Making the grade

Journal

Making the grade

Back in August this year, Elisha joined the local Taekwon-do class. I was all for it – I’ve wanted her to do something like this for a while, because having done a couple of years of karate when I was in my late teens I wished I’d taken it up when I was much younger. Learning a marshal art just has so many positive benefits in terms of fitness, self discipline, confidence – all the good stuff that helps you become a well rounded individual.

After her introductory week where Fliss and I took her down together, I’d get her ready on a Saturday morning, take her down to the school where the lessons are held and sit and watch her for the duration. I had a passing interest myself, but was reluctant to get involved because of the bad memories of how things had gone when I studied karate.

Although I had enjoyed the training back in the day, my instructor had been a bit intense and had organised a competition that he wanted all his students to be involved in regardless of rank or experience. On the night in question I was not only beaten, but hurt in a fight with a much stronger, more intense guy in my first round. It was a round robin tournament so I should have had other fights, but I sat out the rest of the competition because my ribs (and my pride) were hurt and I felt humiliated due to giving such a poor account of myself in front of so many people.

A picture taken during my fight ended up on the back page of the local paper and it looked like I was being rail-roaded by my opponent, Russell – whom I was actually friends with in school and we’d even practised sparring together in the run up to the competition. A moment after the shutter closed for that photo I had landed a shin in a kick to Russell’s left rib cage and the fight had to be stopped for a minute or so because he was winded. Heck, if the photo had been taken that couple of seconds later then I’m the one that looks like a bully and not Russell, as he had felt humiliated with the way the picture depicted him as well.

The fact of the matter was, white belts with no previous competition experience shouldn’t have been fighting. We didn’t even do a lot of sparring in class and when me & Russell had practised together we were never really going for it like he was that night. Later in the competition a brown belt broke the nose of a black belt with a kick to the face – none of us were wearing head protection and there were no medical staff present. It was outrageous, really, and some senior students would quit the class in the aftermath.

It was a tough situation – I really did love karate, but that competition and the realisation that it should never have happened caused me to doubt the integrity of my instructor. That’s a big thing in martial arts – there has to be total trust between student and teacher. I didn’t quit right away, but my confidence had taken such a knock that my passion for it waned after that. I actually did the grading to get my orange belt, but my heart wasn’t in it.

You get people in every sport, in every walk of life, who are a bit elitist, a bit full of themselves. Folk who enjoy the sound of their own voices and they’re so consumed by it all that I find being around that type of person uncomfortable. I’ve seen it in cycling, back when I played American football, and I definitely saw it when I studied karate – more so at the gradings than in my class, to be fair.

So that kind of thing, and any evidence of overly intense instructors was what I was wary of when I was watching Elisha’s early weeks at Taekwon-do. But what I found was completely different. The senior students couldn’t do enough to help the kids. The instructor, Mr McLaren, just had this great rapport with the whole class and I could tell that everyone trusted him implicitly. He wasn’t over the top in terms of intensity – just focussed and he didn’t mind a bit of banter during the warm-ups, often ribbing the kids for not putting enough effort in or giving the coloured belts ten push-ups for not paying attention.

Above all, the atmosphere and the tone of the classes was just very positive and I could tell Elisha was really enjoying it. During her first few weeks I’d spent some of the time reading stuff on my phone, but in certain drills I was watching intently and I think Mr McLaren could tell I was dying to join in at times because he’d say as much.

A lot of it seemed very familiar, too, and when I read up on Taekwon-do I learned that the guy who invented it had taken what he thought were the best bits out of other martial arts (traditional Shotokan Karate being one of them) and applied his own techniques and methodologies. Eventually I decided I’d like to give it a go, so one Monday night on the way up to the skate park I asked Elisha if she’d be okay with me joining her class.

“No way man, that would be so embarrassing!” She laughed. “You’d have to stand down the front with all kids who are white belts and all the daddies up the back would laugh at you!”

I told her that everyone had to start somewhere and being a white belt in a martial art was nothing to be embarrassed about – it was merely the start of the journey. She wasn’t digging it, though, and I didn’t want to embarrass her. It was her thing, so I said if she didn’t want me to then I wouldn’t go.

“It’s funny, though.” I said. “Each week I take you skateboarding and you aren’t very good at it, but I’m not embarrassed.”

She seemed bemused by the implication that perhaps she shouldn’t come to the skate park with me, so I let it lie after that.

The following day some pink sparring mitts and foot protection I’d ordered for her arrived. She was delighted with it, as she’d been unable to join in with the sparring because the kids (especially white belts) have to wear protective gear. That night when I was putting her to bed she told me she’d been thinking about it a bit and said that she was happy for me to join the class if I wanted to. Result!

I emailed the instructor the following day to ask and he was very positive, saying that because there was a grading on the Saturday the actual class would be pretty small so I could join in and see how it went. I was actually pretty nervous on the day, but it went really well, despite my complete lack of suppleness. One of the black belts who took the class that day asked me if I’d done anything like this before, because I seemed to be catching on pretty quick. I was pleased with that, as it meant I didn’t look too awkward.

After the trial class I signed up to join and couldn’t wait to get my suit and start learning. As the weeks have rolled by I’ve got slightly more supple – I’ll need to work on that – and I’ve really enjoyed trying to nail the fundamentals of Taekwon-do. It’s amazing how much stays with you over the years – the punching and some of the stances are all very similar to the karate I did. Unfortunately the rigid techniques I honed back then need to be unlearned, as Taekwon-do consists of looser, more flowing movements and I’m constantly being reminded by the black belts that I need to loosen up a bit. That’ll come, I’m sure.

Me and Elisha with our Taekwon-do instructor after our first grading
Me and Elisha with our Taekwon-do instructor after our first grading

Yesterday, just eleven weeks after my first class I did a double grading and was promoted from white to yellow belt. For that I had to perform the basic kicking and punching techniques and stances, two base patterns and the first proper pattern, “Chon Ji“. I’d been practising quite a bit in the weeks before to make sure I got it right on the day and that made it an enjoyable experience.

At the same time Elisha earned her yellow tags – the half way step to a yellow belt. She probably could have done the double grading the same as me, but Mr McLaren explained that they prefer the kids to take more time over it to make sure they’ve nailed the fundamentals. Can’t argue with that – it’s not a race, but a journey.

Both of us beamed with pride at the end when we ran up to bow to our instructor and receive our certificates (and a new belt, in my case). “Excellent work, well done!” Mr McLaren said to me.

When I started I’d actually set myself the target of earning a yellow belt in the space of six months, but as it came much sooner than expected I’m pleasantly surprised at how quickly I’ve progressed with it. This is but the start of the journey, though. The later patterns and techniques look to ramp up the difficulty quite a bit, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.

One thing is for sure, I’m really enjoying the classes and, once again, I find myself wishing that it’s something I’d started when I was so much younger than I am today. 🙂