29 April 2011

Promotional Tests at 'The Way'

Master Kim Hoon ceremoniously
ties Cory's new black belt

Since coming to Korea I have been forced to rethink the purpose of promotional tests and the methods of testing.

Last night a friend and colleague, Cory, received his black belt at 'The Way' Martial Arts Academy of Seoul. Shortly after I joined the ITF Taekwon-dojang in Seoul as an assistant instructor, Cory also showed interest Taekwon-Do so I invited him to join the gym. After nearly three years of training, Master Kim Hoon told him it is time for his black belt test, which occurred last night. I've assisted with other black belt promotional tests here in Korea with Master Kim before, but Cory's feels extra special because he is, in a sense, also my student. He is the first student that started as a white belt attained black belt since I've started teaching at 'The Way'. Since Master Kim allows me to teach according to my Soo Shim Kwan philosophy, Cory is somewhat part of our system too.

Master Kim has an interesting approach to promotional tests. Usually colour belts are not tested at all. When he is convinced that they have attained the next level he would merely walk over to the student, take off his or her belt and replace it with a new higher ranking belt. (He has hinted to have done the opposite too. A student that digressed had his belt revoked.) I once asked him why he does not do formal promotional tests. He answered that he knows his students. They train with him every day so he knows their individual levels and therefore do not feel it necessary to formally test them. However, if he were to promote another instructor's student he would have to test that student to ascertain his or her level first. His approach is very different from my experiences in South Africa and even from my Hapkido and Taekkyeon training in Korea where the promotional tests are quite formalised. In my hapki-dojang colour belt tests occur on a monthly basis and is performed by the kwanjangnim. In Taekkyeon, tests are spaced out more and performed by an external examiner, much like we tend to do it in South Africa.

To be honest, I like Master Kim's approach. There is something simple and personal about it. The idea of your instructor testing you all the time, always checking your progress, feels more engaging. Of course a formal test with an outside instructor could assure quality control as it brings a level of objectivity to the table, but if the instructor is honest and clear-headed, as I consider Master Kim to be, I can see no reason to object to his approach.

For black belts, Master Kim does have an actual promotional test, but his is more of a formality. The tests are not as formal as I've seen it done elsewhere. My own fourth degree black belt test with Master Kim occurred over several weeks. He would sometimes suddenly ask me to do something, like break a number of boards, or do a pattern, or answer some theoretical question. Only later, when he announced my black belt test day, did I realise that I have been tested for quite some time.

A formal test has an advantage in that it tests your ability to function under stress. But it can easily become something else, like a money making scheme. Many instructors use the test, not really to test a student's progress, but as an extra income for the club. This is something that is absent from 'The Way'. Colour belts do not pay a testing fee and black belts pay only the testing fee required of the international certification body. The instructors therefore do not benefit financially from the students' progress. With money out of the equation, progress becomes a much more personal thing. You can be assured that the instructor is interested in your progress, for your sake, and not for the instructor's sake.

Congratulations to Cory on attaining his black belt!

21 April 2011

ITF Taekwon-Do and Sine Wave as 'Sequential Motion'

Mr Manuel Androgué
Any one interested in the sine wave motion in ITF Taekwon-Do must read Mr Manuel Adrogué's article "ITF Taekwon-Do and Sine Wave as 'Sequential Motion': More Power than What Meets the Eye."

It was originally published in three parts in Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine (May, June, and July 2010), but he has recently made it available as one downloadable PDF-file. Of everything I have ever read about the sine wave motion and its development, this article is arguably the best analysis there is. The only thing I would add to it is the Taekkyeon-connection which brought to Taekwon-Do a relaxed elasticity -- a bounciness, a type of body dropping,  a bobbing motion involving the flexing and bending of the knees.

I highly recommend you read this article. Read it more than once.

20 April 2011

The Basics of Power Generation in (ITF) Taekwon-Do

Power generation in (ITF) Taekwon-Do basically comes down to this:

accelerate as much body mass as possible in the direction of the technique, with emphasis on strong exhalation, and without compromising your balance and posture.

