How many times have we been in a situation that seemed so hopeless that we just wanted to walk away from it? The feeling that we just can’t go forward or backward is debilitating and destructive. It makes us doubt ourselves, and, if we’re not careful, we begin sliding inexorably down that slippery slope of apathy and fear. So before we hit bottom, we need the right encouragement to climb up and try again.
I used to be a Tae Kwon Do and self-defense instructor, and one of the hardest things I had to teach my students was how to keep a positive mental attitude and to fight self-defeat. We were a strictly non-contact school, so the art of sparring was a combination of skill, control and focus. Many students became discouraged; just learning the basics of Tae Kwon Do will make you feel utterly uncoordinated and terminally clumsy. It takes a while for your body to catch up with your mind. So each evening when we came to the sparring (fighting) section of the class, lack of confidence was a real issue.
We held a big competition each fall where students competed in several areas, including sparring. Any students who wanted to compete, from white belt all the way up to black belt, were welcome. When it come to practicing for the sparring matches, it was nerve-wracking to watch these kids fight their own demons of self-doubt and fear. Of course they took it very personally when they lost a match, especially close to tournament time. There were many tears, lots of frustration and some students dropped out all together.
I had two wonderful co-instructors, and we put our heads together to figure out how to get our students ready physically and mentally for the tournament. We came up with a good battle plan: we paired up all the students who would be competing, and we split the rest of the class in half. We told each half that they were going to cheer for their own guy in the match; the louder, the better. We brought out the first sparring partners, Ray and Donny. Ray was a good head shorter than Donny, both third-graders and white belts, and both scared to death. While one instructor started the match, the other instructor and I headed the two cheering teams and whipped them in a frenzy to support their competitor.
Our dojo echoed with “Go, Ray, GO!” and “Donny, you can do it!” and “You’re gonna win this one!” and “We’re right behind you!” The match ended, and both boys were red-faced and grinning from ear to ear. We asked them how the cheering made them feel. Donny said, “It felt great to hear my name shouted out and I felt like I could do anything.” And Ray, the short kid? For the first time since he started the class, he held his head up and looked me straight in the eye. He said, “No one ever cheered me before. It was the BEST!”
Well, at that point I left the other two instructors in charge while I slipped into the bathroom to pull myself together and stop crying. By the time the tournament came around, Ray and Donny both won trophies in their sparring division; Ray a first place and Donny a second. They went on to become best friends, and they went all the way to black belt. When they passed every test for those black belts, they were soaking wet with sweat, breathing heavily and totally worn out. But they wore identical grins and held each others hand up in triumph when their names were called to receive their hard-earned black belts.
I taught for 10 years, and over that time I had a lot of students thank me for getting them to black belt. My answer was always the same: “YOU did it on your own. All I did was teach you the techniques.” The students, whether or not they made black belt, all left with something they didn’t have before: confidence and belief in themselves. We didn’t teach them that; their fellow students did. Each year the preparation for the tournament included cheering the competitors. They felt that they could not fail with all that support behind them. And when they lost a match or didn’t win a trophy, of course they were disappointed, but they all went home feeling the love and support from their class. What I and the other two instructors learned was that a little encouragement goes a long way. Once you know that someone believes in you, you can’t help but start believing in yourself, too. And once you know that, you can face more challenges and win, remembering that first time you knew someone had your back.
*This post was inspired by Phyllis Ring whose “Leaf of the Tree” posts inspire me, especially her latest, “The gift we’re glad to see returned.” I highly recommend reading her at http://phyllisring.com.