I’m at a New Dojang! (And I Already Have the Bruises and Cuts to Prove It)

sunflower

I’ve gone under the radar for a while both on my blog and in the taekwondo world. After I left my former dojang I needed some time to recharge, take care of personal things, and deal with a very demanding season with my job.

Now I’m ready to emerge from my self-imposed cocoon (well, after hiding out during the holidays) as a new black belt at a new dojang! I’m so excited!

I agonized over and plotted my exit from my old dojang for a long time. It felt similar to leaving a long-term job or a relationship that was enjoyable at one time but had now run its course and needed to end. I knew where I wanted to go and was told I was welcome there when I was ready, but I had to wait for the right moment to leave…no, scratch that, let’s be honest. I had to wait for my over-thinking, worrying brain to let go of self-imposed obligation I’d put on myself to stay.

I won’t rehash my thoughts around leaving. You can read about that in this blog post. Now I want to celebrate my new dojang and soon-to-be new taekwondo family. My new Master is female. In the few conversations I’ve had and classes I’ve attended I already respect her greatly for her business savvy and endearing mix of compassion and firmness as a taekwondo instructor. It’s pretty awesome to be at a female-run school when so much of the taekwondo world is still dominated by men. Most of the senior black belts are male, but there are a few up-and-coming ladies who already display strong leadership skills and dedication to taekwondo. Even though I don’t want to burn myself out too quickly (I’ll get to that later) I already feel drawn to including myself in that group of leaders.

The classes I’ve taken so far aren’t too dissimilar to what I’ve done in the past. Although the bread and butter of the school is competitive sport taekwondo (state, national, international competitions—the elite team is doing quite well), traditional Jidokwan style is also taught, right down to the same one-steps and hapkido-inspired hand-to-hand techniques that I learned at my old school. The kicking drills seem more roundhouse-based and front foot-heavy than what I’m used to, but it makes sense since they train Olympic-style fighters. (I still have Body Combat at the gym if I want to do a boatload of snap kicks, side kicks, and back kicks).

I have to learn all the color belt Taeguk forms since Palgwe is now practiced few and far between (and that’s what USAT wants to see at tournaments)…but…damnit, I find myself actually liking some of those forms. Taeguk 7 and 8 may even deserve their own blog posts in The Poomsae Series since I had so much fun learning them. I won’t forget or stop appreciating and practicing the Palgwe forms (plus my old school’s outliers Koryo One and Nopei), but I think I’m going to enjoy adding a new set of forms to my current repertoire of twenty-two forms.

Most importantly, there’s room for me to grow, which sadly I did not see at my old school, and that was the main reason for my departure. When my new Sabumnim introduced me to the first class I attended she added that I would be eventually testing for third degree. That seems like a viable prospect; it was not at my old dojang. I also have the opportunity to compete—not sparring, ha ha! But I can do board breaking and poomsae, which I love equally. Who cares if the Bullshido guys think that stuff is useful or not; there is nothing quite as cathartic as breaking stuff. Now I can set new goals and refresh the part of my brain that is hungry to learn, not just the part that practices and hones old techniques.

Like love or any other committed venture, I have to be cautious not to get too involved too quickly. That’s what burned me out pretty badly this year. January and February were miserable. I had over-committed myself (and had been invited since I’m apparently so damn good) to projects at work. Meanwhile I was spending nearly every day at the old dojang helping clean out years worth of stuff, lead sparse classes, and communicating with parents while we prepared for our move to the community center. I’m tempted to get involved in “everything” at my new dojang, but I know I need to pace myself. I did not attend Tuesday’s color belt test and don’t plan to attend every one in the future. I did, however, attend the new dojang’s end-of-year black belt test and ended up refereeing several sparring matches (and out-yelled the guys) and held for every testing student’s board breaking combination, which resulted in a number of bruises and cuts on my hands and a chipped manicure.

The Master was very grateful and seemed a little surprised that I showed up and got involved. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to sit there and do nothing, especially as a newbie and a higher ranking black belt. As one of the adults I feel like I need to step in and help when I can, and as a second degree-going-for-third I feel a sense of responsibility to lead and assist. New black belts have expectations of leadership and involvement, and that only grows as we grow in rank and age…but I don’t want to give all of my heart and mind and time too much too soon. I’m excited about my new relationship, and I want to enjoy every moment and new step of the process slowly, one piece at a time.

