Thursday, November 13, 2014

Staying Young With Taekwondo

I recently had the honor of competing in the World Taekwondo Poomsae Championships as a member of the U.S. National Team.  Since I'm 68, I competed in what's known as the Master 4 Division, for athletes 66 and older.  And although I was fortunate enough to come home with a bronze medal, I marveled at the abilities of athletes my age and older whose talents were very much off the chart.  I'm talking about performances that would make your average 25-year-old jealous.
   A case in point in Grandmaster Lee Moon Ho of France, who took the silver medal in the Master 4 Division, finishing just one one-hundredth of a point out of first place.  A 9th-degree black belt, Grandmaster Lee has been a dominant force in Taekwondo for most of his life.  Early in his career he won 12 national titles in his native Korea; he served as coach of the Korean National Team at the 1st World Championships in 1973; and he was coach of the French National Team at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
   Grandmaster Lee's Taekwondo resume is long and impressive, but what's most important to readers of this blog is that he remains an active and world-class competitor.  At a time when most people his age have retired to the couch and a TV remote, he maintains a level of fitness that goes hand in hand with the Taekwondo Life.  As evidence, I offer this snapshot taken outside the competition hall at the recent World Championships held in Aguascalientes, Mexico.  Grandmaster Lee was just loosening up a bit . . . with jaw-dropping sidekicks that you might expect only of athletes 40 or 50 years his junior.
   Grandmaster Lee Moon Ho practices his sidekick during an outdoor session at the recent World Taekwondo Poomsae Championships in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

   Now ask yourself what accounts for Grandmaster Lee's exceptional capabilities.  Is it luck?  Is it wishful thinking?  Is it a side benefit of getting older?  No, no, and no.  The secret to this athlete's success is no secret: hard work that never stops.  Taekwondo consistently challenges the mind and the body, and if you are faithful to the art, you discover that Taekwondo quite simply helps keep you young.  Yes, exercise in general will help keep you feeling better; but the powerful mind/body connection that Taekwondo emphasizes can have a remarkable influence on senior health.
   By the way, Grandmaster Lee wasn't the only star performer at the recent World Championships.  Numerous athletes aged 50 and older turned in world-class performances.  Some athletes won medals; most did not.  But everyone in attendance was a champion in terms of dedication to Taekwondo, and every senior athlete at the World Championships could serve as an inspiration to you whether you're just beginning to study Taekwondo or are wondering how long you can continue training.
   You should consider hanging Grandmaster Lee's photo where you train.  Let it serve as a reminder that when the mind and body work together, as they do in Taekwondo, you can be far younger than your years.
   You're not too old to begin studying Taekwondo, and it's not too late to "unretire."  Put the power of Taekwondo on your side.
   Good luck, and good training.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Taekwondo seniors and balance training

For most of our lives we take the great gift of balance for granted.  We learn to walk, run, jump, ride bikes, climb rocks, and successfully complete the millions of other activities that engage the body's ability to keep us steady and upright.  Of course, when we were younger and just beginning to learn Taekwondo, we continually had our balancing ability challenged in the dojang.  The master instructor expected us to spend quite a lot of time balancing on one foot, generally for kicking but also for blocking and striking. 
     I remember one of my first instructors telling the class that "a martial arts student should have better balance on one foot than everyone else has on two."  For the record, I thought that his claim was a bit overstated.  But I certainly agree that martial artists should be extremely competent at balancing on one foot.
   Ah, but then along comes age, and this balance thing can get a little tricky.  Our ability to balance tends to degrade as we grow older, even if we're still training seriously.  For many seniors, a decline in the ability to balance is often related to diminished leg strength.  But for those of us who still train and compete the problem can be more complicated and related to health issues or inner-ear changes.  Your overall level of fitness may be wonderful, and yet you may find yourself struggling with balance for the first time in your life.
