What is the 50 State Challenge? Want to join the Challenge? Email me here.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Two Approaches to Mental Strength

Like most martial artists, I've been punched.  Aside from a few that were particularly hard or unusual in some way, most of those punches were pretty forgettable.

But the other day, I got a punch I will never forget.  The kind that has you standing in line at a grocery store two days later pretending everything is okay when it Definitely. Is. Not.  This punch came in the form of four words:

"I canceled my chemo."

My instructor proceeded to tell me about how he had to work outside in the cold this week, and if he had his chemo treatment, it would be too painful for him to complete the work.  He explained that he couldn't take the time off because he needed the money, so he canceled his chemo appointment instead.

So that was my punch, and I'd trade it for a dislocated jaw any day.  But as hard as this is for me, it is obviously much worse for him and his family.  I have the mental strength of a martial artist.  I can be everyone's rock, right?

How To Maximize Mental Strength

When we talk about physical strength, having a strong body can mean being able to lift heavy things, excelling in physical workouts, being resilient to illness, and so forth.  Mental strength also encompasses a lot.  It's the discipline to crank out those last few reps, the motivation to force yourself to go to class even if you'd rather stay home and relax, and the focus to keep your mind from wandering when you need all your attention in order to get a job done.

Just like a serious physical ailment can destroy all aspects of your body's strength, hardship can kick your discipline, focus, motivation, patience, and so forth, to the curb.

The good news is, mental strength trainable.  The even better news is, martial arts can be a great vehicle for training mental strength.

So what do you do when you need all your mental strength?

1.  Reframe your stressor as a challenge. 

If you never challenge yourself, you'll never improve.  If you're never failing, you're not challenging yourself.  So as insurmountable as your stressor may be, in some ways it's not so different from the heavy weight at the gym, or your nemesis sparring partner, or whatever other physical challenge you're trying to overcome.  Just like those physical challenges, if you've chosen a goal that is so easy that you have no chance of failing, you have chosen a goal that will not help you improve.  And just like practicing martial arts will make you better at martial arts, practicing with your problem will make you better at dealing with your problem.

Once you understand that whatever situation is giving you a beating is ultimately not that different from your regular training, you can approach it with a healthier mindset.

2.  Let the little stuff go.

There's science behind it, but it's also just common sense that when you are enduring hardship, it makes no sense to make it even harder on yourself.  If you put a lot of your mental energy into the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic, the actual sinking ship is going to be that much harder to face because you're mentally fatigued.  Focus on what's most important, and cut yourself some slack if you're not perfect in other areas.

3.  Train your mental strength.

Hopefully you started this one before you need it.  Just like your physical conditioning, it takes time.  Very hard training that makes you dig deep to find the strength to finish will condition your ability to finish things you don't want to finish.  Ignoring distractions in your training space will condition your ability to control your focus and direct your mind back to the task at hand when it wanders.  Focusing on your next technique when some corner of your brain is telling you to feel embarrassment or pride about the last one will bolster your ability to spend your effort on things that can actually affect the outcome of your struggle.

4.  Manage your energy levels.

As trite as it sounds to include "self care" in a list like this, it's a cliche because it's true.  Taking care of your health and getting quality sleep will absolutely help your mental strength.  Beyond that, whatever boosts your energy is as individual as you are.  Spending time with friends, cuddling pets and getting lost in a book, splurging on a snooty dinner out, watching a movie, getting to class... all of that has a cost in time, money, or both.  But if it gives you the energy to jump back into the fight with gusto, it also has a lot of value.

So that's my toolbox.  Here's how I've used it lately.

I put on the biggest lie of a smile for the students who come to train.  No one is going to get the class they need if I'm not strong for them.  Focus now, despair later.  Make jokes about stances so that everyone is laughing while they're pushing themselves to improve.  Don't give the elephant in the room even an inch.  Make sure no one uses a particular 6-letter C-word.  Model excellent mental strength for students who still need to learn those skills.

Everything is just fine.  Actually, that's an old picture, so everything really is fine.

Off the training floor, I do everything I can to help out financially and logistically.  Try to give him a little more freedom and means to focus on his health.  That requires a measure of mental strength, too.

But that's me.  I'm not at the center of this turdnado, and the person who IS at the center has trained a lot longer than I have.  I wondered, does a lifetime of martial arts make you strong enough to face this?  So I asked.

Here's what he had to say.

1.  Stay positive.

"When someone hears you have cancer, they always say, 'I'm sorry.'  But I don't feel sorry for myself."  He then proceeded to talk about some good things that have come out of his experience with cancer, like learning from the experience, being more connected to the people around him, and increased spirituality.  He emphasized how important it was to stay positive in order to have the mental strength to keep fighting.

