studio blog

MLK Day 2020

We are OPEN on Monday, January 20, Martin Luther King Day.

The South Orange/Maplewood community, where our studio is based, and our surrounding communities of Newark, Irvington, East Orange, Orange, West Orange, Livingston, and Millburn, are a diverse group. Our waiting room has almost a dozen languages. Our students belong to many faiths, and our ethnicities are as diverse as the Crayola 64 pack, if not more so. Our genders are multiple, and our families are inclusive. None of these factors impacts a student’s level of success in our studio. The only piece that matters is the color of a student’s belt. This is not a byproduct of fate, but the success and accomplishment of an individual’s efforts.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of my favorite people from history. His struggle, and the movement he led, are about a universal call for equality, freedom and dignity. Our studio, to the best of my efforts, is a living embodiment of his “radical” human dream. It is for this reason that I feel it necessary that the best way to honor Dr. King and his legacy is to be open on the day when we recognize his legacy and his greatness. Our studio is living his dream!

I wish that one day we would be able to say the same about all corners of the country, and the global community. In the very least, I know that the microcosm world where I spend most of my time, with so many of you, is, indeed, such a place.

Regardless of how you choose to celebrate Dr. King’s holiday, I wish you a day of kindness, generosity, and respect.

Thanksgiving 2019

My three favorite television shows when I was growing up were M*A*S*H, Star Trek, and Cheers. In all three, we have a group of people who love one another and are loyal to each other. Loyalty, as in the form of respect and friendship, became incredibly important to me. Dedication to real people and real values became part of my core.

In M*A*S*H and Star Trek we had characters who flouted the very rigorous systems to which they supposedly were loyal, while revealing a dedication to their work and to their friendships. The "official" system was not as important as the informal intertwining of their shared beliefs in truth, justice, fairness, peace, and life. In M*A*S*H, Hawkeye would go to all and any extremes for his patients, to the end of the war, and for his peers. His system of justice was not written down, but his integrity became obvious, even as his glaring flaws were displayed. In Star Trek, Captain Kirk cared about his crew and ship first, and himself second. He was sworn to uphold a Prime Directive (look it up, if you like) above his own life. Spock, a creature of logic, betrayed his logic often when his friend and captain needed him. And, in Cheers, a gang of losers could love one another and accept one another blindly regardless of, or perhaps because of, all of their flaws.

What is our Tae Kwon Do studio? I believe it is an amalgamation of all those experiences I absorbed through the "boob-tube". We have rules, but they are less important than our loyalty to one another. Anyone, regardless of his/her flaws, or perhaps because of them, fits right in. And, for good or for bad, I see in my students a greater dedication to one another than to Tae Kwon Do. If I am teaching my students anything, though, it is perhaps that strength of character, in learning to trust in others, and hopefully eventually in themselves, can be our greatest legacy.

Parents often call and ask me what our studio is about. Well, I try to explain our proud history as the first Tae Kwon Do studio - Chung do Kwan - in the world. The unique, special, gifted nature of our teacher, and his effective fighting techniques that he teaches us. I talk about how we are not a tournament school, but a studio that focuses on tradition, respect, and practical self-defense. At the end of the day, I would say what we truly are, is a group of misfits (including myself) who have been lucky enough to find one another and build a community of strength for one another. While we probably never realized we were doing it in the process, we have found a place to be safe and real.

These fictitious television shows may be memories of the past, but they helped create something that is very very real, and it is ours.

Thank you everyone.

The Importance of Doing Things in Their Proper Order.

I recently read an article that was emphasizing the importance of following steps and doing things in the proper order.

One always needs to clarify priorities and to have the organizational skills to do things in their proper order. This is an important tool for accomplishing anything in life. One needs to know and identify what must be done and then an order of priorities must be established. We will never have enough time to do everything we would like to do. By being aware of the order of importance of what you have to do, you will ensure that you will effectively accomplish the most possible within the limitations of the time allotted to you.

