One Step at a Time

Don’t get discouraged, distracted, or derailed.  The martial arts journey is undertaken one step at a time, one belt at a time, each one building on the last and looking forward to the next.

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On Teamwork

This post will seek to cover some of the merits of teamwork, which seems like a lofty goal.  The subject of not going it alone is so broad and so critically important that it’s hard to even touch on it and do it well.  I’m tempted to leave it here by saying:  Make sure you have a team.  Period.  Full stop.  ‘Nuff said, kind of thing.

But because it is so important, I’ll attempt a few words on why we cannot afford to do this martial arts journey — or any other worthwhile endeavor in life — without a team at our backs.

My thoughts are swirling this nucleus this morning because last night was our dojo’s annual student appreciation BBQ.  We met at a local park, braved ferocious winds, and chilly temperatures, and huddled in our jackets in order to come together outside of class.  I stood alone in the crowd for a few minutes, internally smiling, an introvert moment, just watching the mingling.  Over on the side, in an open area of the park, the teenage boys were engaged in a football scrimmage; the girls were talking around a park bench and watching the boys; the adults were feeding toddlers, manning the grill, and trying to keep all the loose plates and cups from blowing away.  Individuals were difficult to pick out underneath the layers of coats and hats, especially when it’s the first time I’ve seen some of them wearing street clothes rather than a gi.

These are a few defining moments in my life when I think, These are my people.  It happens with my book club, with a handful of close friends, definitely with my immediate family, spouse, kids…  And it happened last night with my martial arts team.

These are my people.  These are the people I train with, sweat with, mess up in front of, struggle through warm-ups and bag drills with.  That’s the guy who taught me the importance of breathing with full lung capacity; that’s the one who always wins when we go head to head in sparring; she’s the girl I would like to have on my side, no matter the circumstance.  This one here has the tendency to tear up under pressure, but still keeps coming back for more.  That one rarely smiles, which makes it all the more a victory when I cause one to flash across his face.  And that one over there, the smallest guy in the group, is the one who is always chosen to work with new people because of his incredible patience.  I know which ones are my favorites to partner with and which ones don’t have enough personal control yet for me to be comfortable rolling with them. I have seen them at their best and maybe even at their worst, coming through a difficult test or a sparring session.  I’ve seen them with injuries, I’ve seen them giving each other high fives, I’ve seen them multiple times a week for the past few years.  These are my people.

We cannot afford to go it alone.

I need this group to inspire me, to challenge me, to keep me coming back for more.  I need them to show me technical moves, to make me laugh when I just want to quit, to remind me that this martial arts pursuit is as social as it is individual.

Large parts of what make up my martial art are solitary.  I am not in competition with anyone else, I progress at my own pace, I don’t have to put anyone down in order to rise. And yet, as the backdrop of all those single accomplishments, there is a group, my team, providing the camaraderie and the support necessary to master the craft.

Don’t go it alone.  Find a team.  Invest in them.  Struggle, sweat, laugh, and train with them until they become your people.

Only 5 Substances

This post is based on a quote from the book Resilience by Eric Greitens, a book that is well worth your time.  He says:

“My tae kwon do instructor once told all of his students that only five substances were allowed on the dojang floor: water, sweat, tears, blood, and puke.”

In context, Greitens’ focus was on the value of mentors.  I have a deep appreciation for wise counsel, but the passage speaks to me additionally of other things.

The “five substances” are life at its barest and most whittled down form.  They are elemental to who and what we are.  The martial artist will most likely be faced with all of them before the journey goes far.  I use this list as a reminder to come to terms with the basics.

In martial arts:

  • we learn to respect our need for water and hydrate accordingly.
  • we sweat when we practice, in hopes of bleeding less if the time for true combat ever comes.
  • crying is an acceptable release of tension, so long as those tears never lead you to giving up.
  •  just because you’re bleeding doesn’t mean you’re finished.
  • puke — just like tears — can be a way of releasing of stress; get it done, and then get back to it.

The sooner we become familiar and relatively comfortable with these five substances, the stronger the foundation of our art will be.

High Rank Does Not Equal Invincibility

thumbnail_fullsizerender.jpgA high rank is like a flag of challenge when sparring lower ranks.  The yellow belt sees the blue and believes he cannot hurt him or will need to fight for his very life in order to win.  The blue belt is frightened or intimidated by the black, thinking this is a master who knows it all.

In either case, the higher rank may not be as skilled a fighter, as the fact remains that we are not all of equal skill in every area.  Some black belts are great fighters, some great teachers, some have precise forms or technique, others show indomitable courage and commitment.  Age, skill level, physical capabilities and well-being all factor into whether or not the higher rank will be more successful in winning over the lower.

If both ranks understand this, it removes the misconceptions that higher rank always has to win, or that lower rank has to use excessive force.  Training is beneficial only when all involved are learning, and sparring is no different.  Winning is nice — but not the end goal.

