31 October 2010

How "Fist of Legend" Helped Me to Understand Taekwon-Do Better

One of my favourite kung-fu films is Jet Li's Fist of Legend. The first time I saw it, I got an epiphany about the development of Taekwon-Do, even though the film actually never officially mentions either Taekwon-Do or Korea.

The context of the story is 1937 with the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, China, at the start of the Second Japanese War (1937-1945). Chen Zhen, the main character played by Jet Li, is a Chinese student studying at a university in Japan. He is trained in traditional Chinese martial arts, undoubtedly of the soft style variety. During one of the early fight scenes he uses standing grappling techniques, in other words trapping and joint-locking, known in Chinese martial arts as chin-na 逮捕 and in Korean, I think, as 체포 techniques, from the verb 체포하다 that basically means arresting or apprehending; i.e. techniques involving grabbing or seizing an opponent.

This first fight scene starts at around 3:30 in the YouTube video below:

Later in the film Chen Zhen is taught another Chinese style Mizyongyi which is related to the Northern Long-Fist and is therefore generally considered to be a hard style. Nonetheless, as you can see in the video below of a practitioner performing a Mizyongyi form you will notice that it is still very much imbued with circular motion techniques, typical of many Chinese martial arts and often associated with soft style martial arts.

Mizyongyi is known for its deftly footwork and feints.

Chinese styles are not the only exposure Chen Zhen gets. In one scene he duals a Japanese master called Funakushi Fumio. The name is clearly meant to remind the viewer of Funakushi Gichin, the founder of modern Karate (Shotokan). Funakushi Fumio uses a typical hard linear Japanese style, which, judging from the inferences, we can assume to be Karate. Chen Zhen and Funakushi Fumio ends the fight in a dual. Funakushi then teaches the young Chen to “learn to adapt.”

Chen Zhen finally faces Gō Fujita who also uses a very hard style, also depicting a very hard style Karate. (Fujita is played by Billy Chow, a real-life kick-boxing champion.) Chen Zhen soon finds out that in order to win Fujia he cannot rely solely on his Chinese martial arts, he has to include hard linear motions. His attacks starts to include hard linear strikes and kicks. Furthermore, he changes his footwork dramatically, adopting shorter stances in which he “bounces” on the balls of his feet similar to Western boxing. The footwork is reminiscent of footwork we see in Taekwon-Do sparring. What he starts to do is a hybrid style which looks very much like I “grew up” with in ITF Taekwon-Do.

(If this is not similar to the Taekwon-Do you are familiar with, I would not be surprised. Because of the focus on tournaments, most Taekwon-Do schools don't practise a multitude of techniques and fighting has become narrowed down to the limited techniques allowed for tournament sparring. The video above—kungfu movie theatrics aside—is, however, very much like the Taekwon-Do I learned when I just started Taekwon-Do under Sabeomnim Johan Bolton. I even learned those punches to the armpits!)

In an earlier scene in the movie, around the end of the first third, Chen Zhen talks about “Japanese Style”; however, while the concepts of speed and precision are part of modern Karate at the time in which the story is set, the kick he demonstrates is not “Japanese Style”. It is a reverse side-piercing kick, straight out of a Taekwon-Do manual, circa the late seventies; a technique that was developed after the setting of the film. Furthermore, the footwork he demonstrates at the end of the film is something more evocative of Western boxing, i.e. the bouncing in a neutral stance, but also the way he would switch his feet or turn his facing posture is textbook Taekwon-Do sparring.

So this is what I got from the film. This is a movie about Chinese and Japanese martial arts and the result one would get when mixing the two. Korean martial arts are known for their kicking techniques, of which Taekkyeon is the most probable parent, but which influenced by Northern styles, since Korea is a peninsula attached to the north of China. Because of the Japanese influence Korea also got a strong dose of Japanese hard style, as we well know, in the form of Shotokan Karate. The result is a hybrid of the two, developed in a modern time when Western influences, including Western boxing started to be introduced to the Orient. The film, I believe, brings tribute not only to the martial arts from China and Japan, but also to the new martial art that develop in Korea, the little country flanked by China and Japan.

