I would expect that when people first see me the first thought that comes to mind is that I am a Martial Artist. One person thought they were being funny and said ‘you look more like you practice sumo wrestling than taekwondo.’ As mean as the snide remark may have been, I suppose it is not a stretch to see how he (and I am sure others) have had the same thought.
About fifteen years ago I started to let myself go, until the point where I was nearly a hundred and fifty pounds over my ideal weight. The reasons I did are unimportant – I refuse to make excuses for myself. However even after spending more than a year in taekwondo I was still grossly overweight. When Master Beis and I decided in April of 2010 that I should train to test for my Black Belt in June of that year, I made the decision to lose as much weight as I could in the seven weeks until my test.
It took me seven weeks to lose a little over forty pounds, and was extremely pleased with the results. I was now only about a hundred pounds overweight. Unfortunately I let myself go after that. I did not gain it all back, but I certainly did put a few pounds back on.
In January of 2012 I made the decision to try to prepare to test for my Second Degree Black Belt in June of this year. There is no guarantee that I will be ready, but if I stay with it then even if I am not ready by June, I will certainly be ready for December (testing is held twice every year). It is a long road, and there will be twists and turns along the way. Accordingly, I decided that I needed a map.
In order for my preparations to be successful there are two people that are crucially important to me, and without their help and complete cooperation I could not envision being ready in time; they are my wife Theresa, and my Master, Master Dimitrios . I sat down with both of them to discuss what I needed to achieve my goals; I then began to formulate a plan.
It is easy to look at the requirements to pass the test:
· Before the testing day I must spend one full day fasting and meditating from morning to night;
· I must perform five patterns (poomsaes)… each of which is more difficult than any I needed to learn previously;
· I must be ready to demonstrate that I remember every pattern I needed to earn my Black Belt – there were eleven of them;
· I must demonstrate my knowledge and ability to execute ten different techniques to defeat a knife-wielding attacker;
· I must demonstrate proficiency with my chosen weapon – nunchuku;
· I must spar with whoever the tester decides I should spar… and win; and
· I must break two blocks of concrete with a hammer punch.
Of course none of this sounds easy… but if it was then anyone could earn their Second Dan Black Belt. Unlike the last time, the plan that Master Dimitrios and Theresa helped me to formulate consists of several components, only one of which is learning the actual patterns and defense techniques.
1. Weight Loss
When I stepped off the cruise ship in mid-January I was 130lbs over the weight that I would like to be for the rest of my life. I tested for my Black Belt at 110lbs over that weight, which means that in the last two years I have been going in the wrong direction. Although it is unrealistic to think that I can lose that much weight in four months, I can certainly make good headway.
In the eight weeks prior to my Black Belt test I lost forty pounds… based on that benchmark and understanding that the first two weeks of any weight loss regimen the pounds will drop quicker than in subsequent months, I have set a target goal of losing sixty pounds by June. I do not even know if that is realistic… but I am certainly going to try. I am three weeks into the new eating regimen, and so far so good.
2. Strength Training
I tested for my Black Belt after an ordeal that was worthy of a Hollywood script (See The Long Road to Black Belt Excellence). In short, after a 24-hour travel ordeal that included two cancelled flights, an extra night in a hotel, and a drive from the airport to the Dojang with an average speed that would have been impossible without my combat driving training, I performed my test without a break from beginning to end.
Unfortunately the end was reminiscent of Bill Cosby’s Karate routine where he claims: the instructor said ‘I am thinking two feet past the brick!’ but unfortunately the brick was thinking ‘No you are not!’ My friend Steve Syfuhs claims that he was able to see the exact moment where my hand broke. I do not remember that… but I do remember knowing that it was indeed fractured. I still managed to break six blocks of wood with it, but in hindsight (after needing four months to heal) that was probably not a good idea.
For purely selfish reasons I do not want a repeat performance… so this time around I will be including strength training in the routine, including weights and push-ups. I will also be conditioning my hand using a trick that Master Dimitrios gave me… but I won’t share all of our secrets 😉
3. Endurance Training
I hate running. I used to love running – in the army, then again when I was living in Montreal and running with the Wolf Pack. What separates then from now is a whole lot of pounds. Simply put, it is easier to run when you are not carrying over a hundred pounds of fat. Having said that, I have to do it. I have started small… running laps around the dojang before a workout, as well as ‘running’ on my elliptical trainer in the basement. I am hoping that by spring I will be able to jog five miles outside at least three days per week. In a perfect world I will be able to do ten miles by the time I test. However anything is better than nothing.
4. Pattern Training
Patterns are the patterns that we must learn to perform in taekwondo, and they get more complicated and challenging as you climb in belt level. There are five patterns that I must learn from scratch for the test, as well as practicing the eleven that I had learned previously.
The higher you are in taekwondo the more is expected of you, both with new patterns and old ones. It used to be enough to know the motions, but at my level Master Dimitrios is not letting me get off easy; if I am to be able to perform each pattern perfectly (or as well as I can) then that is how he expects me to learn it. It is harsh… but he is right. If he feels that my stances are wrong then he will stop me and make sure that I correct them… and every time he does I start from the beginning.
It is not surprising that as I lose weight the patterns are easier to perform. I am also sure that they will look much better if I do manage to lose all that weight. I am looking forward to finding out, but I am not waiting… as my stomach shrinks the improvements to my forms will come naturally… but I also know that between now and my test I will perform each pattern over a thousand times, and that is also a key to improvement.
