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Tag: martial arts

Black Belt Testing: it’s really not about the black belt

Yesterday, my daughter earned her black belt in Taekwondo. I expected, today, that I would be overflowing with things to say as a newly-minted parent of a black belt in the martial arts. Instead, I find myself rather speechless. I can’t… I don’t… I’m not sure how to…but, I’ll try anyway.

Some of the greatest pleasures I have experienced in my life include being a witness to my children working toward finding success. A few years ago, my oldest (who is now 18), learned to play the difficult and very fast Pour le Piano by Claude Debussy on the piano. She practiced so hard and for so long that she made her hands bleed, but learn it she did, and I have the privilege of providing testimony toward that accomplishment for her.  Here we are with that as my role again, this time with my second born.

She and I, well, we argue. We argue a lot. It’s frustrating, and it makes me crazy. Still, I adore her. While I want to move Heaven and Earth for her, she generally prefers that I stand down.  As I awoke early on the morning of her test, I struggled with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. After all, I had not done much to help her prepare. Does she have the right food for her lunch? Should I have washed her gear? Does she need a pep talk? I proceeded to flood her with my good intentions. However, as it often goes, she reminded me of why I had not offered all of those services in the first place: she doesn’t need me to, nor does she especially want me to. She’s not ungrateful, just independent. It’s ironic that I find it necessary to remind myself that independence IS the goal.

As anyone who has been here knows, the road toward achieving a black belt requires years of training. For us, the last nine months or so were spent in intentional (or at least trying to be intentional) training, with the specific requirements of our school in mind. Like the action leading toward the climax of a great story, there has been a lot of struggle, a fair number of tears, many moments of misgiving, and some definite fear and pain. I’m sure that if she were to be writing this, the story would be told differently; but as for me, I experienced all of those things, but what really stands out is the continual wonderment as she surprised me over and over again.

Leading up to the test, I had imagined that afterward I would be filled with advice for all you martial arts parents on how to navigate a black belt test with your children. It turns out, though, that I don’t have much advice to give at all. My son, Lord willing, will be the next person in our family to test for his black belt. However, as it seems to go with so many things, I feel like few of the lessons learned with my daughter will apply to helping my son. He has a different temperament, a different learning style, different strengths, and different challenges. So, we will embrace the struggle and learn as we go. Again and again, it seems I have to remind myself that these “journeys” don’t belong to me. The life journeys of my children, though similar in some ways, are uniquely theirs. So, maybe I do have some humble advice after all—encourage them to work hard, and then let the choice to work hard be theirs alone.

Finally, as I contemplate my job as a parent of children both within and outside the world of martial arts, I’m struck by the question: Other than parenting, are there any endeavors in life in which you pour your entire being into making sure the outcome leaves you standing in the dust, waving? I wonder if that’s where the term “bittersweet” originated?

It’s glorious, I say, as I wipe the tears from my eyes. I’m so fortunate. God is good.  Also, I’m glad the fierce girl with the black belt is on my side!

Lining up correctly: Should parents do Taekwondo with their kids?

About one and a half years ago, my oldest daughter decided that her siblings were having too much fun, and she decided to take up Taekwondo as well. On a whim, I jumped into class with her. It’s been a wild ride. Am I still the parent when my child, who outranks me, is teaching class?  I have spent years and years of my life pursuing higher education goals, so I thought I knew what it means to be a student. This is different though. I have learned so many things about myself: good and bad and in-between.

Yesterday, I tested for my senior green belt. I still don’t know if I passed or not (I failed to line up correctly in the first 5 minutes of the test). Since I’ve always been a very good student, this is a new kind of “uncomfortable” for me. Overall, the test wasn’t especially long or rigorous, as I was participating in a group of younger kids with lower belt ranks; however, it was hard in other ways. Pass or fail, Taekwondo has been good for me, and here’s why.

It allows me to separate my own emotions and insecurities from my children

For most of our Taekwondo years, I have been one of the parents sitting and watching as my kids were put through the trials of each belt test. If you’ve been there, then you know. If you’re thinking about starting this journey, let me just tell you that IT’S HARD! If you find a good dojang, your kids will be tested in the most profound ways. They will be put on the spot, questioned, pushed, and forced to a place where they must decide whether they will quit or persevere. Sometimes they will give in to the pressure and things won’t go their way, but more often they’ll succeed in surprising ways. I have experienced so many moments of sheer helplessness as I watched my daughter forget her poomsae, or my son struggle to answer a question. However, those moments pale in comparison to the “other” moments, the ones when I stand in awe at how they handle themselves. I have a tendency to underestimate them because they’re young. It’s so good for me to realize they have a huge reservoir of potential, and when I am willing to stand back, they will tap into it.

Yesterday, though, I wasn’t on the sidelines. I was in the middle of it all. My son was also testing, and I watched his feet touching the fire, but I was too busy trying to calm my own nerves to worry too much about his choices. He was on his own, and that was freeing for him and for me. After all, his successes are his, not mine, as are his failures. I will forever be his greatest cheerleader, but it helped me to see that he doesn’t need me to be. I’m grateful for that.

