“Come on, guys, let’s count in Korean,” I said with mock exasperation. A few nights ago my instructor had given me and my fellow classmates (teenage black belts) a series of exercises to do for our warm-up: jumping jacks, squats, mountain climbers, and push-ups. We were instructed to count out loud so we could stay together. I gritted my teeth though counting the first set of jumping jacks in English–it made me feel like a white belt–and spoke up as soon as I had the chance.
If getting a first degree black belt is like passing a driving test, then being a second degree feels like learning to do your own oil changes and minor repairs. When you’re not “driving” you’re cleaning, prepping, trouble-shooting both with and without help, and making sure your “vehicle” is well-maintained and in good working order. You’re looking for long-term sustainability and reliability.
I’ve always been interested in the minute mechanics of physical tasks I have performed and, frustrating as they can be, have been drawn to activities that require fine-tuning and attention to physical details: swimming, dance, classical guitar, billiards (stay tuned for a blog post on that), and of course taekwondo. Once I get past the initial beginner’s clunkiness and the “click” sets in, I start to have some fun exploring and refining my technique. By taking a break from teaching and being a full-time taekwondo student (for the most part) I feel like I now have opportunities to dig into what I wrote about earlier this month: being a really damn good Second Dan. I’m very excited about it!
What I appreciate about the coaches at my new dojang is not so much that they can run a great workout (they do), but more so they take the time to point out details and explain the why behind the movements. Wednesday I had a one-on-one kicking workout with one of the instructors. He had some ideas, and I had some ideas, and we collaborated on how to help me train and get better, namely on my back kicks and spin kicks. During our conversation I felt really energized to dig in and play with the mechanics of these seemingly basic kicks. How can I take them from a technique I learned as a color belt and make them advanced black belt-level precise and strong? How can minor shifts in my body, weight distribution, speed, power, and placement make big changes in my performance?
On Thursday another coach gave me some good feedback on choices I can make to improve my sparring. Instead of talking about kicks and punches, he talked about intellectual choices. He encouraged me to think about what kind of fighter I want to be rather than just reacting or thinking I had to match my partner’s aggressiveness or defensiveness (and factoring in age, energy level, habits, some go-to trusted moves, and the ability to “read” different partners). He likened sparring to a game of chess rather than checkers. I want to be a better fighter, and part of that is being a smarter fighter.
As a slightly higher ranking black belt I feel like I can’t rest on the laurels of passing that first degree test. Passing your first degree black belt test means you’re good enough at color belt techniques to move on to a higher level. Now I’m getting into the “why” of what I do and have set higher expectations for myself. I want to be very proficient at back kick to use in sparring, and I want to use jump back kick and spin kick for breaking. They need to be better, sharper, and more powerful than what we see at the color belt levels.
Refinement and mindfulness is not only for black belts. If you’re a color belt reading this, or even a white belt, begin your exploration now. Turn frustration into fascination and use that curiosity to make yourself a more proficient martial artist. You may be amazed at what you can do.
Sparring and a few particular kicks were just my focus for this week. I also have poomsae, self-defense (hapkido), defense against weapons, and overall conditioning. I think I’m fairly proficient and “acceptable” in my performance, but I don’t want that. I want to be the best damn Second Dan I can be. It’s time to break out all the knowledge and tools and expertise from others than I have and get to work.
Last night in taekwondo class I did the best jump back kicks I’ve ever done in my taekwondo career. Ever. (I’m a second degree black belt, it’s about time, right?) It’s not like I haven’t been doing jump back kicks lately, but it’s a whole different ball game when you’re hitting targets versus just kicking the air. Hitting targets, whether they’re pads, kicking pads, or people, is extremely important in taekwondo or any striking art. You can hit the air all you want and get fairly well conditioned, but it’s quite a different thing when there is weight and resistance at play, as well as the precision required with hitting a target, whether it’s moving or not. This is not only important for sparring and breaking, but it builds power and speed as well.
