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.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Be the First to Talk?

My students and I had a great conversation yesterday at the end of class about being respectful to teachers. Seems one of my kindergartners was being defiant in the classroom.

Without singling the student out, I asked the group, “So if you’re not getting along with your teacher, what’s one way that you can start being more respectful to that teacher—starting tomorrow?”

Hands shot up. “Not talk when she’s talking,” one boy said.

“Exactly!” I said. “I bet you get in trouble when you do that, huh?”

Heads nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” they said.

“I got in trouble one time and I wasn’t the one talking,” a seven-year-old yellow belt said. “I was trying to tell someone to be quiet.”

“Ah, you got burned,” I said. “I’m so sorry. You know, that happens to NFL players all the time. Do you guys know anything about football?”

Some nodded.

“Well, there are things that you can’t do on the field, like fight. It never fails that the referee doesn’t see the player who starts the fight, only the one who finishes it. And guess who gets in trouble?”

“The good guy!” one kid said.

“Right again,” I said. “So if your classmate is talking, don’t be the second person to talk.”

“Be the first!” one kid shouted.

The parents in the spectator section laughed.

“Well, that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but I see where you might think that. For now, just don’t talk when your teacher’s talking. Agreed?”

“Yes, ma’am,” they said in unison.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Taming the Mustang Spirit—or Why Martial Arts is Great for Kids with ADHD

I teach human mustangs. Cute, smart, spastic, and energy-charged kids. Some with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some with just too much sugar in their system.

More than a few children with ADD/ADHD have bowed into my Taekwondo classes over the years. I can spot them easily now: Mostly male, they are rail thin. Uber energetic. Excited and talkative, spouting a million questions and usually not waiting for an answer before they’re on to the next observation or curiosity. They need lots of refocusing and redirecting. Some instructors will label these problem students, find them annoying, and lose patience. Teachers want these kids to act like their peers so as not to expend extra energy redirecting or reeling in wandering minds. I find these kids a fascinating challenge.

The parents of ADHD kids also have identifying markers. They follow their children around in blue healer herding fashion. They’re typically fatigued yet hyper-vigilant, trying to control their kids' every movement and avoid embarrassing questions and situations. They all pray for pretty much the same thing: a peaceful pause to the standard NASCAR-like, fast-paced day.

Martial arts is great for kids with ADHD. There’s order and discipline in every class, and these kids slowly learn that, yes, they will be heard and, therefore, they really can control their tongue and flailing body—wait for a pause in the lesson, raise their hand, and politely ask a quick question.

Over the years I’ve learned by intuitive trial and error some effective ways to teach children with ADHD: For instance, any time they stop a spontaneous thought from coming out of their mouths is a victory—and that feat should be celebrated. Everyone wants to be heard, and these students are no exception. I use that knowledge to my advantage. The first lesson every ADHD student learns is that if they blurt out a question or make a comment while I’m talking, I won’t acknowledge them. It would be rude to the other students, so there’s no use wasting their breath.

“It’s in my personal martial arts contract,” I told a boy one day.

“I won’t answer you unless you follow the same rules of respect that your classmates follow. But I guarantee you that if you hold your question until I call on you, you’ll be heard and you’ll have a chance to have your say. I know it’s hard, but you can do it!”

A hand popped up one day from a focused-challenged yellow belt. He had come a long way; he used to not raise his hand at all.

“Is it a question or a comment?” I asked. I always stop to answer questions.

“Well, I was just going to say…,” he began.

“Hold that thought. If it’s not a question, then wait and tell me about it after class. We’ll spend as much time as you need. But questions only right now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he nodded.

Simple as that. ADHD kids are smart that way.

For the hardcore cases who, despite coaching, continue to repeatedly interrupt, I assign push-ups—without looking their way. Even the students who act out to get attention don’t get attention, and they still have to do push-ups. Eventually, these students get the routine. And the more they control their bodies and mouths—practicing the Taekwondo tenet of self-control—the more I celebrate their accomplishment.

Because it’s a huge feat, people.

