I've trained in several martial arts, and studied others, but I can still be surprised.
May 17, 2006
The kid has guts, I’ll give him that.
Shannon's boyfriend, of course. As of this writing he holds a brown belt in one of the local variants of Tae Kwon Do. Although Shannon has studied two styles so far, she doesn't hold any particular belt in either of them. What she does have is a significant amount of experience sparring, for her age, in environments that can get a little rough.
Her boyfriend, in contrast, had recently started sparring, in an environment where full armor (arm pads, leg pads, chest protector and headgear) are required. Somewhat playfully, I asked if he'd like to drop in on "fight night" at our Shorin-Ryu dojo, and see what it's like to spar with only gloves and mouth guards.
He decided to watch the first time, during our normal Friday pummeling session. I got some scratches on the back of my neck from a tussle that had to be staunched and disinfected (Fingernail wounds are so dirty) and Shannon and I both had new bruises. He watched Shannon get more down-and-dirty and take more impact than he had experienced so far, and – get this – he wanted to come back the next Friday and participate. Guts, like I said.
To be fair, I dropped in on a sparring class at his dojo to see what it was like. I expected standard TKD competition "point sparring". What I saw was not what I expected.
I’m speaking as a TKD Nidan, and having visited many TKD dojos in this area, including “Olympic Tae Kwon Do”, but -- with all due respect -- this was just sad. Strategy was entirely: staying out of range until you saw an opportunity, then cross the distance line, deliver one technique (usually a roundhouse kick) and get back out of range. No hand techniques at all. No blocking whatsoever. No sweeps, no throws, despite sparring on a wrestling mat. Even the black belts were “fighting” this way.
Finally, I asked one of the instructors what the rules are – do they allow blocks, hand techniques, sweeps? Her answer was something like “You’re only allowed to use a hand technique if you could knock down your opponent. Since most of the students in here can’t do that, they’re not allowed to use them.” Hmm… It's true, TKD emphasizes strength over all things, so I could see where someone might fall into that conclusion, but the logic seems to have some holes in it. I mean really, if you think punches are ineffective if they don't actually knock you down, I'd like to invite you to stand there and take a few.
About blocks, she said “We teach our students to avoid kicks rather than block them. The kicks are so strong that there is a possibility of broken bones if they try to block them.” I detect some marketing here – I’m sorry, but I’ve worked out with some very good Tae Kwon Doists, and that just isn’t true, for several reasons. Test by: Consider Muay Thai – fighters with arguably the strongest leg techniques in the world, yet they block headshots with their forearms. Furthermore, consider jamming techniques, where you’re absorbing the energy before it reaches maximum… oh, there’s such a plethora of counter-arguments that I didn’t know where to begin.
Anyway, not to show disrespect in another’s dojo – I bowed on entry and exit, but I left with yet another view of “sparring” – reminding me of modern jet fighters armed with Phoenix missiles. You can’t out-turn or out run a Phoenix, and one shot is a sure kill. So you and your opponent dance just out of range, looking for an opening. As soon as you’re in range, you fire one and run for your life in case he fired one. It was exactly like that.
Now, that’s one philosophy. I personally don’t think it’s practical, but for every fighting philosophy out there, no matter how seemingly unpractical, there’s going to be someone who can make it work. (I once saw a demonstration of a very rare style -- Elephant Kung Fu... but that's another story...) I guess I see it as an exaggerated case of the reasons I was starting to lose interest in TKD – (1) It’s simplicity makes it easy to teach, but after you reach a certain proficiency, it becomes boring. (2) It’s not something you can maintain as you get older. If your bag of tricks contains only techniques requiring the power and suppleness of youth, what do you do if you’re lucky enough to grow old?
I think the answer to both questions is that you either drop out, or you get interested in something else. I’ve seen many instances of either case. My TKD instructor in Oregon moved on to Jiu Jitsu, as did many of his senior students. My personal interests switched to a more close-range style. My instructor in California moved on to Kendo. I think this is partly boredom, and partly an acknowledgement of the ravages of time.
But sometimes extremes will serve to illuminate things that are less extreme. I think I understand a bit better a couple things in my own TKD classes. Much of the sparring instruction centered around “managing the distance line”, which I think I understand a bit better now (although I still think it’s limiting as a single strategy). Secondly, I understand why a certain third degree black belt got annoyed enough to quit coming to classes, long ago. He wanted to keep distant and fence, and I wanted to get in close and brawl. I didn’t understand why, at the time, he found sparring with me so annoying. But I suspect now that I was violating the paradigm – like a boxer using judo moves – and he found that upsetting.
In conclusion, today’s epiphany is “There is something to learn even from a bad example”.
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