The Poomsae Series Part 15: Learning Taeguk Forms and Accepting Corporate Bureaucracy

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It’s begun. I am learning Taeguk forms. Sigh.

A little bit of history about poomsae (forms): The preference for Taeguk rose alongside the focus of taekwondo turning to sport taekwondo, or Olympic style sparring. Stances are higher and shorter, and the movements are much simpler than the Palgwe forms. I also think some practitioners just didn’t want to associate with the similarity Palgwe forms had with karate and in turn the unpleasant history Korea shared with Japan. But what do I know.

I don’t like Taeguk forms, but it seems like the rest of the taekwondo world does, and if I want to continue my career as a black belt, instructor, and potential poomsae competitor I’ll have to put them into my repertoire at some point. I mean, white zinfandel is loved by lots of people for some reason even though it’s terrible. But it’s popular enough that I have to deign to walk by it in every grocery or liquor store. White zinfandel is cheap, common, but does the job if you need to get buzzed.

I need some more poomsae stimulation. The 22 forms I know just aren’t enough to get me high (We have an eight-pack of keebons my grandmaster created in case ya’ll are trying to count. Plus four black belt forms and the outliers “Koryo One” and Nopei). I’m a poomsae-aholic. I need that buzzzzzzz of a fresh form. Guess I might as well open up my mind and learn a whole new set.

The business of taekwondo is becoming more and more like a corporation. There are more hoops that coaches, referees, school owners, and instructors have to jump through. If USAT or Kukkiwon decides everyone is going to dye their hair purple and kick while standing upside down, then by God we’d better all do it, and for a fee we have the privilege to be certified in purple hair and upside down kicking. I know the intention is consistency, and we all appreciate that, but when does too much control in the name of consistency impeded individual talent?

And wouldn’t you know, I’m experiencing some of this encouragement to conform in other areas of my life. The department I work in has greatly widened its reach across my large company, and understandably, the powers that be are trying to systemize processes and standardize services. My little team of experienced and creative consultants can no longer make completely autonomous decisions in our little princedoms. Services we deliver must be approved, sanctified, and tracked. It makes sense, but sometimes the red tape can blind us to the immediate and unique needs of our clients.

On the flip side, I do appreciate a more structured approach to what my team does. I don’t feel pressured to say yes to every request, and I don’t have to create everything from scratch. I get what I bargain for by working for a large organization: a nice salary with great benefits, and I have to play along with the decisions that are made. I can live with that.

I’m pretty open about my Palgwe snobbery. #sorrynotsorry. Palgwe forms are intricate, beautiful, strong, and pretty badass when it comes to self-defense. I think Taeguk forms, on the other hand, are boring and unnecessarily illogical. Why yes, of course when I turn to face an opponent who’s coming at me from my blind left side I’m going to block with my BACK HAND while leaving my torso open even though my little right arm is too short to effectively reach whatever kick or hand strike is coming towards me. Oh my goodness it makes perfect sense. And I feel so stable in this walking stance, which one of my masters used to call “broken knee stance.” Why, I feel like I could kick or jump out of the way or…wait, no I don’t.

My students still do Palgwe forms at tournaments. Sometimes they win gold because technique speaks for itself no matter what style of form they’re doing (I’ve seen plenty of crappy snap kicks in both styles), and other times they are at the mercy and bias of judges who are openly anti-Palgwe. I’ve been told by other instructors, judges, and referees that we need to change our ways at our dojang if we want to have any chance of doing well at tournaments. For now though it seems we’ll be that rogue school sticking with Palgwe because (1) tradition, duh (2) they’re excellent for teaching self-defense (3) my Korean grandmaster has over 60 years of experience, so I’m good with his direction and (4) Palgwes look really cool, and I feel like a gangster when I go all out with them.

