“Felt like the end, but it was just the start…”

As one of my requirements for earning my first-degree black belt in taekwondo, my school asks that we write a short personal statement reflecting on what we have learned since beginning our training. I submitted a 450-word statement to them as my official black belt essay (radio edit) but felt the need to more fully explain myself and my internal motivations with this longer, deeply personal piece (album version!). 

Not very many people know that I’ve been training in taekwondo since January 2016. It’s not exactly been a secret, but it’s been something I wanted to keep largely to myself until I was ready to share my journey with others. Among the handful of people that did know what I was up to, several asked me what inspired me to start. It was hard for me to answer that question verbally – I think I babbled a bit incoherently about challenges and personal growth – so this essay is my attempt to more clearly answer that question.

As a child, I was always inclined toward intellectual and creative pursuits over athletic ones. I was never the kid that would run around and play tag; instead, I read voraciously, wrote short stories for fun, and took a great amount of solace and pleasure in both listening to and making music. I was quite happy in the world I created within my own mind. However, I never felt quite as comfortable in the “real” world, and always felt awkward navigating existence within my physical body. In middle school, I was known within my circle of friends as the “graceful klutz,” always tripping over my own feet. Gym class was torture as I hated pretty much any sport that involved kicking, hitting, or throwing a ball. The ironically named “fun runs” led to me getting a terrible case of shin splints in seventh grade. I wasn’t fast, I was definitely not strong, and I was embarrassed to be so physically weak, but I tried to convince myself that it didn’t really matter as long as I could be smart. I suppose I had a societal advantage as a girl because nobody expects girls to be fast and strong – we can be small and weak and it’s not considered “bad” for our gender. However, even though I took refuge in this, I was ashamed that I had to, that I couldn’t buck the stereotype.

The martial arts intrigued me as a kid – I thought it looked really cool, and I daydreamed about it being something I could be good at. However, given how bad I was at all other forms of physical activity, I figured the last thing I needed to do was to begin something I seemed destined to fail at. I was a bad dancer. I could barely walk without tripping. I couldn’t ride a bike. I nearly got a concussion while trying to learn to ice skate. I told myself that some people are just uncoordinated and not meant to be athletic. And I really believed this for many years as truth, until I learned to see this belief for what it was – an arbitrary, self-imposed limit.

I started formal musical training on the flute while I was in elementary school, and while I dealt with things like stage fright from time to time, on the whole, I loved everything about the process of growing into a musician. Music became the thing by which I cultivated my sense of personal identity – it was what I was known for, in the way that other kids might be known for being a cheerleader, or a football player, or a math whiz. In fact, I was voted the “Most Musical” girl in my eighth-grade class and there’s a dorky picture of my 13-year old self in the yearbook wearing a Morrissey Your Arsenal t-shirt… ah, memories! I realize now that I am actually a lot more than just a musician, but back then, it was my whole sense of self. Without music, I was nothing.

In my early to mid-twenties, I started training for and taking orchestral auditions. I wasn’t new to auditions in general, but auditions for full-time orchestral work were on a whole different level of scrutiny than I was used to. You have to be not only a consummate artist but a supreme technician as well, and you have to be incredibly mentally strong to be able to withstand the pressure of performing to the highest standard. The very first job audition I took, I was runner-up, but after that spot of beginner’s luck, I started crumbling at subsequent auditions as it became clear that I just wasn’t ready for this yet – physically or mentally.

The years went by and I improved steadily as a player, but my audition results weren’t yet reflecting this (I wasn’t advancing out of the preliminary rounds), and I became very depressed and demoralized over my perceived failures. In my late twenties, I seriously considered quitting orchestral auditions altogether to pursue a different path – maybe even a career change. My psyche was so bruised and battered by being told over and over again that I wasn’t enough, that I could never meet other people’s expectations. A supportive chat with my wonderful husband and some soul-searching changed my mind though. I decided if I was going to leave music, this wasn’t the way I wanted to go out, and my heart really wasn’t in leaving anyhow. I decided it was time to try something different.

Regarding these auditions, all the years of being told “no” had made it hard to ever visualize getting a “yes.” My idea was to find something I had spent even longer telling myself was impossible and find a way to make it happen. I decided, at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, to finally learn how to ride a bike. I was tired of having this limit. I was tired of getting that incredulous reaction from people when they learned I didn’t know how to ride. And as fate would have it, my husband of just a couple of years at this point happened to be a keen cyclist and a patient teacher. It was time for me to face my fears and eliminate this limitation I placed around myself decades before.

It took several months of practice and some minor injuries (surprise, surprise!), but I finally learned how to ride. That was a huge, HUGE accomplishment in my mind. I never got fast (my cruiser bike was much too heavy to be speedy), and I never really fell in love with cycling the way my husband did, but it didn’t matter because after achieving this feat, it felt like anything was possible. If I could spend almost three decades convincing myself that riding a bike was impossible, and then undo that belief in two months, what else could I accomplish? I suddenly felt like there were no limits. And I firmly believe that this new point of view was key for me because I broke through to the semi-finals at the very next audition I took. After spending years internalizing the message that success was impossible, I needed something dramatic to convince my brain that instead of another no, I could get a yes. And I got one. And I got more, in subsequent auditions. Once that first barrier was broken, everything began to change and my confidence that I was on the right path started to grow.

I built on this same idea some years later when I felt stuck in a rut, advancing regularly to semi-finals but not making it into the final rounds. I started training for a 5k, and while I never actually ran the 5k itself (a combination of freezing rain on the day and a worsening heel injury caused me to sit out the actual race), at the audition for which I started my training, I made finals. Another boundary broken! It was inspiring, but I knew I couldn’t rest on my laurels; I needed to find something else to push my confidence to the next level.