Sometimes, as a Tae Kwon Do practitioner, I feel overwhelmed by everything that I need to (and want to) practice. There is form. There is board breaking. There is kicking. There is free sparring. And, each of these categories includes a long list of possible techniques. It is impossible to practice them all in one class. In fact, practicing all of it in one week is a daunting challenge! Being a devoted lover of Tae Kwon Do, I let my passions and interests guide me in one direction or the other. If I am “getting bored” or not feeling motivated enough in one area, I can always turn my attention elsewhere within the art.

However, what is the proper order of what to practice and when? Every belt has a piece of each one of these categories (except for board breaking which is only focused on at certain levels). Each belt should build on and incorporate the previous level’s knowledge and emphasis. Even with this breaking down of the curriculum, the “sub-chunks” that each belt presents us is still a rather broad amount of information to confront.

Some students really love form. The subtle intricacies of each ancient movement and the challenges of manipulating one’s body and uncovering the secrets within one’s body and the movements offer endless challenges and excitement. For others, working on perfecting a kick so it is more beautiful and powerful than anyone else’s or any other technique offers a similar challenge. Some like to work on the timing of when to properly implement different techniques and strategies when free-sparring. The excitement of feeling one’s power and understanding how to use it in relation to someone else can be invigorating. The challenge of finding the focus, discipline and power to confront a solid mass of wood and decimate it is a fulfilling goal for some, too. Though there are similarities in all these aspects, often the differences are what create the different paths for different students.

What I see as the one of the many uniting principles of these different aspects is the concept of progress. What makes a perfect kick at any given level is not as important as the path traveled to get there, and the fact that while the area we love the most improves, that progress slowly spills over into other areas as well. Even at the threshold of earning a black belt, we all find our area to excel which helps to counterbalance the areas where we struggle more. This is what makes each belt so personal. There is the content, and there is how we approach it. Black belt is not about the physical power we yield, but the mental power and progress we demonstrate to get to where we are at any given moment. This makes black belt, and really every belt, very personal. We all practice the same movements and the same kicks, but we all have different levels of progress and excellence. At the end of the day, we need to track our progress in the proper order - the path that best suits our abilities at that time. As we get closer to black belt, our strengths help us to strengthen our weaknesses. This is where we are forced to expand our minds and deepen our progress across the broader canvas of the art.

Though for many ultimately achieving black belt is seen as a final goal, black belt is not the end, but the beginning - the beginning of our understanding that we are ready to truly learn and progress. Just like the wisdom of old age, we each get there by following our own path. By the same token, there is an order to how we age, and there is an order and structure to how we pursue the art of Tae Kwon Do.

Thoughts on what's Next

I once read an article where a martial arts instructor talked about the value of the word next. She put it in the context of always working towards the next belt and always moving towards the next challenge. I agree with that, but I also see it in another way

Not too long ago, a mother said to me that her child, a brown belt, should continue since she is almost at the end - meaning earning a black belt. This is a thought I often hear parents express about their children's progress, and sometimes a student says about his/her own progress. I usually comment that black belt is not the end, but the beginning. Much as finishing high school is not the end of one's education but really the beginning of it all - thus graduation is called commencement - earning a black belt is really the beginning of one's learning and understanding.

I have been practicing Tae Kwon Do for over 25 years. Next is not just about the belt for me, especially since my tests are at least 2 years (on average 6 years) apart if not longer. Next is about not stagnating. I want to keep growing, not just as a Tae Kwon Do practitioner or teacher, but as a person. Tae Kwon Do has provided` me with the blue print to embrace and confront life's challenges in a way in which I can continue to improve and grow. I do not expect everyone to love Tae Kwon Do the way I do, but I can hope that my students learn to find and embrace this inner challenge in themselves, whether it is in Tae Kwon Do, in school, or whatever ignites their passions.

I am not deluded enough to think that all my students will continue to endeavor in Tae Kwon Do forever, but I hope that the lessons they learn about themselves will stay with them forever. I hope that for the time that they are involved in Tae Kwon Do that my students learn not to settle or stagnate, not to be satisfied by merely staying still. I hope that all students will aspire to want to move forward and progress, that they will be striving for next, not as a form of glory, but as a source of growth and improvement.

