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- Understand? Good. Play!
I had a true epiphany today that demonstrates how a true master can teach many lessons for many years with a single statement. This picture is of Sensei Masaaki Hatsumi, the Grand Master of Ninjutsu. I have studied, practiced and tried to understand this martial art for 21 years of my life, not always in the dojo, but always training. Ninjutsu brought me friendships, insight into movement and personal well being as well as a level of personal confidence nothing else has ever come close to providing. While people say stuff like that all the time, my statement might have a little more weight if you know that I: earned Eagle Scout at 14, worked for a paycheck since I was 15, opened 52 restaurants before the age of 22, studied Taekwondo, served in the Army, jumped out of airplanes, climbed buildings and mountains, opened a food truck, fought the government and changed the law, survived 13 bone surgeries, a heart attack, a stroke, a hole in my heart and heart implant surgery. I have beaten Diabetes, Glaucoma and Hypertension with lifestyle and diet changes. So when I say something moved me … you better believe it moved a freakin mountain.
The Best Little Thing In The Whole Gosh Darned World!
There is one thing in my life that has moved me more than Ninjutsu and that my friends is my daughter. I know parents say things like, “It’s a kind of love I didn’t know could exist” or “I never knew I could love another thing so deeply.” You know why some things become cliché? Because they’re true :). She has had her own battles including skull surgery at 9 weeks, 502 days in a helmet and LOTS of physical therapy and stretches. Alas, all of that is behind her and she’s happy, healthy, smart as a whip, hard as nails, stubborn as a mule, screams like a fire siren and is just the best little thing in the whole gosh darned world!
Now We Train …
Her mom and I have been discussing when she could study Ninjutsu or some other form of martial art since she began copying me with the bo staff in the yard at 4. Her martial journey FINALLY began in Taekwondo this summer with a 9-week introductory course at the iTiger Academy. Awesome. I immediately have visions of my little girl next to Hit Girl and whooping any boy that comes across their paths! Now we train … She earned her white belt with a board break. The instructor knelt before her, told her to get into a ready to punch position, held out a board and she looked at him like he was crazy. Still, she pulled some courage from that well we all know, rocked her little feet back, pulled that fist to her hip and let her fly! No break. It’s okay, no biggie. That was her right hand, and she’s a lefty. She’s got this. The instructor flips the board over, tells her to switch sides and try again. She rocks those little feet into position, chambers her left fist of fury and let’s it fly! BLAMMO! Too freakin cool. I’ve got a little wall buster! One busted board and one ASTONISHED little girl.
The First “Hard” One
Then come the stripes … oh the stripes. A quick side note on rank from me. Rank is not about you. It is a message for everyone else. I was having a conversation with one of the Instructors last night and made this statement. I got an audible “Hmph” in return. 🙂 Time for a lesson that D already knows. I shared with the Instructor exactly what I shared with D. Did getting that red stripe make you kick any faster? Did it somehow magically make you kick more strongly? No. That stripe tells everyone else that you have proven you know how to kick. It has nothing to do with you. So based on that conversation her first red stripe for axe and front kicks is easy breezy. She nailed her red stripe in no time. But alas, my little “Hit Girl” hit the same roadblock all artists martial, creative, entrepreneurial or scientific face at some point in their journey: the first “hard” one. Low block, low block, low block, turn. Middle punch, middle punch middle punch, turn. High block, high block, high block, turn. High punch, high punch, high punch, turn. Each final step before the turn is accompanied with a “kihap” or spirit yell. Sweeeet. D and I practice for 3 days. A couple times a day, going through the positions. Saying them out loud, stepping them through in the living room, bedroom, playroom, yard, anywhere we can. TRAIN! Before class, we work again 2 more times. She says she’s ready (and tired). Dad knows she’s ready. She’s got this. In class, they are separated by stripe, so off D goes to the group of red stripes to earn her black. 4 little girls and mine is leading the way. Each position fist over feet, strong turns, she’s in the zone. The instructor asks, “So who knows it?” and I hear the best words ever, “I do!”