Try to always start from a relaxed position. This will require you to slightly and naturally bend your limbs. (You may find yourself somewhat lower than before.)

Your body motion might be described as going down.

One of the easiest ways to get as much body mass as possible accelerated is to merely “drop” your body. So momentarily forget that you have legs and just drop, letting your technique “fall” into your opponent with your whole body mass behind it. However, maintain control of your balance at all times. This method works great for techniques that go downwards or forwards at a slight downward angle. If you are already “up,” just fall. If you are low and still want to do a forward or downward type technique, then you will need to go up first and then fall into the technique. (If you are “low,” it might be better to use a technique that uses an upward angle, in which case follow the Push method.)

Your body motion might be describe as going down or up-down.

We are assuming that your body is at a low position. For techniques that go upward or forwards at a slight upward angle, swiftly push with your legs up (and forward). If your body is “up” already, and you really want to do an upward-technique, it will obviously require you to come down first, then push up. (If you are “up” it might be better to just use a technique that uses a downward angle, in which case follow the Fall method.)

Your body motion might be described as going up, or down-up.

A good Taekwon-Doin knows how to "ride the wave" and will fall and push alternately, getting lots of body mass behind each technique.

Hip Rotation
Another way to accelerate body mass behind a technique is through rotating your torso by jerking your hips in the direction of the technique. It is usually possible to just jerk your hip in the direction of the technique from your current position, but sometimes you may need to pull your hip back first, then jerk it in the direction it has to go. Hip Rotation works very well for most techniques (you can use it both when falling and pushing to accelerate the fall or push), but it is especially effective for techniques that rotate sideways.

A very important part of Hip Rotation is to extend this principle through out the body into every limb and joint, so that each part of the body ads to the acceleration, creating a whip-like action. This is known as kinetic chaining or sequential motion.

Exhale during techniques, especially sharply at the moment your technique makes impact at which time you momentarily tense all your muscles. The exhalation should have the same feeling as when you naturally grunt while picking up a very heavy object.

Balance & Posture
Never do techniques so powerfully that you lose your balance or put yourself in a compromised position. We want maximum force, minus whatever necessary to keep your balance. (This is why Taekwon-Do's turning kick is done differently from Muay Thai's roundhouse kick.)

These are the basics. Learn to fall, push and do whip-like rotation to maximise the acceleration of body mass behind a technique; also learn to relax, keep good balance, and exhale sharply, and you've got 80% of it nailed. The remainder is just some refinement, a better use of physics and body mechanics, and exploitation of your opponent's motions.

17 April 2011

Saju Jjireugi and Saju Makgi: A Techno-Philosophical Exploration

The two fundamental movement sequences "Four Direction Punch" or Saju Jjireugi (aka Saju Jirugi) 사주찌르기 and "Four Direction Block" or Saju Makgi 사주막기 are very important training exercises to help the beginning student get a feeling for static and dynamic balance, to get a sense of how to shift one's body weight, and to get an awareness of one's positioning within your surroundings. The more sensitive and higher level student can also learn from the saju-sequences the importance of intermedial positions and the concepts of hard-and-soft.

Jjireugi 찌르기 and makgi 막기 mean punch and block respectively. The word "saju” 사주 is made up of two syllabic root words. This first part “sa-” 사 means four, from the Hanja character 四. The second, “-ju” 주, could have a number of meanings. Ju could mean “week” 週, so some have suggested that it requires about four weeks, sa-ju, for a person to learn one of these sequences. While I like to tell beginning students this, I doubt this is the actual meaning.

A more plausible meaning for ju is the main part, the principle element, or chief point – literally “master,” 主. Thus, saju could mean the four main points. What are the main points? Purely based on the form of the saju-sequences, it seems obvious that the four main points are the four chief directions of the compass, or considering yourself as the central point, the four main points are your front, your back, and your sides—left and right. This is, of course, in line with the usual English translations of Saju Jjireugi and Saju Makgi as "Four Direction Punch" and "Four Direction Block." A further meaning for ju is root, 株. Thus saju could mean four roots. Therefore, these sequences help you to establish your roots in the basic way of moving in the four principle directions.

