Some of the newer and more reality based martial arts which emphasise real self protection (as opposed to sport) such as Krav Maga and Systema argue that the strength of their system is that they emphasise principles of movement rather than techniques. They argue that most of the older Oriental martial arts by contrast put the emphasis the other way round, on techniques more than principles. They argue that this makes their arts better for learning self defence more quickly and effectively.
Note: Systema is actually quite old, but has been seriously re-vamped and modernised by the Russian Communist government.
When you think about it, learning a principle is more important then learning a technique. If you learn one technique, you have just that, one technique. If you learn a principle, you have something that you can adapt to many different techniques and scenarios which makes if far more useful and versatile than a single technique. A system that places emphasis on learning principles over techniques would have a number of advantages as it wouldn’t take too many principles before you have a fairly wide range of applications in your arsenal.
Without any disrespect to these newer and reality based systems, but I think that they misunderstand how the Oriental martial arts are structured. I think it’s easy to forgive them for that as most people practising Oriental martial arts don’t fully understand either. I’ll take Karate as an example as that it my main style (though it applies to Taekwondo, Kung Fu and other styles too). What most of the Japanese Masters emphasise above all else is good form. Whilst I agree that good form is important, what I don’t like is that most senior Masters emphasise form over function and the functions are largely lost in history. Again, you can forgive them for this, as that is the way the Okinawans taught them. I won’t go into the political and social reasons for this as I’ve discussed this elsewhere.
But when you put emphasis on form and forget (or at least don’t study in depth) the function; then you end up being technique orientated. When you focus primarily on the form of the technique, you end up with a very restricted view of how you can use it!
However, each technique is really a shorthand method for studying principle(s) of movement and function. If I take a stepping punch for example. As a technique for stepping forward and punching somebody it’s a bit limited. It’s easy to see it coming! Usually to make it work you have to use a distraction as it’s a bit long and slow as a single technique. That said, distraction is always good and should be practised as a matter of course!
However, if we look at the stepping punch in terms of learning principles, what principles can we learn. Well there are several.
– Co-ordination of the breath with the strike.
– Co-ordination of punch with forward body momentum.
– Sinking the body weight at the end to have a good “root” when striking.
– Correct alignments of the skeletal system to impart maximum impact.
– Compression of the stationary leg (the one that does not step) during the first half of the step allows you to propel yourself forward in the second half of the step (release the compression).
So lets say for example that you are confronted by an aggressor. You do all the right things to try and de-escalate the situation and it doesn’t work. For whatever reason, lets assume that running away is not an option!
You decide you have to strike!
Note: Under UK law, you’re legally entitled to strike first if you honestly and sincerely believe you are in imminent danger of being harmed (but you may have to justify that belief in a court of law). If you’re not in the UK, you’ll have to check the law in your country/state!
So you’re in the fence position (or a guard). Either way, you have your hands up and front of you, between you and the aggressor; and one foot in front of the other. If you were to execute a classical stepping punch, by the time you’re half way there the aggressor will likely know it coming and be preparing his/her counter! That said, bullies often come close into your personal space to try to intimidate you, so you might not have room anyway.
However, lets just say you slightly lower your weight so as to compress the rear leg. You then slightly lift the front foot of the ground and allow your body weight to move forward. You enhance the forward movement by releasing the prepared compression and propelling yourself forward. As you move forward you use the correct skeletal alignment, exhale and sink your weight on impact!
You haven’t performed a classical stepping punch. In fact you haven’t even stepped through properly, you’ve just slid forward on your front leg!
However, you’ve used all the principles of movement/alignment/power generation, listed above which you learn from practising the technique of stepping punch. The untrained observer wouldn’t even recognise that there was a connection between the movement described above and a stepping punch; yet the movement described above would not be very powerful without a lot of repetition of the stepping punch.
This works with just about all of your other techniques.
And this post only covers the use of this technique for a strike. Most techniques are multi functional and can be used for striking, grappling and weapons, but the that’s for another post!
2 of the Worlds very best masters of applied traditional martial arts.
About 3 hair follicles between them 🙂
Sensei John Johnston adaptive Karate and Sensei Iain Abernethy are coming together again for another joint seminar in Derby, UK. Although they are both Karateka, the seminar is open to other styles, especially Taekwondo and Tang Soo Do which have close links to Karate.
I’ve attended courses with both of them individually as well as their last joint seminar and I can highly recommend this seminar to any traditional martial artists who want to be able to apply their art for real World self defence, not just sport.
Although the post below (writen by guest author Ørjan Nilsen, 2nd Dan WTF Taekwondo), relates to WTF Taekwondo, much of can equally apply to other martial arts especially Karate. In Taekwondo, Karate and even Kung Fu, many original applications have been dumbed down and misunderstood by the mainstream practitioners. In this interesting and informative article, Ørjan answers many of the criticism levelled at WTF Taekwondo’s early Poomsae (patterns/forms/kata).
The Taegeuk series of Poomsae are the basic patterns used to grade through the coloured belts and as Ørjan points out are often referred to as “children’s Taekwondo”. To any Karateka reading this, doesn’t that sound familiar? The same has often been said of our Heian/Pinan series of Kata.
I will confess that I have been guilty in the past of some of making some of the criticism that Ørjan addresses, but his article below has made me think again. I hope you all enjoy this article and that it changes your outlook as it has mine.
So . . . . . . over th Ørjan:
When asked about the charachteristics of Taegeuk poomsae, most WTF exponents or people with passing knowledge of the forms will probably describe them as: “simple”, “frequent use of high stances”, “boring”, and many will perhaps even say that they are for children.
The Taegeuk forms were made in the early to mid seventies. According to “The Taegeuk Cipher” (by Simon John O`Neill) they were introduced in 1972 to replace the earlier Palgwe forms. The motivation for making the Taegeuk patterns is stated to be part politically motivated (since not all the original School/Kwan was represented by the forms committee that were responsible for the Palgwe and WTF black belt forms), and partially because the Palgwe had too obvious Karate influences. No matter what their motivations were, they were designed specifically for color belts training and they have a very clear progress of difficulty.
Maybe the clear progress of difficulty and that they were designed for color belts (as stated in most official WTF/Kukki Taekwondo writings) coupled with the three first patterns great use of short/high walking stance is the reasons why many people will say they are for children.
