All Choked Up

28 Jan

Allison was on her back, her face getting red, increasingly contrasted against her golden hair. The problem is that there was another girl underneath her, with her arm wrapped around Allison’s neck. She was getting choked out, on the verge of submission. It was a bit challenging to watch, as there was little I could do to help the eleven-year-old get out of the situation. A small, mild-manner, sweet girl. Getting choked out, struggling, unable to move. She tapped in submission.

A similar scenario played out moments later when another student, Nick, a nice boy of the same age, faced a similar fate. If there was any significant difference, Nick’s face got even more red.  This fate repeated itself another time for each of them that afternoon. Allison and Nick had started the day excited to compete in this new event, submission grappling, something in which they had interest but had never really practiced, in any formal way at least; the schoolyard and sibling wrestling simply doesn’t cut it when another kid has had even a bit of formal coaching. They left that particular event rather frustrated and discouraged. Yet, on to the regular sparring and breaking competition!

This event was included in one of our regional Taekwondo tournaments, but typically isn’t part of Taekwondo practice or competition.  I didn’t simply throw the kids to the lions. I had checked in with the tournament director to ask about the level of practice and preparation of the other youth. He was encouraging of letting all interested students participate; the referees, as expected (and as they did) would be monitoring the action very carefully, with safety as a primary concern.

Likewise, the students’ parents had agreed to let them participate, fully aware of the situation. As their instructor it was my call as to whether they participate or not. Given their age, their spirit, their overall physical ability, and the “beginner” nature of the event for youth, I agreed. To their credit, their competition was not merely a bit more practiced, but also a bit bigger, if not a tad older, since the number of participants was rather small and they had to fight who was there.

Fast forward to the dojang the following week. During class I ask who had attended the event. Nick and Allison raise their hands. I ask in what events they competed; they had each competed in all five events: forms, weapons forms, breaking, sparring, and the grappling. They had each placed in two or three events, with the trophies to show for it. They had not placed in grappling. I ask them, “What was your favorite event at the tournament?” They both reply with smiles, “The grappling.”

There are five tenets of Taekwondo. The fourth one is Perseverance; the fifth is Indomitable Spirit. We often talk of instilling confidence in our students but, as much so, I have come to appreciate that what we want to instill is Fighting Spirit. Whether in competition, self-defense, sports, or even school or work, we want students to develop that Fighting Spirit, that Indomitable Spirit, that says, “I will keep pushing on, keep fighting, and won’t be defeated, outside or in!”

Even with shy and mild-mannered students, we instill fighting spirit with a “secret” process: one class, one technique, one practice with a partner, one repetition of an exercise, at a time. Show up, practice, show up again. Veeeeerrrrry secret.

It’s repetition, but it’s a slow, increasing intensity, an ultimate trial-by-fire that occurs by slowly turning up the heat a bit at a time, over time, as a group but also individualized. One doesn’t even realize how hot the water has gotten after some months or years. That’s the secret to good, or great, coaching/instruction: keep it so they can handle it, but keep upping the intensity, challenging them, sometimes crossing the line, but then pulling back. Just as muscles only get stronger with enough resistance, enough intensity and frequency of challenge (but not so much so as to be hurt or destroyed) spirits, too, must be pushed and challenged to become stronger. It all works together, body, mind and spirit.

I fear that most people today don’t challenge themselves enough. Whether exercise, new experiences, learning new things, taking on challenges, I fear that too many of us fall into complacency, at best, and fear of whatever even worse.

At our school we train a diversity of students but the majority of them I’d categorize as people one might never expect to see become a black belt. I wonder at times, and in particular recently, if I don’t turn up the heat high enough or often enough, particularly when some students need more and can handle more. That assessment is an ongoing process, but has been on my mind more as of late. I think our training is about to get noticeably more intense more regularly. I don’t want to fail my students, cheat my students, by being too easy on them and not preparing them for battle, whether in the ring of a tournament or the ring of everyday life.

But, then I realize that a sweet girl and a nice boy went out into a wilderness, struggled, fought to exhaustion, were defeated, but came out, arose, and felt good about it. In fact, they are looking forward to next time. Gotta love that fighting spirit!

Don’t cheat yourself. Turn up the heat! You don’t have to burn yourself up, but without heat, without challenge, you’ll eventually be just a cold, lifeless lump. Exercise/health? Family? Work? Other? Maybe a couple of areas? We only improve and grow, and get stronger and better, with challenge. Sometimes even big challenge, high heat. In what areas of your life do you need to grow, improve, get stronger? Push yourself! Challenge yourself! Turn up the heat and see how good it feels afterwards. I bet you can handle more than you think. Think Allison and Nick.

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