14 December 2014

The Golden Move and ITF Taekwon-Do's Pre-Arranged Sparring

The main purpose of pre-arranged sparring is to drill two important skills: attaining superior positioning and simultaneous defence-and-attack (SD&A). Acquiring the ability to always attain superior positioning and apply simultaneous defence-and-attack is no easy task, and requires a systematic learning schema, which will be the topic of this post.

Let’s start by discussing the value of superior positioning and of simultaneous defence-and-attack in turn. Although I think it is obvious why we need to practise these skills, it may be worth it to just review these concepts in case you may not be familiar with them since the ITF Encyclopaedia sadly doesn't discuss them in detail. Nevertheless, they are part and parcel of the ITF Taekwon-Do pedagogy and there importance is touched upon in the ITF Encyclopaedia.

The concept of positioning is often discussed under the concepts of “distance and angle” in ITF Taekwon-Do. Good positioning should do two things: take you off of the opponent's line of attack, and position you so that you can perform an easy and effective counter-attack that doesn't require any further set-up (i.e. no additional steps or positioning adjustment required). We call this advantageous positioning, in which you have both avoided the attack—you are not on the line of attack—and you are in a position for economical and effective counter-attack. Although there is much value in advantageous positioning, the ultimate aim of ITF Taekwon-Do is not merely advantageous positioning, but superior positioning (or a “position of superiority” as it is referred to in one instance in the ITF Encyclopaedia). Superior positioning has you in an advantageous position, but also has your opponent in a disadvantageous position. If your appoint is in a disadvantageous position, it means that he cannot easily attack you from that position and is so positioned that he cannot easily defend against attacks towards openings in his defence. If you have superior positioning you have the advantage of being in a relatively safe position with regards to your opponent and you also have easy access to certain of your opponents vital spots, while your opponent is in a disadvantaged position and will find it relatively difficult to protect his openings and perform immediate counter-attacks without repositioning.

Now let’s look at the concept of simultaneous defence-and-attack. A (self-defence) scenario is usually considered to have two participants: the attacker and the defender. From the very start, the attacker has the advantage because he has the element of surprise and has taken the initiative—he is in control of the action as he is the acting agent. In other words, the defender is re-acting and is therefore innately one-step behind the attacker’s action. Consider the following thought experiment: two people engage in a fight, but each are allowed only one “technique” per move. The attacker’s first move is to attack with a punch. The defender’s first move is in reaction to the attacker’s attack, so he defends the attacker’s punch with a forearm block. The attacker is allowed to perform his second move and now he kicks towards the defender, who in turn blocks the kick with his second move, and so on. In this scenario the defender will always be “defending,” and it is highly likely that the defender will eventually fail at appropriately blocking an attack and will get hit. While this hypothetical situation is very stylized (and is quite similar to the basic forms of pre-arranged step-sparring), it retains the essence of what often happens in a fight between an “attacker” and a “defender.” The solution to this problem is to switch the roles from being the re-active defender to becoming a defending-attacker, who no longer acts re-actively, but takes control of the action. The method for switching those roles is simultaneous defence-and-attack (SD&A).

Unfortunately the ITF Encyclopaedia doesn't provide a single term for both superior positioning and SD&A. Thankfully, in a recent blog post Rory Miller, a renowned self-defence instructor, discussed similar concepts that he combined under the term “Golden Move.” According to Mr. Miller, a Golden Move should (1) injure the threat, (2) protect yourself, (3) improve your position, and (4) worsen the threats position. These are all the things I spoke about above, but succinctly summarised. With a bow to Rory Miller I will henceforth apply his “Golden Move” term to refer to ITF Taekwon-Do's goal of superior positioning and SD&A.

As I mentioned earlier, consistently applying the Golden Move takes great skill; therefore, the ITF Taekwon-Do system—when properly taught—uses pre-arranged sparring drills to guide the practitioner along a path towards that goal. [Read my related post: "Prearranged Sparring: Definition, Purpose, and Value".]

At the lowest level is the first pre-arranged sparring drill: three-step sparring. This basic drill is used to make the defender aware of simple martial art concepts such as the attack line and centre line. The attacker attacks the defender with three—usually linear—attacks towards the defender's centre line, while giving three steps along the straight attack line. The defender is expected to defend against each attack towards his centre line with a basic block. This is the basic level where the practitioner starts to learn about simple attacks and choosing appropriate blocking tools to defend against attacks.