This article will hopefully show the readers that the Taegeuk are more than merely “childrens Taekwondo” and that the techniques they contain can be used as effective self defence once they are fully understood.
The high/short walking stance (Ap seogi in Korean):
The first three patterns favor the use of Ap seogi. Ap seogi is excecuted by moving one foot one walking step distance in front of the other. The front foot is pointing directly forward, the back foot is pointing about 30 degrees outward. The legs are straightned and the weight distributuion is 50% on each leg. Your whole body is facing the front (ap seogi means front stance in English).
This stance is often ridiculed by other stylists because it lacks power and because it is too unstable to be used in a fight. They are somewhat correct if you look at the stance just as a single unit and not as a part of the whole picture. The Ap seogi stance is perhaps the most natural stance used in the martial arts since this is the stance we use everyday for moving (walking). In patterns training we are told that the legs should be straight (at least in the end-portion of the stance) but if you bend your knees just a little and keep your hands high (boxing guard) tuck in your chin, you will be in a typical “Boxing stance”. Actually because of the stances naturality; variations on the Ap seogi is used by most combat sports in one way or another all around the world. It is hard not to use it since as previous stated it is the stance humans use most often to move around. Where it lacks in stability and power it makes up for speed and mobility.
In the last five forms in the Taegeuk pattern set the Ap seogi is almost not used at all. They use more “long forward front stance” (Ap Koobi), back stance (Dwit koobi), Cat stance (Beom seogi) in stead. So to make the assumption that the whole set uses short front stance (Ap seogi) and that the stance is impractical, and so the whole pattern set is impractical is in the writers own view flawed.
The pulling hand (“Ben son” in Korean, “Hiki te” in Japanese).
The pulling hand is the hand not obviously doing anything in the form and is retracted to the hip while the other hand is excecuting “blocks”, “punches” or “strikes”. We share this method of moving the hands with both Japanese and Okinawan styles of Karate and some styles of Chinese Quanfa. In the Taegeuk forms set however almost all hand techniques are excecuted making use of this method. This makes the forms look simplistic and basic, and most “official” applications does not help either. Most show applications with no practial explanation for the hand on the hip. Ask most instructors and they will gladly give you empty and shallow explanations like “more power”, “tradition” etc not going into details as to why would anyone place one hand on their hip and not protect their head instead.
In modern sport Taekwondo we seem to have lost the knowledge of the purpose behind “the pulling hand” (Ben son). The easiest way to find the “original” meaning is to look at the sources of Taekwondo and how they used the technique. Unfortunatly mainstream Karate has also evolved into a long range combat sport so they to often do not know why they put their hand on their hip in a practical point of view. Fortunatly we still have the writings of the Karate pioners and we also have the Chinese styles of Quan fa who also uses the pulling hand to give us hints as to why the pulling hand motion is so frequently used in our modern patterns. In his book “Karate-Do Kyohan the master text” by Gichin Funakoshi founder of Shotokan Karate he states: “Hiki te: grasp the opponents fist and attack while pulling him inward. His balance broken, the effectiveness of his attack is lost and that of the counterattack is enhanced”. He also makes frequent remarks later in the book on the explenations of Kata to always envision that you are grasping and pulling your attackers limb when using Hiki te.
This is of course a very short explenation but he touches on many of the primary reasons as to the pulling hand:
Awareness and intuitive control of your opponents wherabouts. Grabing the opponent gives you greater control of his motions, increases your sense as to what he is doing, and makes it easier for the adrenaline filled brain to localaise the opponent and so will increase your ability to strike the opponent.
Breaks the opponents balance. By grabbing your opponent and pulling and twisting his limb at the same time breaks his balance and puts him on the defencive. The human brain is conditioned to always keeping the bodies balance a first priority, so as long as the opponent is off balance he is also not likely to attack you.
Tactical advantage. Grabbing and pulling in the opponents arm will open him up for strikes that will be difficult to defend against.
Increases power of your attack (or counterattack if you used it defensivly) A car that chrases into a parked car 30 miles an hour will make a big bang. To cars going front to front on each other, both doing 30 miles an hour will make a bigger bang. The same principle is at work with the pulling hand coupled with a punch or strike. If you drag your opponent onto the punch/strike it will hurt him more than if you punched him while he was retreating og standing relativly still. This is probably the source of the “because it gives more power” explenation so popular today.
If you look at the Chinese styles you can learn that the pulling hand is actually a very nasty technique in its own right. Grabbing and twisting sensitive parts of your opponents body can be very effective. Grabbing and twisting your opponents hair, ear, testicles, or digging in under the collarbone are all very painfull techniques. And if you (or should I say your opponent) has not had enough yet you can also seize his throat, grabbing, pulling and twisting. This is just a few applications for the pulling hand, but as you can see there is a lot of practical reasons for including this in the patterns, and the great number of its use in the Taegeuk set does not make the Taegeuk set “basic” or for children, on the controrary it makes a greater depth to the forms instead. There is an interesting article in the newest edition of Jissen magazine that can be downloaded on www.iainabernethy.com on the other uses for the pulling hand.
The Taegeuk forms consists primarely of “basic motions”.
This sentiment is true. If you compare the Taegeuk forms to older Karate Kata, Quan fa quan, Chang Hon Tul/Hyung the Taegeuk forms do seem simple and using a narrower and more basic technique base than its predecessors. But how do we grade basic and advanced tecniques today? These days most people look at techniques that are ellaborate and somewhat difficult to perform to be graded advanced not taking into account the practical application of the technique. Basic techniques are the ones we can perform with relativly little training. For example most will say that a simple front kick is a basic technique, while a tornado kick is an advanced technique. Most people are drawn to the “advanced” since we often think “advanced” means better. We grade the techniques purely on an aesthetic point of view. But should not self defence techniques be as simple as possible? From a self defence perspective the scale is turned upside down since in self defence the only focus is on applications and how well they can be applied. To them simplicity is good, because they need to keep things simple so the techniques can be performed in an adrenaline rushed state. Using the pulling hand as described earlier coupled with the strikes will also increase the effectiveness of the techniques and make the forms a lot more practical and effective for self defence. We are now far far away from what most people will say is a childrens art.
The Taegeuk forms use a great number of unrealistic “blocks” (Makki).
