Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Can't" Gets You Fifty Push-ups

These are real-life reasons why "can't" isn't in a martial artist's vocabulary.

In my years as a Taekwondo teacher, I've seen countless transformations via a roomful of young, energetic students who were being tested for the first time and learning that the value of the mantra "don't quit."

Omar, Eddie, and Noah are three who come to mind the most.

Eleven-year-old Omar is a hard worker (he won Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s Tenet Award for Hardest Working Man on the Mat in 2010). He’s also a hard read, with a firm, stoic personality. Omar’s insistence on perfection proves a constant challenge; he wants to learn new skills and tasks, but only if he can do them right the first time. Growth rarely comes easily for him.

Yet he keeps trying. You’ve got to hand it to him: the young man’s persistent.

Over the years, I’ve helped students come up with language to express their frustrations with growth without giving up. My main martial arts influence, Kyoshi Ivan Ujueta, had a rule: If a student said “can’t,” that student had to pump out fifty push-ups. It was a physical way to drive home the mental point of perseverance: If the student threw up his hands and quit when life gets hard—and life will get hard—he'd never reach his goals and dreams.

Years ago while training with Kyoshi Ivan, I watched nine-year-old Eddie attempt a difficult maneuver: a forward roll while holding a bo, followed by a jump front kick. After a number of unsuccessful attempts, Eddie sighed and said, “I can’t do it.”

All action in the dojo suddenly stopped, a few inward gasps of horror were heard, and then the room became eerily quiet.

“What did you say?” Kyoshi Ivan asked, his left eyebrow rising. This was Kyoshi's signature look of displeasure, made more pronounced by his shiny bald head.

“It's too hard. I can’t do it,” Eddie said, shrugging his shoulders.

“Drop and give me fifty push-ups,” Kyoshi replied, crossing his arms high in front of his chest.

“But I can’t do fifty push-ups.”

(More gasps from classmates.)

Kyoshi looked hard at Eddie. Both eyebrows were low and even. Not a good sign.

“Then give me one hundred,” Kyoshi said, pointing one finger down to the wooden floor.

Eddie finally realized his error, and as he lowered his body to the floor, everyone in the dojo returned to their own training—relieved that it wasn’t them doing the push-ups and making a note to themselves to never say that awful four-letter word. (By the way, Eddie did every one of the 100 push-ups.)

I have the same rule with my students today, and we have come up with alternate expressions for times when obstacles seem insurmountable—expressions that don’t have the finality of “can’t”:

• “I’m struggling today.”
• “This is difficult.”
• “I’m having a hard time.”
• “This isn’t coming natural to me.”

And my favorite:

• “This is gonna take more practice than I thought.”

These phrases own the reality that their techniques are not perfect—today. And it allows for the possibility, even begs the expectation, that tomorrow can and likely will be different. Tomorrow, they could have a breakthrough.

But back to Omar: Last week, he and his mom got home late. They were both tired from the challenges of a long day, so they decided to brush their teeth and go straight to bed.

“But first I have to go do fifty push-ups,” Omar told his mom.

“Oh?” she replied. “Is this a new fitness regimen Ms. Cathy has you doing?”

“No, it’s because I said ‘can’t’ at piano [practice] today,” he said matter-of-factly.

His mom was so impressed, she made a point of relaying their conversation to me later.

“I was so proud of him,” she beamed after class the next day. "I wouldn't have known he said that. But he did. And he held himself accountable. He did it all on his own."

Omar, deadpan as always, stood nearby with his palms cupped calmly behind his back.

“So what happened?” I asked him. "What brought on the 'can't'?"

“Well, my teacher was making me practice this really hard piece over and over. I just wasn’t getting it right, so I said, ‘I can’t’.”

"And then what happened?"

"I kept trying," he shrugged.

“Wow. That’s impressive. That’s self-discipline. That’s practicing Taekwondo in all your affairs. And that, my young man, is the difference between having a black belt and being a black belt.

"Chukah-hamnidah. Congratulations,” I said.

A slight curve appeared on the right side of his mouth. “Thank you, ma’am,” Omar said.

