What Getting Punched in the Face Taught Me about Education, by Jonathan Clemens
When I was nineteen, I started going several days a week to a place where people would kick and punch me and call it “Tae Kwon Do,” the “Way of the Foot and Fist.” When I was twenty-one, I also started going to a place where people would throw me, strangle me, and put me into joint locks. They called it “Judo,” meaning the “gentle way.” Over the years, I went to more places where people studied things called jiu-jitsu, boxing, kick boxing, Muay Thai, and “mixed martial arts:” a blend of all types of getting punched, kicked, kneed, elbowed, joint locked, thrown, and strangled.
I’m now thirty-five. I have a Ph.D. and have taught classes at the university level, and through my job with Mouse, I work with educators and students to improve STEM learning. But some of the most important lessons I learned about education didn’t come from the classroom. They came from martial arts and getting punched in the face.
I love doing martial arts. While in class I lose myself in the small adjustments and complex body mechanics: trying to make a strike, takedown, or submission click. It feels like working on an intricate puzzle where my motions are the pieces. Even though I’m always dripping with sweat by the end, most of the time it feels like play rather than work. That was the first lesson that martial arts taught me: that no matter how difficult the task, it’s easy to do if it’s engaging.
I never felt like I was having fun while lifting weights or running on a treadmill (though if you do, more power to you). In my mid-teens, I had to drag myself to the gym to do the weight lifting that formed my intermittent workout routine. Conversely, I happily go to the gym to get kicked, punched, and tossed around. It works for me. Whether it’s in exercise, education, or career, finding methods that engage and are fun make the task easy.
The second lesson martial arts taught me is to embrace challenge. I’ve never been a great martial artist. I’m short and stout, and I possess limited athletic talent. In the gym, other practitioners with greater physical ability or skill (or, at this point, youth) regularly get the better of me. I’ve been knocked down, choked out, and forced to submit more times than I can count. That has been a beautiful thing for me, because coming back to the gym day after day when I know it’s going to be tough, when I know I’m going to get punched in the face, has made me better at other aspects of life. When I was in my junior year of undergraduate education, I remember sitting in an auditorium, waiting to take an important midterm. Like everyone else I was studying: frantically trying to cram in those final bits of crucial information. And then, suddenly, I had a moment of calm. I remembered the night before, when I fought three rounds against a 6’8” fourth degree Tae Kwon Do black belt who beat me silly. I thought to myself: “that was hard, and scary. By comparison, this exam is no big deal. I’ve got this.” I aced that midterm in part because I had tested my limits, and by testing expanded them. Embracing rather than shying away from challenge builds confidence and ability.