I belong to a fitness Facebook group. The other day someone wrote about his mindset regarding failure. He decided to regard failure not as a loss or as something negative, but as practice and a learning experience. Didn’t quite hit the mark on a deadlift? Practice–maybe there’s something off with your technique. Gave into temptation and had the donuts in the office break room? Practice–now you know to bring a healthy snack to fight the mid-morning munchies.
Last night in taekwondo class our instructor was encouraging us to try out something, even if we were afraid of failing. His example was 360 roundhouse, or tornado kick. It’s a complicated kick that can be tricky for anyone, including me and my fellow black belts and the lone blue belt in our class. Our instructor said if we’re afraid of failing and don’t try something, then we’ll never get better. Learning can happen incrementally each time you try something.
My 360 roundhouse kick isn’t great, at least where I think it should be for a fairly athletic 2nd degree black belt. So that means I practice. I’m not “failing” when I miss the pad I’m trying to kick or don’t get as much height as I want–I’m practicing. I tried out a tip he’d given for timing the jumping part of the kick, which pushed me beyond my comfort zone with that technique, and what do you know, it was better than the first time I did it.
By continuing to practice (even when that means messing up) we continue to learn, and when we continue to learn we begin to improve.
The fear of failure is often more painful than experiencing the failure itself. What if we regarded every “failure” instead as practice for getting better? Perhaps by regarding everything we do as practice and learning, we can make the world around us a little less scary and a little more exciting.
The thought drifted through my mind as I was burning out my legs in ballet barre class at the gym last weekend. And then I caught myself and re-worded my thought: “Nope. I’m doing this for Second Dan. I’m going to be the best damn Second Dan I can be.” Either a smile or a grimace crossed my face. I don’t remember which; barre can be a pretty grueling workout.
Our culture pressures us to constantly chase after what’s next or what’s better. While I think having ambition and setting goals is important, taken to an extreme we can lose focus on what we are doing in the present. We tout climbing the leadership ladder as the only admirable career path. We expect seventeen and eighteen year olds to choose educational tracks that will shape their adult lives and get it right on the first try. I always internally gagged at the “see yourself in 5 years” exercise I had to present in a professional development course I used to teach (and obviously did not write). We never stop and examine what we’re doing RIGHT NOW.
Can we be satisfied with and put our best efforts towards where we are right now?
Ever since I watched a black belt test at my new dojang in December I have had my own third degree test (date/year to be determined) lurking in the back of my mind. I knew I needed to improve my overall conditioning, my sparring skills, and hone my technique. I hadn’t practiced defense against weapons in a year and hapkido/self-defense in almost as many months. I knew I needed to not just step up my game, but JUMP up my game.
Third Dan is my long-term goal, and it helps sometimes to corral my wandering mind during taekwondo classes or my non-taekwondo workouts into the idea that everything I do is building a better black belt. Every ballet plie strengthens my legs. Every freestyle swimming stroke powers my lung capacity for fighting endurance. Yoga keeps me mentally balanced and undoes the damage I do to my hips, back, and hamstrings all week.
[Disclaimer for the yogaphiles reading this: I don’t consider yoga a “workout.” I’ve been practicing yoga for 22 years and am fully aware of the mental, physical, and emotional complexities of it. Let me reword it: the asanas of yoga, which are only one aspect, keep my body toned and stretched…and ready for meditation. Happy now?]
I’m pretty satisfied with my current job. I could do that for a long time (with merit raises and bonuses, of course.) I love the city I’ve lived in for the past 14 years; I could spend the rest of my days here. I can certainly apply my physical and mental fitness to the taekwondo rank I am right now, can’t I? If I stayed a second Dan forever could I be satisfied with being the best damn second Dan I can be?
