I wish this blog could be bright, cheery, and optimistic, and that I could tell you I am at peak fitness level and still training hard. That may have been true a few days ago, but alas, I am learning that it takes just one split second decision or one wrong shift in body positioning to change everything.
Week 11 started and I was feeling great! I ran three miles pain-free on Sunday afternoon, my first two nights of training were at high intensity, and I was confident. Then I threw a front kick onto a kicking shield, tweaked my calf, felt that little soap bubble “pop” of the muscle, and I was down again. Silver lining: I am not hurt to the same degree as I was three weeks ago. I got up. I could walk. However, I have a different plan for the next three weeks than what I originally expected.
When I started training, I thought the time committment and finding the balance between family, work, and karate would be the main challenges. I felt physically fit, despite my bruised ribs. I expected muscle fatigue, soreness, bruises, but never in my wildest imaginings did I imagine a calf strain/tear. I have never had problems with my calves; this is entirely new.
When I started training, I thought that I would be wracked with anxiety about the actual testing day and remembering my content. Now, that is the least of my worries. Now, I am worried about a calf rupture. Now, I am worried about not being able to run on the last day of my test and, therefore, not finishing.
I was told to “shut it down”(by many) this week, which is the vacation week from school and karate. My original plan was to put myself through a personal boot camp this week, but if I have any chance at all to make it to the test, I need to remain fastidious and rest. This is not easy. Every day I wake up with new ideas about what I can do to keep training without using my right leg. There is certainly studying that I can still do and visualization of my forms and defense. However, there has been a shift in my mentality.
The plan no longer is: “Kick Absolute Butt on My Black Belt Test.”
The new plan is: “Just Finish.”
Hopefully, in a week or two my system will be ready for a “RESTART.”
I watched a TED Talk yesterday called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” by Amy Cuddy. It made me want to share the story, especially in the event that it could help someone else. Cuddy is a social psychologist who researches how body language impacts our performance in stressful situations, as well as in everyday life.
Amy Cuddy’s speech resonated with me – not only on a general level – but regarding challenges that I am working to overcome with my martial arts training. This week I am coming back from an injury. It is the first time that my calf has felt strong enough to do jumping jacks, mountain climbers, kick pads and shields again, and to work on my spinning hook kick speed break. I completed a spinning hook kick speed break successfully when I was a red belt, but I have not done the break since. I was nervous to try it this week with my calf just starting to heal, but my instructor gave me the push I needed to give it a shot. It is not uncommon to be afraid to get hurt again after an injury (especially with such a high stakes test coming up), but it was a good idea to push myself a little. While I was listening to Cuddy’s speech, I thought about many of the breakthroughs that I have experienced in my six years of martial arts.
The first was a story concerning a time in Cuddy’s life when she would say to herself, “I am not supposed to be here.” Cuddy was in a horrific car accident where she suffered a brain injury and was pulled out of college. Doctors told her that higher education was no longer an option for her and that her IQ had decreased by two standard deviations. Fortunately, she had a mentor who did not give up on her, and she went on to attend Princeton University and became a professor at Harvard. However, in the back of her head she could hear a nagging voice saying, “I am not supposed to be here” when she attended Princeton and when she began teaching at Harvard. Cuddy discusses how she overcame that voice and was able to help students who may have had smiliar feelings of isolation.
Although Cuddy had an extraordinarily tragic experience comparably, listening to her story reminded me of my beginner days as a karate student. I was thirty-four years old when I started and in a class of predominately teenagers. When I first began karate there was only one other “adult” at my rank who was over twenty-five. I also had no prior experience with martial arts. Even though I loved karate instantly, there were nights upon nights when I turned my car into the parking lot of the karate school and I thought, “What am I doing here?” I was very self-conscious. Likewise, I vividly recall my first “circle of reaction” as a white belt; a twenty-something male student picked me up off of the floor in a bear hug and I struggled to release his hold – I had tears in my eyes. I doubted my strength. I was afraid. I froze. Yet, something made me push on. I continued practicing until I could get out of that hold, and when I eventually did, it made the victory so much more profound. I had to grow, to change, and to trust myself in order to get to the point where I could grasp the technique. I continued practicing because a voice in my head was telling me that I was, indeed, “supposed to” be at the karate school, learning self-defense and katas, but also becoming a better version of myself.
Another concept that Cuddy explains in her lecture is the ability to “Fake it ’til you become it.” I believe that there are situations in my life where I must exude self-confidence. When I teach poetry to my high school students or kickboxing to my Saturday adult class, when I am at social gatherings, and when I was younger, anytime I was given the opportunity to run, tumble, or flip through the air on a diving board, a gymnastics mat, or on the front lawn of our neighborhood full of kids. Yet, karate performance and testing has always given me pause. I get super nervous before tests. I have a hard time when there is an audience. I doubt myself. [Silver lining update: with all of the evaluations and spotlighting during black belt training, I have been less nervous. I know this is purposeful and an integral part of the twelve week training.] However, there is so much more I can work on, and Amy Cuddy’s idea – and the science backing it – about taking a moment to position your body in a posture of power before a stressful situation is something I am definitely going to try. Instead of standing in a closed posture with my arms folded across my chest, why not stand with my hands on hips before a test starts. Why not physically put my chin up when approaching a breaking situation instead of curling up into a fetal postion on the mat! Well, the latter might be a bit of a hyperbole, but you get the picture. I can certainly put this advice to use during times that I am not feeling particularly confident, but need to be (read: every second of my black belt test). If I am feeling anxious or stressed, why not just pretend that I am not, and hopefully a shift in my body language will change my brain chemistry. I love this idea!
