away from it all in a heartbeat and never give that job or anyone related to it another thought.
It’s not that I don’t care about work. I’ve had plenty of moments of being upset, angry, or worried about work-related situations. But I don’t let those feelings overtake me or serve as a sense of purpose or fulfillment in my life. I love my job, but I don’t let work define me, whereas I seem to do the opposite with my personal life. I’ve made plenty of mistakes at work, but I’ve been able to brush them off quickly and remind myself that they don’t impact my overall performance.
If I don’t have work at least I still have my personal life, and perhaps that thought keeps my work detachment going. But if aspects that I value in my personal life go away or I fail or I’m rejected, I feel like I will have nothing. I’m holding on to those aspects so much that I can’t open myself up to the organic growth and opportunities that I’ve seen with my more relaxed take on my career.
I’m okay with where I am in my career. You could even say I’m content. I’m not always okay with where I am personally. Throw in one little metaphorical wobble to my personal life, namely taekwondo or the ambiguity of some of my personal relationships, and I panic. I feel lost and scared without the security of knowing that things will be okay, that I will still be accepted in my dojang and by the people I love. I berate myself for not trying harder and for supposedly disappointing the people I care about. I’ve put this same undue pressure on myself regarding my physical appearance since I was a teenager. Hell, I’m still underweight thanks to an intestinal parasite, but I habitually still look for flaws. “Thin” is such a an unfamiliar descriptor to me that I have a hard time attributing it to my physique. I’m holding myself and the rest of what I value in my personal life up to such impossible standards that the foundation threatens to crumble beneath me.
I can take disappointments at work in stride, and I long to have that healthy sense of detachment with my personal life. The fear of loss and the pain that it causes is unbearable. I never feel hatred or jealousy at work, and I rarely feel doubt. I can’t say the same for my personal life, and all that does is cause more pain.
Not breaking the board the first time wasn’t the real problem. Being so attached to things going my way was what made my mood crash when my expectations weren’t met. I’m so afraid of losing taekwondo or people I care about that I let the worry and fear overtake me before anything even happens. That causes more unnecessary stress and sometimes more mistakes.
I want to be okay and content with being who I am without those safeguards I’ve built into my personal life. I want to be able to not give them a second thought when they’re not needing my attention. I want to detach from everything and everyone in a healthy way.
Perhaps not breaking that board on the first attempt was the best thing that could have happened. It was a good reminder of where I am with the unrealistic standards I put on myself. No matter how I did at Saturday’s test, I’m still a black belt, and I’m still going to class tonight, ready to keep practicing…in a healthy, detached way of course.
Tomorrow, after two years of hard work and training, I test for second dan. The obligatory post-test Veuve Cliquot Champagne and cupcakes are chilling in the fridge. The dobok I will wear is clean and folded. For once I don’t feel the twinge of any lingering injuries. I feel prepared and confident in my skills and warmth and joy that my family will be able to witness this next step in my taekwondo journey.
Getting second dan has a more subdued feeling to me than getting first dan did. I can’t explain it right now and probably won’t be able to until I’ve lived in my new rank for a while (that is, if everything goes as planned and my knees don’t decide on sudden mutiny). Maybe it’s because I’ve been distracted by a busy month at work, or maybe I’m just more aware of what I’m in for this time around.
Our Grandmaster has said that you’re not really a black belt if you just test, get awarded the belt, and then quit, which is the fate of so many martial artists, especially younger students. Those students have performed color belt techniques, and that’s it. They stop before they even begin the learning process that comes with being a black belt. I am the only one from my “graduating class” who is still attending our school. When I got my black belt a lot of well-meaning people asked, “Now what?” as if that were the end rather than a spot on a continuum of training. I don’t think I’ll be asked that question this time. Most of the people I know have realized that taekwondo is an inherent part of my life. (How could they not, since I talk about it ad nauseam?)
Being a black belt has taught me so much beyond new forms or advanced self-defense techniques. It’s helped boost my confidence both in the dojang and in the workplace, plus patience, adaptability, leadership, and oddly enough, more compassion, especially since I take responsibility for the students I help guide and coach. When I’m facing a difficult task at work or in the dojang (and sometimes in those tough physical therapy workouts), I think, “Come on, Black Belt, you can do this!” My belt isn’t just something I wear around my waist a few hours each week. It has become a part of my psyche and identity. I’ll be a black belt for the rest of my life.