I can’t lose sight of my current rank and its responsibilities and possibilities. I got plenty of teaching experience last year that I hope helps me live up to the Korean translation of my title “Kyo-sa-neem” (instructor). Now that I’m no longer teaching I have the ability to focus on physical training and really understand and demonstrate what a proficient Yi Dan looks like. To be honest, I’m not sure if I can articulate that right now. That tells me I need to back off from looking forward to (and dreading) my future third Dan test. There’s plenty of time to prepare for that. I think I need to do some reflection on what my current rank means.
Every color belt rank was a different learning and growth experience with different expectations. It seems like that is also true for black belt ranks. That makes me happy. It gives me something to explore and build on right now, in this moment.
Whatever journey you’re on, pause and take a look around. Where are you developmentally RIGHT NOW and what can you do to make your NOW better and more meaningful?
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.
A few days ago I told my Grandmaster and fellow instructors that I would not be returning to the community center where we hold classes twice a week. I kept my explanation simple: my job is demanding, I have health issues to address, and frankly, I just don’t want to teach anymore.
That was the simple explanation. I’m not sure it was truly heard or accepted, but that’s no longer my problem. I’m done. I’m out. I’m free.
I wrote this post for all the black belts and instructors who made the heart-wrenching decision to leave their martial arts school in the face of potential backlash and harmed relationships. There are tons of articles and posts online about quitting martial arts or a particular school from the students’ perspective, but I could find very little solace in stories of my fellow instructors who finally said, “enough” and cut ties. (Although I did get some hits when I paired the search terms “martial arts” and “cult,” which is telling.) I know the stories are out there. This one is mine.
“Quitting” is such a taboo word in the martial arts word where we all proclaim to be white belts who never gave up, and those who quit really aren’t dedicated and blah blah blah. We all like to make ourselves feel good when we say, “I’ll never quit!”
Sometimes quitting is exactly what one needs to do depending on the situation.
I once heard someone describe their religion as a “prison of the mind.” Religion can be a wonderful thing for many people, but like any institution or philosophy or way of life, it can be a trap for those who are susceptible. I knew I needed to leave my taekwondo situation when I realized I had mentally trapped myself in a state of believing I was helpless to change a situation that I have not been happy with for months.
The irony of my fascination with cults and my past history of staying in toxic personal relationships that were past their due date is not lost on me.
I brought the cult-like devotion on myself. I entered my taekwondo school when I was in a very vulnerable mental state. (And as martial arts imitate life, I happened to enter a controlling, emotionally abusive, classic gaslighting relationship around the same time) I was beyond thrilled at how wonderful taekwondo made me feel. I had traded one mind-numbing substance for another.
Recently as I was agonizing over whether I could muster up the courage to quit my Taekwondo situation I reflected on why I left my last job in 2011. I left that job and the library profession because there was no opportunity for growth (an expanded position my manager and I had proposed to her corporate leaders was twice shot down so bye Felicia to them) and the department strategy overall changed very little. At 30 years old I was about to hit the ceiling of my salary range, and I knew I had more earning potential. I wasn’t going to settle for a librarian’s salary, which for a professional with an advanced degree is on the lower end of the middle class spectrum. My manager asked me if I’d ever go back to a library job. At the time I probably said, “I don’t know” to be polite, but I knew I’d never go back.
Without going into too many details, that’s essentially why I left my school. I have higher “earning potential” for my own black belt capabilities elsewhere. I was bored. I was frustrated. I hadn’t done higher level black belt training since last year, and as much as I liked my students, I felt like I was teaching the same old stuff over and over again to the same handful of people. I was tired of teaching all the time and longed for the days when I could just be a student and work out. While I realize teaching is part of the black belt’s job, only teaching and not training caused an imbalance in my practice. I was having more fun in my Body Combat classes at the gym.
Taekwondo wasn’t fun anymore, and that’s what made me sad. It used to be loads of fun, including the times when it was really hard, even frustrating work. It was still rewarding for a while, especially when some of my favorite students tested for black belt, but even that wore off. Now it just felt like work. I already have a job that I am well compensated for. When I do things in my free time I want them to be FUN and STRESS-FREE.
