I never thought for one second the above would become achievable..especially at 50 years old! My below story became my obsession. I set myself a goal. A Black Belt in a Martial Art or nothing! I envisioned the day I earned the highest belt achievable in Martial Arts and made this my goal. I took my eye off the ball towards the end..but I got back on track. We all have goals and dreams and we can all take our eye off the ball (hey, we're human) but only you, can get you back on track!
So why am I publishing it. I was contacted through a friend to submit my journey to a couple of local newspapers and also an online media outlet. 'It may help others' I was told. Decide for yourself. Only YOU can achieve what you set out to do...
Here is my story.
A number of years ago, after passing my 40th birthday I decided I wanted to do something completely off the wall, maybe plan to climb a mountain or train to run a marathon, something to prove age is only a number. Eleven years ago I was flicking through a local newspaper and noticed a new Kickboxing for Beginners class starting up near where I work. That was it. I was going to join a Martial Arts school and go all the way up to black belt. I remember phoning the number, speaking to Tommy McCafferty (head-coach and owner of KickboxingLK) and Tommy telling me to come along. That first Tuesday night walking in was daunting. This is why I also understand how difficult it is for anyone taking that first step and why I always help anyone coming along to the club to take that first step. That in itself is a huge psychological step with many backing out just before entering through the door.
THAT FIRST STEP...AND TAKING MY EYE OFF THE BALL!
I joined up and was completely bitten by the Martial Arts bug and throughout the early years loved it with a passion. It was and has been an amazing journey, going through the different belt grading's (one belt per year), the discipline and hard work, the pride of being presented with the belts. Achieving Brown belt was tough. The training and discipline. How would I ever push myself to get that black belt. I then took my eye off the ball. I would finish work and go home, making excuses that training was cancelled or I'll get back to it next week or I just couldn't be bothered anymore. I'd show up for training one night and then miss the next few sessions. I knew through the excuses I was letting my wife and daughters down as they were the ones that questioned why I wasn't training and never once complained throughout the years of Kickboxing (the missing school plays, getting home late from training etc.). Why train when I can go home and open a ''couple of beers'' with the feet up munching through crisps etc. My fitness levels dropped, my weight gained (especially around the stomach!) and I even noticed I was taking this lethargic feeling into work. Deep down I was so annoyed with myself. After a visit to the company nurse I was told my cholesterol levels had risen dramatically (so dramatically the nurse used a second machine thinking the original was faulty). ''Get to your GP'' I was strongly advised ''You will be put on a daily tablet for life''.
GETTING BACK ON TRACK.
About a month into self pity (and cans!) I received a message from the head-coach, Tommy asking was I coming back to training- "you have come so far Jimmy". After exchanging a few messages I told him I'd be back for the next training session and would get my Black Belt. I got back into the gym with vengeance prior to training and pushed myself hard. Another goal, short term cholesterol level down, longer term, achieving what I had set out to do, gaining my black-belt! Kickboxing training was excellent and after a few weeks I was, not only back into the swing of things but physically felt better than ever. Time to visit my GP. Bloods taken, cholesterol level perfect. Get in there!!
Two years of training the word came that grading for Brown and Black belts were on the horizon and Tommy would be putting forward a few club members to grade up in Lurgan, Northern Ireland and that other clubs from the north would also be sending members. Three months to grading we were told we need to put in extra work as the grading would last six hours. We learnt also that some of these members from other clubs also grading were Irish & UK and European Kickboxing title holders but this gave us the extra incentive to train harder. This was now three months of extra sparring sessions, training before work and up to four hours training after work. The club members grading were held back after training and had to complete a fitness drill (this was after completing a tough training session). I parked myself into a corner, stayed 'in my zone' and completed over and above the drill ask. No way was I not going to last six hours!
GRADING ON THE HORIZON
Grading date was 13th January 2018 so this meant a slightly different Christmas this year. I had a couple of days off and enjoyed them but it was then back to training. The week leading up to grading was a week of not sleeping well. Everything was going through my head, "was I fit enough", "have I done enough training", "where's my gum shield", "stay away from anyone with this dreaded flu so I don't catch it"! I lay awake at night testing myself on different combinations etc. The first thing I thought of when I woke was combinations! I fell twice when checking my oil tank, both times banging my knee on a rock. I tripped when placing a plate in my dishwasher and a fork went right under my finger nail causing it to bleed. This can't be happening three days before grading!! I had my bag packed two days before grading and kept checking it and re-checking it. I emptied all the contents the night before grading and re-checked them...yet again!
My wife and daughters were amazing. Carmel ensured my diet was correct, the conservatory was turned into a gym, my twelve year old daughter Katie bringing me into the world of Spotify when running and the words of encouragement printed off and placed on the walls, the constant "you can do this" from my wife, Carmel and daughters Chloe, Serena and Katie, not forgetting the lovely steak dinner the night before grading. My closest work-colleagues also knew the date and were excellent in support throughout.