By late 2015, I had finally healed from the nagging foot injury that had plagued me since the 5k training the previous year, and I decided I needed a different physical challenge (no more running for me, at least for now!). Around this time, I received a postcard advertisement from a local taekwondo school. My immediate reaction was “hah, there’s no way I can do this” but then I paused and thought, “but what if I CAN?” The fact that I was a little afraid to try signaled to me that this was exactly what I needed to be doing, so I summoned up the courage to visit the school in January 2016. Given that I had no expectations and no expectations were upon me, I relaxed and had a good time at my first class. Group exercise classes never really appealed to me before, but the organization, the system, the hierarchy, and the clearly defined set of rules and parameters appealed to me very much. The way all the information was presented made sense to me and each element had a purpose. I had a great surprise the next morning when I was so sore that I could barely walk! I hadn’t realized just how out of shape I was, or just how hard I had worked in that first class, but I was only able to get through my workday thanks to copious use of a foam roller and some ibuprofen.

At the end of my second taekwondo class two days later, I was rewarded with my first belt, the white belt. I had an interview with Grand Master Atoun at the conclusion of my second class and I won’t soon forget the potential he saw in me – he told me that he could see me going all the way to black belt and I shrugged and laughed it off, assuming it was a sales pitch. After all, I’m the graceful klutz! I have a terrible sense of balance! I’ve never stuck with a workout program of any sort for longer than a few months! But he was adamant that there was nothing holding me back except myself, and that struck a chord in me. This was exactly what I was trying to unlearn, what I am trying to overcome. I made the commitment that day to work my way toward a black belt because I wanted to prove to myself, once again, that I was capable of doing something that I had spent decades thinking was impossible.

Given my line of work, I’m no stranger to dedication, hard work, and perseverance. Music teaches all of these things in spades! However, I felt that taekwondo was in a unique position to help me strengthen myself mentally and physically in a way that music couldn’t. Plus, starting these classes was me giving a nod back to my childhood self and trying her daydream on for size. To that end, I was not looking for a school where I would be gifted with belt promotions even if I had sloppy technique, or a place that would simply take my money and just hand me a black belt if I hung around long enough. I wanted to rightfully earn it, and I wanted to find instructors that would push me to become the best version of myself that I could be, while also understanding my limits.

My USTA instructors have been a consistently supportive and stabilizing force throughout this journey. They have proven to be the exact blend of traits I wanted in mentors: patient, understanding, inspiring, motivating, and visionary. Working with them has been a reminder to me of what a difference good role models can make: not only during the learning process, but also in providing that spark that can mean the difference between starting something new or just thinking about it without taking action. I’ve always found that getting started is the hardest part of any task. Part of the reason I’m choosing to publish this essay here on my blog is in the hope that somehow, my story can inspire someone else out there to try something new, perhaps something they’ve quietly wished to do for decades. Other people throughout my lifetime have lit fires of inspiration in my soul by their example (my parents, my sister, family, teachers, classmates, friends, acquaintances, even people I’ve never met!), and if I can do that for someone else, I’ll feel satisfied that my struggle has benefited more than just myself.

When I was a kid, I assumed that adults had all the answers and knew everything. I don’t remember when exactly I realized that this assumption was not true, but I do remember realizing that part of my belief stemmed from the fact that I rarely saw adults out there learning new things. It’s not a big deal in the eyes of the world for kids to not know how to do something, but for an adult to put themselves out there and possibly “look stupid,” or worse, fail? It’s uncomfortable to feel like a beginner, and once people reach adulthood, I feel like many of us consciously or unconsciously choose to stop learning and growing. I won’t lie, it was frustrating (sometimes extremely so) to earn a belt and finally feel like, “I know what I’m doing!” and then get introduced to a new form or kick, and suddenly feel like “I have NO idea what I’m doing!!” all over again. This emotional roller coaster happened every few months! But it kept me humble, and it gave me even more sympathy for what my flute students go through. My physical growth may have stopped by the time I was in my late teens, but I want my growth as a person – mental, emotional, spiritual – to continue for long afterward, and I want to show the young people that I encounter regularly (both through taekwondo and through my music teaching) that learning can and should be something to love and pursue for a lifetime, not just in your school years.

I originally thought that my taekwondo journey would likely end when I earned my first-degree black belt, but somewhere along the way, I realized that I’m only just beginning to learn – not only about this martial art, but about myself. I chose to use this section of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as my header photo for this post because, as far as taekwondo goes, I feel like I’ve reached the end of the exposition (the beginning) and now am embarking on the development (where things really get interesting). Every day, I’m redefining what it means to be me, and it’s hard to overstate how much stronger I feel today (both physically and mentally) vs. four years ago. There are so many other personal limits I want to smash; so many more walls I want to knock down. While I know it’s going to suck to walk into my first black belt class and think, “I have no idea what I’m doing, AGAIN!!!”, I’m actually really excited to begin this next phase. The child I used to be is looking at the adult I’ve currently become and she’s incredulous that we are even considered the same person, but isn’t that as it should be? Our past does not have to define our future. Besides, I’m not letting a seven-year-old tell me what I can and can’t do, even if that seven-year-old was me at one point!

So, to anyone out there feeling stuck in life, feeling limited, feeling like there’s a version of yourself that you want to become but are afraid to make happen – it’s quite true that you never know if you don’t try. I often remind myself of the following quote when I feel like my dreams are too big, too audacious, too complicated:

“Never give up on a dream because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.” – Earl Nightingale

How are you going to spend your time? 🙂

United States Taekwondo Academy

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