Sunday, October 16, 2016

Welcome to the Imperfect Club

Editor's note: The following is a letter I wrote to a student who didn't pass a promotion exam. He's now a member of a club no one wants to be a part of, but in which at some point in life we all receive an induction.
Dear X,
I know how you felt on Saturday. I know how much you wanted to pass the exam—to receive your belt with your peers. 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. I failed to break a cement block as my last assignment.
My spaghetti legs wobbled; I was exhausted. My bottom lip quivered. My nose burned. I hadn’t hurt my hand in the break attempt, but my pride was noticeably shattered. I was crying so hard that snot dripped down my all-white Taekwondo uniform. I felt flattened like a pancake emotionally and physically. I hung my head to hide the tears.
The crowd applauded and whistled as my peers and I stood in line at attention, but I was so disheartened; I couldn't hold in my tears. I tried to clamp off the emotional faucet because I knew it wouldn't look good to cry during the oral part of a black belt exam, but it was too late; the flood had started.
"O.K., Cah-ty," Grandmaster Yoon said from the examiners’ table, "tell me about improvements you made since you started training in Taekwondo.
I paused, looked down at the mat, and tried to gather my composure as snot slowly dribbled onto one of my uniform's patches. I had to give my answer, even if everyone knew I was crying.
"Sir," I said slowly with a shaky voice, "I've learned that whenever I fail, not to quit—to keep trying. Perseverance. Integrity. Courtesy. Self-confidence. Self-control. Indomitable spirit, sir!" 

I cried even harder as I again hung my head. There was a long silence before Grandmaster Yoon spoke in imperfect English.

"You know, mos’ student fail on first-degree black belt test. Not only you. You ah not just the idiot." 

I stopped crying. Did he just call me an idiot?

He did! Because of the language barrier, he didn't mean it that way, but he did! It was so startling that I stopped crying.

The tears slowed for a moment, but I still just wanted to get away from everyone. It hurt so much to have failed—but to also have failed in public. I was in so much pain. 

So, if you can related to anything I described above, then welcome to the Imperfect Club. I hate being a member of this group, because I want to be perfect. Every time. The first time. Alas, I’m not.
But I’ve learned a LOT from being a member of the Imperfect Club. As an instructor, I’ve been able to show compassion when students don’t pass tests—to relate to them in a powerful way that I simply couldn’t have without having gone through this myself. I learned that messing up isn’t the end of the world, and that if I can find a lesson in it all, it helps the pain subside a little quicker, and later (much later) I find the experience useful. This particular experience made me so much more compassionate toward others—and myself—when imperfection raises its ugly head.
So I encourage—challenge—you to join me in the next phase of this oftentimes hard rite of passage, one in which I’M STILL working on celebrating my strengths, accepting my weaknesses and imperfections without 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.

Days like Saturday may make you think that you haven’t moved an inch. This is not true. You have grown a great deal since first bowing onto the Taekwondo mat. And we need mentors who will remind us of this—who will tell us the truth of how far we’ve come, especially during the low times.

So here I am, reminding you that you’re a fine young man with an incredible, kind spirit, and that Taekwondo needs men like you to act as warriors of goodwill—to defend the meek, to tell those who come after us that we've been there and we know how they feel.
Regardless, I make you the following promise: I’LL BELIEVE IN YOU UNTIL YOU CAN BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.
Much love,
Miss Cathy

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.