Thursday, December 18, 2014

Senior black belts compete for free

You just ran out of excuses.  If you're a black belt and are at least 60 years old, you can compete for free in the 20th annual Mercer County National Karate Championship, to be held on Saturday, March 28th, at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.  This is an outstanding event that offers a total of 145 separate divisions covering forms, weapons, and sparring.  And you should be part of it.
   While it seems that many, perhaps most, tournaments are pushing older athletes to the sidelines, Master Ivan Mendez is determined to make the Mercer County Nationals a comfortable home for the 60+ crowd.  And, yes, this is a really big deal.  I turn 69 next year, and I would like to compete well into my seventies.  But I have to say that the thrill of competing loses something when the top age group is, let's say, 35 or 40.  Competing against someone half your age just doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
   Tournament director Mendez has been working hard for several years to attract seniors to the Mercer County Nationals.  His was one of the first tournaments in the area to raise the top age bracket to 60+, and his is the only tournament I know of that waives registration fees for black belt seniors.  "We're encouraging our most seasoned martial artists to come out, compete, and enjoy each other's fine talent," he says.

                             Above: some of the trophies awarded at the
                            Mercer County Nationals in recent years.

   By the way, a portion of the tournament proceeds will benefit the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, widely known for its pioneering work in saving children with cancer and other catastrophic medical conditions.  Last year's tournament attracted nearly 450 competitors and 725 spectators, so this is an event that can do a lot of good for a fine charity while treating participants to a first-rate martial-arts experience.
   The Mercer County Nationals will feature competitors from a wide variety of styles, so whatever black belt you hold is your free ticket in, as long as you're at least 60 years old.  But it gets better.  The Ancient Warrior Society, an organization that honors an elite group of Taekwondo masters and grandmasters over the age of 50, will be providing an impressive crystal trophy to the 60+ athlete who is voted Outstanding Senior Athlete by the tournament's staff.
   If you're 60+ and still competing, circle the date and find your way to Rider University for this important tournament.  But what if you've already stopped competing because you got tired of being matched with 30-year-olds in every tournament you attended?  Well, you have three months to work on your technique, and that's plenty of time for a veteran black belt.  Ease back into training, and by the end of March you'll be ready to show your stuff against other athletes your age.
   Have questions about the event?  You can post them here, if you'd like, or you can contact Master Mendez directly at  But whatever you do, plan on attending the 2015 Mercer County Nationals.  Our presence will let tournament directors know that the 60+ crowd isn't ready to be put out to pasture.
   Best wishes for your successful training, and best wishes for a joyous holiday season and a bright New Year.

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  

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The wisdom of age-group competition

I don't believe I'm smarter than I was as a young man, but I'm definitely a lot less dumb.  You grow less dumb, of course, by making mistakes . . . then trying not to make the same ones over and over again.  As kids we learn not to touch hot stove tops, often by touching hot stove tops.  And when it comes to athletic competition, we learn -- sometimes the hard way -- that younger and stronger generally trumps older and wiser. 
   First let me say that one of the wisest moves you can make as a martial artist is to enter a tournament now and then, because the competition allows you to assess your level of progress alongside the progress of other serious students.  This is not about medals or trophies.  It's about having a panel of judges rate your mastery of key techniques: stances, blocks, strikes, and such.  For all of us who continue to train after age 50, 60, or 70, the mission is showing respect for the knowledge that has been preserved over hundreds of years by the masters and grandmasters who came before us.  Our goal should be to master all techniques to the best of our ability, so that we become part of the process of passing along our various martial arts to future generations of students.
   But when you decide to compete as a senior, I believe the wisest move is to search for tournaments that offer sensible age groups.  As I said at the top, younger and stronger usually works better than older and wiser, and this is certainly true in Taekwondo tournaments.  I might flatter myself and think that at age 68 I can spar with guys in their twenties, but all I would be doing is increasing the likelihood that I'll have to take several months off while my broken jaw and cracked ribs heal.  Yes, you can suffer an injury even in age-group competition.  But when you decide to compete with athletes half your age, you're trolling for trouble.
   The very good news is that I find an increasing number of Taekwondo tournaments offering age divisions for athletes who are 50 or 60.  In fact, beginning this year the World Taekwondo Federation and its U.S. affiliate USA Taekwondo have begun offering a "4th Master" division for poomsae [or forms] competitors 66 and older.  This means that guys my age can compete on a level playing field in state, national, and even international tournaments. 
   Why, you might ask, do we need age-group competition for poomsae?  After all, we're not talking about sparring, right?  True. But we're still talking about significant differences between athletes who are, let's say, 28 and those who are 68.  Flexibility comes to mind.  If you're still as flexible as you were 40 years ago, God has been awfully kind to you.  The rest of us simply keep changing our definition of "high kick."  This is something that the WTF and USAT have recognized, and it's something that certified judges understand as well.  When you compete in a WTF or USAT tournament, you're judged alongside athletes who are close to you in age, and that means you can assess your level of mastery against a reasonable benchmark. 
   Note, however, that not every tournament offers age-group competition that accommodates seniors.  I can think of lots of reasons for that, none of them good.  So I believe that seniors should vote with their feet and walk away from tournaments that seem not to accept the fact that many of us still want to compete in our 60s, 70s, or beyond.  Another option, and one that sometimes works out well, is to call the tournament director and ask about adding older age groups.  The more of us who ask, the more likely it is that tournament directors will help encourage us to continue competing for as long as we can.
   Taekwondo and other martial arts are not just for kids, and they're not just sports.  They represent a way of living . . . a way of maintaining the discipline to keep our minds and bodies in the best condition possible.
   If you know of senior-friendly schools and tournaments in your area, please let me know.  I'll gladly mention them in this blog.  In the meantime, stay the course.  We need more seniors in the martial arts.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Three good reasons to be a senior martial artist

