The Poomsae Series Part 12: Taebaek, Or, Old is New Again

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I’m officially a second degree black belt now, and that means with a new rank I have a new form and a new addition to the Poomsae Series! Yay! Enjoy!*

“It’s like a recap,” my chief instructor said one day when we were discussing the second dan black belt form Taebaek. “Now you’re second degree,” he continued hypothetically, “So let’s make sure you remember all your old color belt forms.”

“More like a clip show like on TV,” I countered. “They’re too lazy to make new material, so they just put a bunch of random old stuff together.”

I was marveling at the fact that Taebaek, the form we at my dojang learn as a second degree black belt, seemed so much easier to learn and seemingly less complicated than the two first dan forms, Koryo and Keumgang (Some teach Keumgang at second degree, Taebaek at third, etc. We do things a little differently). I’d heard my instructor for a long time claim that Taebaek was a mash up of old Palgwe forms, but it never really resonated until I learned the form myself.

I actually learned this form last summer as a first degree black belt, and it all started as a joke wrapped in a dare. During class one night a second degree black belt, who always seemed to forget that he had to use the bathroom until about 10 seconds before break time was over, was absent from his spot in line.

“Go ahead, Melanie, fill in,” my instructor said, gesturing for me to take my place at the front of the class. “Now you’re second degree!”

“Cool! Does this mean I can learn Taebaek?” I giggled. To my surprise (and utter delight) he took me up on it about two weeks later and taught me and a fellow first dan the form. This was the first form I had ever been able to remember in its entirety the first day of learning it.

If this form is a clip show, it’s also a video game filled with fun “Easter eggs,” at least for certain taekwondo practitioners who still do the old school beautiful and complex Palgwe forms. It truly is a mishmash of a sweet new moves like breaking an arm, which is awesome, and many signature pieces of color belt Palgwe forms, which I know quite well. (I suppose it’s new to Taeguk practitioners. If you’re curious, look up videos of Palgwes Yuk Jang, Sah Jang, Pal Jang, and Oh Jang, and see if you can spot the shout outs.) Like Koryo, it follows the very familiar Palgwe sideways H pattern. Unlike Keumgang, it’s not a directional mindf*ck.

Taebaek starts out with a new move, a crossed knife hand block (I found it a bit drill team-y but went with it) followed by a familiar front snap kick and double punch. Okay, this is interesting. Then as you turn to the front–BAM!–the double knife hand high block/strike from Palgwe Yuk Jang. What!? YAASSSS, the form with flair! Okay, um, that was a pleasant surprise! Let’s keep going. There are a few more new pieces (and in slow motion too!) and then BAM!–the signature “crescent moon” double block of Palwge Sah Jang. Oooh, this is fun to revisit, and it comes with arm break, and a punch! Get it girl, let’s kick some ass in style!

Turning in a 90 degree angle and moving to the back is reminiscent of the block/spear hand combo in both Sah Jang and Pal Jang, and then oh snap, it’s that f*cking scissor block from Oh Jang! Aw, HELL no! I thought we were done with that awkward, needlessly complex blue belt form, but noooo, it just has to get in one more jab. Y’all, I can hardly contain myself. Maybe a nicer way to refer to this form than clip show is homage.

Although Taebaek pulls heavily from lower level forms, it has a freshness and sense of humor to it. It’s a reminder that you don’t have to turn away from your roots when you want to keep growing. What got you to first degree won’t necessarily get you to second or third degree, but you can still draw on your experiences. It’s an opportunity to add black belt understanding to color belt principles. You don’t have to do away with who you are. Continue to draw on your good qualities, and just, well, turn it up a notch.

[*I actually composed this article last summer, but I didn’t want to jinx myself and post it before I got second degree…and then I learned that it’s usually a third dan form at other schools, and I’ve learned that one too already, so the hell with it, I’m writing an article on the third/fourth dan form Pyongwon. Stay tuned…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice

Leadership Concept

[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.

Continuous Improvement

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?
Nope.
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.

You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For

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“You are who you’ve been waiting for,” the speaker said with joyful tears in her eyes as she addressed a group of leaders. My colleagues and I were hosting the final event for a program designed for talented leaders in our organization. Our last speaker was reminding them that the future of the organization was in their hands, and the time to act was now.

She had moved up through the ranks in the organization and discovered at one point that her success and her future rested squarely in her hands. New and a little unsure in one of her first leadership roles, she realized she had the opportunity to be the person she always aspired to be and that no one else was going to do the work for her. It was a scary but ultimately liberating feeling. She encouraged everyone in the room to not wait for anyone else to solve problems, make changes, or meet goals. We could all trust and believe in ourselves.