If you look at the motions labeled “blocks” purely as static defencive techniques just like they are most often seen in most official applications then yes, the blocks are unrealistic. In the “Kukkiwon Textbook” p. 197 (2006 edition) it says: “most Taekwondo makki techniques are designed to hurt the opponent in the course of defending oneself… Therefore, makki techniques must be trained hard so that they may function equally as offensive techniques”.
The English verb “To Block” conjures up a mental image of a defender lifting his hand to passivly hinder a strike to land. The Kukkiwon textbook`s definition gives the reader a whole new picture. The Makki techniques of Taekwondo is meant to actually hurt the attacker, and if trained hard and well they can work as well as offensive techniques to defeat an opponent? Unfortunatly most official applications do support the first scenario where the defender just hinders the attackers strike, and not the second one where the defender hinders the attack and at the same time defeats (or at least hurts) the opponent by hurting his limbs.
It is also important to bear in mind our idea of what an attack actually is. Different holds or grabs to secure and open an opponent up for a strike or barrage of strikes is equally an attack as the actual strike itself. Therefore some of the makki techniques of Taekwondo are designed to hurt the opponent and free yourself at the same time.
Some makki techniques are used for other “attacks”, such as pushes, repeated poking in the stomach/chest and the wild gesticulations often performed by an enraged person. The pushing, poking, gesturing (like shaking a fist or pointing a finger up in your face) is often seen just before the fight kicks off. Taekwondo share roots with both Okinawan Karate and Chinese Quan fa and they all focus on civillian self defence. Therefore it is logical that the techniques of Taekwondo deals with disposing of opponents/attackers before they become a real threat.
Then you have the makki techniques that actually are holds for opening up the opponents vital points. Some in forms of simple joint locks. One personal favorite is Keumgang momtong makki seen in most martial arts. This does not work well as a block but it works great as an opener for the vital points under the arm.
The simplest way to find effective applications to the forms is actually to forget the name of the technique and look at the whole motion. As previously stated the pulling hand or ben son is often just as important as what most people look at as the actual technique. Also it is important to think outside the “tournament fighting/duelling fightning” and start to think of self defence techniques instead.
Maybe the Taegeuk forms were designed for children and colored belt trainees, and most official writings from the Kukkiwon and the WTF will support this, but if you research the forms you will find so much more than just a childrens martial dance rutine.
Lee Kyu-Hyong (9th Dan) in his latest book entitled “What is Taekwondo Poomsae?” makes numerous claims that all of the Taekwondo forms (and therefore also the Taegeuk set) were indeed designed purely for fighting. Quotes like: “Poomsae training primarily aims to learn the face to face fighting in the actual field to protect oneself in an emergency”, and “Poomsae does not intend to look beautiful to others, or show off, but it is thoroughly for a fight” shows that patterns training should indeed be more than just a shallow performance art.
I hope you found this article informative and that you now can look at the Taegeuk pattern set (or any other pattern) and see more than just the surface. Does it matter why we ended up with the Taegeuk forms? Does it matter to whom they were designed for? What matters is that we are now training them and we should try our best to make the most of what we do have.
All the books by Iain Abernethy
Simon John O`Neill`s book The Taegeuk Cipher
Stuart Anslow`s book Chang Hon Taekwondo Hae Sul
Mathew Sylvester`s book Practical Taekwondo
The Kukkiwon Textbook
Lee Kyu-Hyong`s book What is Taekwondo Poomsae
Ørjan Nilsen, 2nd Dan in Kukki/WTF Taekwondo from Norway, has practised Taekwondo since January 2000. His training has taken him to Korea many times, competing in World Taekwondo Hanmadang 2006 and 2007, and World Taekwondo Culture Expo 2007. He also studied Taekwondo for one year (2007-2008) at Chosun University in Gwangju, Korea. He is currently practising and teaching tradtional Taekwondo at Bergen Vest Taekwondo Dojang in Norway. He is also the author behind the Taekwondo Blog; “Traditional Taekwondo Ramblings” which can be found atwww.jungdokwan-taekwondo.blogspot.com
As well as achieving great success in the sporting side of his art, he also has a very strong leaning towards the spiritual and self development side of martial arts as a whole. This was one of the main reasons for my interest in interviewing him. I have several friends within PUMA and it is clear from talking to them (and from their Facebook conversations) that PUMA has a very strong “family feel” to it. Although there is an obvious hierarchy (as in any martial arts organisation), it is more relaxed and open than most others. If you follow Master Gayle’s writings for a while, you’ll soon notice that he takes his training and teaching seriously, but does not take himself too seriously, which I always think is a good thing. There is always a sense of humour present which you’ll see as you read on.
I was told by one of his instructors some years ago, that at a meeting of senior Taekwondo masters from different organisations within Britain, most of them had very posh expensive cars, big houses and holiday homes overseas. Yet they were surprised that Master Gayle, despite leading a very large organisation, did not have all the wealthy trimmings that they had. This (as was explained to me by his instructor) was because Master Gayle is more focused on what he puts IN to his organisation rather than what he can get OUT of it! That in itself deserves respect in this day and age.
OK, so over the interview:-
CW: Master Gayle, please tell us how you first got involved in martial arts. Was Taekwondo your first style, or did you dabble with others before that?
RG: No, Taekwon-Do was not my first style. I first started with Karate in the mid 70’s. The style that I did was Higashi-Ryu, the head of that group at that time was Mr Peter Spanton. I trained there for a short time and it was great. The School in Bristol that I attended had some really good Karate students and I enjoyed every session. It wasn’t until a couple of years after that I saw a poster with two men jumping in the air kicking each other and at the top it had the name Taekwon-Do. I’d never heard of it before and decided to go along and see what it was about. I really enjoyed watching the class and it seemed to stir something inside of me that I didn’t feel with my Karate class. I don’t think it was a style thing, just the whole feel of the class. It was also better located to where I was living, as a youngster with no form of transport that was a big plus.
CW: What did you especially like about Taekwondo for it to captivate you for so many years (or should I say decades)?