The beginner is also introduced to simple distances of attack-and-defence and at this level much focus is placed on keeping an appropriate safe distance between attacker and defender. Only the most elementary consideration is given to positioning at this stage. The defender is instructed to use the normal retreat reflex, to simply step backwards, away from the attacker’s attacks. However, the defender must maintain a close enough distance in order to apply a simple counter-attack towards the opponent's centre line after the three-step attack is completed. These various initial principles become the building blocks from which the Golden Move will later be taught. After several months of three-step sparring, the practitioner moves on to two step sparring which is introduced at the 7th grade level.

In two step sparring there is usually still no SD&A; however, the attack lines become more diverse as a greater variety of attacks are introduced. For instance, the attacker might attack with a straight punch and then follow up with a turning kick, which has a different attack trajectory. Such changes in the attack lines forces the defender to transition away from positioning based solely on the retreating-reflex. The defender should now also make use of side-steps and other foot-shifting techniques to not only get off of the attack line, rather than merely retreating, but also stay within an appropriate distance from the attacker in order to be able to launch an effective counter-attack. Emphasis is on advantageous positioning. Again, after an adequate time of two-step sparring practice, the practitioner moves on to one-step sparring, while still reviewing two-step sparring.

One-step sparring is introduced at 6th grade level. It is in this drill where the practitioner will eventually transition from mere advantageous positioning practice to superior positioning. Initially the attack is still first blocked and then followed up with a counter-attack towards a vital spot immediately afterwards. However, after some training there also occurs a transition from this segmented defence followed by a counter-attack to actual SD&A; for instance doing a block and a counter-attack at the very same time. A typical example my look as follows: the attacker throws a right punch towards the defender. The defender steps at a 45° angle towards the inside of the attacking arm, and performs a simultaneous fore-arm block with his left arm, and strikes with his right elbow towards the attacker's left temple. While such a defence is good, it is not yet a Golden Move because being on the inside of the attacker means that he can relatively easily defend against your attack and can also easily counter-attack. Another response to the attacker's punch may be to step to the outside of the attacker's right punch, and this time blocking his arm with the right forearm and doing a simultaneous counter-attack with a left elbow strike. In this scenario, since you are on the outside of the attacker and it is much more difficult for him to defend and counter-attack, the defender has achieved a Golden Move.

It is in one-step sparring where the Golden Move in various manifestations is most pertinently practised, and it is therefore the reason why it is the most frequently practised step-sparring drill by higher level Taekwon-Do practitioners. There exists many variations on one-step sparring to increase the difficulty of this exercise. For instance, the initial attack may be completely unscripted, and also the attacker need not stand in front of the defender, but start the attack from any position, such as from the defender's flank or even rear.

A quick side-note with regards to the idea of SD&A. There might be an erroneous assumption that SD&A means that the move should always include an actual simultaneous block with a counter-attack, but this is not necessarily the case. The “defence” in SD&A need not be a block, but can simply be some form of foot-shifting, side-step or dodge that clears your body of the attack. “Protect yourself,” to use Rory Miller's term, can of course mean to literally block the attack, but it can also mean to simply move out of the way of the attack. An example of such a SD&A against someone doing a front kick towards you might be a dodging turning kick—the dodge functions as the defence that gets you off of the attack line, while at the same time allowing for a counter-attack (the turning kick). SD&A involving such dodging techniques, or even flying techniques, are often practised by higher level practitioners.

While one-step sparring is a pinnacle drill because it focuses on the Golden Move, it’s limit on the number of attacks (i.e. just one step, and attack) that the attacker can perform is unrealistic.

To move beyond this limitation there are two additional “dynamic context” drills. The one, which is not so common any more, is known as pre-arranged free sparring. An example is one-step free sparring: there is still an initial attack by the attacker against which the defender has to perform SD&A, but if superior positioning is not attained—in other words, if the opponent is not at a disadvantaged position—then the attacker is at liberty to also defend and counter-attack, to which the defender should then re-stablish superior positioning and apply SD&A. The earlier step sparring drills can also be practised as dynamic context drills and instructors often create different dynamic context drills depending on the principle they want their students to practise.

The other more common dynamic context drill in ITF Taekwon-Do is known as semi-free sparring, and is introduced at 5th grade level. Semi-free sparring doesn’t have any pre-arranged number of steps (attacks) that the attacker is confined to. The drill is concluded once the defender has performed a proper counter-attack. Semi-free sparring is most valuable when the defender focuses on the Golden Move. Unfortunately, since many people are not properly taught to progressively work towards striving for the Golden Move, their semi-free sparring becomes simply a form of point sparring, resembling tournament sparring, rather than a self-defence drill. It is the case that semi-free sparring is indeed used as a transition exercise in preparation for tournament sparring. While there is nothing wrong with using semi-free sparring as a stepping-stone for tournament sparring, the original purpose as a self-defence preparation drill must not be neglected.

