fitness · gender policing · Guest Post · martial arts

The MMA Fighter and the Troll (Guest Post)

Once upon a time there was an Internet troll who thought that he had found some magical fairy dust called testosterone that would make him stronger, faster, and smarter than any woman in the world. So he thought he could just claim that he could beat any female MMA fighter out there who was in the same weight class as him. Luckily for us, some fine folks set up a match between him and Anna McCauley Dempster, an amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter out of Oregon, to take place on January 6th.

Anna McCauley Dempster, a young blonde athletic-looking woman, throwing a knee with an elbow guarding her face across her body.
Anna McCauley Dempster

Now, while it seems obvious that this particular troll is just asking to get knocked out, as he attempts to channel the ghost of Andy Kaufman, much less extreme versions of the claim he makes are pretty common. Lots of people do think male fighters in general have an advantage over female fighters, even correcting for things like relative size. Weirdo internet trolls aside, most people with any kind of experience doing fight training, in mixed gender contexts, will know that there are women who are better fighters than many men they train with. But that doesn’t mean the playing field is level.

On a personal level, I’m as committed to both feminism and martial arts as anyone I know, but hesitate at the thought of genderless divisions. I suppose I do agree with the view that male fighters have an advantage, but I hesitate to say that it’s just a simple physiological fact (e.g. more testosterone). I know, I know. Testosterone is advantageous, and that’s why it’s used as a performance-enhancing substance. Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) is banned by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).  But it can’t be the whole story. After all, “Bigfoot” Silva, who has acromegaly, naturally has testosterone levels that are well below average, but has had to fight for many years without TRT.

One thing I think we can’t rule out, though, to explain differences in ability, is the role of gender socialization. Spend some time hanging out with kids, especially when they’re doing physical stuff, and take note over time of how differently little boys and little girls are treated. A lot of what we supposedly know about hardwired differences between male and female brains can plausibly be chalked up to what Cordelia Fine has called neurosexism. Could something like that be going on with physical ability? Well before puberty and many of the more significant developmental differences, lots of people don’t seem to expect little girls to be as physically capable as little boys, much less encourage them to be physical in the same ways. It seems weird to think that kind of thing wouldn’t affect them as they get older, even if they’re active athletes.

But I think that if we want to encourage people to be athletic, and to take part in athletic competitions, we need, as a sporting society, to sort out just what we think the important differences are to make competition fair. Not everyone’s gender identity fits neatly into a binary, and many trans and intersex athletes have been subjected to a great deal of discrimination. It just doesn’t seem as though gender segregation along a binary is doing the trick these days, and maybe it’s time to consider whether there are any viable alternatives.

Still. In the meantime, while we figure out the deeper issues behind gender and sport, you can tide yourselves over by watching Anna McCauley Dempster beat up a troll.

martial arts · motivation

Taking a Quick Glance Back

A couple of weeks ago, I was helping* with a belt testing for Taekwon-do and watching the other students tests for belts ranging from yellow stripe to black stripe was really encouraging for me.

I spend entirely too much time with my eye on my next belt, on learning the next thing. It is all too easy to forget how much I have already learned, how far I have come. I mean, obviously, I know that I have more skills than I once did but since those skills are part of my knowledge base now, I end up focusing a bit too much on the skills I don’t yet have.

It’s a natural development of a graduated learning system. You are always aware of what you don’t know because that is what is between you and your next belt. I can always tell you what I need to know for my next test and how much of it I have already learned.

The author wearing her white martial arts uniform with a yellow belt around her waist. She is smiling, standing slightly sideways, with her left hand held flat at thigh height.
This is me, right after my yellow belt test in 2010. I’m proud of my past self but I have LOTS of advice for her.

It’s a sensible approach for skill development but it can be a bit overwhelming sometimes. Even though I generally feel challenged rather than discouraged, I am still very aware of the areas in which I fall short. And I know that can be the case with any sort of goal, particularly fitness-related ones.

That’s why the belt test was so encouraging for me. In the course of a single afternoon, I was able to see my skill development at each level mirrored by the students who were testing. I could see what I must have looked liked at my first test – determined, yet uncertain, with my skills just beginning to grow. I could remember myself at each level, what I felt like I knew then, and how I must have been better than I realized.

