31 August 2010

A Sine Wave Compliment

On Sunday I hosted a martial art seminar. I invited a friend of mine, who is a 5th Dan in Hapkido, to present an “Introduction to Hapkido Workshop.”

Before the event started, the few of us that waited for the rest of the participants to arrive did what any group of martial artist do when together – we talked about the differences between our different martial styles. The discussion ventured to the differences between ITF Taekwon-Do and WTF Taekwondo and then more particularly between the patterns of these two styles. Eventually to illustrate how ITF performs its basic motions I demonstrated the pattern Dan-Gun. I chose it because it is a simple pattern and because it has the basic Roman I form, used in so many other martial arts, including some of the WTF patterns and many Karate patterns.

After my demonstration of the pattern, one of the attendees gave me an odd but well appreciated compliment. He is an experienced martial artist and knowledgeable of WTF Taekwon-Do (used to be the team captain of his university’s WTF club) and Karate; he is currently training in Kyukushin. He told me that in all the previous times he has in person seen ITF patterns before, my demonstration was the first time that he saw the sine wave motion performed as an integrated, natural element of the basic movements. Usually the sine wave principle seems to be just something extra and incongruous that is forced on top of the motions. However, my demonstration made it look natural and sensible.

I appreciate the compliment because I’ve been spending lots of time thinking about the (sine) wave principle in Taekwon-Do over the last number of months (and years) and am glad if my time and effort is translating into tangible results. I know I’m still far from perfect and that there is much room for improvement in both patterns and basic movements. Still, years of practice is recognizable even by people of other disciplines. When I demonstrated Choon Moo in Thailand, a lady with experience in dancing came to me afterwards and also complimented me. She said that although she has no martial art experience, she could still appreciate the aesthetics in the movements and anatomical lines.

The Kyukushin practitioner’s compliment is also somewhat odd because it implies that all his previous personal experiences with ITF Taekwon-Do (I didn’t ask how many) had made the sine wave seem nonsensical and even out of place. Yet I understand what he is getting at. Very few ITF practitioners understand the wave principle or understand it too superficially and their employment of it is indeed quite incongruous. The wave principle has been diluted to the stereotypic sine wave (down-up-down) motion.

The sine wave motion has become an icon for ITF Taekwon-Do – a representative way of movement that makes ITF quite recognizable. However, like any icon, there are two points of import. The first is that an icon is a simplification of something. The down-up-down motion is an overly reduced mnemonic for much more complex principles. The second is that one should not confuse the icon for the real thing. I fear, unfortunately, that many practitioners are so obsessed with the icon that they miss the actual principles it represents.

The sine wave motion should not be an arbitrary incongruity that is merely forced on top of our basic motions. It ought to be an integral and natural part of our motions. Part of a greater principle that direct the way one moves, naturally like a wave in the ocean. It not only includes concepts of relaxation and employing potential and kinetic energies, it is also a strategy – a way of thinking about combat. It is, very much, a part of the "Do", i.e. a philosophy on movement and being.

29 August 2010

As a Teacher I'm a Generalist

At the Jiu-Jitsu Sensei blog, the author Lori O’Connell differentiates between two types of martial artists: specialists and generalists. Specialists are people that focus on a specific segment—a particular skill—and “putting the majority of their focus on it.” Most martial sports, like WTF Taekwon-Do, Judo and western boxing as examples, are specialist styles. They specialise in a very specific skill-set, mostly kicking, mostly throwing, just punching.

Generalists, however, do not spend all their time honing a specific skill; instead they try to be Jacks-of-all-trades. Mixed Martial Artists attempt to be generalist, trying to be good stand-up and ground fighters. 

The Jiu-Jitsu Sensei’s post concludes with a question: “What types of style are you studying and why?” O’Connell is speaking of martial arts in general, but I think the same question can be asked within a particular style, like ITF Taekwon-Do.

ITF Taekwon-Do is a very diverse martial art. Let’s just look at the sports sector of ITF Taekwon-Do. As an ITF practitioner you can compete in sparring, patterns, special technique breaking, power breaking, self-defence demonstration and various team events. This is just the list of mainstream sport categories. Apart from normal sparring, Taekwon-Do sparring may also include Pro-TKD (full contact professional sparring), and some organizations also include point-sparring. Not to mention other types of sparring we might do, but not generally compete in, like ground fighting. If you so choose, you can become a professional competitor—and hence focus most of your time—in any one of these categories.

