How Taekwondo Has Helped (and Hurt) My Pool Game

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About a year ago (and some change) I started playing pool with a friend. At first it was just something to do once in a while on a lazy weekend. I had never played before and was really looking forward to it. I had visions of lounging around in a dark dive bar, telling jokes, and swigging beer while my friend and I easily played round after round of pool.

That’s not quite how it happened. The beer and hanging around in a dark dive bar definitely happened (and still do; the bartenders are cracking open my Coors Light right when I walk in the door), but it was much more difficult for me to pick up the mechanics of pool than I thought it would be. I was TERRIBLE and I was SO frustrated. It felt difficult and clunky. I couldn’t control my hands or relax my shoulders or get my angle right or do anything that my brain was telling my body to do. I couldn’t let myself just have fun and keep trying.

I wasn’t the easiest person to be around during this painful growing period. I even had irrational fears that my friend would want to stop being friends with me because my pool skills weren’t up to snuff—sounds ridiculous, right?

After whining about how bad I was for a while, I decided to tap into my black belt perspective and see if it could help me improve my game. Taekwondo has taught me a lot about myself and in turn, how I approach my new hobby.

Taekwondo reminds me that my perfectionism crosses into other areas of my life. At the pool hall I was so hard on myself and so self-conscious about barely being able to move the cue or hit my targets. I foolishly expected success to be handed to me just because I showed up.

I have put these same irrational expectations on myself as a taekwondo practitioner (and pretty much my entire life).

My perfectionism finally started to ease off when one day my friend said, “Why are we here?” When I answered, “To practice?” he shook his head. “No, we’re here to have fun.” Oh. At the moment neither of us were having much fun. I took that as a cue (no pun intended) to lighten up on myself and just enjoy my beer and look at pool for what it was: a game.

The reason why I started taekwondo was not to get a black belt or learn self-defense. I just wanted to do something fun and positive. It was helpful to remember that fun was my number one goal with pool AND still with taekwondo.

Taekwondo made me a curious pool player.
Getting a black belt does not automatically make you perfect at every technique—as I wrote in an earlier post, part of BEING a black belt is making a conscious effort to raise self-awareness around technique, ask questions, and play with mechanics. I bring that same curiosity to my pool game. I scratched—hmm, let’s figure out why. I couldn’t get power behind my shot? Let’s have someone look at my arm to see what I’m doing. The angle was off? What can I do next time to think through the shot I want to make?

Taekwondo made me a persistent pool player.

Fall down seven times, get up eight. Miss a shot; try again when it’s your turn. Maybe it’s my lingering perfectionism, or maybe it’s the tenacious stubbornness one feels in a sparring match that’s not ended yet. I’m going to keep playing. Taekwondo requires a lot of patience, persistence, and mental and physical toughness. While pool is not nearly as physically as demanding as taekwondo, the mental tenacity required is quite high.

Sometimes you have to take a little break in the middle of all that persistence to come back fresh. Our playing had waned off at the end of last year. On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve 2018 my friend and I decide on a whim to go play since it was free all day.

I won the game in eight minutes. I’d never played so well. I’ve since had great games (both through decent technique and pure dumb luck), but that first “comeback” game was all I needed to inspire me to keep practicing and keep playing.

Taekwondo made me an appreciative pool player. This goes back to my curiosity around my performance, progress, and what I can do to improve. Once I started to get the hang of things and get a handle on how I could purposefully learn and improve, I could really get “into” playing the game. Does that mean that I can only enjoy things on the condition that I have some kind of proficiency in them? Maybe. I probably would have quit both taekwondo and pool if I’d never been able to get my body and brain to move past the basics. That’s something I’ll have to deal with and/or just accept as a reality about myself. Either way, now I can really dig into pool, get curious about improving my game, admire what my pool-playing partner does well, and keep improving and celebrating my successes.

Taekwondo gave me faith that the physical “click” will eventually happen. It has with pool, for the most part, although  I have a LONG way to go to be as proficient as pool as I am at taekwondo. I look forward to weekends when I can drink beer, crack jokes, and play. My left-handed shots are getting pretty good. My friend and I are finally at the point where we can talk trash to each other. Most importantly, the fun hasn’t worn off. I just have to keep my perfectionism in check (the beer helps with that).

