Being a Good Black Belt Is Being a Good Mechanic

Toolbox

If getting a first degree black belt is like passing a driving test, then being a second degree feels like learning to do your own oil changes and minor repairs. When you’re not “driving” you’re cleaning, prepping, trouble-shooting both with and without help, and making sure your “vehicle” is well-maintained and in good working order. You’re looking for long-term sustainability and reliability.

I’ve always been interested in the minute mechanics of physical tasks I have performed and, frustrating as they can be, have been drawn to activities that require fine-tuning and attention to physical details: swimming, dance, classical guitar, billiards (stay tuned for a blog post on that), and of course taekwondo. Once I get past the initial beginner’s clunkiness and the “click” sets in, I start to have some fun exploring and refining my technique. By taking a break from teaching and being a full-time taekwondo student (for the most part) I feel like I now have opportunities to dig into what I wrote about earlier this month: being a really damn good Second Dan. I’m very excited about it!

What I appreciate about the coaches at my new dojang is not so much that they can run a great workout (they do), but more so they take the time to point out details and explain the why behind  the movements. Wednesday I had a one-on-one kicking workout with one of the instructors. He had some ideas, and I had some ideas, and we collaborated on how to help me train and get better, namely on my back kicks and spin kicks. During our conversation I felt really energized to dig in and play with the mechanics of these seemingly basic kicks. How can I take them from a technique I learned as a color belt and make them advanced black belt-level precise and strong? How can minor shifts in my body, weight distribution, speed, power, and placement make big changes in my performance?

On Thursday another coach gave me some good feedback on choices I can make to improve my sparring. Instead of talking about kicks and punches, he talked about intellectual choices. He encouraged me to think about what kind of fighter I want to be rather than just reacting or thinking I had to match my partner’s aggressiveness or defensiveness (and factoring in age, energy level, habits, some go-to trusted moves, and the ability to “read” different partners). He likened sparring to a game of chess rather than checkers. I want to be a better fighter, and part of that is being a smarter fighter.

As a slightly higher ranking black belt I feel like I can’t rest on the laurels of passing that first degree test. Passing your first degree black belt test means you’re good enough at color belt techniques to move on to a higher level. Now I’m getting into the “why” of what I do and have set higher expectations for myself. I want to be very proficient at back kick to use in sparring, and I want to use jump back kick and spin kick for breaking. They need to be better, sharper, and more powerful than what we see at the color belt levels.

Refinement and mindfulness is not only for black belts. If you’re a color belt reading this, or even a white belt, begin your exploration now. Turn frustration into fascination and use that curiosity to make yourself a more proficient martial artist. You may be amazed at what you can do.

Sparring and a few particular kicks were just my focus for this week. I also have poomsae, self-defense (hapkido), defense against weapons, and overall conditioning. I think I’m fairly proficient and “acceptable” in my performance, but I don’t want that. I want to be the best damn Second Dan I can be. It’s time to break out all the knowledge and tools and expertise from others than I have and get to work.

It’s time to give this vehicle a tune-up.

 

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Don’t Let Your Future Get In the Way of Your Present

here and now

“Third Dan…”

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?

 

I’m at a New Dojang! (And I Already Have the Bruises and Cuts to Prove It)

sunflower

I’ve gone under the radar for a while both on my blog and in the taekwondo world. After I left my former dojang I needed some time to recharge, take care of personal things, and deal with a very demanding season with my job.

Now I’m ready to emerge from my self-imposed cocoon (well, after hiding out during the holidays) as a new black belt at a new dojang! I’m so excited!

I agonized over and plotted my exit from my old dojang for a long time. It felt similar to leaving a long-term job or a relationship that was enjoyable at one time but had now run its course and needed to end. I knew where I wanted to go and was told I was welcome there when I was ready, but I had to wait for the right moment to leave…no, scratch that, let’s be honest. I had to wait for my over-thinking, worrying brain to let go of self-imposed obligation I’d put on myself to stay.