RG: It was the dynamic side of TKD, which instantly appealed to me. Anyone that knows me will know that I love the dynamic side of TKD, the jumping spinning etc, although these days I’m not so dynamic, I have to keep my jumping and spinning for special occasions now. I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of smaller guys doing it too. I don’t know if that was just coincidence, but being a little vertically challenged myself, I seemed to fit in fairly well. I love movement of all kind, dancing, tumbling etc, so on a subconscious level it was certainly something that drew me in. I was also taken by the sheer variety of the class, there seemed to be more elements to it than the Karate class that I attended, I’m not sure if that was just an illusion but that’s how I saw it. I feel that style has very little to do with what martial art you end up doing. In my opinion, the class location, the style of teaching and the initial warmth of the instructor and students are more important.
CW: You have had a very successful tournament career in your younger days, can you tell us about that please. Which victories stand out most for you and how did they affect your personal growth within Taekwondo?
RG: I really enjoyed my tournament career; it was never what I was solely about though. I loved to do TKD not just for tournaments, but also for the whole package. I consider myself to be very competitive, I would always try and do my best with all the physical activities that I took part in, so tournaments
just fuelled my competitive personality. I was actually a keen footballer and played at a very high level as a defender. Many times attacking players would look at me and I’m sure in their mind they must have thought, “I’m in for an easy afternoon.” How wrong they were, and what a shock they got. Even though I was a very small player, I did surprise lots of players who thought I was a push over; they soon learned that the fight in the man was much bigger than the man in the fight.
This will sound strange but I have no stand out fights, I loved them all. I wasn’t really a scalp and name collector; I just enjoyed the buzz of competition and always tried to compete for the fun of it and with a smile. I didn’t mind losing as long as I knew that I had performed my best. However, competitions did help with my personal growth. Growing up as a black boy in the 70’s could be tough at times. TKD competition gave me a strong self-belief that has certainly helped me not just in competition but also in other areas of my life.
CW: As a Karateka myself, I know that Karate competitions have changed quite a lot over the years with more health and safety regulations (early competitions were a little bit “Wild West”). Do you feel that Taekwondo competitions have changed much over the years and if so, are the changes for the better or for the worse? Do you also feel (generally speaking) that standards and attitudes of the competitors have changed?
RG: Good old ‘health and safety’ has got a lot to answer for. It’s certainly had an impact on martial arts and a huge impact on competition. I think in many cases to the detriment of the art. In the earlier days of competition you had to be committed, because you knew if you weren’t, the chances of getting hurt was much higher. When I started competing, safety equipment was not compulsory and there were no weight categories, that does seems bazaar now, but I feel it did make you into a better martial artist. You knew that if a kick was travelling towards you, there was no option but to block it, there wasn’t a nice comfy foam pad on the end of it taking away the impact of it. If you didn’t block, there was a very high probability you were going to get hurt. Somehow that did seem to improve the quality of the techniques thrown; there were not so many throwaway kicks or punches. Nowadays, on the plus side for TKD, the average student has much better flexibility, and the training methods for competition are a lot more scientific, I think this has also resulted in a lot less injuries.
CW: Some people are critical of Taekwondo becoming an Olympic sport, saying that it over emphasises the sport side of the art and detracts from the original values of the martial art. How do you feel about this? I know that you personally put a lot of emphasis on personal development and taking part rather than just winning; do you feel that the sport side is good for personal development or does it just develop a big ego?
RG: I have to say, I am one of those people who is very critical. Olympic TKD only shows the fighting side of the art and there is so much more to TKD than fighting. It would be lovely to have a balance and have pattern competition too, or perhaps some special technique destruction.
I think the jury is out on the ego part of the question. I believe a lot depends on how the student is developed and the role models they have around them within their own organisation and their class. I strongly believe in the power and the association of others. If the people around you are behaving in a certain way, chances are very high you will start behaving that way too. I always tell my students to try and treat winning and defeat in the same way. If you do win, the most important thing to remember is to respect your competitor and to win with humility. Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world and no matter what you say or do, there will be students whose ego will run away with them and they’ll begin to show the ugly side of competition.
CW: I believe that you were actually graded for your 6th Dan by General Choi Hong Hi (the founder of Taekwondo) himself. That must have been a fantastic moment for you. Please tell us about that and what this iconic man is like to actually meet in person?
RG: Yes, I took my 6th degree under General Choi in September 2000. It was a very humbling, frightening and exciting experience all at the same time. I have to say that I had a really awful grading that day. I graded at the end of a three-day seminar where he had just introduced the ‘sine wave’ style of patterns to all the P.U.M.A. members, me included. I had also just left my previous organisation so there was a lot happening around that time and a lot of mixed emotions. It was such a great experience to meet him and he was a real gentleman. There were many stories doing the rounds about how he was difficult to get on with and how he had torn strips of individuals for no reason. I didn’t find this was the case at all, I found him very easy to get on with and his passion for Taekwon-Do and his enjoyment in teaching his beloved martial art was very evident for everyone in attendance to see. He even invited a few of us out for dinner.
We had a great time chatting to him about Taekwon-Do and some of his experiences he had encountered over his many years he had been spreading the word. I guess that’s what you do when you dine with the founder of Taekwon-Do, you talk about Taekwon-Do. As mentioned, my grading was a bit of a disaster; I think he took pity on me because he could see I was giving it my best shot but obviously struggling to get it right. He knew that I was one of the senior members of the newly formed P.U.M.A. organisation, so during the questioning part of my grading, he gave me some guidance as to how I should lead the group. He said that I should read and study Confucius and try and follow some of the teachings to enable me to be a better leader. I can honestly say that the weekend seminar and taking my grading under the General changed my life. It also changed the way I approached my Taekwon-Do and how I would teach it from then on. I was honoured that I got to chat with him privately on a one-on one basis, I was overwhelmed by his passion for Taekwon-Do, he must have talked for two hours about his thoughts on how Taekwon-Do should be taught and the difference that it could make in the lives of so many students.
When I found out I was successful in passing my 6th degree, I did vow to myself that when the time came to grade for my 7th degree, I would do everything in my power to take it in front of him, just so I could show him the progress I had made since my 6th degree. Unfortunately, I never got that chance to grade in front of him again as he passed away in June 2002. However, I did attend a Master’s seminar with him in January 2002 in Vienna. I couldn’t wait for the seminar to start so I could show him how much I’d learnt in 18 months since I graded. He did give me a few nods of approval and that made me feel really good.
CW: You’ve recently been awarded your 8th Dan, a dizzy height that not many Westerners reach. Congratulations Sir! Not knowing much about the Taekwondo world, was that expected, how did it come about and what does it mean to you personally?