But Taekwon-Do is more than just a sport. Apart from competition, many people choose to specialize in other aspects of Taekwon-Do like fundamental movement technicians. Such technicians may become Technical Directors for their federations. Yet another group of people may use Taekwon-Do as an ascetic discipline through which they can develop their characters and grow morally and spiritually. Some do Taekwon-Do as an aesthetic discipline through which to express themselves creatively. Other people may do Taekwon-Do, not as a sport, nor an ascetic or aesthetic discipline, but merely as a method for health and fitness. Still another group of people may employ Taekwon-Do as a system for self-defence. And let us not forget that Taekwon-Do was originally developed as a system of combat employed in the military. It is clear, then, that Taekwon-Do provides many disparate goals for many different people.

As an instructor I long ago realised that I have to be a generalist if I wish to introduce my students to the whole spectrum of what Taekwon-Do has to offer. I know that there are some instructors that focus on patterns, or others that focus on sport sparring. The fruits of such focus are seen in the success of their students at tournaments in their respective categories. When a student whom wishes to excel in a certain part of the martial art finds an instructor that puts emphasis on that part, it is a wonderful chemistry. There is a danger, however, that the student may never be exposed to other parts of the martial art.

My personal philosophy is that I act as a generalist. I try and not to specialise too much in one particular part to the neglect of any other part. It is a difficult path I have chosen and I’m not sure I’m always succeeding as I do have my personal areas of interest (for instance practical self-defence) that easily gets more time than the other areas. However, my believe is that if I can introduce my students to the widest possible foundation of what Taekwon-Do entails, once they are black belt they can decide in which area they wish to specialise and maybe then they can go train with specialist instructors. I therefore do not try to push the novice students in any particular direction. My function is not to channel my own preferences through them, but rather to show them the palette of colours and allow them to paint the picture of their own choosing once they’ve acquired the foundational skills to do so.

Images from Tam's Budo Academy, San Diego Sidekicks, and Queen's Taekwon-Do. Painting by Lisa Conlan.

23 August 2010

On Cross-Fighting and Ground Techniques

The shocking video above shows a Taekwon-Do player getting seriously injured during an MMA-style competition because of his lack in ground fighting experience. I know nothing about the two fighters, and cannot say if the Taekwon-Do player is an ITF or WTF practitioner. Regardless, the video illustrates two very important points.

Firstly, that if you train for one type of tournament you shouldn’t, by default, expect to do well in another type of tournament. For instance, a soccer team suddenly pulled onto a rugby field to play against a rugby team is bound to do terrible, regardless how good the soccer team is at soccer. Similarly, one would expect that if the MMA-player were to compete in a Taekwon-Do tournament, following Taekwon-Do tournament rules, it would have been the Taekwon-Do practitioner that would have won. (During different rules it could have been the other person injured – take for instance the knockout Bill Duff, an All-American wrestler and National American Football defensive tackler, received against a WTF player during the Human Weapon episode on Taekwon-Do.)

The second point is that at least basic skill in ground fighting is essential for any stand-up fighter.

Most Taekwon-Do practitioners are unaware of this, but Taekwon-Do, as it was originally practiced, was one of the first mixed martial arts of its time, incorporating Hapkido, Judo and other styles. As such, the early Taekwon-Do practitioners training in the 50s and 60s were versed in ground fighting skills. The “Hapkido” of the time was nothing like the present day Hapkido which resembles Aikido, instead it was known then as Yusul (Yoosool), a Korean branch of Daito Ryu Aiki-Jujutsu, which in these early days was less graceful and more brutal – more of a ground fighting style.

With time these techniques have pretty much disappeared from WTF Taekwon-Do with its extreme focus on sport – Olympic style sparring. In ITF Taekwon-Do some of these skills have remained, but have been marginalized to special “self-defence” techniques and neglected as part of fundamental training. In part, I would guess, because most of these techniques were not systematised into the ITF Encyclopaedia as fundamental techniques, for the simple reason that they were not basic kicks, strikes and blocks, but rather auxiliary techniques taught by instructors as part of self-defence training. Unfortunately, the lack of their documentation has caused them to be mostly forgotten. Some instructors and students seem oblivious to the fact that Ground Techniques “Nowoo Gisool” is an acknowledge subsection of techniques in the Taekwon-Do arsenal. I would go so far as to say that in some Taekwon-Do schools students may go through the ranks without ever learning to do a break fall, hip throw or chocking technique. For many ITF practitioner, the only time they get close to a ground technique is at second Dan level when a kick and punch from the ground are included in one of the patterns. It is a lamentable reality.

