Little Black Belt is FIVE!!!

five fabulous

On April 15 my blog turns FIVE years old! Since April 15 is a Monday, and many people will either be either working or madly rushing to submit their income tax filings I thought I’d treat my readers to some weekend bingeing. Happy early birthday to the blog and happy reading to you…

Wow! Five years have gone by in a flash, and so much has happened in my life both inside and outside the dojang. What an amazing five years it’s been, and I am so thankful to all of you who have read, commented, and encouraged me along the way.

Usually for my anniversary posts I’ll pick my ten favorite articles from the past year…but since 2019 is a milestone year in more ways than one, this is going to be a MEGA BEST-OF POST, YAAAYYYY!

If you want to dig into the blog, I recommend checking out The Poomsae Series (all about forms) and also spend some time in 2016 and 2017, where I did a lot of writing and experienced a lot of growth and insight as a black belt. If you want to get depressed, read most of 2018 or just skip that and put on your Morrissey/Smiths playlist on a rainy day. 🙂

For your reading pleasure, I’ve selected five posts from each of the past five years. Enjoy, share, and enjoy some more. Thank you very much for your continued support.

2014 – The birth of the blog and my growth as a taekwondo color belt and practitioner.
The Big Bang of Little Black Belt – I kind of wish I’d named this blog TaeKwonDiva, but I went with the Little Black Dress joke. #noregrets (mostly)
I Traded Magical Thinking For Martial Arts – Reality never felt so good.
Can We Pause For a Change – My mom will probably get mad at me for saying this because she’s a private person, but one day she showed me a folded and well-worn piece of paper in her purse. It was the final paragraph from this blog post. I felt really touched that my writing meant so much to her that she would always keep it close.
Are You In? – Five years later, and my answer is the same. I’m in. Bring. It. On.
It’s Hard to be Depressed When You’re Doing Duckwalks – I’ve told the “stair step” anecdote many times in classes I’ve taught at work. Always get smiles.

2015 – The journey to black belt gets REAL!!
Power Trip – Do you stand in your power or do you shy away? Food for thought from one of the best yoga teachers I’ve ever had.
Final Color Belt Test – Savoring my last moments as a color belt before the new black belt journey.
Dragged Kicking and Screaming Into…Well, Kicking and Screaming – My former Master gives me some words of wisdom, and I reflect on where taekwondo has taken me. (And I’m still working on the book, you guys!)
I Tested for My Black Belt and Ate a Cupcake: Both Were Equally Glorious – Of course I have to include this post. Testing for black belt is a Veuve Cliquot kind of day.
I Am My Own Nemesis – The uniform in question by the Mooto company still pops like a freshly washed sheet on a laundry line. “Designed for maximum sound!”

2016 – Settling into being a black belt student and instructor…
Love Is Like Grape Soda – This might be my favorite post of all time, and it has nothing to do with taekwondo.
Why Do I Still Dread Sparring Class – This post continues to get hits and seems to be popular than readers. And yes, I still have a love/dread thing for sparring.
When You Know You’ve Found Your Tribe – A disappointing art exhibit (and a non-disappointing donut) made me miss the ones who mattered the most.
You Can Rest on Your Laurels, But Don’t Stay There Too Long – My musician brother’s take on success and continuous improvement
Black Belt: a Year in Review – It turns out the black belt test never really stopped

2017 – I recommend checking out this entire year. I had a lot of good personal/professional experiences and translated it into writing
Channeling Your Power – Makes me miss my days of teaching poomsae (forms), and it’s a nice call back to the “Power Trip” post in 2015.
Don’t Forget Where You Came From – We’re all still that white belt who never gave up, whatever “white belt” is to you.
The Best Birthday – This was seriously the best surprise I’ve ever gotten on my birthday, and it just happened to take place in the dojang.
You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For – Don’t wait for someone else to show up and fix things, rescue you, or make you happy. YOU are that person!
Being Okay With Where You Are – A hiccup in plans forced me to reflect on whether I really accepted….well…self-acceptance.

2018 – The crappy year that ended with a tattoo and beaten up hands, and I couldn’t have been more thankful for that.
You Know More Than You Think You Do (Nopei) – My favorite Master’s departure gave me the courage to forage my own path.
The Motto That Keeps Me Motivated (and Annoyed) – A poster I bought for my office gave me motivation when I wanted to quit in more ways than one.
Why I Got a Black Belt Tattoo – I got a permanent (and pretty!!) reminder of who I’ve become and what’s gotten me there.
Why I Left MyTaekwondo School – In case you were wondering, here’s the story…some of it, anyway.
I’m at a New Dojang! (And Have the Cuts and Bruises to Prove It) – The year started out on an incredibly stressful note, but it ended with a fresh start and lots of board breaking.

2019 – It’s been an awesome year so far. I got serious about a new hobby and finally connected with a different style of forms. I can’t wait to see what happens next!
When In Doubt, Go To Class – You all have that thing that puts you in the zone, in that right frame of mind. GO DO IT.
Taekwondo Never Leaves You – A post I started two years ago came back to haunt me in a good way. I’ve left taekwondo a few times, but it has never left me.
Being a Good Black Belt Is Being a Good Mechanic – Being a good black belt means you get to roll up your (dobok) sleeves, dig in, and PLAY!
When Starting Is More Difficult Than Finishing – This seemed to be popular with many readers. Looks like I struck a nerve!
When to Speak and When to Listen: What I Learned From Practicing Taekwondo Forms – Taekwondo forms are like performing Shakespeare and speaking beginner conversational Spanish…that’s my take anyway. During one solo practice in the dojang I learned a lot about how we interact and speak with each other without saying a word.

Thanks again for all your support! Let’s keep this going!

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Why Do I Still Dread Sparring Class?

sparring spicy food
This post features both empanadas and taekwondo sparring. What could possibly go wrong?