   Yes, I'm in the same boat.  I'm 68 and a frequent competitor.  But my ability to balance on one foot is not quite what it was 40 years ago.  So I have a choice: live with it or do my best to overcome the natural decline.  My choice, of course, is to do whatever I can to maintain my ability to balance under sometimes extreme conditions and body positions.  If that's your choice as well, then here are a few tips on how to work on balance as part of your regular training.  I'm not a physician or physical therapist, so I can't comment on your particular balance issues.  But I can tell you what works for me.
     Working on leg strength.  It's such a simple word: leg.  But there are countless moving parts that need attention if you're having balance issues.  Your quadriceps and hamstring muscles need to be strong, of course, and you can work on them in a variety of ways: knee bends, wall-sitting, and long-count Taekwondo stances are among the more obvious methods.  Working on the thigh muscles isn't enough, though.  The muscles that comprise your ankle are critical, especially if you're holding a one-legged stance for any length of time.  You need to strengthen all the muscles from the calf on down, especially those alongside the Achilles tendon.  One technique that I find helpful is to raise yourself up on the toes of both feet . . . and then lower yourself with just one foot.  When you do this, you're executing what is known as an "eccentric contraction" -- meaning the muscle is getting longer as you lower your heel to the floor.  
     Adjusting floor surfaces.  Standing on one foot is easier on a hard surface -- a wooden or tile floor, let's say -- than on a soft surface.  So make sure when you practice balancing on one foot you don't just take the easy route.  In fact, begin on the softer surface -- a thick carpet, for instance.  Plant one foot; raise the opposite foot to the knee of the balancing leg; and hold the position for 10 seconds or so.  Then switch.  The soft surface is unstable, naturally, so you continually need to adjust your foot and ankle in order to maintain your balance.  Once you can hold your balance on a carpet, consider buying a couple of foam pads that are made just for this purpose.  You can buy the pads in varying degrees of softness.  The firmer the pad, the easier it is to balance; the softer the surface, the more difficult it is to balance.  After you've done your balance exercises on a soft surface, move to the hard surface.  You should feel much more stable and in control.
     Closing your eyes.  If you've ever had a really thorough physical exam, you probably had a doctor ask you to close your eyes and hold both arms out in front of you.  Even on two feet you can have a problem maintaining your balance.  So try this.  Stand near a solid support that you can easily reach out and hold.  [Make sure there are no surrounding objects that could injure you if you fall.]  Without holding the support, balance on one leg with your eyes closed.   If you feel as though you're about to lose control, grab the support.  Try again.  Switch legs.  Yes, this is an exceedingly difficult exercise.  But if you do it safely, it can really help you balance better when your eyes are open.
     Training every day.  Some exercises aren't meant to be done every day.  Weight training, for instance, requires rest.  But working on balance is something you can and must work on every day if you're attempting to overcome an age-related decline.  If for any reason you suspect that your balance issues are excessive or have come on too suddenly, see your doctor to make sure that the problem isn't something that requires medical attention
     If you're serious about Taekwondo, consider yourself a work in progress.  You never learn everything, and you never stop needing to train your mind and body.  Working on balance is one highly effective way to improve your confidence and performance.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Caring for your hamstrings

My hamstring muscles and I first became well acquainted about 52 years ago, when I was a 16-year-old track athlete.  That's when I suffered my first hamstring injury -- the first of many, I'm sorry to say -- and learned the hard way that preventing a "hamstring pull" is a lot better than healing one.  I have also learned -- yes, the hard way -- that the older you get, the more likely you are to injure the hamstrings while training or competing.
   No matter how hard I try, I still fall victim to hamstring injuries now and then.  But since I do invest a lot of time and effort in prevention, I thought I should share a few thoughts on how you can pursue your Taekwondo training while minimizing the risk of hamstring pulls.
   Before we get to that, let's quickly review the two major muscle groups of the upper leg.  On the front of each upper thigh are the quadriceps, better known as the quads: four muscles that extend or straighten the leg when they contract.  If you sit on a chair and extend your leg, you're relying primarily on your quads.  And when you deliver a front snap kick, it's your quads that power the kick forward and fully extend the striking leg.