Students need to be taught that higher ranks are to be respected and yet are not invincible.  Instructors should never place themselves on a pedestal of superiority or invincibility.  Instructors and high-ranking belts have earned respect due to status, position, and dedication, but it would serve us all well to remember there is always someone out there who is better.

It’s possible that that someone may be a lower rank.

An integral part of martial arts is humility, in diffusing violence and lowering aggression, in choosing when and where and how to escalate.  When violence is necessary, it must be used decisively and definitively; in other situations it must be avoided, along with any hint of posturing or arrogance.

The high rank is indicative of a combination of things: skill, dedication, attitude, commitment, time invested, competence… It does not equal invincibility.  It does not mean you are the best.  It does not mean you are always right or that you have nothing left to learn.  It means you have courage, competence, commitment, a positive attitude, perseverance, enthusiasm, love of your craft, and years of effort invested.  It means you have earned respect;  it means you can hold your head high and walk with humility and still have much to learn.

Maybe not today… but someday.

On social media today, a fellow workout friend posted a meme that read: “Just because you can’t do it today, doesn’t mean you can’t do it someday.”

The timing of that is too perfect to pass up, as I sit typing with legs that protest every movement I make today.  I’m sore.  I attended a class last night at my martial arts school that would have been impossible for me two years ago.  As it was, I stuck it through, far longer than my mind and body thought I could, sometimes merely for the sheer stubborn tenacity of being the highest ranking belt on the floor at the time and therefore unwilling to give up in front of lower ranks — no matter if they are 20 years younger than I.

As my internal dialogue was cursing the instructor for the sadistic drill sergeant routine and I was dripping sweat on the mat and every muscle in my body was crying, it all of a sudden occurred to me that I had made significant progress.  Had I stepped into this class two years ago, walked onto the mat and attempted to follow instructions, there was no possible way I could have kept up.

But slowly, incrementally, one day at a time, one sweaty class at a time, one decision after the other to push, to keep trying — and here I am.  Able to do this class.  Keeping up.  Yes, it hurts.  Yes, I’m sore.  Yes, I have further work to do.

Today, however, what I could not do two years ago, or even yesterday, I can do today, and will do even more.  Someday.

Keep going.  One small step at a time.  Never lose sight of the goals you have set for yourself, whether it be a black belt or losing 25 pounds or merely attending one class a week.  Choose where you want to end up, and each day, choose again to work in that direction.  Because what you think you might not be able to do today, you will most likely be able to do someday, with the proper determination and application.

It’s Not About the Trophy

ei009The scene is a noisy gym.  Dozens of gis in black and white and red, some with elaborate logos on the back.  Parents with cameras.  Dragon heads waiting to be animated.  Tables of merchandise.  A food booth set up outside.  And martial artists working off the nervous energy in whatever way works best for them.

Some are practicing forms or brandishing their weapons or sitting in a meditation position just breathing. Some wear head phones, while others chat excitedly with teammates.  Some are parents themselves, helping their kids with gear, both here to compete together.

This is a martial arts tournament.

The ones who have come to participate can be found in all walks of life during the week.  We are nurses, students, moms, dads, construction workers, correctional officers, and school teachers. We are social workers and youth leaders and photographers and code-writers.  We are here because we love martial arts.  And mostly, we are full of adrenaline and nerves and both excited to compete and ready for it to be over.

This is a martial arts tournament.

Personally, I have both a love affair and a hate relationship with tournaments.  I know the weeks leading up to the competition will be filled with extra practice and critique of my form and my fighting skills, and more than usual will be required of me as I prepare.  I waffle in indecision over which of my forms I should perform and I wonder what kind of judges I will end up with and who I will go up against in sparring.  I dread the noise, the echoing gym, the crowd, and the exhaustion of the long day.  I know it will take one of my Saturdays, and we all know they only come in limited quantities each month.  There is also the entrance fees to consider, especially if there is more than one competitor in the family.  It all adds up and for all these reason, I dread when tournament time comes along.

The love affair side of that event comes into play when I consider what kind of martial artist I want to be.  I want to push myself.  I want to move outside my comfort zone and do something that intimidates me.  I know that in order to be my personal best, I need to go to a tournament and be judged by strangers and fight someone I’ve never met and whose skills I am unfamiliar with.  I want to participate in the community of others who also love this sport and this way of life. I want to represent my school with pride and support each one of my training partners that go along.  I want to be better than I was last year at this time, and part of that growth includes attending a tournament.

So, nerves and all other reservations aside, I went to a tournament last weekend.

It always takes me a week or so to process afterwards.  By the end of the day, I’m exhausted from the nerves and the anticipation and the energy expended in performing my craft to the best of my ability.  I’m tired from the brush of people and from encouraging my teammates and from the pictures.  No matter how well I do, I need quiet time on the way home and a few days to recover.  (Not to mention the usual six months before I’m ready for the next one.)