I’d already bowed out of teaching the earlier class because I hate teaching white belts and little kids who are too young to be in martial arts, and I didn’t want to get pulled into that again. (Nothing against white belts; that’s just not where my teaching talents lie. As for four-year-old white belts? Get the f–k outta here. The last four year old white belt I saw was dancing around in the corner with a McDonalds Happy Meal box on his head. Let him be four. Just don’t let him do taekwondo yet.)
I didn’t see anyone making much progress during our very limited class time in a location I didn’t care for. It didn’t help that our rush to clean out the old school and coordinate the move at the beginning of the year happened during a time at work when I was also feeling used and stretched to my limits.
I’d like to say it’s not personal and it’s strictly business, but it is personal. There were practices and behaviors I deeply disagreed with (let’s just say I was in a cultural institution where saying “no” and taking back one’s independence was frowned upon), but I’d let my cult-like devotion take over, and as frantic and unhappy as I was, I didn’t see how I could leave.
I was making myself miserable with worry about how certain people would react–my Grandmaster, parents, students. It got to the point that I hoped not only for the community center to kick us out due to low numbers, but I also secretly wished for ridiculous things to happen like getting kicked out for my tattoo or hoping to get into a verbal altercation that would allow me to leave in a self-righteous huff. But in my heart I didn’t really want those things. I didn’t want drama or damaged relationships. Finally I stopped waiting for a deus ex machina to release me from an expired obligation. I decided to just up and quit. I stopped caring about how other people would react or what they would think about me.
And I don’t care how people will react. I had to make a choice that was best for me to regain emotional health and balance in my life.
I know I’ll come back to teaching taekwondo. I like helping other people learn, and I like being that positive coach, poking and prodding and guiding people to their highest potential. I just don’t want to do that right now.
You may be tempted to ask, “Why did you wait so long?” One could ask the same question about why I stayed in certain relationships when they showed their true unpleasant colors. I ask you not to judge those in difficult situations. For a long time you tell yourself that things will get better, and that certain disappointments were just flukes or one-time incidents. The sinking realization that things will not change is a blessing in disguise because it is the first baby step out.
Taekwondo, whether it went beyond the realm of hobby to addiction or not, was the impetus for me to get control of my mind and my life and become who I truly have the power to be. I am a much better version of myself. I’m confident, much happier, and according to some people, funnier than I used to be….and I let it burrow deep into my brain and inject my veins with the sweetest, most wonderful high you could ever imagine. I needed taekwondo to feel whole, and when I lost the comforting structure that I had, I kind of lost my mind too. I think that’s why making a break with the people and the place and the practices and that particular institution is what’s best for my emotional well-being.
There is a future for me in taekwondo—just not where it has been for the last five years.
I did it! I got a tattoo! And of course I wrote a blog post about it!
So…THIS happened on Friday. After many years of being fascinated by tattoos, months of gearing up the courage to actually get one, and weeks of planning with my tattoo artist, I am now the proud owner of this beautiful black belt tattoo. My tattoo artist was fabulous: patient, caring, as clean and cautious and precise as a surgeon, and a talented fine artist who brought my concept to life.
It didn’t hurt; at one point I felt pretty sleepy and zoned out like I do when I’m getting my teeth cleaned. Now as it heals it just feels like a minor sunburn. It helped that I psyched myself out with memories of my most painful physical therapy sessions and a recent eyebrow threading (ouch!!) to give myself some perspective on pain. It felt like a flu shot at first and then nothing. Seriously. I credit my tattoo artist with her light touch and the fact that my upper arm had enough muscle and fat to absorb all the stabbing…so much stabbing…so much…
About the tattoo itself: I didn’t want to be one of those white people with Asian lettering tattooed on me, but I suppose one can make an exception here since I study a Korean martial art. I wanted the belt to have some realism and not look like a flat “cause” ribbon (sounds terrible but you know what I mean). If I was going to get a taekwondo black belt embedded in my skin it might as well look like one. The Korean lettering on the left is my name, and the lettering on the right is “tae kwon do”….I hope. The lotus was chosen both to feminize the tattoo (I can’t resist a pretty flower) and serve as a sly shoutout to the symbol of the Jidokwan school of taekwondo, which is what I study.
