29 December 2010

Moosool (무술), Mooye (무예) and Moodo (무도)

When I first came to Korea I was surprised to learn that in Korean there are three different expressions for “martial arts”: moosool (alternative Romanization: musul) 무술, mooye (muye) 무예, and moodo (mudo) 무도. Upon learning the meanings of these three expressions, I quickly understood the philosophical implications and this was confirmed in conversations with other martial artists.

You will notice that all three words have at its base the syllable moo- 무; it is therefore worth it to contemplate this root word. Moo / 무 is based on the Chinese character 武 and is usually used to express concepts of military, martial, or warlike. However, a closer look at the character 武 reveals a slightly different meaning. 武 is made up of two characters 戈 and 止. The former means “spear” and the latter “stop”; together they denote stopping a weapon or stopping violence. Although it would not be incorrect to translate moo / 武 / 무 as military, martial or warlike, it is noteworthy that the precise meaning contains the idea of stopping violence. It is therefore a defensive concept, rather than an offensive one.

Moosool / 무술 / 武術

The first term, and often the most common expression for martial arts in Korea is moosool / 무술. Sool / 술 / 術 literally means skill or technique. A better translation for moosool would be martial skill or martial technique – or even fighting techniques. Remember in kung-fu movies when a person would tell his opponent that “You're kung-fu is good,” well this is what he was expressing; i.e. “your skill / technique” is good. Moosool / 무술 refers specifically to the individual fighting techniques. Someone with beautiful, precise, power movements is said to have good skill or good technique.

A person enrolled into a martial art school will learn a variety of fighting techniques (moosool / 무술), and through lots of dedicated practise will get good at it. This term is focussed primarily on physical ability.

Mooye / 무예 / 武藝

The term -ye / 예 / 藝 means art, talent or craft. It is mooye / 무예 that is the expression we use in English, namely “martial art.” Art suggests a creative use of the techniques. Almost anyone can learn some skill, but not everyone has made it such a part of themselves, that they can use it artfully, where you can use it in an improvised way.

Before you can achieve this level where you can truly apply the skills you have learned in a creative, intuitive way, you have to have mastered your discipline. Such mastery takes about 10, 000 hours. Daniel Levitin in his book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession explains:

“The emerging scientific picture is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.”

Ten thousand hours is about three hours of training per day for ten years.

Usually, after about ten years of training you would be a fourth degree black belt in ITF Taekwon-Do and considered a full instructor. Some other Korean martial arts like WTF Taekwon-Do, Tang Soo Do, and Hapkido actually use the term “master” for someone with a fourth degree black belt.

To call someone a martial artist is to suggest that this person has spent many years of time and energy in honing his martial art skills to such a level that he can adapt those skills in an improvised, creative way to different situations.

Moodo / 무도 / 武道

The final way to express martial art in Korean is moodo / 무도. The term Do / 도 / 道 literally means path or way, but has a much deeper meaning in the Orient. It is the same character on which the philosophy of Taoism is based. Actually, the character for Tao is 道, and is pronounced do / 도 in Korean. So pertinent is the idea of the Do / 도 / 道, that it makes up part of the names of many martial arts, for instance Taekwon-Do (태권도 / 跆拳道), Tang Soo Do, Hapkido, Judo, and Aikido.

The scope of this post does not allow me to go much into the concept of the Do / 도 / 道as it a very complicated idea that has been the topic of philosophical, religious and moral conversations for centuries. In short, the Do / 도 / 道 is understood in Taoism as the “essential principle underlying existence,” in other words, “ultimate reality.” In Korean (Confucian) thinking, the Do / 도 / 道 is the way of the universe—natural way or true path—that one ought to follow.

Directly translated, Moodo / 무도 / 武道 means “martial way.” From Korean to English it is also sometimes translated as chivalry or knighthood. Koreans speak about moodo-in / 무도인; that is, “martial way person.” In Japanese the term for moodo / 무도 is budo, which is closes related to the concept of bushido / 武士道; i.e. the way of the warrior.

Moodo / 무도 not merely suggests learning fighting techniques, or even mastery of the art (mooye / 무예), but rather a way / Do / 도 of life. One's practise in the discipline has transcended skill and art (aesthetics) into ascetics. Your practise has become a spiritual discipline, a path towards enlightenment.


In summary, there are three ways to talk about the discipline of fighting in Korean: moosool / 무술, mooye / 무예 and moodo / 무도. All three contain the root word moo / 무, based on the Chinese character 武, which means to stop a weapon or stop violence and is usually translated as military, martial or warlike. Moosool / 무술 refers to the specific fighting techniques one learns. Mooye / 무예 suggests that after years of practise, the techniques have become such a part of you that you can use it in a creative, improvised way. It evokes a level of mastery. Finally, moodo / 무도 pertains to the martial arts as a way of life, an ascetic discipline. Each of these suggests a different phase in the growth of the martial artist. First he learns techniques. After years of dedicated practise his discipline becomes so ingrained that it manifests in the intuitive, improvised creativity that is a testimony to his mastery of the techniques. Finally, he becomes his practise—it is a way of life, that reveals to him something of the natural order of things, of the way of the universe.