Now that we’re at a community center we have to bring equipment with us, meaning we don’t have access to the stacks of focus pads, shields, heavy bags, and other striking targets that we used to at our old dojang. I usually keep two focus pads in my bag, but this time I lugged in a heavy black rectangular-shaped kicking shield. There were a few students from the advanced class stretching while the orange belts practiced, and their eyes lit up with delight when I held up the pad, grinning and wiggling my eyebrows. They immediately grabbed it and started doing little drills with each other. This was going to be fun.
After some warm ups the senior instructor picked up the shield and asked us to form a line.
“Why don’t you show them what to do?” he suggested. Hmm, what’s a good drill with a heavy shield?
“Okay, listen everyone,” I said. We’re going to do a sliding side kick [I kicked the pad with my front foot] “…followed by…a turning back kick.” I turned and slammed my other foot into the pad as I talked. “Think about when you’re sparring. They’re getting close to you so you hit them with a side kick [I kicked again] and then…knock them…back.” I did one more turning back kick to emphasize my point.
I’ve been hit or miss with targets in the past (no pun intended), especially with turning back side kick. My problem is usually not chambering my leg high enough to kick right in the center of the pad (which in theory is someone’s gut) or sometimes not turning the shoulder of my kicking side down enough. That night, however, I was doing a pretty good, consistent job and had a respectable amount of power behind my kicks. Cool.
Then my Grandmaster stepped to the side with a small focus pad and gestured for me to come over to him. I saw him working with another black belt on jump turning back side kick. Uh-oh, was it my turn now?
“Jump back kick?” I asked. He nodded and lunged towards me. (Sometimes a drill the holder will “fake” towards the kicker so the student can work on timing and distance.) I took a small step back, jumped in the air, twisted my torso, and smacked the heel of my back foot squarely into the meat of the focus pad.
What?? I’ve never done that well before. Grandmaster gave a short nod of approval. I did a double take in surprise and then quickly repositioned myself.
POP! He moved towards me again.
POP! Well, I’ll be damned.
POP! “Your left side is perfect. Right side—turn the shoulder down a little more,” Grandmaster advised.
POP! Cool, maybe I could break with this kick someday!
POP! Grandmaster smiled in approval, and I trotted away, panting and pleased with myself as I straightened out my uniform.
I ended up doing about eight or nine jump back kicks across the floor and hit that little focus pad every single time. I didn’t graze the edge or tap it. I HIT it. I jumped up, chambered both legs mid-air, and kicked the crap out of that pad square in the middle every time in front my 9thdegree Korean Grandmaster. Sweet. Maybe doing all those jump snap kicks and simple but highly repetitive back kicks in Body Combat class have kept my legs in good condition over the past few months of minimizing my taekwondo training.
I don’t think I haven’t done a drill like that in about eight months, probably not since we moved from our old school. It’s been easy to get complacent lately. Meh, same old kicking drills. Meh, a few forms and sparring. Eh. Who knew giving my body and brain a break and inadvertently doing cross training (Body Combat, barre, swimming, yoga) would lead to some of the best, strongest kicks I’ve ever done? I don’t think I need to wait another eight months for target practice. I think I do need to look for more opportunities to surprise my taekwondo brain and muscles and keep up the diversity in my own training and also for my students.
So I guess these little breaks have done me some good.
Two years ago I wrote a review of the ballet barre class my gym introduced in early 2016. I’ve since gotten the hang of it, have become pretty proficient in the moves, and have seen some improvement in my core and leg strength. I usually did a little barre and swimming on the side while I took 5-6 taekwondo classes per week.
Now that my taekwondo training has dwindled to next to nothing, I need something else to keep me in fighting shape. About 2-3 months ago I started taking Body Combat at my gym. Body Combat is one of the latest parts of the Les Mills gym class machine, which now includes 16 different branded classes that are taught at gyms across the world. There are certain “versions” that are released every few months, which keeps both the certified instructors and participants on their toes.
Spoiler alert: I LOVE IT. I’ve taken my share of aerobics classes over the last 20 years, but I’ve never found one I wanted to stick with for the long term. Barre is turning out (no pun intended) to be one of those classes, and it looks like Body Combat will be the same. The course purports to combine techniques from boxing, Muay Thai, taekwondo, capoeira, and karate (sorta). I like to think of it as a technique class as opposed to specific practice on things like self-defense, poomsae, or fighting. It both helps me hone my well-trained skills and let’s me spend time on techniques I rarely or never get to practice.
