Four things I learnt about elevating performance from my Taekwondo 3rd degree black belt grading


I’ve been working in corporate life for 30 years. I’ve been doing Taekwondo for ten years. I have just taken my 3rd degree black belt grading. What did I learn from the world of Taekwondo about elevating performance in corporate life? How is it relevant to the corporate world?

Read on to discover four insights that cost me a little bit of blood and a lot of sweat and pain. They might just help you raise your performance to the next level.

1. Importance of a goal (grading)

There’s nothing like having a goal to give you focus and motivation. The beauty of Taekwondo and most other martial arts is that there is always a clear next goal along with a grading to assess whether you have achieved it. The learning that’s required might not be easy, but it is normally clear. I find this combination of clarity and stretch to be very motivational.

How does this translate to elevating your performance in corporate life? There’s a number of applications:

  • Set a stretch goal for yourself and begin to break down the learning that’s required to achieve it. It’s easy to forget that big improvements in performance are usually preceded by a period of learning. For learning, read growth and pain! What’s great about the martial arts is that somebody more experienced does that for you. In the corporate world you can do the same thing: find someone who has walked the road that you want to travel down and if you are smart, you can learn from their experience and mistakes. Asking for help though, requires some humility and the ego hates that!

“Learning is not child’s play; we cannot learn without pain.”

  • What would be a test or indicator of whether you have really learnt? As a yardstick, if you can easily envisage passing that test, then either the goal isn’t big enough or the test isn’t stretching enough.

You might be asking yourself, what is the next level? You genuinely might not have a clue. There’s some good news here – there are a number of well-researched and well-tested adult development models which break down the phases of the journey of the growing adult. One of those is Torbert, Fisher & Rooke’s Leadership Development Framework [1] [2]. They call the different levels, ‘Action Logics.’  See below for a summary from a Harvard Business Review article[1]:

2. Receiving high quality feedback from qualified people is essential to enhancing performance

Research into world class performance in multiple fields of expertise, quoted by Pete Hamill, [3] reveals what most people suspect – feedback is essential. It’s not however any old feedback, but high quality feedback, given by someone who has a level of expertise in the subject matter that equips them to see what is both enabling you to progress, and what is holding you back.

1 of 3 detailed pages of feedback I was given following a technical seminar

There’s a few problems here:

  1. That type of feedback can hurt; and the better you get at something, the more it can hurt. That’s one reason why experienced professionals often avoid it. The ego hates accepting that everything might not be where it should be. This is why humility is essential to learning and growth. Prior to my black belt grading I did a three hour technical seminar, which has the purpose of assessing readiness for grading. At the end of it I was given three A4 pages of detailed feedback on where I needed to improve. It was invaluable information, but I could feel my ego bristling, along with some shame (surely I should have sorted this by now?)
  2. This quality of feedback wont just happen – you generally have to seek out someone who is qualified to give it to you and you need to authorise them to do it. That means you need to be intentional, you need to be humble enough to ask and you need to trust the person. My Taekwondo teacher, Master John Swift, has been giving me high quality feedback for the last ten years and I trust both his intentions and the accuracy of his feedback.

In a similar vein, a great blog [4] by Steve Radcliffe from Future – Engage – Deliver, said all leaders who are serious about enhancing their performance should be able to answer three questions:

  1. What aspects of your leadership are you actively developing?
  2. What kind of help are you getting to support you?
  3. Who do you have around you giving you feedback on the progress you’re making?

3. Under pressure you perform at the level you’ve practiced at, therefore learn to consciously practice

Taekwondo can be a punishing martial art. This is partly because, there is no where to hide – people generally perform at the level they’ve practiced to. The same is true in corporate life. It is perhaps not surprising then that deliberate practice is one of the traits of the world’s very best performers that Pete Hamill shares [3] – they deliberately and consciously practice and not just what they are good at, but also what they are not good at.

Do you remember David Beckam’s free-kick against Greece in the World Cup qualifier on 6 Oct 2001? It was 2 minutes into injury time and as the score stood, England weren’t going to qualify. The referee awarded England a very tame free quick 30 yards out from goal. Beckham stepped up and scored a curling last-gasp goal and it sent England to the 2002 World Cup finals (where they were beaten by Brazil in the quarter-finals). What is less well known is that Beckham used to practice taking on average 100 free kicks per training session, often after everyone else had headed for the showers. Under pressure you perform at the level you’ve practiced at.

