“I can’t….”

My phone buzzes and I blearily open my eyes and make a half hearted grab for it. The time is 5:30am and my phone is cheerfully announcing I have 10 minutes to get my arse up out of bed and ready for this morning’s activities. This morning I have decided that I am going to attempt running again after my abysmal attempt to train for a marathon in Amsterdam. I decided to do this six months after Beanster was born, having done no serious exercise pre or post labour and had just 6 months to go until the actual event. Needless to say, my training efforts were less than sterling, and when my running partner pulled out due to unexpected baby number two I realistically cancelled my marathon plans and haven’t even contemplated running again…until now.

I roll out of bed (literally, the only way I can get my body to move is if I’m making it think that it’s still lying down!) and shlup my way to the bathroom where I have laid out my clothes in advance knowing my early morning reluctance would baulk at having to track down where my long neglected exercise clothes are.

Clothes on, warm up done, I step outside into the dark, unwelcoming morning. Fortunately my road, which is normally a veritable wind tunnel, is nice and calm and it’s actually quite a pleasant beginning to the run. With my music blasting away in my ears encouraging me to keep moving, I slowly (oh so slowly!) make my way around the village. It’s nice and quiet, the only people I see are other runners who are kind enough to give me a quick nod as they whizz on past me. As hard as it is to get up, I love this time. The alone time it gives me to think, to plan or to just daydream as my feet, “pit pat pit pat”, along the pavement. I still have an on again/off again relationship with running, but I don’t loathe it anymore.

Thinking back to before I actually attempted to run properly (as in with a plan) it’s hard to say what my attitude to running was. I think I can honestly say it puzzled me. I couldn’t understand how I could get through hour after hour of fast paced, high intensity dance classes and yet still be winded after less than five minutes of running. These experiences made me uncomfortable at this perceived inability to run so I would mentally shrug it off and say to myself “well I just can’t run”. Even when the subject of exercise came up in conversation, my friends and I would regale each other with stories of what we couldn’t do. Looking back I want to smack my younger self in the head.

The thing is, “can’t”, is such a sneaky word. There’s a ring of finality about it and how people use it. When someone says, “I can’t do that”, there always seems to be the mental tag on of, “and I never will”. People use the word to validate the fact they have given up. Even if they return to the original goal they end up going through the same pattern and give up at the same point if not even sooner, they use these negative experiences to reinforce their original opinion and end up never challenging themselves.

I was stuck into this cycle until I came to my current job. I am so lucky to be immersed in a work environment that actively encourages me to positively challenge myself in areas where I feel weakest. Cue my discovery of Couch to 5k (C25K) around about the same time as my discovery of Jane McGonigal. The training programme slowly but surely increased the level of challenge every week so, while I felt pushed, I never reached the “can’t” zone.

This way of training made running fun for me, and that was the key to my perseverance with the programme. I got to send out updates of how I was doing to my Facebook and Twitter, I jogged along buoyed by the congratulations and comments of my friends. Personally, I saw myself getting better and managing to run for longer and longer before feeling like my lungs were going to jump up my throat and throttle me for considering such a damn fool thing. The programme was designed to constantly make me push myself to my limit, but never further than I could go, leaving me with a glowing sense of smug satisfaction that I had managed to do another ‘run’. The fact that it was helping me to keep up better in my training as well was also a lovely bonus! People so often take things seriously and I get the impression that they don’t allow something to be fun as it can seem childish to do so. Embrace the fun I say! It will lead you to amazing places!

This is an attitude we try very hard to encourage in our instructors. In one of my first posts I wrote about how important it was for the kids in our classes to have fun while they were learning. If they are having fun they are more likely to push their boundaries, challenge themselves to attempt things that they would normally look at and say, “I can’t do that”. As a child I have many memories of gritting my teeth as an adult figure would look at me and say, “there’s no such thing as can’t”, (slightly reminiscent of this little green dude). I have vowed to NEVER utter these words to a child. Firstly because it is one of the most frustrating sentences to ever hear, secondly because it is vastly unhelpful to someone who is struggling. Instead I work with them to see where they are having difficulty. I encourage them to carry on trying, positively reinforcing their continued efforts with excellent points (in CKF classes we use these points to reward children who demonstrate our key values; hard work, attitude and awareness, earning two excellent points gets them onto the Tower of Excellence where the whole class gives them a round of applause for their hard work and effort).

