Thursday, November 29, 2007

When You're Learning, Sometimes You Need To Have Some Fun

Earning a black belt can take 3-4 years. Becoming really proficient in Tae Kwon Do, or in martial arts can take a lifetime.

So let's face it - you need to make time for fun in your training.

This video from the 2007 Goodwill Tour is fun to watch. Heck, it might even inspire you to work harder, so you can be as good as these gents are!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Form, Power, and The "Snap"

Whether you are training to spar, to compete in forms, or for self-defense, part of mastering a technique is to generate power using good form. And the snap is a crucial.

But what is the snap? At it's most basic, it is a whip action, a very quick motion to finish a technique that creates the same kind of crack that a whip would. In many martial arts demonstration videos, you can hear the sound of the snap (real or added) at the moment of impact of a punch, kick or block.

First, let's say that the snap is on the level of a more advanced technique - something you should shoot for, but may not be successful at until you become more advanced. Part of the reason that the Tae Kwon Do belt structure rotates through learning, and then repeating different kicks, blocks, stances, and hand techniques is that your learning goes in phases:
- Learning the basic move (often your form will not be great)
- Mastering the basic move
- Learning a more advanced style
- Mastering the advanced style
- Refining your control, timing, form and power

Since you need flexibility and strength to complete any technique, in the beginning, the focus is not on form as much as trying to build up your ability to complete the technique. Later, when you have more strength, flexibility, and awareness of what the technique is about, you can refine your form.

The "snap" is critical refinement which affects your power, your form, and success as a competitor. You will eventually find that every technique can and should be done with a snap. In a forms competition, the sound and look of a technique executed with a snap will score higher; in sparring, the snap may make the difference between scoring a point or not, because the "snapped" kick will make a louder sound on your opponent.

In practice, a snapped kick will deliver more speed and power, and set you up better for your next technique in many cases.

How do I snap? The snap is different for each technique - for punches and blocks, the snap involves a twist of the wrist and hand at the end of the technique. For kicks, like the front kick and roundhouse kick, the snap is created by what happens after impact, i.e, your lower leg quickly retracting back to its position before impact.

Monday, November 12, 2007

All Pre-Black Belt Forms Videos

Forms 1-8, the forms you will learn on your way to Black Belt. Watching videos is, at least to me, a lot more helpful than reading text.

Taeguk Il Jang (1)

Taeguk E Jang (2)

Taeguk Sam Jang (3)

Taeguk Sa Jang (4)

Taeguk Oh Jang (5)

Taeguk Yuk Jang (6)

Taeguk Chil Jang (7)

Taeguk Pal Jang (8)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Why Am I Stretching? When Do We Get To The Jumping and The Spinning?

To outsiders, the study of martial arts can seem like the simple pursuit of the ability to beat some one else in a fight. Or to do really cool jumping spinning kicks!

For this very reason, some activities you engage in when studying a martial art at first may make no sense.

But every exercise in Tae Kwon Do has its purpose, which becomes especially clear when you consider that the true goal of a martial arts class is to help you perfect the art. The reasons behind you taking the class may change (you need to defend yourself from marauders, your career will be in the military, you want to become fit and confident, and so on), but the purpose of the structure and activities with the art are intended to help you perfect it.

So let's expose the purpose of some activities in martial arts:

1. Stretching - A key issue in all martial arts is flexibility. Flexibility is important to doing individual techniques correctly, but also to ensuring you don't hurt yourself (and have to stop your training for a month or more).

2. Warm ups/Strength Training Exercises - If your muscles aren't warm, they don't stretch as well, and you run a greater risk of injury. So warming up is important. Strength is important as well, both to help you complete a technique with good form, but also to increase your power in striking, hitting, or throwing.

3. Individual Technique Practice - In your average martial arts class, there will be a part of the class where you will repeat one technique many times. This could be kicking, punching, blocking, or footwork, but generally, the idea is to focus on that one kick, that one block, that one strike, and focus on perfecting your technique. Usually, your master will observe students as they perform the technique, and offer guidance. If you can't punch with perfect form in a controlled setting, you won't punch well when sparring.

4. Forms - Forms test a series of different things, but they involve using all the techniques you should know at your level. The point of practicing forms is to practice your individual techniques in a series - when you perform a form, you should make every motion exactly. That means breathing correctly, using solid stances and good footwork, relaxing your body in between strikes and snaps, and performing blocks, kicks, and strikes precisely. Like individual technique practice, forms provide a controlled setting for practicing - simulated reality.