So what is the experience for a trained martial artist in a Body Combat class? Training pickiness aside, it’s an excellent high-intensity cardio workout, which keeps me in good cardiovascular shape for my sporadic appearances in sparring class. It hits all the major body parts–legs, butt, core, arms, shoulders and back and offers enough variety that it’s very difficult to get bored. Hell, yesterday my Tuesday instructor threw in a flying side kick! Most of all, it is pure FUN! Having absolute fun is something I’ve missed over the past six months in my taekwondo classes.
I recommend that any martial artist go into this class with an open mind and a goal of refining the basics and building speed and strength. They simplify some techniques (for example, roundhouse kicks and side kicks are only done on the front foot, there’s no turn to the back kick, and their “front stance” is most decidedly NOT a front stance)…and that’s okay. This is not meant to be for only those who have advanced fighting training.
The simplicity of the techniques gives you the opportunity to tweak and refine the foundational skills that you still rely on as a black belt. I’m short and have a hard time hearing the instructor with her muffled mic, so I intentionally plant myself in the front in every class so I can see her. The added benefit is that I can watch myself in the mirror as I punch, kick, lunge, and throw knees and elbows. I have a visual target when I punch to the side of the head or snap kick to the torso. There’s lots of repetition, so I can make tiny changes every time I strike, and I definitely take this technique training with me back to my traditional taekwondo classes.
Another benefit is this class breaks me out of my taekwondo rut. We will sometimes go through an entire tkd class without doing one hand strike, and those who know me well know I loooooove hitting shit with my hands, even if it’s just the air. My favorite breaking techniques are hand strikes, and I try to punch as often as I can in a sparring match. From a practical point of view, I’m most likely going to be using my hands in a real self-defense situation, so even though my Friday instructor is just dazzled by my head-high roundhouse kicks and the occasional spin kick I throw in (meh), I’m paying more attention to the technique of my punches and elbow strikes. And in Body Combat there are so many punches…oh the punches…so many punches…
Finally, theres’s a sense of both anonymity and camaraderie I get in Body Combat that I don’t get in taekwondo. In taekwondo I’m either an instructor or a student, and I’m constantly communicating with students or other instructors. I can’t go to class and just be. As much as I love the closeness I have with my other black belt instructors and students I also want to be left completely alone once in a while when I’m working out. There’s certainly no pressure for me to teach at the gym, nor is their pressure to perform (although most of that pressure comes from me). Sometimes I get funny looks at the gym when I’m warming up before class with a form or two, but that doesn’t bother me. I’m enjoying silently critiquing myself in the side and front mirrors. Extra practice!
Some days in taekwondo I look into the (sometimes) listless eyes of my students and realize none of us want to be there. We’re all tired of the routine. I have to repeatedly remind my black belts to do simple things like keep their hands up and bend their knees with a snap kick, which is frustrating and tiresome. None of that in Body Combat. Sure, the technique is kinda terrible, but people work their butts off. Hands are up all the time (and I think it’s cute how some of the women will wear MMA gloves). Feet are moving all the time. People are eager to keep up and try their best. I’m punching, kicking, kneeing, and elbowing my ass off like a good second degree black belt. Everyone wants to be there because they know it’s their workout and no one else is going to do the work for them. We all have off days, days when we’re tired and bored, but I wish I could see more of that self-motivation in taekwondo.
If you’re a martial artist needing a supplement to your training, give your local gym’s kickboxing class a try. You may be surprised at how much you like it.
“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.
A few weeks ago in taekwondo class we were practicing a kicking drill: one person held a square pad in each hand and walked backwards while another person moved forward, kicking the pad with each step. The twist was the holder changed the target’s position every time, so the person kicking had to quickly respond with the appropriate kick: snap kick, roundhouse kick, side kick or turning back side kick, and spin kick. The purpose of the drill was to practice reacting quickly to an uncertain situation. If the target is open we should take advantage of the situation and respond with the most appropriate kick, which may not have been the one we were expecting to use.