Teaching kids who struggle with focus issues is a challenge; not every instructor is cut out for it. You can’t teach these kids the same way you teach their peers, but you can expect the same results. You just have to be patient and compassionate. You have to see that the child before you is stoked about taking martial arts, but doesn’t know how to get the most out of it. This may be the same ADD kid who washed out in soccer and baseball because instead of watching the ball, he was admiring the jumping skills of a grasshopper. Since in martial arts you are only responsible for your own performance, this simplifies everything. Peers, coaches, and parents are not angry at the kids for their lack of focus.

The key to teaching ADHD kids is finding the key. Oftentimes, I try a variety of motivational tactics to reach them, to slow down their brains, mouths, and flailing bodies. When compared to the progress of the rest of the class, these kids appear to be making baby-step progress. Yet they are huge strides. So I give them loads of kudos when they are polite and respectful. That works for me.

Stripes work for me, too: Little pieces of multicolored electrical tape can motivate the most undisciplined, unfocused student.

“Son, if you can go an entire class without interrupting me—if you can demonstrate self-control—I’ll award you with a red stripe on your belt tail,” I told a new student one day. “Think you can do it?”

“Umm, well, I was thinking…”

“Yes or no? Think you can do it? I think you can!”

“Yeees, ma’am,” he finally said.

Lo and behold, that boy held his eager tongue for an entire 60 minutes—and I kept my promise by wrapping a red piece of tape on his white belt. He was so proud.

I always try positive reinforcement first. Oftentimes this technique works. I didn’t even realize it was a technique until I read Tony DiCicco’s book “Catch Them Being Good.” Again, I was amazed that I intuitively knew what to do in situations that baffled me. The “Catch Them Being Good” philosophy works wonders for typical young martial artists—even adult students. For the ADHD kid, though, you first have to get their attention. Oftentimes, they won’t even hear the positive reinforcement because they’re off doing or thinking about something else. In these cases, I assign push-ups—with a positive spin.

I’m not a harsh militaristic instructor like some of my predecessors, but I do assign push-ups to help rope in attention. Many ADHD students are wiry yet strong. For those who can do push-ups all day, I assign laps around the dojang. But some ADHD students are natural-born marathoners, so sometimes I ask them to hold a horse stance for three minutes. (This doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is. Try it the next time you watch your favorite television show.) My goal isn’t to find more and better ways to punish students who struggle with focus. I’m just searching for a physical way to hit the pause button on the ADHD students’ mind. Just a break in the action.

Long ago, I discovered that with ADHD students, you have to find the “in”—their personal carrot on a stick for which they’ll work really hard. Once you discover what motivates them, you can use it to help build focus, and then the number of push-ups decline dramatically.

Fred was a new student and it seemed that he was always doing push-ups.

“How many push-ups did you do today, son?” I asked one day.

He stood in calculating thought, his eyes focused on the ceiling’s dark brown rafters. “Sixty!” he shouted.

“Oh, my goodness!” I shouted in return. “That’s 10 fewer than you did on Monday! That’s fabulous!”

Fred grinned.

“I know it’s hard for you to focus," I said. "I see how hard you’re working. Keep trying, because there’s so much I have to teach you. On the days you find it hard to focus, I’ll hold on to all my wisdom until the days when you have a better rein on your mustang spirit.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Fred said proudly.

As he and his mom readied to leave, I added, “You’re either going to learn to improve your focus, or you’re going to have some really strong arms from all the push-ups you’ll do. Either way, you’re going to be a better, stronger young man and martial artist for it.”

His mom mouthed a silent “thank you.”

Parents are amazed. Many have been so accustomed to hearing nothing but complaints from their sons’ and daughters’ public school teachers that they are surprised when I tell them their kids are doing well.

“I hope he wasn’t too out of control,” a mom said one day after her son’s first week of class. “He can be a little much sometimes.”

I nodded knowingly. “He did great! He’s right where he’s supposed to be at this stage of development. He’ll get it.”

Her face softened as she released a deep sigh. She’d likely been unconsciously holding her breath the entire time her son was on the mat. For her—and for other parents of ADHD children—a few words of comfort go a long way. They’re so exhausted most of the time. They’re so used to their kid being labeled the troublemaker. It’s a relief to hear once in a while that their children are not only improving but also thriving.

