“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.
My billiards partner glanced up at me as he said this and then narrowed his eyes at the pool table as he adjusted his stance. I had suggested he take an easier and more straight shot, but he was focused on long-term strategy. He wanted to set himself up to get multiple shots in one play. This involved taking a more difficult shot first so the cue ball would end up where he wanted it. Continue reading “Playing the Long Game in Pool, Taekwondo, and in Life”→
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.
On April 15 my blog turns FIVE years old! Since April 15 is a Monday, and many people will either be either working or madly rushing to submit their income tax filings I thought I’d treat my readers to some weekend bingeing. Happy early birthday to the blog and happy reading to you…
Wow! Five years have gone by in a flash, and so much has happened in my life both inside and outside the dojang. What an amazing five years it’s been, and I am so thankful to all of you who have read, commented, and encouraged me along the way.
Usually for my anniversary posts I’ll pick my ten favorite articles from the past year…but since 2019 is a milestone year in more ways than one, this is going to be a MEGA BEST-OF POST, YAAAYYYY!
If you want to dig into the blog, I recommend checking out The Poomsae Series (all about forms) and also spend some time in 2016 and 2017, where I did a lot of writing and experienced a lot of growth and insight as a black belt. If you want to get depressed, read most of 2018 or just skip that and put on your Morrissey/Smiths playlist on a rainy day. 🙂
For your reading pleasure, I’ve selected five posts from each of the past five years. Enjoy, share, and enjoy some more. Thank you very much for your continued support.
2014 – The birth of the blog and my growth as a taekwondo color belt and practitioner. The Big Bang of Little Black Belt – I kind of wish I’d named this blog TaeKwonDiva, but I went with the Little Black Dress joke. #noregrets (mostly) I Traded Magical Thinking For Martial Arts – Reality never felt so good. Can We Pause For a Change – My mom will probably get mad at me for saying this because she’s a private person, but one day she showed me a folded and well-worn piece of paper in her purse. It was the final paragraph from this blog post. I felt really touched that my writing meant so much to her that she would always keep it close. Are You In? – Five years later, and my answer is the same. I’m in. Bring. It. On. It’s Hard to be Depressed When You’re Doing Duckwalks – I’ve told the “stair step” anecdote many times in classes I’ve taught at work. Always get smiles.
I can win a game of pool, but I’m not very good at starting one. Let’s just be real–I’m terrible at breaking. I can never seem to get enough power to create a smooth and clean strike. More often than not, the cue ball barely moves the rack of balls, and sometimes I end up scratching. The last time I did a decent break had more to do with the extra-smooth surface of the table I was playing on than any of my technique.
Come to think of it, I could never get the hang of serving in a tennis match either. Sure, I could chase after the ball and lob it over the net, but starting the game on a strong note always seemed to elude me.
Why is it that sometimes starting something is more difficult than finishing it? I am very organized in my job and love completing tasks. I love making lists, not only to keep track of what I need to do, but also for that sense of satisfaction when I cross them out. But I occasionally find myself sitting at my desk feeling totally unmotivated to do what I know (and have spelled out) what needs to be done. Eventually I get to work, but making that first step can be more difficult than making the final one.
Is it not knowing how to start or is it plain old procrastination?
Finishing strong is important, but so is starting strong. When I was teaching poomsae (taekwondo forms) I would sternly tell my students that their ready stance (legs straight with toes forward, strong fists in front of the belt) was just as important as the rest of the form. I didn’t want to see any dead, glassy eyes, limp hands, or duck feet. If they went to tournaments the judges would most certainly be looking a that. Our beginning stance is our first impression. Focus and determination happen when you’re standing still.
Maybe finishing a task is easier because we’ve had some time to build confidence from our successes. We’ve had a chance to try things out, maybe even learn from our mistakes. Maybe the expectations on ourselves are too high at the beginning. We think there won’t be any mistakes or setbacks. We don’t think we’ll lose the game. Going into the unknown is scarier than conquering the familiar.
I don’t think I have the final solution to this conundrum, even as a VERY CLEAR (and impatient) “J” in the Myers-Briggs world. It can be helpful, if time allows it, to ease into tasks. Drink some coffee, journal, catch up on news, do whatever pleasant distractions you need to do to get them out of your system. Procrastination happens to everyone, and sometimes the best thing to do is just get it out of your system.
After a little while of working on a task, I find myself picking up momentum and completing what I’d been dreading getting started. This happens a lot with writing projects at work. I feel like I have writer’s block, but after I force myself to get started without the high expectation of finishing it immediately I churn out something that’s pretty good. Letting myself relax when I get started (but with focus and determination) often leads to a strong finish.
So maybe that’s the key–just relax and start. Do SOMETHING. Do ANYTHING. And try to do it well. Trust yourself to do it well. You’ll get to the end in no time.
The Poomsae Series is back! I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write individual posts for the Taeguk forms I’ve been learning (I was trained in Palgwe at my old dojang), but they’ve grown on me in the past few weeks. I’ve started to appreciate the individual experiences of learning and practicing the forms rather than just memorizing movements as part of a set. Now that I’ve gotten to know the forms better I can experience them and express them on a deeper level.
