The Little Ninja Goes to Vegas

Back around new years, the Little Ninja and I decided we were going to go to the ATA Nationals Taekwondo tournament in Vegas. This would be her first “real tournament” (not counting local intra-school), and her first trip to Vegas.  It promised to be fun and it was! There was too much that happened this past weekend to cover it in one blog post.  I probably need three, so here is the first installment.

We skipped work/school and Friday and headed to Vegas on Southwest first thing. We checked into our hotel and headed direct to the Convention Center.  Her first events were the XMA Weapons and Creative Weapons categories.  These are both non-traditional forms categories that focus on intensity and showmanship. She loves this stuff — and she gets to wear a cool black uniform for the events. Here’s a picture of the Little Ninja (far left) looking sassy (with her deadly looking Kamas) while lining up with the rest of her ring (all 7-8 year old girls).

The competition in the ring was fierce. Some of these girls clearly practice night and day.  However, she wasn’t intimidated (even though several of the girls were sporting State Champ or even World Champ patches on the back of their uniforms. She went out and did here thing.  Here are a few snapshots (click to enlarge).


She didn’t place top 3 in this event, but all the girls got “awesome competitor” awards that were well deserved. She was happy to wear her medal. She watched one of my events after hers (another post on that later). We then declared victory and headed out on the town!  Of course, out on the town with a 7 year old doesn’t mean the casinos, it means ice cream!

The next day, it was time for the traditional competition. She has never like to do traditional forms.  It’s her lead favorite part of Taekwondo.  However, she set a goal to completely learn her black belt form.  The ATA 1st degree black belt form is called Shim Jun and contains 81 precisely proscribed moves.  She worked hard on it for weeks and just recently has reached the point where she can do the entire form herself without help.  Of course she’d only done it at the school and in our living room before the tournament.  It was still to be seen if she could do it under pressure.  While there were a couple of shaky parts, especially towards the end, she did the whole thing!  She didn’t place Top 3 here either, but I couldn’t have been prouder.  Here’s her form.

Here are the competitors from her ring. Have you ever seen a scarier looking bunch?

After my events (more on that later) it was time to party like rock stars.  We tooking in a the Cirque Beatles show and then headed home on Sunday.  It was a super weekend with my Little Ninja!


The Power of One-on-One Coaching

Last week I was lucky. I made it the lunch-time, adults-only Taekwondo class at my school , but I was the only one who did — other than the instructor. That meant I got an hour of totally customized, private training.  I had a few private sessions over the past couple of years and they’re always special.

When I have a true one-on-one lesson, I don’t have to follow the “class planner” and work on what everyone else is doing. The instructor knows me. He sees me every week, and he knows what I’m good at and what I’m not. At one private session I had 6 months ago, we spent almost the entire time on my side-kick. My side-kick was kind of broken, but I didn’t even know it.  However, with 45 minutes of dedicated attention and a number of drills to focus on it the instructor fixed months of bad habits I’d developed.

At last week’s private lesson, we spent 15 minutes working on the form I’ll need to show at my next grading. The instructor showed me things to focus on that we’d never get to in a class full of kids — which describes most of the classes at my school.

I’ve recently been enjoying the HBO series Game of Thrones.  It’s a fun swords and sorcery piece with great charters. My favorite character is Arya, a 9 year-old noble-born girl who is something of a tomboy. After it becomes clear his family is in danger, her father agrees to let Arya learn to handle a sword.  The clip below from the third episode shows Arya’s first lesson. It’s a great example of the power of one-on-one coaching. Watch how engaged she is. He is totally focused on her and she senses that. If you’re a martial arts teacher, when was the last time you had a session like this with one of your students?

My Little Ninja

On this father’s day, I thought I’d share something that makes me very proud as a dad.  I’d like to share a few pictures of my little ninja “Z”.  Z started taking Taekwondo a few months before her third birthday — her mom had to sweet talk the instructor into giving her a try-out because they didn’t take kids younger than three.  Here’s a picture of her on her first day of class. She was just swimming in her uniform — which was the smallest size made!

Over the next several months, she worked hard at her classes, earned her first few belts and even entered her first tounament. Here she is with her first trophy (for her free style nunchuk form).  Have you ever seen a kid so proud of themselves? Let me tell you, I was pretty proud too!

Over the next couple of years, she stuck with it. There were days she didn’t want to train, but she always powered on through.  Below you can see her rockin’ a great middle stance at her “Black Belt Recommended” test. She’d worked half her life towards this and was going to make it look good.

Here she is sparing at her black belt test. The instructor lined up four boys in front of her and gave them 30 seconds each to have at her. All were taller and older than she was.  She was knocked back on her heels early on, but then found her rhythm and gave better than she got!

And, then there is proud papa giving her a big hug after she broke her boards. I was testing for my blue belt that same day so I got to share in her test.  That was a really special thing!  Some time later I’ll have to write a post about how she got me to join her in training at the school

And here we have six-year-old Z with her black belt looking so grown up. I know there are many people who are skeptical about kids and black belts, and I’m not going to have that argument here. What I can tell you is she’s grown into a super confident kid from something of a timid little mouse (compare first and last pictures) and her martial arts training certainly had something to do with it!

