Basically, it is about the basics

When a new student joins our class, one of the first techniques they learn is the front kick.  It is a pretty straightforward technique that involves rapidly lifting up the knee and snapping out the ball of the foot toward the target.  Even students with no experience and limited coordination can approximate the kick pretty quickly, which is helpful for providing a good starting point for training and building early self-efficacy (confidence) for martial arts.  There is one drawback to the deceptive simplicity of this basic kick:  many people early on may assume that they know the kick well enough to go through the motions mindlessly and move on to more advanced techniques.

I’ve been practicing the front kick for almost 22 years now and I’ve given it very little thought for most of those years.  When we run through our basic kicks in class, front kick is one of the first kicks we do and it almost feels like a warm-up for the more intricate kicks.  Many times I’ve simply snapped the kick out with little focus on the specific mechanics of the kick, and as a result, I have developed a lackluster technique that gets the job done, but doesn’t meet its full potential.

Over the last couple of years I have revisited this most basic of kicks with a newfound interest in getting it right.  One book I read suggested enhancing the power of the kick by bringing the heel of the kicking leg up to your butt in preparation for snapping out the kick.  A video I watched reinforced the importance of training the “snap back” part of the kick just as much as the snapping out of the extension.  A karate instructor offered the wonderful mental cue of imagining that you are kicking sand off your instep (top of foot) into your opponents face to develop a faster extension of the kick.  I’ve also been reminding myself to bend the toes more on the preparation every time I teach the technique to a new student.  Combining all these lessons with a willingness to explore a technique that I hadn’t paid much attention to provided me with a new appreciation for the technique.  I realized that I could make it faster and more effective in sparring.  I felt like I could execute a higher and more fluid kick at a better angle during certain forms.  It almost felt like learning a totally new technique.  Along with front kick, I have also gone back to revisit and revise other basic kicks like side kick and back kick, and have spent a lot of time using books and videos to dig deeper into my lower belt forms to sharpen up many of the details.

In martial arts training, it is easy to get bored.  Much of the training revolves around repetition, which can build complacency and a sense of “I already know this, let’s move on to something new”.  But do you really “know” the technique?  It is tempting to assume you have learned a basic technique and move on to new and more advanced techniques without spending the time and focus building a good foundation with the basics first.  Bruce Lee is often quoted as saying “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times”.  The gist of this quote is that a person who has dedicated their training to the mindful repetition of a certain technique will be much more effective than a person who aimlessly jumps from one new technique to another without the sufficient practice necessary to develop a high level of skill at the various techniques.

The basics are the underlying foundation for everything that comes after.  The basic back stance allows for a good side kick, which will provide the proper structure for building a stronger back kick, which is necessary for developing a well-executed jump turn back kick.  If the stances lack balance or the basic side kick is awkward or slow, then all other kicks that build off of that technique will also be clumsy and ineffective.  The basics should be well-practiced to the point that they become ingrained and reflexive, but a martial arts student should avoid falling into the trap of becoming complacent from all the repetition of practice.  Don’t just rush through the basics to get to the “fun stuff”, take time to analyze the techniques, gain a deeper appreciation of their value, and ask yourself how you can make them better.

The spirit of spring

It has been a particularly brutal winter in Seattle this year.  I don’t mean that we’ve had blizzards and massive snowfall like the east coast; I mean brutal in that it has been a long, dark, drizzly season that has dragged on for months.  On the radio a few weeks back they pointed out the fact that we have only had three full days of sunshine since last October.  Seattle is known for being a rainy, overcast city; which is often overexaggerated, but this year we have truly lived up to our reputation.

As I sit here listening to soft piano jazz, sipping some chamomile tea, and staring out the window at the grey sky with the persistent drizzle of rain falling, I can’t help but get excited daydreaming about the upcoming spring and summer.  We had a peek at a bit of sunshine for a couple of days last week and I started getting charged up thinking about the nice weather to come.  As usual, I started making a to do list of summer activities I want to accomplish, started looking up new bike routes I hope to explore, and of course, started planning some of our outdoor summer tae kwon do trips.

