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?

 

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Guest Post: 4 Tips to Becoming a Better Martial Artist in the New Year

Check out my latest guest post from the martial arts travel site BookMartialArts.com:
4 Tips to Becoming a Better Martial Artist in the New Year

I’m not into New Year’s resolutions, but I am all about self-awareness and continuous self improvement, which can happen at any time of the year. Start out 2017 right with a renewed commitment to your practice. Even if you don’t do martial arts these tips can help you set and achieve goals in any area.

2017

 

Looking for a great way to lower your stress levels? Why not sign up for an affordable martial arts training camp? From Taekwondo to Krav Maga, BookMartialArts.com has camps on various types of martial arts disciplines to choose from!

Are You Driven By the Process or the Project?

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My mom is a prolific knitter. She always sewed, crocheted, did needlepoint, but ever since she retired she really took off with knitting. Mom loves it, and I have drawers full of pretty scarves, shawls, and gloves as a side benefit.

Recently she told me about the concept of being a “process knitter” versus a “project knitter” and determined that she is most definitely a process knitter. She likes choosing a new pattern (the more challenging, the better), hunting down the right yarn, selecting the needles, and working through the mathematical process of following the pattern and watching it gradually transform into a finished product. I suppose there’s a meditative aspect to it too. Once she finishes a project she’s ready to move on to the next one and begin the process again.

It made me wonder whether I am a process-driven martial artist or a project-driven one. Am I more stimulated by the long-term aspect of honing my skills over time or by the project, the higher belt rank at the end of a process? Am I driven by the journey or the destination? Both mindsets allow me to apply what I’ve learned, but the motivation is different.

From the beginning I was more process-driven. I wasn’t concerned about getting a black belt when I first returned to taekwondo, much less getting to the next color belt level. I just wanted to be there, learn new things, and practice. The emotional, mental, and physical benefits were almost immediate and addictive. I started this blog, in fact, because I was so enchanted by the process.

I’ve had my moments of being more project-driven, sometimes so much that I would lose long-term focus, especially during my red belt year. I just wanted to work on my testing requirements rather than the comprehensive whole of my practice. The six months before my black belt test I was definitely project-driven, but the Monday after the test I showed up to class with my same goofy, eager smile, ready to start over with a new process and learn new things. I don’t want to discount my short-term focus, though. It served me well when I needed to quickly learn and apply new techniques and polish my performance before tests.

Doing “black belt stuff” feels more process-driven since so much of it revolves around honing previously learned skills, although there’s a fair amount of new content to learn too. The waiting periods between promotion tests stretch out to years rather than months, so the black belt student has plenty of time to focus on details, refinement, and revision. This past year alone has given me a lot of time to think, experiment, and reflect on the improvements I’ve been able to make through my practice both as a student and as an assistant instructor (and become more aware of stubborn, long-term bad habits).

With other students I seem to be more project-driven. There’s nothing more fun for me than getting a student ready for an event (okay, hitting stuff with my hands is more fun, but helping students is a close second). Let’s get you ready for the tournament! Let’s get you ready for your red belt test! Hurry up and get bo dan so we can get you ready for your black belt test! I think I am more excited about the students who will be testing for their first degree black belts next year than I am about my own upcoming second dan test.

Perhaps there is a way to be motivated by both the process and the project over time. We may be able to see the forest AND the trees. I don’t want to devalue the finished product or project nor do I want to skim over the lessons I can learn along the way. I know I will become more project-driven as I get closer to my second dan test next year, but hopefully I will remain aware of the overall process of being a taekwondo black belt, regardless of where I am in the process.

You Can Rest on Your Laurels, But Don’t Stay There Too long

apollo

“I’m just resting my eyes for two seconds!”

“I believe in my own skills. I just always try to look forward to what they can be rather than to always look back on what they used to be.”

This was my brother’s response to a friend complimenting him on his musical talent. My brother is a musician (primarily piano and keyboards), and has been able to support himself with his talent since graduating college. He’s proud of that fact, as is the rest of his family. His passion isn’t just his hobby; it also happens to be his paycheck. If only we could all be so lucky.

My brother’s no slouch, though. He works harder than most people I know, spending countless hours composing, rehearsing, teaching, and marketing. What he also hasn’t slacked off on is good old fashioned practice–building his skills and continuously improving them. As he said to his friend, he knows he’s good, and he also knows he can be better.

Good old fashioned practice is probably one of the things I enjoy most about being a somewhat freshly minted taekwondo black belt. Sure, I’ve learned new forms and self-defense techniques and will need to master them to test for my next black belt degree, but what I’ve spent the most time on since last fall has been refinement.