Seeing how the students’ dexterity, strength, power, and speed increased at each belt level was an excellent reminder and a boost to my ego. I have followed that path. I am still on it. My skills are improving all the time and I’m sure that senior students can note that when they are watching me. That’s a good thought to keep tucked away for when I get frustrated with myself as I practice for that next test.

It’s good for me to have that test in my future – it helps to focus my practice and it gives me something to work toward.  However, I can’t just keep my eyes on that prize, I have to take some time to glance back at my yellow stripe self, my green belt self, my red belt self and celebrate how much I have accomplished already.

I’m grateful that assisting at the belt test gave me such a direct opportunity to see how I have refined my skills over time. I’m not sure that I would have thought to do it otherwise.

Do you often take time to note how far you have come from where you started?

If so, what do you do?

*To be clear, I was *not* testing these students, I am not qualified to do that yet. I was just helping to keep the test running smoothly and assisting where needed.

martial arts · training

Getting My Brain to Trust Me

I find it challenging not to over-think my movements in Taekwondo.*

There’s a certain stage of practice that requires me to think a lot about how my body moves. I need to say the ‘choreography’ of each step aloud to myself so I can make sure I get all the pieces in the right place. If I don’t verbally walk myself through the movements, it’s nearly impossible for me to learn something new.

Here’s my foot in side kick position. If I am doing this as part of a new technique, you can rest assured that if I have remembered to pull my toes back and point them down, I will have forgotten to breathe, or lean, or do some other crucial part.

However, when it comes to actually pulling the pieces together, I have to stop thinking and just do. That does not come easily to me. I often end up so focused on accomplishing one part of the movement that I forget to let my body do the things it knows how to do. If I am learning a new kick, I will concentrate on getting my foot in place but I will forget to breathe out at the right point. If I am trying a different punch combination, I will focus on my hands and forget to lean my head away to avoid a blow.

I know that this is part of my learning process, but it would a whole lot easier if I could just layer on the new things without (temporarily) losing any of the old ones.

Even though I know that my mind gets in the way of my movements, it still takes a lot of effort to turn off my thinking and just move. Right now, a combination of perfectionism and a lack of trust in my body is impeding me.

I don’t want to just do a new move any old way, I want to get it right. I want to feel good about the results. I want to be in control of what I’m doing.

Despite the fact that I have been doing Taekwondo for 8 years now, my brain still doesn’t trust that my body knows its stuff. My mind doesn’t quite believe that my body understands how to move, that it can take direction and learn new things.

So, my brain hangs on tightly. It wants me to learn, to ‘get it.’ But, it focuses so clearly on just one aspect of the new move that it prevents me from actually ‘getting it’, it keeps me from pulling all the pieces together.

I know that, with practice, I always reach a point where there the mental process becomes automatic. Or, at least,I reach a point where I am not conscious of the commentary any more. Yet, no matter how many times I am successful after I give up that mental control of my movements, my mind still resists.

This is a different sort of challenge for me in Taekwondo. This isn’t about trying to learn a new physical thing, it’s about changing a mental pattern. Like I said above, I know part of it has to do with me wanting to do it ‘right’ and not wanting to look foolish by making a mistake. Mostly, though, it’s a habit. It’s me being used to living in my head and forgetting to trust my body to do what I ask it to.

I’m not sure how to work on that. If my experience so far hasn’t taught me to stop over-thinking at Taekwondo, then I don’t think it will just *happen.* Perhaps some sort of mental practice, meditation, for example, would be beneficial.

I’m going to to try it and let you know what happens.

In the meantime, if you have any tips, let me know!


*Anyone who knows me is laughing right now because this is the understatement of the year. And it’s not just Taekwondo, I am a champion over-thinker. I could compete in the over-thinking Olympics.

martial arts

Representation Matters in Fitness, Too.

Last week, one of my Taekwondo instructors, Mrs. Cathy Downey, passed her 7th Degree black belt test. At that moment, she became MASTER Cathy Downey*, the first female ITF Taekwondo Master in Newfoundland and Labrador and one of only three female Masters in Canada.

Here’s MASTER Cathy Downey, with Grand Masters Lan and Marano, right after her successful test in Dublin, Ireland.
Photo credit: Senior Master Scott Downey

While I have always found her to be an inspiration, this latest accomplishment has really wowed me. I am fiercely proud of her for pushing forward in the male-slanted world of martial arts, and I have realized how much her competence and skill has paved the way for my development in TKD.

