Little Black Belt is FIVE!!!

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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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When Starting is More Difficult Than Finishing

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I can win a game of pool, but I’m not very good at starting one. Let’s just be real–I’m terrible at breaking. I can never seem to get enough power to create a smooth and clean strike. More often than not, the cue ball barely moves the rack of balls, and sometimes I end up scratching. The last time I did a decent break had more to do with the extra-smooth surface of the table I was playing on than any of my technique.

Come to think of it, I could never get the hang of serving in a tennis match either. Sure, I could chase after the ball and lob it over the net, but starting the game on a strong note always seemed to elude me.

Why is it that sometimes starting something is more difficult than finishing it? I am very organized in my job and love completing tasks. I love making lists, not only to keep track of what I need to do, but also for that sense of satisfaction when I cross them out. But I occasionally find myself sitting at my desk feeling totally unmotivated to do what I know (and have spelled out) what needs to be done. Eventually I get to work, but making that first step can be more difficult than making the final one.

Is it not knowing how to start or is it plain old procrastination?

Finishing strong is important, but so is starting strong. When I was teaching poomsae (taekwondo forms) I would sternly tell my students that their ready stance (legs straight with toes forward, strong fists in front of the belt) was just as important as the rest of the form. I didn’t want to see any dead, glassy eyes, limp hands, or duck feet. If they went to tournaments the judges would most certainly be looking a that. Our beginning stance is our first impression. Focus and determination happen when you’re standing still.

Maybe finishing a task is easier because we’ve had some time to build confidence from our successes. We’ve had a chance to try things out, maybe even learn from our mistakes. Maybe the expectations on ourselves are too high at the beginning. We think there won’t be any mistakes or setbacks. We don’t think we’ll lose the game. Going into the unknown is scarier than conquering the familiar.

I don’t think I have the final solution to this conundrum, even as a VERY CLEAR (and impatient) “J” in the Myers-Briggs world. It can be helpful, if time allows it, to ease into tasks. Drink some coffee, journal, catch up on news, do whatever pleasant distractions you need to do to get them out of your system. Procrastination happens to everyone, and sometimes the best thing to do is just get it out of your system.

After a little while of working on a task, I find myself picking up momentum and completing what I’d been dreading getting started. This happens a lot with writing projects at work. I feel like I have writer’s block, but after I force myself to get started without the high expectation of finishing it immediately I churn out something that’s pretty good. Letting myself relax when I get started (but with focus and determination) often leads to a strong finish.

So maybe that’s the key–just relax and start. Do SOMETHING. Do ANYTHING. And try to do it well. Trust yourself to do it well. You’ll get to the end in no time.

Focus on Your Foundation: What I Learned From a Kindergartner

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“What are you going to do when you get out there?” I asked my first and youngest sparring competitor of the day.

My fellow coaches and I had taken eleven of our students to a local tournament and had settled in for a very long day. This student, a five-year-old yellow belt, was competing for the very first time. He was suited up and ready to begin his match.*

“Defend myself,” he answered in a very calm, confident voice as he gazed at the ring where the referee and judges stood.

I could have picked this little guy up and kissed him. I was expecting an answer along the lines of “Spar” (obvious) or “Punch and kick” (also obvious), but he had honed in on a more nuanced and surprisingly difficult-to-master aspect of sparring: blocking.

Blocking during a fight seems like it should be second nature, but for whatever reason, it seems to be one of the biggest issues we have with our kids. I find myself yelling “Hands up!” more than I do anything else when I’m coaching students. They get so wrapped up in kicking, dodging, freaking out over being kicked, or trying something fancy that they forget the most important part of self-defense…you know, um, defending yourself.

Blocking is part of our foundation. Like most martial artists, taekwondo practitioners don’t go looking for fights (except at tournaments, duh). We’ll beat the crap out of you if we have to, but we don’t throw the first punch unless absolutely necessary. Defense is built into our practice: all the forms I’ve learned to date begin with a block before I’m able get into the nasty nose strikes and knee breaks. One of the first skills I learned as a white belt, before I even learned how to kick, was how to block. We do a lot of reaction drills where we have to block very quickly, but even for me it’s taken some time to hard wire my brain and body to respond faster than I can think. Overthinking slows me down most of the time anyway.

This yellow belt can punch and kick pretty well for a little kid, but he blocks like a boss whether he’s with another child or a black belt like me who is throwing him some tougher challenges. He’s zoned in on something that the older kids and adults (including myself) seem to have forgotten in the midst of our egos, frustrations, anxieties, and insecurities: simplicity and staying grounded in our foundation.

We live in a time of ever increasing distractions and interruptions. We’ve learned to second-guess ourselves because there’s always some new gigabyte of information or some lingering doubts and fears we can’t seem to shake loose from our minds. We think too much, and it slows us down to the point that we can’t respond in a clear and confident way. We’ve forgotten what makes us who we are and keeps us whole. We’ve forgotten what’s important.

What grounds you? What is your foundation? What truly makes you who you are when you strip away the external stressors, experiences, superficial accolades, and distractions? Are you able to tap into that strength when you’re pulled back into life’s sparring matches?

