18 March 2012

Little Black Belts?

Most South Koreans train in a martial art as children. This is usually not taken seriously and for the most part the technical standards are quite low. This is because most of the dojang function merely as an after school P.T. centre and the kids often just fool around and learn some rudimentary martial techniques.

Seeing Korean kids run around with black belts is a common sight in South Korea, and does generally not mean that these children are any good. Children's martial arts is a big industry in Korea. Very, very few students fail promotional tests. I've been to the Kukkiwon (the WTF Mecca) and witnessed black belt testing for children. Within the span of a morning around 2000 children are tested for their black belts. There are over twenty such promotional testing centres in Seoul, the capital, alone, although they these centres may have fewer candidates testing at a time. Regardless, it would not be an overstatement to suggest that on any given weekend over 10 000 children test for black belt, just in the Seoul Province alone.

I personally took the video below. In it you can see how children's black belt tests are run at the Kukkiwon. The video shows the poomse (forms) section of the test. A regiment of twenty students perform their poomse at one time. They are required to do three forms, after which they are shooed off the mat so that the next battery of twenty students that have been waiting on the side can be tested. Even though techniques are often done with little power and uncertain form, as long as the candidate does something that resembles the poomse (i.e. as long as they move along), they will be promoted.

The next video shows the sparring section of the test. Candidates spar for about 10-20 seconds, one round. Contact doesn't seem to be necessary as long as there is a general attempt at showing some kicks.

Children are generally not expected to do any breaking techniques. The children's black belt promotional test therefore requires less than five minutes of performance time. Children black belts do not don the full black belt, in South Korea, but instead a "children's black belt", which is a belt divided into black and red. Obviously children are not expected to be at the same standard as adults. However, adult tests for first to third degree black belt in WTF taekwondo doesn't require much more. They have to demonstrate some extra kicks and / or some easy breaking.

My point is not to humiliate the quality of WTF taekwondo in South Korea. We cannot forget that it is still the South Koreans that take most of the medals at the Olympic Games. South Korea taekwondo has for the most part a completely different function than in many other countries. It's original purpose as a combat system or self-defence system is nearly non-existent, in part because South Korea is such a safe place and there really is hardly a need for civilian self-defence training. Here Taekwon-Do is primarily a form of recreational exercise aimed at children. Parents send their children to Taekwon-dojang for the exercise mostly, seeing as children are forced to spend so much of their time sitting and doing academic studies. At the Taekwon-dojang it is not unusual for them to play other exercise-games such as soccer as well. The emphasis is not in learning martial arts per se, but in getting fit and releasing pent up frustrations.

Since the general quality is therefore so elementary and one so often see children with black belts with poor abilities, it is nice to see those children that are truly talented and particularly keen martial artists. One example is the boy below, Seung Ahn Lee, who was a semi-finalist in Korea's Got Talent 2011. What he does is mostly martial acrobatics, but seeing as he is probably only six years old, it is very impressive, nonetheless.

Another example is WTF taekwondo prodigy Frederick Emil Olsen, who at the age of eight was inducted into the Taekwondo Hall of Fame last year, receiving the Youth Award. His talent and amazing (international) tournament track record, often competing against children much older than himself, makes him one of the greatest child athletes today. As is obvious from his name, he is not Korean, but Danish.

During the recent Annual General Meeting for the ITF Taekwon-Do group in my home country South Africa, an interesting decision was made. It was decided that children under the age of 12 years cannot receive the normal black belt, because it was argued that a young child cannot truly embody the qualities, both physically and mentally, that a black belt represents. Like WTF taekwondo here in Korea that awards a "children's black belt" for children, the SA-ITF have decided to do something similarly and also only award a local "children's black belt". Children that did get such a black belt, will have to do a re-evaluation when they become 12 years old, in order to be awarded the internationally recognised ITF 1st Dan black belt. I must say that I support this decision. Of course, if there is a child prodigy of the likes of young Mr. Olsen in South Africa we may need to make an exception, but even then keep in mind that a black belt not merely symbolises technical ability, but also a certain maturity and philosophical insight.

But back to the technical ability: ITF Taekwon-Do, with its "Art of Self-Defence"-focus, and in particularly in a country like South Africa where self-defence is indeed a necessity, cannot afford to slack technical standards, not even amongst children. In South Africa Taekwon-Do may have a recreational function, but considering the potentially violent context, martial arts in South Africa has a responsibility to equip their practitioners with actual defensive skills. A 1st degree black belt in South Africa must be equipped with a functional degree of self-defence ability. A black belt cannot merely resemble a fair knowledge of theory, the memorisation of some patterns, and an accepted period of training. South Africa's violent crime context necessitates more.

This is an important point, regarding "Little Black Belts" -- what is applicable in one context is not in another. Such young black belts in South Korea truthfully do not need much self-defence skill or knowledge. Children in South Africa, on the other hand, requires vigilance, a different type of self-defence awareness, knowledge of general self-preservation principles, and even some physical defensive ability appropriate to their age.


Ymar Sakar said...

In the US, self defense is not considered either something that is required due to violence or a luxury due to safety. In the US, the ability or power to enforce your own decrees is considered a virtue analogous to a citizen's duty to defend their country and family back in Ancient Greece. This mostly applies to certain geographic zones in the US, such as the midlands and rural areas away from the urban centers. Also the West and East coasts are full of gun control enthusiasts, with their concurrent higher urban city crime such as LA or New York.

The US favors guns primarily as the popular SD tool of choice, but there are broad sub sectors that also prioritize H2H training. Even gun control enthusiasts like Californian Democrats got a concealed carry permit when they felt their lives in danger. Of course, what's allowed a Mayor is not allowed to the citizens of that town.

What kids lack is intent. Although adults don't necessarily have it either. One must have a certain goal in mind when doing attacks or defenses. If the image of that goal isn't perfect, then the flaws will be created in reality as well. Also the will required to power that image is high and if a person doesn't want it badly enough, he will hesitate minutely and thus generate a vacuum of power in reality.

For example, people sometimes have the saying that a person can have a strong enough desire to want something that they can taste it. Revenge, hate, love, these are the emotions that are normally associated with such strong levels of desire. But in H2H, there is a concurrent level of intent that is just as high in magnitude but not necessarily fueled by such emotions. Children are nowhere near this level, and it's something that isn't necessarily reached by people having excellent athletic and physical abilities either.

In WW1, aces were said to be only certified and recognized after 5 kills. What about the other 4 kills? At the time it could have been luck or happenstance, rather than skill. After 5, it was pretty certain that this guy didn't survive because of luck or at least he's not surviving on luck now that he has enough experience to combine survival instincts with training.

Anonymous said...

Interesting read! Fred brought me here