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.

 

 

How the Olympics Rekindled My Love for My Sport…But Not the One You Think

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Most of the time I couldn’t care less about sports. I don’t go to games, I don’t watch sports on TV, and I don’t get involved in discussions about sports. My eyes glaze over when my coworkers talk about their fantasy football picks. I enjoyed watching the Texas Rangers play in the World Series a few years ago, and I enjoy watching the occasional UFC match, but that’s about it. When the Olympics are on, however, my inner jock goes into overdrive. I love it. Whether it’s the winter or summer Olympics, the TV is playing the games whenever I’m at home.

There’s one sport that kept me on the edge of my seat and motivated me to get up early and go to the gym more often.  I eagerly awaited finals and semifinals, yelled at the TV, and jumped around the living room when my favorite athletes won medals.  I watched the athletes’ form and technique carefully, eating up any tips I could gain to enhance my own performance.

Was it taekwondo? Nope! It was swimming.

Swimming was my first love. My parents had me in the water before I could walk. Dad, who was an art teacher at my small town’s community college, taught swimming lessons in the summer, so my brother and I pretty much lived at the college pool for most of the summer breaks. The pool was 50 meters long and included a high dive that I decided I needed to jump off when I turned four because, well, I was four and needed to get that done. I still remember plummeting down towards the water like a happy little four-year-old bullet.

I would swim underwater for what felt like hours, enjoying the silence and solitude (even when the pool was crowded), amuse myself with games, and scrounge around for loose change. Sometimes I played with my brother or with friends; sometimes I did my own thing. It was only when we were starving and exhausted that we would go home, watching the twinkling lights on the West Texas horizon blink in the darkness.

As I got older I made the time to learn proper techniques for crawl, breaststroke, and backstroke from Dad, and by the time I got to college I’d fallen into a routine of getting up early and getting in a swim before I started my day. I also taught myself butterfly stroke in college and have always enjoyed the heart-pounding rush of a butterfly sprint. I always liked going to the pool when it was dark and quiet, meaning there was less of a chance I’d have to share a lane (I still hate that) and that I could stretch out the solitude and solace the early morning brings me a little longer.

A few years ago I fell out of the habit of waking up early and often, and sometimes I’ll go weeks or even months without a swim. Sometimes my best laid plans are foiled by fumbling for the snooze button in a half-asleep stupor. Sometimes I feel discouraged by my relatively slow pace and weakened long-distance endurance. Unlike in taekwondo class, my mind tends to wander while I’m swimming, leaving more room to be bored and distracted. Despite all that, I get to the point where I desperately miss swimming, and I know that no matter where I end up living throughout my life, I’ll need to have access to a pool. I always need a swim fix at some point, no matter how long it’s been since I was last in the water.

Watching my favorite athletes compete in my favorite sport pushed me to jump up when my early alarm went off and race to the pool. I looked forward again to my early mornings gliding through the water. There’s still no feeling like swimming, and it’s not the same mind-body union I get in yoga or even in taekwondo. There’s something about that sensation of your body being sand-blasted by oxygen, of combining the best of strength training, cardio, and stretching all into one swift motion–ahhhh. Nothing else wakes me up quite like swimming, and I’m energized (and ravenously hungry) for the rest of the day.

I love swimming, and I love taekwondo. I need them both in my life. I just love them in different ways, and I think they complement each other. They’re both great for upper body strength and cardiovascular health. There are the mental and emotional aspects to consider as well.

For me taekwondo is a combination of exercise, study, tradition, a second job, and community engagement. Swimming, meanwhile, is just for me and me alone, and as an introvert with a fairly interactive professional and martial arts life, I need that solitude in the water and the rare moments of being totally self-sufficient and disengaged. I am not intellectually challenged by swimming the way I am by taekwondo although perhaps I should explore that possibility. There is something more primal and subconscious about swimming. I was born with gills.

I hope to both swim and practice taekwondo for the rest of my life, as long as I am healthy and active enough to move. I wonder which one will be my biggest source of comfort in my final years. Maybe they both will, in their own unique ways.

The Countdown Begins

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August sucks. There aren’t any holidays, the comforting summer buzz of the cicadas has died down, the grocery stores are down to the last mealy dregs of my favorite fruits (nectarines and cherries), and for the much of the month the temperature is around 100 degrees. While summer is my favorite time of year, I’m usually not sad to see this particular month come to a close.

The end of August marks the beginning of scarves and knee-high boots, pumpkin-flavored everything, and apple scented candles. The end of August also means I have less than two months left to train for my black belt test.

Every time I think about it my stomach does a little involuntary flip, but I’m not as worried as I was when I tested from white belt four levels up to green belt during my first few months of training. I’ve known everything I need to perform for the black belt test for several months now thanks to my own hard work and the guidance of very patient and thorough instructors. I’m much stronger and have more stamina than I did during my white belt days. My jumps are higher, my shoulders and legs have gotten bulkier, and I’ve brought a new joyful aggression to my sparring. Despite my lingering hamstring injury I’ve been able to bring my A game to the dojang as much as I can and have supplemented my workouts with my usual swimming, yoga, and Pilates. I’d like to think I’ve gained a little bit of the emotional maturity a black belt needs since I first donned my dobok…some days anyway.

As for nutrition, I kind of let my diet go by the wayside, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Due to family visits, my birthday, work events, my discovery of Jif To Go mini peanut butter packs, etc., I’ve had the good fortune to indulge in some delicious although not very nutritious food over the summer. I did get back to my veggies/brown rice/boiled eggs/green juice regimen during August (uh, for the most part) and have been completely off alcohol since March, but I haven’t been as strict as I have been in the past. I’m a bit of a hedonistic hippie: I’ll wash down a cheeseburger with kombucha and not blink an eye about it. And of course chocolate is still happening. Oh is chocolate ever happening.

I’ve had body image and eating problems since I was a teenager so the fact that I gave myself a pass to eat pimento cheese and cookies without judgment or regret is an improvement in my book. I may be a little heavier (as in, closer to 120 pounds than 110 pounds), but I’m happier. During a deep tissue massage to help ease my hamstring pain the massage therapist told me she could tell my muscles were “very strong.” That made me feel prouder than being told I’m pretty or thin. Besides, I’m always one stomach virus away from Grandmaster telling me I look “too skinny” anyway.

I finally sought out help from a sports medicine doctor for my injured right hamstring. Turns out it’s not a pulled muscle but rather a suspected labral tear in the hip—meaning the little ring of cartilage where the femur attaches to the acetabulum (socket) in the pelvis is torn–not a good thing. He also detected some calcification and impingement syndrome in the right hip…the old problem that began about seven or eight years ago and is most noticeable by sharp pain in the front of the hip. Next week I will see the very same physical therapist who helped me with severe pain in my right hip all those years ago (and what may very well be contributing to things currently screwing up on the backside of that leg).

It’s frustrating not only because of the pain and discomfort, but also because it impedes my performance in taekwondo class when I’m so close to testing for my black belt. This is a not-so-rare problem in athletes that if serious enough requires surgery. So leading a healthy active lifestyle for all these years is now keeping me from being as active as I want to be. Ugh, really? The upside is that I’ve gotten more experience coaching and holding kicking pads for other students so I can give my leg a rest—I swear we need a separate class on how to do that. I’ve learned to listen to my body and be more patient with myself. I have faith in my PT and my doctor to help me heal. And besides, every good sports story needs some kind of challenge right at the climax.

Let’s do this.