   The hamstrings, on the other hand, are a group of three muscles on the back of each upper thigh.  These muscles are responsible for leg flexion, or pulling the leg back into position after it has been extended.  Think again of the front snap kick.  After your quads drive the leg up and out, the hamstrings pull the leg back into the chambered position -- something that is required of a properly executed front snap kick.
   During routine daily activities, these two key muscle groups -- the quads and the hamstrings -- generally work in perfect harmony.  We walk, we sit, we climb stairs, and we descend stairs without ever thinking of how the muscles of our legs function.  But athletes, and especially aging athletes, need to pay close attention to these muscle groups, or things can go bad very quickly.
   Let's go back to our front snap kick.  There are two surefire ways to injure the hamstring muscles when executing a powerful front snap kick.  First, your kick can extend beyond the hamstrings' ability to stretch.  Result: a pulled, or strained, hamstring.  In more serious cases you can tear the muscle, but generally the injury is less severe than that.  Second, when you quickly pull the kick back to the chambered position you can put excess force on the hamstrings' ability to contract.  Result: a pulled, or strained, hamstring.
   Depending upon the severity of the injury and how quickly you get professional help, you can be hobbled by hamstring injuries for days, weeks, or, yes, months.  And if your hamstrings don't work, you won't be competing in any Taekwondo tournaments.  That's a fact.
   Okay, you probably know most of this, since you've no doubt injured your hamstrings somewhere along the line during your athletic career.  After all, this is a blog for seniors, right?  So let's take a look at some of the ways you and I can try to avoid hamstring pulls.   There's no way to guarantee that you won't pull a hamstring someday, but these steps will reduce the likelihood of injury.
   Warm up slowly.  I train every day, mixing up my routines as much as possible to keep things interesting and to avoid overuse injuries.  But no matter what the workout, I begin with at least 30-40 minutes of gentle leg warm-up.  At least half of this time is spent on a recumbent exercise bike; I prefer the recumbent bike to an upright bike because I find it to be a lot easier on my aging lower back. 
   Stretch gently.  Once I've worked up a good sweat on the bike -- and raised the internal temperature of my leg muscles -- I do a series of gentle leg stretches.  I always begin by lying flat on my back [doing this on a workout mat or carpet makes sense], then using both hands to pull first one thigh, then the other, to my chest.  I hold the position for 30-40 seconds with each leg, then repeat.  After that I mix things up, so you can use whatever leg stretches are comfortable for you.  But early in the workout always go gently.  Oh, and forget about those old "ballistic stretches" we were taught 50 years ago.  I use static stretches only -- that is, put the muscle into a comfortable stretch, then hold for 30-40 seconds. 
   Use your gear.  No, you don't have to use any special gear.  But I like to, especially if I have had a "tweak" in one or both hamstrings.  What's a "tweak"?  I really can't say for sure.  It's something short of a hamstring pull -- a quick twinge of discomfort that makes me a little nervous.  Whatever.  I always wear compression shorts when working out, and after warming up I generally pull on thigh supports.  These are inexpensive elastic wraps that have Velcro fasteners on them.  If you're interested, the product I use is the McDavid thigh wrap, which you can see at McDavid Thigh Wrap.  I've used the same pair for several years, and I see no signs of wear and tear.
   Kick gently.  Once the wraps are in place, I gently work through all of the kicks I'll be using in this particular workout.  Since I spend almost all of my time working on poomsae, or forms, the two kicks I use most frequently are the front snap kick and the side kick.  But regardless of the kick you plan to work on, BEGIN GENTLY.  It doesn't matter how long you've warmed up and stretched.  Your first 20-30 kicks with each leg need to be at 50% power and speed . . . or less.  If you decide to jump right into full-power kicks, you multiply the risk of injury.
   Kick with power.  By now you may be 50 or 60 minutes into your workout, and it's time to work your way up to full-power kicks.  This assumes, of course, that you're not nursing an injury.  If you are, then skip the full-power stuff today -- and for as long as necessary.  If you're not injured, then gradually use more power and speed.  Slowly let your kicks get stronger and higher.