Omar's story of piano perseverance is only one example of how martial arts training pays off amid real-life struggles. And there are real-life reasons why "can't" should be removed from vocabularies.

Since the age of six, Noah has used his martial arts skills to help strengthen his lungs, which are surrounded by tumors. He has neurofibromatosis. Noah has endured 13 surgeries to lengthen rods in his spine and multiple medical check-ups from a cancer treatment hospital hundreds of miles from home. He has every reason to sit on spectator chairs with his mom as his twin brother, Isaac, trains with me. But Noah always bowed onto the mat, working hard and trying his best. He doesn't say "can't."

So, yes, these are real-life reasons why "can't" isn't in a martial artist's vocabulary.

What's your "can't"? And how can you take steps today to eliminate it from your language and your world?

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Power of 'We'

All my martial arts life, I've followed masters, grandmasters, sifus, senseis, and kyoshis. By far, most have been fine, upstanding, and honorable people whom I’ve admired and respected, and from whom I've learned a great deal. A few, however, have been schmucks: Beer-belly black belts. Womanizers. Contract czars interested only in improving their monetary bottom line. It's not surprising that these same people also insisted there be strict respect for their place at the top of the hierarchy.

I’ve learned from the best—sometimes because the best were the worst examples.

I’m a great teacher, but I’ve never felt comfortable being the Grand Poobah. I’m most comfortable as a mentor/assistant—a spiritual guide. I’m not my students’ friend, but I’m also not a militaristic monster. One could blame all this on twelve-step recovery programs. When I began attending meetings in the early 1990s, I heard how folks there emphasized the word "we."

Small word. Big meaning.

My fellows drilled in the concept of unity and service as a pathway to recovery. It was comforting to me to know that I wasn’t alone in my journey—that we were all in this together. So when I began teaching, I used the unity approach. My grandmaster wanted my students to call me by my last name, so I began calling my students by their last name. My grandmaster wanted students to do 30 pushups, 30 crunches, and 30 leg lifts at the end of every class, so I did the warm-down with them. If I called on a student who didn't know the character rule of the week, the class did push-ups, and I joined in. (If they didn't know it, I obviously had not emphasized the importance of knowing and practicing our character development points.)

Peers told me I was doing it wrong.

“You’ve got to put (the students) in their place or they won’t respect you,” a fellow instructor said one day.

True: I had no teaching experience at the time. I was just thrown out on the mat one day. I didn't know what I was doing, but I knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to be an oppressive emperor—a master over minions. So I used my recovery program as a guide. I believed in the power of “we”—that teachers lead students and that there is mutual respect for everyone’s journey. I’m sure I raised a few industry eyebrows when I opened my studio as a third-degree black belt and had fourth- and fifth-degree veterans teaching for me. But it worked because—just like in those recovery programs—our common welfare came first.

Last night I got a chance to explain this to my students. At the end of every class, we form a circle and yell, “Taekwondo—don't quit!” As we formed the circle at the end of class, a young girl asked, “Ms. Chapaty, how come no one’s in the center (of the circle)?”

“That's a great question,” I said. “No one is better or worse, higher or lower, or more important or less important. You help me be a better teacher, and I try to help you be a better student. We’re all in this together.

“So,” I said, turning to the others, “Let the circle represent what we can do together that we cannot do alone. One, two, three…”

The class and I yelled together: “Taekwondo—don't quit!”

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Happy Birthday Black Belt

This is JP, and he's one of my long-time students. He’s not a black belt, but he plays one on TV. (Kidding.) We have a tradition at Tao of Texas MAI that if a kid trains on his birthday, he gets to wear the Happy Birthday Black Belt, lead the class in warm-ups, assist in the teaching plan, and, time permitting, pick a fun, end-of-class game.
Some old-school martial artists will likely grumble, judging this tradition as sacrilege.

“You’re cheapening the black belt!” they’ll cry.

In this age of McDojos, their reaction would be appropriate. If you don’t train under me, you don’t know that it takes an average, no-talent, poorly coordinated kid six to eight years to reach black belt—that because I’m an editor by day-trade, I’m equally a stickler for technical details on the mat.

