Tears and Blood

“This is only a test. If you want to cry, go to the bathroom and cry by yourself.
If you want to celebrate, go to the bathroom and celebrate by yourself.”

EDIT (scroll to bottom)

Few people will talk about their failures. There is the fear that the failures will damage their egos or reputations. Everyone fails at some point, and as long as you don’t dwell on it, you can overcome it and keep going.

Long before I decided to apply for the 5YP, my biggest goal in martial arts was to earn a red stripe in Shaolin (6th in the YMAA curriculum). While it looks nice on your pants, it wasn’t for the stripe, but for what it represents in terms of knowledge and skill. It was for me and no one else. I didn’t care if no one knew about it. In fact, I feel a bit uncomfortable wearing my stripes because not everyone with the same rank has the same experience and skill level and I feel like I don’t compare with others.

The red stripe always seemed unattainable for me. I felt I started martial arts too late (15 years of age is not too late) and my bad knee and ankles would prevent me from being able to perform at a high level. After a 7 year break from martial arts (I went to university and was afraid to come back for some time), I started training again at age 25. I was a different person from my high school years and decided to go for my red stripe.

My timeline was pushed back when at age 28, I over trained my knee in preparation for a test and had a second knee operation to clip off a piece of meniscus that got stuck between my joints. The recovery is relatively quick with modern technology. (I wrote about my knee operations in a previous post: “Reprogramming”).

My timeline was cut short when I decided to apply for the 5YP. We don’t have stripes at the Center because there is no reason. I now had until August 17th, 2013 to pass 3 requirements to earn my red stripe.

This wasn’t just any test. It was the most important one up until that time. Few people knew what this test meant. Some realized that if I passed, I would be the first female student in YMAA to earn her 6th stripe. Someone pointed out that I would be the first assistant instructor to be admitted to the 5YP. Neither of those mattered to me for reasons I stated earlier. I don’t know if anyone truly understood what the test meant to me.

At the YMAA International Camp, we had the whole week to prepare for the test. I was going to test Beng Bu (barehand sequence), Sha Shou Jian (Short Rods), and Gun Dui Jian (Staff vs. Short Rods sequence made up by the student). I thought Beng Bu was the strongest because I liked it, practiced it the most, and barehand sequences are easier than weapons sequences. However, by the end of the week, my muscles were always sore and tight and my form got worse and worse.

Short Rods are very difficult to get right. By the end of the week, I had 4 slightly different versions of the sequence in my head because I had gone over it with different people. The differences weren’t a big deal. For this sequence, it’s not about a particular “right” form, but the right understanding of the essence of the weapon. I could have passed with any of the versions as long as I could demonstrate knowing how to use my body to handle the weapon. However, it didn’t feel good and I had more hope rather than confidence in passing my form. I figured I should try it anyway.

Staff vs. Short Rods actually felt okay because several instructors complimented Jon and I while we practiced throughout the week. They gave us tips on how to make it better. Short Rods are a defensive weapon and I had to make the counter attacks more aggressive, so I added more inward steps and seals to give him trouble.

Test Day

I had never been tested by anyone other than the Andover and Boston instructors and Dr. Yang. I heard the European instructors were the toughest and that certainly didn’t calm my nerves. First up was Beng Bu. I was nervous so I rushed. It didn’t feel great but it didn’t feel bad. I walked up to the panel and boom… the critiques came in and while they always do, as they kept talking, I knew I failed.

They said I had power, but it was dispersed and my moves were incomplete. Most importantly, they said I wasn’t getting the symmetry power. I thought I had it when I practiced. Maybe I did have it when I wasn’t nervous. Or, was I doing it wrong for the past 8 months? That’s one of the worst feelings in the world. Realizing that you could’ve practiced 500 more times and still failed. Hearing them say that the power I had was okay for 2nd or 3rd stripe but not enough for assistant instructor level (6th stripe) made me feel like ripping a few stripes off.


After I sat down, I lost it. I don’t cry at tests or tournaments. It sucks to fail or not win, but it’s not the end of the world and you carry on and keep trying to improve. But this was different because I failed to meet my biggest goal. I thought if anything was going to keep me from reaching my goal, it would be Short Rods. Nope, it was all over on the first try. The one I had the most confidence in.