   Stretch seriously.  I'm not the most flexible old guy on the planet and never will be.  But I'm at my most flexible at the end of a workout.  I still use static stretches only, but I aim for a fuller stretch than I did at the beginning of the workout.  Now that your body is fully warmed up and your legs are stretched a bit from kicking, you should work on extending the length of each stretch.
   Consider strengthening exercises.  Because your quadriceps muscles are generally stronger than your hamstrings, you may need to work on the hamstrings to avoid injury.  I like using a leg curl machine when I have access to a gym.  [If you haven't used one, get professional guidance on how to use the machine before getting on it.]  But a large exercise ball can be highly effective as well.  Lie on your back; put both feet on top of the ball; and then straighten out your legs and back, lifting your butt from the floor.  In this "plank" position your weight is being supported largely by your hamstrings.  Hold for 5 seconds, and lower yourself to the floor.  As with any exercise, begin gently, then work your way up to the number of reps that suits you.
   There are, of course, countless other ways to help prevent hamstring injuries, and you can find good information on the Internet or, better still, by working with a personal trainer or physical therapist.  The key to successful training for seniors is summed up in a single word: gradually.  Don't be in a hurry.  You've been around long enough to know that good things don't happen overnight.
   Good luck . . . and good training.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Taekwondo training when you're 60+, Part 2: Building a Team

My most recent post, "Taekwondo Training When You're 60+," seemed to strike the right chord with this blog's readers, because it has become the most popular article in the series.  This is a highly encouraging sign, because it suggests that more than a few martial artists have figured out that training doesn't need to stop when you're 30, 50, or 80.
   So I decided to follow up with "Building a Team," because I have found this to be a critical training strategy for senior athletes . . . especially those who continue to compete.
   Fifty years ago, when I was 18, I didn't worry much about sports injuries.  They rarely occurred, and when they did, they generally vanished in a day or two without any effort on my part.  But 68 isn't 18, so I now rely on a highly skilled training team to keep me fit for competition.  Finding the right members for this team can be a challenge, but it's well worth the effort. 
   Here are the team members along with a few key points about each of them:
     Primary Care Physician.  Decades of searching for an athlete-friendly doctor taught me that most physicians, even those who tout themselves as "sports medicine" experts, continually give the same advice: "Just take a few weeks off."  Seriously?  For this kind of advice I should pay?  The whole point of being a competitive athlete is that I don't want to take a few weeks off.  And, frankly, when you're pushing 70, taking a few weeks off can set you back by months, not weeks.  As I said at the top, 68 isn't 18.
   I am fortunate to have found a doctor who is willing to work with me in advance of injuries.  If I have a major competition coming up and feel that some physical therapy would help me work out specific body issues, she is willing to write a prescription.  Makes sense, doesn't it?  Why wait until after the injury to prescribe physical therapy when a little PT can help avoid the injury? 
   If you're still working with a doctor whose answer to every injury is, "Take a few weeks off," ask around and find a physician -- preferably an athlete -- who understands that minimizing lost training time is good.
     Physical Therapist.   You need to shop around for the right physical therapist, because not all of them have experience in working with serious athletes.  I've visited enough PT clinics to know that many physical therapists spend most of every day working with older patients who have simply neglected their way to injury.  If you look around and see that most patients are 200 pounds overweight, have trouble breathing because they've been smoking for 60 years, and can't do a sit-up, you may need to find another clinic.  Clinics that work frequently with high school and college athletes are ideal, because the physical therapists are treating the most common injuries AND have a keen understanding of how to prevent those injuries. 
     Massage Therapist.  No, I'm not talking about one of the big chains that hires trainees who have some education but zero experience.  What you generally get from these massage therapists is a "relaxation massage," which is fine only if you simply want to relax for 50 minute or so.  So what you need to do is ask around until you find a massage therapist who a) understands anatomy extremely well, b) has years of experience in working with athletes, and c) is prepared to cause a little pain on the way to fixing what ails you.  I have learned the hard way that tight muscles and joints need more than "relaxation" techniques.  What they need is someone who can find the problem areas and then apply enough hand pressure to cause the tight muscles to release. 