Because I’m traditional-minded, meaning that my students attain black belts when they’re ready, not when some contract is expiring, I wanted to find a way to plant black belt seeds in my young students.

Solution? I got a one-size-fits-all black belt and had my mother-in-law embroider “Happy” on one tail and “Birthday” on the other. Once a year for one hour—if they make time to train during their busy and exciting celebration-filled day—they get to wear this two-inch-wide piece of black cloth. For one hour, these students get to see and feel what it’s like to be a black belt—not just the fanfare, but also the responsibility. Suddenly, whirling ADHD boys turn into calm, focused, and mature leaders. Shy girls become strong and confident teachers. When kids wear the Happy Birthday Black Belt, amazing transformations occur.

Of course, when class is over, they have to trade in the black belt for their own typically dirty belt. But I always leave them with this plant-the-seed reminder:

“Happy Birthday! Remember what it feels like to wear this, especially on the days when you're tired and don't want to give 100% effort. If you always give your best, there'll come a day when I'll wrap this sucker around your waist, and you won't have to give it back. So keep working hard.”

This tradition allows students to test drive a black belt. It represents a taste that then creates a hunger for the real thing. It’s the inspiration to punch harder, kick higher, focus sharper, eat better, drink more water and fewer sodas, study harder, and help out around the house without parents asking—to do the day-to-day; practice, practice, practice; less-glamorous work toward wholeness and self-improvement.

So, Happy Birthday, JP. I can’t wait for the day when I wrap that belt around you for good.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Mendy Prince Challenge: Live the Tenets

My Dear Students:

Please give a fabulous, raucous, and insanely jubilant welcome to Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s newest black belt—Ms. Mendy Prince.

Don’t remember seeing her on the mat? Her name doesn’t ring a bell? That’s O.K. I have good reason to promote this woman to the rank of Honorary 1st Dan Black Belt in Taekwondo. Let me tell you why.

I’ve been a Taekwondo instructor for 12 years. In that time, I’ve taught hundreds of students ages 3-63 "the way of the hand and foot" through courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. But also in that time, I’ve promoted only six students to black belt.

Mendy is lucky No. 7.

A few years ago, a petite young lady strolled into Tao of Texas Martial Arts in AustinTexas, with her girlfriend, whose 5-year-old son had just enrolled in my Tiny Texans class. She looked familiar, and later I remembered that she had worked with my partner, Marianna, at Animal Trustees of Austin.

Even back then, I could tell that Mendy’s thin, slight build was an illusion; she had a powerful presence. Anyone could feel it.

Mendy never joined Tao of Texas MAI as a Taekwondo student. Instead, she sat on the benches near the open-air dojang’s garage door, gleefully taking on the role of a Tiny Texans groupie. She smiled, laughed, and quietly cheered as she watched 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds running, jumping, kicking, and punching.

Then in December 2010, her girlfriend and son began coming to class without her. I learned that Mendy had had a radial neck dissection—a fancy way of saying that lymph nodes, muscles, nerves, tonsils, and various other tissues were removed from her neck. Multiple biopsies were performed, and the diagnosis was grim: Stage 4 cancer.

She went through radiation and chemotherapy. Friends in Austin buzz-cut their heads, and other supporters started a Chip-In online account and held a poker party to raise money for the thousands of dollars in medical bills that wouldn’t be covered by insurance.

Mendy fought HARD, enduring more surgical procedures (which I won’t detail), and for a while, it seemed she just might get ahead of this ugly and unforgiving disease.

She eventually moved back home in Washington state to be with her family, and via Facebook, she chronicled every step of her journey. Through social media, she accounted for her best and worst days. She changed her profile status to reflect her new position at “Enjoying My Life”. She shared pictures and gems of wisdom from inspirational web sites, posted great photos of family gatherings and of a snow-capped Mount Ranier, and radiated an unending stream of gratitude and hope.

Perseverance was her mantra.

She suffered a recurrence of cancer, but she never gave up.