27 December 2010

Prearranged Sparring: Definition, Purpose and Value

Edited: December 2014

In a combative encounter (in other words, in a fight) your brain needs to process hundreds of variables, take in thousands of units of sensory information and make ten thousands of instantaneous calculations. Some things that your brain needs to take into account are how many attackers there are, their intend, the types of attacks that are launched towards you (straight punch? haymaker punch? kicks? weapons?), the angle the attacks are approaching, the relative distance and speed of these attacks, your own ability to dodge (or block?) such attacks, your footing and characteristic of the surface your standing on (is it slippery? are there obstacles?), and a myriad other variables. Most of these variables are never consciously evaluated since there is just not enough time to do so. The body has to react instantaneously and all necessary calculations has to happen reflexively. It is believed by some that the only way to practise for combative encounters is just to get yourself into real fights often and then just slug it out, and hopefully, with time, your brain will start to make sense of the chaos, start to recognise certain patterns, and slowly come up with some survival skills. That is, of course, if you are lucky enough to survive long enough to learn from all of this.

Over time the martial arts have come up with a way to actually practise for certain aspects of a combative encounter that is less chaotic and allows one to train very precise skills. The theory is that if you practise some specific skills, based on some typical combat patterns, hopefully these skills will kick in as engrained reflexes when you are thrown into a chaotic combative encounter.

The martial arts achieve this by making the combative encounter more abstract—less detailed; in other words, by removing many of the variables and presenting the trainer with very specific scenarios. The most simple way to do this is to limit the number of attacks. For instance, it is predetermined that your training partner will attack you with, say, three attacks. At beginner level, the type of attacks may even be appointed. Within the limits of these three attacks you have to adequately defend yourself against the attacks using blocks or dodges, and also retaliate with a counter attack. Such exercises where some of the variables are reduced and specific attacks are predetermined are called prearranged sparring, yaksok matseogi / 약속 맞서기, in Taekwon-Do.

The noun yaksok / 약속 means promise or agreement. The word matseogi, usually translated into English as “sparring” is based on two root words. The prefix mat- / 맞- means to be positioned face to face or to oppose, while seogi / 서기is based on the verb seoda / 서다 that means to stand up or take up a position. Matseogi, therefore, means to stand up against a foe, or to face an opponent or difficulty. In its totality yaksok matseogi / 약속 맞서기 is a type of sparring that is agreed upon; literally, agreement-sparring. In three-step sparring [sambo matseogi / 삼보 맞서기] the number of attacks, or steps, are agreed upon; sambo / 삼보 literally means three steps. Apart from three-step sparring, there is also two-step sparring [ibo matseogi / 이보 맞서기] and one-step sparring [ilbo matseogi / 일보 맞서기]. The ITF Taekwon-Do Encyclopaedia makes it clear that prearranged sparring involves various assumptions, like “the number of steps to be taken, the target to be attacked and the attacking tool to be used” (Volume 5, p. 19).

The video below shows one example of two-step sparring:

Since prearranged sparring involves such assumptions it clearly lacks the unpredictability of a real life fight. For this reason, people unfamiliar with the purpose of prearranged sparring will immediately dismiss it as unrealistic and therefore useless. Such a conclusion is based on their ignorance of the purpose of the exercise. Prearranged sparring is deliberately unrealistic (abstract) in order to practise very specific skills that one would not be able to practise so intensively in an actual fight. By reducing the variables, the practitioner can practise very specific skills, like defence techniques against particular attacks. As the skill level of the practitioner improves some variables may be increased and the abstraction level decreased. For instance, at beginner level it is agreed that the attacker will only use straight punch attacks, but over time other types of hand techniques may be included like crescent punches (haymaker punches), upward punches (uppercuts) and a variety of strikes. Eventually the abstraction level is so much reduced that the exercise starts to approach the unpredictability of a real fight; however, by then it is hoped that the practitioner will have honed enough skill (e.g. reflexive responses) to be able to more comfortably cope with the chaos of an actual fight.

To assist the transition from high-abstraction, low variable practise to low-abstraction, high variable practise, there ought to be intermediate exercises that have some arrangement involved, but not too much. One such an exercise in Taekwon-Do is called semi-free sparring, ban jayoo matsogi / 반 자유 맞서기. Ban / 반 means half or semi- and jayoo / 자유 means unrestricted, uncontrolled or free. The ITF Encyclopaedia explains that in semi-free sparring the “distance between players, method of attack and defense used, attacking and blocking tools used and number of steps taken are completely optional” (Volume 5, p. 225). The only restriction is that the attacker may only launch one series of attacks. Once the defender lands a counter attack the sparring stops. Semi-free sparring is similar to point sparring used in some martial art tournaments (for instance Karate kumite – see an example here) where every time a point is possibly scored, the fight is stopped, the point is decided upon by the referees and the fight is resumed.

The next step after semi-free sparring is often tournament sparring, sometimes also called continuous sparring to differentiate it from the non-continuous nature of point sparring.

It would be wrong to think that tournament sparring is free of any abstraction. Tournament sparring still contains some abstraction, i.e. arrangement. The ITF Encyclopaedia is frank about the restrictions placed upon it, saying that while it is “open combat” where there are “no prearranged mode between players, and both participants are completely free to attack and defend with all available means,” there are still, however, requirements of “controlled attacking and prohibition of attacking to certain vital spots” (Volume 5, p. 244). The tournament rules present in such sparring are by definition restrictive of some of the variables one would experience in a real fight. The ITF Encyclopaedia lists at leasts seven points in which free sparring is not “real combat” (Volume 5, p. 257):

  1. Prohibition of attacking the vital spots.
  2. Limited number of attacking tools. (For instance it is illegal to bite.)
  3. Limited number of attacking areas. (For instance it is illegal to attack the groin.)
  4. Limited space for fighting.
  5. Limited number of attacking methods. (For instance joint breaking techniques or ground fighting might be illegal.)
  6. Safety equipment.
  7. No full contact and so on.
In a manner of speaking, even tournament sparring is somewhat “prearranged” because of the “arrangement” imposed upon it by the rules within which it functions. Because tournament sparring is much less abstract and therefore tend to mimic a real fight a little closer, it is easy to fall into the trap of focusing too much on it. I discussed the problem with tournament sparring here and here.

