Thursday, February 5, 2015

Get serious, Taekwondo seniors!

If you're over 50 and wondering whether there's a place for you in Taekwondo, listen up.  Yes, there's a place.  It's called USA Taekwondo, an outstanding organization which the U.S. Olympic Committee recognizes as the National Governing Body for the sport of Taekwondo in America.  And, no, you don't need to be an Olympian to benefit from joining.  So if someone has suggested to you that Taekwondo is only for the young, please read on.
   One of USA Taekwondo's primary missions is to provide first-rate tournaments at both the state and national level, and this is where USAT really sets itself apart from the crowd.  In many, perhaps most, tournaments I attend, the top age group for competitors is often 30 -- and sometimes younger.  And, yes, there's a message in this: if you're "old," don't bother showing up.
   But USAT takes a radically different approach.  I compete in what's known as poomsae, also known as forms.  And USAT's top age group is 66+.  That's not a typo.  The top age group is 66+.  So if, like me, you happen to be 69, you don't have to compete against athletes who are 18, or 28, or even 58.  You can compete against athletes your own age.  And that's a really big deal, because most of us don't get faster or more flexible as we get older.  
   There are numerous USAT poomsae age divisions -- covering all belt ranks as well as both male and female competitors -- but those of primary interest to readers of this blog are the following:
         66 and over
    Notice that at the upper end of the age groups there's a bit of compression -- 61-65 and 66+.  This makes perfect sense, since the older you get, the more difficult it is to compete against younger athletesI look forward to the day when USAT offers an age division for athletes over 70.  This would reinforce USAT's loud, clear message to the entire martial-arts community: seniors are most definitely welcome here!
   By the way, if poomsae isn't your thing, you will also find age divisions for USAT sparring.  In this case, however, the top age group is 51 and over.  I haven't asked why this is so, but I suspect it's a reflection of the number of interested competitors.  While a great many senior athletes still compete in poomsae, most of us have retired from sparring.
   So what should you do?  Join USA Taekwondo, of course.  Here's an organization that is highly senior-friendly, sponsors annual state tournaments from coast to coast, and runs an impressive National Championship every July in order to select our country's international competitors.  Annual membership is only $35, and you can get all the info you need at USA Taekwondo Membership.

   AN IMPORTANT REMINDER:  For senior martial artists who live in or near New Jersey, don't forget about the upcoming 20th Annual Mercer County Nationals, to be held on March 28th at Rider University.  Thanks to tournament director Master Ivan Mendez, this has become an important senior-friendly event over the past several years.  And this year he has taken the friendliness a step further: all black belts 60 and older pay no registration fee.  How much more of an invitation do you need?  
                                        Outstanding Senior Athlete trophy   

   Also new at the tournament this year will be a crystal Outstanding Senior Athlete trophy sponsored by The Ancient Warrior Society, a non-profit organization that honors some of the country's most respected Taekwondo masters and grandmasters for their lifelong achievements.  Tournament director Mendez and his staff will be selecting the recipient from among the day's top senior performers.
   For more information on the tournament, please click over to Mercer County Nationals.
   The martial arts belong to all of us!  No matter what your age, it's time to get in the game.  I wish you much success in your training.                                               

Monday, January 12, 2015

Building a championship attitude

Let's begin today's discussion with two key facts: 1) not all champions have a championship attitude; and 2) you don't need to be a champion in order to possess a championship attitude.  If you're even moderately puzzled by these two statements, read on.
   Have you ever encountered or read about a champion who lacked a championship attitude?  Of course.  We all have.  In all sports and at all ages you can find gifted athletes who capture gold medals without ever living up to their potential.  They do just enough to get by, and they never seem to learn how to spell team.  And, yes, some of them even make it to the professional level, where they become frequently traded malcontents who blame their shortcomings on those around them.  You find these guys in the NBA, the NFL, and just about every pro team under the sun.  They're the woulda-coulda-shoulda crowd.  They would have, could have, and should have been great if only they had nurtured a championship attitude and pushed themselves to the limit.  But they didn't, and for that they blame everyone but the guy in the mirror.
    Fortunately there's another side to this coin.  We've all met or read about someone who was born without great athletic abilities yet whose accomplishments reflect an outsized championship attitude. A year ago I attended a New Jersey martial-arts tournament and had the incredible experience of watching a 50-something guy compete in both forms and weapons while sporting an artificial leg.  It gets better: at one point in his form, he removed the prosthesis, tossed it to the side, and did the rest of the form on one leg.  He would have been a champion in my book even if he hadn't captured two gold medals -- which, by the way, he did.
   But there are champions, many of them, who never win medals.  Some of them compete in tournaments, and some don't.  Yet they share some important championship characteristics.
     1.  They measure success not by medals or trophies but by personal achievement.   You know when, let's say, you've done your best form ever.  When everything comes together and you've done the best you've ever done, you're a winner.  You don't need a gold medal to feel like a champion.  You've done the best you could possibly do, and that's enough.  You then set the next goal and move on.  This is the mark of a championship attitude.
     2.  They applaud the success of others.  Honestly feeling good about the accomplishments of other competitors is more than just good sportsmanship.  It's a reflection of a championship attitude.  By respecting the hard work and talent of others, you acknowledge that all martial artists are part of something larger than themselves.  Another person's success doesn't diminish your achievements; it reinforces your commitment to your training and your personal goals.
     3.  They willingly share what they know.  When a competitor is willing to help you improve a technique -- perhaps showing you a more effective way to execute a particular form -- he or she is demonstrating a championship attitude.  The message is loud and clear: helping others master a martial art matters more to me than the risk of being outpointed.  Selflessness is the mark of a true champion.
   The secret to success in Taekwondo or other martial arts is really no secret.  Do the best you can.  Always.  You may never win a medal, but you can be widely recognized as a man or woman who always maintains a championship attitude.
   Here's to your success.



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.