Sunday, October 16, 2016

Welcome to the Imperfect Club

Editor's note: The following is a letter I wrote to a student who didn't pass a promotion exam. He's now a member of a club no one wants to be a part of, but in which at some point in life we all receive an induction.
Dear X,
I know how you felt on Saturday. I know how much you wanted to pass the exam—to receive your belt with your peers. It didn't turn out that way, and that reality stings. I’ve been where you were this weekend, and there's no flowery way to say it: It hurts.

When I flunked my first attempt at black belt, I did so in front of a roomful of teachers and peers. It was embarrassing. I was heartbroken. I failed to break a cement block as my last assignment.
My spaghetti legs wobbled; I was exhausted. My bottom lip quivered. My nose burned. I hadn’t hurt my hand in the break attempt, but my pride was noticeably shattered. I was crying so hard that snot dripped down my all-white Taekwondo uniform. I felt flattened like a pancake emotionally and physically. I hung my head to hide the tears.
The crowd applauded and whistled as my peers and I stood in line at attention, but I was so disheartened; I couldn't hold in my tears. I tried to clamp off the emotional faucet because I knew it wouldn't look good to cry during the oral part of a black belt exam, but it was too late; the flood had started.
"O.K., Cah-ty," Grandmaster Yoon said from the examiners’ table, "tell me about improvements you made since you started training in Taekwondo.
I paused, looked down at the mat, and tried to gather my composure as snot slowly dribbled onto one of my uniform's patches. I had to give my answer, even if everyone knew I was crying.
"Sir," I said slowly with a shaky voice, "I've learned that whenever I fail, not to quit—to keep trying. Perseverance. Integrity. Courtesy. Self-confidence. Self-control. Indomitable spirit, sir!" 

I cried even harder as I again hung my head. There was a long silence before Grandmaster Yoon spoke in imperfect English.

"You know, mos’ student fail on first-degree black belt test. Not only you. You ah not just the idiot." 

I stopped crying. Did he just call me an idiot?

He did! Because of the language barrier, he didn't mean it that way, but he did! It was so startling that I stopped crying.

The tears slowed for a moment, but I still just wanted to get away from everyone. It hurt so much to have failed—but to also have failed in public. I was in so much pain. 

So, if you can related to anything I described above, then welcome to the Imperfect Club. I hate being a member of this group, because I want to be perfect. Every time. The first time. Alas, I’m not.
But I’ve learned a LOT from being a member of the Imperfect Club. As an instructor, I’ve been able to show compassion when students don’t pass tests—to relate to them in a powerful way that I simply couldn’t have without having gone through this myself. I learned that messing up isn’t the end of the world, and that if I can find a lesson in it all, it helps the pain subside a little quicker, and later (much later) I find the experience useful. This particular experience made me so much more compassionate toward others—and myself—when imperfection raises its ugly head.
So I encourage—challenge—you to join me in the next phase of this oftentimes hard rite of passage, one in which I’M STILL working on celebrating my strengths, accepting my weaknesses and imperfections without harsh judgment, and enjoying the journey of discovering what I’m good at, what I’m not, and deciding whether I want to work harder to improve the latter.

Days like Saturday may make you think that you haven’t moved an inch. This is not true. You have grown a great deal since first bowing onto the Taekwondo mat. And we need mentors who will remind us of this—who will tell us the truth of how far we’ve come, especially during the low times.

So here I am, reminding you that you’re a fine young man with an incredible, kind spirit, and that Taekwondo needs men like you to act as warriors of goodwill—to defend the meek, to tell those who come after us that we've been there and we know how they feel.
Regardless, I make you the following promise: I’LL BELIEVE IN YOU UNTIL YOU CAN BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.
Much love,
Miss Cathy

Friday, August 19, 2016

Be Golden Anyway

A very special Taekwondo athlete will go for the gold at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, tomorrow.