Finally, of course, is free sparring (aka traditional sparring) that is traditionally introduced at 4th grade level. (Free sparring is not to be confused with tournament sparring.) Free sparring has very little prescriptions, and allow both attacker and defender a full arsenal of techniques for attack and defence. Free sparring is a very important drill, however it is not to be confused as an actual self-defence drill because it assumes that both fighters have “agreed” to the dual. There is therefore no “defender,” defending herself against an assailant. This doesn’t mean that free sparring doesn’t contribute much to the progressive learning curve of the practitioner. Because free sparring has the least amount of restrictions and the most amount of chaos, it does resemble a real combative encounter better than most step sparring drills. It therefore requires the practitioners to constantly improvise over an extended period of time—whereas the step sparring drills hampers such continuous need for improvisation.

Nevertheless, the step sparring drills, and particularly one-step sparring, represent the ideal that the martial arts strive for, namely the Taoist goal of efficacy, often promoted as the idea that a single technique (the Golden Move) should effectively end the conflict; or as the ITF Encyclopaedia puts it: “the ultimate goal of Taekwon-Do in real combat is to win the victory with just a single seasoned blow” (Vol. 5, p. 108).


Related Reading:

09 November 2014

ITF Patterns: Artistic Expression or Self-Defence? -- Neither

Recently there was a poll on a Taekwon-Do Facebook group that I belong to that asked whether or not practitioners view the ITF (Chang Hon) patterns to be more involved with “artistic expression” or more to do with “self-defence skills”. When I responded that it has more to do with combat than creative expression, some members were quite surprised. After all, I have argued both here on my blog and in print that I do not believe that the ITF patterns are combative manuals. I have also claimed that the ITF patterns were indeed composed with certain aesthetic principles in mind, and even that parts of it have symbolic value, not solely combative value. Since people found my answer to the poll surprising, I explained my position there, and decided now to post my explanation with some amendments below:

With regards to the patterns being “artistic expressions,” I do not believe the performance of the ITF patterns is like a dance performance. Firstly, during dancing the purpose of dancing is in fact dancing, while for the patterns, their purpose is not “performance.” Some people may indeed practise the patterns only for performing them at competitions, but the patterns were not composed for the purpose of competition. A sport focus is something that only came in much later and is a secondary or peripheral usage of the patterns.

Rather, the patterns function as one of several aspects in the ITF pedagogy that teach particular skills. In other words, the patterns function as a type of drill—as a training tool to teach particular skills, of which the ultimate aim is self-defence. (Note, I’m not saying the patterns are self-defence skills; instead they add to the skill set that can contribute towards self-defence.)

Secondly, in the case of dance, dancers usually have lots of artistic freedom to creatively express themselves. This is not the case for the ITF patterns. They have a very specific number of motions, and require a specific way of movement. The patterns are artistic expressions, but only in a limited way for the performers. Instead, they are the artistic expression of their author(s)—or to use dance terminology, their choreographer(s), which in this case is General Choi and his helpers that composed the Chang-Hon patterns. When we perform the patterns, we are in a manner of speaking merely repeating the motions prescribed to us by a choreographer. Or to use poetry as an example, we are merely reciting poems of a great poet; we are not the poets ourselves. I don’t think the patterns lend themselves that much to personal artistic expression. Of course, someone reciting a poem can in a limited way creatively express him or herself through, for instance, vocal inflections, dramatic pauses, word stresses, and so on. Similarly, one can have some creative expression in the ITF patterns, but they are limited. Someone reciting a poem is not composing it, but merely repeating it. This is the same for performing the patterns. There are other Taekwondo groups who do what is known as “creative forms” that may indeed cross over into personal composition; however, ITF Taekwon-Do does not have this as part of its pedagogy or competitions. (ITF Taekwon-Do does have a self-defence demonstration category at championships, which may relate to this idea of creative expression, but which I will leave for another discussion.)

Other drills, such as one-step sparring, allow for much more personal artistic expression. There is not much room (i.e. freedom) for creativity while performing the Chang-Hon patterns. I’m much more creative while doing sparring.

The following is a paragraph from a related article of mine that was published in Totally Tae Kwon Do: “Dr. Bruce D. Clayton argues in his book Shotokan's Secret that: “Karate kata are combatives manuals, which contain no poetry” and that the kata are without “symbolism” (p. 197). This is definitely not the case for the ITF patterns. While I am convinced that there is much we can learn about ways of moving (kinaesthetics) and even some fighting strategies and self-defence application, the ITF patterns offer another, albeit less tangible, contribution—in that the patterns do indeed contain poetry and symbolism, and are used as a vehicle for the transmittal of Oriental philosophical principles, and Korean history and culture. They are also to be understood as mediums for artistic expression.”

