21 June 2011

Why We Don't See More Balgyeong in ITF Taekwon-Do

I think I'm slowly coming to the end of this series of posts regarding balgyeong 발경/ fajin 發勁 in ITF Taekwon-Do. I envision, maybe, two more posts on the topic.

In the previous two posts (see here and here) on balgyeong I argued that ITF Taekwon-Do has evolved to include this other method of doing techniques, that's different from the methodology it inherited from Shotokan Karate and I'm not talking about the sine wave motion, although relaxation and the wave principle that the sine wave motion requires were probably the catalyst for doing certain techniques the balgyeong way. If it is true, as I argue, that balgyeong has become part of ITF Taekwon-Do, then why don't we see more of it? Following I propose answers to this question.

"Reverse Turning Kick" -- Image Source
"Ridge Hand Front Strike" -- Image Source
The first reason we do not see balgyeong often is, as I have mentioned in a previous post, not all Taekwon-Do techniques lend themselves to balgyeong. To perform balgyeong the technique is zapped towards the target and immediately upon contact one removes your whole bodily structure. The idea is that if your body keeps contact with the opponent, some of the rebound force will return back into your body. In order to prevent this from happening you quickly withdraw your weapon (attacking tool), so that the force generated is transferred into the target as a pulse of energy. That is why balgyeong strikes are sometimes called “impulse” or “impact” strikes. With some Taekwon-Do techniques it is almost impossible to quickly withdraw your attacking tool in the way that balgyeong requires. An example of such a technique that does not lend itself to balgyeong is the spinning reverse turning kick. Done in the traditional way, the reverse turning kick hits the target with the leg fully extended, swinging through the target. Another example is the ridge hand front strike where the arm is also extended in such a way that a quick recoil after it hits the target is not possible. Both these techniques hit their targets like a crowbar, rather than a ball-on-chain. There are many such Taekwon-Do techniques that just do not function properly as balgyeong techniques and, I believe, forcing a balgyeong methodology onto them may actually detract from the efficiency of these techniques.

"Sine Wave Movement" -- Image Source
There is, however, a large percentage of the Taekwon-Do arsenal for which the balgyeong methodology does make sense. Unfortunately, and this brings us to the second reason we do not see that much balgyeong, is that it is a relatively recent development in ITF Taekwon-Do. I assume that it is something that developed either in tandem or maybe shortly after the newer version of the sine wave motion. As I mentioned earlier, both the sine wave motion and balgyeong share two base elements: relaxation and the wave principle. The sine wave motion is often misunderstood or understood superficially and therefore shunned—even by portions of the ITF community. The same could be true for balgyeong. In fact, balgyeong is probably even less understood because at least the sine wave motion is labelled and has an associated vocabulary. This is not the case for balgyeong. I have understood conceptually and practised balgyeong for quite some time, but until recently I've never actually known what to call it. I had to borrow Chinese internal martial art terminology (e.g. fajin) to describe it. Even though the ingredients for balgyeong are all mentioned (in separate places) in the ITF Encyclopaedia, the actual concept is never distinctly labelled or explained. It will therefore take some time still before the majority of ITF players around the world are familiar with it, although quite a number already apply it. And I'm sure, were I to explain the concept to ITF practitioners, many of them would tell me they understand what I'm talking about and that they are, in fact, applying it. (Try it: explain it to your fellow ITF practitioners and hear their response. I'll be curious to find out.)

A further reason why balgyeong is not readily seen is because of tournaments and particularly the influence of the pattern category. Patterns are considered by many one of the ultimate estimates of skill in Taekwon-Do. It receives a very important place in ITF Taekwon-Do competitions. Unfortunately sport has a way of corrupting the essence of a martial art. I've discussed the issue I have with tournaments before (see for instance here, here, and here), but these were specifically in relation to the negative effects of tournament sparring. I feel similarly about the negative effects of tournament patterns.