I won’t rehash my thoughts around leaving. You can read about that in this blog post. Now I want to celebrate my new dojang and soon-to-be new taekwondo family. My new Master is female. In the few conversations I’ve had and classes I’ve attended I already respect her greatly for her business savvy and endearing mix of compassion and firmness as a taekwondo instructor. It’s pretty awesome to be at a female-run school when so much of the taekwondo world is still dominated by men. Most of the senior black belts are male, but there are a few up-and-coming ladies who already display strong leadership skills and dedication to taekwondo. Even though I don’t want to burn myself out too quickly (I’ll get to that later) I already feel drawn to including myself in that group of leaders.

The classes I’ve taken so far aren’t too dissimilar to what I’ve done in the past. Although the bread and butter of the school is competitive sport taekwondo (state, national, international competitions—the elite team is doing quite well), traditional Jidokwan style is also taught, right down to the same one-steps and hapkido-inspired hand-to-hand techniques that I learned at my old school. The kicking drills seem more roundhouse-based and front foot-heavy than what I’m used to, but it makes sense since they train Olympic-style fighters. (I still have Body Combat at the gym if I want to do a boatload of snap kicks, side kicks, and back kicks).

I have to learn all the color belt Taeguk forms since Palgwe is now practiced few and far between (and that’s what USAT wants to see at tournaments)…but…damnit, I find myself actually liking some of those forms. Taeguk 7 and 8 may even deserve their own blog posts in The Poomsae Series since I had so much fun learning them. I won’t forget or stop appreciating and practicing the Palgwe forms (plus my old school’s outliers Koryo One and Nopei), but I think I’m going to enjoy adding a new set of forms to my current repertoire of twenty-two forms.

Most importantly, there’s room for me to grow, which sadly I did not see at my old school, and that was the main reason for my departure. When my new Sabumnim introduced me to the first class I attended she added that I would be eventually testing for third degree. That seems like a viable prospect; it was not at my old dojang. I also have the opportunity to compete—not sparring, ha ha! But I can do board breaking and poomsae, which I love equally. Who cares if the Bullshido guys think that stuff is useful or not; there is nothing quite as cathartic as breaking stuff. Now I can set new goals and refresh the part of my brain that is hungry to learn, not just the part that practices and hones old techniques.

Like love or any other committed venture, I have to be cautious not to get too involved too quickly. That’s what burned me out pretty badly this year. January and February were miserable. I had over-committed myself (and had been invited since I’m apparently so damn good) to projects at work. Meanwhile I was spending nearly every day at the old dojang helping clean out years worth of stuff, lead sparse classes, and communicating with parents while we prepared for our move to the community center. I’m tempted to get involved in “everything” at my new dojang, but I know I need to pace myself. I did not attend Tuesday’s color belt test and don’t plan to attend every one in the future. I did, however, attend the new dojang’s end-of-year black belt test and ended up refereeing several sparring matches (and out-yelled the guys) and held for every testing student’s board breaking combination, which resulted in a number of bruises and cuts on my hands and a chipped manicure.

The Master was very grateful and seemed a little surprised that I showed up and got involved. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to sit there and do nothing, especially as a newbie and a higher ranking black belt. As one of the adults I feel like I need to step in and help when I can, and as a second degree-going-for-third I feel a sense of responsibility to lead and assist. New black belts have expectations of leadership and involvement, and that only grows as we grow in rank and age…but I don’t want to give all of my heart and mind and time too much too soon. I’m excited about my new relationship, and I want to enjoy every moment and new step of the process slowly, one piece at a time.

So…How Are You Doing With Those Taekwondo Tenets?

tenets_of_tae_kwon_do_by_artychick2009

Maybe when I had a lotus flower, symbolizing the characteristics of Jidokwan, tattooed on my arm I should have also had the common taekwondo tenets etched on there too:
Courtesy
Integrity
Perseverance
Self-Control
Indomitable Spirit

…cause I’m doing a crap job of them lately.

What we want the most is often what is just out of reach, and the more we chase it and try to force it into our hands the more evasive it becomes. I want a sense of calm and ability to stay present and also be slow to anger or judge. Apparently it’s Opposite Day, because for the last few months I’ve been a stressed out, short-fused, worrying grouch. EVERYTHING is serious and EVERYTHING is a crisis. I have good intentions to calm the hell down, but it’s been slow-going in the face of the real-life tests put in front of me.