Lastly, and probably the most relevant to me at the moment, was Cuddy’s equation that, “Tiny Tweaks = BIG CHANGES.” I was able to relate this concept directly to an experience from this week’s training: working on my spinning hook kick speed break.
“Tighten your belly.”
“Whip your head around.”
“Don’t lose sight of the target.”
“Don’t drag your leg.”
“You are only giving me 60% of your strength. I need you to give 100%.”
“Do not think about it – just do it.”
These are all pieces of instruction that my teacher has given me – and each one is infinitely important, helpful, and relevant to helping me find success with this break. It was amazing to me how once I made one “tiny tweak,” I could observe a major change in my performance. Each piece of advice or instruction is small on its own, but in unison they make quite an impact. That is how I feel each time one of the instructors clarifies a detail of a kick, a form, or a defense technique. Once you absorb and apply each element, the end result is rewarding and eye-opening.
It is interesting how life throws experiences at you when you need them most. Showing Cuddy’s TED Talk was part of our school’s mandatory advisory program this week for students. Little did I know that I would get so much out of the lesson! Sometimes the best advice comes to us when we least expect it. If you would like to check out Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, you can watch it here: https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are?language=en
On Monday I will start Week 11, which means I only have two more “official” weeks of training before the test since the karate school closes for April vacation. My training partners and I will still practice and run that week, of course. It is hard to believe that I am already this close — cue the stomach butterflies — but I also cannot wait for it all to unfold.
Weeks 8 and 9 have been more than intense; it started with a 1-2 punch delivered swiftly on Monday evening of Week 8 when I should have left my training session, having ended on a positive note: throwing a very tall, very strong man to the floor from a full-Nelson hold. This was followed by a conversation with the head instructor that ended with, “Go home and go to bed and think on what I just said to you” in reference to him telling me that I could do this, that I was strong enough and good enough and all of those wonderful sentiments you hope to hear from your teacher. But I was greedy. And instead, I suited up and decided to spar with a 6’2″, twenty year-old, male black belt. I’m 5’1″. I threw a front kick to his chest, it got caught on his gi, and I promptly fell in pain having strained my calf thirty seconds into the round. I was dehydrated. I was tired. I was not properly warmed up. I knew it would not be a good night for me to spar and yet I did it anyway. And now, my friends, I am paying the proverbial piper.
I have not missed one day of training. I am wearing a calf compression sleeve. I have taken two weeks off of sparring, breaking, and running, but have managed to complete every training session: working my forms and defense, kicking dry (without the resistance of a pad), practicing blocks and strikes, and doing all of the strength training. I also earned this badge at our final Candidate Class after hitting a pad with a back fist upwards to twenty-five times:
And so today, I went for my first run at one day shy from the two week mark of my calf injury. Picture this: a small woman is running uphill in driving sleet and wind. It is around thirty degrees and her once black running clothing is now completely white from snow. Did I mention that it is the first week of April? Her gait is best described as a limp-jog-walk. Her earbuds are delivering the lyrics “…Makes me that much stronger/Makes me work a little bit harder/So thanks for making me a fighter/Made me learn a little bit faster/Made my skin a little bit thicker/So thanks for making me a fighter.” She has tears in her eyes thinking about how badly she needs to finish this. How it has become so much more than a black belt. And wondering why the challenges are being thrown like daggers from the universe. There are, literally, chunks of ice falling on her head from encrusted tree branches when the wind kicks up. There is a metaphor in here somewhere.
A black belt told me a few weeks ago that you are “dealt what you need” during your training. Since I heard that snippet of inspiration, I am trying to see the roadblocks, detours, and obstacles as opportunities to learn something about myself. I have been confronting some demons. I am feeling more in tune with myself and I am listening to my body more. I have sought help. One example of help that was sought (and provided lovingly) was from my friend and owner of Still Point Massage in Providence, Rhode Island (http://stillpointri.com) who distributes products for USANA Health Sciences (michaela.usana.com). She hooked me up with the HealthPak – vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants to help keep me at peak health, as well as extremely helpful information about using my foam roller daily to prevent injuries and assist in recovery. She also was there for me in an instant to provide advice, support, and friendship at a critical time – and for that I am grateful.
Truth: I would not have been able to get through these two weeks without the help and encouragement from my friends, as well as from my loyal husband who has been helping me ice, roll, massage, stretch, buying me every accoutrement needed to heal injuries, and rubbing Arnica and Tiger Balm on any and every sore muscle daily – not to mention taking over the cooking, cleaning, and taxiing of children most days. I am quite lucky to have his support and, hopefully, he feels my gratitude.
Although I have focused a lot on the physical, much of what I am learning is mental. A goal for the rest of my training is to “get out of my head” as every single instructor has told me, as well as the chiropractor, for goodness sake! When trying to articulate this to a friend, she asked me if I ever doubted myself and the answer is “NO, NO, NO!” Never. From the moment I tied on my white belt, I have wanted to be a black belt. For me, “getting out of my head” is to quit the perseverating and over-analysis. To stop thinking so much about the training and just “do.” To start feeling the forms and defense instead of trying to memorize. To “trust thyself,”as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said.
There is definitely no quit here – and never has been – but I still think it is important to be human and show the struggle, because black belt training is a marathon, not a sprint. It is not for the faint-hearted, and it requires stamina, persistence, and grit. While I was running today, I also heard this gem from Macklemore that hit home and felt like a fitting mantra going into Week 10:
“Now, this is my job, I will not quit it/Pulled me out the depths when I thought that I was finished…/Listen, see I was meant to be a warrior/Fight something amongst me, leave here victorious.”
I may have a slight limp, but I am still fighting.