Friday, January 30, 2015

An Honest Review of TaeKwonDo From a Student

I've had an off and on relationship with the martial arts almost my entire life. And about seven months ago I enrolled, for the first time, in TaeKwonDo. Before I actually learned it, the only thing I really knew about the martial art came from video games like Tekken and The King of Fighters. Also, it was featured in one of my favorite, cheesy martial arts movies, The Best of the Best.

Being in my 30s now and out of shape, I thought it would be a great way to get back into exercising while doing something that I used to love. In that regard, it wasn't too bad and did help me regain flexibility, stamina, and an interest in fighting.

Coming from a Karate and Judo background, doing my white and yellow belt stuff came easy. So much so, that it was quite boring. But just for the record, I have no issue with excessively practicing the fundamentals.They are usually more important and useful than the majority of "advanced" techniques.

In my second month, I fractured my wrist during free sparing. This happened because I mistimed a block, and my knuckles connected with a side kick, head on. The block was a typical TKD block: the low block. It's probably the dumbest thing to do in an actual fight. But it's illegal in TDK to throw a kick to block a kick. It's illegal to grab a leg. It's illegal to do a takedown. It's pretty much against the rules to do what you're supposed to do. So that's the only reason I was using the move.

I had to reprogram myself to throw these blocks, committing to really learning this stuff and giving it a fair chance. In my first sparring match, I was told I was breaking the rules. I was against a bigger, but much younger guy. And every time he tried to kick me, I knocked his leg back, with my foot, before he could fully raise it. This was my instinct from my years of training before TaeKwonDo. After my training, I started throwing a fist to counter a kick. I didn't even realize when it started happening, but I'm going to, damn sure, stop it.

Shortly after, testing was coming up. I was ready, but my teacher said I wasn't. So I had to wait another four months before I could test for the next belt level. In those four months, I spent most of my time training the new white belts on how to do their form and one step sparring sequences. BTW, I hate one step sparring. Everything negative everyone ever said about it is absolutely true.

I even used to defend it as a teaching aid. I thought, at one time, it was to get a good look at a student's technique and help them get familiar with new moves. Maybe in that way it could be used as an effective learning tool, but when it's the sole focus of what you do, then it's just a farce.

After four months of pretend fighting, I finally got to the next testing day. We lined up as normal, and the room was darkened. Cheesy 90s R&B music about achieving your dreams played through the PA. I had to hold back the laughter and just zone out. Apparently I look really serious like this, which I find ironic. This all was the background to a candle lighting ceremony, in which all million of us would go up and have a candle lit, symbolizing our spiritual growth or something. Fast forward another hour, and finally the real "test" began.

We all sat around the dojang and waited for our names to be called. We were to respond, yes mam and then we'd go line up in front of a panel of black belts. They partnered us with our peers, and we'd do our one steps, form, and then a random move or answer a question about the meaning of some Korean bullshit.

Out of the entire white belt class, I was the only one to make zero mistakes. That doesn't mean I couldn't have done any better. It just means that I did everything that was asked of me. I also had the most experience out of everyone in my rank, with the least experienced person having started less than a month ago. Yes, they actually knew less than I did when I originally wasn't allowed to test.

After we finished, I sat around watching everyone else do the same thing and then it all ended with a royal rumble free "sparring" session between all the color belts. I did quotes there because it looked exactly like this video:

When it came time to give out the new belts, every white belt got the same yellow belt with one stripe. All my extra work, effort and time had zero effect on the belt grades of my class. So it felt more like a participation ribbon because we all got the same thing, no matter how bad or good we were.

Now, I didn't have a lot of stock in the belts to begin with. The majority of the students are kids, and they have no separate belt division for children in TDK, despite having separate standards. So I don't really know how to care about my rank when the children above me can't even throw a proper kick or do one real pushup.

My Dojang consisted of more children than adults, so I probably looked like Dwight from The Office, a lot of the time.
So if I can't care about my rank, then I have to be able to care about the art and my training. After all, that is the most important thing. Well, we know I've already become worse defensively. There are other really dumb blocks that only seem useful if people are attacking you at 90 degree angles, but I don't really need to go into detail about it. TDK is the honeybadger of defense.

To TDK's credit, it's not too bad offensively. The side kick is good, the ax kick is useful, I like their butterfly kick, tornado kick for karate, and the infamous turning / spinning back kick can be devastating. But there are also a myriad of really stupid moves that nobody should ever bother with, like a reverse twist kick for example. Hell, I watched a red belt's one step that required him to kneel on the ground while turning his back to his attacker. I don't have to point out exactly why that is not a good idea.

But on one occasion, my teacher criticized my Muay Thai roundhouse. Not for me doing it wrong, but because I'd apparently only hurt myself putting my hip and body into a kick. Man, I must have gotten real lucky the thousands of times I've done it before. To her credit, it is very different than the TDK version, which is a much weaker, angled side kick with a snap. 

Even in a school like mine, where punching isn't frowned on, there is no training on how to actually put power behind a punch or to not telegraph it. Even worse, there were strikes that required me to not shift weight from a back stance. Basically, the only force I could have gotten was from my elbow up. I can understand doing this as a part of one's happo no kuzushi training, but this wasn't jiu-jitsu. and the threat of being taken to the ground doesn't even factor into it. 

Also, there is no emphasis on the importance of the feint or any tactics remotely useful to an actual fight. In fact, everything I learned seems to mainly be effective in a TDK match, where both combatants are following the same rules. Basically, I was being trained on how to be a rock 'em sock 'em robot.

There is other crap that comes with "traditional" schools and mcdojos that I don't care for. The foreign rules and customs that are forced on the students, usually by the whitest people ever who haven't even been to the country they've appropriated this crap from. Mine only had a little of this. Like I had to bow to the teacher, bow to the black belts, bow to the flags, even bow to the building. I couldn't fix my dobok or belt while facing the teacher, and we couldn't get a drink from our own water bottles or use the washroom without asking for permission, first.

One last thing I'd like to add about the experience, coming from a lone student. I had no friends or family doing this with me. While I found some families to be very positive toward me, others were a bit negative. I found the ones who had zero martial arts backgrounds prior, often saw me as some weirdo, invading their family pass-time. And I can kind of agree with that.

I'm a real fighter at heart. I don't hate kids or anything. But I don't want to train with them. They should have a separate criteria from me. I want pain and progress. I want to feel the burn and learn to prevail against the odds. I want to become something better. I can't do that when my training is being limited to another's limitations. No more play fighting and karate dancing, I'm going to go wherever the real fighters are.