Martial Arts for Life

Taekwondo – Training in Humanity

Martial Arts for Life

“Hana, Dool, Set, Net . . .” Our movements flow in the rhythm of the count. Punch transitions to punch as we alternate fists. The flowing motion is broken only by the final snap as we batter the air.

For the last year, I have been a student of Taekwondo. Its blend of physical activity, challenge, and utility has brought much benefit. I’ve grown stronger and more confident. The lessons below are a glimpse into what I’ve learned.

Respect is unconditional.

We bow when we walk into our training space. We bow when we leave. We bow when we start class. We bow when we finish class. We bow to our seniors. We bow to our juniors. We bow throughout the entire class. In each bow is an explicit statement: I respect you.

Our instructor told us that in some martial arts, the masters withhold certain techniques to prevent students from usurping their power. In Taekwondo, teachers are revered and respected. Such a challenge of power is unthinkable. This attitude creates an environment full of positivity, encouragement, and growth. It is the foundation from which we train.

There is a saying that says respect must be earned. I believe that’s the wrong approach. It should be given without condition.

You control how you respond.

I once heard this story. A Taekwondo class had no heated building or smooth floor. They trained on the beach. One day was particularly bitter. Wind whipped in typical Chicago fashion. Sand was everywhere. A cold rain fell, chilling to the bone.

“What’s wrong,” asked the teacher.

“It’s cold,” a student replied.

“No,” the teacher said, “You are cold.”

Nothing could be done about the rain and cold. But the choice of response was up to them. Likewise, we cannot always control our circumstances. We can, though, choose how we react to them.

Your face can control your attitude.

“You looked like you were trying to punch through water. Relax.” I had just completed a Taekwondo promotion test and my instructor was making suggestions of where I could improve.

Then he gave some interesting advice. He told me to pay attention to my face. If my expression was relaxed, he explained, the rest of my body would also loosen up.

The next class, I tried it. As I punched, kicked, and moved, I focused on keeping my face loose. It worked. My movements felt smother and my muscles were not so tense afterwards. My face had directed the rest of my body.

But could that principle apply to life as well? Could a small part of our body steer our attitudes and feelings? I’ve found that it does. Smiling more, by the help of reminders, made me happier. In times of tension, loosening my face relaxes me. If you want to feel a certain way, try mimicking the expression associated with that feeling.

When you get stuck, keep pushing.

I had been training for months. Still, my pattern evaded me. Sometimes, I’d turn the wrong way. Other times, I’d punch when I should have blocked. Most often, I simply forgot what came next. Giving up would not have been too difficult.

At the end of class, Grandmaster Connelly told us how there are times in training when you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. He said that if you push forward, you’ll discover you were really close to mastering the technique.

So I kept going. And then, a few classes later, it all fell into place. I understood what to do, and I could complete the pattern without missing a step. Surprisingly, I had been much closer to getting it than I thought.

When things get tough and you want to quit, don’t. Push through. Success is likely closer than you think.

The fastest way to learn is to help others.

“This is how you do this pattern. Down-block. Punch. Turn…” In almost every class we spend time helping each other. I greatly appreciate the advise offered to me by my seniors. It’s helpful. But that doesn’t mean I should only train with those above me. I often get just as much, or more, out of working with someone of equal or lower rank.

In teaching someone else how do to do something, you internalize the lesson yourself. The beauty of this is that not only do you help yourself, but you help someone else at the same time.

The basics never go away.

About 70% of every class is the same every week – practicing the foundational techniques. We punch. We kick. We move in our stances. Without a mastery of the basics, anything more complex is impossible to do well.

Life is the same way. Skills like communication, showing respect, encouragement, listening, offering love take practice to master but are universally used. The basics are important.

Your greatest enemy is yourself.

In martial arts such as Taekwondo, you learn how to fight an aggressor or opponent. But the most deadly of all is yourself.

“I can’t do this technique.”
“I’m not good enough.”
“It’s too cold.”
“I’m going to get punched.”
“This board won’t break, and I’ll hurt my toe.”

Such limits and excuses often come from within. Yes, technique and experience is important. But confidence is what allows for mastery.

Each milestone is but the beginning of another journey.

It feels great to complete a promotion test. Getting the next level belt is a moment of pride. But it’s not the end. It’s a beginning. The journey still continues.

So often we get lost in the milestones – as if they are the whole purpose for the work. Don’t forget the journey. Life is made of the moments when you are doing.


Martial Arts for Life. I train under Grandmaster Connelly. My friend, Patty Peebles, made this photo of me at my last promotion test.

7 thoughts on “Taekwondo – Training in Humanity”

  1. Another great post Joshua. You think about the meaning behind what you encounter in life.

    You have me thinking about taking Taekwondo. I think I’d enjoy taking it with my sons, I’m just not sure if they would enjoy taking it with their mother.

  2. ‘Internal Locus of evaluation’ I personally have never played Taekwondo but I love watching people play, but one thing I feel about the meaning of success in all we do is determined by the strength from the inner self. The face like you say will tell it all and will invite responce from others. It gives me strenghth when I approach a person to share an issue and the face is not welcome and a good percent of what I was to share evaporates and what remains is expressed without confidence,

    I have learnt from the children we serve that respect from the face, posture, gestures create an unseen home of comfort. Building from our strengths and positivity of improving on our weaknesses will help us get moving. Use of a gentle language to correct others pave way for others to correct us and we all grow to maturity.

    Thumb up Josh.


  3. What great lessons, Joshua!
    I especially liked the “You are cold” story and the one about how your face controls your attitude. That is so true. And whether we believe it or not, we do have control over our face.

  4. Hi Joshua,
    Regine forwarded your blog to me. Great stuff. Never give it up. Two years ago I wrote a chapter for Seth’s “Casebook” describing my feelings towards Taekwondo, which are quite similar to yours. Check it out – you have the Casebook, don’t you?
    All the best,

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