“He’ll get better,” I told the mom as her son breezed by and stopped to do a hop-scotch dance beside her. “For only having done this a week, he’s learned a lot and come a long way.”

She looked at him lovingly, stroking sweaty clumps of brown hair out of his eyes. “What did you learn today?” she asked him.

“This!” he replied, then began a wild combination of kicks and punches.

The mom smiled as she looked at me, then turned lovingly back to her son. “That’s gr—”

“And Miss Cathy can’t talk to me when she’s talking to the class!” he blurted. “Oh, and look how many push-ups I can do, mom!”

He lowered his frail body flat to the lobby floor and began a set of slow, steady up-and-down movements.

Impressive as those push-ups were, I knew he wouldn’t have to do too many for too much longer.

ADHD kids are smart that way.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Quitting Quitting

The elderly Mrs. Lewis stood in front of her high school honors English class with a withering piece of white chalk in her hand. This was not unusual. Neither was the finely ironed paisley dress she wore or her facial oil-smudged glasses that often rested at the tip of her nose. She had suddenly stopped writing on the blackboard, turning to face the class to say something important. At the time, I wondered why she stopped mid-sentence, mid-lesson to say what she did. It had nothing to do with the lesson on the literary significance of “Paradise Lost” by John Milton. It didn’t seem as important as the emphasis she gave. I was in the National Honor Society, though, so I paid attention. I just didn’t see what her words had to do with me.

“Ten percent of students in this class will be teachers,” she announced, looking right at me. Then she turned back to the blackboard to finish detailing our homework assignment in beautiful, whirling cursive.

Not me, I scoffed. I dreamed of being a writer like John Boy on “The Waltons”. I wanted to work for the New York Times and win a Pulitzer Prize. If that didn’t work out, I wanted to shave the oily hair from my head, become a monk, and live in some serene Shaolin temple. I could practice martial arts all day like Grasshopper, the character David Carradine played in my favorite TV series, “Kung Fu.”

Mrs. Lewis wasn’t talking about me. I was sure of it. But why was she looking at me? As if I was the only student in the room. As if she knew something that I didn’t. It was creepy and eerie. I was so certain she was wrong, yet her knowing look troubled me. I promptly pushed the memory of that day out of my mind.

I’ve been a Taekwondo teacher for 13 years now. I love teaching, and I can’t think of anything else (besides writing about teaching) I’d rather do. I feel the most at peace and powerful when mentoring a bunch or rowdy, self-centered, unfocused kids into mature, respectful, and responsible teens and adults who will likely become courteous, honest, and compassionate leaders in their careers and communities.

But boy, I dragged my feet kicking and screaming all the way here. Left bloody fingernail streaks on the walls of life the entire way. I didn’t want my destiny, but my destiny wanted me. And it was patient.

Would you blame me for having doubts, though? Who in their right mind would peg me as a youth martial arts instructor anyway? Early on, I was no mental, physical, or spiritual role model. I could barely stay in my own skin.

  • I was a newly recovering alcoholic and hypochondriac who feared exercise because it raised my heart rate. I might have a seizure or heart attack. I could drop dead at any moment, and I wasn’t ready to die just yet.
  • My bachelor’s degree was in journalism. I could correct grammar errors all day, but I didn’t know squat about teaching plans.
  • I took one psychology course at the University of Texas at Austin. It wasn’t child psychology, either, and I don’t remember much. (Most likely, I slept through or was hung over for much of the class.)
  • I loved infants—mostly because they couldn’t speak. But put me in a room with children ages two and up, who were developing the ancient art of saying “No,” and I became a terrified, whimpering idiot.

I don’t know what Mrs. Lewis saw in me. After all, for most of my life, I’ve been a big, fat quitter. Dreams, goals, and tasks I started with passion were repeatedly and unceremoniously dumped. I lacked heart. My soul was soft. If allowed, I’d give up on anything once it became a trial and a hardship—once I realized that I wouldn’t be perfect.

My lineage of quitting ran deep.