She had good and bad days—days of high joy and nights of skull-crushing headaches no medication would relieve—but she never gave up.

She suffered more pain than any woman—anyone—should know, but she never gave up.

Along the way, a few friends left her side, unable to emotionally cope with being there for someone fighting cancer. This broke Mendy’s heart—she shared this, too, on Facebook—but she never gave up.

Doctor’s gave her bad news upon bad news, but she never gave up.

She went through more chemotherapy until her body couldn’t take it anymore, but she—her spirit—never gave up.

Before me on Facebook, her fighting spirit grew larger by the day.

On Friday, her friend Fawn posted a note on Mendy’s Facebook page saying that Mendy was losing her battle with cancer.

“She is the best fighter I’ve ever seen,” Fawn wrote. “She is a heavyweight. A champion.”

I had to agree, and I knew what I needed to do.

So on Friday, June 22, 2012, I did something I never thought I’d do—and I did it without my master instructor’s permission:

On behalf of Tao of Texas Martial Arts and the World Taekwondo Federation, I hereby award an Honorary 1st Dan Black Belt to Ms. Mendy Prince. She receives this award in honor of her tremendous courage, perseverance, and indomitable spirit. She has generously and selflessly inspired hundreds of people in her fight with cancer, and has made the world an immeasurably better place.

Next, I silently prayed, “Mendy, you may lay down your sword whenever you’re ready. I’ll continue your fight for you. You did good, girl. You won.”

Mendy died on Monday, 90 minutes after I ordered her embroidered black belt.

Although I’m proud of the students I’ve promoted in the past, Mendy was extraordinary. You see, she had a Rocky Balboa heart, timeless hope, ageless wisdom, and a soft and serene smile amid the worst of circumstances. She didn’t just practice the five tenets of Taekwondo—courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. She LIVED the tenets.

Her parting message was “I’m not done.” (I told you that perseverance was her mantra.)

Well, guys, you know what this means:

If Mendy’s not done, than neither are we. Let her spirit and memory live on—not just on a certificate and a two-inch-wide, gold-embroidered black belt (which her parents will receive in about a month)—but in the hearts and minds of all who, like her, seek to do great things with whatever time we have left on this Earth.

Mendy was a warrior beyond words. She will be a hard black belt to follow.

Are you ready to step up?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Trust Your GUT

Earlier this week, a well-known and highly regarded martial arts instructor killed himself, just days before local police were to file charges that he sexually molested an associate. (See the Orlando Sentinel article here:

There won’t be a trial. Guilt or innocence won't be determined. The facts in the matter may never be proven or disproven. I can’t begin to imagine the pain of the survivors of this tragedy, but it’s certainly left an awful nausea in my stomach.

Earlier today, I thought nothing good can come of this. And then I remembered an event early on in my martial arts career.

When I was a lowly white belt, I trained for two weeks with a Korean Taekwondo master. One day, I was the only student in his noon class, and while I loved the individual attention, something felt—off .

He put me through the ringer, preparing me for a yellow belt test he said I was already ready for. (Two weeks = yellow belt? This should have been my first red flag.) I was slightly afraid of him, for he was very demanding and physically rough. But there was something else about him that I couldn't quite pin down (no Jiu Jitsu pun intended).

When I arrived for the next class, the one in which I was scheduled to take my yellow belt test, I saw a note on the front door saying, "Closed due family emergency." I later found out that he was in jail; one of his female black belts had accused him of sexual assault. He quickly closed the school, and I heard from a police friend that he fled to South Korea to avoid prosecution.

I felt stunned, sad, and grateful. I had dodged a bullet, but another woman hadn’t been so lucky.

A few weeks later, I walked into the office of another martial arts master and school owner. We talked for a bit about my training history and I asked him some questions. Again, I got that odd feeling.

I respectfully bid the man goodbye and never returned.

Was I right about him? I don’t know. When it comes to trusting my instincts, I’ve decided that I don’t have to know whether I’m right. Today I practice the fine and delicate art of listening to that little voice inside my body that says—as I leave on a cloudless, sunshiny morning—I'd best take an umbrella. Because it will rain later. Really, really hard.