It has helped me realize that I still have a lot of growing (up) to do

Prior to this belt test, I relaxed in the knowledge that I was new. I wasn’t supposed to know much. Who can blame me? I’m just a white belt…yellow belt…green belt. Wait, what? Suddenly, yesterday, I was faced with the reality that not only did I have “grown up” responsibilities on the mat, but I was one of the higher belt ranks testing. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but that came as a shock to me. I don’t think I had thought forward far enough to contemplate the idea that going up in belt rank came with a new set of responsibilities—rules even. It’s not that I fear responsibility. I am an adult after all. THIS, though, THIS is a type of responsibility that is new to me. You see, I’m a finely honed introvert. It’s an art, and I practice it well. I like to lead quietly, from the shadows. Suddenly, though, I found myself on the mat being asked to lead LOUDLY.  I felt a certain kinship with the five year olds on the mat because I really didn’t know if I had it in me. I was revisiting what it means to experience new concepts, to have an “ah ha!” moment. It was one of those rare times when you make a realization that later seems so obvious, yet it was inconceivable just a moment before. It was strange. It was freeing. I liked it and was sobered by it at the same time.

Speaking of being sober, Taekwondo is not a quiet sport. It took several months for me to kihap without feeling I would die of embarrassment. Though I did get over that, it’s still not my style to attract attention to myself. In my life, I have succeeded by focusing on the matter at hand, quietly, and usually on my own. However, yesterday I realized that I couldn’t succeed unless we all succeeded, and as a higher rank belt it was my job to know that. This all sounds so elementary, even as I write it, but all you introverts out there will likely relate. Sometimes we have to be loud.

It has helped me find my way toward aging more gracefully

This is an ongoing theme in my head. That is, how much does my age matter when participating in martial arts (or life in general)? Well, I can tell you, it DOES matter. I’m slower, less agile, more easily injured, less willing to “jump into the fray”, and more willing to discount the importance of persevering, simply because the outcome in no way defines my day-to-day existence (I’m “old”, after all). Nonetheless, it turns out that in the most salient ways, my age really is not that pertinent. When I initially started Taekwondo, I was at a point in my life in which I had reconciled myself to the idea that it was “all downhill from here”. Each ache was just confirmation, and I was convinced that there was nothing I could do but try and accept the inevitable with a smile. Despite that attitude, I was still rather shocked by the reality of being in my 40s and attempting basic martial arts techniques. This was my wake-up call. I am now determined NOT to slide so easily into an “elderly” life style.

So, age is not completely irrelevant, overall. However, yesterday, at that belt test, my age did seem irrelevant. I’m convinced that I felt as nervous, vulnerable, and unsure of myself as some of the white belts. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that a few of those young white belts put me to shame. I was, in essence, a newbie as well—a youngster. That’s a wild, bewildering feeling after being a parent for so long. Yet, it was good for me. I remember now what that was like—being young I mean.

Why you need to tolerate discomfort as a martial arts parent

By Melisa Schelvan

A few years into our martial arts journey, we moved to a different Taekwondo school. It was stressful, and an excellent reason why you should choose the school you join carefully (this will be a topic of a future post).  I’ll never forget my sweet, shy son standing out on the mat in a new place, with a new teacher, surrounded by kids he didn’t know, when he was called on to answer a question. My poor boy could not find his words. The silence that followed felt interminable. If there had not been a strict rule about wearing shoes on the mat, I likely would have rushed out there, scooped my baby up, showered him with kisses, and carried him off to somewhere far nicer. It was excruciating for me. The instinct to physically rescue him was second only to my desire to yell out the answer for him. To this day, I’m not sure how I was able to hold my tongue.  Surely this was the end of his Taekwondo journey! I couldn’t imagine that he would ever want to return.  Imagine my surprise when the opposite turned out to be true. Sometimes, as a martial arts parent, you need to just “get out of the way” and let things happen. That requires a certain emotional discipline, but it’s worth it. Here are 3 reasons why.

Being active in martial arts improves physical fitness

This is probably the most obvious benefit; however, it is still worth thinking about. There are many directions a parent could go if the goal is strictly to help their kids increase fitness.  The martial arts are not for everyone, obviously, but for those kids who find it appealing, it provides a dynamic way of maintaining physical health. Martial arts require cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, flexibility, and self-control. (ok, maybe self-control is more of a mental benefit, but you need self-control to do all those other things, so I’m keeping it here!)

By necessity, the best martial arts programs involve periods of high intensity interval training (HIIT). Yes, the same type of work-out that is all the rage. There is a reason this type of exercise has been gaining in popularity.  Compared to more traditional continuous training, HIIT improves overall exercise capacity and metabolic health. What does that mean? In short, it means an increased ability to take up oxygen, improved aerobic endurance, and greater anaerobic capacity, among other benefits.  I personally find it surprising that HIIT training corresponds to lower dropout rates as well. It’s just fun!

