Three Insights into Serious Play from Taekwondo Class

“You’ve got something on your cheek,” someone tells you, touching their left cheek. What do you do? Do you wipe off your left cheek, or do you wipe off the mirror image of their left cheek—your right cheek?

From my very scientific research—informally observing friends—most folks would do the mirror image, they’d wipe their right cheek. Not me. My mind flips the image around and I, too, would touch my left cheek. What that says about me, I don’t know. What I do know is the frustration it brought about when I took up taekwondo in Thailand.

There, I learned that I’d never be able to join a dance contest as I’d always mess up my choreographer’s visual directions. Not that I had ever wanted to. But at taekwondo, I realized my dilemma with not responding with the mirror image of what the teacher is doing.

God knew I needed to be in taekwondo class. He knew that’s where I’d meet one of my first friends in Thailand, the one who would introduce me to what would become the most caring community I had ever been a part of. So to make sure I stay at taekwondo, God gave me kru Jim Beam, a kind soul who could kick with precision and who had more patience than a kindergarten teacher. (His name, in case you wondered, wasn’t really Jim Beam. But at the start of class, he’d call us to order with a phrase that sounded like he was saying, “Jim Beam!” What he really was saying was the Korean phrase choon bi, which means “Ready!” And kru, by the way, is Thai for teacher.)

While teaching us new kicks, blocks, and punches, Kru Jim Beam soon noticed that I would get stuck. He would patiently come stand next to me and do the same action he had just modeled from in front. And just like that, I’d get it. OK. Maybe it took another 200 tries to get it right, but having him next to me rather than in front of me made all the difference. I could see what I was actually supposed to do.

His alongside leadership style gave me the courage to kick higher. Punch harder. Stretch deeper.

This was not the case with the other teacher. The other guy was a bigger man who, like Kru Jim Beam, had a black belt in taekwondo. But he was there as an assistant teacher on the days when the students were many. He had a big, copper-colored truck, so I’ll refer to him as that. At one practice, Kru Copper Truck was tasked with helping me nail one of the basic patterns so I could graduate to a yellow belt. Not that I wanted a yellow belt. I was at taekwondo for exercise, and I could care less if I could do patterns for any belt higher than my brilliant white belt! But Kru Copper Truck was determined to teach me.

Granted, he didn’t get that I had no interest in learning taekwondo patterns. I spoke only basic Thai, and he spoke neither Thai nor English. He spoke only Korean, and my handful of Korean phrases do not include, “I have no interest whatsoever in mastering taekwondo patterns, thank you very much!” Well, I can say thank you in Korean, but that would certainly not have helped the cause! And my polite hand gestures did not deter Kru Copper Truck. So I gave in and tried to learn from him. The harder I tried to do the mirror image of whatever it was that he was trying to get me to do, the more my brain got stuck, and the more my Korean teacher got frustrated. Visibly frustrated.

Likewise, I had had it. I looked at him, and with tears brimming in my eyes, I told him in English (knowing full well he didn’t understand a lick of what I was saying), “I’m not stupid. I’m actually quite smart. But my brain doesn’t work this way. So I’m going to stop now and go do sit-ups over there. Thank you. I’m all done now.” And I bowed, walked to the sit-up area, and did 200 crunches without stopping. I kid you not.

It’s easy to be frustrated when we’re not making progress as fast as we had hoped. To want to give up when we feel frustrated. And to believe lies about ourselves when we feel defeated.

What helped me not quit taekwondo is worth keeping in mind when you feel like I did that day.

1. Know Why You’re Doing What You’re Doing

I signed up for taekwondo first of all for the workout, but also to challenge my mind and my body to do something new. It mattered not that I was the only adult in a class full of kids. I was there to exercise, and that, I did! I was there to burn calories. To sweat. To become more flexible. To learn a new skill. And at taekwondo, I did all those things. Plus I made some new friends. So what if I didn’t want to try out for the next belt?

2. Know What You’re Good At

It also didn’t matter that I knew that my brain doesn’t hold on to a long series of movements very well. While I got frustrated seeing Kru Copper Truck’s frustration with me, I wasn’t going to believe lies about who I am. I know what I’m good at, and doing a mirror image of a series of taekwondo moves was not it. But that didn’t keep me from going to taekwondo! Because I knew why I was there. And both before and after class, I got to do things that I was actually good at.

3. Find Folks Who Can Help You

Kru Jim Beam understood what I needed to learn new moves, so he was the one who taught me. He was willing to adjust his teaching style to help me learn. Plus there were several kids in class whom I could turn to and say, “Can you show me how to do the jumping kick again?” And they’d help; it made them feel accomplished having to teach an adult something.

For Serious Players, all three these components are crucial. There are inevitably things at work and in life that are frustrating. To push through tough spots,

  1. remember why you’re doing what you are,
  2. know what you’re good at (and be sure you so some of that, even if it’s not at work), and
  3. find folks who can help you master the things you struggle with.

Doing just those three things may save you from tears, from doing 200 crunches, or from giving up altogether!

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