     Videographer.  Sounds pretty fancy and expensive, no?  Relax.  Your spouse, significant other, or training partner can do all you need with an iPhone or iPad.  Look, even if you work out in front of a large mirror you can't really see your technique.  And you can't rely on your Taekwondo school's master instructor to be there every time you need him or her.  So get used to shooting short videos of your forms, punches, kicks, blocks, and such.  You can critique them on your own, of course, or you can email them to your instructor.  Fifty years ago you would have needed a ton of expensive equipment to pull this off.  Today you can probably get it done with a cell phone.
   So there's my short list of the folks who belong on your training team.  Each of them must understand that you're an athlete, not just another old guy complaining about aches and pains, and must be willing to treat you like the competitor you are.  Your goal is to train and compete, not take a few weeks off.  So work with professionals who will do everything possible to keep you in action.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Taekwondo training when you're 60+

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from an old friend -- in other words, a friend who is actually as old as I am.  He's a 68-year-old runner, and I'm a 68-year-old Taekwondo competitor.  Despite the obvious differences between the two sports, my friend wanted my thoughts on "Training for Oldsters."
   My advice, in a word, was MODERATION.  Although our brains can sometimes trick us into believing we're 25, our bodies can't be fooled.  So if we attempt to train as though we're 40 years younger, we'll most likely end up at the local physical therapy clinic . . . or maybe even in the ER.
In my friend's case, he's thinking about broadening his running experience by becoming a sprinter as well as a distance man.  Hmm.  Does a 68-year-old body really want or need sprinting?  Well, I suppose if you've been a sprinter since high school, perhaps your muscles and tendons can handle the stresses that sprinting will put on them.  But if you're setting out to become a sprinter for the first time, I hope you're 18 rather than 68.
   My friend also wondered how often I train.  Answer: seven days a week.  MODERATELY.  Three of those days are maybe what I'd call "moderate +" because they incorporate my usual workout as well as weight training.  But the other days are simply "moderate."  I spend 30-40 minutes warming up, another 15 or so stretching gently, a half hour or more practicing my Taekwondo poomsae [or forms], and a final 15 stretching.  The best stretching comes at the end of the workout, of course, because that's when the old body is really warmed up.
   Now you might be wondering what I mean by "moderate."  Well, it's impossible to get overly scientific about the definition, since you and I are different in countless ways.  Our ages are different; our experience levels are different; and our training histories are different.  Oh, and our bodies are different.  I generally keep my weight around 145, which feels just about right for competition.  But if you weigh 180 or 220, any specific advice I can offer you goes right out the window.
   That said, I can offer some general guidelines that seem to work well for me.  I'll let you -- or you and your doctor -- decide whether these markers make sense for you.
   Weight training.  I don't belong to one of those mega-gyms where serious body builders pump as much iron as they can.  I tried that once and found myself getting caught up in the competitive spirit that pervades these testosterone havens.  The result: injury.  Naturally.  You might be able to lift more weight than you should, but eventually your joints, tendons, ligaments, or muscles rebel.  So now I train in a gym located within a physical therapy clinic -- the very same clinic, in fact, where I get put back together every now and then.
   My weight-training guidelines are as follows:
      One arm dumbbell curls: 15-18% of body weight for each arm, or whatever you can lift 10-12 times using proper form.
      Triceps push-downs [on a weight machine]: 50-60% of body weight, or whatever you can do 10-12 times without struggling.  If you struggle, you end up using muscles that shouldn't be part of this exercise.
      Bench press:  40-50% of body weight, or whatever you can do 10-12 times without arching your back or dropping the bar on yourself.  I like using a bench press machine that prevents the barbell from falling on my neck.  The older I get, the more I like it.
