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?


  1. Aw. That is great! He did it because he internalized the lesson, even when you weren't watching.:-)

    1. Hannah, indeed he did, and I'm very proud of him. He "got it".

  2. *clapping* Way to go, Omar! And, great writing, Cathy! I enjoyed this piece and LOVE your alternate expressions. So encouraging, supportive and ultimately, self-reliant. Thank you. :)

    1. Thanks, Chrisy! Those alternate expressions keep us all in the game.