You don’t get a black belt and then just stop practicing…or you’re not supposed to anyway. Being a black belt is an ever-evolving process. Since I haven’t the pressure of a test hanging over my shoulder I’ve been able to relax and take a much deeper dive into taekwondo technique than I ever had time for as a color belt. I can always make little tweaks and adjustments. My front stance can always be sturdier, and my kicks can always be more precise and powerful. I can go back and add black belt level attention to detail to color belt forms and one-step sparring. I can try a wider variety of offensive and defensive moves in a sparring match. I can use my knowledge of color belt techniques to help other students improve their own skills.

The opportunities for growth are endless. And that’s a wonderful thing. It’s not a matter of being dissatisfied with one’s current situation–quite the opposite. It’s a matter of being infinitely curious and passionate.

If you’ve earned your college degree, married your childhood sweetheart, started a new job, or gotten your black belt in taekwondo, then celebrate! Be proud of your accomplishments. Relax and enjoy the moment. Go ahead and rest on your laurels…but don’t stay there too long. Don’t stagnate in what was. Look forward to what can be.

Spring Has Sprung

flower boxing gloves

April showers bring flowers in yo face!

“Whew, that was a good workout! I needed that,” I said to my chief instructor as I sipped water and leaned against the back of a chair in the dojang waiting room. It was Monday night, the first night back after an “off week” due to an abbreviated workout schedule and a little bit of Spring Break indulgence (okay, more than a little bit). That night’s class had a simpler structure than our usual classes: foundational kicks and a little bit of partner work with blocking and striking. That was it.

Lately it’s been a rare occasion that I’m just in student mode when I’m in class. Very often I’m refereeing a sparring match, holding pads for kicking drills, or overseeing students working on forms or self defense. As much as I love teaching and coaching and accept that responsibility of being a black belt, once in a while I like the times when I can shut down that part of my brain and just work. My body, my space, my mind, my practice. I felt invigorated and refreshed by a simple workout. I was ready to emerge from the quiet cocoon I’ve been in since the new year.

Spring has always been an opportune time for me to take my fitness regimen up a notch, and not because bathing suit season is around the corner. (I know it’s still snowing in some parts of the country. I live in Texas. We go from winter to tornado season to summer in about week.) The weather is nicer, the days are longer, there’s a wider variety of fresh produce available for nutritious snacking, and after Easter there’s no more holiday candy–who wouldn’t be inspired to get healthier?

New Year’s resolutions can get lost in the grey days of winter and the rush of the holidays.On that note, perhaps this spring season of rebirth and awakening is a time to reexamine what I want from my taekwondo practice.
For the most part I want to continue the trajectory I’ve been on since I got my black belt last year:
-becoming a faster, stronger, and more strategic fighter
-learning and quickly applying hand-to-hand combat techniques and weapons defense (our traditional school has some hapkido influence, so we practice joint locks, sweeps, and throws)
-doing a badass spinning hook kick, which I’ve been chipping away at for a long time and am finally seeing improvement. I broke a board with spin kick at my bo dan test, so it would be nice to have that same precision and power consistently.
-bringing power, grace, and finesse to my forms (Jon, I finally got Keumgang!!!!)
-improving my explosive power, speed, and strength
-being a patient, knowledgeable, intuitive, and helpful assistant instructor

…y’know, being a good black belt.

I feel like I’m starting to emerge from hibernation in other areas of my life too. Very soon I’m going to be coaching my head off with several clients at work, and I can’t wait. I’ve already been doing a little bit of coaching here and there with a few people, but within the next few weeks it is going to be my primary focus at work. I have been dying to do leadership coaching for years, and I’m finally getting my chance. I just hope I don’t talk to them the way I talk to the nine-year-olds in taekwondo class.

As for writing, last year I started a huge project. I made a massive amount of progress by the end of the year and took a much needed rest. Once I finish binge-watching another season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” (ha ha) I’ll be ready to pick it up again, and at some point I hope to share more details about this project with my blog readers. I will also be guest writing for the martial arts travel site BookMartialArts.com….so I have stuff going on.

And with sunshine and blooming flowers and birds chirping will I be ready to emerge from my year-long dating hibernation? Will there be a Mr. Little Black Belt in the near future? Mmmm….NAH! It’s still all grape soda to me!

The Best Remedy for the Inevitable Emotional Denouement: Crazy Cardio!

exercise t rex

There are two things I love about this time of year: the extra hour of sleep and Thanksgiving. That’s about it.

Sure, I love my scarves and knee-high boots, but I mostly love the idea of them, not the fact that I actually have to start wearing them to stay warm. We do really have four seasons in Texas. They just happen to be ice, tornadoes, a really long summer, and rain. Now we’re in that period of a few nice days that are ruined by torrential downpours and dangerous flooding. Thanks to the rain and the fact that, uh, it’s November it’s started to get a little cool. It’s also the time of year when I begin to get grumpy until about…oh…May.