Here in rapid-fire style I offer three reasons why it's good to be a senior martial artist.  Whether you're 50-something or 60+, check out these opportunities.

The Mercer County Nationals.  On Saturday, March 22nd, you can compete in the 19th annual tournament hosted by Master Ivan Mendez.  This is a well-run and well-attended event that welcomes martial artists of all styles.  And this year you'll find 60+ divisions in sparring, weapons, and forms.  You can register at the door if you can't beat the online deadline.  If you live anywhere near New Jersey -- the tournament is being held at Rider University -- try to attend.  For full details on the event and the competition categories, visit Mercer County Nationals right now.

The 2014 U.S. Taekwondo Classic.  On Sunday, March 30th, Grandmaster David Turgeon will host the 20th edition of this major Taekwondo tournament.  Grandmaster Turgeon, a five-time member of the U.S. National Team, brings in some of the world's elite judges for this event, and the Classic is widely recognized as one of the premier sport poomsae [forms] competitions for black belts in the country.  The tournament will be held at Tolland High School in Tolland, CT.  Please note that there will be absolutely no registrations at the door.  To preregister, visit 2014 U.S. Taekwondo Classic.

USA Taekwondo State Qualifiers.  USA Taekwondo is America's official link to Olympic Taekwondo, but you don't need to be an Olympian to compete.  Taekwondo practitioners of every age and every rank can compete in state tournaments to earn a spot at the USA Taekwondo Nationals, which will be held this July in San Jose, CA.  This year USA Taekwondo added a new age division for poomsae competitors: 66+.  So now there's a 60-65 division as well as the new 66+ group.  What are you waiting for?  Find a state tournament near you, and give it your best shot.  Visit USA Taekwondo State Tournaments.

What's that you say?  You're not quite ready for competition?  If that's the case, get yourself in the martial-arts mood by becoming a spectator at one of the events discussed above.  This year you can watch; next year, compete.  Listen, health is largely a use-it-or-lose-it proposition, and Taekwondo can help keep you on the right path.  If you're not already in training, find a senior-friendly school near you and get with the program.

Hope to see you at a tournament in 2014.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Senior-friendly Mercer County Nationals, March 22nd.

Just a quick reminder to those of you who are looking for a very well run and senior-friendly martial-arts tournament: the 19th annual Mercer County Nationals will be held on March 22nd at Rider University.  According to tournament director Master Ivan Mendez, the event will offer more than 145 divisions to accommodate competitors of all ranks, all ages, and all martial-arts styles.  Last year's tournament attracted 450 competitors and 700 visitors, and this year's version incorporates a number of highly attractive elements.  Among them:
     -- the tournament will take place in two Rider University gyms, not just one, in order to keep things on schedule;
     -- the event will feature several new divisions, including age 50-59 black belts, age 60+ black belts, age16-17 continuous sparring (lightweight and heavyweight), and black belt team sparring (3- or 5-person teams);
      -- and a portion of the tournament's proceeds will be donated to the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
   As always, the tournament is open to competitors from anywhere in the U.S. as well as to non-U.S. competitors.  So if you're looking for a way to make some new martial-arts buddies while participating in some senior-friendly competition, this is the way to go.  I can tell you that this is one of my favorite tournaments of the year.
   For more information, click over to the tournament flyer, Mercer County Nationals.
   Whether this will be your first tournament ever or the first one in a long time, I hope to see you there.
                                      All the best.