Success

"The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work."

I recently came across that quote. It has been attributed to many different great people in history, but who said it is less important than its meaning and relevance, to Tae Kwon Do and to life. 

One will not earn a black belt, or anything else of value in life, by putting in less than their best and phoning it in. And any great achievement, once earned, can only be maintained through continued investment and hard work. This is true of my marriage, my family, and our beautiful studio community.

June 2016

We live in unsettling times. And yet, every day, I find myself part of a special community of individuals who care about one another and respect one another in the shared pursuit of self-betterment. Ironic that at the heart of what appears to be a place of violence, a martial arts studio, we find so much support and comfort; especially when the words of the greater world, though only worlds, sound so violent.
It is in that context, as I reflect upon this past school year, that I feel so incredibly lucky to be part of such a rich and caring community. New students quickly find their place amongst us, and returning students slide back in as if they had never left. Times change, faces change, but our goals and our strengths persevere. For that, I am eternally grateful.  
Thank you.

Tae Kwon Do vs. Team Sports

How is Tae Kwon Do different from team sports?

One of the downsides of team sports is “the blame game”.  Bill Buckner, a Hall of Fame ball baseball player, is single-handedly blamed for the Boston Red Sox 1986 loss to the New York Mets.  Interestingly enough, one error by one player is considered the reason that this team with 9 players on the field and a total of 25 players on the roster lost four out of seven games played in that series.  

In our Tae Kwon Do studio, we take the help and nurture approach.  Someone who is struggling is worthy of assistance and support.  We were (or perhaps still are) that student struggling with that technique, and someone came and helped us.  We are just playing it forward.  Our students also know that we do not leave anyone behind.  If the class is only as strong (or advanced) as the weakest link, we do not cut off that link; we strengthen it.

This approach has successfully created a very supportive community atmosphere in our studio.  We are all striving towards similar goals.  We are not looking for a “win” - and a “hero” if we do, or a “loser” if we don’t.  We are striving to find the best in ourselves, and part of the best in ourselves is the connections that we find in others.  In helping others, we learn more about our own struggles and issues, and perhaps even identify better what we need to practice and overcome.  In being helped, we are shown positive role models to emulate while also possibly being offered insights into someone else’s similar struggles.

Team sports are great, and they offer many positive possibilities.  But I understand why they are not a draw for many of us, especially the “not-so-natural athlete”.  In our Tae Kwon Do studio, even on "a bad day", students always find themselves surrounded by a community who shares in our (mine, too) journey, who celebrate us at our best, and who support and help us to get to our best on those days when we are just not feeling it.

A Tae Kwon Do practitioner may never be admired (or reviled) like Bucky Dent, but s/he will never be so (undeservedly) blindly hated like Bill Buckner either.  Supported, guided, valued, appreciated, helped and even loved - that is who we are as a community.

Thanksgiving 2016

I have a great life! I begin with this thought because it is easy to forget.

A little while back I was watching a TV show which happened to have filmed part of the episode in a place I used to frequent when I was young (in my early twenties). I was homesick for this place as I was overwhelmed with nostalgia. This was also around the time when George Martin died. I found myself listening to all my old Beatles’ songs again. Ah... It all takes me back. I remember those easier times. I earned less, but I had more free money to dispose of. I could run myself ragged because my body would always bounce back. I could hop in a car and rush off to visit a friend two hours away on a lark. I was free, and it was because I was young. Today, I am married with two children, a mortgage, and a business. So much of that freedom and flexibility is lost. However, I am not lost. My family is wonderful, despite the responsibility and work and effort they require. My business is my dream - a place where people come to feel safe and find the best in themselves - and that dream also requires responsibility and work and effort. The rearview mirror already shows me crossing that line where if you wake in the morning and nothing hurts you must be dead. But as a good friend pointed out to me, I have everything I always wanted. Amazing wife/life partner. Two great children. Students and their loved ones who share themselves with me and with one another…

When I first started practicing Tae Kwon Do, my practice was carefree. I was the “child” and others, those more advanced, had the responsibility to care for me, to teach me. As I progressed, I inherited that responsibility for others. Upon earning a black belt, my teacher, Mike, told me that I will not be a true black belt until I make a black belt. Ah, but the responsibility does not end there; for every new black belt, I must help and guide them towards that goal of finding their new place, their new focus, their new reason to put on that uniform every day and continue to find and challenge the best in themselves… For black belt is not an end goal, but a glorious step in the lifelong process of finding and fulfilling who we are.