If you plan to compete in a tournament, make sure that you train for that tournament, keeping the fighting styles and rules of that tournament in mind. Also, as a Taekwon-Do practitioner, re-embrace our early heritage and include ground fighting into your arsenal of techniques. Since so little of the early grappling techniques are documented I can understand that it is difficult to learn “original” Taekwon-Do ground fighting; this, however, should not be an excuse. You may not have access to yoosool, still the Internet is a rich resource for other very effective grappling technique, ranging from Brazilian Jiu-jitsu to Sambo or Judo. There is no excuse for not learning at least the basics of grappling and ground fighting.

For Soo Shim Kwan students, make sure to practise the ground fighting requirements in the Soo Shim Kwan handbook, as these will introduce you systematically to a basic ground fighting armoury.

14 August 2010

Whiplike-action; i.e. Kinetic Chaining

Going through some of my old stuff I stumbled upon the following which I wrote for eSAITF a few years back. The "Whiplike-action"  I speak of is a term I borrowed from Bruce Lee. The term I use now is Kinetic Chaining. Some people also speak of Sequential Motion. Regardless the terms used, they are in essence the same principle.

Whiplike-action for Power Generation

A very important principle I’ve witnessed in many martial arts, especially the Chinese arts, is the whip-like or coiled-spring action. This principle is apt also in Taekwon-Do. In this letter I thought merely to remind you all of this important power-generation method.

Bruce Lee [Footnote 1] describes this “method” as follows:

The whiplike or coiled-spring action of the human body in its striking (throwing) movement-pattern is a remarkable phenomenon. The movement of the body may start with a push of the toes, continue with a straightening of the knees and the trunk, add the shoulder rotation, the upper arm swing, and culminate in a forearm, wrist and finger snap. The timing is such that each segment adds its speed to that of the others. The shortened lever principle is used to accentuate many of the particular speeds of this uncoil or whip. The rotation of each segment around its particular join-fulcrum is made at high speed for that particular part; but each segment rate is accelerated tremendously because it rotates around a fulcrum already highly accelerated.

Although it is not so eloquently described in the ITF Encyclopaedia it is however suggested in some of the theoretical principles. For instance we read the following:

. . .It is very important that you should not unleash all your strength at the beginning but gradually. . .

. . .One is to concentrate every muscle of the body, particularly the bigger muscles around the hip and abdomen (which theoretically are slower than the smaller muscles of the other parts of the body) towards the appropriate tool to be used at the proper time. . .

. . .This is the reason why the hip and abdomen is jerked slightly before the hands and feet in any action. . .

. . .Thus the hip rotates in the same direction as that of the attacking or blocking tool. . .

. . .To bring the action of [everything] into one singe coordinated action. . .

. . .once the movement is in motion it should not be stopped before reaching the target. . .

I remember at one of my training session in preparation for 3rd degree with Master Kim Jong-Chol that he showed this with the blocking techniques. The upper-arm swings slightly before the forearm to add to the overall acceleration. And of course the actual blocking with the arms was prefigured by the stepping into a stance and the rotation of the hip [Footnote 2].

We use the same coiled-spring principle in our kicks. For example the front-snap starts by the slight jerk of the hip, the swing of the thigh and the snap of the lower leg.

Bruce Lee describes how to get the most acceleration using this uncoiling-method:

In throwing a ball, all the accumulated speeds of the body are present at the elbow when the forearm snaps over its fast-moving elbow-fulcrum. . . An important aspect of this multiple action of acceleration is the introduction of each segment movement as late as possible in order to take full advantage of the peak acceleration of its fulcrum. The arm is kept so far behind that the chest muscles pulling against it are tensed and stretched. The final wrist snap is postponed until the last instant before release or, in striking, before contact. In football, the punter puts the last snap into his knee and foot as, or a shade after, he makes contact with the ball. It is this last moment acceleration that is meant by ‘block through the man’ in football or ‘punch through the man’ in boxing. The principle is to preserve the maximum acceleration up to the last instant of contact. Regardless of distance, the final phase of a movement should be the fastest. Maintaining this increasing acceleration as long as there is contact is sound. . .

From this quote I hoped you also recognized other principle used in Taekwon-Do such as the principle of continuous acceleration (Speed), the heel-snap (knee-spring) at the end of the motion and striking beyond / through the target.

