I preface this entry with the commitment that I will be back training in November. Due to my husband’s extremely hectic soccer coaching schedule and the multiple activities my children are currently involved in, as well as a house that is on the market, this Fall has challenged me more than ever. It feels darn near impossible to get to the karate school at 7:30 in the evening, to be honest.
I decided to write today because I really wanted to go to class tonight, but had about four other places (both mentally and physically) that I needed to be for my family, which is just how life is right now — and that is okay. I accept it. I have continued with kickboxing, have managed to run about two to three times a week, and signed up for two 5Ks this Fall to hold myself accountable.
I earned my yellow belt in Combat Hapkido in July and started to learn a black belt Tae Kwon Do form, but have not been able progress beyond that. I miss the ritual of karate training; I miss the consistent, scheduled exercise; but most of all I miss my karate family – especially my training partner, M____. When M____ and I began training together, she was a high school student and I was a thirty-something mother of two with a full-time job. What is incredible is that these labels did not have bearing on how M____ and I worked together, challenged each other, and eventually came to care for one another. We have seen each other through multiple injuries, terrible days, amazing days, family struggles, frustration, joy, grief, and everything in between. She has seen me exhausted having given every fiber of my being to a belt test and she has observed the euphoria on my face when I first held my black belt. These are the ups and downs of the closest of human connections. The bond we have formed through years of practice and the twelve weeks of intensive training for our black belts is rock solid…and I miss her. I want to continue on my karate journey with M____, but I also know that she has her whole bright young life ahead of her. I need to make sure she knows that I will respect her decision to either keep going or take a break from martial arts, and that we will always be a part of each other’s lives, no matter where we go from here.
As the weeks go by and I struggle to find time for myself, it is easier and more convenient to take the afternoon kickboxing class while my son is in his karate class. I use the time before and after the Saturday class that I teach to practice my karate forms and basics, and I am trying to stay limber.
This summer I challenged myself to reach my potential with a high roundhouse kick and the above photo reminds me of that particular brand of self-respect. You need to accept yourself, but not sell yourself short; be kind to yourself, but do not make excuses. There is always time to work on bettering yourself in the moment, yet sometimes you have to be scrappy and piece it all together. It may not be pretty, but it is better than feeling incomplete.
As I sign-off and return to my children to sign permission slips, spellcheck homework, clean-up dinner dishes, fold laundry, and make sure everyone is scrubbed up and tucked in bed, my thoughts are drifting to the other working parents out there trying to keep their souls fed while giving the wellspring of their energies to others:
Let’s hold each other accountable to take care of ourselves, as well.
I realized a few days ago that I never even made a post about the test results. It honestly took me a full week to become some semblance of my true self again. In the meantime, I walked around in a fog trying to process everything that happened. The test truly is life-changing; there is no doubt about that.
Some black belts told me that after the last day of their exam, they went home and slept the day away. I had a meeting with my instructors for test results at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday and I did not fall asleep until midnight. I watched one of my favorite comfort movies, Juno, went to bed at 12 a.m., and then promptly woke up at 3 a.m. My mind was still reeling and, according to my husband, I was still kicking people in my sleep. I did not even sleep in on Sunday, which was Mother’s Day, but I did receive coffee and fresh fruit in bed.
Sleep really was not possible for me during the testing week. I think I slept a total of about six hours in the 48 hours of testing. On Friday night before the Saturday morning woods run, I just lay in bed…sweating – trying to use positive visualization strategies – but mainly just sweating. I received two text messages from non-karate (and I make that specification because I am so touched by how in tune they were to where I was emotionally) friends in the early hours before the last leg of the test – one at 4:30 a.m. that said, “There is a part of you that has been waiting for today. You will do this!!” And one at 5:15 a.m. that said, “You’ve got this!!! Can’t wait to hear!!!” I also received an email at 4 a.m. from my sister who lives in Oregon that said, “I’m heading to bed. And, in two hours you’ll be running around in the woods, being a black belt. I’m gonna light a candle for you. You got this.” The spirit and energy my loved ones provided for me during this experience was remarkable and unforgettable. I just want to place a little “thank you” here for the many other text messages and phone calls (and even a cake delivery) that I received on the day of and after the test – I was overwhelmed by the thoughtfulness.
In the end, it is near impossible to put the black belt test into words. Also, at my karate school the black belts are asked not to speak about the specifics, which is a request that I not only honor and respect, but truly understand. Each test is a little bit different, and although I do not think it would have changed my decision to take the test, there are some elements I am glad I did not know about going in. I can tell you this: I never expected it to be easy, but parts of it were certainly harder than I could have ever imagined.