2.  Maintain self control.

It's easy to imagine what he's going through and think that he must be stressed out, irritable, in constant physical discomfort, and on the edge of despair.  But interacting with him, you'd guess none of those things.  He credits his martial arts experience with giving him the skill of calming himself and maintaining that calmness, for the mental strength it has instilled in him, and the physical strength as well.  Because, as he put it, "You can only build so much of your mind without considering your body."  I'm sure no doctor would disagree.

3.  Keep learning.

He specifically mentioned "drawing strength" from learning from the experience.  He talked about how the experience has made him more aware of the connection between his mind and body.  He says he has also learned to open up as a human being, and is now more conscious of his own feelings and the feelings of others.

4.  Keep being you.

Actually what he said was, "Always remember to keep giving."  But he has a GoFundMe, and I was afraid it would sound really self-serving, so I changed it.  But "always keep giving" is such a pure reflection of who he is as a person.  This is someone whose generosity has exasperated business partners by giving away so much for free to people who couldn't pay.  Someone who has given so selflessly to his students and to the community that there's not enough left for himself, a martial arts retelling of It's A Wonderful Life.  This is someone who swooped in like the mentor figure in some saccharine after-school special and helped me regain my footing after my own really awful story.

And I'm one of his less dramatic stories.  I know about ex-felons who turned their lives around because of his help.  I know of at-risk kids who he put on the right course.  I know of kids who were bullied to the verge of suicide who pulled through in part because of him.  His life has been a series of Quantum Leap episodes, minus the time travel.  How many of us see our lives that way?  If we could travel to the past, we say we'd try to make small changes that had heroic consequences for the present.  But who tries to make small changes in the present with heroic consequences for the future?

I've lost track of how many times I've heard him say some variation of, "I didn't train for X years so I could keep it, I learned it so I could give it away."  That variable X has increased over the time that I've known him, and is now up to 47 years as he said it to me again today.

Friends, I don't ask for much.  Sure, I appreciate the likes, shares and subscribes, but I don't have a Patreon, a paid content section, DVDs or books or supplements or snake oil for sale.  Even my seminars I do without a paycheck.  But right now I'm asking.  If you can help, please do.  https://www.gofundme.com/ken-bent-cancer-fund

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

7 Tools for your New Year's Resolution

It's New Year's Day, so it's time for all that "new me" stuff that tends to fall by the wayside before February 1st.  Personally, I have never really done the New Year's resolution thing.  I am constantly working toward goals, but they seldom line up with the calendar year.

To be successful in your goals, it mostly comes down to a whole lot of "wanting it."  That said, having the right tools can make it a little easier.  So with that in mind, here's a list of my favorite tools for pursuing challenging goals.

1.  A good goal.  

Look!  A metaphor!

Aw, you thought I was going to recommend a bunch of things you could go out and buy, and here I am leading with an abstract concept.  Sorry dude, none of this is going to be easy.  If it were easy, we'd all be 10th dan Olympic athlete rock stars with multiple PhDs.  If that's you, congratulations.  You can stop reading now.  You obviously have a good grasp of setting and achieving goals.  If instead you're scarfing down microwave ramen while watching cat videos and trying to decide whether you want to spend the rest of your evening studying, training, or playing video games (don't laugh, we've all been there) then this is for you.

Some goals fail before you even get started.  Want to get better at stuff?  That's not specific enough to work toward.  Aiming to get better at sparring?  How will you know when you get there if you can't measure it?  Hoping to flying side kick the moon out of the sky?  That's not achievable.  Want to run a 4-minute mile because the bragging rights would be cool?  Like I said earlier, most of achieving goals is a matter of really wanting it, so pick something relevant to what it most important to you.  Want to win a national championship someday?  If you can put it off until later, you probably will, so you need a deadline. 

There's a popular mnemonic to help you remember this:  SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound).  Setting a SMART goal helps set you up for success.  There's more on this topic in this episode of Iain Abernethy's podcast.

2.  Glucose.  

Willpower magnified by a power of a hundred billion or so.

Glucose is basically what powers your body.  Doing just about anything requires glucose.  Anything that requires effort will deplete your glucose a little bit, even just exercising your willpower.  Actually, this is a bit of an oversimplification, and more research is needed (you can read more about the science of willpower here) but for our purposes we can just consider willpower to be made out of glucose.  So getting out of bed, climbing into a really cold shower, saying no to the free cookies in the break room, being nice to that coworker who ignored your advice and "fixed" a bug by breaking every other similar feature in the project and then acted surprised when it did exactly what you said it would, getting your butt to class when you're really not in the mood, etc., all expends glucose. 