5. "Self-Defense" Techniques - These techniques are generally not about form primarily (although good form is always important). First and foremost, self-defense techniques are about speed and accuracy - they prepare you to put together movements when actually being attacked at speed. Of course, like forms, self-defense techniques also provide strength training.

6. Sparring - Well, the purpose here is fairly clear - this is the closest you come in a martial arts program to an actual fight. This is your chance to use what you've learned, but also to add to it a new element - competition. Your opponent will try to surprise you and trick you, so you will have to not only perform your technique with good form, speed and power, but also select the right technique!

7. Courtesy, Rituals, Respect - There is one final element to what we do when we train in a martial art. We wear a special uniform. We go to a special place, use special equipment. We also show respect by bowing to other members of the school and our masters, using the words sir and ma'am to refer others, and by removing our shoes and bowing when we enter our school. This might be the hardest aspect of martial arts to understand - what does this have to do with learning to fight? Well, a lot, actually. Even in more modern sports, sportsman-like conduct is important. Showing respect for people who know more than you, who you are learning from is important. The rituals and attitude we bring to our training is important because it shows that we are ready to learn, ready to pursue excellence.

Armed with this understanding, hopefully you'll be a bit more patient when things are quite as exciting!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tae Kwon Do Forms - A Primer

Tae Kwon Do has 8 forms associated with "colored" belts, and about 9 forms associated with black belt. Forms require a lot of practice, but first, they require learning the basic stances, blocks and strikes and memorizing the patterns.

Generally, memorization becomes the key to delivering a smooth form, and that comes through repetition. Once you have the general form down, you can target in on specific areas where you need help. A good process for memorization, I've found, is the following:
1) Watch a video of the form (below)
2) Write down the movements, or look up notes on the web
3) Memorize the movements using your notes and following along
3) Repeatedly practice the technique in class
4) Ask your master where you can improve

However, another helpful technique is to remember that the first 8 forms follow a distinct pattern, which is roughly symmetrical. Each form models a character, and has a specific teaching purpose. Although this might not be helpful to you, knowing this really helped me get my head inside the forms...or the other way around.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Connecticut Open 2007 - Tournament Notes

Tournaments are great. The video above is your intrepid author, laying it on the line to bring you information and insight about learning Tae Kwon Do.

My opponent was a black belt, more experienced by at least a year, but I learned quite a bit.

My insights for you:
1) Tournaments involve a lot of waiting
2) You should bring a jump rope and some targets for kicking so you can warm up
3) Tape your feet under your foot pads
4) Be prepared for some black and blue marks

There are a few typical events in a tournament:
1) Forms competition
2) Breaking competition
3) Demonstration team competition
4) Sparring competition

The first 3 are largely one-performance affairs - you choose your form, or your breaking techniques, and you do them once. The best wins.

Sparring is more complicated - it's like a typical bracketed competition. The winners of each match move on to fight the other winners until the gold/silver bout, and the bronze/fourth place bout.

Good times.

Friday, October 26, 2007

How You Advance in Tae Kwon Do

There are many Tae Kwon Do schools across the country, and, as I mentioned in earlier posts, they vary both in terms of culture/philosophy and in other ways. One important variation is what style of Tae Kwon Do the school practices. The major ones:
- World Tae Kwon Do Federation (WTF)/Kukkiwon - This is the officially sanctioned, Olympic sparring style.
- International Tae Kwon Do Federation (ITF) - The other important Tae Kwon Do association and standards body

ITF and WTF forms and instruction differ - although you are learning Tae Kwon Do in both places, there are stylistic differences which affect forms, rules of competition, etc. Generally, WTF emphasis is more on sport, where as ITF seems more practical.

Another variation you will see is the belt system. In the past, schools had as few as 4-5 belts, but these days, Tae Kwon Do schools generally have 10-15 belts. Why? In part, in recognition of the fact that belts motivate students, so it is important to have recognition of advancement around every 2 months. It can take 3 years to achieve a black belt, and most would have a hard time staying motivated if they were only getting a belt every 7 months.