My interpretation of this movie could very well be completely off and merely be a subjective imposing of my Taekwon-Do paradigm onto the movie. This is quite possible the case; nonetheless, it was this movie that opened my mind to the reality that ITF Taekwon-Do is actually a combination of hard / linear techniques and soft / circular techniques. Because I recognised Taekwon-Do so clearly in the hybrid style the lead character demonstrated at the end of the film, I started to seriously look into Taekwon-Do's techniques, trying to understand the different influences that played into it. I have come to the conclusion that ITF Taekwon-Do is both a hard style, because it is so strongly based on Karate, and a soft style based on soft style circular movements which I now know to be rooted in Taekkyeon, but of which the basic principles derived from Chinese martial arts. (Since the time I started Taekwon-Do it has evolved to include even more soft style characteristics.) It also has some concepts derived from Western boxing. My instructor, Sabeomnim Johan Bolton loved to quote Grandmaster Hee Il Cho saying that “Taekwon-Do is firstly boxing.” I've never been able to find the source of this quote, but I don't doubt the authenticity of it as it is very much in line with Grandmaster Cho, whom mentioned his approval of boxing training as part of Taekwon-Do in numerous interviews.

This is the Taekwon-Do I practise—this lovely hybrid of linear and circular with a drizzle of boxing for good measure.

Post Script: My purpose of this essay was not to claim that Taekwon-Do is better than either the Chinese Martial Arts or the Japanese Martial Arts; rather that Korean Martial Arts were heavily influenced by both Chinese and Japanese Martial Arts and that ITF Taekwon-Do adhere to principles prominent in both circular / soft styles and linear / hard styles.

29 October 2010

Taekwon-Do Turning Kick Versus Muay Thai Roundhouse Kick

The Muay Thai roundhouse kick is one of the strongest turning kicks one can get. It utilises lots of torque and momentum and hits the opponent with the hard lower shin. Many people think that the difference between the Taekwon-Do turning kick and Muay Thai's roundhouse kick is the attacking tool: Muay Thai uses the shin, while Taekwon-Do uses the instep or ball of the foot. This is not the difference. In Taekwon-Do one can use a variety of attacking tools for the turning kick: the ball of the foot, the instep, the knee, and yes, even the shin. The real difference is actually in the follow through.

In Muay Thai one puts everything into the attack to such a degree that you seriously risk being unbalanced should your kick miss its target. There is no doubt that when one does hit the target with the Muay Thai roundhouse kick, it is extremely effective. However, if you miss you will, at worse, be off-balance, or at least, turn your back to your opponent.

In the tutorial above you will notice how the Muay Thai roundhouse kick is practised against a heavy target -- the practitioner relies on the target to stop his technique. Without the target, the practitioner rides the momentum of the technique and literally has to turn around, you can see this in 1:05 to 1:14 in the video, and again from 2:22 where the narrator admonishes that "when shadowboxing, make sure to kick all the way through."

ITF Taekwon-Do, however, prioritises balance. Maintaining balance (both static and dynamic balance) throughout our techniques are a fundamental principle in Taekwon-Do. To ensure that we maintain balance we actually retract the kicking leg after it penetrated its target. It should go through the target, but not "all the way through," as with the Muay Thai roundhouse kick, and so forcing you to turn your back to your opponent.

Notice how instructor Mark Miller retracts his leg after hitting the target -- even after breaking the tiles. This is quite different from the Muay Thai roundhouse kick.

In ITF Taekwon-Do one would only turn all the way through if you are following your turning kick up with a reverse turning kick (or similar kick) with the other foot.

To summarise, part of the reason we do not kick all the way through, is to ensure that we don't overreach and so lose balance or turn our backs on our opponents as a result. I would agree that it is less powerful than Muay Thai's sacrifice roundhouse kick, but for a self-defence scenario where losing your balance or giving your back is detrimental, a more conservative kick is preferred.

So how about kick-boxing's roundhouse kick? Kicking techniques in kick-boxing was heavily influenced by Taekwon-Do so it ought not to come as a surprise that many kick-boxers also pull the kicking leg back after the kick, instead of potentially sacrificing their balance by over reaching, as world champion Steve Goin demonstrates:

Dan Djurdevic recently wrote a very good article in which he explains the same principle of conservative attacks, rather than sacrifice attacks, in his post, Stopping Strikes at a Predetermined Point, with some videos of fights that illustrate his points.