We’ve been told to dress for the professional role we want or “be” the person we want to date. I also recently heard the phrase “water your own grass” rather than always looking longingly over the fence at the metaphorical grass that is supposedly always greener.

That advice could also be ascribed to martial arts: Adopt a black belt mindset when you are a white belt. Develop the heart of a teacher while you are a student. Train your coaching eye while you are learning. Be the type of black belt you admire. Don’t wait for your next class. Begin now.

Sometimes it’s easier said than done to make that type of change when we are nagged by those pesky human emotions of doubt, fear, envy, anger, and attachment. Sometimes those feelings can be overwhelming, and it’s very tempting to be critical of yourself or of others. Sometimes I struggle deeply with those feelings although I choose not to share my pain with anyone–maybe denial is another one on the list, ha ha. It’s easy to blame other people or circumstances, and that doesn’t make you an inherently bad person. It’s just a natural part of being human.

…but…with a little self-compassion, patience, and practice (okay, a LOT of practice) you can begin to change your mindset from one of seeing the world as an adversary to seeing it as an ally. Focus on what you can do and control rather than what you can’t. Pause, observe without judgment, and find ways to get back on track when harmful emotions overtake you. Forgive yourself for not being perfect and doing what you “should” do or having what you “should” have. (I’m still working on that one.) You may not be able to change all the situations or people in your life, but you can immediately change your responses to them.

And isn’t that a wonderful feeling when it begins to take hold? Isn’t it awesome that the person who could change your life is looking out from the mirror at you? You don’t have to wait until the right person, opportunity, project, or amount of money comes along. Change and improvement can begin right now with you.

Water your own grass. Be the person you want to fall in love with. Wrap that proverbial black belt around your waist.

You are who you’ve been waiting for.

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

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

How to be a Martial Arts Leader Without a Black Belt

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

Don’t Forget Where You Came From

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At the end of Monday night’s class my chief instructor asked us what we thought a student needed to do to pass their next promotion test. It was a straightforward question, but everyone was a little stumped. The room was peppered with answers like “practice” and “come to class at least three times a week.”

Of course my mind drifted to adult learning theory: applying what they’ve learned and implementing changes in their technique. I knew that wasn’t the answer he was looking for, but I’ve been in the learning and development business for a while, and I don’t shut off that perspective at taekwondo. Thankfully he spoke up before I could say anything.

The answer my chief instructor was looking for was much simpler. He pointed out one of our long-time students. The student was an advanced rank, but he practiced all his forms every day before class, starting with the ones learned at the lowest levels. This student hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from, even as he inches closer to black belt. My chief instructor widened his eyes at us and planted himself squarely in the front of the training area.

“All you really have is a dyed white belt, whether it’s red, blue, black, whatever. You have to be a good white belt before you can be good at anything else.”

My chief instructor had an interesting perspective that I inherently “knew” but hadn’t meditated on in quite some time. Everyone in the martial arts world has heard the phrase (and seen the accompanying memes), “A black belt is a white belt who never gave up.” We can all rattle it off and have probably given that little nugget of wisdom to other students, but do we ever think about what it really means?

My last post was about a child who was right at the beginning of his taekwondo journey and taught me a lesson in grounding myself in the basics. It’s easy to get caught up in the more complicated (and to some, more fun) stuff, and it’s also easy to become complacent and even a little cocky…but when you think about it, everything we do stems from what we do as white belts—stances, blocks, kicks, and strikes. If you don’t master the basics they will come back to bite you later on, and it weakens your practice as a whole.

Besides taekwondo basics, the white belt mindset is something to consider revisiting. As I said in a post from 2014, “When you are a white belt your mind is open and your heart is humbled and ready for learning. You pay close attention to the new information you’re receiving and pour your efforts into practicing your new craft.” My inner white belt reminds me to maintain a simpler focus: what I’m learning, practicing, improving in this moment. I don’t need to worry about being perfect or ruminate on something that happened in the last class or admonish myself for not always performing at the level I think a respectable black belt should be.

I’ve been a white belt twice in my life—once when I was ten and brand new to taekwondo, and again when I was thirty-three and looking for a fresh start in more ways than one. Both times I was just happy to be in the dojang, no matter what I was doing or what I looked like. I loved learning new things and making time to practice. More responsibility and complexity comes with a black belt, but I will always be a student.

As an adult returning to taekwondo I desperately needed to change my life, and I knew in my gut I’d found the answer. Getting a black belt didn’t even occur to me at first. What kept me coming back was how learning and practicing in class made me feel, not the color of my belt. Of course I hotly pursued black belt later, but the real reason why I do taekwondo has never left me. When I test for second dan this fall I will do my best to keep an open, curious mind and an open, humble heart, just like a white belt.

Reflection: When can you use the white belt mindset in your life? Where do you need to slow down, refocus, and ground yourself?

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.