I’m a native Texan and a summer baby. I like running out of the house in flip flops, sunscreen, and a sweaty ponytail. I get anxious and cranky when I have to start wearing layers. My mood plummets from annoyance at mild chilliness in November (for me, anything below 70 degrees is “cold”) to full-blown depression during the dismal, ice-storm-heavy days of January and February. It didn’t come as too much of a surprise when, right after the excitement of my black belt test died down, my mood dropped sharply along with the decreasing temperatures.

I was wondering when the inevitable post-black belt low was going to hit. Some people get depressed right after the holidays–the weather is abysmal, there’s nothing to look forward to other than Valentine’s Day candy, and people suddenly stop being so nice to each other. I wondered if the same phenomenon was hitting me now that the family has gone home and I’ve begun to break in my new belt and uniform.

It was easy to stay motivated and upbeat while I was training. A long day at work? No problem, I knew I’d sweat it off during an intense sparring class. A tough physical therapy session? No problem, the pain was worth it as I was healing and strengthening my body. I could just zone out, visualize my board breaking sequence, and I’d sail through the day. Now that it was all over what did I have to look forward to?

When I get down, I want to shut myself off from the world. I don’t want to talk to anybody (more than my usual introvert avoidance), think about anything, or interact with the world in general. Sometimes I do need a little break from constantly thinking, observing, interacting, etc. and like to veg out with Netflix, but if I’m not careful about it I can go into full isolation mode. Last night when I got home from work that feeling punched me in the stomach and shoved me up against the wall. I wanted to crawl under a blanket and steep myself in solitude. For whatever reason I felt dull, pouty, tired, and very tempted to call it a night.

“REALLY?” I thought, irritated. “I haven’t even had my black belt for a week and now I want to shut down and hibernate? What was all that flowery stuff I said about it being just the beginning or just a small stop along a lifelong journey?” 

“But,” I whined. “It’s daaaark outside and I wanna curl up on the couch and reeeeeaaaaaad.”

I rolled my eyes and paced around the living room. Maybe it wasn’t Black Belt Blues. Maybe it was because I’d felt dull and listless at work that day and my energy was low, or maybe it was because I was feeling mopey and sad, which I tend to do if I let myself ruminate on things (regrets, worries, personal issues) for too long. Or maybe I was just being lazy. No, I wasn’t about to give up this quickly.

“You JUST started learning a new form, and you were so excited about that, remember? And you’ve been sitting on your butt at work all day; exercise will do you some good. Now put on your gym clothes and go to class!” I countered before stomping into the spare room and shoving my new uniform with the tell-tale black lapel into my duffel bag.

Moving around seems to be the best remedy for a tired body and a tired brain. One of our second-degree black belts, a transfer from another school with a background in MMA, led the class. It was one of the hardest workouts I’ve ever done in all my years of being a gym rat and a taekwondo student. He never screamed at us like a drill sergeant or an overly enthusiastic personal trainer. He just gave us our instructions with the expectation that we could (and would) do it, no questions asked. I think we all had too much morbid curiosity to not at least give it a try.

The class was fun the way riding the Titan roller coaster at Six Flags was fun: in the moment I just tried to keep focusing on what was directly in front of me without screaming, I questioned why the hell I was willingly putting myself through it, and the next day I woke up with a mild concussion and a feeling like I’d been smashed around in a washing machine. And in a sick way, although I swore I’d never do it again, I just might. (Well, not the roller coaster. NEVER AGAIN. I haven’t had a concussion after a taekwondo class….yet.)

For nearly an hour we did sadistic things like burpees, clock pushups (get into push up position and bounce around on the floor in a circle–fun, right?), and countless spin kicks in a row. With nearly every drill was the caveat, “Now, for the black belts, I want you to add THIS…” as he added something extra like finger-tip pushups or another jump spin kick. It didn’t seem like I was going to get a cooling off period, but rather a running start as a new black belt.

Any listlessness or creeping depression or loneliness had been thoroughly wrung out of my body, although at one point one of my classmates who had paramedic training began giving me a worried look. I just stared back with glassy eyes and a red face while swearing with an insane smile that I was fine. I was better than fine and so thankful that I’d pulled myself out of my Fortress of Solitude and went to class. And wouldn’t you know, my 360 roundhouse (tornado) kicks were looking pretty damn good.