Some food for thought.

* Footnote 1: Quotes from Bruce Lee’s “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do”. There are a handful of crucial books that all martial artists should have in their library. If you don’t have this classic, I suggest you get it.

* Footnote 2: There is a trend in ITF to deemphasize the hip-rotation irrespective of the centrality it has in Taekwon-Do theory. Direct references to the turning of hip in the Theory of Power occur in both “Concentration” and “Mass” and can also be inferred from “Speed” as well as point 8 (“sine wave”) in the Training Secrets. The senior members of the Soo Shim Kwan decided that we will not follow the trend as the rotation of the hip is fundamental to Taekwon-Do theory. The Soo Shim Kwan acknowledges that we over-emphasized hip-rotation in the past. It was decided that over-emphasis will be avoided, but under-emphasis even more so.

13 August 2010

Leg Strengthening and Kicking Exercises

In the video below, Polish Taekwon-Do player Jaroslaw Suska shows a variety of leg strengthening and kicking exercises that are very helpful with mastering ITF Taekwon-Do kicks, which require a lot of control and precision. Of course you do not need to start up with your leg raised as high as Mr Suska; however, it is important to always push yourself. The higher you raise your leg the greater the difficulty of the exercise. As your leg muscles get stronger and as your flexibility improves, you should increase the level of the exercises.

A Pattern Demonstration

During my recent Thailand trip I performed a Taekwon-Do pattern for a group of ministerial personnel from the Thai Police Force.

I started by explaining shortly the difference between WTF (sport) and ITF (art) and mentioned Taekwon-Do’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Next I introduced the form I would do: “Choong-Moo.” I gave a little information on Admiral Yi Soo Shin, whom after the pattern is named, and his successful defence of Korea against the Japanese navy. I also encouraged the audience to see if they can extrapolate strategies used by Admiral Yi against his enemy from the movements of the pattern.

Lastly, I explained the typical methods of power generation in ITF Taekwon-Do, using both vertical and horizontal forces (sine wave and hip rotation) and explained how this may relate to a Muay Thai round house kick that swings horizontally but also pushes down with the shin.

Having given the audience some specific points with which to interpret and appreciate the pattern, I finally performed it. It finished with a wonderful ovation.

I do not attribute the great applause to my excellence. I know all too well that patterns is not my speciality anymore and there is still room for improvement. The success of the performance, I believe, is in helping the audience to interpret what they saw. If I merely performed the pattern without my initial explanations, I doubt the response would have been as animated. But because I educated the audience with certain background information, helped them to look at certain technical principles like hip rotation and wave form, and provided them with a connection to something they are already familiar with—Muay Thai—the audience was able to understand and interpret what they saw.

Of course, mere words cannot make up for sloppy skill. Even a layperson can see the difference between poor proficiency and experienced practise.

10 August 2010

An Introdution to the Philosophy of Chon-Ji

My essay "An Introduction to the Philosophy of Chon-Ji" can be read in Issue #18 of Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine. It is an edited and somewhat expanded version of the essay "A Philosophical Look at Chon-Ji Teul" that I posted on this blog a few weeks back, but sans the reference to the SA-ITF logo. In the essay in Totally Tae Kwon Do I expound somewhat on the trigrams and Palgwae motif and suggest that the last three movements in Chon-Ji refers to the "Mountain"-trigram. I link this to Baekdu Mountain with its beautiful Chon-Ji Lake. The conclusion is also more relevant as it establishes the connection between "Chon-Ji" (and the connections to the Taegeuk and Sam Taegeuk) and the specific world view or philosophy in which the Korean martial arts, including Taekwon-Do, functions:

As “the initial pattern played by the beginner,” Chon-Ji Teul sets the practitioner within a specific worldview. It is a worldview based on ancient Oriental and Korean philosophy. The Chinese Taijitu depicts a universe in balance and the Korean Taegeuk shows Heaven and Earth in balance. The Sam Taegeuk depicts man in balance with Heaven and Earth. There is therefore a possible ascetic interpretation to Chon-Ji Teul: Through the study of Taekwon-Do a human being is to attain harmony with him or herself, and harmony with the universe. This journey towards harmony starts with the initial pattern in Taekwon-Do. This would imply that innate to Taekwon-Do is a quest for achieving harmony: harmony with oneself, harmony with other people, harmony with the Earth, and harmony with Heaven.