During my week-after-the-test-haze, a friend handed me a book by Brené Brown called Daring Greatly. He highlighted a portion of the book and said, “Hey, this is exactly what you did.” The passage read:
Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience. We must walk into the arena, whatever it may be…with courage and the willingness to engage. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and hurling judgment and advice, we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability. This is daring greatly.
And that was a huge compliment. I appreciated the sentiment, but I am also humbled by the lesson and hope that I can live the lifestyle Brown is espousing. My karate instructors talk often about the pressure to be “perfect” and recognizing that, as much as we strive for success, no one is ever perfect. Furthermore, something that really struck me about the black belt test experience was that at the beginning of every testing segment, the instructors recognized that we showed up – because, literally, getting there was truly half the battle. I already discussed my Friday night sweats before the Saturday morning portion of the test, but I also experienced a complete anxiety-ridden, uncontrollable hunger strike that my body put me through on Friday before I had to report to the test at 6 p.m. I could not eat. I was nervous as all get-out, but I drove myself to my test and showed up and let myself be seen. There was a time in my life where I may have froze at the wheel of my car. A time when I may have let anxiety get the better of me and become paralyzed with fear. I see this as one of the most tremendous examples of how much I have changed through my martial arts training. This time, I knew I would show up.
After the test ended on Saturday, my training group and I were given some time off until Wednesday and Thursday evenings, when we needed to start preparing for our Black Belt Graduation. The graduation is where we will be officially presented with our black belts. The ceremony is this Saturday evening at 6 p.m. During this week we are practicing Monday through Thursday evenings for our group and individual performances. I am not a stranger to the stage, having acted in my high school Drama Club and having taken “Beginning Acting” during my sophomore year in college, but I am also not one to bathe in the limelight. I am proud of my abilities and I am eager to receive my belt, but of course, the graduation is one more layer of challenge in the black belt experience. I realized that, when you are a black belt, you are expected to live a little beyond your comfort zone. I will walk into the arena again on Saturday evening and perform my self-defense, kicking combos, forms, and breaks – hopefully with success – and certainly with the mindset to dare greatly.
My final week of black belt training came and went. Now, it is Sunday evening before the test week and I am excited, nervous, energized, and probably every other possible emotion. The testing week will go as follows:
Monday, 5/2: 8:45 p.m. – Written Evaluation
Thursday, 5/5: 6:00 p.m. – Oral/ Section I Physical Exam
Friday, 5/6: Time to Be Announced – Section II Physical Exam
Saturday, 5/7: 5:30 a.m. – Reaction Course Run
As I think about the past several weeks, I am automatically reminded of all of the positive energy and support that I have received from the women who take karate at my school. The adult karate class is now at a point where several women are advancing through the intermediate to advanced ranks, and most of these women are in their 40s. I am a firm believer in age being relative when in comes to maturity, but when is comes to wrist locks, takedowns, grappling, and sparring – age is certainly a factor. In addition, martial arts schools in the United States were once dominated by men. With that said, it makes me proud to say that two of my female karate friends earned their brown belts this week, three earned their blue belts, and one earned her purple belt, which means they are all (a) no longer beginners and (b) the brown belts are only two years from having the opportunity to train for their black belts, as well. This is incredible considering that when I started approximately six years ago, the only other woman older than 25 who was in the adult class was already a black belt. When I started, also, the class was almost completely teenagers. There has been quite a shift.
During my black belt training, one of my fellow karate and kickboxing friends never failed to send me one (or many) inspirational quotes on a weekly basis – sometimes daily. One gave me my own little Yoda training voodoo doll. I wore a black belt hairband that the kick boxers gave me for Christmas last year and a Rosie the Riveter t-shirt that says “Hit Like a Girl.” One gave me a bracelet that has the word WARRIOR inscribed on it, which was particularly meaningful because we started karate at the same time, but she needed to stop due to reasons beyond her control. All offered words of advice and wisdom regarding injuries and injury prevention. Many checked in frequently with text messages or in person at the karate school. But what was most profound and impressive was the spirit of support and encouragement that I have received. They have always had my back. I have always felt their desire for my success, and this is rare among competitive and driven individuals, which are certainly qualities of anyone jumping into martial arts training – even if their competition is within themselves.