22 October 2010

High Kick Flexibility and Strength Exercises (A YouTube Selection)

Some videos with various lessons and techniques to gain flexibility and strength for higher and stronger kicks.

17 October 2010

Ground Technique Training

Last week Sunday I competed in a grappling tournament in Seoul. It's an annual amateur tournament called “King of Ground,” and for this one there were around sixty competitors. I won some and I lost some.

This was actually the first time for me to compete in a grappling tournament. I've trained in grappling and other ground fighting on and off for awhile, but have never really had any interest to do it as a sport. I've retired from sport martial arts some years back for personal reasons, which I may discuss here in the future. So if I have no interest in grappling tournament sparring, why did I compete? The motivation for competing in the grappling tournament is twofold. Although I do have experience in stand-up fighting tournaments and and have sparred against a variety of martial arts, until now I haven't had any tournament experience in grappling. I do not practise grappling for tournament purposes but for self-defence reasons; yet it is probable that I may teach students in the future who may have such ambitions. While it is possible to teach based on theoretical knowledge, there is no doubt that practical experience is often invaluable for teaching. The second reason for my participation was to please my instructor. He really wanted me to compete. Our grappling group is not very big, so I conceded, knowing that participating in tournaments is often good for building group moral.

To be honest, I'm not fond of practising grappling. Rolling around with sweaty people is not my idea of fun. For this reason I actually like training in a full grappling uniform that absorbs sweat, for example a judo gi, better; however, I believe that grappling that does not require a gi is more practical for self-defence, as gi-training often teaches you gi-reliant techniques. Therefore, I favour practising techniques that are not dependent on your opponent wearing a certain type of garment. Although I do on occasion train at a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu academy too, where we wear uniforms, most of my grappling training occurs at a gym that does not use gi.

Grappling training may not be my favourite but I believe it to be an important part of a martial artist's arsenal so I hit the mat two, sometimes three, times a week. As a martial artist there are often things one does not necessarily like doing, but you do it anyway. It is part of being disciplined and if the martial arts teaches you nothing else, hopefully it teaches you discipline.

I've mentioned in a previous post the importance of practising ground techniques in Taekwon-Do. Ground techniques (noowo gisool / 누워 기술) is an acknowledged subsection of ITF Taekwon-Do and although it is often neglected, it should get a fair amount of training, especially—I believe—by higher level practitioners. It is my opinion that beginners should already start with basic break falling and rolling techniques, by the time students are intermediate level colour belts they must have a rudimentary arsenal of ground fighting techniques and by the time they are black belt they should feel comfortable on the ground. Of course Taekwon-Do is first and foremost a stand-up martial art, but since noowo gisool is part of ITF Taekwon-Do, a fair degree of proficiency in ground fighting ought to be expected of all black belts.

So what do you do if your ITF Taekwon-Do instructor does not teach you any ground fighting? Firstly, don't blame him or her. For some unfortunate reasons many ITF practitioners are not aware that ground techniques is an important part of ITF Taekwon-Do traning. It may be that instructor was probably never taught it by his or her instructor. Remember, also, that instructors often teach what they think students want to learn. After all, martial art teachers are in many ways service providers -- providing a teaching service to a particular audience. Suggest your interest in noowo gisool to your instructors and they may start to include it in training if they knew that there is an interest for it by the students. If, after you have requested ground technique training, your instructor still doesn't teach you anything, there are two other options. Get books and material of the Internet. A good introductory book I could suggest is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by Renzo Gracie and Royler Gracie. There are some good grappling resources online like the YouTube-channel Submissions 101, for instance. Practise what you learn with a friend. Secondly, cross train at a gym focussing on ground techniques, like a Judo club, Brazilian Jiu-jitusu gym, or an MMA-club. (See my post on cross-training.)

A final caution. Remember that ground fighting in Taekwon-Do is different from normal submission styles. In Taekwon-Do we include a wide variety of techniques from the ground including strikes and kicks, not only submissions and joint attacks. Take some time to read through some of the striking and kicking options from the ground in the ITF Encyclopaedia. See Volume 3, p. 323-332 for ground hand techniques and Volume 4, p. 321-329 for ground foot techniques. (Note that a number of these techniques—like attacking the eyes—would be considered illegal in a typical grappling tournament.)

