Skills come from struggle.” Steve Magniss and Brad Stulberg,
In their book Peak Performance, Magniss and Stulberg explain “just-manageable challenges” as ways to push limits and expand a comfort zone, and constantly to improve. “Just-manageable challenges manifest when you take on something that makes you feel a little out of control but not quite anxious or overly aroused. What you’re after is the sweet spot, when the challenge at hand is on the outer edge of, or perhaps just beyond, your current skills.”
Tae kwon do has pushed me on a path of growth beyond what I could have expected when I started. I never thought about being a black belt, but figured I could make it to blue, so why not give it a shot? Coming from a background of fitness, but the realm of Ashtanga yoga, pilates, tai chi and the aerobics classes I would take when teaching at gyms, I could hang in there for the white belt physical bits (except for the jumping jacks.)
Martial arts, and tae kwon do, are systems that take full advantage of pushing students to the outer rim of their comfort zone, reaching out to grasp the next skill. The poomse, or pattern movements, are learned in the order of increasing of difficulty, starting easiest at the lowest belt and working up. Other subjects copy that arrangement, with the initial one-step sparring moves and self-defence moves being some of the simplest. A spiral is also an apt visual, as when you start out learning, you’ll circle back to things to expand on your previous knowledge, adding on and learning something more about that movement or position.
If skill comes from struggle, well, then I’m building an amazing skill set.
Mostly, my teacher has been adept at encouraging me into just-manageable challenges. You’ve tried the flying sidekick? Okay, now try a flying back kick. No, I won’t let you try a hand break at this point.
Do all these little wins, these little “just-manageable” challenges build us up for manageable to get higher and further away? Does our confidence build? Does our faith in our abilities to do new things strengthen?
I have experienced that, and it seems a solid format for building confidence. But what happens when, after a succession of these just-manageable challenges, we reach something that is beyond just-manageable? Will I grow or flounder with this beyond manageable?
Sparring. Not MMA, not some fight scene from Karate Kid or Cobra Kai, but sparring with pads and scoring and strategy over making someone bleed. Thank goodness. If blood were involved, it would be WAY out of the “just manageable” range.
Here’s what I wrote three years ago after sparring for the first time: “Tonight, sparring for the first time, was unlike any situation I’ve ever been in. Mr. Black Belt gave me some basic instructions, but I think the plastic-coated puffy headgear I was wearing blocked that information from going into my actual brain. I felt lost. Okay, brain, we’re sparring with someone. I’ve never done this before. What the heck do I do? Well, my first attempts were these tentative little jabs here and there, staring intently at my opponent’s padded torso as I tried to hit it. (Sparring 101—don’t look where you’re trying to hit.) Mr. Black Belt announced that there will be sparring matches in the next tournament, which is less than two months away…I’m not sure how I feel about sparring in a tournament. Oh, wait, yes, I do… I’m terrified!”
I got a little more comfortable sparring, being in two or three tournaments as a yellow and orange belt.
Then, Covid happened, and we socially distanced for two years with no sparring, because the very act of sparring requires close contact and the proximity and intensity creates Covid’s dream conditions.
Two years later, sparring again, and I’m a purple belt and I’ve forgotten what little I learned about sparring, and now I’m being expected to spar at purple belt level.
This isn’t a “just-manageable” challenge for me. This is a terrifying challenge that puts my brain in anxiety mode, has my heart clenched like Rumple or the Evil Queen have reached into my chest to squeeze my heart. My entire being balked at sparring, wondering how to even get up there and do it. It’s hard to make myself get out there, try it, just go through the motions and survive. Survival mode.
If I didn’t have some other wins before this, I might give up. Even with the wins, I stood there, wondering how I could possibly even attempt it.
That’s where another concept from Steve Magness comes in—that situation where when an athlete has totally failed at a race or competition, horribly. Fall while running, face plant while competing, come in last, a total flop. He gives an example of a runner failing at a 10k, really performing WAY under expectations, letting the entire team down. The next day, comes back to awe and amaze in the next competition event. They are able to process and get past the previous failure and use the lack of pressure (I already failed) to move on.
This point is what might get me through sparring. In the last tournament, I was terrified of sparring. Dreading it like a high school trigonometry test. To compound my dread and fear, I found myself up against a formal Olympic-level sparrer and a red belt—that’s TWO belts higher than me.
To quote my mother-in-law, shaking her head so that her curls waved side to side, her voice filled with exasperation: “Hari Ram.” This was not a “just-manageable” challenge. It was me as Indiana Jones running just in front of a massive boulder, ready to squish me flat.
I walked into the girl’s locker room and ended up laughing. Because, let’s face it, me sparring with either of those people was truly a laughing matter. And I realized, I can’t win. Hell, can I even score a point? So I let go, telling myself, there’s no way I get out of the next half hour looking anything other than incompetent. The pressure to win or even score was off. Just go out and do it, and embrace looking the fool at these things.
And, I did score a single point, but it was a pity point from the Grand Master judging us. I even laughed a bit as he said, “okay, one point. I’ve got to give you something.”
The tournament was a breakthrough moment for me. If I hadn’t had a series of smaller wins building up to that, I may have given up. If I’d been in a situation where I felt like I had to score or win, I might have continued to wind myself up in it all. Instead, I hit a point where, I just let go and accepted that going out there and falling flat on my face would just have to be a learning opportunity.
You have to make obstacles spur you to creative new angles in the learning process. Let setbacks deepen your resolve. You should always come off an injury or a loss better than when you went down.” Josh Waitzken
Fast forward to the Expo, and of course, there’s sparring. We started and ended the weekend with sparring classes. The last class of the 3-day weekend was EVERYONE in one room, long rows of pairs facing each other, the length of the conference room, probably close to a 80 people, constantly rotating to have new partners for sparring drills. I brought myself back to the attitude of, heck, this is so hard and it scares me. I feel totally incompetent. Might as well embrace looking silly/horrible/foolish and try new moves and learn new things. Which seemed to be going okay. (You caught that foreshadowing, right?)
Ten minutes to the end of class and all the students from two states and about six different campuses sat down in an enormous circle around the perimeter of this conference ballroom. I’m horribly sweaty, wearing a mask that has left me even more out of breath than “just” sparring, and I’ve been doing tae kwon do since Friday afternoon. The black belts leading class say, “We have time for 3 sparring matches.” Sweet, I think to myself. Statistically, I won’t get chosen.
I got chosen. The thing that is hard for me, intimidates me, is always further than “just-manageable” and I’m now doing it in front of EVERYONE. They’re all watching. That includes, like, 20 black belts.
I’m sitting there, and they say my name. And I think, surely there’s another Carrie. Wait, me, Carrie? At that moment, I went numb with shock and I remember little about the sparring match except that I lost. (No surprise there). But, I got feedback that I’d gotten a head shot and some punches in, just not in time to score. Maybe…just maybe…sparring is becoming a just-manageable challenge instead of a terrifying one. (But it’s not there yet.)