Friday, March 09, 2018

My black belt journey

There is a cliche that the path to a black belt is about the journey, not the destination.  And that is true for anything that takes multiple years to complete, because anything that takes years is no longer an impulse decision.


Self defense testing at the ATA Taekwondo
Elbow strike drills

My fitness journey started when I was young. I was always one of the small kids in the class, which is a problem in the organized sports that phys ed was centered around in those days.  But, even then, my phys ed teachers made the comment that while I never was strong or skilled, there were many points where I made up for it by shear effort.  College was marked by suddenly realizing I was getting winded, and I started running then.  After college when working in DC, I continued running longer distances, with 1/2 hour and hour long runs being weekly events. (my roommate also did this, of course, we were completely overshadowed by his then girlfriend).  I continued running and hiking in grad school, and started 5K and 10K races.  Once when backpacking, I realized that if I was spending days going up and down ridgelines, I could certainly pull of the five hours of running needed for a marathon.  So I ran 1/2 marathon, then my first marathon (which was just under 5 hours).  I continued this after grad school while working.  And by now I have six marathons (Chicago; Ottawa, Canada; Philadelphia; and Bagram, Afghanistan) along with numerous half marathons and three Rachel Carson Challenges (34 miles hike in rugged terrain in daylight)

But reality, especially when kids entered the equation, was that my running had diminished.  I was no longer the neighborhood crazy who was running in all weather conditions. My weekly long runs were not much longer than my daily runs from when I was training seriously. And we were concerned about my four year old son (who gets to tell his own story).

After my son started taekwondo, we did the first month, then six more.  As we were thinking that this was something he could stick with, I decided to start as well.


Self defense testing at the ATA Taekwondo
Self defense technique testing, with the school head instructor as designated attacker.  For this particular rank, all the self defense techniques learned since the beginning were practiced in sequence, which made for a very entertaining testing session.
At the beginning, I did not join my son. And my reasoning is that there should be something in his life that was apart from us (parents).  But a few thoughts led to changing that idea.

1. I was confronting the reality that I was not a regular runner like I was. And the days when a 10K was easy were past, and 5K were now the long run, and I did not even make that every week.  While I was never structured in the past, having a bit of structure in my physical fitness was probably a good idea.

2. I always liked the idea of having some area in my life that I was active in that I was not very good.  I like learning, and this could be a new thing for me.

3. Because we were thinking of committing our son to years of future in taekwondo (and with my son being very enthusiastic about this prospect), I wanted to know what kind of kids my son would be learning from and looking up to.  Because one thing about the structure of martial arts, in any reasonable school, the senior students end up being teachers and role models for the younger students. And since in this school teens and adults were together, that means I got to see the kids who were growing into the future instructors of the school as they grew, and I would get a look at what my son was going to become (this was a young school, so I was watching the first group of students reach the point where they could start teaching)

Did this work?  

1. In addition to 2-3 classes a week (sometimes including classes my son and I attend together), I regularly train on my own (sometimes with my son), and we also do other fitness workouts outside the school (bodyweight exercises in addition to drills and practice). 

2.  It is not just learning something new, but it is also having someone pushing me on to be better, in the standard sense that the role of the teacher is to help you be better than you are today. And the art part of martial arts has certain appeal.  The head instructor at the school calls me a technician, because of the way I work on forms/poomsae.  (kata for the Japanese types)

3.  And I do get a very close up view of the kids who are on the instructor track now as we train together in class, and I get to watch them help instruct the classes that my son is in.  And confirm that they hold him to the highest standard that he can reach!

There are other fun moments.  When we started, my son was higher rank, so I reminded him that the job of high rank was to ensure that the lower ranks were training properly.  (later, we crossed over as at my school the younger kids take twice as long to advance in rank than not quite as young students.)  At the family classes, my son and I would find ourselves in races doing fitness warmups (pushups, situps) with the pre-teens and teens. (implication is that I was faster (more fit) than most of the kids, so they could only catch up when during my son's turn).  And I like to joke that the adults in the class have to remind the teenagers that we can still keep up.





Testing for black belt in ATA TKD
Sparring during belt testing

Black belt testing was a show, as it should be.  Board breaks with smoothness and power, and a poomsae that was crisp with satisfying pops of the uniform sleeves and legs on punches, blocks, and kicks. As it should be.

What next?  I like the discipline of regular feedback, and martial arts (especially forms) has the mindset that there is a perfect form, that we strive for but never reach, that I find appealing from an artistic point of view.  So I plan on continuing for the indefinite future.  Would I go on?  The standard pathways (as I tell people who are thinking of how this goes on college applications) are competitions, teaching, and judging.  And the reality is that I have multiple avenues that my time could be applied in setting where I am in a role of leadership (formal or informal), so going down those avenues in martial arts is probably not the best use of my time. (other than it is a point of reference with my son for the foreseeable future)

In my fitness area of things to learn (since Black Belt means I no longer count as a beginner), I am starting to branch out into other areas of fitness.  Many more forms of bodyweight training (which my kids are very happy partners), but also using resistance equipment such as dumbbells, suspension trainers, and resistance bands for strength training.  Which means someday I will have to do more sessions with a trainer to get the most use out of this.

The numeric designation of a Black Belt is 1st degree. The karate term shodan also carries the connotation that attaining the black belt is merely the end of the beginning of the journey. And I look forward to the years to come.


Testing for black belt in ATA TKD
Square block in Choong Jung 2 form
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