Some students picked up on the drill quickly and others had to take a little more time for their bodies to catch up with what they were seeing. I found myself thinking too much rather than resting in that sweet spot of my brain and body acting in sync. In a sparring match and even more so in a real-life altercation we can’t necessarily tell what kind of blow is coming next. There are some tell-tale signs to the trained eye, but even then things can change at the last minute. We learn how to strike and defend, and we also learn how to fake and change direction quickly. We shouldn’t be surprised when our opponents do the same.
In life we don’t always know what’s going to happen next, where the next blow is going to come from, or where the next opportunity may pop up (i.e., that open target). In taekwondo we’re taught to always be ready and to rely on our arsenal of tools and our (eventually) well-honed instincts. It doesn’t mean we won’t get hurt. If you get in a fight you’re probably going to get hit. If someone attacks you with a knife and you fight back, you’re probably going to get cut. Hopefully, though, if you think fast and respond quickly and intelligently, the blows or cuts won’t be fatal (and the proverbial knife won’t end up in your back).
Some friends and I are dealing with an uncertain situation. The first blows have been dealt although we’re not certain how or when the next attacks are going to occur. There have been some fakes, and there have been some low blows. Like seasoned black belts, people have responded with grace, confidence, and dignity. They have found ways to take their power back. They have learned to dodge the most fatal blows and strike back when necessary. It’s easy to get bogged down with thinking of the worst possible scenario, but just as when we are in a fight, we can’t become so consumed by worry, fear, or even anger, that we are blind to the opportunities in front of us.
When I was kicking during the class drill my holder was a male bo dan close to my age. When he held up the target he would mutter the kick along with it. Even though he was verbalizing the right kick, it took a few seconds for my body to catch up with what my eyes were telling me.
“Spin kick,” he said quietly. Ugh, I hate spin kick. Okay…whap!
“Oh come on!” I protested jokingly. “I just did that!”
“Spin kick,” he repeated with a smile. Grrrr…okay, whap!
“But it’s my left leg! I suck on this side! Can’t you switch to the right si-”
“Spin kick.” Dang it….whap!
While the spin kicks weren’t much of a surprise after the first or second time, I was surprised by my holder sticking to his guns and pushing me to do something I didn’t want to do. My spin kicks were far from perfect, but I got the job done. I think that’s what I can do at this point in this place of uncertainty–not be totally surprised when dealt blows or even a bit of dirty fighting, but I can use my strength, cunning, confidence, and skill to fight back as best I can.
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!
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.
Recently I had the privilege of coaching some talented kids at at taekwondo tournament. Thankfully my chief instructor has given me many opportunities to teach and coach in class and at other competitions, so I felt prepared. What I didn’t expect were some of the things I would learn from the experience:
Relax and enjoy the ride. There are delays. And then there are more delays. There are discrepancies in judging. There are panicked searches for misplaced equipment. There are more delays. It’s best to just settle in and get ready for a very very very long day. Patience is key, and humor is a sanity saver.
You will become a “kid person,” whether you naturally are one or not. I’m not naturally a kid person. I wasn’t even comfortable around children when I was a child, but somehow in class and at tournaments my mothering instinct kicks in, and suddenly I can relate to the kids from my own school and even kids from other schools. I’m protective, I joke with them, I enjoy teaching them, and I’m very proud of them. I learn from them every day…and then I hand them back to their parents.
I’m a taekwondo purist, i.e., I can’t deal with demos. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in full support of taekwondo demo teams. I certainly couldn’t do half the things they were doing…but I just couldn’t reconcile the drill team type of dancing and overuse of the song “Gangam Style.” If you want to do a demo give me some well-coordinated blocks, some kicks, some breaking, some self defense, and a few well-placed yells and I’m good. It can be done very well without the cheesy music, the goofy dancing, and for heaven’s sake, the FREAKING RIBBON TWIRLING. Otherwise get back to the regularly scheduled tournament. I wanna see someone get kicked in the head.
You will be on the edge of your seat. Who’d have thought grade school kids would have me gripping my chair and staring wild-eyed like a madwoman. We had two tie breakers with both our little green belt star students: one of them had to do his form three times against different kids before he was awarded a well-deserved gold. Another, after two rounds of dealing with me screaming at him to “Get in!! Stay close!! Do combinations!!” finally won the sparring match with a tie-breaking point. Whew! That made my entire week.