RG: I was awarded my 8th degree on the weekend we held our second World Open competition. I had it sprung on me during a brief break for a medal ceremony, It was extremely unexpected. I knew nothing about it whatsoever, if I had known it was going to happen I would certainly have objected and perhaps not even turned up that weekend. It was something that I wasn’t looking for and would have been very happy to remain a 7th degree for many more years. When I started Taekwon-Do it was always said that to achieve the higher degree grades it wasn’t what you could do physically that counted, but it was what you did for the art of Taekwon-Do and other people that would determine if you were awarded those higher degrees. I’ve never forgotten that, although the things that I’ve done were because they needed doing not with a higher degree grade in mind. Perhaps the thing I’m most proud of which many state as one of the reasons I was considered for that promotion, is my continual involvement and development of Martial arts in West Africa, specifically Ghana.
CW: Having been an instructor for many years, you’ll have seen an awful lot of people, many of whom would have started as little children, growing physically and mentally as they achieve success in championships and reaching black belt (and beyond). How important is it to you personally to see this growth in other people and do you have any favourite stories/examples of people overcoming many obstacles to achieve success through their training?
RG: Yes, I’ve seen real transformations in many children over the years. I have seen children with absolutely no confidence at all grow into confident adults with a real positive outlook and a strong self-esteem. However, I don’t think martial arts is unique in the way it can build these qualities, I think that Taekwon-Do and martial arts in general is just one of many vehicles that can have such an effect. I strongly believe its more about the teacher and the environment in which the teaching and learning is taking place, than about the vehicle. After all, the qualities that are taught in most traditional martial arts are the same qualities that would be taught to anyone practicing any organised religion. Also a child who learns to master a musical instrument would certainly have their self-esteem and self-confidence boosted and would feel so much better about themselves. It would give them the ability to do other things that they might not have attempted before. I wouldn’t say that I have one special example over another, but needless to say, I think a large proportion my students who started at a young age and have achieved higher levels have benefited from their training. In recent years I’ve had students contact me many times over to thank me for helping them build their self-confidence. They have said that the personal growth that they achieved through training, allowed them to pursue and follow their dreams.
CW: What do you consider the most important benefits of training for martial artists of any style?
RG: I think the most important benefit of training a martial art, depends on what the students is looking for in the first place. There are so many reasons why people decide to start a martial art, I think that question is best served by asking the individual. There are the obvious benefits that include, fitness, self-defence, confidence, mental and physical development etc, but also the not so obvious which might include, escapism, social interaction, an alternative to the usual physical pursuits that people might choose to keep fit. The list is as long as the different types and personalities of the students that begin a martial arts lifestyle.
CW: Although I’ve never actually met you before, I’ve noted that you have a very philosophical and spiritual approach to life. Have you always been like this, or is it a side of you that has developed as you’ve matured? To what extent have your years of Taekwondo influenced you on your spiritual path?
RG: I haven’t always been like this and yes, it’s certainly something that seems to have developed as I’ve matured in Taekwon-Do. When I was a younger martial artist, my main focus was on being the best physical martial artist I could be. I was focused on kicking and jumping higher, doing more press-ups, being stronger and faster than I was the week before. Once you grow out of that and realise that there is a lot more to life, you start to look at the big picture, and in my opinion you start to find the real meaning of martial arts. I’m not saying that you should just ignore all those other things, its important to still stay physically strong and active, but I feel its a natural process to take a much more philosophical approach to life and training as you mature. I still get a good buzz from doing the physical stuff that was one of the things that I enjoyed about training in the early days. Leaving the dojang knowing that I’d done two more press-ups than the week before was, and still is, a great feeling. I realise now though that training and teaching a martial art without some emphasis on the spiritual side and philosophy behind it, just makes it the same as any physical pursuit. If at some point in your training that side is not recognized, you may as well just go and do a zumba class.
CW: Do you have many influences outside of Taekwondo that have supplemented this spiritual development and are there any books, DVD’s or any other source material that you would recommend to those interested in learning more?
RG: I have the usual collection of books that perhaps most are familiar with. Book of Five Rings, The Samurai Code, I have some great books by HRH Dalai Lama. I also have a whole host of self-development books by many different motivational speakers. My favourite motivational speak is, Zig Ziglar. Probably my favourite book on the spiritual side of martial arts is; Kodo Ancient Ways, lessons in the spiritual life of the warrior/martial artist, by Kensho Furuya. This is a great book that I stumbled across a few years ago. It is written by an Aikido Master, however, it contains lessons and teachings that are relevant to all martial art disciplines. There are some fantastic philosophies and some great paragraphs that make you examine your training, your thinking and yourself.
This is a particular favourite passage of mine from the book;
“If you think strength is the most important factor in martial arts, you will never be strong.” “A common person may become a master,” a true master never becomes a master.” Because learning and mastery is endless.
Of course my biggest influence outside of martial arts for spiritual development, has been my mother. What a warrior she’s been. What a great leader and philosopher of life she has been to me. She taught me how to live and how to fight without even entering a dojang. When I started my martial arts training I already had a head start because of the lessons I’d learnt at home from my mother, a true champion.
CW: When you and life long friend, Master Ogborne (former World champion) set up the Professional Unification of Martial Arts, what were your main objectives and to what extent do you feel that you’ve achieved them?
RG: To be completely honest, when we left our previous association, it wasn’t our intention to set up the Professional Unification of Martial Arts (P.U.M.A.) It certainly wasn’t by design that it happened as it did. Master Ogborne and I have been life long friends, so our only intention at that time was to leave and be independent with just the few Schools we were teaching at that time. Soon after leaving we had many people contact us asking if they could join us, it was as simple as that. I’d like to tell you there was a lot more to it and how we sat down with a large pad and paper and planned it all out, but we certainly didn’t.
CW: P.U.M.A. now covers Taekwondo, Tang Soo Do, Kickboxing & FAST Defence. Do you have any plans to expand the range of arts covered and what are the requirements for other styles/arts joining P.U.M.A?