Sometimes progress is slow, but that doesn’t matter it’s not a race. When I talk to other instructors we all agree our greatest triumphs are always from the kids we teach who find something difficult yet still persevere; the painfully shy student who eventually starts talking to the instructors, the scared child that starts joining in louder games by themselves and the child who completely forgets to be nervous because they’re having so much fun. These are our success stories, not the scores, but the progress they make as people. The bigger the challenges they chose to face and conquer, the greater their ability to say “I can’t do that…..yet”.

Myself and I

At first, this blog entry about body image was just going to be a few self-deprecating fat jokes and a little about how I perceive myself in this job. I then remembered a book Ross had loaned me ages ago, that I hadn’t gotten around to reading yet, it’s called, “The Body Image Workbook An Eight Step Programme For Learning To Like Your Looks”. Given as I had this book I thought I should at least delve a little more in depth into a subject that affects so many people on a variety of levels, so one morning I settled myself down in the local coffee shop and started to work my way through it. After only working through a few of the exercises and answering the questions it slowly dawned on me that my body and I needed some serious relationship counselling.

You may recall me mentioning that I was bullied at school, I also moved schools quite a lot and as time went on I developed a, “fake it till you make it” attitude to confidence that just carried on as I got older. Trying to ignore the taunts floating from my past about my big nose, dumbo ears or the fact that puberty had raised it’s raging hormonal head and covered my face in spots (and never stopped). Moving on past school there are so many other body issues out there. I remember looking at magazine pictures of models and sniffing, “they’re so thin don’t they eat anything?!” whilst inside desperately wishing that I looked like that.

I could go on with different examples, but what really saddened me as I was completing these tests were all of my self-loathing habits that I had incorporated into my life to such a degree that I didn’t even notice they existed any more; the constant trying to hold my stomach in making me feel really uncomfortable because I wasn’t breathing properly, the unflattering clothes that actually make me feel worse over time because they cover everything up, comforting myself with unhealthy foods whilst mentally berating myself for being a “fat pig”, only allowing myself to focus on what I hate when I look at myself in the mirror (particularly since I had Beth) and transferring that particular habit to making sure I NEVER stand in front of the full length mirror in any of the sessions in our work gym.

Working as a Kung Fu instructor has in some ways been beneficial and detrimental to my body image issues. On the one hand I am more aware of how to start and maintain a healthy lifestyle, how to exercise more mindfully and effectively to achieve healthy goals, how to create more nutritious meals and can now look at the stick thin body types I used to aspire to and happily tell myself that it is not a healthy goal to want. Through my training I need to find a place that’s best for me and my body.

What I used to aspire to.

Beautiful Badass

My latest healthy girl crush, Nia Shanks!

On the other hand I am especially aware that whilst advocating a healthy lifestyle to the children I teach, I am the unhealthiest full time member of staff in the Cambridge Kung Fu office (not helped by my aptitude for baking full fat, full sugar, imminent diabetic coma cakey treats!). While running or jumping around with the Tiny Tigers my attention is dragged to the feeling of my spare tyre wobbling around. The fact that after only a few minutes of running around a room I am out of breath and that in comparison to a lot of our other kids instructors who train with us regularly I have no muscle strength or cardiovascular fitness AT ALL!

But that’s the thing, I am so busy comparing myself to other people that I don’t see what I have that is truly brilliant. For one thing I have pretty damn good proprioception (check me out and my big words!), i.e. I find it incredibly easy to copy someone’s movements and recreate them accurately which comes in very useful when learning and teaching the children the forms they will be doing. In turn this gives me the ability to think of lots of different ways to explain different movements, take any movement in our forms and I probably have at least 3 or 4 different explanations stored away for potential use. I have a good recovery time. Yes I may not have long endurance for running, but give me a minute and my heart rate will be back down to normal and I’m good to go! I have really good storytelling skills which comes in incredibly useful when getting kids involved and excited about a game. Now, none of these are related to my body image. But listing all of them can bring a more positive frame of mind, which in turn makes me view my body and how I look in a more positive frame of mind.