Okay, okay, I’ll give you this: I do find myself standing taller when I spar than when I’m doing other taekwondo-y stuff (but not with completely straight legs). And during sparring I do end up doing some weird instinctual blocking based on whatever is flying at my body or my head. But look, I’m 5’3” and have zero interest in nor the build for sport taekwondo. I’m looking for practical ways to beat the crap out of someone, and Palgwes provide a good opportunity to practice that. And when I’ve taught forms I’ve been able to make references between those forms and sparring on many occasions. But that’s just me, that’s just my style. I like the way I do things, and I’m good at it.

Same thing at work. Sometimes I go rogue. I can’t wait on my “USAT” to make a long drawn-out decision when I have “students” who need my help right now. I have to rely on what I know, what my strengths are, and what I think is best for the people I serve. But, as with the politicized realm of taekwondo, I have adapt to the balance of what I can do as a creative individual and what the needs and direction are of my organization. I have to rely on others rather than being completely independent, and I have to adjust to new processes. My ultimate goal is helping people through the work I do and making as much money as I can to support myself (hey, I’m an independent woman, and that involves looking out for number One)…so I can play nice. The work I do is not life-saving (I leave my clients to do that) so it’s not worth worrying about.

I can still be me, but I have to also be very good at playing the political professional game and drinking the “company white zinfandel.” (And as a side note, “drinking the Kool-Aid” is such a horrible, morbid, and overused reference. Real people died. Let’s lose that expression and stick with white zinfandel.) I’m looking at it as a learning experience, an interesting challenge, and something I might as well get good at if I want to keep up with the changing times.

So, Taeguk it is…in my living room…by myself.

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How Martial Arts Can Help You Succeed in the Working World

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It’s either this or punch a hole through the monitor.

I’ve been in the corporate world for roughly 15 years, and much of that time has been spent in healthcare. Taekwondo has been a major influence in how I carry myself, how I handle stress, how I communicate, and how I prioritize.

You don’t need to be in martial arts to reap its benefits and kick ass at work because I’ve done the work for you! I’ve compiled a list of articles that can help you successfully handle the ups, downs, challenges, and changes of the working world. Enjoy!

Communication and Teamwork
Learning to Be Human
How Punching People Made Me More Empathetic
Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two
How I Would Teach a Taekwondo Class: a Parody

Change
The Poomsae Series: Koryo, or, Managing Change Like a Black Belt
Closed Door, Open Window: How Adversity Can Hone Adaptability
Can We Pause for a Change?
What’s Your Span of Control? The Answer May Surprise You!

Conflict and Stress
Sparring Multiple Partners
Guest Post: How Martial Arts Can Help Reduce Work-Related Stress
When Life Takes a Swing at You
Don’t Be So Defensive—Unless Somebody is Trying to Punch You in the Face

Leadership
To Lead or Not to Lead
What I’ve Learned from Coaching Children and Business Leaders
True North
The Jyo Kyo Neem’s On You: First Days as a Black Belt

Prioritization
It’s All Cookies and Crackers
In Defense of Complacency
Defending Your Work-Life Balance
Why I Chose to Pursue a Black Belt Instead of a PhD

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.)

Sparring Multiple Partners

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Ohhh…crap, I didn’t think this through.

“Black belts, get up and make a line in the center of the room.”

During sparring class that’s my chief instructor’s cue for us to line up and let the lower ranking students take a stab–or well, I mean punch–at us. For a while he would assign one student per black belt, but lately he’s been assigning two students to each black belt for two-on-one sparring. If I get the little kids, it’s more funny than anything else, and I spend half my time coaching them on how to get me rather than really fighting them.

It becomes more serious when I’m matched with partners my size (or larger, which is often the case since I’m fairly small) or worse, with other black belts. The larger partners have more brute force, and the black belts fight smarter and know how to work together.

The basic rule of fighting multiple partners is to not let yourself get between them. If they trap you from either side it’s very dangerous unless you’re Liam Neeson, and then it’s just bad for the attackers. What I’ve learned to do is always keep the attackers in more of line so at any point I’m only facing one. I don’t let them corner me on either side, of it they do, I go after the closest one and fight my way out of the tight spot.

