21 September 2016

Soo Shim Kwan Clubs at the SATI National Tournament

The South Africa Taekwon-Do Institute hosted its first annual national tournament on Saturday, 10 September. The two Soo Shim Kwan clubs, the Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club (PTC) and the Horangi Taekwon-Do Club from Groblersdal, participated in this event.

Riana Serfontein, Adéle Wolmarans, Philip de Vos (instructor),
Edrich Louw, Jakes Gous, and PW Conradie.
PTC was represented by six participants and won a total of 11 medals (2 gold, 3 silver and 6 bronze) for their participation in the sparring, patterns and power breaking categories.

Horangi Taekwon-Do Club (Grobblersdal)
Back-right: Instructor Gerhard Louw

The Horangi club entered 23 participants and won a total of 41 medals for their participation in the sparring, patterns, power breaking and special technique breaking categories, resulting in the Horangi dojang to position itself as the second best performing dojang of all the participating dojang.

A big congratulations to instructors Philip de Vos and Gerhard Louw and all the Soo Shim Kwan students for all your hard work and positive attitude. Well done!

01 September 2016

A Sine Wave Motion Description

Following is a description of the sine wave motion:
“Your waist rises as you twist and falls as you overturn. Rise equals go, fall equals strike. Together they mean to strike like a rolling wave. Each part must be clearly differentiated; all must be done like lightning. This is facilitated by keeping the body relaxed until the final instant.”
Actually, this is from a book on the Chinese internal martial art Hsing-I by Robert W. Smith (Hsing-I: Chinese Mind-Body Boxing, 2003).

Had I not revealed its source, practically all ITF practitioners would have agreed that it is a reasonable description of the “sine wave motion”. I have written in several posts in the past that the principles taught by the so-called “sine wave motion” are hardly unique to ITF Taekwon-Do, as this quotation clearly demonstrates. (You can read a previous mention of the similarities between ITF and Hsing-I here.)

A main reason ITF Taekwon-Do's “sine wave motion” is so controversial is because the term is a misnomer -- it is not an actual sine wave. It may have been an attempt by General Choi who proposed the term to make it sound more scientific. We should keep in mind, of course, that English wasn't his first language, not even his second language (that was Japanese), and neither was he a physicist. I have heard accounts that he adopted the term after that is how someone else (an English speaker) described what General Choi was trying to explain as a “sine wave motion”. I don't know if there is truth to this, but I do believe that if another term than “sine wave motion” was used, even if it was just called “wave motion”, it would have been less controversial.

To get back to the quotation above, it very accurately describe how the so-called “sine wave motion” is generally used for something like a middle punch: The body should be “relaxed until the final instant,” the rising portion is when the waist is pulled back, and it is during the falling that the strike happens.

In another post from long ago, I looked at another Chinese internal style, Chen style Tai Chi Quan, and noted some similarities with the way we understand movement in ITF Taekwon-Do.

25 April 2016

A Deadly Weapon

“A while ago I was a bit disillusioned by the thought of practicing a martial art that was made out of racism, spite, politics, that was later used for murder, abduction, assassination plots, bomb scares, political gain and segregation. Been feeling that way again for a bit.”

The above is a quote from a post that someone made on a Taekwon-Do related Facebook discussion forum recently.

I remember after reading Alex Gillis’ “A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do” (a must-read) that I felt pretty much the same. Most Taekwon-Do practitioners have no idea with how much vice and corruption our martial art has been embroiled. That book came as a valuable disillusionment to me. It reminded me not to idolize the Taekwon-Do founders and leaders, and not to over spiritualize Taekwon-Do.

Later, it also occurred to me that this very unsavory history of Taekwon-Do actually validates it. Firstly, you don’t hear of flower arrangement being involved in “murder, abduction, assassination plots, bomb scares, political gain and segregation”. Only something with true gravitas (no offense to those involved in flower arrangement) could have been used—and misused—as has been the case with Taekwon-Do. Taekwon-Do is something serious. Something dangerous. This brings me to my second point.