When combined, the syllables “sa” and “ju” also have other meanings; the one I find especially relevant is as a synonym for “sa-wui” 사위, meaning one's “environment” or “surroundings.” This is based on the Hanja characters 四 (four) and 圍 (encircle). One can therefore interpret 四圍 as an awareness of the four areas (front, back, left side and right side) that make up your surroundings.

The palgwe forms part of the Taoist Cosmology,
but is also used as a practical paradigm in some
martial arts such as Taijiquan and Baguazhang

Another meaning of saju is the “Four Pillars” (the year, month, day and hour of your birth), used in Oriental numerology. This meaning alludes to the palgwe 팔괘 (ba-gua in Chinese), the eight diagrams that forms part of Taoist cosmology. There are two Chinese martial arts that are strongly based on the palgwe, namely Taijiquan (Tai-Chi) and Baguazhang. A study of Taekwon-Do would also indicate an awareness of the palgwe. (In a previous post I speculate that ITF Taekwon-Do's 24 pattern set starts with an allusion to Taoist and Korean philosophy.)

The taegeukdo 태극도,
known in Chinese as the taijitu 太極圖,
surrounded by the palgwe 팔괘 --
in Chinese the ba-gua 八卦.
The palgwe refers to eight “pillars” or “points” instead of just four and this has led me to search for the missing four pillars in the saju-sequences. They are indeed there, albeit not as active movements, but as passive moments of observation. While doing the movements in the saju-sequences you actually move through these extra four points. Most people are unaware of these in-between moments, these intermediate positions, and merely rush through them in order to get to the conclusion of each movement, be it punch or block positioned at the chief wind directions: North, West, South, East. This is quite unfortunate because if you miss these intermediate positions at North West, North East, South West and South East, you miss a big part of Taekwon-Do. These intermediate positions are moments of composure, observation, relaxed awareness. In the typical sine wave movement, the intermediate positions are usually that first “relax” part of the typical relax-rise-drop (down-up-down) movement. The intermediate positions are where you cross your arms before blocking, they are the moment of resting your weight on the rear leg before propelling forward. They are the moment of “Void,” before every action. If your punches and blocks are the active Yang, then these intermediate positions are the passive Yin. (“Yin-Yang,” referring to the cosmic dual forces 陰陽, is pronounced “Eum-Yang” 음양 in Korean.)

The palgwe surrounding a Korean
version of the taegeukdo that symbolise
  the dual forces of eum and yang.
In the same way that Taijiquan and Baguazhang base their basic movements on the palgwe, we can also benefit from a practical application of palgwe principles. The circular nature of the saju-sequences that requires one to move through the wind direction, added with the meaning of saju, referring to the main directions while building an awareness of your surroundings, suggests that such an interpretation of these sequences could be possible. From my personal experience I can confirm that since I have started to interpret the saju-sequences in this manner a number of years back, it enriched my understanding of Taekwon-Do's basic movements quite profoundly.

So how would you start to bring this palgwe awareness into your training? Do the saju-sequences slowly and then take special notice of the wind directions. First become fully aware of the four chief wind directions—North, West, South, East—and what your body and mind is doing at those points. For example, at the moment you do that first punch in Saju Jjireugi, notice the forward force, notice the tension in your body at the supposed moment of impact, notice the intend in your mind towards the opponent. Then start to focus on the intermediate positions and the in-between wind directions—North-West, South-West, South-East, North-East—as you move through them. Become especially aware of how your body is positioned in these intermediate positions, where your centre of gravity is, how your body weight is shifted on your feet, your arm positions, your breathing, your eyes, your mental attitude. Finally, do the saju-sequences again, but now with full awareness of all eight directions and your attitude, both physically and psychologically, as you move through these eight points. There should be an oscillation of relaxation and tension as you move through the points—an eum-yang consciousness: the yang (hard/tense) punches and blocks are alternated by the eum (soft/relaxed) intermediate positions. Practising Saju Jjireugi and Saju Makgi in this way will also influence how you understand such concepts as the sine wave movement and the Wave / Circle Principle.