Having adopted this attitude for the past few months, my confidence has grown, I can see more and more things about my body that I like and my attitude to my training has done nothing but improved. To the extent that I voluntarily went to an Escrima Concepts Seminar a few weeks ago and enjoyed it!! Five years ago (when I started working for Cambridge Kung Fu) if you had told me I would do that I would have outright laughed in your face, politeness be damned.

Now imagine if I had been able to develop this positive attitude to an extent where I didn’t need to fake confidence as a child. In CKF classes our aim is not just to help children develop physical fitness and awareness of their environments, it’s also to help develop their confidence in their abilities and in themselves. We have a lot of children who come to our classes and don’t join in any of the games where they perceive that there might be a possibility of “losing” and others who lose any enjoyment from the classes if they think that more than one person is focusing on what they’re doing at any one time. Rather than trying to make one big change all at once, we work on smaller changes to break the overall goal into easier steps.

If we want a child to gain in confidence, we work on getting them to interact more positively within the class environment. Tackling an activity that was an issue to them before and providing positive reinforcement when they do so. Showing them that they don’t need to prove that they’re better than anyone else, they just have to work as hard as they can and let their efforts speak for themselves.

I believe in this so strongly that as soon as Beth was old enough she started training with us. I want her exposed to this attitude, I don’t want her resilience to tough situations to derive from, “fake it ’till you make it”. I want her to be able to stand tall and proudly say, “I did my best” and know that’s enough. There is so much negative media surrounding children these days about how to look, how to act, what’s ‘cool’ and what’s ‘wrong’. They are so vulnerable to these suggestions as they forge their path through life, they need to develop the resilience to say to themselves, “I am fine, the way I am”. The knowledge to enable them to chose the healthier path, to recognise unhealthy behaviours when they rear their ugly heads and the confidence to stand by their decisions. Every child deserves that.

The Importance of Stories

Those of you who are familiar with our club will know that we run a summer camp for the kids every year when the summer holidays start (this year we have some kids coming all the way from Hong Kong…how AMAZING is that?!). When I first started working for Cambridge Kung Fu we ran the summer camp to work on our kung fu values, but not at the expense of having fun.  We taught a form created specially for the summer camp, played games for much longer than we normally got a chance to in the lessons and did some crafting activities that sometimes involved challenges and sometimes just because they were silly. It was loads of fun and the kids and instructors got a chance to bust out some truly spectacular moves that normally would never see the light of day in our regular classes. So, this is what we’d do every year….until one day (almost a year ago actually) I saw this video:

Now the title alone appealed to me, I’m a bit of a nerd and yes I like to play games (Munchkin anyone?). Being told how my sitting around playing games with my mates could help me improve the world was instantly going to grab my attention. So I grabbed my earphones and settled down to watch her at work. What I heard completely changed how I viewed our classes and eventually led to us approaching the Summercamp in a new and exciting way!

What Jane tells us is that rather than viewing online roleplaying games as something negative, they can actually inspire positive, world altering values and attitudes in the people who play them. People who play online multiplayer games (such as World of Warcraft) are used to cooperating with a massive number of people in order to achieve their goals, they receive constant feedback about how they are doing in regards to achieiving their goals and (now pay attention here’s the REALLY important part) they are constantly challenged to the edge of their ability, and no further. They are never given a world saving quest that is completely impossible for them to do, tantrum inducingly difficult (ahem), but not impossible. It is simply not possible for them to be given a quest that is beyond their characters level to complete. This constant feedback/validation of their progress and always being appropriately challenged, as well as being able to see the changes that occur in their environment due to their actions engage the player in the game and they experience “flow“. Being so engaged in the game makes its reality much more appealing than actual reality, the world they create with their character belongs to them in a more real sense than the life they create outside of the game.