Seeing as I’m not Liam Neeson or Uma Thurman’s character from “Kill Bill,” I really don’t do a lot of offensive moves when I’m sparring multiple people. Even in a controlled environment like a taekwondo dojang, sparring multiple attackers takes on a scarier and more primal element. I can’t waste time seriously fighting one person if another one is creeping up on me. I just have to stay on the defensive, block like mad, and run like hell. If it were a real life situation I wouldn’t be doing roundhouse kicks anyway. Hide your eyes, hide your kneecaps, hide your crotches, cause I’ll be gunning for them.

While I’ve gotten used to the concept of sparring multiple people in taekwondo class and always am aware of it as an unfortunate possibility of it happening on “the streets,” I found myself in that situation in a very unexpected place, and it was more unsettling than any physical fight. I won’t say exactly where, but it’s a place where I usually feel safe, respected, and valued.

During a gathering of people I normally got along with well, one person questioned the way I was doing something and suggested that I do something differently. I understood their argument clearly and was ready to respond that I agreed and would be happy to change course as long as I got some suggestions…but I never got that chance. Instead I got a repetitive filibuster directed at me rather than to me.

Then other people joined in, talking about me rather than to me, even though I was in the room looking at them dumbfounded and unwillingly silenced. Granted, it was not personal insults or harsh criticism, but they would not show me the respect of being quiet for two seconds and letting me respond. I actually agreed with them and was ready to say, “Yes, I see your point, and I’ll go along with that if that’s best for everyone. Let me make arrangements to change plans right away,”but apparently that would have been too simple and straightforward.

What could have been a 5 minute conversation turned into a whirlwind of anxiety-ridden arguments and hijacked conversation threads that pushed me further and further away from my opportunity to respond. It was humiliating, demeaning, and has severely damaged my trust with many of the people involved. The irony wasn’t lost on me that I saw a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” last week.

And so I found myself unwittingly having to spar multiple attackers. I silently reminded myself to stay cool (all the while hearing my chief instructor’s voice in my head saying, “Don’t let it escalate”) and look forward to an evening of taekwondo class where all of this nonsense would be forgotten.

I realized after thirty minutes of everyone talking over each other (except for me, to whom the original question was directed at) that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise (or in the TKD world, that would be a punch or a kick) so I’d have to just go on the defense, block as best I could, and run like hell before they started jabbing at me from all sides. I kept my eyes on my “partners” and waited for an opening to say something along the lines of, “Enough. We’re good. Everything’s cool,” just so we could call the match and get out.

What I learned from this incident is that your best strategy for fighting back may not always go as planned. You may be blindsided. There may be multiple attackers. They may have weapons. They may be people you know. You may have to just do what you can to get yourself out of harm’s way, heroics be damned. Don’t get between them. Get out of the way and protect yourself as best you can.

After my harrowing escape I received an online message from my brother. He had watched a video that one of the taekwondo dads posted on social media. In the video I was kicking hard, fighting harder, and smiling with pride and joy in the place where I am happiest with people I look forward to seeing all day.

“It’s very cool,” his message read. “You look like a badass.”

That’s right. I AM a badass. I know who I am and what I value. And I now have a clearer picture of who’s got my back and when I need to be watching out for wolf packs.

Do Something Already! What to Do When You’re in Analysis Paralysis

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Wait! I need to think about this!! Can I make a pros and cons list? Does anyone have a flip chart??

If the opponents in a taekwondo tournament sparring match don’t engage with the first 5 seconds, the referee commands them to “Fight!” After 10 seconds of inactivity one or both of the competitors could receive a penalty.

There could be many reasons for the competitors’ inactivity: fear, lack of experience, or nerves.  Other times, though, the competitor may simply be trying to make an informed decision. They may have the feeling they need more time to properly size up their opponent and make a decision about how to attack. They may be running through their mental Rolodex of moves before striking the first blow. While being mindful and strategic can benefit fighters, becoming too entrenched in wondering what to do next and analyzing every choice can stop them in their tracks.

