What I’ve Learned From Coaching Children and Business Leaders

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2016 has been my year of coaching. When I’m not yelling and punching stuff, I’m a leadership development consultant for a large healthcare organization. A large part of my job is coaching clinical and non-clinical leaders and a select group of physicians. I help them set goals, solve problems, guide them through decisions, provide feedback, and most importantly, I help build their confidence.

Meanwhile I’m continuing my black belt studies, both my own practice with such things as new forms and advanced self-defense, and also learning how to teach and coach other students. My instructor had been calling on me to help out since I was a bo dan, and now that I’m a black belt, the expectation is higher. At any moment I may be asked to help demonstrate a drill, teach a small group of students, referee a sparring match, coach students at a tournament, or do whatever else is needed. While it’s in the black belt’s job description, I also consider it my way of giving back to a community that’s been so supportive of me.

Is it possible to find a common thread between the leadership coaching I do during the day and the taekwondo student coaching I do in the evening? It’s one thing to scream, “Block and counter!” at a nine-year-old during a tournament sparring match and quite another to ask a physician what challenges she thinks she’ll face as she manages a high-profile hospital project with partners who are spread across a large metropolitan area…or are they more similar than I think?

In both instances I’m developing leaders (either future executives or future black belts). One of these days I know those in my care will have to go out on their own. Maybe they will someday be overseeing the opening and staffing of a new hospital, or maybe they will someday be overseeing other students in the dojang. I can’t fight their fights for them, whether in the sparring ring or in the boardroom, so I need to prepare them to branch out on their own.

I’ve identified some universal tenets we can use when developing leaders, regardless of age or level of skill:

1. Compassion. Everyone has vulnerabilities. A leader in charge of a half million dollar budget is under immense pressure, as is a child competing in her first taekwondo tournament. In either case I consider myself a caregiver and try to be sensitive to the individual needs of whomever I’m working with. You can push and stretch someone while still being kind and empathetic.

2. Listening and Observation. People need an objective gauge for how they’re doing. Focus, listening, and observation are crucial for giving meaningful feedback. I am using the same focus when I’m listening to a business client talk about their career goals as I am when I’m observing a taekwondo sparring match. I’m not waiting for a chance to speak and show off how smart I am. I’m focused on what they are telling me (and what they’re not telling me) and how I can help them based on my observation.

3. Customization. While you may choose to follow a standard coaching approach for multiple clients (or students), the individual needs and learning style of each client should be considered. I’m reminded of the categories in Dr. Paul Hershey and Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model. Some people need specific direction (“telling” or “directing”) while others benefit more from being guided to make their own decisions (“coaching” or “delegating”). In some instances, through inquiry and discovery, I can guide my client to make their own decisions about what they need to do to improve their performance. In other instances, say, with young children in a sparring match, I need to be more directive, scream something like, “Back kick!” or “Hands up!” and move on without explaining the “Why?” behind the motion.

4. That Extra Push. Think of coaching as tandem skydiving. It’s scary as hell, but you know you’re in the safe hands of an expert who has your best interests (and hopefully your safety) at heart. Many of us have made the most improvement when we’ve been pushed beyond our comfort zone. The encouraging words of a boss, teacher, family member, friend, or trusted coach can make all the difference. It’s a little scary to jump off the proverbial edge, but the payoff can be incredible. A good coach is willing to support a client or a student through every difficult step…and then shove them off the edge.

5. Praise! People of all ages respond to encouragement, and research has shown that performance improves when positive feedback is given more frequently and at a higher ratio than criticism…not that constructive criticism isn’t crucial, but constantly hearing, “Don’t do this” and “Don’t do that” and “You did that wrong” can make a person become weary and discouraged. Smiles, words of encouragement, acknowledgement, and even hugs can go a long way. Reward people when they do it right and kindly correct when they do it wrong. (Except in those instances where someone REALLY deserves push-ups.)

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The Six Month Long (and Counting) Black Belt Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eight Unexpected Things I Learned From a Taekwondo Tournament

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Y’all know this is your favorite part of watching a tournament. Boom!

Recently I had the privilege of coaching some talented kids at at taekwondo tournament. Thankfully my chief instructor has given me many opportunities to teach and coach in class and at other competitions, so I felt prepared. What I didn’t expect were some of the things I would learn from the experience:

