Sunday, November 4, 2018

Black Belt, it's only the beginning.

I have to laugh when I look at this photo.

I’m flying high, fist ready to power though ten boards. My eyes are laser focused on the ten boards below. Those ten boards are what's standing between me and finally getting my black belt.  In that moment my heart is racing and I know I have this. There is no doubt in my mind.

But to quote one of my favorite movies, The 13th warrior, "And things were not always thus."

The night before my black belt test, I was a wreck.

Friday night we had a pre-black belt test class. Maybe it was the fact that I am not used to doing poomsaes in a group setting, surrounded by young kids... But I kept forgetting the moves. I could not make myself focus.

Perhaps I even over-trained

I have been practicing a lot; group classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, private lessons with Master Ko on Wednesdays, Saturday practice with Rick (3rd Dan black belt who is my age) and Sunday poomsae practice in my home dojang. In addition to that, my work moved to a new building with a gym. Five days a week I was using my lunch to work on my condition training.

Bicycle, weights, stretching, repeat.

Whatever the reason, Friday night I made mistake after mistake and by the time I left the dojang my confidence was shot.

The battle now was truly in my mind. I saw myself screwing up in front of my wife and the whole school. How could I trust myself to remember what I’d learned?

But I started to back off the ledge talking to my wife and a few text messages from Rick got me back into reality.

I finally laughed at myself, what am I picturing? Do I see myself being summoned by the resounding sound of a massive gong? A giant drum beating a slow rhythm while I am marched to the lit center of dark chamber? An ominous voice announcing, “Begin!” as I engage into a life and death struggle fighting off ninjas?

I really have to do something about my imagination.  I calmed down and simply decided to do my best.

The day of the test arrived. I walked onto the mat and was met by Rick who gave me a final pep talk and told me once again to relax. I slowly stretched and moved through my poomsaes to get my body warmed up.
Getting hydrated with Rick

The test finally began and we were called to sit and meditate. I slowly breathed in and out as Master Kim spoke soft words of encouragement to myself and the other students who were testing.

To my relief, when my name was finally called I would be performing my poomsaes, demonstrating my blocks using Korean terminology and basic stances, alone on the mat. 

Void of distractions, I performed the poomsaes, one after another without mistakes, building my confidence. I could hear people clapping for me after I passed each one, and the encouraging sound of Rick cheering me on.

Ironically, I made one mistake during the last one after I started feeling relieved, thinking I’m almost there!  Master Kim had me repeat that part of the form and I moved on.  By now I was so relaxed the mistake did not bother me at all.

Next came kicking techniques and footwork that I did with the rest of the group. It was good to get my blood moving for the sparring that came next.

For sparring I was matched up with Chris, a young 3rd Dan testing for his 4th.  I was feeling great and very pleased that after two rounds I did not run out of breath.

Next came breaking. I had to break three boards with a punch, three with a turning back kick and then three with a jump front kick. I was stressed performing the back kick, as I worried about my knee twisting. I broke through the first two, and then ran to break the last with the jump front kick

This was the toughest kick of them all. Three boards were held chest high. The challenge came not from the height, but the way the boards were held. For the other two breaks the boards are held on both edges creating an unmovable target, but these boards were held on only one edge, like someone handing you a plate of food. The challenge is you have to kick them very fast to make up for the lack of support.

I took a breath, let out a yell and ran.

I jumped. I kicked. I hurt my foot.

The boards did not break.

I stepped back a few feet, ignored my throbbing foot and tried again. This time I broke right through.

Me and Master Ko
Now it was time for endurance. I had to first jog fifty times around the dojang. My much younger classmates began to literally run circles around me as each in turn finished long before I did. But I kept my own pace, happy that my knee allowed me to run at all, and that all the cardio I have been doing paid off. Soon it was just me running, followed by student instructors and a crowd cheering on the old guy! I felt like I was in the latest installment of the Rocky franchise!

100 sit-ups, 150 backups and 55 push-ups later brought us to that final moment. 

This was the last challenge, the power break.  I took a breath, focused on my target and with one hammer fist broke through the ten boards and accomplished my goal.

I was a black belt!

As I reflect on this journey, I realize that getting my black belt will not be the end; it truly is only the beginning. I have achieved so many benefits from Taekwondo in the areas of physical health, mental focus and spiritual strengthening that I know I will continue this path for the rest of my life.