Monday, February 10, 2014

USA Taekwondo: as senior-friendly as it gets

The Taekwondo tournament season is hitting full stride, and if you're a 50+ athlete who specializes in forms, or poomsae, you should immediately begin looking for the closest USA Taekwondo tournament.  The United States Olympic Committee recognizes USA Taekwondo as the National Governing Body for the sport of Taekwondo in the U.S., but you don't have to be a young Olympian to compete successfully in a state championship near you.
   USA Taekwondo offers a wide range of poomsae age divisions for athletes of all ranks, and to my mind USAT offers the fairest age-friendly rules by far.  While some organizations have a top age group of, let's say, 35-and-over, USAT has multiple categories for older competitors.
   Effective Jan. 1st of this year, USAT offers the following senior divisions in the poomsae category:
   By competing in a USAT-sanctioned state tournament, you can qualify for the USAT Nationals, to be held this summer in San Jose, CA.  And from there, if you happen to win gold, you might even find yourself competing in the World Poomsae Championships sponsored by the World Taekwondo Federation, the sport's Olympic governing body.  And, yes, the age groups shown above are used in international competition as well.
   Does it make sense to offer four age divisions for athletes over 40?  You bet.  Even though we're talking about forms, not sparring, age makes a huge difference in your ability to execute techniques successfully.  Unless you're a happy exception to the rule, you don't get stronger, faster, or more flexible as you age.  A 67-year-old competitor may know the form cold, but can he or she deliver front kicks and side kicks as well as someone 37?  Not likely.  But in too many tournaments that's just tough luck.
   With USA Taekwondo, on the other hand, you'll find about as level a playing field as you can imagine.  In fact, the newest age group for this year -- 66-and-over -- improves on the former 60+ age group.  Let's face it: at 68 your body isn't quite the same as it was at 62.  The older you get, the faster your performance can drop off.  So splitting the 60+ division into 61-65 and 66+ is a huge deal, and it's a way of recognizing that Taekwondo isn't something just for the millions of kids who study the art here in the U.S.
   Taekwondo is a way of life as well as a competitive sport.  So if you're still living the Taekwondo life at 50, 60, or 70, hook up with USA Taekwondo to find a qualifying tournament near you.  Simply head to the USA Taekwondo website, and search for events in your area.  You'll need to join USAT in order to compete, so don't delay since the tournament season is already upon us.
   You're never too old to begin learning Taekwondo . . . or to come out of "retirement."  The Taekwondo Life awaits you.
    All the best.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Save the date: 19th Annual Mercer County Nationals, March 22nd, 2014

One of my favorite tournaments of the year is coming up on March 22nd, and if you live in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, or anyplace else on the planet for that matter, you should consider competing.  It's the 19th Annual Mercer County Nationals, to be held once again on the lovely Rider University campus in Lawrenceville, N.J.  The University is just off I-95 and is highly accessible for martial artists throughout the Northeast.
   According to Master Ivan Mendez, the tournament's director, last year's event attracted just over 450 competitors of all ages and representing all martial-arts styles.  Well, the 2014 edition looks even more inviting.  Among the key upgrades for 2014: the tournament will offer two new black-belt divisions -- 50-59 and 60+.  So if you're a senior in the martial arts, here's a rare opportunity to show your stuff against competitors your own age.  And, yes, this is a very big deal.  Most tournaments don't go out of their way to make the events senior-friendly, so if you're 68 like me, you can find yourself competing against people half your age or younger.  Master Mendez has been trying to build interest among seniors for the past several years, and this year he has made the tournament as attractive as possible for us.
   The 2014 Mercer County Nationals will feature 145 separate divisions covering weapons, forms, and sparring in all age groups.  Sounds busy, doesn't it?  That's why the tournament will be held simultaneously in two of the Rider University gyms rather than just one.  The goal is to have all competition end by 4:00 p.m., the same goal that was met in 2013.  If you've ever had the experience of hanging out at a tournament from 8:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. waiting for your event to come up, you'll understand how appealing it is to work with someone like Master Mendez, who has a solid record of keeping his event on track.
   Oh, by the way: you shouldn't focus too much on trophies when you compete, since competing is its own reward.  But something else you'll find at the Mercer County Nationals is really nice trophies.  Just sayin'.
   So you have plenty of time to get ready for this tournament.  Whether you're relatively new to the martial arts or a seasoned veteran, you'll find yourself most welcome at this senior-friendly event.  Please put the date on your calendar now.  Then visit 2014 Mercer County Nationals for more information, including details on how to register.
   Hope to see you on March 22nd.  Come out and enjoy some martial-arts camaraderie.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Bring it on! The new year has begun.