My competitor lost his match, but he didn’t seem to mind, and neither did we. He had fun, made some new friends, got a silver medal, and now had his first tournament experience under his belt. We were all very proud of him.

“I’ll work on my forms for next time,” he assured me with satisfied nod. He gave me a big hug, grinned for a picture, and happily ran off with his mom to go home. The rest of the day was drawn out and stressful with worries, grievances, tears, and a little bit of blood, but the lesson I learned from my youngest teacher kept me motivated late into the evening. I’m looking forward to seeing him at the next tournament and hope everyone can follow his lead.

*If you haven’t watched little kids spar, go find some YouTube videos right now because it’s the cutest thing you’ll see all day.

My Favorite Posts From 2016

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2016 is almost over, much to the relief of just about everyone. Thank you all for reading and commenting on my blog. It’s been a busy writing year for me. I posted to the blog every month, am in heavy editing mode of my book, and most notably I started writing guest posts for the website BookMartialArts.com. You can read them by clicking here.

In other exciting news, I got my “Instructor” patch, so now I have to act like I know what I’m doing, at least when I’m wearing the particular uniform I sewed the patch on. I cut my coaching/refereeing teeth at two black belt tests and several tournaments. Some things remain the same: I still can’t get through self-defense and hapkido practice without giggling, I still can’t do a decent spin kick, I’m still going to physical therapy, and I’m still rank and disgusting after sparring class. At least I’m consistent.

Now I’d like to share with you my favorite posts from 2016:

1.A Black Belt Goes to Barre Class – I started taking a ballet barre class at my gym in February, loved it, and have kept it up ever since. My core and legs, on the other hand, are furious with me.

2. Love is Like Grape Soda – In my Valentine’s Day post I revel in the fact that for the first time in my life being single is (1) a choice and (2) a non-issue.

3. When You Know You’ve Found Your Tribe – A sub-par art museum event showed me the importance of sticking with my true community.

4. Why Do I Still Dread Sparring Class? – I still feel this way. Every. Single. Wednesday.

5. Getting Fat Shamed as a Size Four – One of my most popular posts and one that helped me get a very hurtful and embarrassing moment off my shoulders.

6. What I’ve Learned From Coaching Children and Business Leaders – There are more similarities than you’d think!

7. You Can Rest on Your Laurels, But Don’t Stay There Too Long  – Some insight from my musician brother showed me the importance of balancing the enjoyment of our past accomplishments with the challenges and possibilities of the future.

8. How the Olympics Rekindled My Love for My Sport…But Not the One You Think – Aw, I miss the summer Olympics, don’t you?

9. Black Belt: A Year in Review – I celebrated my one year anniversary as a first degree black belt, and I learned several things along the way.

10. Dealing With Uncertainty Like a Black Belt – Since change seems to be the constant in the workplace, you might as well put on your sparring gear and brave the fight.

11. Are You Driven by the Process or the Project? – What motivates you – the end or the means?

12. The Case for Getting Your Ass Kicked – We all need challenges.

13. Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two – Teaching, learning, and leading all go hand-in-hand.

14. How Eating a Bunch of Carbs Helped Me Stop Hating My Body – I finally had a body image breakthrough over the Thanksgiving weekend, of all times. I also sneak in my recipe for gnocchi.

 

 

 

When Your Brain and Body Are Conspiring Idiots

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Sometimes our best laid plans are sabotaged by our own habits, shortcomings, misgivings, or desires. We fall into patterns that are comfortable and routine although not always the healthiest or the most challenging for us. Lately I feel as if my brain and body are two kids that goad each other into getting into trouble. Here’s what some of their conversations look like:

Brain: “Let’s do a spin kick! We finally got it down and it was looking really good last week.”
Body: “Nah. I’m gonna tighten up the left hip to limit mobility and give us vertigo every time we try to lower the shoulders.”
Brain: “But we understand exactly how to do it! This is a fundamental—“
Body: “NOPE. Hip tightening in three…two…”
Brain: “You’re a jerk.”

Body: “It’s really early and I’m awake and energized! Let’s go swim laps before the 5:30 crowd gets to the pool.”
Brain: “Nah, let’s go back to sleep. This bed is so comfortable and warm. Besides, it’s cold and dark outside and we hate the cold. Besides, don’t you think more sleep will help us feel refreshed?”
Body: “But swimming makes us feel even more refreshed! We can nap after we swim!”
Brain: “You’re getting very sleepy…”
Body: “You are such an a…..zzzzzzz”

Meanwhile I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, shaking my head with irritation at my good intentions once again being ruined. What are we to do when we want to make a positive change or try something new but we’re the ones holding ourselves back?

Psyche Yourself Out
There are all kinds of ways you can motivate yourself: giving yourself compliments, tough love, reminding yourself of what’s truly important, staying positive. As long as you’re not being abusive or too self-deprecating there’s nothing wrong with talking yourself into doing something challenging. When I’m having trouble with jumps or tricky balance exercises in physical therapy I’ll roll my eyes and think, ”Come on, Black Belt!” Other times I just remind myself of how freaking good I’ll feel after exercising or how relieved I’ll feel after finishing an arduous work project.