12 April 2011

More Drills

There have been a number of posts on drills and prearranged sparring on martial art blogosphere of late. Last week I posted on the Soo Shim Kwan's Three Step Sparring 'Basic Six', and earlier this week I posted about my Human Dummy Drill.

Apart from my blog there are some other bloggers that also posted on drills / prearranged sparring. One that is well worth checking out is Dan Djurdjevic's post in two parts on his blog The Way of Least Resistance. The two part post ("Boards Don't Hit Back" -- Part 1 / Part 2) concludes with a form of prearranged sparring where you actually practice to recover from a failed technique. I think it a very sensible drill, and a thought provoking article. It goes nicely with my earlier post on the purpose and value of prearranged sparring.

At another blog, Traditional Taekwondo Techniques, instructor Collin Wee shows a drill for the hooking block, which you can see in the video below. I really like this drill as it shows the very "waving" nature of the hooking block. Using it, students will acquire a form of fluidity that is part of Taekwon-Do, but which is often neglected.

Be sure to read Mr Wee's post in which he explains more about this drill: "Taekwondo Pattern Yul-gok Close-Quarter Drill."

11 April 2011

Human Dummy Drill

The other night we were practising prearranged sparring. While the students found defensive postures like blocking easy enough, some students found it difficult to come up with a variety of appropriate counter-attacks. They tended to fall back on the same counter-attacks all the time, such as a reverse punch or low turning kick. Of course, there is nothing wrong with using those techniques that come most naturally to you. It is good that you have such an arsenal of reflexive techniques to rely upon. Yet part of the purpose of prearranged sparring is to provide an opportunity to practise a greater variety of techniques to apply within a specific scenario. It allows one the chance to ingrain new techniques that could potentially become reflexive responses as well.

Being familiar with the vital spots is important. (You can review Taekwon-Do's primary vital spots at the SA-ITF website, here.) But more than a mere surface knowledge of these points, a 'feeling' for how to reach the vital points, which attacks work most comfortably and most powerfully from whichever position relative to these targets are equally, or probably even more, important.

Human Dummy Drill

One drill I use to help students acquire such a 'feeling' is to have a training partner act as a human dummy and allow the student to move around the training partner while mock attacking different vital spots.

Image Source
In a sense, the drill is similar to how one would use the wooden dummy used by Chinese martial arts (i.e. Whin Chun). The wooden dummy drill is in two ways better than the human dummy drill because you can hit the targets with much more force while also conditioning your attacking tools and limbs, but it is not very representative of 'real' targets, nor can you move around the dummy. On the other hand, the human dummy drill is better that the wooden dummy drill because one can move 360 degrees around the 'dummy' and it provides an accurate account of the human body. Unfortunately you cannot hit the targets with too much force since you will injure your training partner and therefore it also doesn't help much with attacking tool conditioning.

Students practising prearranged sparring at
'The Way' ITF dojang in Seoul, South Korea.
To do the 'human dummy' drill I usually start out with the training partner just standing in a natural upright posture, feet somewhat apart and arms raised slightly away from the sides. Moving around the training partner allows the student to identify different vital spots from many different angles. Merely naming the vital spots is not enough. Instead, the student should move around the training partner while attacking the vital spots with appropriate attacks. The student's distance and relative position to the training partner will influence the type of attacks chosen. An important part of this exercise is to continue moving around the training partner. Just standing in one position and attacking vital spots makes one think too much. By continuing to move around the 'dummy' the student is forced to go with the flow and identify and attack vital spots as they 'appear'. This not only practise functional movement from stance to stance, but it also prevents the mind from only seeing a target from one entry point. Later one could have the 'human dummy' move into different postures, like a boxer's guard, like a walking stance punch, a kicking chamber, and so on. Each posture forces the student to identify other vital spots that are most accessible from that particular position. It also changes the three dimensional space around the opponent which will require one to move around the dummy in different ways.

Remember, of course, that this drill is a good exercise to help one expand your awareness of different vital spots and different attacks to reach these vital spots. However, don't forget that this is only an exercise and not reflective of a real combative encounter because your opponent is not moving.