Unlike Karate’s kata which are “combatives manuals” and wholly without “symbolism,” according to Dr Clayton, it is undeniable that the Chang-Hon Taekwon-Do Tul do indeed have symbolism and that certain aesthetic elements were considered in their composition. The floor plan of a number of the patterns are based on Chinese characters, for instance; and some patterns have symbolic starting or ending positions. In this way, the Chang-Hon patterns are like poetic compositions. They were designed with aesthetic concepts, such as symbolic meaning, in mind.

I’m getting the sense that some people feel uncomfortable with that idea, as if the inclusion of aesthetic concepts such as symbolism somehow distract from the patterns. That is a faulty understanding of what a symbol is. For example, a red rose has the symbolic meaning of romantic love. The fact that the rose symbolizes romantic love doesn’t make it any less a rose. “A rose is a rose is a rose.” The fact that a punch with a left fist at the end of a Chang-Hon pattern symbolizes tragedy doesn’t mean that it does not still function as a punch. Yes, the patterns are poetry that include symbolism, but the “vocabulary” of the patterns remain offensive and defensive techniques. “A punch is a punch is a punch,” to reference Bruce Lee. In other words: a punch may be more than a punch—it may be a punch that symbolise something abstract such as tragedy—but in the end it is still a punch.

Furthermore, understanding the patterns as poetry, rather than combative manuals, allow us interpretive freedom. A manual is specific with usually just one result. When you follow the instruction manual for putting a table together, there is no room for interpretation of the instructions. You have to follow the instructions in only one way, otherwise your table will not be stable. On the other hand, a poem is open to interpretation. Different people can come to different possible “answers” when interpreting a poem. Some answers are more plausible than others, but seldom is there only one ultimate answer. When we look at patterns and deduce self-defence applications from them, we are busy with poetic interpretation. In other words, people like Stuart Anslow that explicate particular self-defence applications from certain parts of the Chang-Hon patterns are busy with interpretation—not unlike one would interpret a line from a poem—rather than simply taking the obvious application from the ITF Encyclopaedia, which would be a following-an-instruction-manual approach. 

To summarise, when I say that the patterns are not combative manuals and therefore not fully developed self-defence “lessons,” and when I mention that the patterns do have creative and symbolic value, I do not by this mean that the patterns have no eventual combative value, nor that they are akin to dance performances. Taekwon-Do defines itself as the “Korean Art of Self-Defence”—and so ultimately all parts of the Taekwon-Do pedagogy contributes towards the goal of self-defence. The patterns are merely one of several tools in the ITF pedagogy that contributes towards self-defence skill. Understanding that they are a tool that contribute to a self-defence skill set, rather than actual self-defence practise, provide us with three important realizations: Firstly, we can acknowledge that the patterns are not realistic representations of a real combative encounter. Secondly, now that we are not under the dangerous illusion that we are somehow engaged in real fighting, we can safely use the patterns as a training tool to practise certain skills for which the patterns are ideally suited, like kinaesthetics. And finally, acknowledging that the patterns are “poetry in motion,” we have the freedom to interpret them for different purposes. For example, some parts of a pattern might be used to practise certain skills as part of a dynamic context drill, or as the catalyst for a self-defence drill, or for practicing specific footwork. In other words, the patterns provide material for training different skills.

07 November 2014

On Teaching Self-Defence Drills

Teaching self-defence skills to people is always a tricky business because it is difficult to say what will work or not. Sometimes I teach a particular skill to students, and while it might work for nine out of ten of the students in the class, there might be one person struggling with it. I can walk them through it, and they might get it the technique to work under guidance, but when they do it by themselves they just fail to get it right. Generally I avoid overly complicated techniques for self-defence training, keeping in mind adrenalin dump and the loss of fine motor coordination during a violent conflict. Therefore, I don’t think the “fault” lies in the technique, but is more likely just that the particular skill just doesn’t come naturally for that particular student.

Now, another instructor, convinced of the effectiveness of this particular technique will insist that the student practice it repeatedly until they “get” it. I’m of a different opinion. If the technique doesn’t work for a person with a certain degree of “naturalness” at the student’s current level of proficiency, then the technique is even less likely to work in a stressful context. Also, I don’t want students to become fixated on one particular technique. Of course, we do try and practice particular techniques and try and improve their efficiency, but I seldom hammer on just one technique as the ultimate (i.e only) self-defence skill for a specific situation. Instead I try to provide students with a skill set—a series of related options that are founded on particular martial principles (for example, positioning). I may teach a few techniques and principles and then tell the students to experiment and find what they find to work for them against different opponents. Without being prescriptive, I then comment on what they come up with. For instance, if what they are doing puts them in a vulnerable position (rather than an advantageous position and the opponent in a disadvantageous position) I would point that out and make some suggestions or have them come up with an alternative.