I wanted to quit Mrs. Stallkneck’s third-grade class, but Mamma wouldn’t let me. It was my first advanced-paced challenge, and I was terribly afraid of failing. I thought all my classmates were smarter than me. In my limited first- and second-grade experience, I was already used to being the smartest student in the room. Suddenly I wasn’t. I was in a class filled with kids who also were used to being the smartest ones in the room, but they didn’t seem to mind their lower status. I didn’t understand why I was in an advanced class for being smart; I felt so stupid.

I cried almost every day. Cried over my Lucky Charms in the morning. Cried while tying my shoes before heading out the door for my half-a-block walk to school. Cried at the kitchen table later that afternoon while doing homework. I tried not to cry in school, but sometimes tears would uncontrollably spurt out the corners of my eyes. I didn’t understand anything anymore, and was confused and miserable. But when I asked Mamma if I could move to another class—one that wasn’t so hard—she refused. Adamant, in fact. I didn’t know until years later that she dropped out of school in the sixth grade. She had been a quitter, too, and she wasn’t about to let me repeat her mistake.

No matter how I cried, Mamma wouldn’t budge. She was a stubborn woman. Even at nine years old, I knew I wouldn’t win this fight. So I quit: I quit bothering her. I don’t know what the tipping point was or when it happened, but I stopped crying one day and just went to school. (When I graduated from high school, I won a four-year, all-expenses-paid scholarship to the Texas public university of my choice, and I have Mamma to thank for that.)

Despite some successes, doubt and fear dictated many of my early life decisions and detours. As an adult, without Mamma around to right my course, I quit striving for dreams and didn’t even attempt other curiosities. I didn’t want to look any more stupid than I already felt. More important, I didn’t want to fail.

In public.

Where everyone and their grandmothers could see my imperfections.

In college, I quit a women’s co-op house manager’s job at the halfway point of a one-year term. I never wanted the job to begin with. My best friend and some of my housemates convinced me that my diplomatic nature would be an asset. They thought I’d make a good, level-headed leader. Truthfully, they didn’t want to be led by the more outspoken, wild-mustang-personality housemate vying for the position. Of course, I was elected, and was immediately miserable and insecure. I quit after one semester, and the housemate whom everyone feared would get the position finally did. She worked her butt off to do a fantastic job.

During my first newspaper job in East Texas, the publisher of the Marshall News Messenger gave me the opportunity to run a one-person show for the weekly Hallsville Herald. I did it all: reporting, editing, layout, hot wax paste-up, accidental finger slicing. I quit that job after about six months. Heck, I left East Texas completely.

I ended up in West Texas, where the reporters in the Lifestyle section of the daily Lubbock Avalanche-Journal called me “Sneakers” because of how I was dressed for an unintentional job interview. I came to the newspaper that day to visit one of my former Marshall News Messenger colleagues, who showed me around the Avalanche-Journal newsroom and introduced me to the newspaper’s managing editor. By the time I left, that managing editor offered me the open medical reporter position. I lasted six months, and the Avalanche-Journal’s PBX operator won the “How long do you think she’ll last?” pool. Even my colleagues saw something odd in me.

On the Gulf of Mexico, I finally broke the six-month pattern: I stayed at the daily Corpus Christi Caller-Times for three whopping years. I worked with some great reporters and editors and we won many awards for our hard work. Still, irritability, restlessness, and discontent remained, and though I stayed at the job for three years, I started and stopped other things in life. I had a six-month window of happiness with apartments. I moved so often that Mamma refused to take down my new phone number.

“What’s the use,” she said one day. “You’re just gonna move in six months anyway. You call me from now on.”

At the Caller-Times, I helped lead one of the best small-market newspapers in the state as assistant news editor and then news editor. But leadership positions never lasted long. I was a worried and unhappy boss. I hired people I didn’t want to hire, fired people I didn’t want to fire, and drank more and more at bars and at home to quell an ever-growing anxiety. It was apparent to most colleagues that I was a stressed mess. (In a co-worker’s cartoon of the copy desk staff, I appeared as a fist-clinched caricature who screamed, “Doesn’t anyone care about our deadline?!”)

After about—yes, six months—I asked to be reassigned as assistant news editor again. Newspaper executives shook their heads in confusion, but finally, albeit reluctantly, obliged. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. Neither could I.