It’s as simple as that.

Instincts are survival skills given to us at birth that somehow get taken away. Think about babies. They know who they want to go to and who to avoid. When did we forget that knowledge? Or did we ever forget it? Do we still have it, but listen to social norms that tell us to be nice, respectful, and conforming to authority figures?

I'm a martial arts teacher who insists her students be respectful to parents, siblings, teachers, and peers—with one exception: Not at the expense of your safety!

Unfortunately, as long as there are authority figures among us, someone will abuse that role. So please, please, please, trust your instincts. When you get a funny feeling in your GUT (an acronym for God's Unique Talk), flee. Whether it’s a school teacher, martial arts instructor, pastor, mentor, or a popular celebrity who gives you the creeps—LEAVE, and then tell someone about your experience.

Parents, if you haven't had that scary talk with your kids about inappropriate touching, have it with them TODAY. Pop some popcorn and sit at the dining room table. Go to an ice cream parlor, sit outside in the sun, and be lovingly blunt. Let them ask all kinds of embarrassing questions. Squirm in your seat as you struggle to answer. But answer them. It'll be OK. You'll be glad you did this. Trust me.

Are you a survivor of abuse who's never spoken about it? Tell someone TODAY. It's O.K. to talk about it. Talking about this is the only way this abuse can stop. Authority-figure predators rely on secrecy. The secrets keep us all sick. Break the silence so that the healing can begin.

Talk to someone today. Talk until you're blue in the face and you're about to faint. Talk, talk, talk, and then talk some more. Your experience just might save a child's innocence—and a life.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Guest Post: Sweet Determination

The following is a letter Hannah Diller wrote to her daughter, Eliza, after Eliza rocked a blue belt rank exam in Taekwondo. I absolutely loved it, and so, with permission, I'm sharing it.

THIS is the power of martial arts, folks!

Dear Eliza:

You know how sometimes you or one of your siblings confront something that makes you quail—a long division problem, or a dictation sentence with words you don’t know how to spell yet, or maybe something even tougher? Like breaking a wooden board with your foot in front of other people when it really counts? And I, your goofy mother, put on my best Brahmin accent—which, granted, darling, isn’t terribly good—and I say to you ...

“We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this deCADE and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are HAWD.”

And you sort of roll your eyes and think, Oh, gosh, my mom is going all President Kennedy on me again.

I wonder if you remembered that when the tears quivered in your eyes and the butterflies raged in your stomach and there was no backing down from the hard thing, the moment you had been dreading since before your belt test began.

I expect you to stand up to challenges, even though (because?) you tend to be meek, quiet, and gentle in publicbecause I want you to know the strength that is already in you.

And I repeat that quote to you because I need to hear it myself. Because I fear the hard things and long to take the comfortable, self-protecting way out. But it’s the resistance to that way that builds the muscles we shy girls need.


Keep on kicking, beautiful girl. All the way to the moon!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Austin Women, Don't Quit Now

Austin women, I’m so proud of you. Don’t quit now.

Our city has had a rough start to 2012. A rash of assaults and the murder of 29-year-old Esme Barrera early Jan. 1 shattered Austin’s sense of security. Women feared solo trips to the grocery store at night, jogging alone at sunrise, and walking their dogs in neighborhoods where they had once felt safe.

In 11 years as a self-defense instructor, I’ve learned that in times as these, women either become ostriches or rise to fight.

Austin, you rose.

As tragic and heartbreaking as Barrera’s murder was, it burst open a floodgate of moms, daughters, career women, and sorority sisters taking proactive steps toward self-protection. Women snagged free pepper spray and self-defense classes. (About 300 women signed up for just one of many free self-defense courses offered by local martial arts schools.) Women of all ages, sizes, races, and financial means were eager to feel safe again.