There is often a confusion between tournament sparring and free sparring. The former has a sport focus, while the latter, known as jayoo matsogi [자유 맞서기] in Korean, is another exercise with the aim of self-defence preparation. Because some people erroneously refer to tournament sparring as free sparring, some instructors, like myself, sometimes refer to free sparring as "traditional sparring" [jeontong-eui matseogi / 전통의 맞서기]. For the rest of this post, however, I will stick to the original term, free sparring, which is a sparring drill that does not put a limit on the types of attacking tools, attacking areas, attacking methods, and so on, as is the case with tournament sparring. However, since rules are in place for protection, such unbounded free sparring can be very dangerous. For this reason this type of sparring is usually not practised at full contact and sometimes an instructor might suggest a slower pace, in order to avoid injury. Since such adjustments are also variables that are “prearranged,” even this type of sparring is a form of prearranged sparring. Furthermore, since both parties agreed to the exercise, it is more of a dual, than a real self-defence combat situation, because in a self-defence situation there is usually no pre-intention on the side of the defender to be part of a violent situation.

Unlike non-traditional martial artists that are categorically against all forms of prearranged sparring, I see value in it, if it is taught with its original purpose in mind, which is to hone specific skills, without confusing the exercise for the thing itself. In other words, as long as prearranged sparring is not confused for real fighting, but merely as a tool to learn specific skills that may be valuable in a real fight, I believe it is a very important part of martial art training. If such an approach is followed sensibly and progressively, it will dramatically increase one's ability to cope with the multitude of variables in a fight. Unfortunately many instructors do not properly facilitate true progression from high-abstraction, low variable practise to low-abstraction, high variable practise. The ideal practice should move from prearranged sparring, to semi-free sparring, to tournament sparring and free sparring, to self-defence practise. In the same progression the abstraction level will be reduced (i.e. more variables will be introduced) and the intensity will be increased. The progression will also become more and more “reality based”.

In short, prearranged sparring is a valuable training tool used to hone specific skills that may be valuable during real combat. Because of the deliberate abstraction, prearranged sparring intentionally does not look like real fighting, nor should it be confused with real fighting. The reduction in variables are on purpose so that we can focus on certain specific variables that we wish to train for. Prearranged sparring is part of a continuum of training that becomes progressively less abstract and approaches the real combative encounter in a systematic way relative to the practitioner’s skill level. While there is value in prearranged sparring, an over emphasis can actually become counter productive because practitioners may become too used to the reduction in variables that their preparation is not reflective of the huge number of variables in a real fight. A systematic progression from prearranged abstraction to "reality based" reflection of real combat is crucial.

Further Reading: 

23 December 2010

The Kodang / Juche Controversy

A while back a friend and I got talking about the whole Juche/Kodang controversy. I've mentioned in a previous post how differences between the three ITF groups are starting to become noticeable and that one of the major changes one of the ITF groups made was to rename the pattern Juche to Kodang.

A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon DoThe reason they decided to do so is that the name “Ju-Che” has always been polemic as it is the word used by North Korea to describe their ideology. There used to be another pattern in the Chang-Hong set called Kodang; however, Gen. Choi announced that there are some extra techniques he wanted to be part of the twenty-four pattern set and therefore replaced Kodang with this new one called Juche. Many people are agreed that Kodang was replaced with Juche to appease North-Korea when Gen. Choi went there to introduce Taekwon-Do (and get financial backing) in the early eighties. It is believed that replacing Kodang with Juche was a political move. (A must-read book on the politics of Taekwon-Do is Alex Gillis' A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do.)

The pattern Kodang was named after an independence movement activist Cho Man-sik 조만식; his pen-name was “Go-Dang” 고당. Cho Man-sik was basically the first president of North-Korea (“Chairman of the Provisional People's Committee for the Five Provinces”), but was ousted by the Soviet forces who instated Kim Il-sung, the “father” of North-Korea. Cho Man-sik and Kim Il-sung did not see eye to eye so Cho Man-sik was put under house-arrest. He continued to speak against Soviet-Communism including Kim Il-sung and was eventually silenced. He was sent to jail where he disappeared. Many are of the opinion that Kim Il-sung had him executed.

A large number of people who prefer Cho Man-sik's penname “Kodang” over the name “Juche” often state as their main motivation the obvious link the Juche-ideology has with communism. The thing these people do not realise is that Cho Man-sik, although opposed to Soviet-Communism, was himself a (Christian) Communist. Furthermore, Cho Man-sik's own philosophy was not far removed from the Juche-ideology. Juche is often translated as “spirit of independence” or “self-reliance.” Cho Man-sik is well known for having advocated not only independence, but also “self-sufficiency”; in other words, that the state should be autonomous, not requiring any outside support for its survival. This is practically the same as the Juche-ideology which Kim Il-sung summarised as: (1) independence in political work, (2) self-sustenance in economic endeavours, and (3) self-defence in national defence.

The idea of self-sufficiency / self-reliance is present in both the term Juche and, by association, in the name Kodang. Choosing the name Kodang over Juche because you think the latter is associated with communism while the former is not only reveals your ignorance of Cho Man-sik's life. No, both “Juche” and “Kodang” has communist overtones.