The Jidokwan symbol of persistence is encircled by eight petals of what some sources say is a water lily and other sources claim to be a lotus. I’m sticking with the lotus for its connection to Buddhism’s Eight Fold Path (read linked article above for more details), which sounds great to me in theory although wrangling my tightly-wound and also unruly mind around the Path is sometimes very difficult.
One source states that the eight Jidokwan petals represent the “Spirit of Eight Manners of Justice:”
Conduct with justice
….Church, I’m tryin’. It helps to have the reminder.
I didn’t get this tattoo just because I have a black belt. I could have done that three years ago when I was awarded my first degree black belt. I got this tattoo because I AM a black belt, and I wanted a permanent reminder etched into my skin for a number of reasons:
I don’t want to take for granted what taekwondo has done for me, even if I have to stop training entirely at some point. I can’t take sole credit for the big successes I’ve had in the past few years. I did that with taekwondo. About eight years ago I started on a journey to heal some wounds, change some damaging habits, and make meaningful discoveries about myself. I had things along the way to help me, and I did improve, but when I returned to taekwondo in 2013 my progress SOARED. Taekwondo was the key to making overarching and long-lasting change. It gave me confidence, mental fortitude, strength in the face of adversity, perseverance in the face of challenge, and a really strong jump snap kick.
I want a reminder that I can be a confident and capable badass woman. I have not always let people treat me well. Like most of us unfortunately I’ve been verbally and physically harassed by people close to me, by random strangers, by colleagues….I’ve watched other people I cared about be mistreated and didn’t step in to help. I’ve experienced and allowed this poor treatment as an adult, as a professional, as a taekwondo student, and even as a black belt. I was too quiet. I didn’t speak up or act out. Granted, most people I’ve encountered in life have been nice or at least neutral, but it’s really easy to be pulled down by those memorable assholes. I let the memories haunt me and shame eat at me. No more. The boundary is clearly drawn. Protecting myself emotionally and mentally is even more important to me than physically defending myself. I am making a promise to stand up for myself and for those I care about.
Remember that blog post I wrote about “giving zero f-cks by forty?” I meant it, and damnit it’s HARD!! So hard I had a reminder inked into my skin! I want to be chill and content and let all the BS in life (and there’s a lot) just roll past me. I want to shift my attention away from situations or people that don’t give me joy towards those that do. That adrenaline rush in a sparring match, that cool feeling of resolve as I practice poomsae, the pleasure of watching a student do something well, the high I get and boundless sense of peace I feel from practicing what I love…I want to feel that all the time. I want to flow with life and not get too hung up on the past or the projected outcomes. I’m getting there. I’m making progress every day.
Shortly before my tattoo session I was texting with my mom. I didn’t know whether I was more nervous about the pain or the permanence. She replied: “I got married to Dad and got pregnant with you and [your brother]. We all make things of permanence. Some are good and easy. But we have to deal with the decisions no matter what.”
I have made choices that have brought me sadness and success. For the most part, my decisions have created a pretty happy life for me.
I am a black belt in name and in spirit. I will never stop being a black belt, and I will never stop benefiting from what taekwondo has given me.
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.
Due to some restructuring in my department at the end of 2016, I was sent to a different work location that is MUCH closer to home, a much more fun and lively environment, and I have a big office and garage parking. At the beginning of 2017 I quickly rekindled past work relationships and built new ones, and I created a presence in my new domain. I couldn’t wait to get to work every day.