A sword, no matter how decorative and aesthetically designed, always remains primarily a weapon. We should never be surprised to see a sword covered in blood. When it does surprise us, it can only be because we did not give it the respect it deserves. Or it surprises us because the “sword” is fake. A toy sword or stage prop smeared with actual human blood is indeed a shocking sight, as should be all bloodshed. But a real sword scarlet-stained from rust, dirt and blood, is simply true to its purpose, so seeing a crimsoned sword should not surprise us.

Why, then, should we be surprised when a martial art—i.e. a system of combative skills—is used for power, politics and war?

It is true that a sword may be used in conquest or in defence, and in both these cases it may lead to bloodshed, but the sword itself is neither inherently good nor bad for being used in such ways. What determines the value of a sword is not whether it was used to murder in greed or kill in defence, but whether it proved its metal. Was it good at being a sword? Was the blade strong and sharp? Was it balanced and adherent to the wielder’s intent?

Considering its diverse history, I think Taekwon-Do makes for a good sword.

09 March 2016

Interview with Dr George Vitale by Korea-and-the-World

My friend, Dr George Vitale, is one of the world's foremost Taekwon-Do historians. His knowledge of Taekwon-Do and its history is only surpassed by his passion for the topic. In the podcast below you can here a podcast in which he discusses the early history of Taekwon-Do and its connection with the "controversial" General Choi Hong-Hi.

The interview was conducted by "Korea and the World", a really good podcast that is worth following for people interested in Korea. You can read more about the interview with Dr Vitale on their website and also download an extended version of the interview.

I'm pleased to say that I played a part in making this interview happen (by connecting Korea and the World with Dr Vitale). I think it was a great discussion that may be helpful for people to get a little better understanding of the history and politics surrounding Taekwon-Do and its principle founder, General Choi Hong-Hi.

28 February 2016

PhD Graduation

It is with much thankfulness and appreciation of the support of my family, friends, and my Taekwon-Do and martial art community that I can announce the completion of my PhD degree in Taekwon-Do (Oriental Philosophy & Martial Arts). My graduation ceremony was on 17 February 2016, and on 21 February I was pleasantly surprised to receive a “Best PhD Dissertation”-award from the Graduate School of Physical Education.

I commenced my studies here in Korea, at Kyunghee University, in 2013. It involved two years of course work, and in the third year I finalised my research and wrote my dissertation. At the end of 2015 I submitted the dissertation, had to give a preliminary defence presentation, and had to later defend my dissertation before five examiners on two occasions. Although I was very nervous about defending my thesis, in the end the defences were less grueling than I had anticipated. I was able to answer the examiners' questions satisfactoraly. The examiners' feedback was quite helpful. While there are parts of the dissertation that I think I could develop more fully, the thing I am most disappointed about my dissertation is that I did not have time to get it professionally proofread. Had I done so, I would have failed to submit before the graduation deadline, which would have meant that I would have missed the 2016 graduation and would have only been able to graduate in 2017. (The Graduate School of Physical Education only has one graduation per year, in February.)

Me with Dr George Vitale who came all the way from NYC,
USA, to attend the graduation ceremony. I am extremely
humbled by this beautiful gesture of camaraderie. 
The title of my dissertation is “Promoting Peace, Practising War: Mohism's Resolution of the Paradoxical Ethics of War and Self-Defence in East Asian Martial Arts.” It is basically a paper on the East Asian ethics of war and how this relates to East Asian martial arts. In particular, I aimed to resolve the paradox found in East Asian martial arts that promote peace, while at the same time teach violent martial (“war”) techniques. I honestly enjoyed the research into East Asian religion and philosophy, Just War Theory, self-defence ethics, martial art history, and all the other strands I had to pull from to write the thesis. I hope to continue my research in this and related fields.

Many people ask me, now that I have a degree—and one in Taekwon-Do of all things—what will I do with it? The honest answer is that I don't know. I was already working as a university lecturer before I started with the PhD, so getting a doctorate fits within my career path. The question for me was in what field was I going to further my studies. I considered several other fields, but one of the deciding factors for me as an expatriate living in Korea was the uniquely “Koreanness” of this degree. Doing a degree in martial arts philosophy is something quite specific to Asia. I mean, I could have done a PhD in philosophy practically anywhere in the world—even East Asian philosophy could be done at an Asian Studies department outside of Asia. However, a degree in martial arts is peculiarly East Asian in nature. Thus I decided that as I'm living presently living in Korea, I should take advantage of this unique opportunity. There are only a handful of non-Koreans in the world with a degree in Taekwon-Do and even including Koreans, very few people that specializes in martial arts philosophy.