The problem is simply that a violent encounter is dynamic (i.e. chaotic) with only limited predictability. Fixating on one technique, and insisting that it should work is limiting and unrealistic. The ability to quickly adapt and find other solutions is a much more important skill than doing something because that is how their instructor taught them.

Paradoxically, when I started teaching this way I at first threw out all “pre-arranged” drills because I believed they were unrealistic and there is no use in teaching things that are unrealistic. I didn’t make students memorize any sequences or specific combinations. I just taught principles, but not particular techniques and expected them to come up with their own combinations within a dynamic context. What I found was that students could not apply the principles in coherently effective ways. They simply didn’t have the “vocabulary” – an appropriate arsenal – to deal with the situation. I soon realized that for beginners there is much value in fully pre-arranged sparring drills, even though they are unrealistic. Pre-arranged sparring drills are a great tool for teaching a “vocabulary of fighting”. Once the student already built up some arsenal of appropriate techniques and combinations, should one decrease the abstraction (by adding more “reality”).

When taught properly, ITF Taekwon-Do is supposed to provide a continuum that facilitate a progression from high-abstraction, low variable practise to low-abstraction, high variable practice. In other words, at first things are predictable while students get to practice particular techniques and strategies. Then the abstraction level is decreased, and the variables are increased. Things are less predictable and the student needs to literally think on their feet. The more variables there are the less prescriptive do I as the instructor get. Ultimately I have to give free reign to the student and allow them to do whatever works for them in that situation.

Facilitating such a progression from high abstraction, low variables (very prescriptive pre-arranged drills) to low abstraction, high variables (unscripted drills) can be difficult, particularly when you have students who are at very different levels. For instance, in a recent class I had one black belt (2nd Dan), a blue belt, a yellow belt, and white belts. They are all at different places along the continuum. Making sure that each one is practicing (and reviewing) appropriately at their level requires some nifty pedagogic negotiation on the instructor’s part. The instructor often has to improvise his or her lesson to fit the dynamics (levels) of the class that can change on any given day.

Nevertheless, this part of the class—working along the continuum with the aim of self-defence—is what Taekwon-Do is for me. If Taekwon-Do is—as it defines itself—“the Korean Art of Self-Defence” [호신예술]—then working towards self-defence is ultimately what all training boils down to.

27 October 2014

Contemplations on the Evolution of ITF Taekwon-Do as a Style


I watched the great Karate movie Black Belt again. The movie's opening sequence has the three main characters—all karateka—performing Sanshin, which is a type of kata during which the whole body is tense and the muscles flexed, so that all movements during the kata requires muscular tension. This got me thinking about hard styles versus soft styles again, and where exactly ITF Taekwon-Do fits in.

First, back to Sanshin kata—this form is basically a type of isometric exercise presented as a kata. Although it is originally from China, it is probably more famous for being practised by the Karate styles of Okinawa. While Sanshin-kata does present some basic punches and blocks (and make use of only one stance although some stepping, applying the same stance, may occur depending on the version practised), it is generally not trained for practical application, but almost solely as an exercise to improve muscle tension, breathing, and mental focus. Some sources may also include Ki-development in this list. During Sanshin-kata the instructor will often inspect the students' form (known as shime checks) by hitting different parts of their musculature to test if there are any weakness, any lack of tension. In some Chinese versions of Sanshin-kata, the kata can be performed with some level of relaxation, particularly while a technique is in motion in order to facilitate faster motions. In the Japanese / Okinawan styles, however, Sanshin-kata is usually done with emphasis on tensed, flexed muscles throughout the performance.



Obviously not all Karate kata are performed in the way that Sanshin-kata is performed. Nevertheless, for quite a number of Karate styles, Sanshin-kata is considered foundational, and while the other kata might be done at more realistic tempos, there still generally exist a similar sense of “hardness” to them, a similar sense of focus is striven for. While Sanshin-kata is practised by many Karate styles, especially the original Okinawan systems, it has become the bedrock of full contact Karate systems such as Kyokushin Karate; the reason being that Sanshin-kata is well suited to strengthen and toughen the body in order to endure hard, full contact strikes. Their bodies are so hardened that blows that would put a regular person down, they take withstand.