When I lived in Illinois, there was a detectable feeling that came along with spring.  There was a definite division between the winter and spring seasons.  You could smell it in the fresh air and see it in the green grass and blooming flowers.  I remember when that sense of spring would arrive, my energy levels would increase and I’d become inspired to come up with new training goals and think of fun ways that I could enjoy training outside during the season.

This spirit of spring (and summer) has often provided some of my greatest enjoyment in the martial arts.  It seems like most of my best memories in tae kwon do have revolved around training outdoors around the beauty of nature.  I remember being a brand new student just a few weeks into the class and going out to a park in the spring to train and feeling that connection between our tae kwon do training and the environment we were in.  Through the years I’ve practiced at beaches, parks, play fields, forests, Japanese gardens, sand dunes, lakes, and expansive fields surrounded by prairie grass as far as the eye can see.  Every time I have had the fortune to practice martial arts outside I’ve felt the beauty and energy of nature around me inspiring my movement.

This connection between nature and the human spirit is truly special and it is something I look forward to experiencing any chance I get.  Splashing through some kicking combinations in the water on a warm, sunny day, shadowboxing in a field with the wind whispering over the prairie grass, powering through forms in a summer rainstorm, sparring waist deep in a forest mud bog, performing jump kicks up an enormous sand covered hill, and meditating in a flower garden with a waterfall trickling down in the background:  these are the experiences I cherish and will remember for the rest of my life.

There are many things that can enhance your spirit for your martial arts training:  your instructor, your club, a role model, movies, books, or your own determination to achieve your goals.  Consider adding the benefit of nature’s beauty, energy, and inspiration to the spirit of your martial arts practice, especially during the life-renewing spring and sun-drenched summer.  Find a park with a relatively secluded patch of grass surrounded by trees and maybe accentuated with a view of the water or mountains.  Extend your senses into the space and appreciate the sights, sounds, smells, and the overall feel of the environment you are in.  Let the scenery and the space inspire you and provide you with a sense of peace to get you in the proper mindset to practice your art at a deeper, more personal level.  You may discover a new sense of spirit in your training from the experience that can motivate you further and provide an even greater enjoyment of your martial art.

The power of defining yourself

I’ve been thinking a lot about my identity lately.  I was sick a couple of weeks ago and before that I missed a lot of training due to a holiday, lots of meetings, and a family trip.  When I don’t train or I’m sick for a while, I don’t feel like myself.  My identity involves being a healthy, fit, and active person.  When I recovered from my illness and returned to training I felt like I was regaining my sense of self.

I didn’t always identify myself this way.  Growing up I was overweight, out of shape, and had no consideration of being athletic or physically active.  During my senior year of high school, our PE classes changed so that we were required to do calisthenics, running, and stretching 3 times a week and our grades were based on our self-improvement.  When we started doing the stretching portion of the class, I suddenly discovered that I was very flexible, and that sparked the idea in my head that maybe I was capable of being a physically active person.  I became inspired and worked out obsessively, eventually gaining muscle and losing weight.  This change lasted about a year and a half before I fell back into old habits.  I lost my fitness identity for a bit until I found tae kwon do and reminded myself of what I could be.

My training in TKD built my confidence and helped me redefine myself as a fit, strong, capable person.  It also gave me a special identity as a martial artist.  For many years this made me feel like a super hero, capable of amazing feats.  I would run on rocks, slip into the splits on an icy sidewalk, jump on broken glass, and punch concrete patio blocks.   During a VO2 max aerobic endurance test in grad school I had to run to exhaustion, and the only thing that kept me going was the mantra in my head “I am a martial artist”.  I went from being a person with low self-esteem, low confidence, and no sense of control over my life to a person who had a strong sense of self and felt like he could accomplish anything he set his mind to.  My identity as a martial artist gave me courage and focus, and it challenged me to take the risks and make the decisions necessary to find direction and purpose in my life.

Be aware of the power of defining yourself.  Many people try to put a label on you or try to define who you are and what they think you are capable of, but the only definition that truly matters is your own.  If you give into other’s expectations for you and negative self-talk from your own mind, you can lose sight of your potential and can fall into the trap of limiting yourself.  You must see yourself as the person you want to be.  You must tell yourself that you are strong, confident, and capable and then live up to that vision through your goals and actions.  If you define yourself as a martial artist, make that part of your identity every day and consider the strength and spirit that identity can have on how you live your life. However you choose to define yourself, be positive and confident in shaping that identity, and appreciate the strength, spirit, dedication, and perseverance it took to get you to this point in your life.