Some people refer to this concept as "spoons."  The idea is that you have a finite number of spoonfuls of energy, which you spend throughout the day.  I prefer to call them magic points or mana, because in my nerd brain, spending mana sounds way cooler than using spoons.  But whether you call it glucose, spoons, willpower, or mana, the important thing to remember is that you don't have an infinite supply.  When you run out (and you will!) you are done.  Your willpower is gone, and you'll snap at the obnoxious coworker, or you won't say no to the cookie, or you'll go to bed instead of to class, until you get your energy back.

You can make your goals easier to achieve by managing your glucose.  Don't waste it on things that won't help you achieve your goal.  That's also why it's so important to work on only one goal at a time.  If you want to ace your upcoming belt test, but you also want to publish a novel, pick the one you want to work on, and let the other wait.  This might hurt!  Setting aside something else that is important to you is just another really hard thing you'll need to do to achieve your goal.  Because trying to split your glucose between the two is a good way to fail at both.  Ace your belt test.  The novel will be there right where you left it, when you have the spoons it deserves.

The other thing you can do is replenish your glucose.  You do this by eating.

But what if you have the very common goal of losing weight?  If you run out of glucose by willing yourself to avoid calories, and you can only replenish that glucose by saying yes to calories, what do you do?  This is why dieting is hard.  So, acknowledge that it's going to be hard.  It's extremely important to not waste the glucose you have, because if you're dieting, your glucose will often be in short supply.  Don't use it to force yourself to practice guitar or clean the garage.  That can happen after the weight comes off.  Second, you can manage how and when you replenish your glucose.  Eating a healthy snack right before you know you'll need to expend willpower can help.

3.  Tracking software.

If your goal is to look unnaturally organized...

When a goal is important to you, you probably don't need to be told to track it.  You probably think about it all the time.  Give those thoughts a place.  If you're a pen-and-paper sort of person, you can try a training diary.  If you read that sentence and adjusted your glasses while saying, "That's not very efficient because it's not searchable or customizable and will not automatically calculate my progress," I'm sure you'll have no trouble setting up an elaborate spreadsheet.  (Weight loss spreadsheet people, try The Hacker's Diet.)  If you've got money to throw around, you might find a wearable fitness tracker that helps with your specific goal.  Or there's my personal favorite, which is goal tracking games like Habitica or SuperBetter.  Or even better, use some combination of trackers to suit your specific needs.  What you use doesn't really matter so much as just having a place to track your progress.  See that it's working (or that it's NOT working, so you can adjust your plan) and keep yourself motivated.

4.  Video games.

Eat my fire attack, monster.

Hear that?  That's the sound of a thousand martial artist rolling their eyes.  But bear with me.  Video games are something I enjoy, and your thing might be something else.  But if I just threw 8 quadrillion roundhouse kicks, you can bet that Dracula is about to get pwned.  After your 8 quadrillionth roundhouse kick, maybe you treat yourself to a good movie, or maybe you mosh to smooth jazz.  Whatever.  You do you.  But reward yourself.  And dieters?  Reward yourself early and often.  'Cause let me tell you, when the fate of the Koprulu Sector lies in the balance, and I'm building up my zerg army, and my base just got cannon rushed, I guarantee you I have no idea how hungry I am.

5.  Accountability buddy.

This picture both delights and terrifies me.

Having someone to keep you accountable can be huge.  Maybe your instructor does that for you, or maybe you've got a great training partner, friend, or significant other.  It's more fun when your accountability buddy is working toward a similar goal, but really it just has to be someone who is invested in your success.  Having access to that encouragement, having someone to vent to when the going gets rough, and knowing that someone else will notice when you persevere or slip up, all makes you more likely to succeed. 

That's one very good reason to line up your goals with the calendar year.  It's usually easier to find accountability buddies when so many people are enthusiastic about their New Year's resolutions.

6.  Plans.

Tear this ship apart until you've found those plans!

I don't have a whole lot in common with Darth Vader, but we both want those plans.  Schedule time to do the things that will set you up for success.  Try something like this:  Sunday at 4 PM is time to create a meal plan and grocery list to stick to my diet.  That 15 minutes immediately after class is when I'll work on my flexibility.  The first thing every morning will be forms practice.  Whatever your goal is, having the time to do it is essential.

7.  Luck.

I roll twenties!

Like I mentioned before, achieving your goals mostly comes down to wanting it badly enough to do the hard work of making it happen.  But it's dishonest to pretend that luck doesn't enter into the equation at all.  Even though it's borderline heresy to some, the truth is, there's just too much randomness in the world for life to be a perfect meritocracy, where your success or failure in your goals comes down exclusively to the work you put into them. 