I'm not claiming that there exists no political nuance to the name Juche. In the ITF dojang where I train in South Korea the names of all the patterns, including their explanations, are boldly displayed on a gigantic board. All, except one. The pattern Juche is completely left out on this display since its inclusion may cause suspicion of North-Korean sympathies, which is absolutely not the case. So clearly this name is politically charged.

While political nuances exist, I personally feel no discomfort practising Juche because I prefer to interpret the name somewhat literally. Looking at the Chinese characters we see that it is made up of two concepts. The first is , which means master or owner; the second is , with the denotative meaning of human body. To “master the body” is one of the main ambitions of the martial arts. Through years of devoted practise and discipline it is our aim to completely master our bodies, just like an artist aims to become the master of his medium of choice, be it paint or clay. My personal reading of the term Juche is therefore a wholly literal one, devoid of politics. And I think the name quite fitting to this pattern which is so physically demanding. It definitely requires the mastery of one's body to perform it skillfully.

Neither do I have any discomfort with practising the pattern Kodang. Cho Man-sik was an admirable man. He was an educator and helped establish several schools and universities, and a moral leader and philosopher who became known as the “Ghandi of Korea” because of his struggle for Korean independence from the Japanese occupation. Admittedly, because Kodang Teul is not part of the official 24 Chang-Hong patterns any more, I don't practise it that often—still, at least I have learned it and still perform Kodang Teul on occasion. In the same way, the two exercises Saju-Jjireukgi and Saju-Makgi are also not official patterns either and fall outside of the twenty-four pattern set, yet many people consider them as patterns and practise them as such.

As for the claim that Juche Teul substituted Kodang Teul because of techniques, I'm gullible to believe this. Kodang Teul and Juche Teul clearly cover some of the same material. These two patterns share a number of unique motions that were not introduced in any of the earlier patterns; for instance the waist block, the downward elbow block, the hooking kick, the one-legged ready stance with back kick combination, and the twin knife-hand inward strikes. Juche Teul covers these techniques, plus a couple of extra novel movements. Both patterns also move backwards, unlike most other patterns that progress forwards. Juche Teul teaches what Kodang Teul teaches, plus more, so it does seem to be the case that this pattern was designed as a replacement for Kodang with some augmented material.

I do not think the move to rename Juche with Kodang (a seperate pattern) was a smart move and am in partial agreement with others (see here) who think that it will only cause confusion since there are now two patterns with the same name and that if they so strongly felt that a name change was necessary, a wholly new name for Juche would have been much better.



22 December 2010

Side Piercing Kick, Side Thrusting Kick and Side Pushing Kick

What are the differences between the side piercing kick, side thrusting and kick and side pushing kick?

In a previous post dedicated to the side piercing kick, we noticed that this kick reaches its target in a straight line while applying rotational force and hitting the target with the foot sword.

The side thrusting kick is basically a side piercing kick that uses as its attacking tool, not the foot sword, but the ball of the foot. The ball of the foot is kept vertical at the moment of impact. There is slightly less rotational force, but a little more reach and/or penetration. The Korean term for this kick is yobcha ddulgi / 엽차뚫기. The latter part of the term, ddulgi, is based on the verb ddulda / 뚫다, which can be translated as “to penetrade” or “to go through” something. From this we can deduce that the advantage of this technique over the normal side piercing kick is its reach which allows for more penetration.

The side pushing kick works different from the side piercing and side thrusting kick. The Korean name is yobcha milgi / 엽차밀기. Milgi is based on the verb milda / 밀다 which means to push or shove. The ITF Encyclopaedia says that the side pushing kick doesn't employ the same amount of acceleration as used in the side piercing or side thrusting kicks (Volume 4, p. 38). Instead, it relies more on body mass which is used to push an opponent away. The side pushing kick is always done side facing your opponent (i.e. from a parallel, sitting or diagonal stance), and often done with a cross-over step. As your foot touches the opponent be sure to push, using both your stationary leg and kicking leg to press forward. Remember to lean your body mass into the kick as you push your opponent away. The attacking tool is the same as that of the side piercing kick, namely the foot sword, but because the purpose of this kick is not to hurt the opponent, but merely to push the opponent away, a flat foot would not make the push any less effective. Unlike the other two kicks, there is hardly any revolving motion of the leg in the side pushing kick. Since this kick is used for pushing, the “naturally rapid withdrawal of the kicking foot becomes less important” (Volume 4, p. 38).

In summary: The side piercing kick and side thrusting kicks reach their targets in straight lines, with an accelerated revolving motion. The attacking tool for the side piercing kick is the foot sword and for the side thrusting kick the ball of the foot. The latter gives the side thrusting kick somewhat more penetration than the side piercing kick, although the side piercing kick has more rotational force. The side pushing kick uses body mass to push the opponent away by leaning the foot sword into the target while pushing the body mass forward. The purpose of the first two kicks is to seriously hurt your opponent, while the pushing kick merely creates distance between you and your opponent.

19 December 2010

A Cold: Our Enemy Is Not Always Another Person

In the martial arts, we learn how to protect ourselves from an enemy. One important enemy that is often over looked, is the one of disease. For this reason, we have made the Health Principles an important part of the Soo Shim Kwan.

I came down with a very bad cold recently. As is usually the case, I can track the reasons for it quite clearly against the Health Principles that I have been violating over the last couple of weeks.