I might not be training in taekwondo at the moment, but as I’ve said in previous posts, I am and always will be a black belt, which for me has as as many mental and emotional indications as physical. I didn’t get into taekwondo for the physical aspect. I wanted to get hold of my wily mind. I’ve gotten a lot better at it, but in times of stress I seem to revert back to some old habits.

I doubt my fellow martial artists are perfect at applying these tenets at all times. We’re human. We’re fallible. We slip up. The world can be a difficult place that breaks down our indomitable spirits. But it’s nice to have these guideposts in place.

So maybe this is the real test: how I conduct myself outside the dojang. Courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and having an indomitable spirit are not meant to be trotted out for belt tests or sparring matches and then be tucked neatly away. They’re in place to help us shape our daily practice and interactions with others both on and off the mat. Maybe self-forgiveness should be part of that guiding system too.

Let’s live the tenets in real life. Let’s use our black belt ability to pause in the face of stress, calm ourselves, and respond in a way that corresponds with our guiding values. I’m still going to have my bad days, but I’m going to use my black belt perseverance to keep trying.

Why I Got a Black Belt Tattoo

I did it! I got a tattoo! And of course I wrote a blog post about it!

My tattoo

Tattoo by Crashlee Ink at Ink187 Tattoo Company. Dinosaur shirt and bra strap sticking out is all me in my cool suave glory.

So…THIS happened on Friday. After many years of being fascinated by tattoos, months of gearing up the courage to actually get one, and weeks of planning with my tattoo artist, I am now the proud owner of this beautiful black belt tattoo. My tattoo artist was fabulous: patient, caring, as clean and cautious and precise as a surgeon, and a talented fine artist who brought my concept to life.

It didn’t hurt; at one point I felt pretty sleepy and zoned out like I do when I’m getting my teeth cleaned. Now as it heals it just feels like a minor sunburn. It helped that I psyched myself out with memories of my most painful physical therapy sessions and a recent eyebrow threading (ouch!!) to give myself some perspective on pain. It felt like a flu shot at first and then nothing. Seriously. I credit my tattoo artist with her light touch and the fact that my upper arm had enough muscle and fat to absorb all the stabbing…so much stabbing…so much…

About the tattoo itself: I didn’t want to be one of those white people with Asian lettering tattooed on me, but I suppose one can make an exception here since I study a Korean martial art. I wanted the belt to have some realism and not look like a flat “cause” ribbon (sounds terrible but you know what I mean). If I was going to get a taekwondo black belt embedded in my skin it might as well look like one. The Korean lettering on the left is my name, and the lettering on the right is “tae kwon do”….I hope. The lotus was chosen both to feminize the tattoo (I can’t resist a pretty flower) and serve as a sly shoutout to the symbol of the Jidokwan school of taekwondo, which is what I study.

Jidokwan_logo_red_blue_1

….This guy

The Jidokwan symbol of persistence is encircled by eight petals of what some sources say is a water lily and other sources claim to be a lotus. I’m sticking with the lotus for its connection to Buddhism’s Eight Fold Path (read linked article above for more details), which sounds great to me in theory although wrangling my tightly-wound and also unruly mind around the Path is sometimes very difficult.
One source states that the eight Jidokwan petals represent the “Spirit of Eight Manners of Justice:”
See rightly
Feel rightly
Think rightly
Speak rightly
Command rightly
Serve rightly
Have ability
Conduct with justice

….Church, I’m tryin’. It helps to have the reminder.

I didn’t get this tattoo just because I have a black belt. I could have done that three years ago when I was awarded my first degree black belt. I got this tattoo because I AM a black belt, and I wanted a permanent reminder etched into my skin for a number of reasons:

