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(originally published in the Fall 2007 issue of ATA World magazine)

By John Geary

Look up the word “control” in Webster’s Dictionary and you will find a variety of meanings and words to describe its definition. One definition reads: “to exercise power over;” another reads: “authority or power.”

It follows logically that “self-control” can be defined as “exercising power or authority over the self.”

Self-control may mean slightly different things to different people, and the amount of self-control any individual exhibits may often vary, according to the situation.

However you choose to define it though, there is one inescapable fact: without self-control there cannot be any true success or long-term happiness in your life. For as Seneca, the ancient Roman philosopher and statesman, put it: “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.”

Self-control: making right choices

For Michael Brown, a 5 degree black belt and instructor at the ATA Black Belt Academy in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the first step in achieving self-control involves determining your short- and long-term goals.

“People have different goals in their lives,” he says. “Once you determine your goals, you have to take a course of action and use the discipline of self-control to make sure those goals come about.”

Gavin Espinosa, owner of the ATA Black Belt Academy in Valencia, California, agrees.

“You have to have convictions about what you want to do with your life,” he says. “Everyone is different. One black belt might want to be the best physical athlete at a certain black belt level; another might want to use black belt skills (of which self-control is a big part) to help become the best public speaker or the best CEO.”

Espinosa says your decisions, the actions you take - in other words the self-control you have - define who you are.

“I think our prison systems are filled with people who, if you talk to them, you’d think many of them were good people,” says Brown. “But they make bad decisions, so they are in prison where they can’t continue to make bad decisions any more, out in the civilian population.”

Espinosa says self-control is important to help you focus on what needs to be done, to select the proper priorities.

“You can be over-stimulated to the point of non-effectiveness,” the 5 degree black belt says. “Self-control helps compartmentalize tasks in order to effectively execute them.”

Self-control, he says, comes down to making day-to-day choices that are both ethically moral and physically beneficial. Self-control allows you to make choices that produce long-term rewards down the road.

Making right choices as opposed to wrong choices has everything to do with self-control, he says.

“Without self-control, we can end up engaging in destructive behaviors. That can range from something like idleness to things that are actually harmful to the body, such as taking drugs or abusing alcohol.”

Developing self-control is not easy; it involves a great deal of hard work and sacrifice. Espinosa says we do tend to want to choose an easier path; but that easy path is not the way to any real kind of success in life.

“If you desire to be above average, to be better than you are right now, you need to practise self-control.”

Put another way, in the words of author and motivational speaker Victoria Moran, “Life belongs to those who floss.”

In her book, Fat, Broke & Lonely No More, she devotes an entire chapter to the concept of self-control. Essentially, she writes that if you want to be truly successful, to rise above the crowd, you need to cultivate a willingness to do things that are not easy; you need to be willing to go the extra mile. That’s what self-control, what discipline is all about: doing what you initially may not want to do, something that involves a payoff down the road, but not immediately – like flossing your teeth, for example.

By practising self-control, we actually move out of what Moran calls “self-focussed living” and into “multi-focussed living” and make the world better for everyone.

“As we mature spiritually, we realize we are not really separate, but we are all one,” she says. “When we harm ourselves, or cause another person to suffer, we are harming everyone.”

Although not a martial artist herself, her daughter studied Taekwondo as a young girl. Moran says martial artists do seem to stand out from many others in their ability to practise self-control.

“They learn not to give their ego full control,” she says.

Taekwondo helps develop self-control

Learning a martial art like Taekwondo can help develop self-control in many ways.

“With youngsters, we start by teaching them physical self control of their body,” says Espinosa. “Once they understand that, they can begin to understand mental self control.”

To instil physical self-control, he says they start off with something as simple as teaching them not to look away from the instructor while he is talking, to stand still while she is teaching a concept.

“When they get older, we try to develop their self-control to stay mentally focussed on what the instructor is teaching,” he says.

That kind of self-control is encouraged by a time-tested reward system.

“When people are rewarded for good behavior, the pattern begins to become habitual. That way, the good habit of self-control becomes part of who they are.”

“Once it becomes a habit, it is easier to do the right thing at the right time,” adds Brown.

Along with the physical training and mental discipline that is an important part of Taekwondo, just being around like-minded people can create an atmosphere that helps foster self-control.

“When you join a martial arts school, you’re around like-minded people, people with the same sort of goals,” says Brown. “Therefore, there’s less temptation to do other things, and more positive peer pressure towards doing healthy things.”

He adds that learning something like self-control can be more fun and more rewarding when a group of people are working toward that same goal, as opposed to an individual working alone.

One important aspect of self-control involves acceptance of situations you cannot control. As Master Karla Capobianco of the ATA Black Belt Academy in East Brunswick, New Jersey points out, there are many things you cannot change, whether you’re an adult or a youngster.

“In the business world, not everything will go the way you want it to,” she says. “You need to step back and take satisfaction in knowing that you did the right thing in every situation. But you can’t control what someone else does.

“Having the ability to accept that and move on will make you successful in the long run.”

That same approach applies to young students, who need to accept how a situation turns out, even if it does not include the desired result.

“For example, they learn that if they do their best in a match, but they do not win, they need to be happy and take satisfaction in their effort, not be unhappy about the result,” she says. “Bowing at the beginning and the end of a contest, expressing thanks for the experience, helps bring an element of self-control to an emotional situation.”

Self-control = Success inside and outside the do-jahng

Once learned, the tools that help students exercise self-control become integrated as a behavior not only in the do-jahng, but also in every aspect of life, whether it be showing respect to others, making healthy choices about what to eat, or how to spend their spare time.

In fact, if that is not the case, Brown points out that the student has not really learned true self-control.

“If a parent comes up and asks how their child can be so respectful and disciplined here, and wonders how to get the child to be that way at home, an instructor is not really doing a good job - the students are not taking what they learn here and applying it outside the do-jahng.”

The concept of self-control and its importance to success is certainly a practice that is taught continuously. But it is more than just a philosophical theory. The ATA is full of examples of people that have improved their lives by introducing more self-control into their daily schedules, learned through the practice of Taekwondo.

“One grandmother came in and simply wanted to do a regular activity with her grandchild,” says Brown. “She lost five dress sizes. She was very proud of that fact, and became very healthy because of her activity.”

Brown cites another student, a very successful and intelligent neurosurgeon who lost 115 pounds through Taekwondo.

“As a result of that, he got better health insurance for himself, he became more confident, became a better leader, and his practice grew even more successful.”

Another success story is that of Andre Tan - and it’s really a tale of two triumphs. When he took up martial arts at Espinosa’s school, he said good-bye to being a couch potato and became very active in Taekwondo.

Almost too active, as it turned out - at least for a time.

“He became too focussed on Taekwondo, hit an imbalance and his school grades started to drop,” says Espinosa. “He needed to use the self-control learned through Taekwondo to achieve a balance with respect to his studies outside the do-jahng.”

They worked with him, helping him to rediscover that balance, and he got his grades back up where they needed to be.

No ‘autopilot’ mode for self-control

Espinosa points out that even though it may become habitual, practising self-control is not something you can take for granted. You still have to exercise a certain degree of consciousness in its application.

“If you don’t use it all the time, you will lose it,” he says. “Life changes and evolves, constantly challenging us. Applying self-control is a lifelong journey.”

It will certainly make life’s journey much more rewarding for you and those you meet on that journey.

“Self-control will make you into the person you want to be,” says Brown, “and the kind of person other people will want to be around.”

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