Both WTF and ITF schools require you to master certain techniques to advance to a new belt, for the most part, in four areas. Regular tests will focus on you demonstrating your knowledge of these skills:
1) Forms - A pattern of footwork and techniques, with the emphasis on your form. Sometimes called poomsae.

2) Self Defense - Self defense techniques are, in a way, like short forms. You execute a pattern of movements - but in this case, the emphasis is on speed and accuracy first and foremost. Often times, self-defense techniques are executed with a master attacking you.

3) Kicking - Each belt has a specific kick associated with it, and each test usually involves a combination of kicks based on that primary kick. Emphasis is on form.

4) Breaking - Breaking techniques can often mirror the kicking technique for the belt, although at lower levels, hand or elbow breaking techniques get you started. At first, you break one board (about 1/2" to 1") At higher levels, you break more boards...

The process of learning is fun, but you may also question how much you are progressing at first. Depending on your school, your master will probably reassure you - the techniques you learn early in your Tae Kwon Do career are repeated in later tests. So don't worry too much - practice daily, work hard, and do your best. Mastery doesn't happen in a day.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Picking a Tae Kwon Do School - Financial

Once you've decided why you want to take up Tae Kwon Do, and which schools seem to fit best with your needs, it's important to consider cost.

In the very old days, instruction was not paid for - some martial arts, like Aikido, still charge "mat fees" only, for upkeep of the dojo (the Japanese term, the Korean is dojang). But that is rare - these days, one needs to feed the kids, pay for gas, etc. Even in the old days, students would find non-monetary ways to compensate the master.

In Tae Kwon Do, it is typical for lessons to be paid for by the month or by the year, with prices ranging from a couple hundred bucks to much less. Paying for a year will generally get you a discount.

But it is really important to note that this is not the only charge you may see for your or your child's lessons:
- Belt tests
- Gear (uniform, sparring gear, weapons, etc.)
- Competitions

These types of charges can double the year's instruction costs, so it is important to plan for it. Some schools are very upfront about these costs, but not all think to mention it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Picking a Tae Kwon Do School - The School

Once you've come to grips with what your reason for taking up Tae Kwon Do is, you'll be prepared to venture out into the world, and look at your options. Armed with your goal (I want to get in better shape), you should think a little bit about what you need out of your Tae Kwon Do school.

For example, as with any exercise, generally, your school should be close to work, close to home, or on the way between the two. Location is important for an obvious reason. If I have to travel out of my way to exercise or train, I will be more likely to 'skip' on a day my motivation is low. So save yourself the trouble. Less than 15 minutes of extra travel time is probably what you should be shooting for.

Now that you've ensured you will physically get there, you need to be sure that the school itself is a place you want to go. This comes down to Regimen, Focus, Instructors, and Fellow Students. The training regimen itself should be challenging, but also interesting and motivating. So if the classes involve running 5 miles and doing a thousand push ups, and you aren't really into that, look for another school.

Similarly, the focus of some schools is "competition" and sparring is a regular event in class. If that isn't your cup of tea, you might prefer focusing on learning techniques, and non-sparring forms of practice.

Finally, the instructor and the other students in the school are going to be a big part of your experience. If you need a patient, easy-going instructor, stay away from drill instructors!

A good way to get a feel for all the issues is to sit down with the master of the school, and to do a trial lesson. Most schools let you sit in on a class before you decide. If they don't offer it, suggest it. Before weighing price, be sure you are choosing between alternatives that are good for you.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Picking a Tae Kwon Do School - Your Goal

If you are about to take up Tae Kwon Do, or to enroll your child in a school, it pays to have a sense of how to evaluate Tae Kwon Do schools. The criteria differ a bit for adults and children, but generally, they apply to both.

Your first step in your "due diligence" should be to ask yourself a basic question - "Why am I studying Tae Kwon Do"? Some reasons why people study martial arts:
- To get into shape
- To learn/teach (children) discipline
- To compete
- To be capable of defending yourself
- To participate in a sporting community

There are other, less noble, reasons that people take up martial arts, but these are a few of the basics. Note, depending on your goal, different schools will fit you better or worse.

Purpose of This Blog

Tae Kwon Do is a great sport and a great way to keep your body and mind sharp. But, speaking from experience, it can be challenging to find resources you might need as you begin to learn.

I've found that by watching videos of forms and competitions outside of practice, I've been able to accelerate my progress. And make learning more fun.