Learning From Failure
It was grading night at the dojo, for the kyu belt ranks only. All the dojos I've belonged to have used the Judo kyu/dan system. There are six kyu levels or ranks before the dan or black belt levels. The kyu belt colors, in order of lowest to the highest rank, are white, yellow, orange, green, blue, and brown.
I was looking forward to my first grading. I'd practiced the techniques and the kata (form, pattern of movements) required for my grading. I was ready. I knew the material so well that other students would ask me to practice with them before class, just to review the kata. I was happy to oblige. The more practice, the better.
Those who were grading performed the basics as a group. For the katas, each person was to demonstrate that alone. I sat on the floor at the edge of the dojo, waiting for my turn. Sensei called me up. I walked to the place on the floor where I was to start from. I bowed and announced the name of the kata. Sensei nodded his head to indicate that I begin.
I moved into yoi (ready) position and then started moving through the kata. A few moves in, my mind went blank. My brain, and subsequently my body, froze. As hard as I tried, I couldn't retrieve the next move from my memory. Sensei told me to start again. I did, and the same thing happened. The third time didn't go any better. Sensei told me to sit down.
I was frustrated with myself. I had never experienced stage fright before. Then again, I'd never physically performed as an individual in public. I'd only done so as part of a group. I wasn't used to being the center of attention, and it made me feel uncomfortable.
After the grading was over, Sensei called me over to him. He asked what had gone wrong. I told him I didn't know. He said that he knew that I knew the kata. He had watched me do it many times. He told me that he was promoting me to the next rank this time, and if I ever did that again, he would fail me. I thanked him. Although Sensei promoted me to the next kyu belt level, I knew I had failed.
Years later, I was to be interviewed for television about the Tai Chi classes I taught. Before it started, the reporter asked me a few questions to set up the interview. I was calm and relaxed until the interview began.
As soon as the first question left her mouth, I was wide-eyed with a deadpan expression on my face. My voice was robotic and stilted. The woman kept asking questions in the attempt to help me loosen up and talk more freely, to no avail.
To make matters worse, the footage was aired on the newscast that night. It was painful to watch. Yes, it was as bad as I thought it would be.
A few years ago, I was traveling with our martial arts organization in Los Angeles. In addition to attending martial arts events, we went to the Magic Castle. It's a private magicians' club. The head of our organization is a member, and he wanted us to experience this venue.
We arrived at the club, dressed in our finery. After we ate a splendid meal, we toured around looking at the different displays that recounted the history of magic. Then we went to an auditorium where a magician was to perform a magic show.
I'd never been to a live show, so I was pretty excited to be in the audience. I was enjoying the show until 'it' happened. The magician stated that he needed an assistant to help him with the next part of his act. He asked if the lady in the red dress would come on stage to help him.
I wanted to emphatically shake my head no to decline, but my body was frozen. I could hear some members of our group loudly encouraging me to get on the stage. Why did I wear the red dress??? It singled me out. I could feel my mind going blank.
And then something new happened. I decided to not give into the stage fright. I had to look at what I was experiencing differently than I had in the past.
First, I needed to reframe it in my mind. I said to myself, "This is probably the only opportunity you will ever have to stand on a stage with a magician." Next, I needed to think of someone with a good stage presence to emulate. I saw a picture of her in my mind. Then I said to myself, "I am channeling my inner Vanna White."
I stood up and confidently walked up the stairs and onto the stage. I focused all of my attention on the magician and followed his instructions. I lived in the moment. It also helped that the stage lights were so bright that I couldn't see the audience.
Getting off the stage was another problem. The lights were so bright, I couldn't see the stairs to walk down them. I paused, trying to visually discern the location of the first step. Fortunately, the magician was good at reading body language (as I'm sure they all are). He walked over to me, held my left hand, and guided me down the stairs. Thank goodness chivalry was not dead.
Although my stage fright initially led me to failure, it taught me lessons over time:
1) I learned how to turn a weakness into a strength, by challenging my belief system.
2) When you live in the moment, fully present, there is no fear.
3) Being a magician's assistant was fun.
3) The red dress was the best apparel purchase I've ever made,
The most important lesson I've learned in the martial arts is that many of the battles you fight in life are within yourself.
Addendum: After reading this post, one of my students asked if I had passed my next grading. The answer is yes.
Next week: I Belong Here
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
6/20/2021 04:22:49 am
I relate to this experience fully. I am fearful in situations where I have to speak publicly. I tried Toastmaster and it helped to some degree but still uncomfortable. Fear is often difficult to heal and it is making life less enjoyable. Thank you for posting this story.
6/23/2021 05:19:15 pm
Thank you, Artur. I was nervous when I first started teaching Tai Chi. As an elementary teacher, I had taught to children and adolescents, but never to adults. The turning point for me was when I realized they were focusing their attention on what I was teaching, not on me. That was when I started to become an effective sensei.
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Debra J. Bilton
Martial artist, Sensei, Buddhist.