As I prepare for a challenging week ahead, I know that I have my karate and kickboxing ladies by my side and am bolstered by their spirit. Furthermore, I am grateful for my husband and my mother who have given me their ultimate support and have picked up my slack for several weeks, and to my instructors who have offered me their wisdom and belief in me. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to work for my black belt and I would not have been able to do so without the support of my husband, in particular. I am anxious to come out “on the other side,” as one of the black belts (who, coincidentally, was at my introductory lesson) refers to as the time after the test. I am anxious to be on the other side and to have the storm of the twelve week training subside, but I also want to be present and absorb every ounce of experience that I can out of this next week. It will certainly be a time for reflection; I am so different from the thirty-four year-old woman who walked into the dojo door years ago. I was one of those white belts who immediately wanted to be a black belt, but I was completely unaware of what a journey it would be.
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.
If I could sing that for you in the tune of Gwen Stefani’s “B-A-N-A-N-A-S” song, I would.
I definitely do not want this to turn into “whiny blog,” but bronchitis is what had me all out of sorts last week during the six week evaluation. I hoped that it was just a cold and would resolve itself, but I finally went to the doctor on Tuesday and he confirmed that it was more than a cold. Unfortunately, the diagnosis means a week (or more) out of physical conditioning. I was still able to practice forms this week, but it also meant four days out of work; and from the searing pain in my ribcage that I developed this week, I can only believe that I have re-strained my intercostal muscles due to all of the coughing. (See my first post: “When Laughter is NOT the Best Medicine.”)
So, here I sit, ice pack on the ribs and back to my ibuprofen regimen. I’m on antibiotics for bronchitis until this Thursday, and with the chest muscle strain, it will be tough to run much this week. I’m also thinking that I should not do any abdominal work that requires twisting and either lay off or go easy on the push-ups. My first two thoughts this morning were (1) Am I just really old? (2) Or is this just crap luck? I’m still not sure which! There is no way I’m turning back now, and I will work through the injury, but I’m also the mother of two and teacher to approximately 100 high schoolers – thus, I do not want to do anything so stupid that I am putting my responsibilities in jeopardy.
It is hard to get out of the black belt training mode and see things objectively as my friends and family who do not practice martial arts may view my scene. I’m sure I seem like a nut to all of them. However, one of the black belt principles is perseverance. I keep coming back to that specific principle when reflecting on the past week and the next five weeks to come. I have to make this work in any way that I can. I just hope that my body holds up with my will and determination.
Last night I saw a theatrical rendition of To Kill a Mockingbird at Trinity Reperatory in Providence. https://www.trinityrep.com/Online/default.asp In the play (and in the novel), there resides the theme of making the right choices with your words and with your actions. It is also understood through the character’s experiences that these are not always the easy choices. The Trinity actors broke character throughout the performance and told personal stories of either oppression or misunderstanding. It is always eye-opening to hear a perspective that is not your own, and I thought this theatrical decision was very interesting. It tied in so beautifully with the advice Atticus Finch gives his young daughter, Scout, in the novel – that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” I have thought about Harper Lee’s message often in my life, particularly when things are not quite going my way (*cough*cough rib pain). Whenever I am feeling sorry for myself, I think about all of the suffering so many individuals in our world (and in our human history) have had to overcome. Clearly, our ability to be resourceful and positive when we are challenged has immeasurable value. If you are able to perceive the bigger picture, it allows you to climb out of the rut of negative thinking.
I will close for now and probably go on Pinterest and pin cheesy quotes about black belt training, which always seems to help. I remembered this morning that one of my track coaches in high school used to make signs that said P.M.A. (Positive Mental Attitude) and hang them all over our “track room,” which doubled as his Social Studies classroom. I am bringing that acronym back into my life this week. Hats off to Coach Mooney – still inspiring me after all of these years!
It kind of felt like I was “Livin’ On a Prayer” more than a few times this week. Unfortunately, I woke up with a sore throat on the day before the six week progress evaluation and had to work through feeling sick all weekend during testing. Currently, I sound like a cross between Kermit the Frog and Lauren Bacall – or maybe… Yoda.
I stayed late each night to practice defense – even on Thursday night when I had a 100.5 temperature, which was odd – the fever – because I never usually get them. This past weekend my training group was evaluated for knowledge of defense and forms, as well as physical fitness – which is my strength, honestly. I did not miss a movement with any of my forms, but I have corrections to make regarding how I throw my strikes and blocks. According to one of the instructors, I have made improvement with “the lines” in my forms, though. My defense was fine – I only blanked out on one out of fifty-four, so I don’t feel terrible about it. I just wish I hadn’t blanked out on any, which brings me to some serious introspection that I need to factor in at this stage of my training: the idea of not being “perfect.” Actually it’s more about forgiving myself when I make mistakes and not dwelling on them than being perfect.