All of the best with expanding your arsenal for both stand-up fighting and ground fighting.

07 October 2010

The Hooking Block

Most people think that the purpose of the hooking block is to grab your opponent's arm. For this reason they often do the block overly hard and fast as if to catch something in mid-air, like grabbing at a fly. This is a complete misunderstanding of the hooking block. The purpose of the hooking block is not to grab; however, it may precede a grab, which is then known as a grasping block. A hooking block and a grasping block are different, although the latter often follows the former. (In the previous post on the Standard Arm-Bar I discuss one instance of how the grasping block can follow the hooking block.)

So if the hooking block is not meant to grab, what is its purpose? I think a look at the Korean terminology may help us understand it better. The Korean for this technique is geolcho makgi 걸초 막기. The second word, makgi, means "block." The first word derives from the verb geolchida 걸치다.

Geolchida 걸치다 means to put a thing on or over something; to lay or place a thing over or across something; to extend or spread a thing over something; to cover or span something.

Examples of how this verb could be used might include:
  • Spread a table cloth over a table.
  • Cover a bed with sheets.
  • Throw a jacket over one's shoulders.
  • Span a net over fish.
The hooking block, therefore, is used to extend over an attack; basically wiping the punch out of the way by waving your arm or palm over the attacking arm. It is a soft technique used to deflect an attack by spreading the blocking tool over the attacking tool. The most recognizable method is the palm hooking blocks as seen in Yul-Gok, but also the forearm hooking block (Measure Techniques) in the beginning of the same pattern. (In my contribution "Poetry in Motion" in Totally Tae Kwon Do I explained why the first movements in Yul-Gok Teul could be understood as forearm hooking blocks.) Arguably, many different blocking tools could be used to perform this type of block, including palms, back hands, different parts of the forearms, legs and feet.

Left: Forearm Hooking Block; Right: Hooking Block-Kick

Taekwon-Do's palm hooking block is derived from Taekkyeon's hwagaedolligi 화개돌리기. Taekkyeon Master Do Ki Hyeon in his book 택견 compares the function of hwagaedolligi to a car's "wiper" 와이퍼. Notice in the video below the two Taekkyeon players using bakk (outward) hwagaedolligi and an (inward) hwagaedolligi . They do it almost without ceasing -- "wiping" potential assaults out of the way.

In Yul-Gok Teul it is hinted that the hooking block, like hwagaedolligi, is a flowing technique that often follows each other. Stuart Anslow, in his Chang Hon Taekwon-Do Hae Sul -- a book on pattern applications, gives an interesting interpretation for the two consecutive hooking blocks in Yul-Gok Teul. The first is used to block an arm; the second is used to wipe your opponent's head sideways and down, following the natural outward circular path of the hooking block. This interpretation is in line with how this technique, in its hwagaedolligi-grasping form (deolmijaebgi 덜미재비), is sometimes applied in Taekkyeon.

An important point to remember when doing the hooking block is that it is a soft block. Therefore it should not be done with tension. Also, it is performed in a circular or crescent motion and basically "wipes" an attack out of the way: Think of "wax-on, wax-off" in The Karate Kid (1984). In Taekwon-Do the circular motion should not be too big. In other words your arms should generally not pass your shoulder lines. While there are many circular motions in Taekwon-Do, they are usually conservative so as not to open too many vital spots during the execution of techniques.


See a great hooking block drill here. It is by Colin Wee on his Traditional Taekwondo Techniques-blog. Note that Mr Wee calls the technique by another name, ("open palm pressing block"), but it is still the same technique. The drill-video effectively illustrates the waving nature of the technique.

05 October 2010

Standard Arm-Bar

Taekwon-Do defence techniques are often divided into three categories: attacks, releases and breaks. The arm-bar resides under the last category as it is possible to break the elbow-joint with this technique. The arm-bar is a fundamental technique in many martial arts and is usually the first technique learned in Aikido (ikkyo) and Hapkido (kal nokki). As far as I know, we do not have a special name for this technique in Taekwon-Do; we generally just refer to it as an elbow break or adopt the common arm-bar term.