Some extreme examples:  Your goal is to save a certain amount of money from each paycheck, and you win the lottery.  Now you don't have to live frugally to achieve your savings goals.  Let's say you're trying to increase the number of push ups you can do by the end of the month, but the flu takes you out of training for two weeks.  Or you're training for the Olympics when you lose a leg in a car accident.  In those cases, it's really easy to see that your goals need to be readjusted.  But smaller factors can add up and impact your goal, too.

If you've chosen a good goal that is an appropriate challenge level for you, a little luck one way or the other could be the difference between success and failure.  Not so?  That's either because you've chosen a goal that is so easy that you will only be challenged when your luck is bad, or a goal that is so hard that you have no real chance unless your luck is very good.  If you are really challenging yourself, really pushing the limits of your physical or mental strength, luck will get to push you around a little bit. 

The key is to be honest with yourself about your effort and progress, whether you succeed or fail.  There's a fine line between making excuses and knowing when bad luck did you in.  And there's an equally fine line between false pride and knowing when good luck gave you a boost.  If you're completely honest with yourself, you can make the most of whatever hand your were dealt, and go into your next goal with more insight.  "I added 5 reps per set last month even though I had the flu, so I should be able to improve even more this month," or "Having a training partner every day last week made it really easy to get to the gym, but my schedule is back to normal this week so I should plan accordingly," are realistic assessments of luck that set you up for success.

Best wishes to everyone in the new year, and best of luck to everyone in your goals for 2019!

Thursday, November 1, 2018


I made a flier for a pressure point seminar taught by a cat.

Why would I do that?  I have my reasons.  Those reasons aren't as important as the fact that I now have a flier of a pressure point seminar taught by a cat.

But the main reason is because I just finished a podcast about sexual assault.  I spent a lot of time being bogged down in very important and very serious subject matter, and it has left me kind of drained.  So for this month's blog post, I'm not being serious at all.  I'll go back to being helpful next time.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Lock In What You Learned

From Washington to Arkansas:  A teaching technique from Sensei Kris Wilder

One of my favorite things about the 50 States Challenge is passing on what I learned at previous stops.  After taking some time to process everything I've been taught, I pass along a Takeaway Technique that exemplifies the lesson from the previous school.  Then after I pass it along to the next school, I put it on the blog for all to see.  You can blame Iain Abernethy for this, since it was his idea.

When I was in Seattle, I got a lesson in teaching.

Which is kind of like saying this fish got a lesson in static electricity.

I got a lot of good stuff out of Sensei Kris, but it was easy to choose what piece of it should be the takeaway technique.

I had just finished teaching the oldest group of students about kicking mechanics and pivoting theory, with a digression into two-person forms.  Just as we were wrapping up, he asked each student in the class what they had learned.

Each student in the class had an answer, and those answers were diverse.  Some of them mentioned specific techniques that were new to them.  Others mentioned details of techniques that they didn't know before.  Others came up with observations about life.

Whoooo, that was fun.  I wanna go back.

I instantly loved what Sensei Kris did.  By doing that, each student had to reflect on the class and think of something that was useful to them.  That by itself made it far more likely that they would remember it.  It was sort of an on-the-spot personalized mini review session.  I imagined that once a student has been put on the spot with a question like that, in future lessons they might keep it in mind that they might be asked again.

For example, say a student is told to throw a punch for the thousandth time.  As the class gets busy throwing punches, that student might be just going through the motions.  Until someone points out to him that he could get more power if he adjusts his stance.  The student could file that information away for later, thinking, "There's a good thing to mention if I get asked what I learned today."  And by filing it away to be recalled at the end of the class, it could also be recalled later, say, the next time he was throwing punches.  And he would remember it whether he actually got asked at the end of class or not.  It was brilliant.

Later Sensei Kris pointed out an aspect that I hadn't noticed.  He said that while it's really useful to the student, it's equally useful to the instructor.  He said it gives him insight into his students and how they learn.  He said that some students mention very specific mechanical things, while others mention general feelings of techniques, and others cue off of stories or jokes.  As he said this, I remembered examples from the class I taught.

I have incorporated this into my teaching, and I'm so happy with the results.  I've gotten responses from tiny details like, "I should turn my foot more when I throw roundhouse kick," to grander observations like, "The power isn't coming from where I thought it was coming from."  And, not gonna lie, it's pretty cool as the instructor to hear all of your students articulate their learning and how much they got out of your teaching.  Try to trip over nothing on your way off the mats so your head doesn't get too big.

Is it cool with you guys if I just spend the whole blog post bragging on my students?

If you're interested in trying this out yourself, here's how.