The first is a lack of sleep. Not only have I not adequately rested, but I've been burning the candle on both ends. Since it was exam week recently and I therefore did not have to be at my office early, I took the liberty to stay up even later than usual. Our body requires adequate rest to recover from daily wear-and-tear. Merely sleeping enough hours is not the only concern. While not sleeping enough is linked with early death, not sleeping early enough is also harmful as restful hours before midnight are when detoxification in the lymph glands occur. In other words, while sleeping enough is important, not staying up too late is also of value. Going to bed early is my greatest struggle. I practise martial arts most week nights. Training usually finish around 22:00. Since I live about an hour away from the different gyms I attend, I usually get home at around 23:00. It is therefore inevitable that I go to bed late. It will still be a while before my time in Korea comes to an end and I can return to an earlier training schedule.

The other principle I violated is the dietary one. Since it is the end of the year I've visited a number of seasonal parties, which often include all kinds of sugary treats. While I haven't been overeating, I have been eating far too many sweets over the last two weeks. Refined sugars lowers one's immune system. A main reason for this is because glucose and Vitamin C are similar in structure, causing less Vitamin C to enter the cells when there is more glucose in the blood. White blood cells need Vitamin C to function properly, but if the glucose levels are too high, the white blood cells, which basically is your immune system, won't function properly. Futher more, too much sugar causes your insulin levels to increase; this in turns lowers your body's production of Growth Hormone which is needed for recovery.

I've also eaten far more greasy food over the last few weeks than usual. Fatty foods, it has been proven, also makes it more difficult for white blood cells to fight off bacteria. While too much fats is definitely unhealthy, not all dietary oils should be avoided. The body needs some healthy oils in its diet. But here is the thing, they should be healthy oils and in moderation.

Two other health principles I violated include not getting adequate fresh air and sunlight. Having grown up in South Africa, I am not used to the very cold winters we experience here in South Korea. So far we've had many days under zero degrees Celcius, one day was -12° Celcius (daytime temperature!). Needless to say, I've been very reluctant to open windows in my apartment. This means of course, that I did not get a healthy supply of oxygen rich air, especially during my sleeping hours. Without good air, the body cannot function at its optimum. As for sunlight: because of the cold, I've been spending very little time outside and therefore experienced very little of the sun's health inducing rays.

I have been keeping up with the other Health Principles. I'm drinking lots of water, getting frequent exercise, and so on. The Health Principles work in synergy, however. It is their combined harmonious effect on the person that keeps you healthy. The continuous violation of even one of these natural laws of health will result in sickness.

My serious cold is not all bad. It has reminded me of the Health Principles and forced me to take inventory of my adherence to them. Now that I'm aware of which ones I have neglected, I can remedy the situation and again take measures to live the healthy lifestyle required of an active martial artist.

12 December 2010

The Front Breakfall and Back Breakfall

It is unfortunate that very few Taekwon-Doist are aware that breakfalls are part of Taekwon-Do. Although the ITF Encyclopaedia doesn't go into detail to describe the different breakfalls, it does provide the principles for breakfalling in Volume 5 (p. 341). Breakfalls are crucial fundamental techniques for any martial artist. I'm a strong believer that Taekwon-Do practitioners should start learning correct ways of falling as soon as possible. It is especially the beginner students--who are usually less coordinated and lose their balance more easily--that benefits most from breakfalling.

In this post we will look at two important breakfalling techniques, the front breakfall and the back breakfall.

The following is an edited extract from Taekwon-Do and Ground Fighting: Basic Breakfalls and Rolls ("Nak Beop") which I wrote with the help of the Potchefstroom Dojang for the 2008 edition of the eZine The Sidekick.

Front Breakfall

 Khatija causes Franco to fall using a foot trap technique from the ground. 

A more advanced, although less technical, breakfall technique than the Side Breakfall (Cheuk Bang Nak Beop), is the Front Breakfall (Jeon Bang Nak Beop). When falling forward people often fall on their knees, elbows or wrists which can cause serious injuries to these joints.

Franco demonstrates the front breakfall in the series of photos below. He starts by jumping and shooting out his legs backwards so to get his body horizontally in the air. As Franco approaches the floor he slaps down with both palms, landing on his palms and forearms (palms making contact slightly before the forearms) and the balls of his feet. The feet should be shoulder width apart and the elbows pointing outward at an approximate 45° angle.

Cautions: Since the hips are the body's centre of gravity, people often slam their hips into the floor which can cause injury. It is therefore crucial to keep your hips raised when you land. Also turn your face to the side so that you do not accidentally fall with the front of your face into the floor and break your nose. Do not fall directly onto the elbows.

If you feel too intimidated to start practising the technique from the standing position you can start out from a squatted position or standing on your knees.

Back Breakfall

Having grabbed Gerhard’s kick, Khatija unbalances him with a counter-kick throw. To land safely Gerhard needs to perform a proper back fall.

When falling backwards one should always try to fall on one's side and do a Side Breakfall. The ITF Encyclopaedia admonishes us to fall "to the side rather than the flat of the back" (p. 341). While this is definitely the ideal, it is not always possible and sometimes you may find yourself having to fall on your back. If this is the case your priority should be to expose as little of your spine to the impact as possible. The impact should therefore to spread onto your upper back and shoulders instead.

To perform the Back Breakfall (Hoo Bang Nak Beop) Gerhard, in the series of photos below, starts by crossing his arms in front of his chest. He lowers his centre of gravity by bending his knees and falls backwards, landing on his upper back and shoulders (not the middle or lower back), slapping the ground with both hands and forearms. The back should be kept curved when falling so that the motion is performed in a rocking motion. Raising the legs helps to shift the weight away from the lower back.

Cautions: The angle of the arms from the body shouldn’t be more than 45° as it puts strain on the shoulders. Also remember to keep your chin pulled towards your chest to prevent whiplash of the head.

