Monday, February 21, 2011

U.S. Open Opens World of Possibilities

Volunteering to do service work at Taekwondo tournaments
has enriched all our martial arts experiences.

On Friday morning, I led little 4-year-old Caroline by the hand at the Austin Convention Center, which for the week had been transformed into one huge dojang for the 20th U.S. Open Taekwondo Championships.

In its 20 years, the U.S. Open has been a destination for many athletes with Olympic dreams. The tournament itself has matured into one of the highest World Taekwondo Federation points-rated competitions in the world. This year it drew over 1,500 competitors from countries as Australia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, France, Germany, Ghana, Great Britain, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Russia, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, and Venezuela.

This season, though, the tournament was a destination for the Diller family, and it inspired big dreams in a little girl deep in the heart of Texas.

Caroline, one of almost two dozen Tao of Texas Martial Arts students who volunteered for the tournament, is one of my Tiny Texans, a mini-martial artist with a lively, energetic, and curious spirit. She came to the Convention Center to volunteer with her mom, older brother Ian, and big sister Eliza. As payment for her cute services, USA Taekwondo gave Caroline an orange U.S. Open volunteer/souvenir T-shirt that went down to her ankles, the chance to cart sparring helmets from ring to ring, and time to read her new flip book while her mom filmed matches for Dartfish. Later that morning, a USA Taekwondo staff member gave her a free meal ticket, and another passed her a clip-on koala that the coach from Australia brought as gifts. She proudly clipped the koala to her lanyard.

Many past Olympic medal winners were there—some walking around in uniform waiting for their turn to compete, some in inconspicuous street clothes. However, seeing the Olympic stars, hearing the numerous foreign languages spoken, and seeing the bright, colorful flags flying overhead from every country imaginable may not be what Caroline remembers most about her first Taekwondo tournament. She’ll one day outgrow the T-shirt and lose the trinket. But one thing she’s likely to keep forever is the sight of female leadership at the tournament.

As I gingerly led Caroline around the 11 rings, we kept our eyes open for white match sheets. They contained pertinent information such as names of the players, countries they represent, weight division, etc. When we saw a paper with a winning player's name circled, we picked it up and delivered it to the tournament desk so that the next bracket could be created.

At one referee desk, a high-ranking female official was putting the finishing touches on a match sheet, so we waited patiently nearby. This particular referee is a veteran known for her demanding style and clear understanding of the rules. She wants her referees to do right things right the first time, and she can be quite intimidating.

I've been at these tournaments before, though, so I know she has a soft side.

"See that lady at the desk?" I asked Caroline. We were close enough for the referee to hear me. "She's wearing a blue jacket, and that means she is a very important referee. She can conduct matches all over the world!"

"Really?" Caroline said, her eyes widening.

When the referee looked like she was finished with her paperwork, I told Caroline, "Ask her if she has any results for us to take back to the tournament desk."

The referee heard me and dutifully played along.

"Do you have any results?" Caroline chirped, a bit shyly.

The referee turned to us. "Here," she said with a kind smile as she handed the paper to Caroline.

I asked Caroline, "How do you say 'thank you' in Korean?"

Caroline smiled at the referee. "Com sam nee dah," she said.

"Comsa Hamnidah!" the referee repeated as she nodded approvingly. She looked at me and smiled, "You're starting them young!"

"Yes, ma'am, I am," I replied, as we turned to go back to the tournament desk.

We zigzagged our way through the rings and spotted a match that was about to end, so we hung out to take those results back, too. Nearby, a female coach was standing next to her player as they waited for their match to begin.

"See this lady, Caroline?" I asked, kneeling down next to her. "She’s a coach. I can remember just a few short years ago, there weren’t many female coaches out there in the sparring ring."

The woman turned, looked down at me and Caroline, and smiled.

"But that’s changed, hasn’t it, ma’am?" I said, looking up at the coach. I winked.

"Yes, it has," she confirmed. "We’ve come a long way."

"What that means, Caroline, is that you can be a coach one day, too," I said.

Caroline beamed. Her golden blonde hair seemed to glow.

"Me?" she asked innocently in her squeaky voice. "I can be a coach?"

"Absolutely," I said. I looked up at the coach. She nodded yes to Caroline.

It was as if Caroline had just been given a new toy. She was excited, and her thoughts immediately turned to her big brother, Ian, whom she adores.

"Then I can be Ian’s coach!" she screamed in halleluiah fashion.

"Yes you can!" I laughed.

Caroline smiled wide, and as we continued walking around the hall, she’d squeeze my hand a little tighter as she repeated, "I’m going to be Ian’s coach when I grow up!"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Practicing Perseverance in Relationships

There have been times when—talking to my sisters on the phone—I've wanted to repeatedly bang the receiver against the coffee table in frustration. So recently when one of my hardest-working students showed signs of a relationship struggle with his little brother, I understood.

In 11 years of teaching martial arts, I've learned that for students with siblings, Basic Rules to Live By No. 4—"We must build and maintain a good relationship with our brothers and sisters at all times."—can oftentimes be an annoying, painful thorn in their sides, but that it's a Basic Rule for a reason. Besides parents, there is no more important, long-term, grit-your-teeth-and-smile-anyway relationship than the one we have with our brothers and sisters.