Stephen Lambdin is not my student. That honor belongs to Jason Poos of Poos Taekwondo in Edmond, Okla. (Great job, Coach!) I know, though, that for years, I've been around him without realizing it. I’m sure Lambdin and I crossed paths several times during his many years competing in national Taekwondo tournaments at which I oftentimes volunteered. I probably even waltzed him out to his competition ring at a U.S. Open or two. Maybe he was humble and quiet back then. More likely, I was simply clueless.

A little over a year ago, I read a Facebook post about how funding was cut for some of the United States’ most elite Taekwondo athletes, and that many of these athletes were having a difficult time continuing their training. Lambdin was one of them. So I decided to donate a portion of sales of my book, No Pouting in the Dojo, to his training fund.

Now don't get all "Rah-rah! Thanks, Cathy." The donation was miniscule compared to Lambdin’s overall expenses. Still, I hoped that I wasn’t the only one helping out. And now that he was on my radar, I watched him. And boy, he did not disappoint.

Lambdin continued training—HARD. He traveled to Europe to hone his mental conditioning in the frigid waters of Poland and left behind buckets of sweat from exhausting lactic threshold training drills designed by Tim Thackrey and Dr. Jason Han. (A martial arts buddy says that no one ever drowned of sweat. True!) I watched as Lambdin rose to the top—to become the best of the best in his weight class in the world. I watched him fight hard at USA Taekwondo Trials to secure a spot on the country's Olympic Taekwondo team.

And now Lambdin fights on Saturday in Rio.

He has worked very hard for this moment, and with the help of a plethora of training partners, the support of his loving family, and a faith in a tremendous higher power, he's ready. His time has arrived.

So in the spirit of a prayer made famous by Mother Teresa, I have a few special words for Lambdin as he steps onto the world stage tomorrow:
Stephen Lambdin fights for Team USA. Watch live on


They said you were too slow. Be fast anyway.

They said you weren’t sharp enough. Be smart anyway.

They said you weren’t good enough. Be great anyway.

They said you couldn’t win gold. Be golden anyway.

Best of luck,


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

I'm Working on It

I've been teaching a little Taekwondo class once a week this month for kids at my company's Summer Day Care Camp. They are energetic, sweet kids who have been learning kicks and Korean, with a side of good character.

Today we worked on the Five Fingers of Self-Defense, a formula from Thousand Waves Martial Arts in Chicago that teaches kids to Think, Yell, Run, Fight, and Tell. We talked about verbal self-defense--ways that they can take care of themselves when a bully says mean things.

After class, a girl came up to me and quietly asked, "But what if they say that you're shy and too sensitive."

"Is that true?" I asked.

"Yes," she said.

"Do you want it to be true?"


"Well, you can always tell those people, 'I'm working on it.' "

She smiled in relief.

"Think you can do that?"

"Yes, ma'am."

She was about to leave when I said, "I'm glad you talked to me about this. I was shy when I was your age too."

Oh, the grin on her face. Priceless.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Letter to a Student on Failure

In a recently Facebook post, I shared a letter I wrote to one of my Taekwondo students, a staunch perfectionist, after he and another classmate failed a tense and difficult promotion exam. The words resonated with readers. Some friends loved how I used my own failures to help teach the students that it was possible to recover from such a ghastly event. Others loved that my colleagues and I allowed these students to experience failure at all.

There’s a national debate these days about whether we coddle our kids too much. Buzz terms like “helicopter parent” describe moms and dads who try to protect their children from the harsh realities of life. I have no stake in the “how-to-better-parent” debate. I’m not a parent. I’m just a martial arts teacher. And an imperfect one at that. My concern is for one kid at a time. My concern today is for the young man standing before me with tears in his eyes and a broken heart—that he understand “this too shall pass.”

Here’s the letter:

Dear O.,

Son, I know how you felt on Saturday. I know how hard you worked, and I know how much you wanted to complete all portions of the test perfectly. It didn't turn out that way, and that reality stings. I’ve been where you were this weekend, and there's no flowery way to say it: It hurts.

