Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reflections on a black belt test

When I got into Tae Kwon Do 10 years ago, I never imagined I would reach black belt, much less keep at "the way" of martial arts for a decade. I also swore -- up, down and sideways -- after the test for my second Dan (second degree) in 2003 that I would never test again. After all, I had proven myself as a thirty-something female "non-athlete" time and again.

To get my second black belt, I ran two and a half miles on a cold, dark, outdoor track, with an egg in each hand, after being clobbered by men half my age in a brutal sparring session. I did hundreds of jumping-jacks, push-ups and crunches the next day in the traditional portion of the test. At the very end of the test, in a ridiculously EASY part of the test, I sidekicked the air with my left foot, put my foot down, and promptly rolled my ankle, creating a nice loud POP that caused gasps from the observing crowd. It hurt, and I couldn't put any weight on it. "Keep going!" the judges said. And I did, because the adrenaline was much stronger than the pain. At that point, all I felt was joy. It was almost the end, it didn't hurt THAT much, and I hadn't hurt myself before having to spar and run. I went home, soaked in a tub, iced my ankle, and got x-rays the next day. The fracture meant I spent about 6 weeks wearing an aircast and really drab open-backed flat shoes, but that was the worst of it.

So, I had a black belt with two gold stripes on it for five years. I was invited to test again this fall. The invitation told me something. Mainly, it said that my instructor could see through my veil of indifference. I never stopped training, even after enduring the most daunting test ever of my physical abilities, and suffering an injury. His invitation also told me that I tend to sell myself short, just as I did as an underbelt, when I refused to acknowledge any desire to test my ability to achieve the goal of black belt. Why wouldn't I go for the 3rd Dan? I was healthy, uninjured, and I'd been training right along.

I had to get back into sparring. That was incredibly intimidating, but I did it. And I got tagged a few times, by guys, girls, teenagers, and even little kids, much to my chagrin. I doubled up on classes to keep my endurance up, and the cardio workout in KickFit was the charm. I doubt I could have passed the test if I hadn't been going to KickFit classes. I resigned myself to the idea that I would not get through this test without an injury. I had to overcome real fear of getting hit, getting hurt. I thought about what the worst thing was that could happen. For me, a broken rib, a fractured ankle or a bruised trachea was going to really suck. But that kind of pain eventually heals. Once I realized that I was not going to be happy about getting injured, but that I would eventually be OK, the fear subsided. I could focus on just being there and doing what I've trained to do for ten years. As it turned out, we didn't end up sparring, but I needed every ounce of energy and toughness to get through what we were asked to do.

Reflecting on the test has me looking back and thinking about how and why I got into this sport in the first place. I had never been athletic, but I'd always had a lot of energy and I knew my body needed to be moving for me to be happy. As a new student, I experienced the culture shock of the discipline of martial arts. Wearing a uniform, bowing to instructors and fellow students, and saying "yes sir" were not part of how I imagined I wanted to live my life. In the practice, however, all my excuses vanished.

Being female was not an excuse. The fact was, I joined Perry's Tae Kwon Do on the recommendation of a female friend who was a beginner student there. Being a non-athlete was not an excuse. This friend was at least as uncoordinated and uncompetitive as I was, yet she was involved. Knowing zilch about martial arts was not an excuse. I just watched the other students and followed their lead, and focused on what the instructor said during class. It was only several months into my training when I became aware of my instructor's status as a world-class competitor in sport karate. And by then, I didn't care much, because I began to make progress in ways that thrilled me.

For instance, I could actually do push-ups. Real push-ups, on my hands and toes, not my knees. I could do ten, then twenty, then more. I could remember and successfully execute a series of moves called a "Taegeuk" or "form" - and learn more and more forms as time went on. I lost a little weight and gained a lot of strength. I started to have dreams that I could run up walls (maybe that came from doing a bunch of flying sidekicks). I trained with a sense of excitement, joy and fun. The fears that I felt were overcome, one by one.

I think that's been the most exciting and counterintuitive thing about training in martial arts. Lots of people assume that this activity is fear-based -- that one trains in martial arts because of a fear of weakness, a bad experience, a need to overcome fear of being hurt or attacked. I won't say that I've never had a bad experience or that I've never been afraid of being hurt. But I didn't come to this sport with that particular goal, of being able to protect myself. I needed an activity in a classroom setting to motivate me and let me have some fun. And I certainly got that. I also got big doses of confidence, at different times, in different ways.

I drew confidence from realizing "Hey, just last week I didn't know how to do this kick, and now I do it well." And, "Holy crap, I can do more push-ups than that guy who's half my age!!" And, "My presence, my voice, my attitude and my perseverance inspire my fellow students to do their best." I've also found great inspiration in my fellow students, male and female, young and old, of every race, creed and background.

Now, as a forty-something woman who has made this practice a major part of her life, I guess I can say I'm no longer a "non-athlete". I still don't like to run, though I wish I did (two of my sisters-in-law and several of my friends are inspirations). I'm the first person in our dojang to achieve 3rd Dan, other than our instructor. I can jump around like a maniac for 45 minutes three or four times a week and live to tell about it. Some of my kicks may not be the prettiest, but I can still break a board with my left foot after leaping and spinning in a jump-spinning-hook kick. Practicing Tae Kwon Do has helped me acknowledge not only the need for regular exercise to live a balanced life, but the need for joy and connection as well.

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