"Walking Stance Front Punch" -- Image Source
The pattern player has it as his or her goal to impress the judges. While it is true that patterns have an aesthetic quality, this aspect of the pattern is especially amplified during tournaments. For instance, kicks that are to be performed at middle height are often performed at high section. This is, of course, to show off the practitioners balance, flexibility and leg strength; however, it is technically “wrong” as the original directions for the pattern requires a middle kick, not a high kick. At tournaments such errors are often overlooked. Another thing that tournament patterns promote is to momentarily pause the attacking or blocking tool at the point of impact. This is to help the judges clearly see the exact point of impact; yet at the cost of the correctness of the technique. Take the simple punch as case in point. The ITF Encyclopaedia clearly states that the muscles should be relaxed “immediately after the fist has reached the target” (Vol. 3, p. 29) and that the “moment the attacking tool reaches the target, pull it back . . .” (Vol. 3, p. 17). If these maxims were followed, the typical ITF Taekwon-Do punch would typify balgyeong, but this is not how punches are generally performed, especially not in tournament patterns. Instead, the arms are momentarily paused in the fully extended punching position. The emphasis on tournament patterns ingrain a non-balgyeong methodology—not only by senior practitioners, but also by the onlookers who are often younger or lower ranking practitioners who in turn emulate this “wrong¹” methodology.

Doing punches (and other techniques) “wrongly” in patterns need not be the norm as it is now. An example where a technique is quickly retracted after impact with the target is the front snap kick. The reason it is performed this way is because the ITF Encyclopaedia admonishes that the “kicking foot must be withdrawn immediately after the kick” (Vol 4. p. 41). As we have noted earlier, practically the same is advised for the punch; however it has become the expected norm to withdraw the front snap kick in patterns, but not the norm for punches. You can see this in the video below where an excellent pattern practitioner, Sabeomnim Jaroslaw Suska (5th Dan), performs the pattern Kwang Gae. Start watching from around 1:14. Notice how he does the front snap kick, compared with how he does the front punch.

This is an excellent pattern for tournament purposes; however, there is a technical inconsistency. What we ought to see after a punch is the musculature of the arm immediately relaxing, leaving the arm slightly bend and the attacking tool (the fist) withdrawn from the point of impact, i.e. the imagined target. Therefore, because punches are often done “wrongly” (for tournament purposes), techniques such as the punch that could be performed with balgyeong are frequently performed without balgyeong. The punch is just one example of many such techniques; for instance back fist strikes, some knife-hand strikes, some blocks, and so on.

To conclude, balgyeong is not the only way we apply the Theory of Power in techniques. Also, not all techniques necessarily benefit from balgyeong, nor do the mechanics of all techniques lend themselves to proper execution of balgyeong. Furthermore, balgyeong is not yet well understood worldwide, and therefore not a fully incorporated methodology in ITF Taekwon-Do everywhere. Moreover, one of the main opportunities to witness balgyeong is in patterns, but unfortunately patterns are often practised for tournament purposes which erroneously require the practitioner to momentarily pause the technique at the supposed moment of impact, which is contrary to correct application of balgyeong that requires the immediate relaxation and withdrawal of the attacking or blocking tool instantly after impact. For these reasons, even though I have argued that balgyeong is part of ITF Taekwon-Do, we do not see it practised that often.


1.) I write “wrong” in quotation marks, because the actual erroneousness of the technique is relative. It depends on what you hope to achieve with the technique. There are times when one may wish to perform a technique without balgyeong, depending on the desired result. Theoretically a balgyeong technique causes more internal damage, while a non-balgyeong technique causes more topical damage.

Regarding this “wrong” way of doing patterns, I must admit that I am often guilty of it myself and, worse, even teaching it at times. The problem is that since this is the expected norm in tournaments, practitioners that perform outside of the norm cannot compete with those that adhere to the expected norm. Students wanting help with their patterns for tournament purposes I help with this in mind.

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