Honestly expressing yourself

There is a classic interview with Bruce Lee where he reveals his thoughts on what martial arts are all about.  He said, “To me, ultimately, martial arts means honestly expressing yourself. Now, it is very difficult to do. It has always been very easy for me to put on a show and be cocky, and be flooded with a cocky feeling and feel pretty cool and all that. I can make all kinds of phony things. Blinded by it. Or I can show some really fancy movement. But to experience oneself honestly, not lying to oneself, and to express myself honestly, now that is very hard to do.”

Why is it so hard to express yourself honestly?  Probably because who we are is not so easily determined, even to ourselves.  There are many aspects to who we are and how we view ourselves.  We play different roles in society and often have to change our behavior to fit in with appropriate social norms and the expectations of others.  How I act around my boss might be different from how I act around a close friend.  The way I present myself as a teacher may be different than the way I act at home with my family.  We show different aspects of ourselves depending on the social environment that we are in.

The point is that there are many layers to a person’s self and it is sometimes difficult to clear away these superficial layers to delve deeper to discover the true self.  We may hide certain aspects of ourselves because of fear of being judged or ridiculed.  We may alter how we behave to live up to some self-imposed ideal of who we should be.  We may act in a way that fits in with what is expected of us, but may not reflect what we feel deep down.  It is sometimes hard to really know who we are as a person.

To go below the surface and initiate self-discovery, a method of self-expression is needed.  There are many possibilities:  music, painting, meditation, sports, spiritual pursuits, and martial arts are all valid methods of self-expression.  I think what makes martial arts such a unique method of self-expression is the fact that it harmoniously combines the mind, body, and spirit during its practice.  When a martial artist is performing a form or sparring with an opponent, there is nothing fake about what is happening.  That person pushes their physical limits, maintains strong mental focus, and relies on their indomitable spirit to keep them going.  When a punch comes at you, you react and there is no time for anything else but an honest expression of your training and a true expression of who you are in that moment.  Martial arts forms involve an established set of choreographed movements in a specific sequence; however, every person that performs a form will do it in a slightly different way.  Their personality, their emotions, and their mental state will all be integrated into the movements and an experienced instructor can watch a form and understand a great deal about the student from such a performance.

If the martial arts are your chosen tool for self-expression, you need to practice them well to reveal your true self.  Constant practice allows this self-expression to become natural and instinctive over time, and will help reveal things that you didn’t even know were there.  When I started tae kwon do, I did not view myself as a strong, capable person.  I did not define myself as someone who was athletic, healthy, and sure of himself.  Through the years, my experience in tae kwon do held up a mirror regularly and showed me that I am a confident person who is full of spirit and determination.  I am capable of more that I realize.  I have the ability to lead and teach others.  I can be a fit, healthy person who is strong in mind, body, and spirit.

The next time you are training, take some time to explore yourself.  Why are you there putting in the effort?  How do you feel when you train?  What thoughts and emotions come to the surface when you are pushed to your limits?  What are you learning about yourself?  Where does your perseverance/confidence/spirit come from?  Are you capable of more (mentally or physically) than you realized?  Keep training and keep asking these questions and with time you will get a clearer, more honest expression of who you really are.


Calm your soul

When filming his last film “Game of Death”, Bruce Lee’s vision was to create a movie that encapsulated many of his martial arts theories and philosophy.  Unfortunately, he died before the movie could be completed, and what little footage remained was shoved into a completely re-worked script for a cash grab of a movie.  However, many years later, a wonderful documentary called “A Warrior’s Journey” came out and it featured roughly 25 minutes of the original footage put together according to Bruce Lee’s original script.  There are many jewels to be found in this revised version of the film, but one of my favorites is a small, intimate moment with Lee’s character in midst of the brutal final fight scene.

After battling an insanely tall Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (7’2″) the 5’7″ Lee is beaten down and exhausted and worried that he may not have the stamina to survive the fight.  After recovering from a blow, we hear his internal monologue reassuring himself that the other fighter is also tired and can’t keep getting up.  Then he takes a breath and says “Calm your soul”, before gathering his last bit of spirit to take on his opponent and finish the fight.

