I’m pleased to have a guest post from Cathy Chapaty, a veteran martial artist and author of a terrific book. 

Cathy Chapaty is the author of No Pouting in the Dojo: The Imperfect Journey of Teaching Children Character through Martial Arts. A veteran martial artist, Chapaty has been respected as an empowering, positive teacher with a knack for helping children of all ages and abilities learn martial arts. In her 15-year teaching career, she taught hundreds of children—many with ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, and other challenges. Chapaty is an ambassador for the Association of Women Martial Arts Instructors and in 2012 was honored by the Embassy of the Republic of Korea for an essay on the transformational power of Taekwondo. Most recently the U.S. Martial Arts Alliance named her 2014 Martial Arts Author of the Year. Now retired from teaching Taekwondo, Chapaty trains at Moy Yat Kung Fu Academy. Contact her via

These are real-life reasons why “can’t” isn’t in a martial artist’s vocabulary.

In my years as a Taekwondo teacher, I’ve seen countless transformations via a roomful of young, energetic students who were being tested for the first time and learning that the value of the mantra “Don’t Quit.”

Noah, Eddie, and Omar are three who come to mind when I think of the power of perseverance.

Over the years, I’ve helped students come up with language to express their frustrations with growth without giving up. My main martial arts influence, Kyoshi Ivan Ujueta, had a rule: If a student said “can’t,” that student had to pump out fifty push-ups. It was a physical way to drive home the mental point of perseverance: If students throw up their hands and quit when life gets hard in the dojo and the world—and life will get hard—they’ll never reach their goals and dreams.


Years ago while training with Kyoshi Ivan, I watched nine-year-old Eddie attempt a difficult maneuver: a forward roll while holding a bo, followed by a jump front kick. After a number of unsuccessful attempts, Eddie sighed and said, “I can’t do it.”

All action in the dojo suddenly stopped, a few inward gasps of horror were heard, and then the room became eerily quiet.

“What did you say?” Kyoshi Ivan asked, his left eyebrow rising. This was Kyoshi’s signature look of displeasure, made more pronounced by his shiny bald head.

“It’s too hard. I can’t do it,” Eddie said, shrugging his shoulders.

“Drop and give me fifty push-ups,” Kyoshi replied, crossing his arms high in front of his chest.

“But I can’t do fifty push-ups.”

(More gasps from classmates.)

Kyoshi looked hard at Eddie. Both eyebrows were low and even. Not a good sign.

“Then give me one hundred,” Kyoshi said, pointing one finger down to the wooden floor.

Eddie finally realized his error, and as he lowered his body to the floor, everyone in the dojo returned to their own training—relieved that it wasn’t them doing the push-ups and making a mental note to themselves to never say that awful four-letter word.


Eleven-year-old Omar has always been a hard worker (he won Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s Tenet Award for Hardest Working Man on the Mat in 2010). He’s also always been a hard read, with a firm, stoic personality. Omar’s insistence on perfection proves a constant challenge; he wants to learn new skills and tasks, but only if he can do them right the first time. Growth rarely comes easily for him. Yet he keeps trying.

One night, he and his mom got home late from a day full of commitments. Exhausted, they decided to brush their teeth and go straight to bed.

“But first, I have to go do fifty push-ups,” Omar told his mom.

“Oh?” she replied. “Is this a new fitness regimen Miss Cathy has you doing?”

“No, it’s because I said ‘can’t’ at piano [practice] today,” he said matter-of-factly.

His mom was so impressed, she made a point of relaying the conversation to me later.

“I was so proud of him,” she beamed after class the next day. “I wouldn’t have known he said that. But he did. And he held himself accountable. He did it all on his own.”

Omar, deadpan as always, stood nearby with his palms cupped calmly behind his back.

“So what happened?” I asked him. “What brought on the ‘can’t’?”

“Well, my teacher was making me practice this really hard piece over and over. I just wasn’t getting it right, so I said, ‘I can’t’.”

“And then what happened?”

“I kept trying,” he shrugged.

“Wow. That’s impressive. That’s self-discipline. That’s practicing Taekwondo in all your affairs. And that, my young man, is the difference between having a black belt and being a black belt.

Chukah-hamnidah. Congratulations,” I said.

A slight curve appeared on the right side of his mouth. “Thank you, ma’am,” Omar said.


Since the age of six, Noah has used his martial arts skills to help strengthen his lungs, which are surrounded by tumors. He has neurofibromatosis. (Google it.) Noah has endured 13 surgeries to lengthen rods in his spine, and he and his mom have made multiple trips for medical check-ups with specialists from hospitals hundreds of miles from home. He has had every reason to sit on the spectator chairs with his mom as his twin brother, Isaac, trains with me. But Noah is a fighter. He always bowed onto the mat, worked hard, and tried his best.

Noah is a fighter with great spirit and a “can” attitude. Once in pre-op, he got out of the hospital bed to show his nurse how to do a roundhouse kick.

During pre-op, Noah shows his anesthesia nurse how to do a Taekwondo roundhouse kick.
During pre-op, Noah shows his anesthesia nurse how to do a Taekwondo roundhouse kick.

This young man has taught me and many others about the power of perseverance and how a good, positive attitude can get you through the hardest life has to offer.

Chapaty awards Noah with a green belt.

And today?

I have the same “Can’t = Fifty Push-ups” rule with my students today, and we have come up with alternate expressions for times when obstacles seem insurmountable but aren’t—expressions that don’t have the finality of “can’t”:

• “I’m struggling today.”

• “This is difficult.”

• “I’m having a hard time.”

• “This isn’t coming naturally to me.”

And my favorite:

• “This is gonna take more practice than I thought.”

These phrases own the reality that the student is not perfect—today. But it allows for the possibility, even begs the expectation, that tomorrow can and likely will be different. Tomorrow, the student could have a breakthrough.

Omar’s story of piano perseverance and Noah’s ability to endure multiple surgeries are but two examples of how martial arts training pays off amid real-life struggles.

There are real-life reasons why “can’t” isn’t in a martial artist’s vocabulary.

So what’s your “can’t”? And how can you take steps today to eliminate it from your language and your world?


Are you interested in contributing a guest post to this blog? Martial Arts topics are preferred. Please contact me at to express your interest and for further details. I’d like to hear from you!

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2 thoughts on ““Can’t” Gets You Fifty Push-ups

  • April 11, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    Great article. Some other phrases that I suggest include: “that’s not available to me today” or “I’m working on that”. These expressions alter the mindset that it is not possible. Instead it is something that is possible, if not right at this moment.

  • April 11, 2016 at 5:59 pm

    If it’s appropriate to say something, I say, “I think I need to work more on that.” Great post! I think I’ll use this when teaching beginners >:)


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