Designing this practice requires skill – too much stretch and you risk becoming disillusioned; too little and you wont make much progress. It requires that you stay in a place of humility and learning.    

In the corporate world you can also consciously practice. For example, if you want to get better at negotiating, you can consciously practice the skills that distinguish superior negotiators [5], such as showing you understand the other party’s concerns or staying calm when the other is party is getting aggressive. In a pressured situation, that practice will pay you back in just the same way that practicing a Taekwondo pattern did for me when I was in the pressure cooker of a grading.

4. Importance of pacing and stamina

If a change in performance is a significant one, it generally takes time to achieve. This is supported by the research underpinning the adult development model described above: Torbert, Fisher & Rooke found that it takes on average three years to progress from one action logic to the next – and that’s with conscious effort.

The message is clear: big jumps in performance take time, require stamina and there’s usually a cost involved.

“There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”
Carl Jung

3.5 hours into the grading – NOTHING left in the tank except a smile

Here are some of the things that helped me with pacing and stamina on my journey to 3rd degree black belt (which took about three years), all of which are relevant to elevating performance in the corporate world:

  • Identifying some winnable battles and mini-tests along the way – so that you get a sense of the progress you are making.
  • Be very clear on why you are going through the pain of learning and growth; it’s easy to lose sight and get disheartened. Come to terms with the likelihood that there will be some sort of cost involved. All of this helps you build stamina. Click here to read another another article on this site where I talk in more depth about the importance of having a big ‘why’.
  • Accepting that there will be setbacks. Acknowledge them, learn from them, deal with them and move on. 
  • In summary, you need to thoroughly prepare to perform at another level; it rarely just happens. 

Definition of a black belt: a white belt that never gave up

Close/ summary:

There are four significant insights I take from my journey to Taekwondo 3rd degree black belt which are highly relevant to elevating performance in a corporate context:

1. Importance of a goal (grading).

  • What’s your stretch goal and what’s the learning required to achieve it?

2. Receiving high quality feedback from qualified people is essential to enhancing performance

  • Have you identified and authorised someone, who has a level of expertise in the subject matter, to give you quality feedback- so you can understand what is both enabling you to progress, and what is holding you back?

3. Under pressure you perform at the level you’ve practiced at, therefore learn to consciously practice.

  • What are you consciously practicing?  Does it include capability areas which are vital to achieving your goal, but where you aren’t that good? Have you got the right amount of stretch?

Passed! Goal achieved! Celebrate!

4. Importance of pacing and stamina.

  • What are your winnable battles and mini-tests? Why are you going through the pain of learning and growth?

Do all this and you’ll massively increase your chances of having a ‘black belt’ around your waist, however you’ve defined it.

Then enjoy some time basking in the satisfaction of achieving what was important to you before moving onto the next challenge; 4th degree here we come!

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”

Ancient proverb


[1] One of the best summaries of this model that I have come across is in Harvard Business Review April 2005, ‘Seven transformations of leadership .’ David Rooke and William Torbert. Alternatively, you can check it out in this excellent book: Torbert B & Associates (2004) ‘Action inquiry: The secret of timely and transforming leadership.’ Berrett Koehler, San Francisco

[2] I have been licensed to administer and debrief the questionnaire which will show you where you sit on the the Leadership Development Framework and therefore where you need to focus in order to progress to the next level. I can offer this questionnaire, a detailed feedback report plus a 90 minute coaching session to debrief it for £1,000 + VAT. Email me at if you are interested in this.

[3] Hamill P (2013:37-41) ‘Embodied leadership: The somatic approach to developing your leadership.’ Kogan Page, London

[4] ‘Why the boss of Uber may have uttered the leadership line of the year.’ Posted 14 Mar 2017 07:18 AM PDT by Steve Radcliffe from Future – Engage – Deliver. See

[5] A lot of the tool-kits available on this site (click here to see an overview) are based on research into superior performers in different skill areas. Click here to see the tools related to negotiation skills.