  1. I don’t want to take for granted what taekwondo has done for me, even if I have to stop training entirely at some point. I can’t take sole credit for the big successes I’ve had in the past few years. I did that with taekwondo. About eight years ago I started on a journey to heal some wounds, change some damaging habits, and make meaningful discoveries about myself. I had things along the way to help me, and I did improve, but when I returned to taekwondo in 2013 my progress SOARED. Taekwondo was the key to making overarching and long-lasting change. It gave me confidence, mental fortitude, strength in the face of adversity, perseverance in the face of challenge, and a really strong jump snap kick.
  2. I want a reminder that I can be a confident and capable badass woman. I have not always let people treat me well. Like most of us unfortunately I’ve been verbally and physically harassed by people close to me, by random strangers, by colleagues….I’ve watched other people I cared about be mistreated and didn’t step in to help. I’ve experienced and allowed this poor treatment as an adult, as a professional, as a taekwondo student, and even as a black belt. I was too quiet. I didn’t speak up or act out. Granted, most people I’ve encountered in life have been nice or at least neutral, but it’s really easy to be pulled down by those memorable assholes. I let the memories haunt me and shame eat at me. No more. The boundary is clearly drawn. Protecting myself emotionally and mentally is even more important to me than physically defending myself. I am making a promise to stand up for myself and for those I care about.
  3. Remember that blog post I wrote about “giving zero f-cks by forty?” I meant it, and damnit it’s HARD!! So hard I had a reminder inked into my skin! I want to be chill and content and let all the BS in life (and there’s a lot) just roll past me. I want to shift my attention away from situations or people that don’t give me joy towards those that do. That adrenaline rush in a sparring match, that cool feeling of resolve as I practice poomsae, the pleasure of watching a student do something well, the high I get and boundless sense of peace I feel from practicing what I love…I want to feel that all the time. I want to flow with life and not get too hung up on the past or the projected outcomes. I’m getting there. I’m making progress every day.

Shortly before my tattoo session I was texting with my mom. I didn’t know whether I was more nervous about the pain or the permanence. She replied:
“I got married to Dad and got pregnant with you and [your brother]. We all make things of permanence. Some are good and easy. But we have to deal with the decisions no matter what.”

I have made choices that have brought me sadness and success. For the most part, my decisions have created a pretty happy life for me.

I am a black belt in name and in spirit. I will never stop being a black belt, and I will never stop benefiting from what taekwondo has given me.

 

Falling Out of Love Can Be a Slow, Sickening Process

forever over.jpgThe first time I entered the UT Southwestern medical school library for a class in my library science graduate program, I KNEW IN MY BONES that I wanted to be there. I wanted to work in a medical library, and I was on FIRE.

And I did. After an internship at that very library and a year-long stint at an oil company I landed a job in the medical library of one of the largest hospitals in my metropolitan area. It was my dream job…until it wasn’t. After several years I realized that I had to leave. There were a number of reasons beyond my desire to leave that job, and out of respect for the company I’ll keep those reasons private. As much as I KNEW I wanted to work at UT Southwestern I KNEW IN MY BONES that I had to quit this hospital library job.

It was a heartbreaking realization and a yearlong process to find another job. I told no one other than my parents of my deep dissatisfaction and desire to get out. It was difficult to suffer in silence and alternate between the nervousness of changing to a new environment and the dread of staying where I didn’t want to be any longer than I had to. I didn’t love or even like my job, or the library profession itself, any more. I wasn’t progressing, and I knew I would stagnate and regress if I stayed there. But what would I do if I left that job? I got a master’s degree in that field so I could land a job like that. As much as I want to eschew profession as part of one’s identity, that job was a part of who I was.

Luckily I landed a job within the same healthcare company in the training and development department. It wasn’t easy at first. There was a learning curve and poor management (those people are no longer with the company). I wondered more than once if I’d made the wrong decision. I had zero experience in org/leadership development, but I worked hard to learn and carve a space of my own in that department.

Fast forward nearly eight years later, and I don’t regret it at all. I’ve grown up in that job emotionally and professionally. I developed new talents and skills and have flourished. I’ve had more opportunities and more exposure in the organization, and it has proven to be MUCH more lucrative than staying in the library world. (Hint to companies–pay your young librarians more. Maybe they’ll stay longer.)

I tell this story to make my point that falling out of love is sometimes a slow process with aching, ever-growing clarity. I didn’t hate my old career or anyone involved. No one did anything wrong to me. It just wasn’t a fit anymore for who I was at that time or who I knew I had the potential to be.