I have always been a pretty determined person but I also have to have sense that there is a point to what I am pushing toward. If I were in a typical TKD school, most of the senior students would be men, as would most of the instructors. However, in my school, because of Master Cathy Downey, students have a female role model. Achieving higher ranks seems possible for the women in the class. We don’t have to be an exception, we can strive to be like Master D.

Like I said in my title above, representation matters in fitness, too.

I am sure that we can attribute the sheer number of high ranking female students in our group to the fact that Master Cathy Downey is a vital part of our school. She shows us that women can do everything that we need to in order to excel at Taekwondo. And she does it without making us feel like an exception, she just assumes that we can do it.

And because she is so clearly skilled and so obviously competent, she sets a precedent. The women in the class are also assumed, by everyone, to be skilled and competent. There is no sense that we are skilled ‘for a girl’, we are just skilled. We are learning, just like everyone else.

Now that I have given it more thought. I’m a little shocked that I hadn’t really noticed this before. I knew how important Master D was to our school, but I hadn’t thought about her as a symbol before. I hadn’t realized that she is a marker of all that the other women can achieve.

Thanks to her efforts, we don’t have to prove that ‘a woman’ can do these things, we can just do them to the best of our abilities. Obviously, some of us will be more skilled than others, but any challenges, or even failures, will not be automatically attributed to our gender.

What incredible power there is in that. We can just BE.

I wish that everyone could have this feeling in their chosen fitness activities. I would love for you all to have a sense that ‘someone like you’ – your gender, your age, your shape, your whatever – can do the activity that you want to do and excel at at it.

How much better off would we all be if that were the case? What obstacles would be removed between you and your own version of fitness if you had proof that you could succeed?

I know that I have a lot of people cheering me on at Taekwondo. I have incredible support from women and men alike. In my class there’s a terrific 16-year-old kid who seems to have taken me on as a personal project. He helps when when I mess up, coaches me through difficult new steps and kicks, all without condescension. (Thanks, Patrick!) There’s a team of high-ranking women above me who encourage me every week (Thanks, Sharon, Catherine, Joanne, Lynn & Lucinda). My friend Kevin helps me at every turn. Senior Master Scott Downey has an unwavering belief in my ability.

All of that is amazing and encouraging, but watching Mrs. Downey work so hard to become Master Downey?

That has added a whole new level of possibility for me and I love it.

I have long known that representation matters but I had no idea the visceral impact representation could have until now. Because I have seen her do it, I can see *myself* doing it. I may be ‘only’ on my way to my third degree black belt but you can only do this one step at a time and Master Cathy Downey has lit the entire path ahead.

Congratulations and thank-you, Master D.


I don’t mean for this post to diminish the effort that Senior Master Scott Downey puts in to ensure that our school supports and encourages female students. He is a major factor in our success and he works hard to create and maintain a respectful atmosphere. This post, however, is about how being able to SEE a woman reach such a high rank is important to the women in the class.

*Because my TKD school is run by a married couple with the same last name, this post and future posts could get confusing.  So, to clarify:  My TKD school is run by a terrific couple, Scott and Cathy Downey. Master Scott Downey was a 7th Degree black belt when I started and has advanced to 8th degree in the past few years, becoming Senior Master Downey. Mrs. Downey was a 5th degree when I started, and has advanced to 7th degree in the meantime. Now my instructors are Senior Master Scott Downey (a.k.a. Master Downey) and Master Cathy Downey (a.k.a. Master D).

martial arts

Savouring A Slow Start

For about ninety percent of the the school year, Tuesdays and Thursdays are reserved for Taekwondo. On those nights, I avoid taking storytelling gigs, I don’t teach writing classes, I don’t do social things – I just head to class and kick. The only real exceptions are emergencies and September.

My three uniforms for this month: my dobok, my festival shirt, and my scarf (a.k.a. my Mom uniform)

September is a tricky month for me, not only is it back-to-school for my kids but my arts organization also hosts a week-long festival. So I’ll end up going back to Taekwondo for a few classes, then having to miss a few for curriculum nights and for festival events, and then I jump back into class.