For Instructors:

1.  Don't warn the students that you're going to ask them what they learned.
2.  Ask each student individually and give them time to answer.
3.  Everyone has to come up with an answer.  No sitting out.
4.  No one is allowed to repeat someone else's answer.
5.  If a student can't think of an answer, let them think about it and come back to them later.
6.  You may want to ask the least experienced students first.  It's a little harder to answer last because if someone else gives your answer before your turn, you have to quickly think of a new one.

For Students:

This part is me riffing off of what Sensei Kris taught me, so don't hold it against him if you don't like it.

If your instructor doesn't ask you what you learned, you can still ask yourself.  Do it right after the class ends.  Write it down, if you like.  Just reviewing it in your head will be useful, but having a record is even better.

You shouldn't have any trouble thinking of something you've learned in a class.  If you're consistently having a really hard time, it might be time to take a long, hard look at your training and see if anything needs to change.


Full disclosure:  I kind of messed this up when I was in Arkansas.  When I saw the huge turnout, I realized that there was no way everyone would be able to provide a unique answer.  So instead I asked for a handful of volunteers to give it a try.  Even with the smaller group, I didn't leave enough time for it at the end of the lesson.  It was really rushed trying to get answers out of everyone, and on a couple of them I had to let them slide without providing their own unique answers.

Just my luck that the first time I foul this up, it's at a seminar for the 50 States Challenge.

Photo Credit

Photo Credit

Photo Credit

Well that was embarrassing!

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Understanding School Bullying Policies

I know in my last post I assured everyone that I had a Takeaway Technique for you, but I'm putting that off yet again.  It is coming, I promise, but today I'm taking a quick detour to talk about bullying policies.

Oh, high school, how I don't miss you.  Photo Credit.

In the United States where I live, schools' policies about bullying vary between school districts and individual schools.  Private schools especially are likely to have their own school-specific policy, but even in public schools there is no guarantee of consistency from one school to the next.  Most anti-bullying policies sound good on paper, but in practice some are better than others.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are working for a school and have been tasked with writing a school's bullying policy.  Obviously, you don't want bullying to happen at all, but you recognize that it will happen, and what you write determines how it will be handled.  So, how should it be handled?

Ideally, if you are in that position of power, your primary goal will be to minimize bullying and protect the victims.  However, this is very hard to do with a policy.  How do you create a blanket statement for how bullying will be punished fairly?  How do you handle cases that are not clear-cut as far as who the instigator is and who the victim is?  What do you do if the school misjudges who is the aggressor and instead punishes the kid who was only trying to defend himself?  What do you do if the parents of the students involved don't agree with how the school has handled the problem?  And, what happens if your policy seems fair on paper, but eventually an edge case comes up where everyone can see that a bully is behaving egregiously, but according to "the letter of the law," he has done nothing wrong?

Creating a fair and effective bullying policy can get especially murky when the bullying is not physical and occurs in digital spaces that are less visible to teachers and parents.

Violence is incredibly complex (and bullying even more so because it is not always physical), so creating a policy to handle bullying can be daunting.  One solution is to make it vague, giving educators and administrators more leeway in handling specific cases.  This comes at a price, though, because educators and administrators are often already stretched very thin.  This gives them an extra workload, and a high-pressure one at that.  What happens if they make a mistake and mishandle a case?  What happens if the case is handled fairly, but the bully's parents disagree and threaten to sue?  Can the school afford to pay damages?  What will happen to the quality of education if the school has to pay out a massive settlement?

One way to protect against this is to minimize transparency.  The school probably already has a policy to protect the privacy of students' personal information including grades and disciplinary record.  By expanding the confidentiality policy, you can ensure that the victim and the victim's family don't learn of how the situation was addressed at all.  All you have to say is "We are conducting an investigation and will respond appropriately."  The parents will have to take your word that the situation is being addressed sufficiently.

With this kind of policy, the school is protected and the students' well-being is entrusted to the adults who can address the situation on a case-by-case basis.  So, is this policy effective?

Hopefully.  'Cause this is awful.  Photo Credit.

Hopefully, under a policy like this, the teachers and parents will handle any situations well.  Usually the school and its employees have the best of intentions, but when it comes to resolving issues, the policy will protect them but not help them.

If you are the victim, the parent of a victim, or the instructor of the victim, it can seem like the bully has more rights than those who actually need protection.

Suppose a larger boy corners one of your students in a bathroom stall and physically attacks him.  What should your student do?  If he physically defends himself in a school with a zero tolerance policy, he'll face the same punishment as the bully.  The school doesn't have to determine which kid was in the wrong and just suspends both of them for fighting.  Telling students to never fight under any circumstances puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the victim who must choose between enduring the abuse until an adult arrives, or physically defend himself against school rules.  In order to physically defend himself, he not only has to stand up to a bully but also the school itself.