This morning I dragged myself to physical therapy. It seemed like every part of my body EXCEPT my finicky right hamstring was exhausted. Even breathing too deeply sent cruel swaths of achiness across my upper back. I was hoping to get a nice long therapeutic massage, but my PT looked worse for the wear than I did. On Sunday he had competed in a half-marathon/obstacle course than involved running through mud, tumbling down hills while carrying bags of gravel, getting cut up by trees and cacti, and climbing ropes in the rain. Suddenly the clock pushups, burpees, and spin kicks I’d done on a smooth, pliable surface inside a well-lit air conditioned building didn’t seem so bad. He barely left his wheeled stool as he winced and scooted between patients.

“You’ll likely have delayed-onset muscle soreness, or what we call DOMS, which means it might be worse tomorrow. The best thing to do is some light movement to keep your muscles from stiffening up too much,” he advised while grimacing and readjusting himself on his stool. So today I have my classmate to thank for a reprieve from box jumps and kettle bell lifts: I did a low-key workout of gentle squats and lunges, the stationary bike, light kettle bell lifts, and some core work. An Epsom salt bath, some ibuprofen, and a good night’s sleep will have me ready and eager for tomorrow night’s class. As tired as I am today I was comforted to know that I have an antidote for the depression that I am never truly free from and the cold crappy weather that is just around the corner: go to class, go to class, go to class. (Well, let’s see how sore I am tomorrow.)

Trying to Stay “Fun Size”: One More Week of Tough Training

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Here are some stats on my next-to-last week of training for my black belt test:

Days until Black Belt Test: 6
Weight: 116 pounds
Taekwondo classes: 5
Morning swimming workouts: 1 (I was shooting for 3, but wouldn’t you know, my bed is REALLY comfortable at 4:30 AM)
Yoga classes: 2
Physical Therapy/Personal Training/Butt-Kicking sessions: 2
Pain Scale of My Hamstring: 1.5-3 depending on how much kicking I do (YAY!!)
Pain Scale of My “Impinged” Anterior Hip: 0-0.5 (YAAAAAYYY!!!)
Number of sweaty sports bras drying out on a door knob somewhere in my house: at least 1 at all times
How much I want a cheeseburger and fries right now: 5,000,000
Productive things I’m going to do immediately after the test: 0

Sunday we had a communal dinner at the dojang to celebrate the 35th annual tournament and to thank the planning committee for their hard work. I hadn’t had a solid meal for dinner in a week, so I thoroughly enjoyed the Texas BBQ. I do eat healthy, hearty meals for breakfast and lunch, plus snacks, but in the evening lately I’ve just been having a protein bar and an apple, and maybe a small serving of nuts. Not a great nutritional choice, but I don’t like feeling really full late at night since it keeps me from sleeping well, and I’m still trying to get a little leaner for the black belt test.

I’m short and petite, so a little bit of weight gain goes a long way, and I can put it on fast if I’m not careful. I’m sure my eating method right now borders along the disordered territory, but it’s working, and it’s a good excuse to get a little thinner before enjoying the inevitable awesomeness of Thanksgiving and Christmas food.

Oh I still have my chocolate. Every other day or so I sneak into my boss’s office to grab a “fun-size” piece of slightly smashed candy from the communal bowl he keeps out for everyone. But seeing as I’m trying to stay “fun-size” too I keep that to a minimum.

My classmates and I have been working hard in taekwondo class to test our endurance and make sure our memories are sharp. I held up well during a hard kicking workout Friday night, and was able to help out my fellow bo dans with hand-to-hand and one-step sparring during Saturday class. The pain that was once excruciating in my hamstring is almost non-existent. At this point I feel calm, eager, and ready for the task at hand. Oddly enough, though, that sense of dedication and positive attitude didn’t reach its crescendo in taekwondo class. Instead, it bubbled up in my most recent physical therapy session to address my injured hip and hamstring:

Thursday at therapy was a full-on gym workout, and for an accidental jock like me, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon (well, maybe napping and eating fun-sized chocolate). After a surprisingly UN-painful psoas massage (even when he did the gross fishhook thing into my pelvis), I got to work with kettle bell dead lifts, balanced one-legged squats, and one-legged jumps.

We ended with the PT student who’s been helping out at the clinic holding my ankles while I, perched on my knees up on a table, leaned forward and did little reverse sit-ups using my legs and glutes to pull my torso back to the upright position. By the end of three sets I was grunting, red, sweating like a man, and feeling that little rush of painful pleasure that I always get from exercise….pretty much how I look whenever I work out.

“Need one of these?” my therapist Cody joked, waving a fluffy white towel at me as I rested my hands on my hips and slowed down my breathing.

“Oh you should see me after sparring,” I said, gratefully taking the towel and mopping my face. “I’m so red and disgusting. I caught a whiff of myself after class last night—Whew! I stunk like a man! My hair was so wet it looked like I had taken a shower.”

“But isn’t it cool that you can push yourself that hard?” he asked with a grin.

Yes, it is. Yes, it is. I’m ready.