It was this concept of engagement that completely changed how I looked at our kids classes. It was so OBVIOUS! Yes we have lots of fun playing the games and making the form practice funny and interesting, but we didn’t really have anything that meant the kids could claim the classes as their own. Nothing to completely engage them and allow them to experience flow on a regular basis. We needed stories, we needed a quest, what we needed, was an underlying purpose for everything that we were doing. Enter the summercamp and our willing guinea pigs students.

Together my fellow instructors and I created Zhe-Xian (pronounced chuh-zien) a former Cambridge Kung Fu student who had been thrown out of the summercamp many years ago for being lazy, dishonest and generally not a nice person. He had stolen all of the certificates and badges that the children would receive at the end of the week because he felt that if he (the most talented, amazing and disciplined student of all din’tchaknow) didn’t deserve a reward for his hard work then no one did. Via an angry SiJi Rin (SiJi is the title for a female instructor meaning older kung fu sister and teacher) demanding to know who had played this extremely unfunny joke on everyone, downloaded “security footage” a written ransom note and an e-mailed video we set the scene for the children.

Zhe-Xian had taken the certificates and badges and the children would only have three days to prove that they actually deserved to receive them at the end of the Summercamp. The children were provided with two chests (one for the older class, one for the younger class) made by Kung-Fu masters in the neutral dimension, these chests would judge each day whether the children had put in enough effort and focus and shown the Cambridge Kung Fu work ethic worthy of certificates and badges. If the children had demonstrated this then the chests would form a portal and give them a clue as to where Zhe-Xian had hidden the certificates and badges.

Throughout the week we did certain activities related to this storyline such as creating guardians for their badge and certificate once we found them and designing our own bracers to protect ourselves from Zhe-Xian’s mind control gauntlets (fat lot of good it did our instructors though!)

At the end of the week we put together all of the clues and had a treasure hunt around the school we were using. The children had to logically work out what the clues (little riddles about locations around the school) were telling us and help the instructors find whatever was hidden in that location. What we all found were not the expected certificates and bages, but a map! A map that finally showed the children where the prize was, but alas! Our instructors had been brainwashed and it was up to the children not only to recover the stolen goods and rescue the instructors, but also to reclaim their bracers that Zhe-Xian had sneakily stolen.

Needless to say the Cambridge Kung Fu children were victorious! The badges and certificates were recovered in time for the ceremony the next day, the instructors were saved and Zhe-Xian was shipped off to China to get some proper instruction.

The children got so involved with this story! From the start during their breaks they were hunting for Zhe-Xian to see if he was still hanging around, they were giving us ideas on what we could do to catch Zhe-Xian, every day when we got a clue they were talking to each other and the instructors about what it could mean, parents were coming in asking about who it was that had stolen from us (one of our instructors in particular had to console his daughter for the whole of the first night….I was not very popular with him), and to this day nearly a year later we have children asking us about Zhe-Xian.

They were engaged in the summercamp, they worked together. The older kids helped the younger kids, all the kids helped the instructors, they came up with their own versions of why Zhe-Xian was doing this and (most telling of all) I managed to hold 40 children enthralled in an activity for nearly half an hour without them noticing the other instructors sneaking off one by one because they had been “kidnapped”. But my point is this, none of this would have been possible without the underlying quest for them to complete. The “bad guy” to unite them together in achieving one purpose. At no point did they believe they couldn’t do it, we gave them a challenge and they smashed it beyond our wildest dreams!

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the importance of stories. How else are you going to convince children that they can defeat an ego maniacal bad guy? How else are you going to encourage them to willingly use their logic and puzzle solving skills to achieve an outcome? How else are you going to encourage them to stand by a fellow child and help them unbrainwash a teacher? Without the story all of the activities the children did had no purpose other than giving them something to do, with a story they had a purpose, they had a goal and with that they were truly unstoppable.

Exercise can be fun…..no, really!

It never fails to amaze me watching the children I teach just how much energy they have! They run around like maniacs before we start our classes then they do an hour with us where we run around warming up, doing our forms and playing games. Afterwards some even head to more activities; tennis lessons, dance classes, football the list goes on and on!