RG: We’ve never had any plans to expand, we’re very happy with how P.U.M.A. is right now. As far as I’m concerned, if there is any expansion of P.U.M.A, I’d like it to be from within the organisation rather than from outside. I feel that the students who have grown up with us know what we’re about and are familiar with the P.U.M.A. ethos. Whether it’s stated or not, I believe that every martial arts group or association has an underlying ethos, it runs through their day to day interaction with students and underpins everything that happens. The ethos within the group has to come from the senior degree grades and filter down to the junior students. That’s why I’m very wary of trying to expand from outside, if the ethos is not understood, then the result will be disharmony and the union of Schools and minds won’t work.
CW: Having attended a FAST (Fear, Adrenalin, Stress Training) Defence course myself with P.U.M.A.’s very own Dik Chance, I can honestly say that I find this type of Reality Based training very useful. Many traditional martial arts associations don’t like to include this kind of thing as I guess they don’t want to admit their training might conceivably be lacking in any areas at all, so I applaud your foresight in this area. Has the inclusion of FAST Defence within P.U.M.A changed your outlook at all on the basic self defence value of traditional martial arts?
RG: I can’t say it has changed my personal outlook, more reinforced what I thought for a long time. I first saw the FAST defence system while at a martial arts convention in America. I was with other senior members of P.U.M.A. as soon as we saw the system and how it worked, it was obvious to us that it could be of great benefit to us and to the members of our group. Personally for me, it was the children’s FAST defence system that really stirred my imagination.
I’ve always thought that self-defence in its basic form is very simple, also being small of stature, a lot of the release moves and locks and holds which different systems teach, never really excited me. The thought of me at 11 stone and 5’6″ trying to release, after being grabbed by a 16 stone 6’4″ male with some of those techniques were a little far fetched. I’m not saying they don’t work for some people, just that for me, it would present a huge challenge. The verbal techniques and simplified counters of F.A.S.T. defence made perfect sense, and when I first saw it, my impression was that it could be employed by anyone regardless of size or strength. The FAST system has enabled P.U.M.A. members and others to experience the psychology of self-defence in a controlled environment, surely that can only be a good thing.
CW: Obviously I’m not part of P.U.M.A. myself, but I have a number of friends within P.U.M.A. One of the things I’ve noticed (especially from the Facebook banter) is that P.U.M.A. seems to have the feel of a big happy family with a lot of friendship and links between the different Schools (rather than rivalry). How do you foster this atmosphere and feeling within your association?
RG: In all martial arts associations there is a hierarchy. At the top you have the more senior grades who have generally been around for the longest time, right down to some of the young children just starting their own journey. I try to acknowledge all of our members and to be approachable at all times, I believe that this approach fosters a real family atmosphere rather than the fearful environment that I’ve seen in some groups. For an art that has courtesy as its’ first tenet, there are many organisations that don’t have the courtesy to give their members the time of day or even talk to them in a civil manner. Just the act of smiling can make a huge difference to someone’s day. It’s a cliché, but saying hello with a smile doesn’t cost anything, but it does mean so much to the person receiving it.
CW: I note that P.U.M.A has got very involved in supporting a project in Ghana (which you mentioned earlier). Can you tell us how you got involved with this, what you plan to achieve, what your future commitment will be and why it is important to you personally?
RG: The Ghana project is very close to my heart and I’m happy to say it’s also close to the heart of a fair few P.U.M.A. students too. About six years ago, I was asked to accompany Master Trevor Nicholls to Ghana to assist with helping a group transfer from WTF to ITF Taekwon-Do, ever since then I’ve been involved with helping them develop their martial arts and their organisation. My first visit was a real eye opener and laid the seeds for what was to come. While there, I saw some very passionate people who needed a hand to develop their Taekwon-Do, they had asked for help from many people and each time it seems they were let down. I think the main reason they were let down by others is because there’s no money to be made in helping them. Sad, but I believe true. A very likeable young man, Mohammed Mahadi 4th degree, leads the Ghana group. As a young lad he studied Karate and then moved to WTF Taekwon-Do. He eventually became disillusioned with the help he was getting from the WTF and decided to change to the ITF to see if they were willing to do more for the West Africa region. As soon as I went to Ghana I fell in love with the people and the country, so my passion for seeing them progress was born and has continued with many visits since. At present we are helping them to build a dojang to enable them to spread the martial arts word to as many people as possible.
Fast forward a few years and in Ghana I have been involved with taking a team of youngsters there to demonstrate at local orphanages, I’ve met and had an audience with some of the most important tribal chiefs to ask them for their help and support to establish martial arts in West Africa. I’ve taken a team of fighters there to compete and promote TKD. While there, I’ve visited companies to try and rally support as well as finance for the local students. I’ve met the Ghanaian chief of Police and managed to help with the promotion of teaching martial arts to all the Ghanaian Police recruits.
CW: Amongst the fundraising events for the Ghana project you led a team of the P.U.M.A. faithful on a sponsored cycle ride from John O’Groats to Lands End. This is no minor achievement, please tell us all about it?
RG: The reason for the ride was to raise money for 3 charities in which we have a personal interest. The first was the P.U.M.A Ghana project that I’ve already mentioned. The second was for a group called ‘Pilgrim Bandits,’ that is run by an old Taekwon-Do friend from the past. Pilgrim Bandits look after and support servicemen and women who have been injured while on active service. The third was for a charity called Friends of Valence. They are a School in Kent who support and help children and adults with additional needs. One of our instructors has a son who has attended and been helped by the School. So all the charities were very worthwhile and in some way or another we had a personal interest in them. I’m happy to say that the ride was my idea. What a great time we had, 12 days of pain made easier by the great company of some of my fellow PUMA martial artists. Of course being the elder statesman of the ride, they made sure that I was in front leading the team at all times, well that’s not quite how it went. Needless to say when we got on our bikes degree grades didn’t matter and it was every man for himself. In truth, we all helped each other out during the tough times that we all experienced at some point during the twelve days. I think that we all learnt a great deal about each other and it brought us all closer together as people. There’s something about experiencing pain as a group that brings that group closer. With the portion of the Ghanaian proceeds, along with an offer of land from one of the chiefs, we have nearly completed the building of a training centre for the students of West Africa where they can come and train for free to expand their knowledge of their art. It has been a tough few years but the fruits of our labour are now being seen and hopefully the Ghanaian students will be able to have some of the benefits that we enjoy and take for granted.