For those of you that do not know, the whole idea of having Taekwon-Do as a university degree was the initiative of General Choi Hong-Hi, the principle founder of this martial art. Gen. Choi approached the founding president of Kyunghee University and proposed to him to start a Taekwon-Do degree program; hence Kyunghee University was the first university to start a Taekwon-Do department. Kyunghee University's Taekwon-Do department is arguably still the top Taekwon-Do department in the country, and the university is ranked among the top ten Korean universities.

14 February 2016

Jan/Feb 2016 South Africa Trip: Soo Shim Kwan and ATC Workshops

My annual South Africa trip was much shorter than usual – only three weeks, rather than the customary five to six weeks. Nevertheless, I was able to fit in visits at Soo Shim Kwan and ATC dojangs to present some workshops and spend time with my Taekwon-Do family.

I arrived in Johannseburg on Monday, 25 January. The following day I went to Pretoria and visited the Elardus Park, ATC Dojang, run by my good friends, instructors Karel and Annari Wethmar, of our sister federation, the Dan Gun Kwan.

For this first workshop I started with a main theme I had for this visit, namely joint-mobility. As I’m getting older I have a bigger appreciation for the importance of range of motion and joint health. It is common for martial artists to focus on muscular flexibility when they think of increasing range of motion; however, the ease of motion of joints in their sockets is often neglected, yet is of much importance, especially as people get older. Although I tried to cover most joints, my main focus was on shoulder mobility and hip mobility, with emphasis on stretching the psoas muscle.

Explaining the "Golden Move"-principle with the
help of Sabeomnim Manie.

The second part of the evening was more theoretical. First, we discussed certain consideration of the sine wave motion when applied to techniques. Because the Elardus Park dojang has so many black belts, I took the opportunity to touch on a few higher level things. In particular, I aimed to give an overview of the ITF pedagogy, as it may be useful especially for instructors. While the techniques we practised weren’t particularly difficult, I think the concepts were challenging as I questioned the way many ITF practitioners understand some basic movements. My aim was to get the black belts thinking critically about what they are doing.

Finally, we worked on kicks for different angles of attacks, as well footwork for spinning kicks.

My time spent with the ATC folks are always very enjoyable. The students are of great caliber and the instructors are such great friends of mine, we always talk late into the night and always complain that we do not have enough time.

With instructor Gerhard Louw and some students from the
Horangi Dojang, Grobblersdal.

The following day, Wednesday, 27 January, I went to the Soo Shim Kwan school in Groblersdal. Instructor Gerhard Louw’s Horangi Dojang was a priority for me this year. Last year I was not able to go to Groblersdal, so this year I placed it high on my priority list, as I promised Instructor Gerhard that I will visit him the next time I go to South Africa. Spending time at the Horangi Dojang was an absolute treat. The passion of the students and their families is tangible, and the level of some the children are some of the best I’ve seen for Taekwon-Doin youngsters in a long time.

Unfortunately I came down with a bug, and felt terribly under the weather. I had a fever and was lightheaded while presenting the two hour workshop, but I tried to hide my discomfort as best I could, and focussed on teaching as best I could. I really aimed at highlighting specifics that the students could make part of their basic training.

We started again with a focus on mobility work, as well as other stretching and warm up exercises that I thought they may benefit from, to supplement their current warm up routine. Since a number of the new members of the Horangi Dojang are adults in their thirties and fourties, I felt it imperative to emphasize the importance of proper warming up.

We then moved on to kicking drills, and foot work.

Third, I spent some time in teaching break falls and rolls. I focused mainly on the basics for falling and rolling and showed some more advanced techniques that the students could do as they master the basics.

Finally, we did some self-defence training.

At the very end the students requested me to perform some patterns. By this time I was really feeling sick and jet-lag was in full-swing, but I obliged. I chose some of the forms that I thought I knew best; however, I got stuck on both forms. So I asked Instructor Gerhard to join me for a form to help jolt my memory. We did a form—without getting stuck this time—and the students really seemed to enjoy it. I know that my technique was not very good (and pray that nobody uploads the video onto YouTube), but I am happy for the opportunity to have performed a form with my friend at his school.