I’ve seen plenty of taekwondo students slow down or completely freeze in fights, and I’ve done it plenty of times too. I’ve also seen it many times in my professional life: people become so entrenched in planning a new project or process or making a decision that they drown in the “what ifs.” They don’t trust their instincts and continue to pick at and question their initial choices. I have seen projects and programs that were on a good track for implementation run the risk of disintegrating before they even started because the people involved (or the people in charge) became fearful and began to doubt their direction. They shoot down their hard work before they even try it.

There’s nothing wrong with asking questions and analyzing a situation to address or a choice to be made. In fact, being inquisitive and creative is often the key to the solution you need. Being flexible and adaptable are characteristics of success. However, when anxiety about trying something new or clinging to constant change to avoid making a commitment comes to the forefront, then the project, solution, or decision falls flat and fails before it even gets started.

So what are we to do when we are frozen in “analysis paralysis”?
1. Ask clarifying questions
…and know when you’ve received enough information to get started.
2. Determine the impact: will it matter tomorrow, 6 months, or a year from now? If the answer is no, jump in and fight. If the answer is yes, give it more consideration, but be brave enough to do something and have confidence in your choices.
3. Create structure. Can you break the problem or project into smaller and perhaps more attainable goals? Can you put things into categories? Can you map out the process you need or make a list of the necessary resources? Do anything you can to make order out of chaos.
4. Stay true to your objective. Why are you doing this? What is your ultimate desired outcome? Ground yourself in your purpose.
5. Pick something and go! I used to cheat at “Choose Your Own Adventure” books to get the outcome I wanted. I made a mistake, so I backtracked and tried something different. In most cases you can try again if you mess up. In many cases–not all, let me be clear about that–the consequences are not as dire as you think they may be. Putting up a good fight is better than not fighting at all.
6. Bonus: When in doubt, slide in and do a hook kick at their face…or at least that’s what I like to do.

I think I’ve become more mindful and strategic both as a fighter and as a professional. It’s been a slow process that’s taken years of work, but I feel the difference, and other people have noticed it. When I’m sparring I take a quick assessment of my partner’s age,  body type, rank, and my past experience with them. Then I just jump in and fight, observing along the way, repeating what works well, and changing course if something doesn’t work. The only time I really slow down is when my body starts to burn out with exhaustion. Lately in the conference room I’ve tried to use the same mindset: do a quick assessment, brainstorm solutions, pick one, and go while learning along the way. So far it’s served me well.

Be logical, practical, and most of all be proactive. Jump in. Do it. FIGHT!

To Lead or Not to Lead

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Ugh, sorry, this is going to be a post full of corporate speak, in which I am unfortunately fluent. Consider yourself warned…

When I’m not moonlighting as a ninja I am an organizational development consultant. Lately a big part of my job has been dedicated to a program geared to develop high potential leaders for greater responsibilities and higher roles in the organization. It made me think about one’s potential to lead as well as one’s desire to lead. The opportunity to lead doesn’t and shouldn’t have to only reside in the workplace. In fact, those of us who don’t want to be leaders in our day jobs are sometimes surprised to find we have the potential to lead elsewhere.

During a casual conversation with my director a few weeks ago he asked me if I was still not interested in going into leadership. I’d made that comment during a team meeting a few years ago, and he wondered if I still had the same feelings. He and I are about the same age but have very different ambitions and chosen career paths.  Leadership suits him. For me it’s a different story.

“Yes I feel the same way,” I replied. “I’m very happy doing exactly what I’m doing—helping people learn and improve. I don’t want to be a manager, but I do want to be a black belt. That’s where I’m a leader.” I gave him a big confident smile as I rested the flat of my palms against the table.

Oh, I can hear you ask while wringing your hands, don’t I want to even try a leadership role? Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do after following the lifescript of going to college then graduate school then joining the corporate ranks? Isn’t becoming a manager the only way to advance my career and do fulfilling work? As an educated, financially independent woman with good career history is it not my duty to America’s girls everywhere to lean in??