I like Wednesdays. If it’s a payday week I can log online as early as Wednesday to look at that Friday’s paycheck so I have something to look forward to over the next two days. Wednesday is a good day to stay busy and productive without the drudgery of Monday or the frantic rush of Friday. Most importantly, Wednesday is empanada day at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants.

Wednesday is also the day my dojang holds sparring class, and for some reason, I can’t shake the feeling of dread I’ve had around this particular class ever since I began training.

A little bit of history about my relationship with sparring: as much as I loved taekwondo when I trained in it as a child, I came to hate sparring and eventually taekwondo class itself. Each time I fought I was overcome with anxiety. As we sat along the sidelines of the imagined fighting ring I would try to shrink myself as small as I could and pray silently that my instructor wouldn’t call on me. I hoped the time would run out before it was my turn.

As a child I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt during sparring. I was afraid of being wrong. I was a sad and extremely self-conscious child and felt like ridicule and humiliation were always waiting around the corner. That fear and low self-esteem naturally bled over into taekwondo. I felt like if I didn’t do the right thing in sparring then I would be exposed as a fraud, a failure, a loser.

For the longest time, sparring felt like nonsensical improvisation. As a young taekwondo student what stressed me out the most was the panicked feeling of not knowing what to do next. I was technically very good, but when let loose in a sparring match, the thought of just “making something up” terrified me. That feeling of terror followed me into other ventures. For example, the days I hated the most in high school theater class were when we did improvisational acting. I couldn’t think of what to do next! It didn’t make sense!

I was also never good at improvising in music. Even though I’d been trained in a few instruments my technical, lockstep mind couldn’t deviate from pre-programmed actions. When I studied classical guitar, which is a skill that requires a high level of technique, I was able to play intermediate-level pieces fairly well, but ask me to jam around on a few chords? No way! My brain would freeze and then quickly melt away.

In retrospect I don’t think I really hated sparring or taekwondo class. I hated myself for not living up to my impossible expectations. As I grew older I hated myself for not being clever enough or popular enough or thin enough, which was one of the most destructive expectations I placed upon myself. It took many years and a lot of hard work to get over those feelings of inadequacy.

Fast forward to today: I love sparring when I’m in the moment. I get high off the racing adrenaline, secretly enjoy getting a little mean and nasty, and I even get so excited that I cheer on my partners with admiration when they hit me hard with a well-timed and well-executed blow. But I never can shake that sinking feeling I get every Wednesday afternoon.

Sparring exposes me. When I’m sparring I can’t hide behind my graceful skill in forms, my strength and speed when I kick a pad, or my knowledge of a self-defense techniques. It’s time to act and immediately apply what I’ve spent weeks and months and years practicing.  There is no time to ponder, analyze, or ask questions. When I’m sparring, it’s Go Time.

Although I know now that sparring is not just “making stuff up,” it’s taken me a much longer time to develop my sparring skills than it has with other taekwondo techniques. It’s also taken me a long time to shake that old self-consciousness that creeps in occasionally during a match; I thought I had defeated it for good. Up until close to the time that I tested for black belt, sparring was stressful, frustrating, and fruitless. I had not yet figured out how to look for patterns, use strategy, or quickly pull the appropriate kick from my arsenal. I’m still not there.

While I’ve gotten much better and feel more comfortable with it, I still often feel clumsy and slow when I spar, and that old self-consciousness bubbles up. These days, though, with my black belt perspective, it doesn’t stress me out as much. I see it as an opportunity to constantly learn and improve. My chief instructor once said that if I didn’t have a challenge I’d get stale, so it’s kind of a blessing in disguise that I still struggle in many areas, especially sparring. What kind of black belt would I be if I stopped trying once I got that coveted belt? Imagine how good I’ll be if I keep working hard and learning from trial and error.

As if the Universe knew I needed a break, this week’s sparring class gave me a reprieve from a hour of straight fighting and put me more into the coach/referee role. Several students are testing for their next belt level this week, so we spent the first twenty minutes helping the testing students with self-defense techniques. Then after a short sparring match with my usual partner, a girl who is bigger, stronger, and a lot younger than me and therefore always a good challenge, the black belts were asked to referee other students’ matches.

I still got a good workout. Chasing around (and artfully dodging) two big guys during their match definitely kept me on my toes. I felt a little bit like a mosquito flitting around two big male rhinos fighting on the African grasslands: I was trying hard not to get squished while still staying close enough to buzz around their ears and annoy them.

Coaching and refereeing is also an excellent brain workout. I have learned just as much about the art and science of taekwondo from helping other students as I have from my own instructors. In the workplace I’ve always known I’ve reached a comfortable level of conscious competence when I can (1) run the place or a project on my own and (2) advise somebody else on what they should do. It’s a similar experience in taekwondo: I try to use the objective lens I’ve honed from coaching on my own practice whether it’s trying out the sparring strategies I yell at the students during a match or using the refined techniques I preach to students as they practice a form.

Sparring class is still stressful and frustrating, and sometimes I secretly wish for a late afternoon work meeting or project that will hold me over, but I have a much deeper appreciation for what sparring has given me than I could ever understand as a child.

Fighting gives me a focus and clarity that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. It’s an incredible workout that keeps my heart and lungs healthy and my muscles quick an strong. Heck, just this week someone told me I was built like a “brick sh-thouse.” (For a 5’3” strawweight fighter, I suppose I am.) The constant challenge keeps me sharp and interested. The opportunity to coach and referee gives me the warm and fuzzy satisfaction of helping another person and the ability to learn more quickly.

So, despite the underlying anxiety sparring class always gives me, it has pushed me to improve further than anything else in taekwondo…but if given the choice, I’d still rather have an empanada.