Although this is an extreme example, I think these words should be taken to heart whenever we feel overwhelmed, exhausted, beat down, and are ready to throw in the towel.  We can only push ourselves so far before we fall apart, so the importance of finding some time for recuperation is very important.  Many athletes may train extremely hard to push their limits, as they should, but without proper rest and recovery they are setting themselves up for failure through a condition known as “overtraining syndrome”, which will tax their immune system, degrade their performance, and set them up for injury.  When I teach people about weight training, I often ask them “when do you build muscle?”  Many might assume the answer is “when you are in the gym pumping iron”, but the truth is the opposite.  Weight training causes the breakdown of muscle cells at a microscopic level that provides the stimulus for muscle growth.  The actual adaptations from training occur during rest and recovery.  You actually build muscle sitting on the couch watching TV eating a ham sandwich!

Many of the same truths about recovery also apply to martial arts training.  Within a class, the pace may be demanding and hard to keep up with, but a student can seek out small moments to catch their breath and focus their mind on what they are doing.  After a hard workout, a student should set aside some time to mentally and physically relax to provide a balance to the hard training they have completed.  When I took tai chi classes years ago, we would spend much of the class working through continuous movements in forms and silk-reeling exercises, often with deep stances that added up to some tired leg muscles.  Every class would end with at least 15 minutes of qigong exercises and standing meditation.  The master explained that the tai chi used up our energy, but the qigong and meditation were performed for the purpose of recuperation and revitalization of energy.

Day to day, in the midst of our busy, hectic lives, we may struggle to find our rest and recovery.  However, if you actively seek it, I believe that you can find serenity throughout your day, and make an effort to seek out moments of peace, despite a whirlwind of responsibilities, anxieties, and distractions.  Maybe it involves a short walk outside during a lunch break, a focused breathing exercise before a long meeting, or a quiet meditation when you get home.  Maybe it is something as simple as lingering over a nice steaming cup of tea or taking the time to admire the beauty of a hummingbird buzzing around a flower.  Whatever the form, I cannot understate the value to a person’s health, well-being, and spirit to regularly find a way to “calm your soul”.

Failure is an excellent teacher

I have had many belt tests over the years, but the only belt tests I really remember are the ones that I didn’t pass.  Testing for high green belt, I remember attempting a straight punch into a concrete patio block during the demo before the actual test.  I hit it twice, but only managed to make my hand bloody.  Then I continued on to the belt test, hand still bleeding, with an abundance of confidence that I was doing an awesome job during the rigorous event.  When the belt test results were given a week later, I found out that I didn’t pass.  My instructor told me that I did a good job, but that I needed more time at my current belt level.

At first I was frustrated.  I had tried a really advanced break on a concrete block, I had led parts of the demonstration, and had performed the difficult test at my physical best.  As time went on, I realized the lesson that was being taught:  humility.  I was advancing rapidly in terms of physical ability in the class, but I was not mentally where I needed to be for high green belt level.  I needed to put my growing ego in check and see the broader picture of what martial arts training was about.  It was a valuable lesson, and one that could only be taught through the experience of failure.

Sometimes, it is more important for a student to fail a test rather than to pass it with no reflection on the outcome of the test or the experience itself.  Failure, while not very pleasant, carries with it the possibility of deeper knowledge.  It offers greater reflection on your mental state, greater introspection on the reasons for the failure, and greater focus on the changes that need to be made going forward to successfully attain the goal.

Failure can change your perspective.  When something isn’t working, it teaches you to scrap that approach and look for new ideas and methods to achieve success.  Failure can also change your attitude.  A person who easily achieves success at something will get bored and complacent from the lack of a challenge.  A person who has failed at something they truly care about will hopefully learn from their mistakes and try again (and again) with a renewed spirit and a sense that the road to success is a bit clearer from the experience.  Failure builds character.  It teaches us who we are deep down.  When we fail, do we place blame on others, whine, and give up in anger and frustration?  Or do we pick ourselves up, rise again to the challenge, and eventually persevere?

