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Zach Farrell – A Reflection on Motivation, Priorities, and Training

How did my training change from Il Dan to Ee Dan?  What inside me changed that allowed me to break through a years-long decline in my training?  How did I recently successfully complete challenging goals I set in front of me when I had no interest in those sorts of activities previously?

I hate to fall into the trap of using an adage so early in my writing, but I feel that, for me, hindsight is 20/20.  Looking back over this volume of training—from the completion of my Il Dan training to my preparation for my Ee Dan test—I have had a number of transformative experiences, both good and bad.  Some of these, such as major life changes, happen over a longer period of time in most people’s lives and are inevitable.  I know now, of course, it is how you respond, adjust to, and accommodate these new experiences that shows whether you have truly internalized your practice by improving yourself both physically and mentally.  Much of where I feel I could have avoided regression and “valleys” in my training stems from what my goals were along the way and how I connected my training to life outside the dojang.

During Geup training, there is always something new to learn, something exciting to reach for—a new technique, a new form, a test and promotion…something “shiny.”  There is a wealth of knowledge that is placed in front of you from the start, showing you a path of what might be, what you could change or transform yourself into, if you focus and put in the work.  For many, the visualization of the “end” of that path is on display in front of a student each class—Dan level practitioners. They have reached a level of training that is both inspiring and a goal in and of itself for the student.  This “end,” this goal, we learn eventually, is a representation of the student “mastering the basics.”  Ultimately, the goal is internal and external self-improvement that hopefully follows us out of our practice in the dojang and into the outside world.  When you begin to approach a level of mastery of skill, the path becomes more difficult and more is asked of you.  It is not a challenge taken lightly if you want it to truly become a part of you.

Many Il Dan candidates are asked to complete a “transformative” challenge, one that pushes you beyond what you think you are capable of; one that inspires and impresses.  The challenge that felt most impactful to me at the time was running.  I had never attempted any sort of structured runs, either for time or distance.  I hated the idea of running.  I had barely skated by in completing the timed running requirement for 1st Geup and only did it because I had to to advance.  This would be my impressive, transformative feat.

And it was, for a time.  I put in the work and completed my goal.  I had pushed my physical fitness to a peak.  I performed feats that I never would have thought I’d be capable of a few years prior.  It really did feel great to accomplish these things; however, looking back on my training during this period of time, I recognize that some things that were required of me—physical fitness goals, “transformative” projects—were done in pursuit of obtaining Il Dan.  I checked the box.  Got them done so I could have something to show for my work.  With that being the focus of my training, what happens when I reach that goal?  What happens after?  If you are merely focused on “what’s new,” Dan levels require a completely new way of approaching your training.  How long until the novelty of achieving that goal wears off?  What’s left?


Life changes often require you to adjust your focus on current goals to make room for new experiences.  If you do not adjust your priorities to make room, all your goals and priorities may suffer.

Soon after I obtained my Il Dan degree, I had a major life change—my family grew and I became a parent.  There are many adjustments that come with such a huge shakeup to the routines and normalcies in your life.  Time commitments, financial considerations, mental focus are all redirected toward ensuring the success and survival of your family.  All other goals truly become secondary.  It’s how I attacked these now secondary goals that resulted in a period of struggle and decline in my Taekwondo training.

In order to focus on a growing family, I made adjustments to the amount of time I was spending in the dojang, as well as the amount of time I was staying physically active.  My previous freedom of schedule and of responsibility allowed me to spend as much time as I needed or wanted staying in top physical shape; conversely, my new schedule was extremely limiting and I fell into a routine of least physical resistance, finding excuses not to attend class or spend the bare minimum of time at home working on my practice. This, alongside poor diet choices, resulted in a steady decline in health, flexibility, and fitness.  I did not heed the FAQs on our own school’s website that explain that Taekwondo practice alone is sometimes not enough…

The results of long periods of intense training and physical transformation do not immediately wear off.  This makes it difficult to realize that any sort of change is happening at all.  In the period after my Il Dan test and my current refocus on training, I went from completing 10-mile runs to being told I would need to be put on blood pressure medication if I didn’t lose weight.

During this time, I became increasingly frustrated with my practice.  After the initial period of being taught new black belt forms, training with the bo, I was mostly left to my own devices.  The expectation, now, was to refine what I had been taught, to improve on the base “mastery” I had accomplished.  One must rely on self-motivation, self-improvement, self-reflection to continue improving your practice; but, I was no longer regularly learning new, “shiny” techniques.  There were no true “goals” in the manner I was accustomed to in my Geup training.  On top of this, I was not making progress—and had actually slipped back significantly in most aspects of my training—and felt like I was spinning my wheels with little to show for it.  Extra-curricular events with the school were sparks of excitement and interesting, but stringing these infrequent occurrences was not enough to motivate me to improve my training.  This merely reinforces the fact that I had not “transformed” myself in the way I had thought after reaching Il Dan.

Who was I training for?  Why was I continuing to train?


I could point to many things in the past few years that could have been the impetus for a returned focus on my training and fitness.  One thing I knew from the start was that if I ever chose to “take a break” from my practice or some other form of hiatus, returning to the dojang would have been much more of an uphill climb.  I made a mental commitment to attend at least a class a week, so that I would, if nothing more, still have training as a part of my regular routine.  For a while, that was all I was able to do.  It was frustrating and difficult, but I kept reminding myself of my commitment.  Luckily, the school moved to a standalone location and I was able to be a part of the conversation that created a schedule which worked extremely well in my work-life-training balance.  My young family had settled in to a routine that allowed more flexibility in scheduling.  I had the ability to access more fitness options outside of the dojang—it makes it a lot more difficult to avoid exercise when your friend offers you an elliptical machine and then leaves it in your basement!