   My primary warm-up device is a recumbent exercise bike, which I ride for 20-30 minutes at roughly 80 rpm.  Set the bike to whatever resistance level allows you to ride for at least 15 minutes without becoming exhausted.  The idea is to break a sweat, not pass out.  I like the recumbent bike because it doesn't put pressure on my lower back the way an upright bike does.  Elliptical machines are okay because they're fairly gentle on your joints, but I prefer the recumbent bike.  Stair steppers?  No way.  My lower back doesn't like stair steppers, with one exception: a machine called the Nu Step, which is essentially a seated stair stepper.  If you have access to one, by all means use it.
   Stretching: I suppose some people actually enjoy stretching, but I'm not one of them.  I stretch because my sport calls for kicking.  And if you kick hard without sufficient flexibility, you stand a good chance of pulling a hamstring muscle.  Ask me how I know.  So I stretch every day -- gently right after warming up, more intensely at the end of the workout.
   So there you have my general tips on MODERATE TRAINING.  When in doubt, do less, not more.  Build up to the targets slowly.  That way you'll stand a better chance of training without injury while making the kind of progress that anyone of any age can make.  Hey, Taekwondo isn't just for kids.   If you're a Taekwondo senior, get off the couch and go for it.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Preparing Seniors for Elite Competition

If you're a regular visitor to this blog, you know that I generally recommend entering a tournament now and then AND just having fun.  Competing in a tournament is a wonderful way to sharpen your focus while making new friends who share your enthusiasm for Taekwondo.
   But at some point you may find yourself preparing for elite-level competition -- the upcoming USA Taekwondo Nationals, for instance -- and asking yourself how a major national or international event will affect your training routine.  That's what today's post is all about.
   Before putting pen to paper, I decided to do a bit of online research.  I used a major search engine to see what I could find about "age-appropriate training for seniors."  The result was rather shocking: I got roughly 28 million hits, virtually all of them about age-appropriate athletic training for children.  I didn't bother looking at all 28 million references, naturally, but a quick scan of the most frequently visited pages told me that seniors really don't show up on the radar when it comes to athletic training.  Furthermore, the few senior-related references I did find were of the "gentle activities that can help you live longer" variety.
   Now here's a fact: some seniors martial artists routinely compete at an elite level in both national and international tournaments.  If you attend July's USAT Nationals in San Jose, California, for instance, you'll see quite a few of them -- both men and women -- in action.  And trust me when I say that to get there and to compete respectably these athletes take "senior training" to a whole new level.  Evening strolls around the block won't get the job done, and neither will some stretching, sit-ups, and push-ups.
   Unfortunately, if you're 50, 60, 70, or older, most of your friends and physicians will have trouble accepting the fact that age-appropriate elite training for seniors looks very much like age-appropriate elite training for someone who's 28 or 30.  And you'll have a hard time finding books, DVDs, or even qualified coaches devoted to the training of senior athletes.  So you'll need to become your own elite-level coach and develop a training program that will allow you to compete against the best of the best in your age group.  Now keep in mind that what works for me at 68 may not be optimal for you at 58 or 78.  But the general training outline that follows should help keep you on track for peak performance.
   1.  Annual physical.  Half a century ago I had to get an annual physical before I could train with my college track team, and an annual physical makes as much sense today as it did then.  If you're going to train seriously, make sure your body is ready for what's coming.
   2.  Commitment.  In his wonderful book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell mentions the rule of 10,000 hours.  In short form, the rule says that you don't get really good at something -- playing a piano, solving complex equations, painting watercolors, etc. -- until you've invested about 10,000 hours in practice.  So let's say you begin studying Taekwondo and train for 5 hours every week, or 260 hours per year.  At this pace it will take you roughly 38.5 years to reach a level of high proficiency.
   But let's say you're a black belt in training for a major national tournament.  Assuming you've already reached a level of high proficiency, how many hours each week will you need to train in order to compete at an elite level?  For me the answer is about 10 hours per week.  I say "about" because I commit to more than 10 hours a week well ahead of the tournament, then back off gradually as the tournament date approaches.  The right number for you is the one that is highly demanding without pushing you into "overtraining" territory, where injuries and burnout rule.