This past week I learned my final form of the Taeguk collection (gotta catch em all!) and the thirtieth in my overall repertoire. On Tuesday one of my instructors walked me and another much younger black belt through Taeguk Yuk Jang (6), and to be honest, we were all a little turned around. This form amps up the challenge to anyone trying to learn or re-learn it, even for those familiar with the Taeguk patterns.
As I did with other Taeguk forms, I first tried teaching myself Taeguk 6 with YouTube videos and reassuring myself that I’d get detailed corrections from my instructors in class.
Learning this form via video was a big NOPE for me. I knew IMMEDIATELY that I would need step-by-step help with Taeguk Yuk Jang. After unsuccessfully trying to follow what I saw in the video, I closed my YouTube app and planned on asking an instructor to teach me that form the first opportunity I had.
I like this form for its sheer weirdness. The lower level Taeguks seem to build on each other, and then right when you get comfortable there’s this funky form that blows everything up. This short but complicated form yanks you out of the trusty floor pattern and throws in weird blocks, roundhouse kicks (which are seen nowhere else in Taeguk or anywhere in Palgwe), and funny directional changes…kinda like some of the higher level black belt forms. And then, as if it were a dream, you get back to a sense of normalcy with Taeguks 7 and 8.
You literally pause in the middle of this form. It’s like you’re stopping, assessing where you are in space, and then figuring you might as well get back into the weirdness and work your way through to the end, first retracing your steps and then changing your path entirely. Taeguk Yuk Jang is not quite the mindf*ck that Keumgang was the very first time I was taught that form, but it is a delightfully frustrating puzzle of a poomsae.
Like Palgwe Yuk Jang, its Taeguk sister denotes a change in level and responsibility for the taekwondo student. After this form you are no longer beginner or intermediate. You are advanced, and that comes with a new set of expectations. Things are getting REAL. Red belt, like Ned Stark’s proverbial Winter, is coming.
When I did my meditation on the form Palgwe Yuk Jang I had the same experience learning it as I did more recently with the Taeguk form: everything seemed comfortable and normal in the beginning, and then BAM! Part of life is acknowledging that things change, and I am changed by experiencing this form. Both Yuk Jang forms have pauses, changes, and offer new perspectives.
I offer the same sentiment about Taeguk Yuk Jang that I did for Palgwe Yuk Jang: “A pause can be a moment of decision and a precursor to change. Those frozen moments in time, whether it’s a second or a year, allow us to examine the facts, listen to our deeper intuition, and choose the next step, whether it is continuing on the same path or foraging a new one entirely.”
“Your form looks REALLY good,” said B, a sweet, friendly and very tenacious blue belt/red stripe during a break in her taekwondo class. She added an emphatic nod and I smiled and bowed in her direction.
I had shown up early to the dojang to warm up and practice forms while I waited for the later class to begin. I usually try to get there about 40-45 minutes early partially to warm up my otherwise fairly sedentary body (thank you, office job that pays for my taekwondo classes) and to practice the 29 forms I had committed to memory. Practicing forms is a great way to shift my mental and physical focus from the outside world and the rest of my life into the pure taekwondo black belt zone. It was nice to know that my efforts had not gone unnoticed.
B and I go way back. She was a student at my old dojang until yellow belt. She was tiny, fierce, and serious. She LOVED our previous Master’s stern style of teaching and attention to detail and followed his every precise move with her big brown eyes. Eventually she warmed up to me too, ha ha. B transitioned to our new school in early 2018 and was thriving at tests and tournaments. I finally followed her to our new taekwondo home at the end of the year. Back to our conversation…
“Thanks, B,” I said, shaking her hand after our bow. “I was doing Palgwe Yi Jang. Remember that? It’s the second form you learned when you were a yellow belt.” I did a quick high block/kick/punch combo to jog her memory. Secretly I was very pleased that she took the time to observe, pass judgment, and give me feedback on my form. Black belts are students too.
“Oh yeah,” she said with a laugh. “I kind of remember it.” I gave her the standard black belt instructor you-should-be-practicing-all-your-forms-including-the-Palgwes-you-remember lecture and sent her back to her class.
I have no idea what form B thought I was doing. Maybe she thought I was doing a higher level Taeguk form that she hadn’t learned yet. Maybe she thought I was doing a black belt form. I was even caught off guard a little that she was impressed by what was seemingly a “simple” form.
Then I realized how sharp her eye was. Whatever I was doing, B thought I was doing it well. The thing is, I wasn’t trying to “look good.” I was just doing a form the way I do forms–taking it seriously and giving it my best effort. It didn’t matter that it was a low level color belt form. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t a form that is currently taught at my new dojang. It didn’t matter whether anyone was watching. I love doing forms, and apparently the love shows.
There are all things we naturally do well. Sometimes we like doing them, and other times we do things (well) out of obligation. You can tell when someone is doing something they love. They seem at ease, relaxed, happy. They’re charming and impressive. They draw us in with their charisma. It’s nice once in a while to get an outsider’s perspective, that fresh set of eyes watching us when we do something we love. It’s a snapshot in time of being in our element, of being the highest version of who we really are.
We won’t always have the watchful eyes of a child or a friend or loved one when we do the things we love. That’s the time to appreciate, revel in the moment, and let yourself be fully immersed in doing something that just feels so damn good.
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).
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.
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?