Six of us from the club were grading (four going for Brown Belts and two of us going for Black Belt). The last Kickboxing training session, Thursday before grading, our coach, Tommy called us together and told us "That's it. No more training. Take Friday to rest and relax before Saturday".
Saturday morning I was buzzing. Had I packed everything. If I forget something I won't be allowed to grade. We travelled up to Lurgan in two cars. Tommy kept telling us "no matter how tough it gets, do not give up. We are representing KickboxingLK and go in with up most confidence". I couldn't have asked to be heading to Lurgan with a better group of people all willing each other on. My last words to my coach was ''should I collapse with exhaustion do not let the judges stop my grading. I will get up''!!
We arrived at a Martial Arts club I would call 'old-school'. Tough, no airs or graces, smell of deep-heat hung in the air. It was perfect. Grading was tough and lasted just under six hours. I won't elaborate too much as it wouldn't be fair on others going on to grade but after only fifteen minutes in we were all exhausted wondering how we would last another five hours and forty five minutes. We were soon put at ease when the judge's told us this is nervous exhaustion and this would pass. Grading is designed to test your body and mind to it's limits as well as techniques, fitness and sparring. I was getting it tough about 4 hours in when my legs started to cramp. As we continued, the cramps in my legs were showing no mercy, my ribs were on fire. I had worked on blotting out pain and now was the time to tap into it. Five hours in and now I had 20 rounds of sparring with different opponents ahead of me. I was completely shot. I had given it my all and was exhausted both mentally and physically. At the 17th round of sparring I was digging deep and feeling physically sick and disorientated. This was the part that tested you how much you wanted that Black Belt. The thoughts of that Black Belt and going back to my family spurred me on. Not only that but I was representing the club and I wasn't going back having failed. Between rounds was spent trying to relieve the cramps. Twentieth round and grading was over. I was so exhausted I didn't know if I had done enough. I was annoyed with myself because I felt I had taken kicks and punches I should have defended. I felt my combinations should have been better. We were called together and congratulated. I had done it. I was told I had passed the grading. Tommy presented me with my Black Belt and gave me that look of "you done it". He knew (as did my closest family and friends) what this belt meant to me. Only these people understood the training, the not going out socialising, the salads/pasta nearly every day at work and they were the ones who encouraged me every step of the way!
As Tommy always says 'Belts are not given lightly...They are earned'!!
The drive back home, walking in the door and sharing my moment with Carmel and my daughters had run through my head for years and now it was coming true. I was physically and mentally exhausted but I was on cloud nine. The amount of congratulations and messages I received was amazing but very humbling.
That piece of black cloth you tie around your waist is so important to me. I go through the ritual each time I put it on. I explain to others (especially children I now help to coach) the importance of, not jus wearing your belt, no matter what colour it is, but the hard work each has put in to earn it...In other words, wear it with honour!
IF I CAN DO IT...SO CAN YOU!
I am so extremely passionate about exercising and the positive effects it has on your body and mind no matter what age you are. It completely changes your outlook on life for the better. I am employed by Optum / UnitedHealth Group. We have a stunning one thousand employee state of the art campus in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. I use the positivity of Martial Art every day at work to do my very best. I encourage any person that wants to improve their physical fitness and mental wellbeing, to take that first step. I push and promote exercise to others as I know first-hand how it improves both your physical and Mental Health, as well as improving your confidence.
We all have the power within us to motivate but very rarely tap into its full potential. I set a goal. It was nine years. It was tough but it was achievable. Anyone looking to set their own goals, my advice is, take small steps. Set small targets. Reach the targets, applaud yourself (and why not!) and set the next small target.
I achieved my goal in January 2018. In the same year I was honored with three awards for promoting Health and Wellness in the workplace at Optum / UnitedHealth Group. I hold voluntary morning ‘Wake up & Work out’ on-site ‘boot-camp’ style training sessions available to all employees, every morning Monday to Friday (I donate my time for money through the company and donate it to the Mental Health charity 'A Lust for Life'). I not only take the training but also take part. I know first-hand the amazing benefits of exercising prior to starting your days’ work, the buzz you get pushing others, the walking out after a training session sweating but the euphoria you feel. If employees want it, the perfect work/wellness opportunity is there. Do your exercising (on-site fitness suite), shower after training (on-site facilities available), head into the work restaurant, grab a free tea/coffee and fruit and then log in, ready to start your days work!
IS MY JOURNEY OVER!
I wake at 5.45am and train 6 mornings and 4 evenings a week. I have been invited onto the KickboxingLK coaching-staff as a black-belt instructor (training both adults and children) and also onto the club executive committee.
UPDATE Qualified & Certified Fitness Instructor. Qualified & Certified Personal Trainer. My next goal is to give Motivational talks to over 40's (and under 40's if they will listen to me).