The following evening the Horangi Dojang planned a special dinner. It was amazing to share some time with them and get a feeling for their great camaraderie and passion for Taekwon-Do. It is definitely a testament to Instructor Gerhard’s character to get his students and their families behind him in such a manner.

As I was still feeling rather awful, the Louw’s nursed me with some medicine, and I must admit that I felt much better by Friday. I should really have taken medicine earlier.

With instructor Philip de Vos and some students from
the Potchefstroom Dojang, North West Province. 
The following week I went to Potchefstroom and got to teach at the Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club on both Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Since the Potchefstroom Dojang is my first dojang that I started, I will always have a soft spot for it, and it always feels like coming home when I enter the Potch Dojang.

Over the two nights I covered much of what I had covered at the ATC and Horangi schools the previous week. However, the longer time allowed me to go into a little more detail. I also shared a little more philosophy and focus more on theory. Since the Potchefstroom dojang has fewer members than the Elardus Park and Grobblersdal schools, it was easier to give more individual attention to the students, which was nice.

On the Thursday evening Instructor Philip de Vos and I went out for dinner to catch up and talk about some important topics.

While in Potchefstroom I also met up with Master Louise Villiers of Tang Soo Do, who is the president for Martial Arts South Africa (MASA), which is a branch of SASCOC. It was great to catch up with Master Louise again, and also a very informative and fruitful meeting. Master Louise and I have a long history of cross-training and supporting each other with our respective events.

For the rest of my time in South Africa I focused on seeing family and friends. An important part of my trip was visiting my ailing, 80-year old father. I was able to give my father a formal, printed copy of my PhD dissertation. While my father is too weak and will likely not read it, it was nevertheless nice to give it to him, as he will not be able to attend the graduation ceremony which will occur later this week.

My trip in South Africa, although much shorter than usual, was most definitely a fruitful one.

24 January 2016

Sb Sanko's Tentative South Africa Schedule

Hello Soo Shim Kwan students and friends. Here is my tentative schedule for the next 2-3 weeks in South Africa, which will include visits and/or workshops at several dojang.

Tuesday, 26 January: Pretoria, ATC Elarduspark Dojang

Wednesday, 27 January: Groblersdal, Horangi Dojang (Workshop)

Thursday, 28 January: Groblersdal, Horangi Dojang (Workshop & Braai)

Tuesday, 2 February: Potchefstroom, Potch TKD Club

Thursday, 4 February: Potchefstroom, Potch TKD Club

Tuesday, 9 February: Vanderbijlpark, Vaal Dojang (Not confirmed yet)

Thursday, 11 February: Johannesburg, (Exact location still unclear)

Sadly I won't make it to the coastal areas during this trip, unfortunately.

I look forward to training with and seeing you all soon.

27 December 2015

Quick Thoughts on Pattern Interpretation

On a Facebook-group that I belong to, there was recently a discussion with regards to pattern interpretation. It was pointed out that many Taekwondo grandmasters see the forms as nothing more than a combination of blocks-punches-kicks, and that we should not search for deeper or hidden applications in these forms.

I make no secret about it, that for me the primary function of the patterns in ITF Taekwon-Do is to teach certain principles of movement, and that they are not primarily templates for fighting.

However, I do hold the view that the patterns are artistic artifacts; i.e. works of art. If we believe the forms to be works of art then we must accept that they are open to interpretation as are all pieces of art.

The power of art lies not simply in their ability to communicate the artist's original intention, but more importantly, that art can resonate at an individual level with the audience so that each person engaging with good art should experience a unique encounter.

For me, I have always considered the patterns to be analogous to poems, and such a view of the forms have helped me gain wonderful insight into them.

Having said this, as with all artistic interpretation -- there is no single correct answer; however, there are some answers that are obviously wrong. Similarly with pattern interpretation, it is definitely possible to come up with alternative applications; however, some applications are obviously impractical and / or illogical. Sadly, I've seen all too many such nonsensical interpretations of movements in patterns.