Contrast this with a soft style martial art, where the most advanced practitioners are praised not for their muscular tension or hardened bodies, but for their extreme relaxation. The aim is not to harden the body in order to endure impact, but rather to follow a Taoist approach of “going with the flow,” of yielding to the force, of non-resistance. Think, for example, of an Aikido or Tai-Chi master who are often praised for being relaxed in their motions, for their muscles being strangely supple with hardly any tension and when doing quite difficult techniques.



I once heard a legend of a Tai-Chi master who had a sparrow perched on his finger—immured. To fly away, the little bird needs to push away with its legs, but so sensitive was the Tai-Chi master's to force, that whenever the little bird tried to push away, the master's arm would yield to the bird's push, and so negating the force, keeping the bird captured by it's inability to push off of the master's finger. This legend epitomizes the relaxedness striven for in true soft style martial arts that completely yields to the attacker's force, and use the opponent's force against them.

The aim of this post is not to set up one against the other. I'm not asking which is better, a hard style approach or a soft style approach. What I do want to discuss here is ITF Taekwon-Do, and how I am of the opinion that while Taekwon-Do definitely started out as a hard style martial art, it has evolved into something else.

There is no question that in its early days, Taekwon-Do was a hard style martial art, with strong roots in (Shotokan) Karate.



I'm not sure if the early Taekwon-Do pioneers practised something akin to Sanshin-kata. However, when I started Taekwon-Do there were Sanshin-like moments in the patterns in the style of Taekwon-Do I did at the time. The slow motion techniques in the Chang-Hon patterns were often performed with a tension and concentration that is reminiscent of Sanshin. I still remember seeing black belts perform those slow motion techniques with such muscular strain that their limbs vibrated and veins stood taught in their necks and on their foreheads. This was particularly the case during pattern demonstrations at tournaments. Back in the day when kihaps were still performed, the moves that were accompanied by kihaps were equally tense—a good kihap would be accompanied by a face purple with tension. Now I'm not sure if this happened at other Taekwon-Do pockets as well, or if it was peculiar to the system I trained at, which had very strong connections with (Moo Duk Kwan) Tang Soo Do, in which such slow motion movements done with Sanshin-like tension and concentration, and roof-lifting kiaps were part of a number of their forms.

I still remember the hard and strong urgency with which we performed our patterns when I started Taekwon-Do. My brother and I often competed in “all style” tournaments which brought Taekwon-Do, Tang Soo Do, and Karate practitioners under one roof, where we competed together in both sparring and forms divisions. In the forms division practitioners performed the forms of their respective styles. Obviously the judges who were representatives of the different styles in attendance at these tournaments often did not know the actual sequences of the forms they judged. The criteria they used to assess the forms therefore did not include “correctness of the form,” but used the other typical criteria when judging forms within the hard style paradigm. My brother and I won quite a number of medals at these tournaments—clearly we had performed our forms within the hard style idiom of the Karate, Tang Soo Do and Taekwon-Do judges in attendance. I doubt those judges would be equally accepting were I to perform a form following my current ITF Taekwon-Do way of movement. While they may see power at the moments of impact, the ITF practitioner seems far too relaxed, not nearly tense enough in between the “impact” points, with a tempo that is much too slow. And in my imagination I find it almost impossible to think how these judges would have judged, say, a Yang Style Tai Chi practitioner performing his or her form. Unfortunately at that time there were no soft stylists who attended these tournaments, so I never had the opportunity to see how they would have been judged, but I can guess that the Tai Chi form would score terribly low on most of the typical criteria, such as power, intensity, and speed. Even such judging criteria as concentration and balance would be problematic, since concentration in the Karate sense means something quite different than what it means in the Tai Chi sense, and balance in Karate is often judged according to an understanding of linear lines of movement and transference of force, rather than the gentle circular lines employed by Tai Chi Chuan and the subtle shifts of the centre of gravity.

Although ITF Taekwon-Do is something different from Tai Chi Chuan—I mean, it is not a typical soft style martial art—it is definitely not the karatesque hard style martial art it was in its infancy. I realise that I have written about this numerous times before. My argument is that ITF Taekwon-Do is not a hard style anymore, in the way that Karate is a hard style. There is no version of Sanshin-kata in ITF Taekwon-Do's 24 pattern set, neither are there any remnants of Sanshin like motions in the forms, something that still existed in the little Taekwon-Do pocket in a small town in South Africa where I started my Taekwon-Do career 20 years ago. We have all but removed conditioning from our patterns: the stances are not unnecessarily deep to help with strength training, nor are the movements performed with an urgent tempo to mimic combat. These days I'm spending most of my time learning how to relax, practising how to move with the least amount of muscular tension, and even trying to initiate movement through the very act of muscle relaxation. I find ITF strikes move more like a ball-on-chain than like a crowbar, to use Bruce Lee's analogy, with emphasis on sequential motion / kinetic chaining and what the Chinese would call fajin, or balgyeon as it is known in Korean.