  1. Relax and enjoy the ride. There are delays. And then there are more delays. There are discrepancies in judging. There are panicked searches for misplaced equipment. There are more delays. It’s best to just settle in and get ready for a very very very long day. Patience is key, and humor is a sanity saver.
  2. You will become a “kid person,” whether you naturally are one or not. I’m not naturally a kid person. I wasn’t even comfortable around children when I was a child, but somehow in class and at tournaments my mothering instinct kicks in, and suddenly I can relate to the kids from my own school and even kids from other schools. I’m protective, I joke with them, I enjoy teaching them, and I’m very proud of them. I learn from them every day…and then I hand them back to their parents.
  3. I’m a taekwondo purist, i.e., I can’t deal with demos. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in full support of taekwondo demo teams. I certainly couldn’t do half the things they were doing…but I just couldn’t reconcile the drill team type of dancing and overuse of the song “Gangam Style.” If you want to do a demo give me some well-coordinated blocks, some kicks, some breaking, some self defense, and a few well-placed yells and I’m good. It can be done very well without the cheesy music, the goofy dancing, and for heaven’s sake, the FREAKING RIBBON TWIRLING. Otherwise get back to the regularly scheduled tournament. I wanna see someone get kicked in the head.
  4. You will be on the edge of your seat. Who’d have thought grade school kids would have me gripping my chair and staring wild-eyed like a madwoman. We had two tie breakers with both our little green belt star students: one of them had to do his form three times against different kids before he was awarded a well-deserved gold. Another, after two rounds of dealing with me screaming at him to “Get in!! Stay close!! Do combinations!!” finally won the sparring match with a tie-breaking point. Whew! That made my entire week.
  5. Sportsmanship is classy, and bragging is trashy, no matter the sport. Humility is a tenet of martial arts. Most of the time this is maintained throughout a tournament, and sometimes it’s not, and that is truly disappointing. Anyone who raises their fist and does a snotty little cheer after scoring a point in the middle of a damn sparring match deserves a well-timed kick to the chest. A true martial artist practices grace and respect, even in the heat of competition. Life is too short to be a jerk. We’re all in this big sparring match called “life” together.
  6. Your students will surprise you. Some competitors crumble under pressure. Some rise to the occasion. I am always amazed at their determination and ability to tap into their taekwondo spirit and do things I’ve never seen them do before.
  7. You will surprise yourself.  You will find yourself being present and entirely focused on another person rather than being caught up in your own thoughts, worries, insecurities, or doubts. There’s a special kind of joy in watching others work hard and succeed that keeps me energized for hours.
  8. A hot dog from the snack bar tastes like manna from heaven if you’ve been pacing around exhausting yourself all morning. This needs no explanation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reluctant Role Model

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My boyfriend, a former collegiate wrestler, took taekwondo many years ago to add some striking training to his repertoire; this was in the days pre-dating the prevalence of MMA gyms. He claimed that as a green belt he once received a kick to the face from a black belt that resulted in a nasty gash above his eye. Accidents happen during sparring, and I’ve had a few near-misses on the giving and receiving end. This black belt, however, was not exercising the restraint expected of higher-ranking belts when sparring with someone of a lower rank. He was going all out. As I’ve moved up in the ranks an interesting aspect of training has been a shift in mindset from being solely focused on my own training to a sense of responsibility for the rest of my little dojang community.

I never thought I’d use the phrase “getting too big for your britches,” but I feel like saying that to a young red belt who is getting just a little too arrogant and forceful during sparring. On one hand I want to encourage her to use all the scrappy girl power she has to be a strong fighter. I wish I were as aggressive as she is, and I’m proud of her for her strength and courage. On the other hand I’m concerned about her lack of humility and respect for lower ranking students.

More than once I when I have refereed her and a partner I’ve had to yell at her to stop the head shots (she’s WAY too young to do them, and her partners are too young to receive them, even if she has the capability) and quit making provoking comments to her sparring partners. After she knocked her partner, a blue belt boy, to the ground twice, I told her to back off on her impressive but a little too aggressive front-foot side kicks and explained that it was OK to be tough, especially in competition, but part of her job in class was to help lower ranking belts learn, not try to kill them. I had stopped the fight to give her partner some pointers about how to keep his balance so he wouldn’t be knocked down again when she suddenly reached over and shoved him in the center of his chest gear while I was talking. “Don’t do that again,” I growled firmly, and by the look on her face she knew that I wasn’t just her buddy in class anymore.

Meanwhile as I kept my eye on little miss red belt I quietly praised a serious young preteen who is normally a tough fighter but was extremely gentle and sweet with a tiny girl who barely stood taller than his waist. Every kid has a different level of emotional and intellectual maturity. If I were a grade school teacher I would jump out the window.

That same evening my instructor asked the young girl to referee a match. Usually he reserves that for the high-ranking adults and teens. I was curious about his motivation. Was it because there were only two other adults in the room and we were outnumbered by the kids we could supervise? Was it because he wanted to give her some exposure to the responsibilities of a higher-ranking belt during sparring class? Or was it because he wanted to put her in a slightly uncomfortable position where she actually had to use her higher ranking intellect, not just rely on brute force and bravado? She suddenly turned quiet and hesitant. He firmly commanded her to pay attention when she fumbled and was slow to follow his instructions. He shined the spotlight on her hidden insecurities and weaknesses without belittling her. Coaching and refereeing requires a completely different mindset than individual training does, including being able to apply the knowledge of technique, the ability to quickly provide constructive feedback, and having a bit of emotional intelligence when working with timid, frustrated children and self-conscious adults. That’s a lot to ask of a kid, but she signed up to learn taekwondo, and helping other students is part of the deal.

But in the end…she’s a child. While I could say she needs to recognize that the responsibilities of higher-ranking students go beyond focusing only their own technique by helping other students, the lesson was not lost on me about MY responsibilities as a high-ranking student and one of the adults. Like it or not, I am a role model to the young girls in my dojang. My responsibility is not just to help her walk through our forms together before class, but to set an example for her of how a black belt candidate is supposed to behave. My responsibility is to follow the lead of my instructors in the way I treat my classmates and to remember that ultimately I am there to lift my classmates up and help them learn in addition to my own practice. One of these days that young girl will figure that out on her own, but until then it’s my duty to be her guide.