Last night I found an excerpt from a book by Bodhi Sanders called Modern Bushido: Living a Life of Excellence. I am much more a reader of fiction than self-help, but this book comes highly recommended in the martial arts community, so I figure I will grab a copy in the coming weeks. The following is what caught my attention:
Wearing a black belt does not mean you are invincible. It means that you never gave up, worked past pain, overcame the disappointments, faced your fears, and learned enough to realize how little you actually know.
For a long time I had the perception that in order to be a black belt you had to pass every evaluation with flying colors. Obviously, the standard for excellence is high at the school I attend. I honestly do not think that most karate schools put their black belt candidates through a four day test. Clearly, we need to perform to the best of our ability and know our content, but before I started the twelve week training I had this impression that I would be transformed into a flawless martial artist. I also thought that the instructors would not be satisfied with anything less than perfection. What I have found out is essentially the opposite of that. From what I can tell so far, humility is an important part of the process; although the instructors want you to be confident, they also want you to realize that you are, in the end, human. The fact is that everyone makes mistakes, gets injured, or is nervous – it is how you respond to such stimuli. Will you focus on the positive and not dwell on the errors? Will you work through the challenges? Will you overcome your anxiety?
Now that I have a clearer idea about what the test will be like, I need to be at peace with the waves of nervousness that wash over me every once in awhile when I think about the final testing week. I have always tried to fight my anxiety, which leads to mental paralysis, especially in a high pressure situation. I am beginning to learn that nervousness is part of the whole experience, and instead of fearing the nerves, I want to get to the point where I can breathe through them and perform. Black belt training is, in part, about the physical test, but it is also about your mental acuity. One of the instructors has told me many times that the test is 90% mental. It took me five and half years (and six weeks of black belt training) to get here, but I am starting to understand that now – not just hear it.
“When adversity strikes, that is when you have to be the most calm. Take a step back, stay strong, stay grounded, and press on.” –James Todd Smith (a.k.a. L.L. Cool J)
This may have been one of the longest weeks of training that I have had yet, which makes me pretty nervous about this week –Week Six. Week Six marks the halfway point of our training, which culminates in a Friday evening Progress Evaluation and a Saturday morning training session. I am not supposed to give away any secrets of the black belt test, so I am going to leave the description of these two events at a minimum. Needless to say, I am going to need to prove that I know all of the content up to this point and that I have shown significant improvement. If not, my training is over.
Now, for last week’s recap.
During Week Five, we had our traditional training sessions for three nights, but on Tuesday night we had to stay until 10 p.m. for a Candidate Class. During the class we focused only on our defense techniques. The Candidate Classes are tailored to meet the needs of that specific training group and the defense portion was where we needed help. After leaving on Tuesday evening, I was in a bit of a funk. I felt like everything I learned up to that point wasn’t good enough or strong enough or I just wasn’t doing anything right. I am hard enough on myself and when I feel that I am not performing to my ability level, I tend to become insular. My confidence level was pretty low walking away from the class, but I had some good conversations with friends who have been through the training, and I felt a lot better by the week’s end.
On Wednesday I barely made it though the work day. I was living on coffee and fumes and started to get slap happy by the end of the workday when exhaustion was setting in and caffeine was making me brittle. At one point I started laughing uncontrollably in the department office (at something that really wasn’t that funny)and I ended up on the floor in tears. One of my friends at work encouraged me to go home immediately at the day’s end and take a nap — so I took his advice. When you work in a school community and most of your co-workers have known you for upwards to fifteen years, we see it all. It ended up being a perfect night off with my boys – relaxing, having a nice meal together, and catching up on snuggle time. Honestly, I barely got through the week. On Friday afternoon, I felt like I had survived a war (or at least a pretty grisly battle) and when I got home from work, this was my old lady scene:
With my Progress Evaluation looming ahead of me this Friday, I really need to make sure that I (a) take a lot of deep breaths, literally and figuratively, and (b) make sure that I get at least seven hours of sleep a night. It is going to be a challenge. I have been thinking a lot about balance and just how much I am asking of myself as a working mom. Although there is a clear goal and the time commitment is finite, there are some days when it feels impossible; but if I am anything, I am persistent. When I walk through the dark hallways of self-doubt feeling for a light, I always conjure up one of two things: anyone in my life who told me that I could not do something — because it is my nature to prove them wrong and that motivates me since I am a freak — or the image of my father cheering me on at the sidelines — because all I ever really wanted was to make him proud. Those are my two best motivators, and they work equally well; they snap me out of a dark place and get me back in the ring.