One of the great joys of Taekwondo is that it never stops teaching you.  It continually teaches you more about this ancient art, and it continually helps you learn more about the person you are yet to become.  You never learn all there is to know about Taekwondo, just as you never know all there is to know about who you are, about how you got to where you are, and about the paths that lie ahead.
   I enjoyed some tournament success in 2013, but more than anything I learned.  I learned new techniques and new forms (which in Taekwondo we call poomsae).  And I also learned a great deal about the work I still need to do.  For example, I learned the hard way that muscles I thought were in pretty good shape were actually in pretty poor shape.  So I began working with a personal trainer and now have specific fitness goals for 2014.  I also have a long list of other Taekwondo goals, but that's not the topic of today's post.
   This post is about you . . . and about wishes that I send your way for 2014.

Wish #1 is that you will "unretire" if you have already practiced Taekwondo or some other martial art.  You've been away from it for 20 years, you say?  So what?  The challenge is still there.  The knowledge you built up all those years ago hasn't been lost forever.  And you owe yourself the respect of becoming as fit as you can be.  As I said in an earlier post, count yourself lucky if you're a senior who is capable of training for a sport.  Many millions of people want to but can't, so don't waste God's gift of health as you enter the new year.  Let this be the year of your comeback.  It's never too late.  Just do your best.

Wish #2 is that you will begin learning Taekwondo if you have never studied a martial art before.  Forget the age thing.  See your doctor to get his or her approval.  Then consider working with a physical therapist or personal trainer before you step into the dojang, or training hall.  And then sign up for a senior-friendly martial-arts education.  I'm 67, not 17, so there are things I can no longer do as well as I once could.  So I do them as well as I can.  And let that be your training goal: to do what you can as well as you can.  Who can ask more from you?  Check out a few schools.  Then sign up for the one that seems best equipped to work with senior athletes.

Wish #3 is that you will enter at least one tournament, whether you've come out of retirement or have taken up your martial art for the first time.  There are plenty of tournaments that offer age divisions for competitors over 50 or over 60, and you owe it to yourself to experience the genuine highs and occasional lows of testing your skills in public.  You don't need to win a medal in order to feel great about yourself.  If you finish last in your division, you're still miles ahead of millions of perfectly healthy folks who have opted to sit on the couch and munch potato chips while you've been sweating in the dojang.

If you decide to compete in 2014, here are two great opportunities to consider:

Mercer County Nationals, New Jersey.  This is a large and extremely successful tournament whose director, Master Ivan Mendez, has worked hard to attract senior competitors.  No matter what your age or the color of your belt, you will enjoy the competition and the camaraderie.  The tournament is held each year at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., and it's within easy reach of competitors who live in New York, Pennsylvania, or New Jersey.  This year's event will be held on March 22nd, and for more information click over to 2014 Mercer County National Karate Tournament.

USA Taekwondo State Championships.  USA Taekwondo is America's official governing body for Olympic Taekwondo, but you don't need to be an Olympian to participate.  Any competitor of any age or rank can compete in qualifying tournaments that lead to the USA Taekwondo National Championships.  And the winners in that major event can represent the U.S. in international competition.  The top age group is 59+, and two Americans won medals in the 2013 World Championships held in Bali, Indonesia.  To learn more about qualifying tournaments in your state, visit USA Taekwondo event calendar.

   Throughout the year there are Taekwondo tournaments in just about every state, and you shouldn't have to look too hard to find something that will fit your schedule.  Since today is January 1st, you probably have a few months to get ready for some friendly competition.  So challenge yourself to make the most of the year and your physical abilities.  Let 2014 be the start of something great.
   Happy New Year to all!  Best wishes for much success.