It is nearly 2016, and I hope to share some good news soon about my studies. May you all have a blessed festive season and may 2016 be a phenomenal year.

11 November 2015

Sabeomnim Chris van der Merwe

It is with a heavy heart that I announce the passing away of our friend Sabeomnim Chris van der Merwe last Friday, 6 November 2015.

Sabeomnim Chris has been a pivotal behind the scenes figure in the South Africa ITF community. Over his many years of service he held numerous important positions on the SA-ITF's executive board, such as Secretary General, Information Director, and Constitutional Director; he also functioned as National Team Manager during international championships, as NGB representative at important ITF meetings, as the first webmaster for the SA-ITF, and occasionally as the official SA-ITF photographer. It was particularly in his roles as Secretary General and Constitutional Director that he shaped the very core of the organization. Few members know how fiercly Sabeomnim Chris fought behind closed doors on their behalf; how he embodied being a “champion of freedom and justice” for the normal and sometimes disadvantaged Taekwon-Do students all over the country. Sabeomnim Chris also started the Acestes Taekwon-Do Clubs—one of the largest group of Taekwon-Do clubs in South Africa—and is a founding member of the Dan Gun Kwan with whom the Soo Shim Kwan has very close ties. Sabeomnim Chris' progeny students and co-federation heads Sabeomnim Karel Wethmar and Sabeomnim Annari Wethmar of the Dan Gun Kwan has produced more students to represent South Africa abroad than any other Kwan. Indeed, Sabeomnim Chris has left an enduring South African Taekwon-Do legacy.

Sbnim Chris van der Merwe and Sanko Lewis
On a personal note, I have lost a very dear friend. I met Sabeomnim Chris in 2001 at a Dan promotion test. I tested for my second degree black belt; he tested for his first degree black belt. Shortly afterwards I became the webmaster for the SA-ITF, working under Sabeomnim Chris' portfolio, and I took over from him in 2003 as the SA-ITF's Information Director. During this time we became very close friends. During those years I was going through very difficult times (the deaths of family members and loved ones). Sabeomnim Chris was always ready with a listening ear and sage advice. As a friend he also supported my intellectual pursuits and while he never went on to do a doctorate degree, he did much to encourage me to do so—which is something I'm currently busy with. As it was something we often talked about, it saddens me that he will not see me accomplish this goal early next year. Whenever I visited South Africa Sabeomnim Chris and I would make a decided effort to spend some quality time with each other—my visits to South Africa will now always have a gaping hole in them.

C. S. Lewis is known for saying: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Sabeomnim Chris van der Merwe was an important friend to me that definitely imparted value to my life. And I know that he did the same for many, many other people. He is fiercely loved by hundreds of Taekwon-Do practitioners that were fortunate to be his students and his friends. He will be greatly missed.

On behalf of the Soo Shim Kwan I wish to share my condolences to the Dan Gun Kwan, the Acestes Taekwon-Do members, and Sabeomnim Chris' family and friends. We share in your grief.

Rest well my friend. Taekwon!

09 November 2015

Sine Wave Motion Contributes to Vertical Forces

I apologise for not writing more regular posts, but I am quite busy with work and studies. Once I graduate, which will hopefully be towards the end of February next year, I will probably write more frequently again. There have been many ideas running through my head that are aching to be expressed.

However, recently I've seen a number of people talking about “sine wave motion” again. One person, for instance, wrote on Facebook that one sees all these Taekwon-Do power breaking videos online, but they never use sine wave motion. Another thing I read recently was a small scientific experiment where people punched a bag that was equipped with measuring tools and the subjects punched the bag with sine wave motion and without sine wave motion. The results showed that “sine wave motion” added little to no force to the hits—that the punch without sine wave motion was actually better.

To me the statement about breaking and also this experiment is obviously flawed because the vector in these techniques travel horizontally, parallel with the ground. The “sine wave motion” is not intended to add force to techniques that move horizontally.

It is pretty simple and I don't know why people don't get it. I think it is because of the wrong appropriation of the term “sine wave.” It is not meant to be understood as an actual sine wave. What General Choi tried to explain was the displacement of the body's centre of mass along the vertical axis—up and / or down. If you also move forward and so displace the body's centre of gravity along the horizontal axis it mimics the motion of a wave, which he referred to as a “sine wave”. It was maybe not the best semantic choice, but don't get stuck on the term. See the principle.