As a parent, it is tempting to only give my son chances for success.  Society tends to do that with children as well; giving every kid in the competition a trophy and constantly reaffirming that they are the best at everything.  Unfortunately, the “every kid gets a trophy” approach doesn’t work.  It might temporarily boost self-esteem, but in the long run it gives kids an unrealistic view of their abilities along with an inflated ego.  When I play checkers or other games with my son, I don’t let him win every game.  Sometimes I will intentionally play with a handicap or play at less than my best to give him a chance to win.  Sometimes I utterly destroy him at whatever game he has had the misfortune to challenge me at.  Either way, I am not afraid of beating him at the game because I know that he will learn from the experience.  Sometimes he will lose 3 games of checkers in a row, but then he learns from his mistakes and wins the next game.  And when he does win, he knows he earned it and he appreciates the victory even more.

The same concept also applies to my martial arts students.  I could make each class and belt test easy and guarantee that they are always successful.  I could avoid giving any criticism and tell them that they are doing everything perfectly.  However, they would not grow and would instead develop a false sense of confidence in their abilities.  Honest, helpful feedback paired with consistently challenging classes and a series of small humbling failures (e.g. getting hit during free sparring, falling down, not breaking a board) are the things that make a student develop into a strong martial artist.  Mistakes and failures are part of life and should not be feared or ignored.  Instead a person should take the time to learn the valuable lessons that this teacher has to offer.  As Denis Waitley put it so eloquently, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”


It’s in the details

I am a detail-oriented person.  In my job, I love dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s.  Every little thing that needs attention ends up on a to-do list or a yellow sticky note placed strategically on my desk so that no task slips through the cracks.  I also appreciate the small details of daily life.  When I’m walking, I look around for the tiny hidden treasures that most people may not notice; especially if they are staring down at their phone.  A rabbit nibbling on a plant by some bushes.  A unique architectural detail in some old building.  The little things.

At the moment I am visiting Japan, and I am thinking a lot about the details.  Japan is a place that fits my detail-oriented personality well.  Everything here seems to have its place and purpose.  Very little is wasted or excessive.  Many things have a specific ritual or etiquette involved with them.  The weatherperson and newscasters on TV all bow after their reports.  Just using your chopsticks to eat may involve a whole list of do’s and don’ts.  The impressive care and attention to detail in the presentation of food can be found in everything from a fancy restaurant to a food truck.  The appreciation of detail can also be seen readily in traditional Japanese arts like flower-arranging, tea ceremony, calligraphy, and of course, martial arts.  Each one of these arts is carried out with a meticulous focus on following specific rules and etiquette, and paying careful attention to the expression of every detail.

During my trip I have been reading a couple of books on tae kwon do forms and their applications.  Although I am usually a stickler for details, I have realized that I have somehow taken more of a”big picture” approach in my practice of forms.  I have often been more focused getting down the basic movements and trying to understand each form as a whole.  Unfortunately, if you focus on quickly learning the form without exploring it deeper, it just becomes another exercise drill to get done.  It becomes easy to get in the habit of mindlessly coasting through all the forms like it is a just another task that I have to do.  Reading these books have made me appreciate what I have been missing.  In these books, each form’s history and unique characteristics are explained and every single move is documented with specific names and applications.  Going through each form step by step, move by move, I have gained a deeper understanding of the unique character and purpose of each form.

I am also learning a lot more about these forms that I have practiced for many years and thought that I knew pretty well.  I realized that  I have unintentionally modified some moves over the years, missing out on subtle differences in hand position or footwork.  Some movements I have practiced without much thought only to now realize that I have completely missed their hidden self-defense applications; like one move where the hand placement actually sets up a very cool wrist grab defense.  Some of the movements that seemed to be just a transition or an aesthetic flourish turn out to have practical applications for sweeps, takedowns, and escapes from grabs hidden within them.

It is easy to go through daily life and martial arts practice with your head in the clouds, blindly going through the motions and routines without much thought into the how and why of what you are doing.  In doing so, we might still be able to get from point A to B and accomplish our tasks, but along the way we will miss so much of the richness, beauty, and meaning that defines life and makes it so special.  Take a moment now and then to look around and take in your surroundings.  When you are going through a daily task, slow down and be mindful of what you are doing.  Take the time to wonder about how something works, who made it, or where it came from.  Life is not meant to be lived on autopilot.  It is all about the details.