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Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice

Leadership Concept

[Warning: I was in a really corporate-y mood when I wrote this, so you’re getting a taste of Work Melanie’s voice rather than my usual silly, contemplative, self-deprecating Black Belt voice.]

I’m a learning and leadership development consultant, which in a very tiny abstract nutshell means that I listen, diagnose problems or needs, and help people make decisions and take actions that improve their performance on the job. As a bonus they very often end up happier too, which is my favorite part.

Since I’ve become a black belt and am nearing my test for second dan, I’ve seen many parallels between how leadership is managed where I work versus in the dojang. One positive point for the dojang (and an example I often use in the workplace) is how my chief instructor began grooming me for a leadership role before I even tested for black belt. That way I was prepared to adapt quickly to the new expectations and responsibilities of a black belt. That doesn’t always happen in the workplace, which results in leaders who feel overwhelmed and unsupported.

Another difference I’ve noticed is that in the workplace change or improvement is expected to happen with one shot: one meeting, one email, one workshop, one team building event. This year on two separate occasions I’ve had executives come to me after I’d already worked with their leadership teams to help address ongoing challenges. I was actually glad this happened, because it proved that you can’t expect change to happen overnight, no matter how fun or interesting or engaging the workshop/team building event was. My learning events didn’t “fail.” They were just a set up for longer term work, the beginning. So now I’m digging into their ongoing challenges and helping them better apply and practice the skills and concepts they learned earlier. It’s time to get real.

In the dojang, learning, practice, and application are blended seamlessly and are ongoing. Sh-t’s real all the time. If we are presented with a new concept that promises an improvement in skills or change in behavior, we can’t leave it at one demonstration and expect to see change. It takes ongoing practical application, feedback, and refinement. I still practice technique I learned as a white belt, and I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching and leadership skills. My instructors provide constant feedback, so I know where I stand in my performance. Just as a manager shouldn’t look at their new role as a stopping point, they should continue to learn, practice, and encourage their staff to do the same, just as a black belt does.

If you are a leader in the workplace (or your martial arts school of choice), you are responsible for implementing and supporting change, whether it’s a new process or a new standard of behavior. It requires not only daily practice from your team to develop a new habit, but it also requires you to practice your influential and strategic skills to ensure the change is successful.

Here are some ways to practice those leadership skills and be a black belt in your chosen field:

Support
Are you providing support for behavioral change? Have you set clear expectations? Do your staff or students have the resources they need to do what you’re asking them to do? Are you thinking ahead to the finished product or event? Are you helping them overcome barriers? And are you seeking support from your own leader? (Unless you’re self-employed, ha.) I ask my instructors for help fairly often, especially with teaching. I’ve developed my own style of teaching and coaching, but sometimes I just pointedly ask how to teach something that I find confusing or difficult. Leaders need support too to improve their daily practice.

Rewards and Recognition

While you don’t want to reward an employee just for showing up and doing the tasks that are on their job description, make the time to point out when they’ve gone above and beyond. “Catch them in the act of doing it right,” as one of my coworkers can say. So often on teams leaders focus on the low performers and don’t give feedback to those who are doing well or far exceeding expectations. If we black belts chose to focus all our energy singling out the kid who’s doing it “wrong,” it would be discouraging and frustrating to us and that student, but also other students who would benefit from positive feedback.

Be specific with your positive feedback. Depending on the age of the student I’ll point out exactly what they changed and improved to reinforce the behavior.

Leaders like recognition too, whether it’s public or private. The other day my grandmaster corralled the black belts (who all happened to be first dans) together to work on our forms. Right after we finished Keumgang, he told us to turn and face one of the black belts. He had been spending extra time over the past few weeks with this black belt, chipping away at habits that needed to go and encouraging skills that were improving. Grandmaster praised that black belt for hard work and told us to applaud—literally. That was a nice feeling. I’m looking forward to a reward (that I will hopefully earn fair and square) after my second dan test.

Continuous Improvement

Once you’re in a leadership position you don’t have to learn anything new, right? You don’t have to teach anything new because people should know how to do their jobs (or manage their own martial arts practice), right?
Nope.
While you’re helping the people around you, look for ways to improve your own skills. Read, research, ask mentors, and above all practice. Practice will help you make your knowledge a habit and an integral part of who you are as a leader.