What principle? Simply: accelerate as much of your body mass through your technique at the target. That's it.

Sometimes this means bending your knees and dropping your weight for a technique that includes a downward vector. Sometimes it means pushing with your legs up for a high technique. Sometimes it means not going up or down but keeping level, as with techniques that travel horizontally towards the target.

For me the “sine wave motion” (yes it is a bad term, but get over it) simply means I'm pushing my centre of mass upward or letting it drop downward, depending on the direction the technique is travelling towards the target.

Now some might say, that's not sine wave! Their reasoning is that ITF Taekwon-Do's “sine wave motion” always have three parts: down-up-down. Once you understand the principle of relaxation, activation, and execution that is taught through the “sine wave motion” one need not exaggerate them as is often done as a training mnemonic with the “sine wave motion.” The “sine wave motion” is a training tool used to teach principles of motion; it is not a cookie cutter that should be stamped onto every technique. Every sensible ITF practitioner knows this.

But enough about that—I've written about the phases of the sine wave motion enough elsewhere; let me quickly explain why I say the above experiment and breaking observations are based on wrong assumptions.

The “sine wave motion” contributes to vertical force—the rotation of the hip contributes to horizontal force. If the target is to be reached at a horizontal plane, adding vertical force (through dropping of the body weight) will not contribute to the force of the technique. However, if the target is at a downward angle so that the vector includes a vertical (i.e. downward angled) trajectory, then dropping the body weight will obviously contribute to the technique's power.

What people don't seem to get is that a large percentage of Taekwon-Do techniques reach their target not directly perpendicularly horizontal, but often at a slight downward angle. In other words, many Taekwon-Do techniques incorporate both horizontal (i.e. hip rotation) and vertical (i.e. body-dropping) forces.

Here are a few examples of techniques to which “sine wave motion” contributes.

Obviously, low techniques where the dropping of your body weight into the technique clearly contributes towards the force of the technique, for instance a low punch, low block, or low kick.

Most middle techniques too. For instance when doing a punch, the arm is not held up at the top level of the shoulders, but a little below the shoulders, so that the punching arm is not exactly parallel with the floor, but actually angled downwards a bit. Imagine standing in front of somebody your own height and punching them in the solar plexus, the fly ribs, or the kidneys. How should your arm be angled to achieve this?

The brachial nerve is reached at a
diagonal angle, not horizontally.
Many people think that the knife-hand side strike where the arm generally ends parallel with the floor reaches the target completely horizontally. This is just one application of the technique and not how I was taught to do it when I started with Taekwon-Do 20+ years ago, nor the main way I teach it. I was taught that it is a strike to the brachial nerve plexus on the nook of the neck just above the clavicle. It is reached with a diagonally angled strike. Examples of similar targets reached with knife-hand side strikes are the solar plexus, ribs and kidneys.

Many blocks in Taekwon-Do divert the attack not merely sideways, but rather sideways and downwards.

Also, when I started Taekwon-Do over two decades ago my instructor insisted that most kicks should reach the opponent at a downward angle. The sidekick was taught as a “stomp”, the front kick as a “trample”, the turning kick as a “clobber” like with a sledgehammer for which you use gravitation to aid you in the technique. High kicks were never prioritized and even when kicks were performed high, the admonition was that you should hit with gravity as the kick was on its way down.

Let me point out that all these examples of "Taekwon-Do work[ing] with gravity" (as my first instructor used to say) are from my basics. These are techniques I learned over twenty years ago in a Taekwon-Do gym where nobody every mentioned “sine wave motion.” I only learned of the term after I had my first black belt.

Setting up breaking boards (or measuring equipment) to be hit with fully horizontally moving techniques are flawed, I think. If you want to test if “sine wave motion” (i.e. the dropping of the body weight into a technique) adds to the force exerted by a technique, then you should set-up the experiment for techniques where this makes sense, where dropping the body weight into the technique is actually measured. That's why, when I teach breaking techniques to my students we hold the breaking boards at various different angles and heights.