There are numerous set-ups for the arm-bar. I personally prefer to introduce Taekwon-Do students to the arm-bar as a follow up from a palm hooking block

The hooking block is one of the first "soft" techniques that the Taekwon-Do student learns and is an excellent set-up for a variety techniques like breaks (commonly known as joint locks or bars) and throws. We usually learn this technique the first time at Green Belt Blue Stripe level. Coincidentally this is also around the time when One Step Sparring is often introduced and such "break" techniques become more feasible. Most people do the palm hooking block too low on the arm. Trying to block your opponent's fast approaching wrist is quite difficult. It is better to block higher up the arm, preferably the upper arm. The palm hooking block moves in a circular motion wiping the attacking arm out of the way and ending with the palm resting on the attacker's attacking arm.

From here the palm swiftly slides down the attacker's arm towards the wrist where it tightens around the wrist and is then officially known as a grasping block

To secure the grasping block you will tighten and turn your grip from the little finger. Also lift up your forearm against the attacker's arm. In so doing you effectively clamp down on the attacker's arm with pressure from your hand above and pressure from your arm below. This creates an extremely strong hold.

To set-up the arm-bar you will quickly move in closer and press your arm behind (above) the elbow joint and start to rotate it over the arm. You can either use your forearm or your elbow to put pressure on your opponent's arm.

Finally press directly down onto the arm just behind the elbow joint. It is usually more effective if you drop your body weight (sine wave motion) into the technique. You can do this by moving into a lower stance. For instance, you can change from a rear foot stance or an L-stance into a fixed stance or walking stance.

Done with moderate force, this is an effective control technique. Done hard and fast, you can easily overextend the elbow joint and probably break it, so be careful while training not to injure your training partner.

03 October 2010

Totally Tae Kwon Do Article

My submission for this month's Totally Tae Kwon Do (Issue 20) evolved almost entirely from this blog and specifically the post called "I Don't Like Your Self-Defence." My article actually goes by the same name and starts on page 41. An interesting coincidence is that this issue has quite a number of self-defence related articles. The editor mentions how many of these articles "compliment each other despite coming from different authors from different parts of the world." For its practical use, I recommend Michael Munyon's article on "Use of Force: Law Enforcement / Military / Martial Arts" that directly precedes my article in the magazine.

Guarding Blocks for "Blending" and "Breaking"

The video above illustrates a set-up for Aikido's Ikkyo, i.e. Arm-Bar. Before doing the Arm-Bar the Aikidoist "blends" with his opponent. Such blending is fundamental to basically all Aikido movements. The idea of blending is also apt in Taekwon-Do. In this scenario I would use the Knife-Hand Guarding Block in a back-turn step to blend with the opponent.

In my years of thinking about the Guarding Blocks in Taekwon-Do I've found them to be very multi-levelled. It would do all Taekwon-Doin good to spend some time thinking about the Guarding Blocks and the different ways in which they can be used to engage with one's opponent. When contemplating the Guarding Blocks its useful to remember that the Guarding Blocks, which can be done at all heights (high, middle, and low section), are done in generally two fashions -- the one in a hard style, more linear fashion and the other in a soft style, more circular fashion. The former is generally used to hurt the opponent's attacking limbs with a much more aggressive attitude. The latter functions more as a push to unbalance the opponent and requires a "blending" attitude.. 

In the scenario above I would use the latter -- more circular -- Knife-Hand Guarding Block to blend with the opponent's forward moment. While using the front hand to grab (Grasping Block) the opponent's wrist and slightly pull him off-balance, one can use the rear hand of the Knife-Hand Guarding Block in a striking motion to attack the opponent's bicep -- striking appropriate pressure points. The rear hand then replace the front hand with a Grasping Block as I reverse my stance to move into the Arm-Bar position. Reversing the position resembles the Forearm Guarding Block with the rear closed fist clenched around the opponent's wrist and the forearm of the front hand attacking the opponent's elbow joint. In Taekwon-Do the Arm-Bar is achieved with the forearm or elbow putting pressure on (or just behind) the opponent's elbow joint. In Aikido, the Ikkyo is intended more to control the opponent, hence the palm is used to press on the elbow joint. In Taekwon-Do the Arm-Bar is categorised under "Break" techniques, so a forearm striking into the elbow joint is more appropriate within our stylistic context. Of course, we need not go to such measures if submitting the opponent with a control technique would suffice.