You may love your brother. You may treasure your sister. If you've never had fleeting angry and even homicidal thoughts toward your siblings, though, (1) I'd like to meet you and (2) you’re either a freak or a saint.

Maybe I'm the freak, though. And maybe all my students are freaks, too, because poor little Carl, all of 7 years old, was struggling with the “at all times” part regarding his 3-year-old brother Wallace. Carl and Wallace are in Tiny Texans together, and Carl is a great big brother in martial arts class. In fact, he's in many ways a model student. But recently things had not been so hunky-dory at home.

In an email, Carl's mother told me that she and her husband had discussed it, and they wanted me to remove a black character stripe that I had awarded their son for being a good big brother. Apparently, the last straw was when Wallace wanted to see something that Carl had, and Carl uttered an ugly refusal.

I can understand his parents' frustration. All parents want in the whole wide world is for their children to be safe and to get along. But all older siblings want in the whole wide world is a cool toy for their birthday and space from their annoying younger siblings.

Anyone familiar with my teaching style knows I have no qualms about stripping stripes from belts when students exhibit character unbecoming a decent human being. My gut told me, though, that stripe removal or demotion would be the easy way out for Carl. Indeed, this was a great opportunity for him to practice perseverance.

On Sunday, I took Carl and his father into the YMCA’s nursery room for a one-on-one talk. I no longer have my own office, so the unoccupied nursery—though cheerfully and colorfully decorated—was the best place available to have a serious, private talk. I could tell Carl was apprehensive. He knew his parents had asked that I remove the stripe. He squirmed in his chair, expecting me to whip out my scissors and snip, snip, snip.

Instead, I asked him several questions to gauge whether he understood why his parents were concerned about how he treated Wallace at home.

"What does it mean to be a good big brother?" I asked.

"Be nice?" he replied. "And share my stuff?"

"Good! Yes! That’s what I’d like in a big brother. Now, it’s normal for your little brother to want to be around you all the time. Do you know why?"

"No, ma’am?" (Carl's answers always sound like he’s asking a question.)

"Because he loves you."

"Yes, ma’am?"

"You are so BIG to him. Like your dad is big to you. You love your dad, right?"

"Yes, ma’am?"

"Well, that’s how Wallace feels about you. He looks up to you. He wants to hang out with you because you’re cool."

"I am?" Carl asked. (This time it was a question.)

"Yes, you are," I said, then leaned forward in my chair to look him in the eye. "So next time Wallace wants to see something you have, or do something you’re doing, just remember that it’s because he loves you."

"Yes, ma’am?"

"Do you have any questions?" I asked.

"No, ma'am?" Carl said.

"O.K. then, let's train."

We stood up, bowed to each other, and Carl walked out of the nursery to join his classmates on the mat. His dad offered a handshake.

"Thanks, Cathy," he said.

I nodded, "No problem. That's what I’m here for."

A few days later, I wrote the following email to Carl to encourage him to keep working on his relationship with Wallace:

"Dear Carl,

"Remember the essay you wrote on what it means to be a good leader? Well, it turns out that if you replace the word 'leader' in your essay with 'big brother' and 'students' with 'little brother,' you already know how to be a good brother….

"Below is your essay. Read it with your parents so that you can continue your commitment to being a better brother:

" 'To be a good [big brother] you have to listen to your [little brother]. It might be important. Be honest to your [little brother] so that your [little brother] will do [things] right. Be kind to your [little brother] so [he] will like you. Respect your [little brother] and [he] will respect you. Think about your [little brother] and [he] will think about you. I think these are qualities that make a good [brother].' "

"These were your own words, so think of [your brother] as one of my students and one of your classmates. Try to be kind. When you feel impatient or frustrated or angry, don’t take it out on him. Instead, tell your parents your feelings, ask for some alone time if needed, and then in a few minutes, try again to reconnect in a positive way.

"You can do this. I BELIEVE IN YOU.

Ms. Cathy"

Yesterday, Carl’s mom told me that she had created a behavior chart so that Carl would have clear instructions regarding what is expected of him. This was a great idea, because I can attest that most children thrive amid structure.

"Since I made the behavior chart," she said, "he has been an AMAZING big brother!"

I had to smile wide. In that moment, I was proud of Carl, proud of his parents, and grateful that the Taekwondo tenet of perseverance can have a positive impact on every part of our lives.

Sometimes, life offers wonderful opportunities to be brave, strong, and responsible—to take action instead of complaining, blaming, or lashing out. There are things I wish I didn’t have to do and actions I’m sometimes afraid of taking. I’ve learned the hard way, though, that complaining and excuse-making wastes time and doesn’t change the fact that I still have to take action if I want my life and relationships to improve.

Speaking of which, I owe my sisters a much overdue phone call.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Perseverance Quote of the Week

"There have been many, many times when I’ve been frustrated because I can’t land a maneuver. I’ve come to realize that the only way to master something is to keep at it...."

— Tony Hawk
Skateboarder extraordinaire