Finally, I quit something that eventually helped me quit quitting: I stopped drinking alcohol. I went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and found a sponsor, someone who mentored me through the Twelve Steps and helped calm my crazy thoughts and impulses. It was as a recovering alcoholic that I learned to mentor others. Hilda C., my sponsor, gave me no choice.

“You want to stay sober?” she asked one day. “Then seek God. Clean house. Help others.” I wanted to stay sober, so I did what she told me. Hilda helped with many timely reminders such as “keep it simple.” I didn’t need to be an expert in neuroscience or astrophysics to mentor another drunk. I only had to humbly remember how I got screwed up, detail the steps I took to change, and share the gratitude I had for the life I now lived.

“See how your experience can benefit others,” she reminded me.

I willingly accepted her guidance, and that’s when I felt an internal click. Although I still hadn’t remembered Mrs. Lewis’s words, her prophesy began to manifest itself. Working with others—helping people—made me feel alive. Like I mattered. Like I made a difference. And for a naturally depressed person, those feelings are crucial.

As a one-year sobriety gift to myself—a self-amends, as Hilda called it—I joined a martial arts school in San Antonio led by a man who had a bald head and wore a kung fu uniform, just like Grasshopper.

Within every martial art, there is a tradition of teaching others—of senior students taking juniors to the side and showing them a punch, kick, pattern, or self-defense technique. So eventually, there I was: Teaching.

Though no more perfect than before, I was finally willing to learn the art of vulnerability and perseverance. Like Hilda encouraged, I was seeing how my experience could benefit others. I didn’t have to be perfect. I wasn’t supposed to be perfect. The point was to teach through the mistakes I had made myself so that those who followed wouldn’t have to suffer. For the better part of my life, I had been afraid of people. It was a fear that I was surprisingly willing to overcome simply because teaching in the martial arts is expected.

I grew mentally, physically, and spiritually—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, most times painfully, but always thankfully.

The time spent teaching has been some of the best years of my life. Though 13 years later I feel drawn away from Taekwondo—itching to be a student again in another art—I’m still, and will always be, a teacher.

Thanks, Mrs. Lewis.

Friday, June 14, 2013

You’re the Kind of Black Belt I Like to Promote

Carlos is a ten-year-old, soft-spoken orange belt with a full head of thick, black hair. He is quietly yet quickly working his way up the belt ranks. I smile every time he bows onto the mat because he’s a good kid and a hard worker.

His mother came up to me after class yesterday.

“I need to tell you something,” she began. This usually is the beginning of a conversation involving character unbecoming one of my students—but not always.

“I wanted you to know that he’s been doing really well in school. As and Bs on his report card. He even helped this boy with his math homework every day after class because his classmate was struggling. He won’t tell you. He doesn’t want to make a big deal about it.”

Carlos was sitting on the linoleum floor in the corner of the room, putting on his sneakers. I curled up my finger, motioning for him to come over.

“You’re mom told me what you did—helping your classmate.”

He nodded.

“Good job! I’m proud of you.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he humbly replied.

“What I’m most proud of is that you practiced Basic Rules to Live By No. 10—“We must respect our teachers and peers”—without me challenging you to do so. You helped someone who needed help. No one told you you’d get a stripe for it. You could have told your classmate, ‘Too bad, so sad. Good luck with your homework, buddy.’ But you didn’t.

“Plus, you helped another with no expectation of reward. A lot of people will do things for others, but they typically expect something in return. You did it just to help someone. And that’s what all this kicking and punching is really all about: becoming stronger in mind, body, and spirit, and then helping others become stronger too.

“You’re the kind of black belt I like to promote.”

Carlos smiled shyly and humbly bowed.

I spend thousands of hours helping students perfect blocks, strikes, kicks, rolls, and falls, and an assortment of self-defense strategies. That’s what I do, and I’m fairly good at it. I’m mindful, however, to spend equal time mentoring these same students to develop humility, selflessness, and compassion. If I don’t, then I've cheated them out of the opportunity to practice big-picture martial arts. It may sound strange, but I’m not proudest when I see one of my students perform a flying side kick over six people. A flying side kick is hugely popular in demonstrations creates a great wow factor. But it won't change the world. Selfless acts of kindness and compassion—and a deep well of patience—will.