Beginners should start practising the Back Fall from a sitting or squatting position and use a cushioned surface.


Breakfalls should always be practised by beginners under the supervision of a qualified instructor and on cushioned floors. You can work your way up to harder surfaces over time.

Hapkido: Traditions, Philosophy, TechniqueChoi Hong-Hi, ITF Encyclopaedia, Volume 5.
Marc Tedeschi. 2004. Hapiko: Tradition, Philosophy, Technique.
Myung Kwang-Sik. Hapkido Special Self Protection Techniques.
Phong Thong Dang & Lynn Seiser. 2006. Advanced Aikido.
Sanko Lewis. 2006. Soo Shim Kwan Colour Belt Handbook.

08 December 2010

Totally Tae Kwon Do Article "Hooking Block" and Martial Artist Birthdays

For the Christmas 2010 issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do I submitted an edited version of my Hooking Block post, from this blog. You can find the article on page 71 of Issue 22. As always, Totally Tae Kwon Do is full of a variety of articles. This issue especially sees many personal accounts of people's experiences in the martial arts. There is also a nice article reflecting on Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee, the "Father of Taekwon-Do in America." During his long career, Grandmaster Rhee has taught such celebrities as Muhammad Ali--helping him with his punches, Bruce Lee--refining his kicks, and motivational speaker Tony Robbins--contributing to his personal philosophy (p. 8). Apparently, even at his age, Grandmaster Rhee still does a thousand push-ups and sit-ups a day! Grandmaster Rhee had his 80th Korean birthday this year. According to Korean custom, they are considered to be already one years old at the time of their birth. Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee was born in 1972 and will be 80 according to Western reckoning, January 7th, next year.

Speaking of birthdays, recently would have been Bruce Lee's 75th birthday. This martial art legend was born on 27 November 1940. The martial art blogosphere have been quite Bruce-busy of late, contemplating the contribution of Bruce Lee to the martial arts as we know it today and also the martial art film industry we have come familiar with. I wonder what Lee would have thought of the current MMA fad?

05 December 2010

Confusing Terminology: Crescent Kick, Vertical Kick, Hooking Kick, Hook Kick

Technique names in ITF Taekwon-Do, especially of some of the kicks, can be very confusing. It also doesn't help that the official terms used in ITF Taekwon-Do are often quite different from certain well known terms that are commonly used in wider martial art circles. For instance, what is known in the greater martial art community as an axe kick, is a downward kick in ITF Taekwon-Do; the commonly used term roundhouse kick, is a turning kick in ITF Taekwon-Do, and so on. Instead of comparing terminology from outside of ITF Taekwon-Do, in this post I will focus chiefly on some confusing terminology within ITF Taekwon-Do. Some common kicks that are confused include the crescent kick and inward vertical kick, and the hooking kick, outward vertical kick and the hook kick, and add to that the reverse turning kick and reverse hook[ing] kick.

The crescent kick [ bandal chagi / 반달 차기 ] and hooking kick [ geolchyeo chagi / 걸쳐 차기 ] are both defensive techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do; in other words, these kicks are used to block an opponent's attack. One would use these blocks for attacks at low or middle section, but usually not for high section. It is better to block a high section attack with your hands / arms, than trying to get your foot up there in time. The motion path for both these kicks is an arc. The crescent kick arcs inward with the foot bend into a “cup” and the foot sole functioning as the blocking tool. The hooking kick arcs outward [Compare: Hooking Block] with the foot sword side instep acting as the blocking tool. Although the foot sole for the crescent kick and the foot sword side instep for the hooking kick are the primary blocking tools, it is possible to also use other parts of the leg, for instance the foot sword in the case of the hooking kick or the knee for either kicks to “wave” an attack out of harms way.

The following points may help to clear up some confusion with regard to these kicks. A crescent kick is always done with an inward arc. There is no such thing as an outward crescent kick. An “outward crescent kick” is basically a hooking kick. Similarly, a hooking kick is always done with an outward arc. The crescent kick and hooking kick are only used as blocking techniques. They are not offensive techniques. The mix-up comes in because these kicks are often confused with vertical kicks.

Vertical kicks are similar to the crescent kick and hooking kick as they also move in a somewhat arc motion. The chief difference is that vertical kicks are offensive techniques; in other words, they are used for attacking and not blocking. The vertical kick [ sewo chagi / 세워 차기 ] gets its name because the foot is held upward, i.e. vertically; although it actually strikes the target in a horizontal fashion. Imagine keeping your hand vertically and then slapping someone horizontally through the face; now translate that image to a kick. The vertical kick can be done in an inward motion, known as an inward vertical kick, or outward motion, known as an outward vertical kick. For the outward vertical kick the foot sword is used as the attacking tool, while the reverse foot sword—that is the area on the inverted side of the foot sword—is used as the attacking tool for the inward vertical kick. Unlike the crescent kick and hooking kick which are usually done low and middle section, the vertical kicks can be done at any height, but usually at middle and high sections. Practitioners often use the vertical kick at high section to attack the opponent's head, slapping them through the face with the foot.

Because “hooking kick” and “hook kick” sound so much the same, it is easy to see why these two kicks are confused. We've already looked at the hooking kick, which is a defensive kick, using the foot sword as the primary blocking tool. Unlike the hooking kick, the hook kick is an offensive kick. The attacking tool of the hook kick is primarily the back heel, but occasionally the ball of the foot can be used for more reach or the flat foot (foot sole) if you wish to lesson the impact of the technique. The heel is more likely the attacking tool of choice in a real fight situation or in heavy contact competitions, while the flat foot is used for semi-contact sparring.