I vaguely remember being able to maintain that high level of energy. Now my exercise consists of weight lifting (carrying Beth around counts right?), kung fu classes, yoga, pilates and Tai Chi (not really known for their high cardiovascular effect) and my (almost non-existent) marathon training. Until I started working for Cambridge Kung Fu I never really analysed my attitude to exercise, I proudly viewed myself as one of the ‘sane’ people. 6am for a run? No thank you! Killing yourself on gym machines and continuous cardio and strength classes? Well I’ll dabble every now and then but heaven forbid it should interfere with…well, let’s be honest, anything else that didn’t involve getting sweaty, disgusting and tired in a room full of 20 people with an endlessly energetic perky instructor!

With this job has come the realisation that the most important factor for me when it comes to exercise, is fun. It seems like such an obvious factor yet it is one that is constantly  overlooked in people’s efforts to combat the indulgent coffees (guilty), cakes (also guilty), chocolate bars (yup) and the desire to get our children into the best habits possible to avoid becoming part of the obesity epidemic (I’m pretty sure my future self is guilty).

So where has this attitude of mine come from? Funnily enough, childhood. I am a forces brat and having opted out of going to boarding school ended up changing schools every 3-4 years. I suffered quite badly from being bullied and so withdrew from anything that would draw quite a lot of attention to myself, this included getting involved in school sports besides the required P.E lessons. The only exercise I truly enjoyed was (and still is along with my Tai Chi) dancing, the great thing being it didn’t feel like exercise. It was fun, it was something I could laugh at while I was doing it and it constantly changed. The advantage being the better I got the less time I had for other sports at school. It’s now gotten to the point that if I can’t laugh while I’m doing the exercise, or if I’m out of breath cackle maniacally in my head, then I can’t stick with it long-term.

The commonly accepted explanation for why exercise makes people feel good is “endorphins”.  Research has shown that endogenous opioids (“peptides that have biochemical properties similar to exogenous opiates such as heroin and morphine”*, otherwise known as endorphins) are increased by exercising, this increase also coincided with an improvement in mood after acute exercise. However studies that then blocked the opioid receptors showed that this did not stop the mood improvement after exercise from occurring. So endorphins on their own can not fully account for the “feel good” factor when we exercise, what else can? There is also a psychological aspect to exercise, who hasn’t vowed that this year will be different and started a whole new exercise regime only to slowly drop it over the next few months (I know I have!)? It takes dedication and determination to stick with something new to the point of it becoming a habit, especially when it’s not always pleasureable (helloooooo red puffy face, breathlessness, sweat and aches and pains). The level of intensity at which you exercise can have an effect on your mood levels, low intensity can improve mood and high intensity can actually increase negative mood states**. However it has also been shown to have no effect at all, this could be attributed to the fact that we all have our own comfort zones when it comes to exercise. Some people take pleasure from high intensity levels of exercise (like my nutter of a Spartan neighbour!), and others find this highly uncomfortable and prefer lower levels of intensity (like yours truly). It seems that people experience more pleasure from exercise when they are allowed to choose the intensity each time, some days you feel capable of tackling a 5 mile run, other days you can barely get down the road.

In order to achieve a “pleasureable state of consciousness” (Yeung) during exercise you need to enter into the flow. This is achieved by challenging yourself at “the very edge of your skill level”***, too hard and you become frustrated and angry, too easy and you become bored. The effects are the same however, you soon stop. Jane McGonigal tells us that being in a state of flow is so engaging that even if we do stumble while attempting the challenge we immediately want to get up and try again. We are “optimistically engaged” (McGonigall) within the task and so are more inclined to think positively about our abilities within it rather than negatively.

So combining a state of flow and the release of endorphins can then create a state of mind which helps us to maintain a new exercise regime and to stick with something we find challenging because it is fun for us. This is the type of environment we try to create within our classes every week, if it’s not fun what’s the point? But combining this state of mind with laughter makes the effect even more powerful, did you know that the act of laughing releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine into our brains? Dopamine is associated with pleasure and reward, by laughing while attempting and succeeding at a task you are setting yourself up to be more prepared for any increased effort required to succeed in the future (however should you stumble remember kung fu means success achieved through hard work and that this can apply to anything, not just martial arts).