I’d like to publicly thank the following people for helping us all to realise the PUMA Lands End to John O Groats dream. The cyclists: Mr Dan Lammin 5th degree, Mr Ian Bedborough 5th degree, Mr Chris Walker, 4th degree, Mr Tony Goodwin 3rd degree. P.U.M.A. support vehicle: Mrs Tracey Bedborough 3rd degree, Mrs Tamzin Goodwin 3rd Degree. I haven’t told them yet but I do plan to do it again. Shh!
CW: OK, I won’t tell anybody 🙂 You have taken number of your senior instructors to Ghana to personally get involved in teaching a range of Ghanians from different backgrounds. This has on occasion involved considerable personal discomfort for those involved. On a personal level, what have you and your senior instructors gotten out this unusual experience?
RG: As mentioned previously, the Ghana project is still ongoing and every year I give P.U.M.A. instructors the opportunity to travel with me to experience teaching and training in Ghana and also to meet the wonderful Ghanaian people. You’d really have to ask the people that have come with me what they feel they’ve gained from their experience, but I’m sure they would also say that it has changed their life. The Ghanaian people are the friendliest people you could ever meet and although considerable poverty exists within the country, their hospitality is second to none. The smiling faces that you see throughout the country are testament to their incredible will and determination to live a contented life. I think what you get as someone who has grown up with certain luxuries, is a sense that we would certainly all be happier with less. When I get home after each visit some of the things I thought were important seem very trivial indeed.
CW: Since founding P.U.M.A. you’ve continued to evolve your Taekwondo with inclusion of things like the sine-wave movement for example. What are your plans for the future direction and development of P.U.M.A. in terms of how you teach/apply Taekwondo and expand as an association?
RG: I think for me, my main focus for the future is to continue producing good students who are technically competent but also have a social conscious too. I believe that our main focus shouldn’t just be about producing champions who can kick and punch, but also developing people who are passionate about upholding the Taekwon-Do oath and who are constantly trying to get closer to the tenets of our art. Regarding expansion, if students come through our system and want to be instructors, then I’m happy to help and assist them reach their goals. I have no immediate plans to change our direction, as a group we’re very happy with our current position within the world of Taekwon-Do
CW: Many people feel that Taekwondo is not necessarily good for the body as we get older due to the emphasis on high kicking. Do you agree/disagree? Do you believe that people should adapt their training as they get older, or should they just try to keep up? Have you personally had to adapt your training very much as you’ve matured?
RG: That’s a question that could take many pages to answer, I’ll try and take the short route though and make it quick. There are so many answers to this question but first I must say that I do believe you can train in TKD as you get older but just like any physical discipline small adaptations are probably needed to keep your body safe as you age.
How safe it is will depend on the individual and how they approach their regime. I also think that as you get older its not enough to just change the physical aspect of your training, other aspects like diet and general lifestyle need to be adjusted too. If the student has a good level of flexibility then I see nothing wrong in trying to retain it. If flexibility is a challenge for them then they might have to approach flexibility training with some caution. I’m not sure that kicking high should be the goal, kicking correctly should be the first goal and if they can kick high that’s a bonus. I’ve had to adapt my training for a more sensible scientific approach because of a hip operation I had approximately six years ago, so I’m very well aware of trying to keep my body safe and in good health.
CW: You are married with 4 kids. Do they all do Taekwondo? How does Taekwondo affect your family life and how does your family life affect your Taekwondo?
RG: Two of my four children currently train in TKD. I have a 26-year old son who trained from the age of 8 until he was 18. When he went to university I think he lost the habit and decided to stop, he achieved his 2nd degree, you never know though he may return to it one day. My second son who is 21 still trains regularly and is now a 3rd degree. I’m very proud of him as he still helps in my class teaching the youngsters. He trains hard and is much liked throughout the organization. I also have two girls one 6 and the other is 3. My 6 year old has started training and loves every minute of it. I’m hoping that my 3 year old will start when she reaches the age of 4. My Partner Is a 5th degree and has been training in TKD for 24 years, so she is aware of my passion for Taekwon-Do and what it means to me.
To answer your question, Taekwon-Do is a huge part of my family life, and vice versa. I don’t think doing what I do it can be any other way. There are some challenges but I know I have the full support of my family. Whenever possible my family come to the events within our organization and they also accompany me to our training camps etc. My partner has found it difficult to train consistently over the past 6 years because she has done most of the childcare during that period. She is currently trying to begin a regular training routine again; she’s really looking forward to getting back to it.
Taekwon-Do does have a big impact on my family but I see that as a huge positive.
CW: Master Funakoshi who taught General Choi used to recommend that his students do something artistic to balance their martial training. He wrote poetry. I believe that you’re a bit of a musician. How big a part of your life is music and do you find that it helps to balance you with your Taekwondo training?
RG: I think the advice from Funakoshi was great advice. Life is all about balance and no matter how much we love doing something, getting away from it for a short time and doing something completely different can have a positive effect when we get back to our pursuit. I sing and play harmonica in a local band and it’s certainly the yang to my regular TKD routine. I love to get away and play. The people who I usually play with or in front of know what I do, they just know me as Ray who sings and plays harmonica in the band. As well as doing my regular TKD practice, I always try and fit in some daily harmonica practice too. It keeps me balanced and has a real meditative effect on my life.
CW: What do you think is likely to happen in the future of Taekwondo as a whole? Obviously there are many different associations and versions of Taekwondo now, do you see more cooperation for the common good, more fragmentation, or simply people just doing their own thing?
RG: The day that General Choi died was the day that TKD changed forever. After the initial fragmentation when he passed away, I think the last few years has seen a steady tide of cooperation between groups. If there are enough people willing to work together, then I think that’s a good thing and there is certainly some hope for the future of our art. I’d like to think that however it goes I’ll still remain as I am and continue to teach Taekwon-Do using the General’s teaching and philosophies to underpin my own teaching. The great thing about teaching any martial art, is that you can bring your own personality into the training hall. For me it doesn’t matter what the others do, I’m going to continue doing exactly as I’m doing now, loving and teaching the art in the way I know best.
CW: Master Gayle, thank you for a very interesting and insightful interview. I know that you’ve had a lot of personal challenges lately, so thank you for taking the time to answer all my questions. I wish you, your family and all your students every success on your future journeys. Take care.