Meanwhile in taekwondo I was going to the dojang 5-6 days a week. Some of those hours were spent training in my own upper ranking classes, and other hours were spent helping my Master teach lower ranking classes. We had a little clique of black belts that cracked each other up with jokes and worked together well as a team when it was time to lead in class or coach our students at tournaments. I couldn’t wait to get to taekwondo every day, plus I had my second dan test to look forward to at the end of 2017.
2018…not so much.
This year started out as a big ball of stress: During January I was filling in for the lead facilitator at new employee orientation, which my department hosts every week for 80-100 people. I had been specifically chosen for this task because I was so well regarded as a speaker even though I am extremely introverted. I don’t know where that talent comes from. Black belt mojo I guess. [insert eyeroll here] While it was fun and somewhat fulfilling, it was utterly exhausting. I didn’t like giving up my Monday every week. I didn’t like having to be “on stage” and deplete all my energy.
In addition to orientation I was quickly being pulled into other time-consuming work projects plus learning that expectations of myself and my team had changed as well as the direction of our work. I didn’t like some of that change. While I’m financially comfortable and really do enjoy my job most of the time, I was starting to feel stuck. I don’t want to do training anymore even though apparently I’m pretty good at it. I want to shift to coaching and writing and have more quiet time. I do have those opportunities on a small scale in my current role, but my “talent” as a facilitator will be tapped into more often this year and the next. I haven’t left due to some sense of loyalty and fear of certain consequences (namely, not having income).
Meanwhile in taekwondo we went through a MAJOR shift that took up a lot of physical and emotional energy. We were moving from our dojang to a community center at the beginning of this year. Every day for the first week or two in January I worked all day and then spent hours at the dojang with other students and family members helping to pack up and store items from the school. I took it upon myself to text parents daily about changing class schedules. I was micromanaging the process, and I wore myself out. I didn’t like this change.
Now we have class twice a week in a new, more ascetic location, and lately I’ve felt pretty unmotivated to go. I’m tired of teaching and want more “quiet time” just spent training. As much as I care about my students, I dread having to spend 12-14 hours at another tournament. I want to shift from being “on stage” so much to training in earnest for my third degree and possibly competing in forms and breaking at tournaments. I don’t see those opportunities on the near horizon in my current situation. Once again I began to feel stuck due to some sense of loyalty and fear of certain consequences.
By May and June the stress was starting to subside although as I said earlier, I’m not thrilled with my current situation. I had been free of new employee orientation by the end of February. I had gotten into a more comfortable and organized groove at work (and more accepting of certain changes), and I found fitness activities to substitute the time I no longer spend in taekwondo class. Am I as ecstatic as I was last year? Nope. Do I have my moments of thoroughly enjoying where I am right now. Yes. A few breaks from the routine have been helpful, too.
It helps to remember that even though I feel “stuck” right now I always have choices. I have the choice to leave as much as I have the choice to stay. More importantly, I have a choice about my mindset. I can choose to be miserable, or I can choose to make the most of it. Usually when I make the latter choice things have a way of working out even better than I could have planned.
It also helps to have those refreshing moments that remind me that things aren’t so bad. This past week I taught a communication workshop to a group of enthused, fun, hard-working adult learners. Later I spent that evening sparring with some of my taekwondo students and teaching new black belts how to referee. Even though I’ve been telling myself over and over that I’m tired of where I am, I have to admit I had a pretty good time. I still love helping people learn, although for me it may take a different form in a few years. I made the most of it rather than wishing I were somewhere else.
For now I’m staying where I am and focusing on what I like about my status quo rather than ruminating on what I don’t like.
Here are some things we can all do when we feel stuck in a less-than-desireable situation:
CHOOSE how you feel. No one can control your emotions and reactions except you.
Accept what you can. My status quo might be…well…the status quo for a while so it won’t do me or the people dependent on me to fight it.
Look for the positive. It’s in there somewhere.
Plan when you can. Just because you are in a particular situation you don’t like doesn’t mean you can’t work on your exit (or change) strategy.
