5 Unexpected Benefits of My Martial Arts Training
The Story Of My Introduction To Martial Arts
My first encounter with martial arts came in the summer of 1997, when I did a summer program at a local college that included a karate class. I enjoyed it and considered pursuing it further, however, dance soon came into my life and karate became an afterthought, and eventually, faded from conscience. It wasn't until September of 2011 when the idea once again crossed my mind.
I remember that time in my life well. I was not that far removed from some difficult years in college, and enjoying my freedom from the daily grind of school that had consumed my life since I was a child. While the weather was nice, I derived great pleasure (and possibly tension relief) in walking about a mile up the road from my neighborhood to a shopping center where a frozen yogurt joint had recently become one of my favorite haunts. On one such occasion, the martial arts place next door had an outdoor display advertising their program, and I stopped to look at it. As I was turning around to go into the yogurt place, a young man, presumably an instructor, came out of the martial arts studio and addressed me.
"Are you interested in martial arts?" he asked.
I think "sort of" was my immediate response. I was not sure I had the money to pay for lessons at that time, and had somehow convinced myself that I was too old to start a new sport... or rather, I didn't think so. My body felt no older (if anything, I was more athletic than I was in my youth), but what would my instructors think? After all, I was already in my 20's, and in some sports - especially for women - late teens seems to be considered almost ancient. I had already beared the crosses of starting dance at fourteen, and was not up for going through these stigmas all over again.
The gentleman assured me that the first class was only a try-out procedure they called a "confidence course" and was completely free. I became increasingly more intrigued, and told him about my dance background, and that I did karate very briefly at a summer program long ago, and finally acquiesced to his offer, not really knowing what to expect.
I committed to the free try-out class, which was a 30-minute consultation and basic technique drills with the program director. I was promptly offered three of the regular classes for free, which I went ahead and went through with, all with the intention that I would thank them and politely bow out when the freebies were over.
As one thing led to another, however, I not only earned my black belt but also became an instructor myself.
Here are some of the more unexpected ways in which training in taekwondo has bettered my life.
1. Social Confidence
Throughout my life, I was an introvert. I was also painfully shy and petrified of what other people thought. I was never shy on stage or when giving a presentation in front of people, but as a general rule, I never really interacted with people on my own accord.
As a child, this led to people (including my own family) believing I had some sort of problem understanding conversation, reading cues, and just not fully grasping the mechanics of social interaction. This assumption, addition to leading to me feeling like my intelligence was being insulted, also led to some rather ineffective speech therapy sessions to learn about "conversational rules." To this day, I am appalled that out of the plethora of psychology "experts" I was taken to as a child, not one of them even offered up the possibility that my social issues could have been purely anxiety driven.
Suffice to say, extreme social anxiety was always a far more accurate explanation for my awkwardness. I always understood cues and conversational rules; my problem was that, being a bit unconventional in nearly every aspect of my life, I would be so certain of ridicule that I would anticipate it in advance.
In martial arts, I found that it was an environment almost as highly controlled socially as it was in terms of adherence to our daily workouts. The instructor seemed to have eyes and ears in the back of his head for any sort of behavior such as what I'd feared. Utmost respect was demanded - and expected - from everyone, all the way down to addressing your instructors as well as your fellow students (regardless of age) as "sir" and "ma'am." Furthermore, there is something about learning self-defense that creates a newfound sense of confidence within you and eliminates your feelings of vulnerability. And because martial arts tends to attract all walks of life, interacting and cooperating with different types of people becomes commonplace.
I have always been a very goal driven person who thrives on structure and set criterion for almost everything I do. I am also very determined. When I want something, I'll stop at nothing to make it happen.
In spite of these strengths, however, I am also in constant conflict with an equally-strong free-spirited side of my personality. I often have an immense amount of difficulty focusing on anything I don't consider interesting or that I just don't have the right mood or energy for right at the given moment.
My martial arts instructor has kept me honest not only about my training but also in all other areas of my life. On the first day I started, the first thing he had me do was choose a "job," or goal in any area of my life that I'd like to accomplish. You were not allowed to advance past white belt until it was done, and my instructors would regularly ask about it.
As part of the American Taekwondo Association's leadership and Legacy programs, a lot of discussions take place regarding goal setting, routines, and following through with commitments. The reasoning of why these things are important is always thoroughly explained.
