Somewhere between white belt and black belt, thirty-five years ago or so, I recall one promotional examination where the testing requirement from the grandmaster was for the student to break a one inch pine board with a simple reverse punch.
The board was carefully held by two black belt students about as high as their solar plexus and I was given an opportunity to make sure the board was positioned to my satisfaction prior to my attempt at breaking it.
A large audience of onlookers was present, consisting mostly of family, friends and martial arts students of varying belt levels along with an impressive judges table consisting of junior masters, masters and several grandmasters from the Orient.
My name was called and I responded with as assertive “here sir!” after which I respectfully bowed to the judging table and then to the black belts who were charged with holding the one inch pine board.
I repositioned the height and angle of the board, partly for my own convenience but with the additional conviction that the physics and trigonometry of the set-up would be maximally favorable to a most certain and successful outcome.
Then, I “loaded up” by striking the correct structural pose and exploded with a powerful reverse punch which was accompanied by the best blood curdling “ki-ai” I was capable of expressing to both heaven and earth!
Again and again I hit the board with everything I had to give and each time the board was unyielding so that after a dozen attempts, with bloodied fist and bruised hand (and ego) in front of all those witnesses, I was ordered to stop.
The one inch pine board refused to yield to my lightning-fast speed, my brute strength and my sheer force of will but the audience participants, of course, very graciously applauded my unsuccessful eﬀorts, perhaps, to encourage me.
The grandmaster then turned to a first degree black belt with identical instructions for him to break the board still utilizing a simple reverse punch and the first degree black belt perfectly replicated my repetitive failures with failure.
A broad, wry, knowing grin slowly crept over the face of the 9th Dan grandmaster and he turned to a fifth degree black belt, a master, who did something from the very start that neither I nor the first degree black belt ever did.
He asked the board holders to momentarily relinquish their hold on the board so that he might examine it carefully on both sides, whereupon, he returned the board to the board holders but with the board ﬂipped on the reverse side.
Then he assumed the appropriate position to deliver the requisite simple reverse punch in an almost eﬀortless manner and, in the micro-blink of an eye, the one inch pine board exploded into two equivalent pieces!
Standing up at the judges table, the grandmaster inquired of the fifth degree master who had succeeded in breaking the board what he did diﬀerent and better from me, a lowly color belt, and from the neophyte first degree black belt.
The fifth degree black belt master promptly replied: “Sir!...I carefully examined the board to ascertain why Dr. Gelman and his first degree black belt instructor had both failed after vigorous attempts at striking the board...”
“...I determined that there was a very, very large knot, right in the center of the striking area on the opposite side of the board, which was apparently not detected by either of them and which prevented them from succeeding...”
“...after discovering that the hidden knot was the likely problem, I altered the position of the board to make visible the previously invisible knot and then to strike the board directly where the knot and the board met, sir!”
I immediately understood the extraordinarily powerful lesson that no amount of my speed, my strength or my force could or would ever suffice to succeed in solving when I neglected to intelligently apprehend “the real problem.”
Breaking a one inch pine board is actually child’s play and it is not uncommon for youngsters five or six years of age to succeed in breaking such a board with a simple reverse punch if they utilize proper form.
And while I will never know for sure, I find it comforting to pretend that my grandmaster chose that particular one inch pine knotted board, which he specifically instructed the board holders to hold it as they did, to teach me an invaluable lesson.
It took weeks for my bruised and bloodied hand to heal and several more years for my narcissistic wounds to heal, but I can honestly confess to having been well-mentored in both humility and perspicacity, with eternal gratitude, by an old and very wise grandmaster.
Author Note: Dr. Larry B. Gelman is a Clinical Psychologist and a Personal Mentor
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