I find it difficult to define this new hard-soft style hybrid that ITF Taekwon-Do has become. It refuses to be boxed into a neat definition. One moment it depicts the hardness of Karate, the next the suppleness of Tai Chi Chuan. It often flows along linear lines associated with Karate, but those linear lines are consistently initiated with subtle circles and curves that one gets in Chinese styles. Then there is that peculiar bounciness—seen also in the Korean folk art Taekkyeon, which is completely shunned by Karate where keeping level throughout ones movement is the expected norm. A major part of this “bounciness”—i.e. the sine wave motion—is to instil the habit of relaxation and suppleness, but also to teach a way of “controlled falling” somewhat akin to the Chinese internal art Xingyi.

ITF Taekwon-Do has indeed evolved into something quite interesting and it is still in the process of evolving. I like how it caters to different people. There are those that want it to be (and remain) a hard style, and that is how they practise it. There are those, like myself, who embrace the soft style aspects that have become part of its DNA and I enjoy this part of ITF Taekwon-Do's evolution. I particularly like that it is an organic evolution, rather than an institutionalized one. Apart from the original sine wave motion impetus, this blossoming of “soft style” elements is not specifically pushed for by any of the ITF organizations; nevertheless, more and more people are recognizing it and practicing it. Neither are any of the big organizations actively advocating it, or systematically explaining it. Expositions on the sine wave motion, it's emphasis on relaxation, and its relationship to soft style concepts such as principles of the circle, the wave, and so forth are done mostly by independent writers such as myself and Master Manuel Adrogue. The fascinating thing about this is that commentators like myself and Master Adrogue and others have no previous training connections and who do not come from the same lineages, yet we interpret the principles in a similar way, and come to the same conclusions. For instance, when I first met Master Manuel Adrogue from Argentina and we had an opportunity to talk and train together, we found to our big surprise that in many ways we move the same—we had thought that our way of interpreting ITF Taekwon-Do, our way of moving, is unique, but it turns out that we are quite in sync, and I suspect there are many more of us who in some ways consider ourselves “rogue,” only to constantly find ourselves not as original as we might have thought.

In short, ITF Taekwon-Do as a general style is still changing. I don't think it will ever become a fully soft-style in the sense of Aikido or Tai-Chi, but it has also moved away from its hard-style origins. Under the leadership of the different ITF organizations I guess they will attempt to systematize it, and prevent it from changing, possibly all in an attempt to keep it “authentic” in the way General Choi left it upon his death, but such attempts, I believe will not be successful. I believe that it will continue to evolve; however it is a directed evolution, based on the Theory of Power, Training Secrets and other principles and guidelines already found in the system.

24 October 2014

Re-Unification Through Taekwon-Do

The dream of re-unifying North and South Korea is slowly fading away. In the past when there were still many families that were separated by the arbitrary division line that was set up after the Korean War, a strong drive still existed among the Korean populace towards unification. But now, decades later, the majority of the relatives who were separated have passed away. Also, after decades of separation, the two Koreas have now also separated culturally. At first one could really have talked about "one Korea", as the common people did indeed share the same culture and values. But after years of either Democratic / Capitalist motivations for the one, and years of Communist rhetoric and oppression for the other, we now have generations of young Koreans who have very little in common with those people across the border.


In a recent documentary (part of a series by KBS on re-unification), the idea of Taekwon-Do as a means for connecting Koreans across the political and DMZ divide came up again. This is not the first documentary of this nature that focus on the possible role Taekwon-Do might have to bring Korean people together.  There are two main styles of Taekwon-Do practiced around the world, Kukki / WTF Taekwon-Do and ITF Taekwon-Do. In North and South Korea, however, each emphasize another style. In South Korea the Kukki / WTF style of Taekwon-Do (the one that is also practised in the Olympic Games) is most prominent. You can find a Kukki style Taekwon-Do club in every neighborhood. Trying to find an ITF school is almost impossible. In Seoul, the capital of South Korea, there are only two ITF style schools admits an sea of Kukki / WTF style schools. Conversely, in North Korea it is ITF Taekwon-Do which is state approved and Kukki / WTF style is neglected.

Just as the Korean people who originally shared the same culture but because of separation has now become culturally quite different, the two styles of Taekwon-Do has undergone the same respective evolutions. They are both Taekwon-Do, and have the same roots, but their further development have taken them on different evolutionary paths.