When I flunked my first attempt at black belt, I did so in front of a roomful of teachers and peers. It was embarrassing. I was heartbroken. And I won’t lie to you and say that that kind of imperfection doesn’t still make me very angry with myself. Like you, I’m a perfectionist. I want to ALWAYS be perfect. And yet, I’m too often not. In fact, far from it.

I’m sending you the below blog post so that you might know that you’re not alone, and to warn you that the drive for perfection has a pretty sharp double-edged sword. I’m still working on not being perfect—on just trying my best. Sometimes I succeed. I’m getting better at accepting who I am—celebrating my strengths, accepting my weaknesses without such harsh judgment, and enjoying the journey of discovering what I’m good at, what I’m not, and deciding whether I want to work harder to improve the latter.

You’ve come a long way from the boy who cried when he didn’t win first place in end-of-class games at Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute. Remember that boy? You’re not that same boy. You’ve grown so much since then. And your weakest part of the test WASN’T board breaking! But I know: It’s just that days like Saturday make people like us think we haven’t moved an inch. That’s why we need mentors who tell us the truth. So I hope you get something out of reading my story. I hope to see you Tuesday.

And don’t forget one very important thing: I’LL BELIEVE IN YOU UNTIL YOU CAN BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

To Remove or Not to Remove a Stripe? That is the Question

Tonight I was proud of a student who broke one of our character rules and Taekwondo tenets.

Yes, you read that right.

At the end of class, my students and I discussed homework for the next week: “We must be honest and truthful at all times.” During our mat chat, we discussed that it’s always better to fess up to wrongs than to be caught in a lie—how being truthful is the right thing to do, no matter how awful it feels to admit you made a boo-boo. As parents and students filed out of the dojang, I noticed Les hovering nearby. I knew she wanted to talk.

“Ma’am, I have to give my stripe back because I hit my mom,” she said.

Les is a great student, and I was quite surprised by her revelation.

“Reeeeeally?” I said. "What happened?"

While playing, Les had gotten angry with a friend who was hogging the Play-Doh. When her mom told her to play nice and apologize, Les struck her.

My mind immediately flipped through a Rolodex of what to do. On one hand, she knew the penalty for disrespecting parents was losing a stripe. But she told the truth about it. She told me before her mom did. She practiced honesty, the very tenet we discussed just a few minutes earlier in class.

“You know that what you did is unacceptable, right? That hitting others is not O.K.? Martial artists don’t treat their parents like that and we certainly don’t hit them.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Les said softly.

I paused. Do I take the stripe away? I’ve done it before, but this time, it didn’t feel right.

“I’m really torn,” I told her. “You were honest with me, and I’m proud of you for that. Were you scared to tell me?”

She nodded yes.

“Well, thank you for being honest. And I should remove the stripe, but you know what? I’m not. Instead I’m going make you keep it. Every time you put on your belt, you’re going to see that stripe at the tip. It’s going to remind you that you need to maintain self-control and work hard—every day—to respect your parents. But if you strike another in anger—parents, siblings, friends, anyone—if this happens again, you’ll not only lose your stripe, but you’ll also lose your belt. You’ll have to start all over, and your little sister will stand before you in the line.”

Les frowned. Nothing like a little sibling rivalry to kick start improvement in a character flaw.

"What could you have done differently the other day?" I asked. "When you're playing with someone and they're not being fair, what can you do?"

"Tell someone?" she offered.

Together we brainstormed ways to maintain self-control when strong feelings surface.

“Everyone gets angry,” I said. “Anger is a normal emotion. But martial artists know so much about how to kick and punch really hard, how to physically hurt others if we need to protect ourselves, that we can’t afford to lose self-control. I can’t teach you any more martial arts if I think you’re going to use it against another in anger. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Les said.

“So when you get angry, stop: Breathe three times deeply. If you need to say something to the person you’re angry with, if you need to stand up for yourself, say it in a calm manner. Then if needed, walk away.”

“O.K., ma’am,” she said.

As she turned to leave the dojang, I called, “I’m proud of you for being honest, and I know this is hard, but I believe you can do better than this. See you Tuesday.”