Goodbye Food Pyramid

In one of my first posts on this blog I voiced my issues with what the American government has been telling kids to eat.  Not only was the Food Pyramid metaphor confusing, but it told kids that most of their daily calories should come from starchy carbohydrates.  That’s a recipe to get fat, and I’m 100% sure that’s been a contributing factor to the American obesity epidemic.

Today, to much fanfare, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it was replacing the Food Pyramid.  Maybe they read my blog?  OK, that probably wasn’t the cause, but it’s still a good thing.

The pyramid has been replaced, but a much simpler “plate” icon.  From a pure readability point of view, it’s clearly an improvement, but beyond that it seems to send some better advice.  CNN posted a story today about the plate that included a good interview with some credible experts on nutrition and I think they sum things up well about the new changes.

Its predecessor, the first food pyramid, released in 1992, recommended five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables. But these were secondary to the recommendation of six to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta. It didn’t differentiate between refined and whole grains.

“It promoted eating so many grain servings, it was promoting obesity,” Nestle said.

Dr. David Kessler, author of “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite,” agreed that the older food pyramid “didn’t reflect best of the dietary guidelines.”

“Refined carbohydrates should’ve never been the major part of the diet,” he said. “It was never about eating refined carbohydrates. It’s why it didn’t work.”

With the new changes, Kessler added, “Maybe now, we have a chance.”

I think this is a real step in the right direction and perhaps some more advice based on good science can start to trickle down to our kids now.  What do you think?

Is Government Propaganda Making You Fat?

Does the US government lie to us?  I’ve watched my share of X-Files episodes, so perhaps the government is hiding alien spacecraft in New Mexico.  Maybe the government is covering up who killed JFK.  I honestly don’t know.  But, I do know that the basic advice I got as a kid about what to eat was wrong — dangerously wrong.  And, it remains so to this day.  The government is still giving our kids really bad advice about what to eat.  Exhibit 1: The Food Pyramid.  It’s brought to us by the good folks about the US Department of Agriculture, and it’s wrong.

The food pyramid tells you to get most of your calories from carbohydrates – bread, pasta, rice and cereal.  It also tells us to restrict intake of meat, fish, nuts, cheese and milk.  What’s wrong with this?  Quite simply, it is a recipe to become fat.  There is a commonly held fallacy that you become fat when you take in more calories than you burn.  That’s basically false.  The only time your body converts food into fat is when your body is producing the hormone insulin.  When does your body produce insulin?  When you’re digesting carbohydrates — and ONLY when you’re digesting carbohydrates.

While I know this to be true at an intuitive level, having used this knowledge to loose over 40 pounds and keep my weight under control for the past five years, you shouldn’t take my word for it.  You should look at the science behind it and make your own conclusions.  Thus, I strongly suggest you read this book: Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes.  It presents all the science you need to draw your own conclusion.  The evidence is overwhelming and a times shocking.

Why is the government giving us such bad advice?  Maybe it has to do with aliens in Roswell.  I don’t know, but the fact remains that people have need to understand it.  The Truth Is Out There!


Boys Will Be Boys

Here is a story about my first experience with martial arts.

As a kid, I got into fights.  I don’t remember the first time I got into a fight, but it was common enough.  By today’s standards of school conduct, I would probably have been suspended or expelled, but growing up in the 70s in upper-middle class suburbia there was still a “boys will be boys” attitude in effect at my school.  Fighting on the playground didn’t result in bigger consequences than loss of a recess period as long as no one got really hurt.  Most of these fights were really just wrestling matches to establish the grade-school pecking order.

I had a temper, and still do really.  I think I inherited it from my dad – who I actually saw get into more than one fight when I was young – always during a softball or basketball game.  With my short fuse, when kids would tease me at school, I could never just let it go.  “Turn the other cheek” was not a concept I’d learned.  I was a small kid, and a little bit chubby, which made me an easy target for bullies.

For me, the two most important bullies in my life were from the time I was in 5th grade.  Andy was a small kid for a 6th grader.  With curly blond hair, fair skin and a slight build he didn’t look like a typical bully.  Even though he was more than a year older than me I probably outweighed him.  However, his friend Patrick was a full head taller than I was and was already entering puberty.  Andy was the mastermind and Patrick was the muscle.  These two picked on me ruthlessly.  They nicknamed me “Little Guy” — even though I was slightly bigger than Andy.  They made up silly rhymes and songs with which to taunt me.  One little song, based on the melody of a popular dog food ad from the time, still sticks in my head.

All my fights as a little kid had turned me into a pretty savvy wrestler and I think I actually enjoyed the sport associated with schoolyard fighting.  I was usually game for a fight.  When Andy and Patrick first started this teasing, I lost my temper pretty quickly and wound up jumping on Andy.  I felt I could take him and really wanted to give him a pounding to shut him up.  However, Patrick came up from behind me, pulled me off and gave me a real thumping.  He was so much bigger and stronger than I was that it really hurt.  I fought back with all I had – no technique on my part, just rage.  This wasn’t kids in a friendly wrestling match to establish dominance.  This was my first real experience with fighting.  I lost.  This repeated itself over, and over and over. It got very old, very quickly.

