ATA World, Fall, 2006
by Susan T. Lennon
It’s hard to believe that strong, spirited, steadfast Sally Burke once considered herself “mousey.” And watching this five-time Taekwondo World Champion, 3rd Degree Black Belt and certified instructor compete, you’d never suspect that she suffers from several serious medical conditions. But even though she doesn’t think she’s special, she’s taken Taekwondo to heart in ways that can benefit us all.
Starting Over Burke, 64, started in martial arts after she separated from her physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic husband in 1980. “I was terrified of him,” she explains, “and I believed the negative things he told me – that I was useless and would never be able to support myself or take care of my kids.” But Burke refused to remain a “beaten down person,” and chose not just to survive, but also to thrive.
She found strength initially by watching others and learning to defend herself. Then, gradually, participating in martial arts built up her self-esteem and confidence, and taught her that she could do “way more” than she’d ever dreamed possible.
When she was younger, “way more” included working two jobs, supporting her daughter and two sons, one of whom became a quadriplegic at age 15 and earning advanced belts in Aikido, Judo and Taekwondo.
These days, it includes training and teaching in Cape Canaveral and Meritt Island, Fla., six days a week despite asthma, degenerative “bone on bone” arthritis in her knees and an excruciating back problem called “spinal stenosis.”
And Burke has no intention of giving up. “My goal is mastership, and I tease my instructor about pushing me across the floor in a wheelchair if I ever make it.”
Growing Stronger Persevering in a martial art can be difficult without any obstacles. Burke has overcome many – and continues to do so on a daily basis. So, what’s her secret?
According to Tina Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of It Ends with You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction, learning from adversity makes the experience less painful – and in learning, we also feel less helpless. “You know the saying, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’? This is how it makes you stronger: you gain wisdom, emotional strength, and the ability to make better decisions because you’re thinking rather than reacting.”
Martial arts are especially effective for women who’ve experienced domestic violence. “You need to blow off steam, and when you get rid of your frustration and anger; you feel stronger and safer,” explains Dr. Tessina. “You've gotten on top of the experience instead of it being on top of you.”
When you’re in a difficult situation, the thought of starting over can be scary – but perhaps not as scary as remaining stuck. “Often there is a triggering event that propels us to change,” explains Dr. Tessina. For Ms. Burke, the lightening bolt struck the day that her teenage son raised a hand to her in anger. “I decided that that I would learn to defend myself so that no one would ever dominate me again. Ever.”
The event brought Burke to another conclusion, as well: She didn't want her son to turn out like his father or treat his future wife as she'd been treated for more than 19 years. Sometimes when people can't fight for themselves, Tessina says, you have to fight for them.
Working it Through Proficiency in Taekwondo helps Ms. Burke to feel strong and confident, and it also helps her to overcome physical pain. “My doctor is surprised I can do as much as I can – but it’s because of all the stretching, exercise and staying active that I get with Taekwondo.”
When she is in pain, she imagines herself going through her forms or practicing various self-defense techniques. She says it keeps her focused on something other than what hurts.
Visualization and imagery are powerful tools for pain reduction, relaxation and mastery, Tessina says. “When you do imagery, you take yourself out of the present and put yourself into another time and place. “Your brain doesn't register the pain.”
The techniques also calm the pain cycle. Pain makes you tense, but the more tense you are, the more you hurt, and the more you hurt, the more the tension builds. "[Visualization and imagery] relax you and lessen the physical hurt;' Tessina adds. Emotionally, imaging yourself warding off an attacker reminds you that you’re strong. And physically, visualization can heal. “The nerve endings in your muscles fire as if you’re actually performing the activity,” explains Dr. Tessina. “It’s a subtle form of exercise that reduces pain and stiffness.”
So, if you’re discouraged by a demanding life circumstance or health problem, take heart. “Often we don't do something because we don't know what to do,” says Dr. Tessina.
But Sally Burke has a suggestion.
“If I can do it, you can do it. Just do it to the best of your abilities because Taekwondo is for everybody.”
SIDEBAR: Ask for Help
According to recent reports, more than three women are murdered every day by their husbands or boyfriends in America, and about one in four are abused by a partner during their lives. If you need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-SAFE.