In focusing first and foremost on the development of the individual rather than the team or group as a whole, a mutual respect is developed between yourself and your instructor. For me, there was the the feeling not only that my instructor believed in me and wanted me to succeed as a person, but also that desire of not wanting to let him down in the back of my mind.
It is not an unhealthy relationship, however. My instructors also understand that setbacks are inevitable and that life happens.
As someone who never had a lot of personal connections outside of friends and family, this meant a lot to me.
3. No Longer A Sore Loser
Movement has been my favorite thing throughout my life. It was the first thing I discovered in which passion met talent. It was the thing I could most see myself devoting my life to.
Growing up, I always felt barred from pursuing in my passion on the level I wanted, however. Movement in the areas that I liked (dance and artistic sports) usually involved some sort of competitive component, but my mother was always reluctant to let me in these more serious programs because she was afraid I'd have a meltdown if I didn't win and not be able to show good sportsmanship.
If only I'd had someone like my martial arts instructor to guide me through the world of competition when I was younger.
You see, just like with the social awkwardness (see #1), the root of my sore loser energies were also grossly misinterpreted. It had nothing to do with entitlement or not wanting to work for things (my work ethic is one of the things I pride myself in most). It had to do with the fear of what other people think if they saw me deliver a performance that was not up to par. It was also the fact that by nature I was a perfectionist with low self-esteem. I didn't even like receiving compliments for performances I thought were sub par, which contradicts the entitlement assumption.
While my instructor did not know this about me, it is likely that he'd run into people with the same mindset towards competing. He emphasized the process rather than the end result, which shifted my focus from feeling like a failure to wanting to come back and improve my skills. He even let me know that it took him four tournaments before he placed high enough to win any medals, and he has since gone onto win multiple world championships. In him, I had a visual of coming home empty-handed not being some sort of a foreshadowing of what my potential was.
This was what I needed rather than the, "That's life, big deal, get over it!" approach, coupled with whomever expressing this exclamation recalling how they didn't grow up believing nothing was out of their reach and criticizing my high standards for myself.
Suffice to say, once I got over the hurdle of winning my first tournaments, trophies and medals started to pale in importance compared to personal satisfaction, which brings me the next positive change in my life.
4. A Profound Regard For The Journey
Earlier, I posted my advice for late starters in dance. One of my key points was to focus more on the journey than on the destination. It was actually martial arts where I learned this lesson well.
It sounds cliche, but as a future-oriented person, I never lost sight of that thing that I wanted -- that prize at the end (be it a material effect of a feeling of personal euphoria). With every little thing in my life that I pursued, my main focus - for better or for worse - was always how it was going to affect my future, and how, if at all, it would get me to where I wanted to be. Any perceived failure hit me harder than it does most.
With martial arts, the attitude towards competing was not the typical mindset of "Winning is not everything, it's the only thing" (something Vincent T. Lombardi never actually said) that seems to be the focal point of most sports. My instructor's top objectives for every tournament are:
- Have fun
- Learn something
- Make a new friend
That doesn't mean that you shouldn't train hard, set goals, and do everything in your power to come out on top. But if you don't, it shouldn't feel like the experience was all for nothing. Ultimately it is a journey of gaining new knowledge, meeting new people, and valuing these experiences and relationships.
Also, like my instructor once told me, if you go into a board break telling yourself, "I have to smash this on my first attempt" over and over, it is not going to happen. Similarly, I have found I must change my internal dialogue when I compete in order to be at my best.
There is a unique sense of belonging when you join a martial arts studio. As I expressed earlier, I always had very small (if not non-existent) social circles and networks. I never imagined that would change when I began martial arts. I have found, however, through training, competing, and all the boot camps and leadership activities we go through together, many relationships are made, and networking is a thing that happens naturally.
Because I also never seemed to have much in the way of social networks or support structures, I never had much in the way of relationships that I'd be torn to not keep, but always longed for such stable kinships. The people that I have met through martial arts, are some of the finest I know and have had a major impact on my life. They have taken an interest in me both inside and outside of martial arts training, and for that my gratitude is immense. I always look forward to my next class almost as much for the people I'll see as I do the training.
It is a supportive, unassuming crowd who, as I, have been conditioned to appreciate the journey.