“Don’t borrow trouble from the future.” I heard this advice from a man in the course I recently taught. He warned against getting caught up in all the “what ifs” that can distract us from the real life that is happening NOW. That phrase is golden.
Focus on what feels good.
Make the most of it and remember, another change is inevitably coming.
This is my last essay examining an individual form. Unless I can talk one of the senior black belts into teaching me Sipjin or Jitae I’ve gone as far as I can go with black belt forms…for now. I plan on teaching myself Taeguk color belt forms, so that will definitely give me some insight to write about at a later date. But for now this is the end of the direction I’ve been taking with The Poomsae Series.
I don’t even know how to spell the name of the most recent form I learned. I’m going to take a guess and call it “Nopei” (pronounced NO-pay), or as one of the grandmasters in our circle calls it, “that old Japanese form.” At my school this form is learned along with Sipjin at fourth Dan. It’s the last form performed before one attains the level of master…in our school anyway. It’s the end of one journey and the beginning of another.
Nopei is a holdover from the old days of taekwondo, or at least the “old days” of the resurgence after the Japanese occupation of Korea and the rise of Korean grandmasters in the United States. It’s a very rarely taught or practiced form in the American taekwondo world, like Koryo One (see article for explanation) and more recently (and regrettably in my opinion) the Palgwe forms.
I asked the master who trained me for my black belt to teach it to me as somewhat of a goodbye. He was leaving the school to take a full-time job, and poomsae (forms) was one of his greatest talents. He always made forms look precise, strong, and smooth, and he expected no less from his students. He’s been my mentor, leader, and friend for several years, and I’ve modeled all the things I do well after his teaching, especially the way I practice and perform forms. I won’t blame him for the stupid things I do—that’s all me.
Nopei begins simply, even more simply than the Palgwe OR Taeguk forms: one double knifehand high block to the left followed by a slight shift in weight and another to the right. Fists go the belt and the black belt takes three determined steps forward—not slides, not in any fighting stances, just straight up walking (hell, practically strolling although in a very determined manner) with precisely rolling feet.
This is where it gets interesting. In a flash the black belt leaps from the simple walking position into a graceful landing onto the left leg and holds for a breath, just long enough to make an impression. The best way I can describe this movement is that it ends up looking like the Keumgang crane stance with diamond block except with knife hands and the lifted leg more angled for roundhouse kick rather than side kick. It’s a beautiful image, and I know my words don’t do it justice. Along with simple inside-to-outside knife hand strikes, a few middle punches, and a break in dead center with a downward punch (ideally with an actual board or block), the jump is performed three more times.
Nopei ends simply and softly with three high blocks to the back and, facing forward again, those same two knifehand blocks but with the body at a slight 45 degree angle, a subtle wink to whoever is paying close attention.
There are a few more novel pieces to the form after the break, but my favorite part to watch (and to do) is the jump. It’s so different from anything I’ve done in a form or anything I’ve done in five years of taekwondo classes for that matter. It takes some adjusting in both body and mental focus.
Things have changed dramatically for me in my little taekwondo world. The master who taught me the form is gone, we’ve moved to a new location and are still adjusting to the space, and there’s now a lot more pressure on me to lead classes. For the first time it’s begun to feel like work and an obligation rather than an energy-booster and a pleasure, and that has broken my heart. My feelings toward and relationship with taekwondo has changed.
What this form has taught me is that I know more than I think I do. I can learn a deceivingly simple form with new and unfamiliar movements. I can lead other students and black belts. I can adjust to changes that I don’t necessarily want but have to accept.
Many years ago when I first got into the organizational development industry I was fretting over a project I didn’t feel qualified or experienced for. My director at the time, who was always kind and sincere, looked at me pointedly, said, “Melanie, you know more than you think you do,” and strolled into his office. I’ve never forgotten that moment and I keep that memory as a motivator whenever I’m faced with a challenge. I know more than I think I do at work, in taekwondo, and in life. I just have to relax and trust my instincts.