   3.  Full-body training.  Taekwondo is mostly about kicking, striking, and blocking.  But your training program can't be limited to, say, practicing your forms, or poomsae.  The key building blocks of an effective training program are strength training, cardio fitness, and flexibility.  If you're a senior athlete, you absolutely must make use it or lose it your motto.  Unless you push your muscles with resistance training, you'll lose muscle mass and replace it with fat.  Unless you push your heart by running, biking, or working out on a stair-stepper or elliptical trainer, your endurance will falter.  And unless you keep all muscle groups -- from head to toe -- adequately flexible, you'll end up sitting on the sidelines on the day of the tournament.
   4. Visualizing success.  I'm a huge believer in the mind/body connection.  My mind plays a key role in my body's health; and my body's health can absolutely strengthen my mind.  So when I train, I train with an attitude.  I do so silently, but I do it.  My attitude is "I'm capable of achieving any goal."  This doesn't mean I achieve every goal.  It means that with sufficient commitment and effort I am capable of achieving success.  If I fall short, it's because I didn't work as hard as the guy who beat me.
   Let's end on a truly important note: training hard enough to win is a good thing, but only if you can graciously accept defeat.  Respect for your fellow martial artists is paramount.  Do your best.  Strive to win.  But be the first to congratulate someone who has outworked you.
   Then get back to the dojang and train harder.       

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Setting the right goals

I recently attended a superb three-day Taekwondo training camp run by Grandmaster David Turgeon of Colchester, CT.  And on the third day of that program I had the great privilege of working with four-time World Champion Suji Kang.  Master Kang is a young woman -- in her 20s -- who humbly makes the impossible look easy.  If you want to see what I mean, check out the YouTube link at the end of this post. 
   For the moment, I want to focus on her accomplishment.  Think about this with me: the odds against being the best in the world at any sport are virtually infinite.  Among the variables that you would have to factor into the equation are natural talent, motivation, family support, quality of training, the number of other world-class competitors, the ability to overcome injuries, and, of course, plain old dumb luck.   If the sun, moon, and stars align perfectly, you might find yourself in Master Kang's position -- as the very best of the very best in an incredibly demanding sport.
   But this blog is about those of us who are 50, 60, or 70, right?  So here's a bit of tough love: none of us will ever be nearly as good as Suji Kang.  Sorry to burst that bubble, but it just won't happen, friends.  Suji Kang on her worst day is infinitely better than this 68-year-old author will ever be on his best day.  You can bet your last dime on that.
   So here's an interesting question.  If you and I have no chance whatsoever at being the best in the world, what sorts of goals should we set as we sweat and strain in our Taekwondo dojangs?   Or should we just retire to the couch with some beer and pretzels?
   A resounding no to the beer-and-pretzels path!  You practice Taekwondo because it is a way of living -- a way that links you to an honorable tradition of striving; welcomes you to the camaraderie of practitioners of all ages, races, religions, and nationalities; and encourages you to respect all others as you would like to have others respect you.   When taught properly, Taekwondo asks you to be the best person you can be . . . not just some of the time, but all the time.
   Okay, now on to the task of setting goals.  Here are a few to consider.
       1.  Become the best athlete you can be at every age.  Only you can make this happen.  And no one can ever ask more of you.
       2.  Show the utmost respect for the traditions and training methods of a martial art that has developed over many centuries.
       3.  Share your knowledge with those who know less, and humbly accept the advice of those who know more.
       4.  Consider yourself part of a very large, global Taekwondo family.   There is no "them."  There's just "us."
       5.  Enter competitions as often as you can, always with the aim of improving your skills or scores.  Winning a medal may be nice.  Attaining a new level of personal achievement is always much more satisfying.
   The Taekwondo life invites you to become more than you ever thought you could be -- physically, mentally, and spiritually.  And if becoming a better all-around person isn't a worthy goal, I don't know what is.
   You and I will never be as good as Master Suji Kang.  But she will always be our sister in Taekwondo.  Check out her video now at Suji Kang video