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When In Doubt, Go to Class

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It would have been so easy to skip taekwondo class last night. I’d had a long but productive and satisfying day at work (complete with key lime pie from the break room fridge) and was ready to relax and turn off my brain. It’s been cold and rainy for the last week, which is to be expected for February, but as a native Texan I just can’t abide anything below 60 degrees and didn’t want to get out into the “bad weather” any more than I had to. My Netflix queue is bursting at the seems. The bottle of wine I was saving for Thursday evening was softly calling my name.

I’d already missed a week of taekwondo due to a busy work schedule, and as I discovered at the end of last year, it was seductively easy to fill my time with other activities.

But instead I went to class.

I knew I’d made the right decision after about twenty minutes of practicing forms before my class began. I was just beginning the last black belt form I learned (the rarely practiced and even more rarely discussed Nopei) when I felt some sense of release and ease. Ahhh. I was in my element. I had finally shaken off my professional and personal responsibilities for the evening. My corporate persona had dissipated. I was in BLACK BELT MODE.

I spent the rest of the hour doing speed drills, practicing advanced kicks with my fellow black belts, and did some leg conditioning, which my heart thanked me for and my still-aching (but protectively braced) right knee grudgingly accepted. I caught myself smiling as I wiped the sweat from my face and panted for breath. I was having fun!

A simple decision topped off an already good day and helped me remember why I got back into this martial arts game in the first place. Confidence and athleticism aside, taekwondo makes me feel freaking amazing, both physically and mentally.

You can tell when someone is in their element. My mom loves to knit, my dad is a painter, and my brother is a musician. They’re all very talented, but “being good at it” isn’t why they do it. Sometimes they don’t care what the outcome is; they just want to DO it. That’s how taekwondo feels for me. I just want to DO IT, no matter what. I am in my most heightened physical, mental, and emotional state when I am practicing taekwondo.

What puts you in the zone? What makes you feel most present and alive? What is that thing? If you don’t have it, look for it. Read a book, try out a new hobby, drag your ass to the gym, find some peace and quiet or a place that heightens your senses.

When in doubt, GO. TO. CLASS.

 

 

Am I Replacing One Vice With Another? Part I

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These are a few of my favorite thin–oh you guys, lighten up, I’m joking!

A few years ago I questioned whether taekwondo was something I was going to stick with for the long haul or a hobby I was going to toy with for a while and then set aside. I’ve since proven to myself that taekwondo is most certainly not a “passing fancy.” It’s what I turn to for physical and mental fitness, it has pushed me to and beyond my limits (and many times my patience), and I’ve achieved milestones and goals in the dojang and elsewhere I never would have thought were possible a few years ago. It’s not just a hobby or a sport. It’s a calling and a community. I want to practice taekwondo until I die.

I once told a friend that I get from taekwondo the same feeling I had hoped to get from church–it has nothing to do with my Christian faith, which is very personal and private, but rather it gives me a sense of belonging and a desire to serve with like-minded people I care about. I always felt alone and guarded everywhere else but the dojang. I still do.

These past few weeks I’ve noticed a heavy weight sinking onto my shoulders and an increasing sense of emptiness. I put on a good front when I’m in public, but often when I’m home I deteriorate quickly. I’m struggling. I don’t completely fall apart though. I never allow myself to because I’m all I have–falling apart is not an option, but I know I don’t feel content in my Fortress of Solitude like I used to. Weekends and long nights have been hard. I don’t want anyone’s help though (and if anyone from my real life asks I’m going to give you the same answer). The thought of spending extended periods of time with people annoys me even more than the anxious thoughts that swirl around in my brain when I’m trying to sleep. So what should I do about this uneasy feeling?

Lately the only place where I’ve truly felt good is at the dojang, and this has been an excellent time to “throw myself into work,” as one might say. Last month we prepared students for a tournament and two other students to test for black belt. This past week we’ve been helping a number of lower ranking students prepare for a color belt test. I’ve been busy teaching, coaching, refereeing, fighting, kicking, sweating, and sometimes having a really hard laugh. Guys, I’ve sometimes felt so “high” I probably shouldn’t be allowed to drive after taekwondo class.

