Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Paper

Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own. – Bruce Lee

It is often said that attaining the rank of 1st Dan black belt marks the beginning, not the end, of a martial artist’s training – that the years before are about creating the weapon, while the decades beyond are for learning to use it.  In these last two years of training as a 1st Dan, I am beginning to understand this statement.  My focus has shifted  from building muscle and endurance and acquiring my JSD curriculum material to learning how to learn, how to adapt, how to create and experiment, and, perhaps most importantly, how to teach.  As I prepare to test for my 2nd Dan black belt and to accept the title of Sabumnim, reflecting on what it means to teach others, and on the mentors I’ve been so privileged to have fills me with humility, extreme gratitude, and a desire to pay their investment in me forward.

It’s unsettling at first to put on a black uniform and belt after so many years of study as a color belt student.  I remember catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror and wondering about this unfamiliar black belt at the dojang before I realized who it was.  A black belt faces less scrutiny and feedback from the higher belts, but more responsibility as the lower belt students begin to ask for help and feedback themselves.  My goal as a 1st Dan was to focus mainly on myself, taking this time to deepen my understanding of the curriculum, to fix the things that needed to be fixed, and to develop the confidence I needed to live up to my new role and the duties associated with it.

During these last two years, I have gradually accepted more responsibilities helping with the children’s program and with the adult color belt students.  The experience of helping and teaching other students has been eye-opening in many ways.  It is one thing to do a form or technique, while quite another to communicate it to someone else, or troubleshoot what might be going wrong.  In some cases, I’ve been able to draw upon the memory of how the same item was taught to me, and I have had much success with that.  (The fact that I made a lot of mistakes and needed a lot of correction myself gives me plenty of material to work with in this regard.)  Other situations have been more challenging, and I have had to experiment, learning through trial and error what might resonate with a particular student.  In either case, I’m learning that the act of breaking down and working through a technique with someone always teaches me something as well.

 Another insight I’ve gained from this process of breaking down and experimenting with different techniques is that not every technique works for every person.  While learning the standard curriculum was important to my development as a color belt student, in the last two years I have been increasingly focused on how I can modify those elements to make them work for me.  I’m discovering my own favorites, and finding the tweaks I’ve needed to be not just correct, but also effective in the application of a technique.  During this time, I have appreciated having had both a solid foundation in my teachers’ methods, and also the space and autonomy to modify and experiment and begin to discover a style and approach that is uniquely my own.

Part of finding my own path has involved moving out of my comfort zone to cross-train in Yoga, Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  Exploring these interests and gaining the knowledge available from them has been extremely valuable to my development as a martial artist.  Exposure to different methods, techniques, and philosophies has broadened my vision and given me a new context in which to see myself and my own strengths and weaknesses, as well as new examples of instructors and mentors to watch.  As I shore up my weaker areas and become more proficient in these other pursuits, I will have a unique perspective and skill set to bring back to my own learning, teaching and mentoring at the Academy. 

An additional important benefit of committing to learning something new is getting in touch with what it feels like to be a beginner at something.  As a higher level student in one discipline, I have found that it is easier to identify with the confusions and frustrations beginners experience when that same feeling is fresh in my own mind as a beginner in a different pursuit.  The establishment of that connection is important to the process of meeting a struggling student where he or she is, and developing rapport. 

While establishing this connection with fellow students is, of course, important, in my mind, the mark of an excellent teacher / mentor is primarily the example he or she sets.   The people who inspire me are the ones who work tirelessly at something to get it right.  They put in the extra hours before and after and outside class, and are generous with their time and knowledge when asked for help.   Their hard work shows in the execution of their forms and techniques, and observing them motivates me to work hard as well.  This is the kind of example I hope to be as a Sabumnim at the  Academy. 

I am a very different person today than I was six years ago, when I began training.  I am stronger, more confident, more resilient, more assertive, less anxious, and less prone to depression and worry.  I am happier.  I have a body I truly love that amazes me every day with what it can do.  Training in the martial arts is more than a hobby or a workout; for me, it has become a way of life.  When I consider the way this pursuit has transformed me, I am acutely aware of the power a skilled and caring mentor can have in changing someone’s life for the better.  As I begin to find my identity as a Sabnumim, my goal is to combine the various experiences that have shaped, and continue to shape, my development as a martial artist into something that will benefit others as well.  Taking this next step in my own journey marks the beginning of my opportunity to pay forward what has been generously given to me, for which I am infinitely grateful.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

I'm Supposed to be Writing My Paper

Flashback to two years ago.  My husband is watching the Indy 500, my kids are off doing Memorial Day weekend things like hitting the pool and ArtsFest, and I'm trying to get myself psyched up to write a paper for a black belt test.  And not doing too well.