She bowed and left.

I've never been so happy not to remove a stripe.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Back-to-School Bully Defense Tip: Don't Escalate, Don't Retaliate

The following is a guest post by martial artist Alex Timin of Impact Martial Arts in Naples, Fla. It's a great reminder of the value of de-escalation skills.

It's a natural reaction to being bullied - you're angry, you're upset, and you want revenge. You want the bully to feel hurt just like they hurt you. Sometimes it happens without even thinking - you tease right back at them, or respond physically yourself. It doesn't have to be this way. Don't let yourself get drawn into the bully's conflicts and fights. Stay cool, calm and confident! Respond to the bullying, but not out of spite. Be firm and assertive in speaking up and standing up for yourself, without over-reacting. The bully wants to get a negative reaction out of you. Don't let them! Be calm in the storm, and show the bully that you are stronger than their attempts to harass you. Be loud and clear in your voice, and say things like "Stop NOW" or "That's NOT Cool". Stand up strong, look them in the eyes, and let your body language convey the same message that you are willing to protect yourself. Being bullied can set off all sorts of negative emotions in you - but you can still control how you react and respond to it. Choose the better path, not the downward spiral of revenge.

Monday, December 16, 2013

'You're My Inspiration'

On Saturday, I had the chance to watch a short yet powerful transformational moment. It lasted barely longer than the blink of an eye, but I’ll remember it for a lifetime.

Red is 10 years old and has studied Taekwondo with me since he was just barely 3. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. In all the years he’s been my student, I can count on one hand the number of times he’s smiled or looked me in the eye.

This weekend, Red competed in his first Brazilian jiu jitsu tournament. He’s only been studying jiu jitsu for a few months, so you would think that just signing up and showing up to the tournament venue would have been astoundingly courageous.

But wait. There’s more.

• Breakthrough No. 1: Some kids with Asperger’s syndrome don’t typically like physical affection or contact, so just rolling in close proximity with another human being is a big deal for Red.
• Breakthrough No. 2: Kids with Asperger’s also don’t like change. Red stepped WAY outside his comfort zone by competing in front of a big crowd in a venue he’d never seen against an opponent he’d never met.
• Breakthrough No. 3: Because there weren’t competitors the same age, belt, and weight, Red had three choices: take the medal without bowing onto the mat, roll with someone his age and weight but who holds a higher rank, or roll with an older competitor of his belt rank. He chose the latter. Red rolled with a 14-year-old—and lost.

He cried after the match. (Many competitors young and old wept that day.) But an hour later, he was ready to get back on the mat, practice harder, and compete again at the next tournament. Still amazingly brave in my book.

But wait. There’s more.

As the family gathered their belongings to leave the tournament venue, I stopped to chat with Red.

“You know, I was talking to your jiu jitsu coach earlier,” I said, “and he invited me to come train with him. I think I might do that. Do you know why?”

Red looked me in the eye for a split second (an eternity for kids with Asperger’s).

“Why?” Red asked.

“You’re my inspiration.”

“I am?” he said, looking me in the eye for another split second.

“Yes! What you did today inspired me.”

“It did?” he said, giving me another drive-by glance.

“I gotta tell ya, jiu jitsu is a tough sport, and I want some of what jiu jitsu has given you.”

He looked me in the eye again for a split second and then did something even more remarkable: He smiled.

“Thanks,” he said, quickly returning to his usual deadpan demeanor.

“No, sir,” I replied. “Thank you.”

I’ve been teaching martial arts for almost 14 years now. Been training for 22 years in a lot of different styles. I’ve seen all sorts of transformations and have decided that this is one of the many truths I’ve learned from my training:

If you’re lucky, as a teacher you inspire your students to do great things—sometimes things you couldn’t do when you were their age. They are better than you. And that’s a good thing. If you are even luckier, your students will inspire their peers to work hard and overcome obstacles. But if you are really, really lucky, your students inspire you.

I’m so lucky today.