Many stars had aligned for me, making the potential path for success very easy, if I chose to take it.  What really reignited my internal spark and desire to improve myself was witnessing a new wave of 1st Dan candidates preparing to take on the task.  People who I have spent many years training alongside were about to demonstrate their mastery of the basics.  I had witnessed the start of their training and aided them along their paths toward this accomplishment.  Some of these same practitioners had become friends over the years, many of which I had shared life events with and developed strong bonds through practice.

Two of my friends in the dojang—Dylan, a Dan candidate at the time and Carin, his “fitness challenge mentor”— invited me to train with them in physical fitness challenge aspect of his test—a long distance run.  While I initially hated the idea of having to run again, I thought of this as an opportunity to work on lowering my weight and avoid the consequences of high blood pressure and poor health.  I had been doing a little work on the elliptical at home and doing some stretching outside of class, but only in spurts and never with enough regularity that it made any real impact.  I rarely had the motivation to head to the basement to exercise when I was already tired from a workday and putting the kids to bed.  Falling asleep on the sofa was a lot easier.

Adding more physical activity this way seemed less daunting—it wasn’t my physical fitness challenge, so there was no real consequence if I wasn’t successful…a very low bar to get started.  My friends were enthusiastic in my inclusion, which made it seem like it would be competitive and fun.  Plus, having a run coach who regularly completes extreme distance races makes the idea of completing 1 or 2 miles at a time seem much more insignificant.

So, we started a training plan.  My “run coach” already knew me and my lack of motivation  to exercise outside the dojang well enough to create a very easy entry point into getting comfortable with running again.  She built a run plan that took into account my current attendance in class and low desire to actually run.  That, along with regular banter back and forth about the plan, kept running in the front of my mind and strengthened my friendships within the dojang.

From the start, what I found significantly different—and highly beneficial—during this run training compared to my training 8 or so years prior was the advancement in tracking and training technology.  I was using online maps to determine how far I would need to run down the street and back to complete my assigned mileage—again, I was keeping the bar low.  Knowing that I’d be less motivated to have to drive somewhere to run (and probably make up excuses as to why I couldn’t go), I would find the appropriate distance from my front door. I was able to create 5k and eventually 10k distances that perfectly coincided with street lengths to and from my house.  From there, I was able to incorporate free run tracking apps and add more information to my running, which allowed me to gauge my effort run over run and gave me access to data that using a stopwatch couldn’t have given me in my previous running plans.  In some ways, it turned the activity into more of a competition—both against myself and as a way to share stories and feedback with Dylan and Carin.

We checked in regularly on how our running was progressing, pushing each other to improve. Having support and motivation from my friends in the dojang truly helped me stay focused and motivated on a training plan that significantly contributed to my recent accomplishments and successes.  My thoughts at this time turned to the Jidokwan tenet “Friendship Among Peers.”  My friendships that I had built through years of training—working on forms together, sparring, field trips, tests, formal and casual conversation, experiences in and out of the dojang—had helped me rediscover an appreciation and enjoyment for applying myself to physical activity again.

With this reinvigorated camaraderie, I found myself setting new goals that I never would have thought possible…some of which still lay ahead of me.  I found that I was easily losing weight and feeling better about my practice.  Running was less of a chore, was less painful, and starting to actually become enjoyable.  Stretching and practice outside of class became mandatory, so that I wouldn’t injure myself running.  I fundamentally changed my diet and lost over 70 pounds during this 18 month period of training.  I also am no longer in risk of high blood pressure.  I feel more fit than I have in my entire martial arts career, including my Il Dan training period.

Fundamentally, having a challenge and goal I set for myself—that was steeped in support from my peers—put me on the path toward truly internalizing much of what I thought I had done to “transform” myself previously.  After the tests and promotions were complete for my peers, I could have called it a success and again rested on my accomplishments.  This time was different, though, because I felt I had learned something about myself through my friends.  I now feel confident that I can complete a marathon by the end of year where, two years ago, I made a fuss about having a 10k run on my training schedule.  I’ve learned that I am capable of much more than I think, if I plan and have support.  My “run coach” still regularly challenges me to push (but not break) myself in my running so that I can both lengthen my distances and improve my time.  Having an expert motivator on call has been a significant byproduct of building friendships and relationships within the dojang.  This also has been very helpful in inspiring me to continue to run and stay active during the winter (always a challenge when that sofa and heavy blankets look so inviting), keeping in tune with my body and adjusting my training based on that internal feedback, being able to mentally “let go” and allow myself to just run without distraction, and just keeping things varied and fun.  These are directly applicable to improving my taekwondo practice, as well.  I use my improved body awareness to provide myself feedback on my techniques.  My friends and I try out new or creative combinations of techniques to keep things interesting.  My mediation and focus have both improved.  We all find new ways of keeping ourselves going during the long winter months and maintaining focus during the summer vacation months.

While much of our practice in the dojang is an individual endeavor, we must also rely on our peers for support, strength, and motivation in equal turn.  With friendship among peers, you can be pulled up from your lowest point to pushing yourself beyond what you felt you were capable of attaining.

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