The documentary ends on a high note, with two Taekwon-Do demonstration teams, one from South Korea and one from North Korea, meeting for a shared demonstration in Russia, and having a sort of cultural martial arts exchange. The North Koreans being inspired by the flashy kicks and acrobatic skills of the South Korean Kukki / WTF practitioners, and the South Koreans in awe of the power of the ITF demonstrators from the North. There is even moments of hand-shaking, hugging, and funny pictures. What this event shows, is something that a North Korean defector now living in South Korea recently strongly asserted in an essay "Beyond Blood and Bloody Relations"--the idea of re-unification must face the fact that there are indeed two separate Korean nations.

As long as Koreans insist that they are one--rather than two cultures--there can never be the type of cultural exchange necessary to form relations and understanding. And maybe such Taekwon-Do gatherings of shared demonstrations by two different Taekwon-Do styles could indeed provide an example that may lead towards mutual respect and understanding. Only then can one even consider talking about re-unification.

Below is the the ITF Taekwon-Do pattern Tong-Il, which means "Reunification" and symbolizes the hope of a unified Korea. This is the final pattern in the ITF Taekwon-Do curriculum.

06 October 2014

Philip de Vos Promoted to 3rd Dan by Grandmaster Hwang

Mr Philip demonstrating technique for Grandmaster Hwang
during a recent seminar in South Africa.


I'm very happy and proud to announce that Instructor Philip de Vos was recently promoted to 3rd Dan by Grandmaster Hwang Kwang Sung (K-IX-01).

Mr. De Vos, the instructor of the Soo Shim Kwan Potchefstroom Dojang, also competed at the South African National ITF Championships over the weekend in Port Elizabeth. He won gold for Senior Male Power Breaking, and a silver medal for 2nd Dan Patterns.

It is my honour to congratulate Instructor Philip on his promotion as well as his excellent performance at the national championships.

Totally Tae Kwon Do

In the last two issues of Totally Tae Kwon Do Magazine two of my essays on the Value of the ITF Patterns were published.

In Issue #67 I argued that the primary value of the patterns is not dallyeon (p. 71-75). This is not to say that the ITF patterns cannot be great exercise. Even after just doing Chon-Ji Tul once I can feel a light sweat coming on, so indeed doing the patterns can be a workout; however, my point is that they should not be done in place of actual dallyeon and one should not think that their true value is for the purpose of aerobic or strength training.

In the essay published in Issue #67 I emphasize the very important conditioning of relaxation that occurs in the ITF patterns by means of the first phase of the three-phased sine wave motion (p. 81-85). The patterns instill the habit of initiating each movement from a state of deliberate relaxation--ensuring that agonist muscles are not hindered by antagonist muscles during movements. The hope is that this overt habit will carry a sense of relaxation into the rest of the system.

07 August 2014

Totally Tae Kwon Do


After a special personal request from the editor of Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine I committed to submit more regular articles again. The reason I have been so "quiet" in Totally Tae Kwon Do is the same reason I have been so "quiet" here; namely, my PhD-studies is rather taxing, so that I'm not really in the mood for extra writing in me free time. Be that as it may, I decided to rework some of my blog posts into articles for the magazine.

In Issue #65 of Totally Tae Kwon Do you can read my short essay on "How Old Was Ahn Joong-Gun?", which is based on a post I wrote in May. And starting in Issue #66 I began a series on what I understand the value of the ITF patterns to be. This series is based on my "Exposition on the Value of the Patterns in the ITF Pedagogy", but reworked for the printed page with some amendments. The first installment is titled "The Value of the ITF Patterns: Poetic Containers of Philosophy, History, and Culture."

06 August 2014

Congratulations (Again!)

Jodi Siecker, Instructor Philip de Vos, Hatting Davel
The Potchefstroom Soo Shim Kwan dojang brought home various medals again, after competing at the Gauteng North & Northern Provinces Championship in July.

Instructor Philip de Vos won gold in senior male advanced patterns, as well as a bronze medal in the senior male advanced power breaking division. Jodi Siecker also won medals in patterns and power breaking, getting silver and gold respectively in the senior female Intermediate/Novice divisions. Hatting Davel won another gold for the Potchefstroom Soo Shim Kwan Dojang in the senior male novice division.

Congratulations to you all!

30 June 2014

Congratulations

Jodi and Instructor Philip
We would like to congratulate Instructor Philip de Vos and Jodi Siecker on winning two medals each, during the recent ATC Invitational Tournament in Pretoria. Bsbnim Philip, who is the instructor at the main Soo Shim Kwan dojang in Potchefstroom won gold in 2nd Dan patterns and silver in power breaking; and Jodi won gold for power breaking and silver in novice patterns. Thank you for representing the Soo Shim Kwan in such a brilliant manner. You make us proud!