The hook kick was made famous by World Kickboxing Champion Bill “Superfoot” Wallace. You can see him and another kickboxing legend, Joe Lewis, fighting in the YouTube video below.

The really confusing thing is that the actual term “hook kick,” although often used by Taekwon-Do practitioners, is not found in the ITF Encyclopaedia. The correct term is reverse turning kick [ bandae dollyeo chagi / 반대 돌려 차기 ] or reverse hooking kick [ bandae dollyeo goro chagi / 반대 돌려 걸어 차기 ] (depending on the variation of the kick).

Now this might seem quite confusing as you may think that “reverse” here means “spinning,” which is not the case. Again we are faced with a Korean-to-English translation problem. When we look at the Korean terms, it is much clearer. Bandae / 반대 is better translated into English as “opposite” than “reverse.” When we talk about a reverse turning kick, “reverse” refers to the “opposite side” of the foot. As we saw earlier with the inward vertical kick that uses the “reverse foot sword” as the attacking tool, so “reverse” in “reverse turning kick” is referring to the opposite side of the attacking tool and opposite direction of this kick relative to the normal turning kick. The attacking tool for the normal turning kick is the ball of the foot. The attacking tool for the reverse turning kick is the heel (the “reverse” or “opposite” side of the foot). The reverse turning kick can be done either with the front leg or with the back leg. To do it with the back leg, one option is to spin the body around. This spinning motion is what many people incorrectly assume is referred to by “reverse.” (Do not feel bad if this was your assumption, since there are instances where bandae / 반대 can be interpreted as a spinning technique. I will write about this in the future.)

Now, just to make it even more confusing, the ITF Encyclopaedia also refers to a “reverse hooking kick.” It continues to clarify that the reverse hooking kick “is a variation of a reverse turning kick” (ITF Encyclopaedia, Volume 4, p. 72) where the leg is not kept extended during the kicking motion, but the lower leg is bend at the end of the kick to “hook” the opponent. The translation into English may make you think that we are talking about the defensive hooking kick we spoke about earlier; however, the Korean is not using the same terminology when we see “reverse hooking kick” in English. The Korean is bandae dollyeo goro chagi / 반대 돌려 걸어 차기. Goro (better romanized as georo) is based on the verb geolda 걸다, which means to gather something up, to bring something in, to roll something up, or to fold something. In other words, it is a reverse turning kick where the lower leg is folded in. Because the “hooking” in “reverse hooking kick” may make one think of the “hooking kick” used for blocking, myself and many other instructors have opted to refer to this kick by its more public name, “hook kick” instead. I have also distinguished the two by emphasising their combat function: “defensive hooking kick” and “offensive hooking kick.”

To clarify: A reverse turning kick is done with the kicking leg kept straight. A reverse hook[ing] kick is a variation of the reverse turning kick and is done by folding the lower leg in at the end of the kick. Both kicks can be done with “either the front or rear foot” (ITF Encyclopaedia, Volume 4, p. 70). A hooking kick is a block.

In summary, different things cause confusion over technique terminology in ITF Taekwon-Do. One thing is that terms used by the wider martial art community is frequently not the same as the terminology used in ITF Taekwon-Do. Secondly, some techniques look somewhat similar, but have completely different functions, for instance the crescent kick and inward vertical kick. Because of their visual similarity, practitioners may get confused and use different terms erroneously interchangeably. Finally, there is sometimes confusion because of the clumsy original translation of the terminology from Korean to English. In my opinion, one of the best ways to overcome such confusion is to learn the Korean names for these techniques.

04 December 2010

North Korea ITF Demonstration Team 2003

I found these videos on YouTube of the demonstration by the North Korea ITF Taekwon-Do Demonstration Team during the ITF World Championships in Thessalonika, Greece, in 2003. I've actually seen this demo before, one of the South African players that attended the championships that year is a photographer and he took his HD film camera with him. It was a wonderfully inspiring demonstration and set a standard for demonstrations worldwide. Since this 2003 demonstration I have seen many other demonstration teams incorporate similar routines.

In the first video the team members are introduced, they then all do the pattern Kwang-Gae together, followed by a nice Model Sparring demonstration. The purpose of Model Sparring is to show-off Taekwon-Do techniques, often involving "slow motion" movements, which helps the audience to better appreciate the technique.

The second video clip depicts a Self-Defence demonstration by one of the female demonstration members. It is followed by a Special Technique Breaking demonstration. Special Technique Breaking focusses on the agility of the practitioner and often involves jumping techniques. Third in this video clip is a demonstration of the pattern Ul-Ji. Another dexterous Special Technique Breaking demonstration follows.

The third video begins with a Self-Defence demonstration, with one "hero" against three "villains." This demonstration became the basic format for the new Self-Defence Demonstration Category included into the World Championships. Thereafter a female demonstrator shows off her Special Technique Breaking skills. A demonstrator then performs the pattern Choong-Moo and afterwards illustrates how this pattern applies to four attackers. Next a male team member performs some Special Technique Breaking followed by a Power Technique Break, in which he breaks two bricks placed vertically on top op each other, using a knife-hand strike.