People tried to comfort me and said it didn’t matter. I know they were trying to make me feel better, but they didn’t know that it wasn’t just a test. They didn’t know what it meant to me. When I was called up to test Short Rods, I told them I wasn’t going to test it because it was even worse than Beng Bu. I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time.

Some time later, I was called up to be a Short Defense partner and I welcomed the temporary distraction. When I went back to my panel, I was the last student to go and they were waiting on me to test Staff vs. Short Rods.

Shaken from the epic fail and from and being thrown to the ground some 25 times, I got into the zone and got ready to test with Jon. I got a little too into the zone and hit Jon’s cheek with the pointy end of a rod. It was more of a scrape than a hard impact hit. I heard it in addition to feeling it and I quickly apologized, but Jon shook it off and we kept going. A few seconds later, I saw 3 streaks of blood dripping down his face and collecting at his jawline and the horrible sight made me gasp. I hate injuring my training partners and I hate injuring my friends. He is the most important person in my life and I hurt him. He reassured me that he was fine, so we finished the sequence. I was partially in shock and basically going through the motions but we finished it.

Afterwards, a few people ran up to Jon to check the damage. I stood a few feet away, watching, still in shock and catching my breath. I wasn’t sure if the testing panel was going to say anything to me. I wouldn’t have been much help to Jon anyway. Luckily, some of the students had medical backgrounds and told us he needed stitches. With our connections, we were able to go to the hospital and get treated relatively quickly.

Before we left, many people came up to me and offered me water and told me, “It’s ok, he’s ok, it happens during training.” I know it does. He’s not the first partner who had to get stitches because of me. Accidents happen, but I can’t help but wonder if I’m too out of control.

The only red stripes that night were the ones streaking down Jon’s face. (Sorry, Mrs. Chang). I sometimes wondered if I had to fail because I wanted it too much. Is it hubris?

Before the test, I knew the results wouldn’t matter, but I still wanted it. I knew if I failed, it would take me a few days to get over it. None of it matters now. Especially since I’m training at the Retreat Center and back to square one. It was just a test.

(I passed Staff vs Short Rods with a relatively good score compared to my other scores.)

EDIT 10/8/2013:

Dear Everyone,

Thank you so much for reading and for your kind words. It means a great deal to me to have a community of mutual support that transcends beyond martial arts. You help keep me going and I’m there for you too.

When you fail to meet a goal, I will tell you: It’s okay to feel down for a little while. Don’t force yourself to be happy or pretend it didn’t matter as much as it did. Feel it, learn from it, and then move on. I like to write as an outlet and started this post a while ago and I’ve moved on.

One more photo to make this entry complete:

It looks like a "Y"... for YMAA? :p

It looks like a “Y”… for YMAA? :p

13 thoughts on “Tears and Blood

  1. hey michelle, great blog. you have the right attitude and definitely the support/resources to reach your goal. keep training hard and meditating. good luck next time. hope all is well over there. take care.

    -Christian Alpuche YMAA Boston/Amesbury

    • Hey Christian, thanks for your comment. You’re right, I really am fortunate to have good resources and I’m learning a lot. We’re really busy here, but things are going well so far. I hope all is well in Boston and Amesbury.

  2. Hello Michelle. Don’t let this shake your confidence. Keep your spirit and confidence always high. It is much needed for success in our goals. I want to say that I am extremely proud of you for your goals and being at the RC. All the tools that you need to achieve success are all there at the center. However, the most important tools that you truly need are within yourself. Allow these tools to manifest in your mind and throughout your training at you shall conquer all…. Sending much love and support your way!!


    • Hey Adalis, thank you! It’s true, most of the tools are here, but I’m also grateful for all your love and support. Believe me, it helps when I feel tired. I hope all is well with you and M. Let me know how your training is going.

  3. Hi Michelle,

    I will not respond regarding your emotions and what you might be going through right now, because I believe you are in the right track and “this too shall pass.”