And then I go home, and the dark clouds rush back. I’m ready for my next hit and wishing it were time for another class again because it feels so damn good and more importantly, it keeps me distracted from what I don’t want to face. Hell, after the color belt test on Friday I went home feeling what comedian Katt Williams so eloquently described as, “Hungry, Happy, Sleepy,” although he wasn’t attributing those feelings to taekwondo. My problems and worries seemed so insignificant! I was elated, if only for a few hours.

Things started to make sense when I asked myself a tough question I’ve been avoiding for quite some time:

Is taekwondo is just a replacement for other pain-numbing vices?

I can get addicted to things fairly easily–substances, people, exercise, ideas, hopes, feelings, beliefs, thought patterns, activities. I have poured my heart into taekwondo, but perhaps I set myself up for a new addiction right from the beginning. I went back to taekwondo because my life was in shambles, at least beneath the surface. At first it was a solitary activity. Getting a black belt was an afterthought. I went to class, listened intently to instructors, and practiced my techniques. Then I started to open up to my instructors and accept them as friends, and I also realized I had a talent for leading other students. Nothing has ever felt so natural. This little mistrusting, very guarded introvert was making connections.

I fell in love with taekwondo for many reasons, but the largest one was how it made me FEEL. Even on nights when I was frustrated, I still felt that endorphin rush, soul cleanse, mind rinse off awesomeness that I get out of just about every class. That’s why I continue to go. Yes, I definitely want to test for second degree, but I still mainly go to class because it’s FUN and I feel SOOOO GOOD. I love the physicality, practicing the techniques, seeing myself improve, and especially helping my instructors and other students, not to mention hitting stuff with my hands is indescribably, viscerally satisfying. I like to tell myself that the dojang is the one place where I can give selflessly. Or maybe I’ve found myself to be in a one-woman cult of my own trapping.

I think the real cause of this overwhelming, sinking feeling of loneliness and emptiness is a combination of things: illness among family and friends, the death of a young coworker, job insecurity, this ugly and frightening American political landscape, and just within the past few days, a death in the family that has hit me much harder and haunted me more than I thought it would. I am emotionally and physically exhausted. But let’s face it, 2016 has been hard on everyone. It started off with David Bowie’s death and pretty much fell to absolute crap after that. I suppose breaking from the weight of this awful year was inevitable.

I’ve learned the hard way  that no one and no thing (not even taekwondo) can save me from this exhaustion but myself. I’m pretty good about reminding myself that when I’m feeling down. I know I sometimes put too much stock into taekwondo to give me those happy feelings. Taekwondo is not magical. It’s just like money, weight loss, or a relationship–feels good in the moment, but at the end of the day I’m stuck with myself, so I’d better be happy with who’s looking out at me from the mirror.

These dark clouds will pass. These painful situations I’ve been in will lessen. As my dad said to me about this time last year when I was feeling low, spring will come. Things always work out for me in some form or another, and like a good black belt, when I fall down seven times, I get up eight. It’s time to get up, Black Belt.

I’m tempted to take some time off from taekwondo to see how well my emotional coping skills work without it, but right now I just can’t. If this is my new vice, then so be it.

Having an Attitude of Gratitude When Cynicism Is So Much Cooler

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Smoking looks cool. I’m sorry, it does. In my fantasy life, after I’ve gunned down human traffickers without getting any blood on my sleek black trench coat and before I head off to  a gig with my Led Zeppelin cover band I lean up against my black Ducati…and light a cigarette. It just wouldn’t have the same effect if I, say, bit into an apple or patted a kitten or posted a double rainbow meme on Facebook.

Smoking kills. Duh. And it causes a myriad of other problems. Duh. So why do people still do it? Despite knowing the risks there seems to be some sort of satisfaction from it, even if it’s temporary. The same could be said for letting anger and catastrophic thinking dictate our day. It causes you all kinds of grief but there’s something addictive about it. I’ve never been addicted to smoking, but I spent a good 25-30 years being a Negative Nancy. I hated school, I hated work, I hated people for not being my friends (how dare they!), I hated men for not falling at my feet hopelessly in love (how dare they!!), I hated my body, I hated my personality, I hated my inability to be perfect, I hated myself for not even being able to end my miserable waste of a life.