“Let’s do Nopei together so I don’t cry.” I was chatting with my master before an evening class during the last week he taught at my dojang. I was starting to get teary and emotional about the fact that I wouldn’t get to learn from him anymore. He has inspired, guided, and pushed me further than I thought I could go in the last five years. He’s the best “boss” I’ve ever had as far as grooming and preparing me for my own leadership role, even on the days when I didn’t like him very much, ha ha. These days when I really don’t want to teach I pull from a store of confidence I’ve been able to build through my master’s guidance. I know more than I think I do. He saw that in me before I even realized it.
Moving and breathing in unison we walked through the form together. Then he had me go through it on my own so he could observe, ever the instructor. That was the last form we practiced together and a fitting passing of the torch from teacher to student.
I know more than I think I do, and I know I can do this on my own.
[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.
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?
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.
I decided to take the last week of August off from taekwondo because of a few lingering injuries that kept getting irritated and frankly, I was burned out. I had been going to taekwondo five or six days a week, attending my own classes, plus I showed up at the lower ranking classes to help teach and hang out with the instructors. It was all good fun until one day I thought, “I need a break.” I enjoyed my week off and was thoroughly looking forward to starting up classes again plus attending my gym more often and cleaning up my diet.
Instead I got a cold last week. I couldn’t go to sparring, and my balance was so off thanks to sinus pressure that I had a hard time demonstrating takedowns and jumps for students working on test preparations. Last Friday we had a color belt test instead of regular class. I got a few seconds workout sparring with a kid testing for black tip, and I took a ballet barre class on Sunday, but other than that I haven’t been able to have a hard workout in a while. I couldn’t wait to go to class on Monday.
Yesterday, the day I wanted to go back to class, my back decided to give out. No! Not another week off! Ah, the curse of the Odd Years Bulging Disc. I have “thrown my back out” every odd year since 2011. I was due this year and was hoping I could hold out until after my test, but like the rest of me, my back is a high achiever that likes to plan ahead. Hooray!
Thankfully it wasn’t nearly as bad as my past back blowouts have been, and I was even able to move around enough today to teach a five hour professional development class at work. I can do a turning back side kick with the stiffness, but the disc is still protesting a spin kick with pain…darn it, I was just getting decent at spin kicks. A visit to my trusty physical therapist should sort me out in time for my remaining classes this week.
Okay Universe, I get it. I’m done slacking off, rinsing my sinuses with a Neti pot, and pouting on my heating pad. I’m ready to come back to class (and the gym) now!
Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it! I heard that, of all places, in church many years ago. I don’t remember what else the priest said, but his wry warning stuck with me. Making a wish is also making a commitment to change. It’s planting the seed for action, which is sometimes nurtured and other times stays buried underground.
Perhaps the intention behind our wishes helps shape the results. What is behind it–frustration, anger, revenge or hopefulness, accountability, and humility? The major events and changes in my life are result of the intentions I’ve put out into the world. The Law of Attraction is real and evident in how my life’s triumphs and failures have played out. Sometimes the results I wanted were better than I could have imagined, and other times they were like the skewed ironic answers to a wish made on the cursed Monkey’s Paw.
I have wished for change in my professional life and have been answered with both stressful, unnecessary chaos and amazing opportunities. I have wished for change in my personal life and have been answered with both harmful relationships and incredible new ventures and helpful people. Either way there’s always been a pretty good life lesson involved.
Maybe my body rebelling with sickness and pain was not so much the result of an ill-intended wish but rather life’s way of showing me I’m not in control as much as I think I am. And that’s okay. I’m very organized and planful around my work and some of my personal life (i.e., controlling), and once in a while I’m reminded that I have to be ready to adapt when what I get isn’t want I originally thought I wished for. I feel even more grateful for taekwondo now that I’ve been out for two and half weeks. I can’t wait to have a hard workout, laugh with my classmates, and learn from my instructors. I feel so thankful and ready to work even harder towards second dan….I suppose that was the lesson I needed to learn this time.