Week 4 of black belt training shifted us back to beginner material that we are practicing more intensely than when you first learn the content. So we worked the beginner forms: Chon-Ji (nineteen movements), Dan-Gun (twenty-one movements), and Do-San (twenty-four movements); the beginner defense for white, yellow, and orange belt; as well as, beginner strikes, kicks, and ten-point blocks. My training group also came up with a plan that after our training sessions on Tuesday evenings, we are going to spar and after our training sessions on Thursday evenings, we are going to break. This leaves the total committment for those nights as 7:30-9:30 p.m. roughly. This week (Week 5) begins with a Candiate Class until 10 p.m. on Tuesday night, which is going to be quite rough for me considering I am starting the week with only 5 1/2 hours of sleep last night, since it was one of my favorite (but late) night’s of the year – Oscar’s Sunday!
The Academy Awards are my Super Bowl Sunday. I wait all year for this, and try to see as many of the movies as possible given our busy schedules. This year, out of the many categories for nominations, I was able to see Spotlight, The Revenant, Star Wars: The ForceAwakens, Bridge of Spies, Sicario, Inside Out, The Martian, and Fifty Shades of Gray (which only had a nomination for Best Original Song, thankfully). Not bad for a busy year, but there are so many others that I am dying to see, including The Danish Girl featuring last year’s Academy Award winning actor, Eddie Redmayne; Room, whose leading actor, Brie Larson, received the Oscar this year; and Brooklyn – but only after I read the novel it is based on with the same title because I have heard it is really good. Here is a complete list of the nominations: http://oscar.go.com/news/nominations/oscar-nominations-2016-the-complete-list-of-nominees.
But, back to the point at hand – black belt training! Let’s return to…sparring. In my karate school, sparring is taught either full or no contact for beginners, and then you build up to the contact levels that you feel comfortable with. For example, some people may not want to be hit in the head and they can tell their opponent not to due so. When I first started karate, I kind of looked like a dorky Storm Trooper with my brand-spanking-new gear:
Since being a beginner, I have added rib gear, shin guards, a face mask, and a mouth guard to my sparring equipment, thanks to a side kick to the face, bruised ribs, and some seriously gross shin contusions. You need to get used to moving and breathing in your sparring gear, which is especially important on the black belt test when you are put into situations with multiple attackers. On the black belt exam, we do not engage in the typical one-on-one sparring that we practice in our regular adult karate classes. Most of what we need to be prepared for is the cardio endurance required to sustain a longer sparring situation. The running that we are doing during the training helps, but it is not quite the same type of cardio output that sparring requires. I am sure that my experience in kickboxing will only help, considering that we complete multiple boxing rounds for two-minute and three-minute intervals during class. However, karate sparring is different from the bag rounds we do in kickboxing since you are moving around continuously, and fighting back with an actual live opponent, not just a stationary power line.
For breaking this week, I decided to work with concrete. Originally, I wanted to work my speed break some more, but I realized that I hadn’t broken concrete in quite awhile. While this may seem strange to some outside of the martial arts world, breaking concrete is the natural progression from breaking boards as you head into more advanced training. Currently, I am working what we call a downward station, which is essentially concrete pavers or wooden boards stacked and balanced on cement blocks. The break type that I am practicing is called a downward elbow where you hit the concrete with the fleshy part of your arm near the elbow bone. I can give you a visual:
The thing is, it is an extraordinarily mental game. It may seem macho when you see these big, burly guys break stacks upon stacks of concrete or ice in karate demonstrations. And, yes, it takes a lot of strength to get through the material. However, it also takes a heck of a lot of focus, concentration, and, most importantly, self-confidence. Currently, I am a bit stuck on the self-confidence front. I know that I can (and want to) break more than two pieces of concrete. The issue is, quite simply, that I am afraid. I am afraid of injury. I am afraid of failure. I am afraid of an audience watching me attempt the break. I know I need to get over these fears – for myself and to grow through my training. However, the most important lesson that I am learning is to not compare myself to others. I know that others can get through 4, 10, 15, or more pieces of cement — and not all of these martial artists are men — some of them are women smaller than myself. What I need to focus on is being competitive with myself — not others. The more I compare myself with others, the more likely I will feel inadequate. If I am able to turn my energies inward and gain the confidence to push myself, to get rid of extraneous rumination of failure, then I will be successful. In the end, I should be pushing myself to be the best that I can be, not pushing myself to be someone else. That is my challenge of the week – to go inward – and to start preparing mentally – not just physically – for the challenges ahead.