If it were up to me, I would rather just get started and then stick with the routine (I know what what my brain needs). I used to fight the jumbled nature of this month. I would tie myself in knots trying to do part of a class and still make it to the events or to school stuff. I have gotten over that. I realized that I have to accept what September is like and just roll with it. It’s a lot easier on my brain.

So, I started this month by going to a few classes, even though I knew I would then miss three or four in a row. It was fantastic, even though I forgot a few things and the workout was a challenge.

I don’t know if it’s the same for other sports but, for Taekwondo, no matter how much practice you get on your own, getting back to group work is going to be tough. Doing your patterns surrounded by your peers is a lot harder than taking things at your own pace in your living room or yard. Not only do you have to work at a different speed, you have to avoid getting distracted by the person next to you.

My brain loved it though. You know how it feels when you are struggling to remember something and it is just on the edge of your thoughts? Then you get that great feeling of satisfaction when you finally remember? That’s what it felt like to get in the lines for our patterns. It’s not that I didn’t remember the patterns when I was working on my own at home, but there was a delicious feeling of familiarity to getting back into those lines and starting to move as a group.

The same people were to my right and left, the same people were in the row ahead. I was among like-minded friends. The routine was the same, the movements were familiar, they belonged to me. It had that feeling of being the right thing to do at the right time.

One of the things I have always enjoyed about Taekwondo is that it is just complex enough that I can’t let my mind wander while I participate. I have to focus tightly or I lose track. The sense that I have to leave the outside world behind and just do the thing in front of me is a sort of relief. I can’t multitask and do well in class – it just doesn’t work. Using that type of attention again after summer break was really enjoyable and sort of relaxing.

So, yes, I’m having a slow start, but it has been a good one. I’m enjoying the benefits of the classes I can attend and letting go of any guilt about the ones I cannot. It feels great to be easing back into that specific routine, and I especially like how I am able to observe my own muscle memory serving me well. This is going to be a great year of kicking and punching.


fitness · martial arts

Coordinated Improvement (Guest Post)

I was in my late 30s before I knew that you could improve your coordination. Up until that point, I thought that you were either coordinated or you weren’t and that I was decidedly not. It wasn’t like I was banging into things or falling down all the time, but I found it incredibly frustrating to do any sort of sport or physical activity – I just couldn’t ‘get it.’

I hated gym class, right up until I could opt out in high school. I couldn’t figure out how to catch the ball/move my feet/jump that high and no one seemed to be able to explain it to me. I struggled in the dance classes I took as a kid – matching the steps to the music was excruciating and it took me forever to learn the routines.

Whether I was trying to play a sport or do a set of dance steps, my brain and my body took a long time to start communicating. I could always see what I needed to do, I could probably even describe it to you, but I just couldn’t make my body do the thing – especially if it involved various steps.

As an adult, I found some work-arounds when things were really important to me. I would bring my sister Denise to dance classes I wanted to take. She picks up movements quickly and she could break the actions into descriptions I could memorize (turn, then heel click, wiggle, shake it out). I would write out descriptions of movements where I could, find ‘early warning’ cues in the music in order to prepare for actual cues, and I would stick to the parts of sports and activities that I could be less-than-totally-awful at.

Those workarounds meant that I could get along well enough to enjoy a dance class or two, or participate enough to get by, but when I started to do Taekwondo, it wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to ‘get by’ – I wanted to be good at it.

I still used all my work-arounds – describing the movements to myself (step, step, Wonder Woman arms), using cues in the room, getting help from someone who could translate the movements for me (Thanks, Kev!) but I knew it was going to take more than that. So, I started to learn more about how I learn and that led to figuring out that I could improve my coordination, my proprioception (sense of spatial orientation and movement), and my ability to process and understand instruction about movements.

I still don’t pick up new patterns easily and I have to use all my work-arounds (at least in the early stages) but I enjoy the sense that it is *possible* for me to learn these things. I no longer feel stuck and I recognize my stages of learning. I know what progress looks like for me and it feels good to be improving my skills all the time.

However, it really annoys me when I think about all the time that I spent believing that I just wasn’t good at sports. When I think of how many other women believe the same thing, it annoys me even more. If it weren’t for my determination to learn TKD, I would probably have never broken out of that belief.

And, while I know that there are lots of men who have been told that they are uncoordinated or bad at sports, I can’t help but wonder how much I was limited because of my gender. If had been a guy, would I have been encouraged to try more often? Would I have been given more frequent opportunities to practice coordination-building activities? Did gym teachers assume that, because I was a girl, my sports skills mattered less?

