On June 11th, after more than 6 months of trying, I broke a board with a flying sidekick, and finally got my black belt in Taekwondo. It was glorious.
So here’s the back story. In October 2014, I took my black belt test. The intensity and difficulty of Taekwondo black belt tests vary by school, but it’s definitely a serious and grueling affair in my dojang. Our master is very old school in how he runs the dojang. For lack of a better term, he is a hard ass, and there is no getting around the fact that he will absolutely make you work for your black belt.
I had been practicing taekwondo in this school for close to six years by the time I applied for the black belt test. It usually doesn’t take that long for people to get their black belt in a martial art, especially if they train consistently (I had also practiced Taekwondo for several years when I was an adolescent, but when I joined this school I opted to start from white belt, the lowest rank). I know people who have gotten their black belt in two and a half years, which is considered pretty fast, but I think most people on average get their black belt in 4 years. Why did I take so much longer to get mine? Well I’m gonna be honest with y’all… I just didn’t have the determination and motivation. Being a black belt was always something I aspired to be, but I lacked the fiery passion needed to train intensely for 3-4 months before the test. Plus, I was too lazy to memorize the whole color belt curriculum that is included in the test.
I’m also not very competitive by nature, so the fact that a few people in the dojang who started after me already got their black belts didn’t really galvanize me to go hard so I could take the test. Competing against other people isn’t a reliable source of motivation for me, unless of course they make it personal, which hardly ever happens. In my school at least, no one ever said, Kim, ya loser, you’ve been here for more than six years, why aren’t you a black belt yet?
In the weeks leading up to my black belt test, I trained to increase my endurance and stamina as much as I could, if only to simply survive the 5-hour ordeal of the test. The black belt test in our school is legendary – it’s part mastery of all the kicking and striking techniques and part intense fitness test. About three hours of the test are spent doing boot camp style exercises: running, box jumps, squats, push ups, duck walks, lunges, mountain climbers, and burpees. It’s not uncommon for black belt test takers to pass out or puke.
I really didn’t want to pass out or puke during test day, so on the day of the test, I was in my best shape in years, in the sense that I could do intense cardio for hours and not die. And I didn’t. I was at the back of the pack during our 3.5 mile run, but we had people who were going for their second black belt dan who were marathon runners and triathletes, so whatevs. I was able to complete three sets of 100 box jumps, which I absolutely hate, without catching my toe on the box crate and falling. My quads were quivering for most of the 200+ squats. I was seeing double by the time we go to burpees. I survived it all without retching and completely passing out. There were a few times when my vision got dark around the edges, but I just stopped for a minute till it snapped back to normal. A banana kept the lactic acid build up at bay, enough to prevent dry heaving.
The black belt test is composed of 5 parts: fitness, poomsae (patterns), self defense, sparring, and breaking. The breaking is where the test taker has to break a wooden board using advanced kicking and hand striking techniques, chosen by the teacher. Aside from the intense fitness test from hell, the breaking portion was what I feared the most in this test. Mostly because the breaking kicks have to be FLYING kicks, and you don’t get to know which one you have to do until the moment you’re called up to the front. Guess what – I really suck at flying kicks.
The breaking I had to do was just a knife hand strike. Got it at the first try, no problem. The second one was a jumping front kick. Which basically meant a board was held up like 3 feet above the top of my head and I had jump straight up and break it with a front kick. It was crazy, but I somehow did it.
And then the last one. The flying side kick. The kick I knew I was probably going to fail if I had to do it. It’s not the most difficult kick in taekwondo by any means, but it would be the most difficult kick I personally would have attempted at this point. And now my passing of this test hinged on performing this kick perfectly, with all these people watching, and I had to break a wooden board with it to boot. I also had to “fly” (extend the kick) over 4 people curled up in a turtle position to make sure I cleared about 1.5 yards. If I didn’t, I would be stepping on someone’s neck or the middle of their back.
Can we say pressure? Yeah, let’s say pressure.
Long story short, I failed the flying sidekick. I couldn’t get enough height on my jump, I couldn’t clear enough distance, and my kicking form was totally off. It was kind of a disaster.
It was a huge disappointment of course, but I couldn’t let it get me down. Giving up isn’t an option; in fact it would be absurd. The only option was to now train for this kick so I could retest for it in a couple of months.
So I did. With the help of a few of the people in my school, I practiced the flying sidekick after class a couple times a week.
January rolled around and one day during class Master C announced that I would do the retest for the black belt. Ok. We set up and did my running start, willing my legs to lift off the ground as high as it could go.
Fail again. Still didn’t jump high enough, not enough distance cleared, fell short of the target. Aaaarghh.
After that, it was a series of failed attempts at this flying sidekick. I kept practicing after class, and every 3 or 4 weeks or so, Master C would make me retest, and the same thing would happen.
It started to become A Thing in our school. Because I kept having to do it, everyone in the school had at one point witnessed me attempt to execute this kick and fail. Soon, each time I came to class people would ask me if I would be retesting today, how was my kick going, do I want help with holding the kicking pad after class? Each time I was given the test there would be this huge crowd and people would be cheering to encourage me. And each time, I would fall short, and it would be like
Needless to say, it was starting to get a bit embarrassing. And more than not a little frustrating.
I watched YouTube tutorials. I read Taekwondo manuals. I asked each Black Belt in the dojang how they execute this kick. I meditated and visualized breaking the board with this kick.
I practiced and practiced after class. It would hurt pretty bad sometimes, because doing a flying sidekick incorrectly basically means wrecking your kicking leg. The strain from practicing flying sidekicks affected my weightlifting..
Months and months went by. I kept trying. It started to become a source of anxiety for me. Why can’t I do this darn kick? I even cursed the fact that this kick was in the curriculum. The flying sidekick was designed, back in ancient times of course, to knock an opponent off a horse. I just could not imagine myself in a situation where someone on horseback was attacking me. Wtf.
But then, on June 11th 2015, I finally did it. Master C held up the board with one of the black belts, I yelled, I took a slowish running start, I jumped as high as I could, tucked in my legs, waited for a second, extended my right leg, and this time – my foot went through that board with a resounding crack.
The moment it happened, everyone watching erupted into loud cheers. I fistpumped a million times and hugged everyone in my class. Then we went for a celebration dinner.
Life lesson (totally cliché, but totally true): simply never give up when you’re going for a goal. It will get hard, you’ll get frustrated, mad, even embarrassed. But you just have to push through it and do it.