The fourth video begins with two female practitioners defending against attackers. In part of the routine they use their handbags as part of the self-defence, mostly to distract the attacker by throwing the back into his face. Also, apart from the general use of strikes and kicks, a variety of joint-locks and breaks are employed. Since joint-locks and breaks are an often neglected part of Taekwon-Do, I especially enjoyed seeing them employed here. An impressive Power Breaking routine follows. Next up is a Special Technique Breaking demonstration of two twin foot kicks. A twin foot kick is a kick in which you kick the target with both feet at the same time. First in the video, the kicker's vertical jump ability without a run-up is shown. He breaks a board above a person's head using a jumping twin foot kick. For the second demonstration his horizontal jumping ability is shown as he jumps over the shoulders of three pairs of people to break a board with a twin foot kick on the other side. This video clip ends with an action packed Self-Defence demonstration.

The final video clips starts with a demonstration of a Taekwon-Do guy's conditioned body. He is hit with poles over different parts of his musculature. This is followed by a Power Breaking routine in which bricks and tiles are shattered using different hand techniques. The demonstration ends with a group performance of the pattern Sam-Il.

02 December 2010

What I Have Against Tournament Sparring -- Part 2

In my previous post I voiced my disagreement with the overemphasis of tournament sparring. One of my arguments was that tournament sparring creates a mindset that is contrary to the mindset one needs for a self-defence situation. As I mentioned in the previous post, tournament rules condition you to think of a physical encounter as something that happens between exactly two individuals, using a particular set of attacks, aimed at a few specific targets, for instance the head, chest and obliques. Not only does this condition you to ignore other highly effective techniques like biting, you are also less likely to consider other very vulnerable targets like the knees. In this post I'd like us to contemplate the effect of tournament rules on one's fighting paradigm.

In WTF Taekwon-Do tournament sparring, the competitors wear body armour and a head guard. Hand attacks to the head are illegal. Because of these safety rules, practitioners are not very concerned about blocking. They rely on distancing, the body armour and the rules to keep them safe from punches to the head. Now, in an actual fight, the ability to use your hands for protection is essential. Unfortunately, WTF practitioners tend to fight with their hands down; a very bad habit if one were to fight outside of the ring.

Western Boxing is the opposite of WTF Taekwon-Do as it focus on hand strikes only. Some boxers even learn how to (illegally) use elbow-strikes in their sparring. Unfortunately, boxing does not prepare one for low attacks, such as kicks to the legs or take downs.

ITF Taekwon-Do' tournament sparring is a little better as body armour and head guards are not worn and both hand and foot techniques are encouraged; however, some of the best self-defence techniques like elbow-strikes and low attacks are illegal. Because ITF practitioners use a lot of kicking they may not be used to sparring at close range, like boxers are, and since low attacks are illegal, they may not know how to defend against low attacks.

One would think that Muay Thai, which includes elbow-strikes, knee kicks, and low attacks, is better. Unfortunately, Muay Thai has its own bad habits it enforces. Muay Thai focus primarily on power attacks, which are slower, and sometimes even cause practitioners to turn their backs on their opponents. In Muay Thai many vital spots are also open. Of course, these practitioners are extremely conditioned, but such open vital spots are still bad in a self-defence situation where you can never be sure that your opponent does not have a weapon. Taking a kick to the ribs is one thing; a knife stab to the ribs is something completely different.

Taekkyeon tournaments are interesting because they allow both high and low attacks. The low attacks are much more varied and effective than the simple roundhouse kick to the thigh one sees in Muay Thai. Taekkyeon also allow sweeps and throws. The bad thing about Taekkyeon tournaments is that hard hand attacks like punches are not included.This might mean that Taekkyeon practitioners are not adapt at blocking certain types of attacks.

How about the grappling styles, like for instance Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? BJJ is wonderful as it gets you accustomed to fighting on the ground. The problem of defending against different types of strikes while on the ground aside, BJJ's strategy to go to the ground could be a dangerous one in the streets. Their might be glass, rocks and other harmful objects on the ground. When you are on the ground fighting your opponent you are a very easy target for your opponent's buddies to start kicking you. It is true that your opponent's buddies could attack you while you are standing also, but in a standing position you are much more mobile. Street fighters know that more people die on the ground than when standing up. Granted, defending yourself against multiple attacks while standing is not easy, but it is easier than while you are on the floor.

BJJ and Mixed Martial Arts that often spar on the ground are not without their problematic rules either. In MMA fights, grappling often results in technical knock outs with such techniques as the rear naked choke, triangle choke and the like. Were you to change one or two simple rules to make these fights more “street accurate” most of these winning techniques will not work as effectively any more. Include, for instance, biting or attacking small joints. Once you are allowed to bite, or bend over fingers, there is suddenly a host of escapes from these grappling techniques. Furthermore, biting will make ground fighting a much more risky activity. Were people allowed to bite and attack small wrist, MMA fighters will suddenly spend much less time embracing each other, and instead try and keep their distance.

If we are competing in tournament sparring purely for its sport value, then I have no issue with tournament sparring. My issue is that people often confuse tournament sparring with self-defence training. Tournament sparring could have a peripheral value for self-defence training, but generally I think that an overemphasis on tournament sparring could actually hamper preparation for self-defence. And I am not alone: self-defence guru Marc "Animal" MacYoung has similar sentiments in his book A Professional's Guide to Ending Violence Quickly: How Bouncers, Bodyguards, and Other Security Professionals Handle Ugly Situations. Tournament rules create a confining box, which I believe could be negative for self-defence situations. Often the tournaments of specific styles only prepare one to defend against someone that fights like that style. If your tournament does not allow low kicks, you probably won't know how to defend against low kicks. If your tournament have no ground fighting you may not know how to defend against a grappler. If you are a grappler but have never been bitten before, because biting is illegal in your style, you may find yourself suddenly with a chunk of biceps-muscle bitten off as you attempted to do a rear naked choke!

Image Sources:
ITF Sparring -- Personal