So in this case, should your student put up with physical abuse until an adult intervenes?  The worst bullying tends to happen when adults are not around, so he might endure a lot if he doesn't fight back.  If he goes this route and trusts the system, what if the system doesn't stop the bullying, or even makes it worse?  That can happen if a bully is punished and wants to retaliate against the victim for reporting them.

In this case, the victim and the victim's family most likely won't be allowed to know anything about how the situation was addressed.  They might ask for the bully to be removed from the classroom or otherwise denied access to the victim.  This is extremely unlikely to be allowed.  A far more common solution is to offer to remove the victim from the classroom.

Understandably, this option is not popular with victims.  A kid who has been bullied extensively probably has very poor self esteem and is at least somewhat socially ostracized.  Having that kid sit at their own separate lunch table or stay in the classroom at recess is not going to be good for that student's social or mental well-being.  And if the victim turns down this kind of "help," well then gosh, I guess the bullying wasn't that serious after all!

Adults enforcing the social isolation that the bullies intend to cause is not exactly a solution.  Photo Credit.

Not every school is like this, and not every situation plays out like this.  In fact, this is more of a hypothetical worst-case-scenario.  (Not really, it certainly does get worse.)  But if you encounter a school's bullying policy that seems ineffective, frustrating, or just makes no sense, try thinking of the policy as a tool to protect the school rather than a tool to protect the students.  If it suddenly starts making sense in that light, at least you will have an understanding that will help you in future interactions with the school.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Kicking the Snot out of Cancer and Other Arkansas Stories

For my second stop on the 50 States Challenge, the kind folks at River Valley Martial Arts agreed to host me.  The dojo is in Russellville, Arkansas, a town of less than 30,000 people, few enough that I got teased for being from the city.  That was funny to me, because being so near Milwaukee and Chicago, Madison seems small to me.  But later I realized they weren't joking--Madison has a higher population than any city in Arkansas.  It was a bit of regional culture shock that I didn't expect.

Kicking in the How To Learn Any Kick event.

Their main program is faith-based, which had me curious.  I wondered what a faith-based program would be like.  The first thing I thought was that so many of my martial arts friends and students were not Christian, and how I would never have met them at a specifically Christian school.  The idea of religion in martial arts is as weird to me as doing martial arts during a church service.  But here is a whole school of people who specifically signed up for religion in their training.  And the whole point of this project is to see and experience other ways of doing things, and Sensei Kyle Bennett offered me a great opportunity to do exactly that.

Sensei Kyle Bennett (right) and some weird blogger (left).

In a striking coincidence, Sifu TW Smith released a KungFu Podcast episode about Christianity and Asian martial arts only a few weeks before my visit.  I was eager to listen, but I waited until the return trip because I didn't want his perspective to color my experience at River Valley Martial Arts.  Now that I've listened, I don't think it would have influenced my visit.  He gives a really thoughtful and well-researched account as always, which I can strongly recommend to anyone interested in exploring the idea of Christianity in martial arts more deeply than I will cover here.  Also, it was cool to hear him reference my Training is an Engineering Problem blog post.

I drove into Russellville after a day of sightseeing and arrived at the dojo just as the youngest students' class was starting.  The center of the training floor was set up with a huge pile of training equipment arranged into the shape of a life size car, complete with seats, seat belts, and swinging doors.  After a warm up, the meat of the lesson was about how to get out of an abductor's car.  The religious element was not pervasive--it was obvious in the beginning of the class and later during the occasional bible-referencing joke--they weren't praying in between sets or anything like that.  At least in that class, I think a non-Christian could have participated with a minimum of discomfort.

After that class ended, I was up.  Sensei Bennett introduced me to the students and handed the class over to me.  It was a wide range of skill levels and ages, which makes the class a little more challenging to teach, but not insurmountably so.  The topic was How To Learn Any Kick, and I went over kicking theory, balance drills, and conditioning exercises that can help people kick better regardless of their age or experience level.  My goal was to make sure everyone got something useful, to make sure everyone felt like they got their money's worth, even though that money wasn't going to me.  It was going to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

Karate and Krav Maga students learning the nuances of pivoting.

There are lots of good reasons to support St. Jude's, but the main reason is because they efficiently turn money into kids not dying of cancer.  We asked attendees to make a donation instead of paying for the class.  The very kind representative at St. Jude's set up a website for us to take donations, but most of the donations ended up being made in cash, which River Valley Martial Arts sent in by check.

Hundreds of dollars worth of cancer treatment and research.