Carlos wants a black belt, that’s obvious. And if he sticks with Taekwondo, I'll one day wrap a piece of black cloth around his waist. But he will not only have a black belt. More important, he will be one.

Friday, May 24, 2013

There's No Reason to Spend the Night at My House

Students and teachers alike have lessons to learn, and last night, my students gave me the opportunity to reveal a boundary mistake I made years ago.

During self-defense training in the intermediate/advanced youth class, one of my Taekwondo students asked a great question. We weren’t discussing “stranger danger” scenarios; instead, we focused on the more common situations in which the attacker and target know each other. The blue belt’s question was simple:

“How do you know whether someone will keep pursuing you (after the initial attack)?”

I looked around and saw that there were some really young students in class, so I chose my words carefully so as not to scare them, but to drive home an important reality.

“If you know your attacker, that’s a more personal attack, and they are more likely to chase you after you escape their grasp. That’s why it’s important that after your release, you hit them hard before you run. Does that make sense?”

The blue belt shook his head no.

“O.K., I don’t mean to frighten any of you with this, but this is something that happens to some kids,” I began.

I knew the blue belt was going to leave in two weeks to visit relatives in Ireland, so I used that in my example.

“Let’s say your parents went to Ireland without you. And after they left, I told you that your mom gave you permission to spend the night at my house. She’s already gone, so you can’t check that out. And you don’t really want to stay at my house; you get a funny feeling about that. But I’m your teacher and you want to please me, and you trust me. So you go. But when you get to my house, I touch or grab you in a way that is inappropriate. You know it’s inappropriate, so you fight me. Do you think I’ll pursue you?”

His shoulders rose in uncertainty.

“Yes! I will! I don’t want you to tell your mom. She knows me. You know me. My secret will get out, and I don’t want that to happen. Now does that make a little more sense?”

"Ohhhhh!" he said as his eyes grew wider. “Yes, ma’am.”

I turned to the others.

“Does everyone get that? If you don’t, come talk to me after class. I don’t mean to scare you, but this is important.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they said in unison.

There are moments in life when you know it’s time—for apologies, for confrontation, and for revelation. I knew this was the ideal time to tell my students about the mistake I made. I was a little weary of what the parents—listening attentively in the spectator section—might think of me afterward, but I felt it was important to reveal nonetheless.

“By the way,” I said, “there’s no reason one of you should stay overnight at my house. None. Years ago, I made the mistake of letting Martin spend the night at my house.” Martin, now 18 years old, was in the next room teaching the Family Class. He’s been my student since he and his twin brother were 8 years old.

“He was about 14 that summer, and we were both working the National Junior Olympics at the Convention Center—early mornings and late nights all week long. His mom and dad asked me if he could stay overnight at my house Friday and I give him a ride to the tournament Saturday morning so that they could sleep in. They both worked hard at their jobs, and they’d been very generous in allowing him to work the tournament, so I agreed.

“It didn’t even occur to me at the time how that might be wrong. But now, years later, I’ve found out a lot more about how some martial art teachers take advantage of their students and abuse them.

“I’ll never make that mistake again.”

The students gave an understanding nod, and I knew from the look in their eyes that I had planted a seed they wouldn’t forget.

“O.K., let’s continue: Escaping bear grabs from the back….”

After class, some parents expressed gratitude for broaching a scary subject, and for my honesty. Some simply met my eyes with a knowing gratitude. I simply bowed.

I learned a great lesson from what at the time was an innocent mistake. Some martial arts industry leaders have been accused of horrible abuse, and most of these incidents have a common detail: students slept over at instructors' houses without parental supervision. I know now that that's a boundary that should never be crossed, however innocently, and that it's up to me to set and maintain that boundary.

If in the future any of my students ask to sleep over at my house, I will politely, simply, and yet firmly respond, "No."

I won't make that mistake again.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tell Someone Today

Yesterday the kids in my Taekwondo class reviewed the Five Fingers of Self-Defense: Think, Yell, Run, Fight, Tell.

I’ve always thought “Tell” is one of the hardest of the five to practice. Unfortunately, yesterday confirmed my belief.