I’m not sure which hurt more, the teasing or the beatings, but I was enjoying neither. These confrontations with Andy and Patrick became routine and I grew increasingly frustrated.  There seemed to be no help for me.  The boys-will-be-boys code on the playground meant no help from the adults.  My best friend, a warm hearted but gawky kid from the Netherlands named Nick wasn’t a fighter.  In fact, the one time I saw him get into a fight he made a fist with his thumb inside his fist and punched without bending his elbow.  There was no help for me there.

Then it escalated further.  From the time I was very young, I always rode my bike to and from school.  It was only a couple miles and the city streets were side with big bike lanes.  I had a fancy, bright orange 10 speed from Sears that I remember liking quite a bit.  My parents didn’t drive me to school unless it was raining with enough force to start serious discussions about ark building.

One day on my way home, Andy and Patrick got on their own bikes and followed me.  They taunted me, and we yelled back and forth.  Then they started swerving their bikes back and forth making me swerve to avoid them.  Eventually then ran me off the road and then they zoomed off leaving me in a ditch – scraped and scratched.

I got up and rode the rest of the way home.  When my mom saw me she completely lost it.  If my mom has one defining trait it is that she is extremely protective of her family.  This is true when she cares for her own mother (my grandmother) today or when she was taking care of my little sister and I.  She immediately drove me back to school and marched me to the principal’s office.  The principal was a slightly rotund, but very nice man.  He seemed concerned and promised to look into it and “make sure it wouldn’t happen again.”  Despite his good intentions, this was not my last bully confrontation.

When talking to the school administration didn’t fix it, my parents got more concerned and started to try to help.  They gave me anti-bullying techniques they thought would allow me to stop this.  I imagine they got these out of some pop child-rearing book of the time.  The “snappy comeback” was one technique I remember.  When confronted with teasing from the likes of Andy and Patrick I was supposed to verbally joust with them, instead of losing my temper and getting into another fight.  Eventually my mastery of verbal dueling was supposed to humiliate the bullies and have them look for another target.  It didn’t work.

Not giving up, my parents kept at it.  Eventually, they came to me with another proposal.  I should learn to really defend myself so that the bullies would respect me.  There was a Karate class being offered at the local community center and they had signed me up.  I had never taken any kind of martial arts and had no idea what to expect.  This was before the time of the Karate Kid and all the martial arts movies that followed.

I remember that in my 10 year old head it felt like I was being signed up for Summer School because I hadn’t done well in class.  I was being punished and I didn’t like it.  I let it be known that I really didn’t want to take the class.  My parents insisted, but we made an agreement that I only had to try it until I earned my Yellow Belt.  At that point I could make an informed decision about whether to continue.  At that time I resolved that I would hate this experience, no matter how much fun it turned out to be.

Classes took place in small gym at the local community center.  It wasn’t at a real martial arts studio, but the teacher was affiliated with a local Karate school and taught at the community center to recruit.  He would often remind us that when we “graduated” this program we could move to the real dojo and train.

Two evenings a week I’d be dropped at the community center for class.  The style was very traditional Japanese karate.  Straight strikes, blocks and kicks were all we learned – nothing flashy.  We didn’t practice any of the spinning and jumping kicks, tumbling or grappling that kids learn now in modern martial arts classes.  It was repetitive.

Each class started with a stretching warm up and then we’d practice basic techniques.  Attacks included a straight punch, front kick and a side kick.  Defenses included a high-block, low-block and a middle-block.  We did these while marching up and down the length of the gym yelling in unison.  At the end of each class, I’d tell my parents that it was horrible, even though I was starting to enjoy it.  I was such a stubborn kid.

The fact is that this was really fun.  In secret, I’d come home and practice my punches and blocks in front of the mirror.  I felt like a bad ass.  In class the instructor told us that when we signed up to come to the real dojo and train that we’d learn to spar.  Given that I really loved the idea fighting (at least when it was “fair”) this sounded like the most fun a 10-year-old boy could have.

At the end of the session, all the kids and I tested for and received our Yellow Belts.  I was pretty happy.  My parents seemed proud.  At the end of the graduation ceremony, they asked me if I’d like to sign up to take classes at the dojo.  Now I had a dilemma.   I could quit Karate, which I enjoyed, or admit to my parents they were right and I could continue on.  I choose to cut off my nose in order to spite my face.  I told my parents I’d stuck with their plan as agreed, but now I wanted out.  I told them Karate would be boring just as I had known it would be.  Now, please take me home I said and let’s not speak of this again.

I think they were a little dumb founded, but they were true to their word and that was the end of my chances to become a 10-year-old bad ass.

What was your first experience with martial arts?  Did you stick with it, or did you come back to it later in life?