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.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Bully Prevention Skills: What My Students are Learning will Astound You

Since my Taekwondo students and I began sharing space at a ving tsun kung fu school, we’ve had some powerful end-of-class discussions. I’m convinced it’s the vibe. The studio’s chi invites honest, open communication; compassion; and awareness.

Yesterday’s mat chat was another mind-blower. It all started when I asked everyone how school was going.

Most nodded. “Good,” they said.

“Today I had a problem with this kid,” Neal, a nine-year-old orange belt, offered.

“Oh?” I said. “Tell us about it.”

“He threw a football at my back—twice. I told him not to do it because I had rods in my back and that he could really hurt me. I even showed him my scars.”

Twice a year, Neal undergoes a surgical procedure to help his spine grow properly.

“Wow,” I said. “And did the kid keep throwing the football at you after that?”

“No. I don’t think he realized that when I told him that I had surgery that it was serious,” Neal said, his eyes growing wide.

I sat there for a moment, taking in how a nine-year-old could muster up this much courage.

“I’m so proud of you for confronting him,” I said. “I’m also proud of how you did it. You didn’t shame him or call him names or lash out in anger. You educated him on something he was clueless about.”

Neal smiled. “I just don’t think he realized how serious it was.”

Elliott, an eleven-year-old green belt, shared next. He’d been struggling to be heard by an Ultimate Frisbee teammate. The older, bigger classmate was pairing up people to guard opposing players without regard for his teammates’ preferences.

“I’m really sorry he’s doing that,” I said. “How could this be different?”

“I’m not sure,” Elliott said.

“Does this kid bully everyone on the field?”

“Pretty much.”

“Well then what if you talked to some of your peers about standing up to him as a group.”

Elliott paused. I sensed discomfort.

“Can you at least think about it?”

“Yes, I’ll think about it.”

“Because here’s the deal: Can you play Ultimate Frisbee by yourself?”

“No!” everyone in the class answered.

“So if as a group you told him that his behavior was unacceptable and that if he didn’t let other teammates participate in the pairings, none of you would play anymore, he wouldn’t have anyone to play with, would he? Then he might be willing to change. You’ll never know until you try it out.”

“I’ll think about it,” Elliott repeated.

Last to share was Alice, a ten-year-old purple belt.

“There’s this boy in my class who’s been really mean to me,” she began. “But then I saw him with his father at open house night at school, and his father was really mean to him. I felt sorry for him that he was growing up like that. And I saw why he’s mean. So I decided to be his friend.”

The room suddenly became so quiet that you could have heard a feather drop.

A parent listening from the spectator section whispered, “Oh, wow.”

“That is mature beyond years, young lady,” I said. “You’re so right about why he acts that way, too. Kids aren’t born bullies. It’s a learned behavior. He learned it from someone else.

“And you know, guys, this is exactly what we need to keep in mind when someone is ugly to us. It’s not you. It’s them. They have the problem. And Alice, I’m so incredibly proud of you. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said with a sweet smile.

Though it was sad to hear that so many of my students were struggling with bullies, it also was encouraging to see that their martial arts training was paying huge dividends.