    What I wanted to say it’s that, thank you for sharing you have truly inspired me. Your drive and passion reflects your writing. You are living out your desires and dreams in such a powerful way, because I am drawing strength from it, and we have never met. My sifu once told me, ” as you do form, you must find sincerity within yourself,” otherwise you are just dancing. Anybody can dance. Also, if you are not sincere, as you transition between moves, you are only lying to yourself, it doesn’t matter what a judge scores you. So, within that same form, you will find small detailed parts where you may not be able to connect this way. Take it upon yourself to train these small transitioning details 500 times, not the entire form. Then go to the next piece, and do the same with that. Eventually, put it all back together and see if you can tell your life story as you do the form. Stay Blessed… :)

    • Hi Marcus,

      Yes, this is behind me now and I have a whole new set of challenges. One of my goals is to connect with people through writing, and it means a lot to me to read your comment, so thank you. What you say about sincerity is true, and I hope other readers realize that it applies to life in general as well. All the best to you. Thank you :)

  4. It’s actually a bonus for guys to have cool scar stories. Really. “I got that while dueling my girlfriend in Portugal…”

  5. Pedro and Robert – yes, they could be srtict! :) I still have in my memory one picture I took during international camp in Brenna, many years ago. Nobody has passed then :)
    Good luck in Your way!
    Greetings – Anna /Poland/

  6. Dear Michelle,
    I do understand what that stripe means to you. For me it was a ten hour (closed) black belt test. For my wife it will be her first 26.2 mile marathon next week. These things give us something to measure ourselves against. You have grown so much more as a human being because you did not pass the first time. Suffering can teach us to learn compassion for others. Hopefully with time and age we also learn to accept short term defeat with grace and honor. The race is long but in the end it is only with yourself.
    “There is no such thing as failure, only result.” Tony Robbins. Of course Tony has never been through the 5YP or the 10YP either. As long as you are always trying to improve, work hard and don’t leave the Retreat Center you will not only be a success as a great teacher but also in life.
    Your friend.
    N. Michael Fox (Shou Fox from the Retreat Center)

    • Dear Mike,

      Thank you for your message and words of encouragement. The stripe no longer has the same meaning to me now and I did grow from the experience. I’m continually grateful for the opportunity to be at the Center and I’m constantly being challenged in different ways. I’ll continue to share my experiences when I have the time. A ten hour black belt test sounds more intense than any test I’ve taken (MA and non-MA related). Kudos to your wife for running a marathon. Good luck to her and good luck in your training. Hope to see you back here sometime in the future.


  7. Hello,
    First off, I wanted to just introduce myself, so you know where I come from when I say what I have to say. My name is Joshua and have had a hodgepodge of martial arts… I won’t say training, but rather exposure. And that was really just a lot of people who are far more skilled than you showing you just how FAR more skilled they are. But I was never as happy as when I was studying. I suspect there is some of that in you as well. Never lose sight of that. It will always be your most precious gem.
    A saying I like is, “Never say you have failed. You simply have found a way that doesn’t work.”
    I had nearly five years in the US Army, and in a combat job to boot. I don’t say this to mean I have some profound knowledge, only that I know how to get beat, repeatedly, and to still continue. And that is the critical part I always show people. Continue. Just continue. I will spare you a story and just say this.
    If you did not have another, higher mountain to climb, what would be the point?
    You can always go higher. Always learn more. Always struggle more. Always make more mistakes. And always learn new ways that work better. That is why I love these arts so much. The ladder of achievement never ends. You can always be better, and as long as you are always earnestly, and honestly, working to be better, (in my mind at least) that is beautiful.

    Just my two cents.
    Keep it up.

    • Hi Joshua,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

      You’re right, I’m never satisfied with my progress despite reassurances from my peers and teachers and my self criticism has been a topic several times.
      It’s not a bad thing if I don’t get hung up on it, but moving past it can sometimes be a struggle. Some of the other students here and elsewhere feel the same. That’s why I appreciate it when people write encouraging comments like yours. I hope the other students can read them and realize that we’re all going through the same struggles even though we’re training in different environments.

      I like that saying: “Never say you have failed. You simply have found a way that doesn’t work.”

      Thank you,

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