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.