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Teetering on the edge of inflexibility

In the second blog in his ‘healthy habits for leaders’, Andrew reflects on the humbling experience of starting from the bottom in another discipline while leading in your day job, and what this has brought to his evolving leadership style.

I suspect many people are attracted to kicking martial arts like Taekwon-do (TKD) because of their innate flexibility. I reckon those people could probably eat their own feet, if the need ever arose. The rest seem to start when they’re young and super-flexible naturally. I am not. When I was 21 or so, I remember going to a party, where some bright spark suggested a game (probably with nefarious purposes). They sat a cereal box up in the middle of the room, and you had to bend down and pick it up with your mouth (this was before Hygiene), without your hands or knees touching the floor. After each ‘round’, an inch or so of box would be torn off to make it lower – and then on we went. The winners were able to pick it up when only the base was left. I went out in the first round – before anything had been removed off the top...

So I’m not necessarily the natural fit for TKD. Whilst this doesn’t make life easy for me, it must be great fun for my classmates watching me sweating buckets just during the stretches we have to do. To some extent, I feel I am fulfilling some kind of community service brief. ‘Are you an unnaturally hefty teenager? Had a bad day? Frustrated with the state of the world? Would it help to punch a baldy middle-aged white man in the face? Step right this way…’. Then there’s the stress of ‘gradings’ - the exams we have to take to progress. In my most recent pre-grading, I was assessed as ‘OK’ in 3 areas. Out of 30. Ahem. And then there’s the theory...
That said, I always said to my girls ‘If you can get through a grading, you can get through anything’. They are seriously high pressure, really tough, and physically exhausting.

There’s a black-and-white approach in TKD: stuff is either right or it isn’t. And part of my journey is simply to embrace that perfectionism - I think it comes with learning a martial art. What helps and keeps me coming back every Tuesday and Thursday though, week after week, is the fact that it’s a great class, brilliantly led, and full of lovely people. I also really enjoy the way it stretches me - in all senses of that word. And I am always genuinely inspired when, for example, classmates are awarded their black belt. We are led by a 7th degree ‘master’, and I get to spar quite regularly with a lovely (and mercifully gentle) 5th degree; what a privilege!

I’ve come to realise that to keep moving forwards in TKD, I need to keep investing more, between classes. The yoga certainly helps here. My daughters tell me that back when I started, I couldn’t even lift my leg up sideways to the extent that I could rest my foot on the side of the bath. Eventually I realised back in January 2022 that I needed the discipline of a proper stretching regime, and I try to do it every day. This includes trying to lean down and touch my toes. I have a pile of books, and once I can touch the top one for a few seconds, I remove it and try to go down to the next. At the start of last year (and bear in mind that this was after 6 ½ years of TKD), I couldn’t reach further down than 14cm from the floor. I’m now regularly down to floor level - and can occasionally go further (ie by standing on the books this time….). I do a bunch of other stretches too, and I also try to revise an element of the theory every day - it’s never-ending.

I am conscious that I may not have painted the most dazzlingly positive picture of my sporting week. And I do often wonder what I’m doing, when I find myself getting up at 6.45am on a Sunday to play tennis in the cold and the drizzle. Or trying not to snap when stretching in TKD, or emit too many shrieks and groans. But it’s my choice, and I wouldn’t change a thing. That said, whining about everything does seem to help...

And there’s no doubt I’m pretty fit at the moment. Although when I meet people after a while this comes out as ‘You’ve lost weight’. To be honest I was hardly chubby in the first place - so I guess what they’re saying is ‘You look gaunt / old / knackered’. And they may have a point. For all the fact that I’m definitely fit, I do live in fear of injuries - which seem now to take SO much longer to get over. I’ve had friends side-lined for months - and in one instance for over a year.

So, why do I keep going? Because, it is a challenge. When you are leading a business, there are of course challenges, but you work with your team to overcome them. TKD is a reminder of how deeply humbling it can be to start from the beginning, and how rewarding it can be when you have pushed yourself outside of your comfort zone.

Andrew’s next blog in the series; ‘Humility, exercise and 9 other things that I have learnt’ will be released soon. You can read the first blog in the series, A tale of Tennis, Taekwon-do and a lady called Christine, here

Andrew Holden founded Parliament Hill in 2004, and has seen the company go from strength-to-strength to where we are today, with over 95 clients and close to 7 million members.

If you are interested in becoming a client or partnering with Parliament Hill, please get in touch with Andrew here.

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