5. Weapons Training
I have been using nunchuku for nearly twenty years. Shortly after I finished Basic Training I bought a pair of foam nunchuks, and remember teaching myself to use them on the dunes along the beach in Ramat Poleg. It was not long before I bought my first pair of wooden nunchuks, and over the years I had my fair share of accidents with them – on more than one occasion I remember coming to on the sand with no recollection of having hit myself on the head, but a splitting headache and bump to assure me that I had.
Our school teaches weapons twice a week, and I am glad because although I am very fast and accurate with them, I know that there are some things I do not know. I also have to learn the patterns that I will need for my test. As much as I enjoy it, I have to remember to maintain my cho shim… beginner’s mind. As good as I am with the weapons, I need to learn their way in order to pass. I will, and I will practice to make sure that I am prepared.
When I started in martial arts I loved sparring. Not anymore. I hate fighting, and hate the idea of hurting someone else. I certainly don’t like the idea of hurting them for points – nor getting hurt myself. With that being said, although the reason we study martial arts is so that we will not have to fight, we do so by learning to fight. I can punch and kick and block in patterns as well as anyone, but if I cannot execute those moves in a real situation then my training remains theoretical.
Taekwondo sparring is considered sport, and as such we wear protective gear. There really is little danger of getting hurt, although it does happen. I will be inviting some of the 3rd and 4th Dan Black Belts to spar with me… you seldom gain experience and insight from sparring with those below you in rank. I look forward to training with some of our Instructors whom I have watched and admired since I wore a White Belt… I do not expect to defeat them, but I hope that by June I will be able to hold my own.
7. Self-Defense Training
It is not surprising that with my background I am pretty good at defending myself. In the army we practiced krav maga which included hand-to-hand combat, but also unarmed combat against weapons. Many of the techniques (there are ten of them) that we are learning against knife-wielding attackers are reminiscent of what we learned back then, and I am enjoying the opportunity to both refresh my knowledge and learn new methods as well. Some of what we are learning is great theory, but in the past year I have had the unfortunate opportunity to prove that some of these methods work in real life situations. Still, I find that memorizing the techniques one by one and having to perform them in order difficult, so I will concentrate more on these as the months count down.
8. Stretch Training
It will shock nobody who looks at me that I am not overly flexible. I am probably more flexible than I look, but that goes back to not looking like a martial artist. Stretching is not only important to prevent injuries, but also to help improve flexibility. As I train I need to spend a good amount of time working on that – it has never been my favorite part of the class, but I have to work harder on that to not only help to be the best I can be, but also to make sure I can get through the next four months of training without injuring myself.
For my Black Belt test everything that we did was scripted by others – our patterns, our self-defense. For my Second Dan test I plan to work with a number of other students on a demonstration that will showcase more than just the set patterns. We will choreograph a routine that will incorporate everything that we have learned, but that we will script ourselves. We have discussed it in theory, and some of the things we plan to demonstrate. It is exciting, but for the time being it is to remain Top Secret J If you want to see what we have planned… come out to the test on June 3rd!
10. Meditation, Mindset, and Balance
So much of taekwondo training is mental and attitude. Just as a sculptor can look at a rock and see the sculpture they plan to create, a martial artist must be able to see the moves in his mind before he performs them. However you cannot do that without a clear mind – mu shim. The higher a martial artist goes the more vital that is, but in truth it is a skill that we should all have and use in our day to day lives. We must be able to focus our minds on the task at hand and not lose sight for any reason.
Balance is important in two ways. We must be able to balance our bodies… and make sure that when we are planted that nobody can throw us off. This is not an easy skill to learn for one who is obese, but I am fortunate that I have been working on my balance for years, and have not lost it. In taekwondo the stances that we use – front stance, back stance, tiger stance, and so on are important for the patterns we learn, but also because the proper stances were developed with balance in mind. When someone assumes a proper front stance it should be nearly impossible for someone to knock them over.
We must also balance our life, which requires both planning and the proper mindset. I know someone who several years ago started running marathons. He became so single minded in this goal that it hurt other aspects of his life – I know it hurt him in his job, and I can only guess what affect it had on his family life. When we balance all the aspects of our life then everything works well together. If we weigh one aspect so heavily that the others fall by the wayside, then we have lost our balance and eventually everything will fall apart. While my colleagues and family will see a difference in me as I train for my test – as will the readers of my blog, who will notice a number of posts that focus on martial arts and not IT – I cannot and will not allow my training to hurt my professional life or my family life. My family will continue to come first and then my work (although sometimes it would seem that those are reversed) but by spending the time I need to train I will be able to balance those both out better.
Even as I write this all out it seems like a daunting task; I certainly have my work cut out for me, and self-control will be the order of the day. I have to resist temptations in all forms – food, distractions, the urge to not train some days. As I wrote before, if Black Belts were easy then everyone would have one.
When I made the decision to test in 2010, I called a meeting with my family and told them that there would be sacrifices. I did the same thing this time, but I feel that if I focus on these ten points then I will not have to sacrifice so much. However just like last time I know I will need a vacation when it is done, and I have something in mind… but this time I will be taking the whole family instead of just Theresa… because while I will try to minimize the impact on them I know that they will all feel the effects of my training.
For those of you who are regular readers of my blog, I want to hear from you. I expect that I will be blogging a lot about the training process, and if you are interested I am glad to share with you. If, however, you feel that it interferes with the main focus of my blog please let me know; if there is enough outcry I will set up a separate blog for that, and refocus The World According to Mitch back to what really matters to most of my readers… Information Technology!