I was totally chill about this whole thing up until Friday night.  Falling asleep typically takes me about 30 seconds, but Friday night, my mind started going about the test.  As of right now, there will only be 3 of us, and I am the senior student in the group.  One is a 19 year old boy and the other is one of my close friends who is in his 50s but also very strong, especially since adding CrossFit to his regimen this year.  Neither of them has had close to the number of classes or outside training as I have, but I'm not convinced that all that extra work will make any difference at all when I'm faced with breaking a board or throwing someone twice my size.

These were the thoughts that had me lying awake Friday night.  I've had a low level anxiety thing happening ever since.

I have 2 weeks and 6 days now to prepare.... and I'd like another 4 weeks, preferably without any broken digits this time.  The toe has just barely healed enough to not need to be taped, but if I bump it, say on a shoe someone left lying in the middle of the floor.... it hurts.  A lot.

People have been reminiscing about their own black belt tests, and I'm hearing all of the horror stories of puking and injuries.  With only 3 of us testing, there is a good chance I'll be dealing more with the heavy hitters than I did in my 1st dan test when there were 15 of us.  This was the test I wanted last time, the one I felt prepared for.  Now I'm getting the small test I wanted, but I'm not going to be as prepared.  And that's just hitting me now.

Ryron Gracie was asked a few days before Metamoris 6 if he would be willing to fight a bigger, stronger guy and he readily accepted the challenge.  His mindset was that a true martial artist should be confident enough in his technique that he can be ready at a moment's notice, without the need for any special preparation.  I've known people who have approached their Dan promotions the same way, and I wanted to have that same confidence going into this one.  The Ryron mindset was working well for me until Friday, but this weekend, I'm not so sure.  I work hard, but I'm no Ryron Gracie.

So today, I'm restless.  I want to channel the nerves into some productive effort, but I'm feeling a little overwhelmed, not really knowing where to best direct my efforts, and feeling reluctant to ask for help.  The guru's guru mentioned the possibility of getting together this week, and that would be great, but I don't know how much difference one session is going to make.  I need to drill, drill, drill and not all of it is stuff I can drill by myself.  Hapkido, fighting techniques, judo, sparring and grappling all require partners.  Middle let me do some judo fits on him for a bit today, and I've got BJJ open mat this evening.  Maybe I'll go in and do weapon forms afterward.

Hoping I'll get this anxiety out of my system this weekend and get back to my normal training routine / mindset quickly.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Aaaaannnndddd a Whole Month Later.....

I still haven't been writing.

But Stuff is happening, so I'm trying again.

In most recent news, The Master took me aside in class this morning and officially asked me to test for my 2nd degree black belt. I have 5 weeks to prepare (and for my pinky toe to heal).

In somewhat related news, I dislocated or broke my pinky toe in Judo class two and a half weeks ago when I landed on it wrong while being thrown.  Spectacular thing, adrenaline.... I popped it back into place, slapped some tape on it and finished class, then rolled for the 90 minute open mat afterward.  As expected, when the adrenaline wore off and the inflammation kicked in a few hours later, it hurt.  A lot.

But whatever.  I've been through this before, three years ago, and this one doesn't seem to be as bad.  Buddy taping will now be a Thing, right up until, and possibly including my test.  It is what it is.  In the meantime, I've avoided Judo, as it hurts to land on that side, and I've tried to do more BJJ, where I'm already on the ground.

I feel very safe on the ground.

Much of the ground training continues to be one-on-one with the guru, who has continued to teach me when he's here on weekends.  Between my lessons with him and open mat on Sundays, I am feeling much, much more confident. Grateful as always for his enthusiasm and encouragement.

One such piece of encouragement was to take a seminar Rener Gracie offered in Baltimore this week.  I did it, and it was fantastic!  Not only was it great to meet him and learn from him, it was also a nice bonding experience for me and two of the other women from our gym, who rode down with me.

That's Rener on the left, and his assistant Brian Ortega on the right.  Both of them are larger than life, and Rener is an amazing teacher.  I have his DVD set, I watch his videos on YouTube, and I love learning from him almost as much as I love learning from the guru, who's methods and philosophy are very similar..

I left the seminar feeling inspired to learn everything there is to learn and have redoubled my efforts to watch and read and take notes on as much as I can.  My only frustration is that I need a partner to learn this stuff well, and I am often alone with no one on whom to experiment. When he's home, grabbing Little is always an option, but not for the extended amount of time it takes to really master something. And as much as I would love to play with Savageman, he has declared in no uncertain terms that his body is strictly a no-Jiu-Jitsu zone.  I guess there's always the pets. :)

So between my new passion and my current commitment to testing in June, I will have no lack of challenges in the weeks to come.  Add to that the Elder Teen, who finishes up college - not just for the year, but apparently for good - next week.

But that's a whole other can of worms, and really not my story to tell. I'm extremely grateful for the challenges my martial arts activities provide, and the way they constantly remind me that I'm strong and capable and able to learn even really difficult things when I apply myself.  It's been (and continues to be) exactly what I've needed.

Grateful, grateful, grateful.