. Here. We. Go. She jumps to her feet. The instructor says to get in a ready position. Confusion sets in. Left hand drops, left foot goes back. She’s an X. Instructor has mercy and tells her to switch her feet. Boom! A quick jump and she’s good to go. Low block, low block, low block, turn. High punch but both feet come together and stop. Huh? Then again, a punch, but no feet move. One more wild crazy punch and a turn. That was brutal, but she’s still going! KEEP GOING! D suddenly becomes a real life bobble head and asks, “What’s next?” “Ok, D. You can try again next time. Have a seat.” All I can think of is the reaction of the mom on the other end of the phone in A Christmas Story … “WHAT?! WHAT, WHAT WHAT????!!” The Ride Home and Then Some I can’t believe what’s just happened. All that work. All that practice. She froze. How could she freeze? Not enough practice. Of course, it’s always never enough practice, right? She hangs her head walking to the car and climbs in her booster to head home. “Daddy?” “Yes, honey?” “Do we have to tell mommy what happened?” “Yes, we do.” “Oh.” Now this conversation shocked me. Her mom supports her Taekwondo, but doesn’t come to her classes. Not because she’s not welcome, just not her thing and she knows D and I could really bond over something like this. She’s an awesome mom :). But why mom? I guess it’s the same thing that makes Pro athletes learn to catch from their dad, run from their coach and then get on TV and say, “Hi, Mom!” The amazing and mysterious Power of Mom. More on that later. D and I have a long chat in the car about what failing feels like. She was very upset that she was in what she had identified as the “slowest group of kids.” She had noticed the other kids had already gotten a black stripe and some even 2. (Remember my rant about rank? Grrr.) Anyway, we chat about what it feels like to fail and how important it is to pick ourselves up, focus on what went wrong and keep practicing. We get home and one sad little girl is sitting on the couch. A ha! Teachable moment. Mental Taijutsu here we come! I have a looooong talk with her about how it’s not fair of her to expect the other kids in her class to wait on her to catch up. It’s also not fair of the instructors to have to take extra time to work with her in class, all because she didn’t work hard enough at home. She cries, we hug. She says she wants to continue. Lesson learned. Job done. Tomorrow, WE TRAIN! Vacation, No Train D and her mom went on a week long trip to Kentucky. I know! I’ll take a video of me doing the poomsae as an example. She’ll watch it daily and come back ready! Lots of fun, lots of sweets, very little training. “I trained once while I was brushing my teeth daddy!” Harumph She did at least build a Taekwondo Girl minifig at the Lego store. Her heart is still in it. You’re Taking the Fun Out of It Definitely not my proudest martial nor dad moment, but I took what I perceived as her lack of effort and will as a personal insult. She knows I love the martial arts. She knows how proud I am when she achieves something huge, but alas … the 6 year old has determined it is not to be. Ultimatum time. I tell her if she isn’t willing to practice, she isn’t going to pass her black stripe test and there is no point in going any more (Remember my rant on rank? GRRRRRRR). D cries. D panics. Her mom tells me I’m being too hard on her and find another way. I yell back, “I’ve tried every way! Practice after me, practice with me, practice alone and show me. What other way is THERE?!” “Well, I don’t know, but you’ve taken all the fun out of it.” Ouch, but she’s right … again. Mom power. Understand? Good. Play! Those that have trained with Master Hatsumi will know that every time he has finished demonstrating a technique to the class he has a very specific and unique way of letting us know it’s time to practice. He drops both hands, walks in a circle and says, “Understand? Good. Play!” (It also happens to be the title of one of his VERY hard to find books.) I clearly had not Understood?. Was not Good. And most certainly did NOT Play! As I think back on my career as a leader of small teams growing to larger teams and then to teams with specialized focuses it all came rushing in: I’m an asshole! No, really, I am a true asshole of a leader, teacher, co-worker and apparently dad. I NEVER have fun. I have always been focused on the mission, goal, target, opponent, [fill in the socially constructed objective here] and forgot the most important part to making sure things actually get done well: TO HAVE FUN WHILE DOING THEM. Holy crap, I suck. I literally burst into tears and was crying so hard I couldn’t verbalize to my wife what had happened. I finally understood and truly recognized for the first time in my entire life that I was doing it wrong. Everything. It took tearing into my wonderful daughter’s pride for me to finally understand that as a teacher, leader and father I have worked really hard to ensure failure all around me. This hit me like a ton of bricks…obviously. After the stroke, heart surgery, business woes from COVID and on and on I have been doing anything BUT “playing,” and suddenly the ONLY answer for success with D was to take Taekwondo back to a state of Play. Domo arigatou, Sensei Hatsumi. Domo. Success I began to attack D with “ribbit legs” and “spaghetti arms” (a pool noodle). After playing with D for a bit, she realized an hour and 20 minutes had already gone by (her class is only 30 minutes). I asked if she was ready to try the real thing and she went for it. Perfection on a living room rug :). Off to class. She practiced on the sidewalk outside 2 more times before class. Then the big moment came, but she didn’t know. The head Instructor marched them through the steps, made them say them out loud and then demonstrate them on their own. BLAMMO! Black stripe. She was so excited. In fact, this new stripe motivated her to work hard and get her 2nd black stripe the very next night (but that’s another story). Congratulations Nugget. Daddy’s proud of you and sorry for the way I acted. Thank you Sensei Hatsumi for saying those words over and over. Thank you dear wife, partner and super mom for using your super powers to awaken me to a new level of understanding. I love you.