Venting my anger and hate and frustration had the same instant gratification of that first tingly drag on a cigarette. Having a good sobbing ugly cry was as much as a release as that first exhale of smoke. I was at the mercy of my emotions. Although I felt helpless, I also felt secure—something or someone else was responsible for my situations and feelings, not me! I didn’t have to do a thing but just sit back and watch the misfortune that I seemed to be so good at attracting unfold. My addiction was killing me.

If it takes more muscles to frown than smile then it burns more calories, right?
For years I was blind to the amazing things I DID have going for me. It was like having a garage full of beautiful race cars but continuing to commute on a rusty old bicycle. Putting all my happiness onto one outcome was a crapshoot. Narrow expectations often led to disappointment. Through guidance from a trusted mentor, using journaling as a way to observe myself, and several years of hard work, I realized that I had more power over my destiny than I thought. The more appreciative I became, the more good fortune came to me—work situations, relationships, money, health.

Here’s the thing: gratitude takes a conscious effort, at least at first. Complaining and commiserating is contagious and almost expected. Misery had been my default setting for so long that I had to (and still do) make constant attitude adjustments. That heady buzz you get on the first drag of a cigarette feels pretty good, but coughing up mysterious green goop the next day feels pretty awful. The more I practiced gratitude, though, the easier it became and joy eventually replaced the emotional stronghold of anger and misery. For those of you who follow the Law of Attraction, my vibration was much higher.

Okay I’m done rolling my eyes at the sappiness. What do I do to feel better already?
1. Have a crap day? What was ONE good thing that happened? It’s OK, I’ll wait…oh, you woke up, right? Awesome!

2. Something else I like to do is play the “Lucky Breaks” game. I think about all the “lucky” things that happened, even if they’re small and silly—I got a parking spot when people were circling a crowded lot like vultures. Yay! We happened to go to yoga class on a different night and saw a random display of fireworks outside afterwards. Woo-hoo! A coworker ordered an extra sandwich by mistake and gave it to me. Yeah buddy! A meeting on a day I wanted to take off was rescheduled. F*cking A!

3. Write it down. I know its clichéd, and I know you’ve seen this a thousand other times online, in books, and on TV, so I’m not taking credit for the idea…but it works. Writing down what you’re grateful for, the luck you had that day, or whatever positive things happened or epiphanies or changes of heart you had gets it out of your head and puts it square in your face—proof that things aren’t as bad as you thought they were. It’s like celebrating Thanksgiving every day but without gaining weight from all the stuffing and pumpkin pie.

4. Do something you enjoy to get your mind off how much you think your life sucks. For me it’s taekwondo, yoga, swimming, and cooking healthy meals. For others it could be watching a funny movie, playing with their puppy, or meditating. For others it’s smoking. Ha, gotcha! I said it kills you; I never said people don’t enjoy it.

And lest I contradict myself and fall into the trap of magical thinking, I still keep my feet grounded in reality. Bad things are going to happen, and I’m going to have to do things I don’t like to do. That’s just life. But gratitude for the abundance that I do have makes it a whole lot sweeter and opens my eyes to opportunities ripe for the taking.

I’m still sarcastic. I still narrow my eyes and ask a barrage of questions when something seems fishy.  I still get angry and cry and curse unpleasant situations. But I’m doing the work on a consistent basis. I am quickly wielding the power to change my reality instead of letting reality own me. These days the only thing I light up is a scented candle. When I see the glass half-empty it doesn’t mean life sucks. It just means I need a refill on my wine.

Priority or Passing Fancy?

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“I played for five years, and I was pretty good at it. I just had to put it aside and focus on other things,” I said wistfully to my brother as I reflected on my 5-year stint of studying classical guitar.

“That often happens with people who aren’t full-time musicians,” he replied sympathetically.

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Correlation Without Causation: 10 Health Issues I’ve Had Since Re-entering the World of Martial Arts

Any intense sport is not without its risks, especially when you’re not a spring chicken anymore, but this is ridiculous. Since I started back to taekwondo in April of 2013 I have had the following health problems that I’d never experienced before. Coincidence??

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