I’m excited about my test tomorrow and recognize it for the important event it is (and that Champagne tastes really damn good, so I’m equally excited about that)…but it’s just one event in that never-ending continuum. I’ll show up to class on Monday with the same big dumb smile on my face, eager to learn and ready to keep practicing. Eventually I’ll be a second dan, and I look forward to the journey.
[Warning: I was in a really corporate-y mood when I wrote this, so you’re getting a taste of Work Melanie’s voice rather than my usual silly, contemplative, self-deprecating Black Belt voice.]
I’m a learning and leadership development consultant, which in a very tiny abstract nutshell means that I listen, diagnose problems or needs, and help people make decisions and take actions that improve their performance on the job. As a bonus they very often end up happier too, which is my favorite part.
Since I’ve become a black belt and am nearing my test for second dan, I’ve seen many parallels between how leadership is managed where I work versus in the dojang. One positive point for the dojang (and an example I often use in the workplace) is how my chief instructor began grooming me for a leadership role before I even tested for black belt. That way I was prepared to adapt quickly to the new expectations and responsibilities of a black belt. That doesn’t always happen in the workplace, which results in leaders who feel overwhelmed and unsupported.
Another difference I’ve noticed is that in the workplace change or improvement is expected to happen with one shot: one meeting, one email, one workshop, one team building event. This year on two separate occasions I’ve had executives come to me after I’d already worked with their leadership teams to help address ongoing challenges. I was actually glad this happened, because it proved that you can’t expect change to happen overnight, no matter how fun or interesting or engaging the workshop/team building event was. My learning events didn’t “fail.” They were just a set up for longer term work, the beginning. So now I’m digging into their ongoing challenges and helping them better apply and practice the skills and concepts they learned earlier. It’s time to get real.
In the dojang, learning, practice, and application are blended seamlessly and are ongoing. Sh-t’s real all the time. If we are presented with a new concept that promises an improvement in skills or change in behavior, we can’t leave it at one demonstration and expect to see change. It takes ongoing practical application, feedback, and refinement. I still practice technique I learned as a white belt, and I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching and leadership skills. My instructors provide constant feedback, so I know where I stand in my performance. Just as a manager shouldn’t look at their new role as a stopping point, they should continue to learn, practice, and encourage their staff to do the same, just as a black belt does.
If you are a leader in the workplace (or your martial arts school of choice), you are responsible for implementing and supporting change, whether it’s a new process or a new standard of behavior. It requires not only daily practice from your team to develop a new habit, but it also requires you to practice your influential and strategic skills to ensure the change is successful.
Here are some ways to practice those leadership skills and be a black belt in your chosen field:
Support Are you providing support for behavioral change? Have you set clear expectations? Do your staff or students have the resources they need to do what you’re asking them to do? Are you thinking ahead to the finished product or event? Are you helping them overcome barriers? And are you seeking support from your own leader? (Unless you’re self-employed, ha.) I ask my instructors for help fairly often, especially with teaching. I’ve developed my own style of teaching and coaching, but sometimes I just pointedly ask how to teach something that I find confusing or difficult. Leaders need support too to improve their daily practice.
Rewards and Recognition
While you don’t want to reward an employee just for showing up and doing the tasks that are on their job description, make the time to point out when they’ve gone above and beyond. “Catch them in the act of doing it right,” as one of my coworkers can say. So often on teams leaders focus on the low performers and don’t give feedback to those who are doing well or far exceeding expectations. If we black belts chose to focus all our energy singling out the kid who’s doing it “wrong,” it would be discouraging and frustrating to us and that student, but also other students who would benefit from positive feedback.
Be specific with your positive feedback. Depending on the age of the student I’ll point out exactly what they changed and improved to reinforce the behavior.
Leaders like recognition too, whether it’s public or private. The other day my grandmaster corralled the black belts (who all happened to be first dans) together to work on our forms. Right after we finished Keumgang, he told us to turn and face one of the black belts. He had been spending extra time over the past few weeks with this black belt, chipping away at habits that needed to go and encouraging skills that were improving. Grandmaster praised that black belt for hard work and told us to applaud—literally. That was a nice feeling. I’m looking forward to a reward (that I will hopefully earn fair and square) after my second dan test.
Once you’re in a leadership position you don’t have to learn anything new, right? You don’t have to teach anything new because people should know how to do their jobs (or manage their own martial arts practice), right?
While you’re helping the people around you, look for ways to improve your own skills. Read, research, ask mentors, and above all practice. Practice will help you make your knowledge a habit and an integral part of who you are as a leader.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.