Rising to a special 2020 challenge

We’re now into the final month of this year, 2020, year of the plague; the year when the days ran into each other without bearings or markers, and ruled by fear. Check in. Wash your hands. Sanitise. Remember your mask. Wipe it down. Use an anti-bacterial, use a detergent. Don’t get too close. Don’t breathe. Sleep. Wake up. Repeat. 

You couldn’t help but be moved by the anguish of loved ones stranded between countries, of people dying alone in hospitals, or being locked in aged care without visitors. The cruelty of the pandemic. The boredom. 

My family was lucky. Our work continued, we had our own rooms and studies, a garden and a makeshift gym. But even with all that, it wasn’t easy. The 2020 black belts-to-be at the Australian Martial Arts Academy were facing the same challenge as when I got mine in 2015, and so much more. Ann, Renee, and Shane told me how they and their families pushed through this year.

Discipline can be liberating

Taekwondo teaches us discipline—we learn to get back up and do it again. There can be relief in setting a routine and sticking to it. When Zoom classes started, I got out on my mats for a class every second day, week in week out. It gave me something to hold onto at a time when nothing seemed real.

Renee was so excited she went to every single class – 19 a week! For months without her work, she said that the Zoom taekwondo classes were the only appointment in her diary. Every day, she put on her uniform, set out her mats in the living room, and put her phone on a tripod. ‘I just kept showing up and working hard. The enthusiasm and positive attitude of the instructors did wonders for my own attitude during a challenging time.’ 

Ann said that was difficult to keep up the intensity of training but she and Patrick managed three to four classes a week, either outside, or after moving furniture around inside. ‘Our dog wasn’t sure what the heck was happening but we stayed mostly focused.’

Having a goal—something to focus on

There is nothing like working on a difficult technique to clear the mind. Concentrating during lockdown was hard but Renee said that training took over and her anxiety about Covid would disappear for a short while. It’s that moment of flow, when your focus on one thing eclipses all else.

Lockdown training meant Renee could finally nail a perfect reverse hook kick and she now feels that her snap kick has become one of her strongest. Darren’s work on his jumping back kick has made it one of his most powerful and Shane loves the tornado—‘when it comes off, you feel you’re floating.’

Training together…and just checking in

All agreed that making time for friends and being able to train with family members was crucial. Shane said that ‘without a doubt’, he got through because Ed, his son, was also working to the same goal. He also eased lockdown craziness through scheduling regular sessions for games with friends—now over Zoom instead of their regular Sunday night meet-ups. 

Renee and Ann both said how much they missed the camaraderie on the mats and the chats before and after class but found friendships were strengthened. They continued to check in on each other outside of the Zoom classes.

Finding that strength

In adversity, we can learn things about ourselves. For Renee, it was that obstacles really can be overcome. She said, ‘They always tell us to “never give up” and they actually showed us that these are words to live by.’ Ann said that she learnt that she and Patrick realised they were a lot more resilient than they had thought. Extraordinary circumstances need changing plans and flexibility.  ‘We can achieve anything if we pull together as a family.’ 

What AMA means to us

Renee and Shane told me that the hardest part about training in lockdown was the lack of in-person interaction with the instructors and students. I had to agree. I’m an early morning person and I anticipated that getting a class in before breakfast would be a practice I would continue. Ahem….!  I haven’t done one since AMA reopened. We all realised the enormous boost we get from training with others and the supportive atmosphere of the Academy—asking a teacher for a quick refresher on a technique, working together, taking stock, comparing our progress.

For Shane, getting back to the AMA for classes in-person was such a lift: ‘You don’t realise how much you miss something until you’re able to do it again.’ 

None of us will remember 2020 too fondly, but this cohort achieved something remarkable. I’m proud of my black belt because it’s hard! Knowing you’ve earned it is immensely satisfying and a Covid silver lining may be that this group finds it even sweeter. 

Their stories made me wonder whether having the black belt goal might have helped them after all in this strangest of years.

Congratulations all.

Finding flow: the alignment of challenge and capacity

My taekwondo instructor, Master Hakan from the Australian Martial Arts Academy talked about flow in a Zoom class this week. He’d just taken us through a strenuous warm-up, exercise after exercise, pushing us hard. As we were catching our breath, he talked about that state which sits between the mental and the physical, where our engagement with our task is so complete that we forget time. It’s a state which others might know as being ‘in the zone’.

American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi articulates the concept in his classic book, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, first published in 1990. He says, ‘The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding…. It provide[s] a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality’ (2002: 67).

Part of the deal, of course, is that it takes work and this was Master Hakan’s point. A state of flow emerges when we’ve put in the effort and are pushing our capacity to the limit. We see our kicks become more defined and accurate, can hold our balance for longer and our stamina surprises us.

The elements of flow, of indeed happiness, are ‘clarity of goals, feedback, feeling of control, concentration on the task at hand, intrinsic motivation, and challenge’ (89). Understanding this changed my life. When I read Flow in 2013, I saw that a few things had gone missing. But I knew where to find them.

I recognised that feeling when I worked with words: writing, editing, creating meaning in text. I became absorbed in my task. I drew on my strengths, extended myself, and found the work intrinsically satisfying. I changed my career, gained a second Masters degree, and set up my own business.

This is also my martial arts journey in a nutshell. We start as white belts and as we learn more and more difficult techniques, we are challenged to go longer, harder, higher. But that sense of optimal experience which Csikszentmihalyi describes can just as easily come from a perfectly executed white belt foundation kick. You can see and feel your mastery; the feedback is immediate.

This morning, I felt lighter and stronger, with energy to spare … With a hot shower, breakfast and work to get on with I didn’t keep going, but it was nice to feel I could have! As I sit here now, I am still alive with sensation. Yes, it’s partly endorphins but it’s more than the physical. Flow changes you: ‘[After] each episode of flow, a person becomes more of a unique individual, less predictable, possessed of rarer skills.’ (41). And this is the extraordinary compounding effect that allows us to improve, to keep on.

Finding the balance between challenge and capacity, finding your flow, is the biggest game-changer of all because, ultimately, it is the source of our happiness.