As a nerdy, awkward, book-oriented person, I have to use a certain amount of strategy to convince myself to do physical things. For my personal challenge this year, I’ve taken on martial arts, because it was the scariest and most demanding thing I could imagine. It didn’t occur to me that there’s a built-in gamification aspect. Every time you level up, you get a different color of belt, which is amazing because I love rainbows. In between color upgrades, there are also stripes. I’ve earned one stripe each on two belts, one in Muay Thai kickboxing and the other in Krav Maga. It’s like a badge that actually means something. These stripes represent not just extremely hard work, but also real-world skills. Wouldn’t it be nice if everything were that clear and simple?
The reason we wear belts is just like why chefs wear weird hats. Anyone in the room can tell at a glance how much you know and what you’re there to do. It’s not like it wouldn’t be immediately obvious how uncoordinated and clueless I am as a newbie. It protects me somewhat, though, in case I somehow accidentally look more experienced for a few seconds. Going the other direction, it helps me when I look at other students. If someone wearing an orange belt corrects my position, I can swallow my irritation at being told what to do and recognize that this person has advanced knowledge compared to me. I have to show the same respect that I would wish to have.
People talk a lot about how “kids these days” get trophies and ribbons just for participating. That was after my time. I’ve still never won a trophy to this day. I don’t have any plaques either. I do have two race medals, and I’m stupidly proud of them, because I didn’t make an attempt at athletics until I was 35. I know precisely how much work went into the acquisition of these symbols, as measured in sweat, blisters, bruises, and tears. I’m only competing against myself.
When I first walked into my martial arts academy, I was a bit petrified. I was committing to something specifically because I wanted to work more on humility and self-discipline. I wanted to choose something I was bad at, maybe even so bad that people would question what on earth I was even doing there. Well, I chose well. I’m almost always last in class. We do a lot of push-ups, sit-ups, and jump squats, and everyone is supposed to do the same amount. We don’t move on to the next drill until everyone is done. Imagine jumping up and down alone in the middle of the room and that’s me. At least everyone has plenty of time to get a drink of water while they wait!
The thing about fitness that unfit people like myself often don’t understand is that most or all of the fitter people in the room... STARTED OUT WHERE WE ARE. They WERE us. We look at them and see lean muscle definition. It’s not like they’re going to get custom t-shirts printed with their ‘before’ photos, right? Almost all the athletes that I have met are genuinely happy and proud when beginners commit and start to make progress. (The others are just more focused on other stuff). It’s exciting in the same way it’s exciting to teach a little kid to ride a bike. You did it! Good for you!
As a rank beginner, I’m terrible at a lot of things. With one stripe, I know what several of them are, but I’m still so new that I know I’m not even aware of some of my failings. On my first day in class, I couldn’t really do one sit-up. I had to sort of grab my thigh and pull myself up. By the time I had done ten jump squats, I thought I might fall over. I thought I was reasonably fit, because I walk an average of six miles a day, I can carry a fifty-pound backpack, I’m pretty competent at yoga, and I consider myself fairly active. I didn’t realize just how much I was missing by not doing HIIT workouts or resistance training. It was just something I planned to get around to one day. (That day: 1/5/2018). Not testing my physical limits meant I could maintain this unrealistically positive image and protect my ego. Once I understood how unfit I really am in this area, I knew I could only recover my pride by working hard to improve.
I’m not very good at watching what someone is doing and then physically copying it. I’m a pretty good mimic, and I can do voice impressions and sound effects, but none of that seems to transfer when it’s time to imitate someone’s motions.
I have trouble telling my left from my right.
I’m having a really hard time untraining all the body memory from ballroom dancing and marching band, two things that have basically nothing in common with martial arts. The center of gravity is different, neutral stance is different, balance is different. For the first several weeks I would consistently want to move backward when I was supposed to move forward, or keep my feet together when they’re supposed to be apart.
I struggle with remembering what I’m supposed to do with all of my limbs at the same time. Say I’m being reminded to keep my hands up to protect my face while I practice a new kick. I will then totally forget that I’m supposed to step forward with my foot at an angle instead of straight. When I correct my foot position, I drop my hands. Suddenly I feel like I have eight arms and legs.
Now that I have my first stripes, all of this is gradually starting to come together. I’m still comparatively weak and slow and clumsy, sure. That’s why I’m there. If I’d wanted to feel like the top of my class, I would have signed up for water aerobics. Being last and worst means that I’m genuinely challenged. It also means that when I eventually start to catch up with the more experienced people in class, I’ll appreciate how much it means.
When I get my next stripe, when I finally level up and get a new belt in a new color, I’ll wear it with justifiable pride. I’ll keep going, knowing I have it within me to work hard, to learn, and to accept the struggle.
Then I’ll probably have to pick something else that I’m bad at.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.