As I look back with glossy eyes on the joy of my youth, I also remember, through the nostalgia, that the Beatles spoke to me because I was looking for what they sang about. Now, I am living through that moment where I am lucky enough to have it all, and I am lucky beyond what I deserve to have a community who shares in this quest, both as a community and as individuals. I find myself looking for what I have, and fortunate enough to be able to see and recognize that I have it. Though I will always love the Beatles, I do not need them to shape the meaning in my life. I simply need to remember to open my eyes and look around me.

Looking back can be great. Looking forward is important, too. Remember to be where you are, and excel at that moment, too.

Happy Thanksgiving!!! May you find the happiness and joy in the fortunes that surround you.

Fondly,

Steve

Spring 2016

There is a line from The Empire Strikes Back when Yoda laments about Luke. “All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph! Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh!” I found myself thinking about this quote when contemplating how to help students make the impressive leap from brown belt to black belt. In the words of one former student, “Many people today do not understand that not everything is fun, or that hard work can be fun. Working hard and then accomplishing something is a different kind of fun.” She is correct. The lower belts, when everything is new, are fun. Unfortunately, then, students often dream of earning a black belt, instead of being the best green belt or blue belt they can be. Then, when they are brown belts, they still talk and dream of “when I am a black belt”. The problem is, you need to focus on what you are and where you are at that moment. In sports, one does not dream of winning the championship before winning the game and overcoming the challenges that await them that day. How can one harbor realistic dreams for life, be it in college, at work, or in one’s home if one is not investing his/her energies into addressing the current situation before them? There is nothing wrong with dreaming and imagining for the future; we find goals to set and visions to fulfill and guide us in doing so. However, we must also remember to put at least as much energy into our present, both the “fun” and the “challenging”. Developing this focus, determination, and work ethic is what will truly help us all become: Jedis, black belts, graduates, spouses, parents… -> the best in ourselves.

November 2015

Thanksgiving, despite its historical origins (I used to be a history teacher.), is one of my favorite holidays for what it has become - a time to examine and be grateful for what we have. For one thing, despite the challenges that my parents presented throughout most of 2015, I am thankful that I still have them. My father will be 90 years old in less than four months. He and my mother will be happily married for 52 years in less than a month. My wife and two amazing children, whom many of you know, are truly great beyond anything I deserve. I can even say that I am thankful for my sister… and we’ll leave it at that. In short, I am lucky beyond words for the family I have.

Though my appreciation is genuine, sometimes being thankful for family seems half-hearted since “we are supposed to say that”. Unfortunately, we often take them for granted, too. I am lucky enough to be reminded of them every day because of other family I have, my Tae Kwon Do community.

I am thankful for the privilege of going to a place almost every day, six days a week, where greatness happens. I see students of all ages challenge themselves to move beyond and develop into superior versions of themselves. As the teacher, I am only the facilitator. The accomplishments belong to those who strive and persevere to find greatness in themselves. Just as I am direct and open with my students and their families about a students’ progress, both positive and negative, I try to take the same approach with myself. I know that I am far from perfect, and even with the best intentions I get things wrong sometimes. And yet, this amazing community of which I am a part accepts me, warts and all. For that, I am humbly thankful.

I am a teacher by training and profession. Our studio is an educational community as far as I am concerned, and I strive for that to always be our focus. The fact that I am entitled to pursue this dream while being supported by so many amazing students and families, including my own, is for what I am truly thankful. In fact, I often feel that I am living beyond what I deserve. And for that, I say thank you to you all, students and families, past and present.

May you find the time to enjoy that which is truly special and you truly deserve during this nationally shared holiday (literally, a holy-day).

Happy Thanksgiving.