With only $20 being donated digitally, and $437 being donated via check, we ended $43 short of our goal.  Maybe a few generous readers would like to chip in a few bucks and get us up to that $500 mark?  You can still donate on behalf of the 50 States Challenge here.

Either way, it's easy to feel good about raising $457.  That money goes directly toward treating young cancer patients, but the research is freely shared throughout the world so that other families can benefit from new treatments as well.  Each donation to St. Jude's is effectively helping twice.

After that it was time to train.  The school's main program is karate, but they also have a thriving Krav Maga class, which is the one I took.  This was my first Krav Maga class, though I've had some exposure just by casual training sessions with martial arts friends who cross train.  I was looking forward to trying something new.

The first part of the class was an intense workout of exercises that could be found in general fitness classes.  This was very welcome because I had basically been sitting in a car for a week leading up to that class.  My workouts on the trip had been limited because I had to train outside, and there was only so hard I was comfortable pushing myself in the oppressive heat.  It was good to finally do a real workout in real air conditioning.  I suspect that was one of the main draws for most of the people there.

After we were all reduced to quivering puddles of sweat, we were paired off to work on knife defense drills.  All of the specific techniques were new to me, but they all made sense from a general martial arts perspective.  Basically I relied on my understanding of the underlying principles of movement, timing, balance, etc., to keep up with the people who actually knew the techniques.

You're not going to get hurt, but it's still uncomfortable to get poked, so don't mess up!

My absolute favorite part, though, was when we were paired off to wrestle over training knives.  One of my partners (primarily a BJJ student, I think) specifically sought me out.  I instantly felt like I understood him, because that's the kind of thing I would do.  Visitors, if they've trained before, always behave unpredictably.  Visitors present new challenges, even if they're not very good, because they'll spar/roll/drill differently than anyone else you've trained with before.  That day I held my own against some partners, but not him.  He soundly bested me every time.  But I did surprise him a couple times, like it seemed he was hoping I would.  One of those surprises was when I used my foot on his wrist to push his hand off the training knife.  Then he turned around and did the same thing to me, only better.  And I thought, this is how training is supposed to be.

I really enjoyed my visit, and I left feeling a little sad that I was so unlikely to see any of these people again.  But I still have the Statebook, at least.

Thanks for signing my book, guys!

Conspicuously absent from this post is my Takeaway Technique that I learned in Washington and taught in Arkansas.  That's because I'm saving it for the next post.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Back to the Martial Arts Road Trip: Arkansas

I've been posting rants, training articles, and general weirdness for so long, I figure some (most?) of you forgot that this is actually a martial arts travel blog.

To recap, I had this idea for a martial arts travel project, and Iain Abernethy was kind enough to help me get it started.  I visited Sensei Kris Wilder in Seattle, Washington.  Then after visiting only one state, the project had to be put on hold while I visited my ailing instructor in Korea and opened my school.  Being busy with owning a school and starting a podcast, the 50 States Challenge fell on the back burner.

What's the 50 States Challenge?  Since most people probably forgot...

The 50 States Challenge boils down to three main pieces.
1.  I travel to all 50 states and find a martial arts school in each state to host me.
2.  At each host school, I teach something and I learn something to pass on to the next school.
3.  We support a charity chosen by the host school.

And then I blog about the experience here, illustrating how much the different styles and philosophies of martial arts have to learn from each other.

So after a long hiatus, I'm traveling again.  This time I went to Arkansas because one of my students was competing at NASTA Nationals there.  Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I also visited River Valley Martial Arts, supporting St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

If you've been reading my blog for more than a few seconds, you will not be surprised that it was not all seriousness.  I wanted to get the full Arkansas experience.

Yelling at Yellville!

Rocking a little at Little Rock!

Wait, what?

This little resident of Toad Suck was still learning how to fly.  He (she?) let me get pretty close before squawking a protest and hopping away.

It's okay, little guy.  I can't fly either, and I've been training FOREVER in bird years.

One of my first stops was Beaverfork Lake, where I snapped this picture of an old bridge.  It was built almost 150 years ago to cross Cadron Creek, where it stood until only a few years ago when it was restored and brought to this park.

<insert tortured analogy about building bridges to the past and future here>

That park was one of many picturesque places where I could have stopped.  Arkansas has a lot to offer if you're into the outdoors.  In June, it helps if you are not a wimp about the sun trying to kill you.  I'm pretty sure at one point I was more sunscreen than person.

It looks like Buffalo River, but it's actually a pool of my sweat after training in the heat.