And that’s how I feel about my taekwondo school. I’m not in love anymore. I continue to go to class out of some lingering, dwindling sense of loyalty, identity, familiarity, and fear of political repercussions if I quit in a public way. I’m afraid to leave because of possible repercussions, but I am not growing. I’m bored. I don’t like the new location. My potential is stunted. I don’t see a “lucrative” future in terms of training and opportunities. There are other reasons for my dissatisfaction, but like my old job, I want to keep those reasons private out of respect for and privacy of the other people involved.

One could argue do we have to be “in love” with everything? No, of course not. A job is a job. We don’t have to all “follow our passions.” I like my job, but my main passion is paying off my mortgage. I don’t have to love taekwondo; it could just be an activity I do once in a while…but that’s not my history with it. I fell hard and fast. I was in deep.

I know this drastic change in my relationship to taekwondo has affected my mood and emotional waves this past year as I have withdrawn from my involvement in the school’s current version of itself. More often than not, I don’t look forward to going to class. I don’t care anymore. As a result (possibly), I get more stressed out and overwhelmed in general more quickly, and I’m on a shorter fuse. I let myself become more emotionally involved at work, which I detest because I’ve always enjoyed a relaxed sense of detachment from the more silly parts of the corporate world. I’ve lost a big part of my identity that has been such a positive force for the last several years.

I do have my moments of excitement and happiness. I enjoyed very much getting to lead a black belt test we held in April. I had a lot of fun with my fellow black belts and students this past week. Taking an old familiar taekwondo class and getting to wear my black belt and uniform is a lot different (and still more emotionally fulfilling) than the Body Combat class at the gym. Maybe I just need an extended break, like I took from work a few weeks ago…but I know that will just be a bandage over a larger, deeper problem.

But it’s just not the same. What we had for the last several years (our camaraderie, our shared goals, our school) is gone, and part of my challenge this year has been accepting that loss and finding the positive in what exists now. But do I have to accept it? Did I have to just accept that library job (and salary) and say, “Okay, this is my career for the next 30 years”? I’d like to think that I’m still a black belt and retain all the mental, physical (although that’s dwindling because my training is minimal), and emotional prowess that comes with it, no matter where I go or what I do in life. I’ll always be a black belt. But I might be a black belt without a home.

The Motto That Keeps Me Motivated (and Annoyed)

blackbeltuniform.png

I have a poster in my work office that reads, “A black belt is a white belt who refused to give up.” This is a popular phrase in the martial arts world, and it’s popped up a few times on my blog.

I’m kind of annoyed at myself for buying it. Every day it hangs over my head, reminding me of my power, potential, and the expectations set upon me, even on the days when I just don’t wanna.

I’ve had a lot of days lately where I “just don’t wanna.” I was pretty burned out personally and professionally at the beginning of the year. I feel like I’m finally coming out of that fog, but I’m not out entirely. All the while that stupid poster has been there, glaring down at me and reminding me that I can’t give up. I’m resentful of that. What if I do want to give up? I’m tired of having to be my own savior and champion and foundation…but here I am with my f-cking black belt.

The motto is also a reminder of my roots. As a white belt I was open-minded, eager to learn, and willing to take on challenges. You probably felt the same way as a new student or when you first started a new job. Lately as a black belt I’ve felt overwhelmed, jaded, and secretly toying with the idea of quitting. It’s helpful sometimes in class to revisit taekwondo fundamentals, skills we learned as white belts. Practicing simple blocks, strikes, and kicks has a calming effect.

In some circumstances  quitting, giving up, leaving, letting go are appropriate responses if it means choosing a new and better path. There’s nothing wrong with that. “Refusing to give up” sometimes means making a change or taking a new opportunity that takes one in a different direction. I don’t want to “quit” my current situations, but I am actively seeking a change.

What gets me through taekwondo classes and the work I’m currently doing is reminding myself of why I got involved in the first place and how much I enjoy helping people. What gives me hope is that the same discipline and determination I display in the dojang can help me take control and change other situations in my life.

So I’m going to keep the poster in my office. Every day it’s a reminder of where I came from and who I can be. It’s a reminder that if I’m not happy with my current circumstances I have the power to change them. I can control my responses, just as I do in the dojang.

We were all “white belts” at some point. What makes us black belts in martial arts or in life is the desire to keep learning, improving, making changes, and designing our own destinies.