In Krav Maga, Taekwondo, Ving Tsun Kung Fu, and other martial arts studios across the city, women learned to become aware of their surroundings, set and enforce boundaries, and apply simple, effective strikes to vulnerable areas of the body. They learned to kick shins, knee groins, and stomp feet; scrape and gouge eyes and punch and break noses; use their voice with confidence (at least two recent attempted assaults were thwarted by Austin women who cried out for help), and identify weapons of opportunity (a comb end thrust into an attacker’s throat, lip balm jammed deeply into the eye, the firm edge of a credit card pushed against the base of the nose).

Students repeatedly asked me, “Do these techniques work? I mean, will they REALLY work against a big guy who’s much stronger than me?” Again and again, I replied, “Yes, as long as you don’t panic, target soft zones, are explosive and relentless, and don’t quit. When you’re free, run.”

I’ve never witnessed such massive transformations. Once scared and meek women stood taller, spoke louder and clearer, and grew stronger and more empowered. They shared stories of past assaults. Some revealed their trauma to another for the first time, found support, and began an imperfect path toward healing.

Many women were understandably relieved the night the Austin Police Department announced that James Loren Brown, the prime suspect in Barrera’s murder and a string of other assaults, had committed suicide.

However, the harsh reality is that Austin—and the nation—has more than one perpetrator. Consider these sobering U.S. statistics:

• One in six American women have been victims of rape—either by a stranger or by an acquaintance, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

• More than 600 women are raped or sexually assaulted in the United States every day, according to a National Crime Victimization Survey.

• About 60 percent of sexual assaults are NEVER REPORTED to police.

Life amid so much violence can be overwhelmingly disheartening and terrifying. But Austin women, you rose. You chose not to be victims. You have thus far been determined to not become a crime statistic by being diligent and unreasonable regarding personal safety. And now some of you are turning to female neighbors and co-workers and sharing what you've learned:

Make yourself a hard target. Be aware of your surroundings. Lift your heads from the text you’re about to send and look around. Who’s there? Who’s not there?

Trust your intuition. When your gut is screaming that something’s not right, oftentimes, it isn't. Believe in what your body is saying.

FIGHT. When awareness and escape fail, be explosive, vicious, and unrelenting. Use your hands, feet, voice, and any other weapon within reach. Don’t stop fighting until you’re free and safe.

"But seriously," women repeat, "do these techniques really work?"

Ask 7-year-old Brittney Baxter, who fought off a would-be kidnapper last week in the toy aisle of a Walmart in Bremen, Ga. She struggled and screamed until her attacker let go.

Violent individuals are in our world—in aisles of super stores, in parking garages, on hiking trails, and in other places you might least expect. A woman can be aware and safety-mindful, and perpetrators may still cross her path. For instance, I consider myself uber aware, and that didn't stop a scary incident from happening recently.

Last week while I walked home at night from the boxing gym, a man in a Chevy “Good Times”-like van with duct-tape covered windows tried to lure me toward him by acting concerned.

He drove by me slowly and stopped a few yards ahead. So I stopped walking.

“You all right?” he asked, careful not to stick his head out of the van or show his face. I heard only his voice.

“I’m fine. Keep going,” I said. I was still wearing hand wraps from boxing class; I was obviously O.K. But he didn’t budge. Neither did I.

“You all right?” he asked again.

A little louder and more firm, I repeated, “I’m fine!”

Finally, he drove away—slowly. Once the van was out of sight, I ran home and called 911.

The need for self-defense technology is real—necessary for average women and veteran martial artists alike. (I'm a third-degree black belt in Taekwondo. I can break stacks of boards and tile with the blade edge of my hand, but I still have to practice self-defense skills every day.) Last week, I was able to stay safe by keeping my distance, remaining strong, and speaking confidently. More women and girls need these simple, basic tools.

Austin women, I’m proud that so many of you have been proactive about your safety since New Year’s Day. You've refused to be paralyzed by fear. You've willingly stepped outside your comfort zone. But don’t let your guard down now. Don’t let Barrera’s murderer and other perpetrators threaten your future safety and steal your freedom. Austin women, you’ve come so far. Don’t quit now.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Perseverance Quote of the Month

“If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

— Michael Jordan, legendary basketball player