Buffalo River National Park is especially interesting in that within its boundaries is the Rush ghost town.  It was once a thriving city because of its zinc mines, but as the value of zinc waned, so did Rush.  There are still some buildings standing, though.  Unlike most ghost towns, these buildings are protected by the National Park Service, so they are preserved better than most.

The houses were fenced off with signs everywhere forbidding entry.  I'm sure it wouldn't be safe, and certainly the buildings couldn't withstand much foot traffic, but that didn't stop me from wanting to explore.  I would really have liked to peek inside.

Then there's Pivot Rock.  If you brave enough hairpin turns, you can walk a wooded trail to see these weird rock formations that have been a roadside attraction for over a hundred years.

One of the upside down pyramid formations at Pivot Rock.

In North Little Rock, there is a place called The Old Mill, which is neither old nor a mill.  It's a replica built in the 1930's in the style of mills of the 1830's.  It has a little fame by being featured in the opening credits of Gone With The Wind.

It might not be real, but it's pretty!

The park around it was picturesque as well, not to mention teeming with wildlife.  There were ducks, geese, turtles, birds and fish everywhere.

Also not real:  all the wood in this picture.  They're sculptures.

Next up in my whirlwind tour of Arkansas parks was the one I was most looking forward to--America's only Taekwondo park.

This looks exactly like every picture I ever took in Korea.

The H.U. Lee International Gate and Garden is in downtown Little Rock, which by no coincidence is also the headquarters of the ATA, which practices Songahm Taekwondo.  It is so much like parks in Seoul, that I felt like I was back in Korea, once again running around in oppressively hot weather with a camera, loudly announcing "I AM A TOURIST" in signs that everyone can read.

The park even had haetae sculptures on either side.  These mystical dogs are creatures of justice trusted to protect the people from fire and natural disasters.  They're also the symbol of Seoul, and you can see statues of them in places of importance throughout Korea.

Haetae!  Who's a good boy?

Immediately past the gate, there are statues of taekwondo students bowing to greet visitors.  

Students greet visitors to the garden.

I had a lot of busy feelings at this park, when I probably should have been feeling more tranquil.  The feelings intensified as I came to the main display in the garden, a bronze bust of Eternal Grand Master Haeng Ung Lee and a giant lineage chart behind him listing the most prominent figures of Songahm Taekwondo.

I'm visiting a park honoring a style of taekwondo that I don't train in.  My kwan doesn't have a park, and probably can't afford the $1.4 million dollars that these guys paid to get one.  But if we did have a park, I would totally rather go there than here, so I guess I don't belong here.  Except that THE WHOLE POINT of me being in Arkansas right now is a project about tearing down the walls between different styles and letting us all help each other.  Focus, Carlson!  Get some good pictures now, and mull over it later.

Having mulled it over later, it was the laser focus on one style of taekwondo, centering on one particular lineage, excluding figures of other branches whose achievements and contributions were equal to or greater than some of the names that did get listed, that made me feel weirdly unwelcome.  By excluding other styles, I felt excluded, too, like this place is only for Songahm people.  The cynic in me wonders if that exclusion could have been the intent, to improve the influence of their style by essentially creating a giant ad for it in the form of a downtown park.  But I tried to enjoy the place in the spirit that it was probably intended--to honor something they care about and the instructor who made it possible, and welcoming visitors to share in something they love.

The centerpiece of the garden.

Despite my roller coaster of conflicting thoughts, I do recommend this place to any other wandering martial artists who find themselves in Little Rock, especially if the weather is nice and the sun isn't trying to melt you into a quivering puddle of sweat and sunscreen.

Very near the taekwondo park was a restaurant called The Flying Fish.  Not to imply that I didn't enjoy my meal there, but the most notable thing was the Billy Bass Adoption Center.  Remember those singing fish that were all the rage in the early aughts?  Well, I found them.  Like, all of them.

Walls and walls of retired singing fish.  With no batteries, thankfully.

I left for home early on a Tuesday morning, when there wasn't much traffic on the rural highways, and it wasn't too hot yet.

From a scenic overlook on a deserted road.

Usually when I'm travelling for Martial Journeys, I am busy.  I have more things to do than time to do them.  I frantically rush from one spot to the next, trying to get the right picture to make a good blog post.  But when I got here, I was done and headed home.  I took a minute to just enjoy the view.  It felt so weird to be on a highway alone, seemingly the only person for miles in any direction.  I supposed that people didn't have much reason to be there at that hour.  Except for me, and I was there enjoying that view because I do martial arts.  It's been a weird journey.

Two down, 48 to go!

Of course sightseeing was not the main purpose of the trip.  I'll get to the martial arts in the next post, but if you just can't wait to have more Martial Journeys in your diet, you can check out my podcast.  I'll have a new episode out before the next blog post goes live.