Participating in martial arts builds resilience

I have seen this play out firsthand in my own kids over and over. Whether it’s the way they walk, how they talk to or about themselves, or just in the way they resist giving in to the temptation to quit, I have noticed a difference as time goes on.

So, what, exactly, is resilience? When it comes to our kids, there are two aspects of resilience worth considering. The first is their innate personality.  Are they naturally able to adapt to situations that are stressful or traumatic? Second is their learned responses. To what extent do they learn from and cope with circumstances outside of their control? Of course, it is much more complicated than that (for example, age, socioeconomic status, gender, life experiences, etc. all play an important role). Regardless, resilience is an important skill/trait that is a useful tool for children as they go off into the world.

Sports activities in general are considered conducive to building resilience. For example, it has been noted that “aspects such as effort, struggle, sacrifice, overcoming challenges, rivalry, evaluation, risk of injury, assimilation of defeat, and, in short, facing and overcoming numerous adverse and stressful situations are, to a greater or lesser extent, inherent to the practice.” Highschool Taekwondo athletes were specifically described as being resilient in a way that improved performance. Similarly, martial arts training had a positive effect on the resilience of middle school children aged 12-14 years when used as a mental health intervention.

Resilience is one of those ideas that, as a parent, I hope to not just convey to my kids but provide them with opportunities to develop. I want them to both think about being resilient (and consequently make an active choice to do so) AND be put in positions in which they have to BE resilient. I have found Taekwondo to be ideal for these lessons as my children have been challenged physically as well as emotionally and even socially by their peers and coaches.

The martial arts, when done correctly, foster empathy

Ok, it probably seems counterintuitive that participating in combat sports can foster empathy—I get it. However, learning a martial art, such as Taekwondo, requires “training partners”. There is an incredible amount of trust that must be cultivated between athletes who are training together (and their parents who are watching– this is where I tell you to just breathe).

Especially at the more elite levels (when kicking to the head is a desirable outcome), imagine the chaos if a martial artist had no empathy for his/her training partner(s).  Mickelsson and Stylin used the model of “rough-and-tumble play,” also known as “play fighting,” to describe how this works.  Rough-and-tumble play is a developing social concept that, when effectively moderated, documents how kids become aware of their playmate’s needs and desires so that the “play” continues. For example, if one child physically dominates another child and is unable to adjust his/her intensity, then the other child will no longer wish to continue. As Mickelsson and Stylin state: “this implies a give-and-take relationship where the attacker becomes the defender and vice versa”.  That is an elegant way of describing the relationships that are built within a team that trains together to compete in the martial arts. To further understand this idea, consider that there is a fine balance between the need for athletes to push each other to test the limits of their abilities and to maintain an empathy for the limitations of their sparring partner. This character-building dynamic begins at the youngest ages and is tested over and over as they move up in belt rank. One note of caution: while the potential benefit is overwhelming, the net effect can be negative if your child falls under the tutelage of the wrong coach. To quote Mickelsson and Stylin again, “one still needs to pay attention to the cultural and social factors embedded within specific martial arts or gyms.”

Take homes

In conclusion, putting your kids in a top-notch martial arts program is a great way to get them active (and keep them wanting to stay active). It’s fun!  They’ll also be learning some of those hard-to-define traits that you hope they pick up on—but lecturing them on the subject results in “blank stares”;  instead, they’ll develop those skills almost effortlessly. Simply put, don’t underestimate the importance of learning resilience and empathy while becoming physically fit–not as separate endeavors, but simultaneously. It’s a beautiful thing.

Let’s Go? Let’s Go!

By Melisa Schelvan

I was thinking through my reasons for why I want to write about being a martial arts parent. There are various other things that my children do—all of which are very worthwhile. One of these days I’ll write about the many benefits of music and 4H. However, for now, we are enmeshed in the world of Taekwondo. We seem to eat and breathe martial arts.  I must go back to when my daughter was younger…

She was slow. I don’t mean unintelligent; I mean literally slow. She was always the last one to do anything and everything. My husband and I still laugh about his time walking her home from elementary school. He tells of the many times when he would finally give up and just carry her (a third grader!) because she was pondering life (very slowly) as she considered putting one step in front of the other. He needed to get back to work at some point! This is the same girl that came home crying because she wasn’t strong enough to play on the monkey bars with her friends. She was soft (and sweet and adorable, but soft). It’s tough to describe the difference that the martial arts, specifically Taekwondo, have made in her life. It’s made a difference in my life, as a parent, as well.

Anyway, when she declared her desire to start Taekwondo, to say I was hesitant would be an understatement. Martial arts? Taekwondo? Doesn’t that involve a lot of kicking? And punching? And yelling? (OK, I wasn’t too worried about the yelling part, she had that skill, ha!) Her younger brother was semi-interested, and we decided it would be a good way to keep them active, so we signed up. (Their older sister wasn’t interested at the time, but that too is a story for another post.) Needless to say, that’s when the avalanche of information began, from which we have not yet recovered! I’ll be writing about that in more detail. For now, as their coach would say, “let’s go!”


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