The human dummy drill is a good exercise to do before doing prearranged sparring exercises as it reviews the vital spots and helps the students 'feel' how to attack them better.

06 April 2011

Three Step Sparring -- “Basic Six”

There is no fixed sequence for Three Step Sparring, so different dojang around the world teach different routines. The Three Step Sparring “Basic Six” routine is the introductory set we do at Soo Shim Kwan dojang, usually from around yellow stripe and yellow belt level, and is a variation of the “Basic Six” routine I learned from my first instructor, Mr Johan Bolton. Through the “Basic Six” routine the students are introduced to the most elementary blocking techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do. Many of the other blocks in Taekwon-Do are basically adaptations of these “Basic Six”.

The embedded video shows the “Basic Six” sequence. Both Mr De Vos and I have not done the Three Step Sparring “Basic Six” (or just Three Step Sparring for that matter) in quite some time, so we look a bit rusty. Apologies for not preparing a better video -- my time in South Africa was far too limited to record another video. Nonetheless, the video clearly depicts the sequence of the blocks with their associated counter-attacks.

For the Three Step Sparring “Basic Six” all attacks are forward stepping walking stance obverse punches. Blocks #1-3 are performed in walking stance and blocks #4-6 are performed in L-stance. The blocks and counter-attacks are as follows:

I also teach Soo Shim Kwan's Three Step
Sparring "Basic Six" routine to students
at 'The Way' ITF dojang in Seoul, South
#1: Outer-forearm outward block, counter-attacking with a reverse punch to the solar-plexus.

#2: Inner-forearm outward block, counter-attacking with a reverse punch to the solar-plexus.

#3: Outer-forearm inward block, counter-attack by stepping forward with the rear foot towards the outside into an appropriate stance and performing a rear elbow thrust to the kidney or floating ribs.

#4: Knife-hand block (to grasping block on the third block), counter-attacking with a side-piercing kick from the leading leg to the liver or floating ribs while pulling the opponent towards your kick.

#5: Ridge-hand block (aka reverse knife-hand block), counter-attacking with a front-snap kick from the leading leg to the epigustrium or solar-plexus.

#6: Forearm-guarding block, counter-attack by dodging to the outside on third step (don't block), while attacking with a turning kick from the rear leg to the epigustrium or solar-plexus. Resume a guarding block.

Once students are comfortable with the “Basic Six” they are encouraged to use it as a template and become innovative in the blocking techniques and counter-attacks they use. It is preferable that they source their blocks and attacks from the techniques in their patterns.

The purpose of Three Step Sparring is to introduce students to partner work, to acquaint them with correct angles for blocking and attacking, to conditioning the blocking tools, and to help students get into the habit of targeting specific vital spots.

An important point to remember is that pre-arranged sparring should not be confused with actual fighting. As Rory Miller puts it,“drills”, such as Three Step Sparring, are “deliberately flawed” to make them safe. Three Step Sparring is merely a tool to teach certain fundamental principles and skills to the beginning student. Make sure to read my post on the purpose and value of pre-arranged sparring. When all is said and done, be sure to keep Three Step Sparring in its proper place; in other words, do not over train it. While helpful to gain certain skills and learn certain principles, prearranged sparring can be bad for you as it also ingrains erroneous habits like stopping short of the target.

02 April 2011

Totally Tae Kwon Do

Totally Tae Kwon Do Issue #26
In the latest copy (Issue #26) of Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine you can read my essay "Confusing ITF Terminology" (p. 37-40) based on an earlier post on this blog -- "Confusing Terminology: Crescent Kick, Vertical Kick, Hooking Kick, Hook Kick." You can also read the third part of the four part series by Sabeomnim Tristian Vardy, vice president of the SA-ITF, on children's physiology and Taekwon-Do (begins on page 55) that I edited for The Sidekick magazine.

Other highlights in this issue is Richard Conceicao's "The Knife Hand Chamber" (p. 35, 36), concerned with the knife-hand guarding block. In his short essay he clearly illustrates a good understanding of the circle principle, which I'm sure frequent readers of this blog will enjoy too.