Sportsmanship is classy, and bragging is trashy, no matter the sport. Humility is a tenet of martial arts. Most of the time this is maintained throughout a tournament, and sometimes it’s not, and that is truly disappointing. Anyone who raises their fist and does a snotty little cheer after scoring a point in the middle of a damn sparring match deserves a well-timed kick to the chest. A true martial artist practices grace and respect, even in the heat of competition. Life is too short to be a jerk. We’re all in this big sparring match called “life” together.
Your students will surprise you. Some competitors crumble under pressure. Some rise to the occasion. I am always amazed at their determination and ability to tap into their taekwondo spirit and do things I’ve never seen them do before.
You will surprise yourself. You will find yourself being present and entirely focused on another person rather than being caught up in your own thoughts, worries, insecurities, or doubts. There’s a special kind of joy in watching others work hard and succeed that keeps me energized for hours.
A hot dog from the snack bar tastes like manna from heaven if you’ve been pacing around exhausting yourself all morning. This needs no explanation.
It’s become a running joke that I flinch when a kick is thrown at my head during free sparring. In situations outside of a taekwondo school one might think that this is a perfectly normal reaction. Something startles us, we flinch. It’s human nature.
Flinching doesn’t help when a hard object is flying straight at your head. When I flinch I become completely ineffective: I squinch my eyes shut, hold my breath, and usually end up blocking with the wrong hand and get clipped anyway. I stop thinking clearly and instead panic even though by now I’ve come to expect head shots during sparring. I’m such a psycho about learning taekwondo that I cackle and goad my instructors into doing it again so I can break my bad habit.
I’ve always flinched, whether it was a reaction to the threat of physical harm or emotional harm. My first reaction has been fear. I was a doormat for most of my life and haven’t quite fully forgiven myself for being such an easy target for abuse and bullying from people very close to me to absolute strangers. I always kept my head down, smiled politely and silently through tight lips when someone was rude, and didn’t protest lest I “make waves.” In the case of some of my romantic relationships those metaphorical flinches drove me further into my shell and my insecurities. I didn’t want to be anything less than perfect and complacent out of fear that they would leave (which they all inevitably did anyway). My fear of being harmed (further fueled by the fear of being rejected) made me shut down completely or build up to an explosion.
But you know, getting kicked in the head isn’t so bad. I always wear protective headgear and a mouthpiece so the worst that can happen is that I’m knocked off balance for a second or two. Sparring class is a safe place to experiment with how we deal with danger. No one is out for blood, and we’re quick to back off when the pain is too real or the violence is too intense. It helps us learn to think quickly and clearly and be confident enough to use our blocks, kicks, and punches with force.
Having a mean roundhouse kick or a strong punch is a plus, but there’s something to be said for a strong defense. I can block fairly well, but if I’m doubled over with my eyes closed that’s not going to do me much good. I should look my opponent square in the eye and knock their foot or hand away from my face with as much force and confidence as they are using to hit me. If someone in our life is trying to harm us we should defend ourselves with confidence. It’s setting a boundary. It’s saying, “No, you cannot do that to me. That’s unacceptable. You are not allowed to hurt me anymore, and I’m not going to apologize for standing up to you.”
“Spear-hand thrust to the face. It’s a fake so you get them to flinch. It throws them off balance, and you get their arm to bend back,” I said quietly as I guided my teenage bo dan partner through hand-to-hand practice a few nights later. We were practicing self defense techniques that involved painful wrist and elbow locks. It requires the person being attacked to be quick and calculating and work through their fear of being attacked. It turns the tables on the attacker–we use their own force and their own weight against them. We make them flinch and wince and crumble in pain. We overpower their brute arrogance with our cool confidence.
If something (or someone) makes you flinch, pause, open your eyes, and ask yourself why you are afraid. What can you do to stand up to that source of pain and fear? What can you do to turn the tables on it, set a boundary, and say, “Nope! You’re not going to hurt me anymore”?