During the "Tell" portion of class, I asked students to pretend that their parents weren't in the room.

"Who has ever had something bad happen to them that they didn't tell their parents about?"

Hands shot up.


Toward the end of class, we talked more about why it's important to speak up when someone threatens or bullies them—or touches them inappropriately.

“If you don’t, no one will know that anything’s wrong. And that person who’s hurting you will continue to abuse you and others.”

The class got quiet. They were truly listening.

"So tell someone,” I said. “Tell ANYONE. Tell the crossing guard. The cafeteria lady. Your teacher. The bus driver. A friend. Your parents. Your pastor. Tell until you're blue in the face.

“And remember, you don’t have to go through life feeling alone in this world. You don't have to keep things to yourself or figure things out by yourself. There's always someone who can and wants to help. So tell someone.”

After class, a parent made a bee-line for me.

"We think they know this—that they don't have to do this alone,” she said, “but no one actually comes right out and says it. Thank you for saying it.”

“You’re welcome,” I said.

Telling is truly hard. But it’s not impossible to do. If you’re a kid reading this blog, and something has happened to you—if someone has hurt you, even if it was a long time ago—tell someone TODAY.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Expect the Unexpected

We have an understanding in our program: Expect the unexpected. I’m known for springing teaching assignments on junior leaders and holding surprise rank exams for those ready to promote. The idea is that students should come to the dojang focused and ready to work hard every day, because they never know when they may be considered for promotion or be asked to lead. This keeps children on their toes.

Some martial arts teachers pick my brain from time to time regarding how I handle certain types of instruction and coaching situations. I adhere to the Tony DiCicco “Catch Them Being Good” philosophy of emphasizing positive aspects first, and then offering improvement coaching toward the end.

I like to put this kind of feedback in writing (if in an email, I always copy the parents), and I encourage students to save these messages to reread during times of low self-esteem, fatigue, and frustrationto see where and how they've grown.

Yesterday I put another junior leader on the spot, and he didn’t disappoint. I thought I'd share the email (the student’s real name has been changed) that I sent to him following Monday’s class:

Good morning, Steven!

Son, you did a great job yesterday in your first teaching segment. I'm very proud of you. You were:

  • Clear in your description of how to do a back kick
  • Polite, patient, and clear again in answering your peers' incessant questions
  • Postive in your coaching feedback during the drill itself
  • Unfailingly respectful, addressing your peers by their last names. Bravo!

I loved your analogies (target shooting, etc.), and I also loved how you used your understanding of science to explain power and momentum.

Here are some things to work on for your next teaching segment (the subject of which YOU will decide this time):

  • Remember etiquette and practice your Korean: attention, bow, ready stance, etc. When you're teaching, tell your students everything (right leg back, fighting stance, etc.) or they may all do something different. You may think, "Oh, but they already know what to do." Most will. Others won't. Those students who don't know what's going on may start to feel lost and insecure. So stick to protocol and everyone will be on the same page and have the same shot at success.
  • Be mindful of your posture and maintaining a balanced stance. Your stance shows your confidence. Stand up straight and use a loud voice. Head up, chest out, shoulders back. You don't have to bark orders, but you must be loud enough for the student farthest back to hear you.
  • When students give you compliments (get used to this), a simple bow and "thank you" is fine.

That's it for now. Again, I'm proud of you, Steven. I sprung this on you (expect the unexpected) and will continue to do so throughout the remainder of your journey to black belt. You passed the first hurdle with flying colors, and I look forward to seeing you grow as a teacher and peer mentor in the days to come.

Have a great week!
Ms. Chapaty

Friday, January 25, 2013


Today's tale from the mat:

Six-year-old Michael has been a student for about a month. He's quiet, shy, and unsure of everything. He often forgets to kihap (use his spirit voice) while kicking and punching, and when he does remember, his voice is always soft.

Yesterday during knee kick drills, though, he FOUND HIS VOICE! Exxxxxxcept his kihap was more like a spewing, spitting "PpppppffffPOW!"

Do you tell a young man who's finally found his spirit to not spit in your face while you're holding a power kicking bag?


But not today.