This need for laughter and fun is what drives us here at Cambridge Kung Fu when we teach or talk about developing the children’s’ classes. The classes were already amazing when I got hired at Cambridge Kung Fu, my job (and my desire) is to support our Programme Coordinators to take them from amazing to spectacular! You may have noticed, if your child does classes with us, that we play quite a few games in the classes, even with the older children. Well why not? Yes they are games rather than kung fu drills designed to discipline and strengthen, but guess what. Our games help to encourage the same values as these drills. If you watch closely all of the games we play require some level of teamwork (dragon’s lair, stealth, Eskimo island), body control and awareness (skyscraper, terracotta warriors), a degree of physical fitness(Indiana Jones and the temple of cones, ladder legs, pad tag, circle of doom) and some self-defence (defend the base, el presidente, shaolin crossing). The best thing about these is that the children are having too much fun to realise they are actually being taught these things.

Our main motto is: “It’s about who you are, not what you’ve got that matters.” Children are still discovering who they are, why should we control and dominate how they see themselves by making them do endless drills and exercises? Why not give them an opportunity to shine in the ever-changing environment that is a game? Some of the best suggestions I have had for game alterations and class activities have come from the children I teach. Our main motto may be focussing on our own integral resources, but the one I always try to keep in mind is that children are not little adults, so why should we make them train like one?

* Lessons in Exercise Neurobiology: The Case of Endorphins Rod K. Dishman, Patrick J. O’Connor

** The Acute Effects of Exercise on Mood State Robert R. Yeung

***Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World Jane McGonigall

Ta Daaa!

Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello! How exciting a very first proper entry! Not just the one telling you that I will (eventually) get around to writing something here!

Welcome to “Workings of Rin”! Allow me to introduce myself, I am Rin (yes really!) and I am the Programme Administrator for Cambridge Kung Fu. Cambridge Kung Fu is an awesome martial arts company based in Cambridge (UK not America) where we teach Wing Chun, Escrima Weapons Concepts and Tai Chi Chuan to adults. Give children from the age of 4 – 11 the opportunity to experience a whole range of different martial arts so that they can see what’s out there waiting for them. 11 – 16 yr olds are taught a more condensed version of the adults’ Wing Chun in our Youth Kung Fu classes. Our company motto is: “It’s about who you are, not what you’ve got that matters!”

However the point of this blog is not to brag about how amazingly, stupendously and spiffingly awesome Cambridge Kung Fu is (although I could gush all day). This blog is to help people who may or may not have children that attend our classes understand what our aim is in not running our kids classes like a traditional martial arts class and how we go about achieving these aims.

At Cambridge Kung Fu we believe in giving children the opportunity to develop their confidence, inherent feelings of self-worth, self-awareness and many other skills that they can take away with them to help them lead a happy, healthy and successful life. We do this by structuring our classes so that the children are constantly challenged (at an appropriate level) to coordinate their bodies, build self-awareness, problem solve and adapt to change positively! By teaching the children different martial art forms and playing fun and interesting games we give them different experiences that support them in their journey of walking the path of a Kung Fu Master (a concept that runs through our classes with the aim of inspiring the children to live great lives!)

My job is to support all of our Programme Coordinators (Adult, Youth and Children) so that we can provide the best experience for the people that attend our classes. I also research how children develop (I did an undergraduate degree in Psychology at Bangor University) and work with my colleagues to find the best way to apply what I have learnt to make the classes more beneficial and engaging for the children, we aim for continuous improvement. The information that I find and what I learn from it is what I shall be sharing with all of you wonderful people on this blog. However, please bear in mind that this blog will be sharing my opinions on what I find and these are not necessarily held by all of the staff at Cambridge Kung Fu.

I hope you will join me as I learn more and more about these fascinating little people we call children (it’s particularly enlightening for me as my not so little girl is rapidly reaching that stage!) and please feel free to share any interesting links or information that you may stumble across. Hopefully we can work together to help make Cambridge Kung Fu Kids Classes the best environment for any child that enters the world of Martial Arts.