BIG OLE NOPE. It’s not like I’m some spring chicken fresh out of college who doesn’t know what they want yet. I know exactly what I want—I want to help people learn and develop and improve their lives and their happiness.  That’s it. I did that in my last career, I’m doing it in my current career, and I want to do the same thing in the future even if it’s an entirely different profession…just don’t make me be the manager. I don’t want to deal with budgets, managing people, or setting the company’s strategy. I’m not interested. Leadership isn’t for everyone, and I know I don’t have the talents, skills, or desire necessary to be successful in that role…and that’s perfectly okay. Having a leadership role is not and should not be the only marker of success in one’s professional life. Some people want to be the CEO. I would rather coach the CEO.

While I don’t want to be a leader in the corporate world it turns out my desires are different in the dojang.

From an OD perspective (and the very limited eyes of a color belt) I’ve observed how leaders are developed through the taekwondo ranks. It’s a mix of expectation and opportunity, and unlike some organizations that spring leadership on unsuspecting employees, our instructors start grooming us very early so by the time we reach higher ranks we’re not overwhelmed the first time we’re asked to lead drills or teach a form. Too often top performing individual contributors in the corporate world are “rewarded” with management jobs that they have had no preparation for, lack the propensity for it, and sometimes have no desire to be in that role but feel obligated to take it on since it may be (in their minds) the only way to advance.

In our taekwondo school it’s expected that you help out your fellow students, and the expectation becomes greater the higher you go in rank. Even if you’re only an orange or yellow belt you can help a white belt. I haven’t even reached first degree black belt and already I’ve been asked to take on little snippets of leadership: leading warm-ups and drills, coaching individuals or small groups, teaching techniques that I learned several belt ranks ago (with the underlying expectation that I remember EVERYTHING from white belt up), holding pads and coaching during kicking practice, refereeing during sparring, plus the everyday role of setting a good example by showing respect, being quiet and attentive, and working hard. I can just as easily be a positive influence to the young girls in my class when I confidently and aggressively kick the crap out of a focus pad (or another person, which is even more fun) as much as I could by climbing the corporate ladder.

As for the desire and potential to lead in the dojang, I don’t think it lies in every student, but it can be cultivated….as long as they’re willing to do the work. When leadership is forced upon someone unwilling or just not ready (in the corporate world, dojang, or anywhere else), the result can be disastrous.

I’m not sure why the inherent leadership in being an advanced color belt student and eventually a black belt is so appealing. I’m certainly not getting paid for it. It’s not an ego trip. I don’t feel a surge of power when I shush little kids waiting in line during drills. I can’t speak for my classmates, but once I got a taste of how good it feels to help another student I wanted more and more opportunities. Sometimes they’re given to me, and sometimes I look for them myself. The expectation of advanced students to help lower ranking students is so set in our little dojang culture that the instructors will get onto us if we don’t say anything helpful to lower ranking students during practice.

Just last night I found an opportunity to coach and lead. We were doing breaking practice, and I noticed one little boy who didn’t have anyone to hold a pad for him so he could practice. This little seven-year-old is typically sullen and never seems to want to do any work much less be in class. He looked listless and bored, so I grabbed a practice pad and had some one-on-one time with him. We spent a good ten to fifteen minutes working on his breaking technique, and the kid has a knack for flying snap kick. Who would have known? I coached him, praised him, gave him feedback, and even made him laugh a little. He got braver and wanted to try a jump spin kick, which is a very difficult kick for anyone at any age. By the end of the class he was beaming and out of breath from his hard work. That boy’s smile meant just as much to me as my successes and accolades in the workplace.

It’s never about showing off how smart or talented I think I am. I just love what I do and want to help others get better. My job as a black belt won’t necessarily be to have the highest kicks or to beat everyone at sparring. I will be expected to bring out the potential in others. Perhaps that is the essence of the cheesy corporate buzzword “servant leader.” In the case of taekwondo, it actually means something.