Good Old Fashioned Bribery
My goal is to swim two miles in one workout. I’ve worked my way up to about 1.6 miles. At this point is my motivation is not the cliché of overcoming obstacles or pushing myself beyond what I thought was possible or even getting a killer workout. No, at this point my number one motivator is pancakes. Now, can I have pancakes any time I want? Yes, of course I can, and I even made some at home not too long ago. But there’s something deeply pleasurable about eating a heavy meal after a long hard swim, and bonus points if I pass out for a nap afterwards. Maybe I’ll get pancakes or maybe I’ll get something like pizza or enchiladas depending on what time of day I complete my mega swim. Either way, carbs and a nap are happening. Brain and body, it’s time to get on board.

Forgive Yourself
You are not perfect. Neither is anyone else. You may not always live up to your own or somebody else’s expectations. Maybe those expectations aren’t realistic. If you’re feeling discouraged or losing confidence put the challenge on hold. Take a deep breath and reassess what is important to you in this moment. Does it make you feel good pursuing this goal? Would you be happy even if you didn’t achieve this particular goal? (Hopefully that answer is yes) What do you need right now to feel satisfied? What can you do differently? Is it still worth it?
Sometimes we have to put down goals for a while or even give them up entirely if we choose a different path. Other times we simply need a breather so we can get back on track, refreshed and ready for the challenge.

This morning I woke up feeling alert and refreshed at 4 AM. I almost rolled over and went back to sleep, but I dragged myself out of bed…only to discover that a cut on my foot wouldn’t stop bleeding when I took the Band-Aid off that I’d put on it last night. Now, I certainly can’t go swimming with (1) a bleeding cut or (2) a bloody Band-Aid that is guaranteed to peel off my foot and float around in the pool like a rubbery little germ ball. Grudgingly I went back to bed, but I did it for the good of all the people at the gym, I swear! I WILL be going to ballet barre class mid-morning so I’ll still put my useless brain and body to work.

Sometimes we have to indulge our brains or bodies and let them have what they want. Eventually though, it’s time to get back to work and do what you know is ultimately best for yourself…tomorrow anyway.

 

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.

Feeling Stupid? Good! How to Stay Motivated When Learning Seems Hopeless

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“I feel like a dumbass.”

The tall, grey-haired white belt sighed with frustration. Adults in our small dojang are few and far between, so when one shows up I make a beeline for them, try to get to know them, and make them feel welcome. I was waiting for the advanced class to start, so I was chatting with this man about his upcoming orange belt test and what he had learned so far. He had been meticulously practicing fundamental blocks in the white belt class and was struggling with getting the movements just right.

I remember that frustrating feeling when learning blocks as a white belt. Inside-to-outside middle block was one of the hardest things to master. How could a simple twist of the elbow and flick of the wrist be so damn complicated? Suddenly I didn’t know my left from my right, and my brain felt like it was trying to wrap itself around quantum physics. Girl, bye.

“It gets better,” I assured him. “It just takes time and practice. You’ll be frustrated for a while. I still feel like a dumbass with some of the stuff I have to do.”

Sometimes we just have to sit with discomfort, whether it is frustration, grief, uncertainty, or feeling like a dumbass. We can’t bypass it or take a shortcut. We can’t wish it away or admonish ourselves for our sins of omission. We just have to get through it.

The discomfort of not knowing and stumbling as we learn can be an opportunity to think outside the box and deepen our understanding of an unfamiliar concept. I was recently working with a group of nurses on a communication tool they commonly use when calling physicians or during shift changes. This time, however, we were using the tool with a non-clinical scenario. The nurses remarked how weird it felt to use the tool out of their normal context. Suddenly they weren’t the experts, and that felt very uncomfortable. They had to think differently and be more mindful of how and what they communicated than they typically do when they are in the hospital. Hopefully they now have a deeper understanding of how they communicate when sharing vital information about their patients.

Not knowing can also be an excellent lesson in humility. Getting a black belt is a great ego boost, don’t get me wrong, but much of BEING a black belt is realizing what I DON’T know and adding to the list of things I need to work on. If I knew everything and did everything perfectly that would get boring after a while. Not knowing means I have room to grow and opportunities to see my practice with a fresh perspective. It’s kind of fun to go back to techniques I learned as a color belt and tweak them with the skill I now have as a black belt. It’s like getting to learn what I love to do all over again. I still have so far to go. At least I am a self-aware dumbass.

I have no doubt my new white belt friend will be practicing his blocks with great effort and concentration over the next week. He will work hard and try his best, which ultimately will make him a better black belt than if he just breezes through the motions. The learning process he is building now will be a foundation for him as he moves up the ranks and learns more complicated kicks, sparring techniques, and self-defense. If he’s anything like me, he will have many more moments of feeling like a dumbass, and that’s okay. It will make that moment of realizing he mastered something so much sweeter.