At the beginning of every class we state the ten student commitments. The tenth is, “always finish what I start.” For me, this is a commitment to continue daily in my study of Taekwondo for the rest of my life.

My advice to anyone, young or old who is considering taking up Taekwondo can best be expressed in the words of Master Sang Kyu Shim in his book, “The Making of a Martial Artist.”

“Venture into the unknown of your potential; you will surely come out the victor.”

My complete Black Belt Journey is now available on Amazon!
Check out "From the Desk to the Dojang" , click HERE to purchase.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Why am I here? The journey begins.

Master Lee smiled as she handed me a uniform and showed me where to change for my first Taekwondo class. "If you need help tying your belt, I will show you," she said.

I smiled back, awkwardly bowed, and went into the room to change.

Why am I doing this? Why am I here?

I put on the gleaming white uniform and tied the white belt around my waste. My hands tied the belt effortlessly, just as they had done times beyond counting,  32 years ago.

32 years ago, in 1983, I was 18.

Do the math, yeah this year I turned 50.


Why am I doing this? Why am I here?

Something has haunted me, for the past 35 years. It nagged away at me as I raised my two sons to adult hood. It's there in the back of my mind whenever I watch a movie with Martial Arts in it. Sometimes I even dream about it. You know those kinds of dreams that teleport you back in time and are full of emotions and vivid images of a time long forgotten.

I quit doing something I loved. I came very close to achieving the goal of getting my Black Belt in Tang Soo Do. However after almost three solid years of study and practice I quit.

I just quit.

Me at 16 Green Belt
Something happened to me that I will share in a later blog. One event caused the passion to die in a moment. One day I looked around the Dojang after class, descended the four flights of stairs and exited Byrnes Tang Soo Do in Medford Mass never to return.

Tonight I walked out of the dressing room into the Dojang of World Champion Taekwondo in Fuquay NC feeling a little self conscious in my new uniform. Most of the class are much younger than I.

Many are children.

Why am I doing this? Why am I here? 

I sat on the floor, began to stretch out.

At 50, I'm not in too bad of shape.  I walk three to five days a week. I do push ups and sit ups regularly. I try to watch what I eat. But the older I get, the more I realize I need something to do that will keep me in better shape the rest of my life.

I tried weights, jogging, even a few classes of yoga. But nothing lasted, I bored too quickly, lacking the passion for those activities to continue.

I do need to take care of my body, is that why I'm here?

The question remained.

Why am I doing this? Why am I here? 

I sat up for a moment taking in the Dojang. One wall was all mirrored. Another had the ten Student Commitments written there in big bold letter.

I read through the list, and I found my answer at the bottom.

"Always finish what I start."

And now I know.

That's why I'm here. I need to finish what I started as a teenager. I need to push my body and my mind once again. I want to regain the passion I had for martial arts. I want to revive what I allowed to die all those years ago.

1983 2nd Gup Red Belt Tang Soo Do
This blog is my journey. I am committed to getting my Black Belt in Taekwondo. Tang Soo Do was very similar to it's better known cousin. Both are Korean Martial Arts.

The school I have found is a traditional one, just like the school I attended all those years ago.

So the journey begins. I'm going to see if I can regain the skill level I once had, and beyond it.

This is a personal journey for me. I'm reconnecting to something I loved and something I was good at. To something that gave me two great friends I still have in my life today. Joe and Bobby, I hope you enjoy reading this!

We all have something like that don't we? An unfinished education, a musical instrument stuck in a case tucked under a bed somewhere. There are unwritten songs and unfinished novel taunting us in those quiet moments. Then there are those dreams placed on hold because we allowed people, events or even just life to get in the way of pursuing them.

This part of my journey is centered on me getting my black belt. I am starting from the beginning. The average time takes 3 years and I plan to blog on this every few weeks to journal my adventure.

Perhaps some of you will see this as my leaving markers along the way. Maybe they will  help you, my reader, to rekindle something inside yourself.

Perhaps dust off a dream once again.

I look at the young person I was in these photos. There is nothing I can say to him to tell him not to quit. But perhaps I can do him a favor by putting on this uniform and taking this journey, one day at a time. Maybe I can learn more about who I was then, and who I am today.