The most important thing I tell myself about tournaments is that it’s not about the trophy.  Every single one of us wants to go and do well.  We want the judges to rate us high scores.  We want to reflect well on our school.  We want to prove — even if just to ourselves — that we have improved.  We want to be stronger, faster, more precise than last year when we all came together to compete.  And, yes, we want to win that trophy.

There’s not a thing wrong with wanting to earn the trophy, with wanting to be the best in your division.  But that is not what it’s truly about.

It is about showing up.  Going.  Doing something scary.  Pushing yourself to leave the familiarity of your own dojo and face off against someone new, someone you’ve never met, someone who may have a wildly different fighting style than the one you know or vastly superior skills.  It’s about venturing into the unknown.  New judges.  New competitors. New location.  It’s about calming the nerves and focusing on breathing.  It’s about sportsmanship and love of our sport.  It’s about respect for the organizers and for each of the other martial artists who showed up.  It’s about representing my school in a way that reflects my commitment to character and respect and skill.  It’s about doing something hard.  It’s about choosing to grow instead of remaining small and safe in the little world I’ve carved out for myself.

To each one of us who have ever gone to a tournament and put ourselves out there and come away disappointed, either in our performance or in the fact that we did not place, I say, “It’s not about the trophy.”  To the kid who went and fought hard, but found himself outclassed: “It’s not about the trophy.”  To the woman who signed up and showed up, only to find herself in such a small division that she had no competitors at her level (and as a result, either won by default or didn’t place in a competition against a much higher rank), “It’s not about the trophy.”  To the teenage boy who finds himself in such a large division that he had a minimal chance of placing, let alone taking first place: “It’s not about the trophy.”  And to the one who so far out-classed his competitors and easily won first place: “It’s not about trophy.”

Before you ever enter those tournament doors, give yourself permission to walk out without a trophy.  If you are a parent bringing your child to compete, let them know you could never be more proud of them — for the simple fact that they showed up and are putting themselves out there — and no piece of gold or silver in the world can put a price on that courage.  Because courage is what it takes.

We do this for ourselves.  For the love of the sport.  For our senseis.  For our teammates.  And if we happen to earn a trophy along the way, that’s fine, too.  But never cheapen the art to make it about the trophy.

The trophy is nothing more than a cheap piece of plastic that represents your performance in that one event.  It can’t tell me how respectful you are or how much of yourself you invested or how encouraging you are to your teammates.  It can’t tell me how many times you put someone else first or how much you’ve sacrificed to contribute to the lives of others.  It doesn’t tell me how hard you’ve worked or how many hours you have invested or how many times you’ve tried.  That trophy can’t tell who you really are and what you’re really worth.  It’s merely a cheap representation of the fact that for that one event, you scored the highest.  It’s a cheap representation of one minute of your martial arts journey.

So go out and compete.  Put yourself out there.  Have fun. Challenge yourself to do the best you have in you.  Cheer for your training partners.  Applaud your competitors for a job well done.  Revel in the joy that comes from spending the whole day celebrating a sport, an art, a way of life that we love and are investing years of our lives in.  Proudly pose for pictures with the trophies you win.

And never make the mistake of thinking it’s about the trophy.

And So It Begins…

From the first step inside the dojo, the journey is ahead.  For the new martial artist, there is so much to learn, beginning with tying the belt, learning to make a proper fist, and how to throw a straight punch.  The first class is a rush, a flash, an overwhelming crush of information.

Not to mention the next day when the initial soreness sets in and doesn’t go away for a few weeks.  At which point it just finds new places to ache.

My own journey began over ten years ago, with my first visit to the local martial arts school.  I had observed through the glass, seen the classes and the uniforms and the various mix of belt colors.  And was hooked.

However, I had toddlers at the time.  Trying to fit three or more classes a week into a life centered around a three-year-old and a newborn was next to impossible.  Not to mention the tuition on a tight budget, one that — again — centered around the growing family.

My martial arts journey was put on hold after only ten short months.  I loved the classes, loved the camaraderie, loved the work out, but couldn’t keep up with the commitment.

Make no mistake — martial arts done well is a commitment.

That was my first step, but far from being my last.  After a decade long sabbatical, I once again started looking at renewing the journey.  My kids had grown, my schedule had become much more manageable, and I had never forgotten the rush of the dojo.  I had moved in the interim, which meant looking for a new school, a new fit, finding the right style — all challenges that are each a series of blog posts all on their own.

Long story short, I am currently enrolled in a fantastic school, with incredible instructors and friends in training.  I look forward to sharing bits and pieces of my journey, as well as wisdom gathered along the way.  One is never too old to learn or too young to teach.

So settle in.  Join me.  Grab some water or coffee or beverage of your choice.  Break often for stretches.  And let’s do this!

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