I don’t know, of course. Perhaps the idea that coordination is a learned skill might just be new, and it wasn’t taught to anyone when I was a kid.

Either way, I know it now, and I am passing that message on. Any time I help with Taekwondo instruction, I don’t let anyone believe that they are ‘just uncoordinated’. And every warm-up that I lead includes some exercises that improve coordination and proprioception. I’m getting better at those things all the time, and I am bringing everyone I can along with me.


fitness · martial arts · motivation

Fighting With Myself (Guest Post)

The hardest fight I have in Taekwondo is the battle with myself. In order to make progress and to improve my skills, I have to fight my concept of time and my sense of ‘good practice.’

An agenda book with a pen

I want to do everything at once and I want to do it at the perfect time. In the fictional world where I can do this, my practice space is tidy, my work is neatly portioned into appropriate slots, and my family is delightfully engaged in their own wholesome pursuits. And, of course, in this world, I know the exact right thing to practice at this point. My perfect practice self has identified a course of progressive work that starts at the ‘true’ baseline and will bring me forward in a logical fashion. This will lead naturally toward my goal of being a super-fit Taekwondo genius with strength beyond measure.

I can hear you laughing at me from here. It’s okay. Go ahead.

I know I am being ridiculous.

I know there is no perfect practice time and there is no perfect practice plan. I know that something is better than nothing. I know that any work will bring me closer to being a 3rd degree black belt.

Yet, I get tangled up in this intellectual exercise of perfect practice at the perfect time. It ensnares me so completely that I have trouble doing anything at all.

This doesn’t just happen to me with exercise, of course. I have the same trouble with all kinds of things. The familiarity of the feeling has indeed bred contempt but it still crops up all the time.

When I make a plan to exercise in the morning, my brain gives me 5 or 6 reasons why it’s really not the best time – it’s better to write first thing, or I should probably focus on getting enough sleep, or, I am not awake enough to have good form, or I might not have time to shower afterward and that will throw off my morning.

When I plan to exercise in the afternoon, the litany goes like this – you don’t want to waste water taking two showers a day so you’ll feel weird all day until you exercise, or you will probably be in the middle of something in the afternoon and you won’t want to stop, or that it will be a hassle to change clothes and put on a sports bra in the middle of the day.

The evening is no better because then my brain says that I am taking away from family time and that if I work too hard, I will have trouble sleeping later.

I would be less annoyed about all of this if I didn’t actually enjoy exercising. No matter what time of day I actually get over myself and start moving, I always like it, but my brain forgets that in the effort of finding the perfect schedule.

After I clear that scheduling hurdle, though, I have to win the battle of the perfect practice. (Yes, I get on my own nerves with this part, too.)

In my post two weeks ago, I identified all of the things that I want to improve as I move toward my next belt test. I want greater strength, I want greater balance, I want to improve my skills, and so on. The trouble is, that I want to do all of those things at once. Any time that I am working on one piece, my brain reminds me that I *should* be working on the others. It refuses to believe that I have to work on one thing at a time.

The problem is not that I want instant results – although, I’ll take them if someone is giving them out. It’s that some part of me refuses to believe that the results will be achieved by doing things one at a time. So, I keep seeking this perfect practice plan that will make it obvious to my brain that I am doing the *right* thing right now and that I am on the road to my goal.

I know better than this, too, of course. I know that I don’t actually need to do everything all at once. I can work on my balance today and my cardio tomorrow and it will all come together in the end, but, yet, I resist getting started. Some part of me fears that I will be ‘wasting time’ on the wrong exercises – and, no, the foolishness of thinking any that exercise could be wasted is not lost on me.

Typing this all out has made me even more aware of how silly all of this is. I am working against my own interests and I need to get over myself and take more action. I have to borrow from the basic tenets of Taekwondo and remind myself to use self-control and perseverance.

So, here’s how I am going to win this battle against myself: I am committing to practicing for at least 30 minutes in the morning for the next seven days. I will design my practice the night before and include a variety of exercises that will help me get stronger and have better balance.

I’m going to give myself the week off from overthinking my exercises and I am just going to enjoy them.

I’ll take this one week at a time for now. I don’t have to solve this all at once.

Here’s to winning this battle!