Note: It is planned to reproduce this interview in the on-line magazine, Totally Taekwondo. This is a non-political Taekwondo magazine for TKD practitioners of all associations and I thoroughly recommend it to anybody interested in TKD.
How often have you heard the phrase “before you can overcome others, you must first overcome yourself”, or “your main opponent is yourself”. If you’ve never heard these phrases, then take a long look at who’s teaching you! You should have heard these phrases before as this really is one of the most central core philosophies of doing any traditional martial art.
Whether you are looking for effective self defence, sport or simply aesthetic mastery of the art you practice you must first develop co-ordination, agility, speed, power, poise, balance and grace. From a combative point of view, the need for speed, power, co-ordination and balance are obvious; but grace? Do we need to be graceful in a fight? Many consider the very act of fighting to be very disgraceful.
However, if you execute a technique and for whatever reason the opponent deals with it and counters, you have to react exceedingly fast to defend against his counter. This kind of speed requires an instinctive reaction rather than a thought or reasoned one. If we are focusing on strength, we become rigid (the more you tense a muscle the less it can move). If we are rigid, then we cannot react very fast to an abrupt reversal in the fight and we have to hope we can absorb the punishment long enough for us to recover the initiative.
Whilst we would all no doubt agree that the ability to absorb punishment is useful, I’m sure that we would also all agree that it is not something that we should rely on as a fighting strategy. If we can move out of the way with ease and fluidity, we don’t have to absorb so much punishment and can regain the initiative much more quickly by simply not being where our opponent expects us to be. To move very quickly like this requires a high level of fluidity, and fluidity requires graceful movement! Don’t be fooled into thinking that grace lacks power, as it is quite the opposite. Grace comes from perfection of technique and perfection of technique comes from mastering the self. This brings us back to our opening paragraph about overcoming yourself before you can overcome anybody else.
This is why so many traditional martial arts place so much emphasis on drilling basics and kata, and why these are very often done before any partner activity. In the modern world where there is an upsurge in what has become known as “reality based martial arts” and the pressure testing of mixed martial arts cage fighting; traditional martial arts have become seen by many as obsolete, too stylised and more for sport or self development than for real world self protection.
Note: Reality based martial arts are often scenario based. It may include shouting, swearing, abuse and verbal threats to psychologically prepare the defender as this is obviously more real to a street confrontation. Sometimes even high grade martial artists do not know how to deal with this raw aggression and psychological pressure.
It is often pointed out that many traditional martial arts applications only work when the attacker is co-operative and conveniently attacks with a single straight punch (or kick) then freezes whilst the defender practices his counter.
These charges do hold a lot of merit. However, reality based martial arts can easily be included into traditional martial arts (and in my view, should be) and there are many people researching practical applications to replace the pre-arranged stylised attacks and counters that are still very widely taught.
Traditional martial arts however, are more technique based than scenario based and goes deeply into perfection of movement. Is this waste of time compared with learning the psychological aspects of scenario based training?
To draw an analogy, many professional dancers in the big shows, backing the world’s most famous pop stars have a foundation in ballet. Ballet is such a precise and co-ordinated art form that once the dancer is adept in it, he/she can apply that high level of control and co-ordination to almost any other form of dance.
Some of the most charismatic actors have a background in Shakespeare. Look at the authority and commanding screen presence of actors like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. The classical background in most cases (dancing, acting, martial arts and others) gives the practitioner a deep foundation on which almost anything can be built.
Kevin O’Hagan, internationally renowned teacher of reality based martial arts and author of many books has said that traditional martial artists always pick up the reality based teachings more quickly than those who have not.
Seeking perfection of technique is not only developing us physically and mentally, but is actually very practical in the long term for building a foundation for self defence skills. Over the years I have visited many martial arts clubs. In one particular Kung Fu club, the instructor was proud to tell me that he made all his classes different every time. He did not bore his students with endless repetition. One of students agreed enthusiastically, telling me how he used to do Shotokan Karate and got bored drilling the same old basics every single class. However, this student who had done the Shotokan drilling stuck out amongst the rest and was clearly better than the other students. The repeated drilling had given him a foundation and an advantage that he had not appreciated.
I want to make clear that this is not a criticism of Kung Fu, only the way that this particular instructor taught it.
Striving for perfection, even though we know that we’ll never actually reach it, does in itself also develop a certain mindset. A mindset of wanting to make something the best it possibly can be. This has many connotations for other areas of our lives, be it school, work, relationships, driving, other hobbies, whatever!
The Japanese have the concept of delayed gratification. This is also known in the West, but is not emphasised as much. The idea is that we work at something over a period of time and delay our feeling of gratification until we have achieved it. Like a grading for example. Even going through the Kyu gradings (coloured belts) we have to wait 3 months in between each one. But when we do pass it, we have a feeling of gratification which lasts. When we get our 1st Dan the feeling of gratification is much stronger and lasts much longer. We still have a feeling of pride years afterwards as we know that we have achieved a benchmark in our training. For many of us, it even becomes part of how we identify ourselves, which along as it is not accompanied by arrogance is a good thing.
Too many people, especially in the West are very much into instant gratification, be it drink, drugs, sex, smoking, or just watching a good movie. I’m not saying that these things are necessarily bad (being a normal healthy guy myself who . . . . err . . . . likes a good movie); but if they are our only sources of gratification in life, then they will be short lived as there is not much to sustain us and maintain a feeling of fulfilment from one source/event of gratification to the next. We are therefore not really at peace with ourselves.
Having a long term goal, a long term project or training regime does give us that something to sustain us and help us maintain a feeling of fulfilment in between the other more instant sources of gratification.
There are countless things that people can work on, train for, set goals about; but few can inspire for a lifetime like martial arts. In most sports or physical pursuits people reach a peak then tend to move on as they age. Martial arts (when taught properly) can be adapted as we age and we can work on other aspects. In our youth it is good to make the most of our raw athleticism of, but as we get older we may focus on for example our timing and deception. No matter how much we know, how much we’ve trained, how much we’ve taught; there is still something else we can work on and improve however old we get.
The fact that we will never reach perfection means that we can spend our whole lifetime looking for it and rather than feeling bored we feel fulfilled the closer we get to it. This is part of where spiritual development comes into martial arts, something often referred to but seldom explained.
This post looks at the differences and relative advantages/disadvantages of the a boxing punch compared with a traditional martial arts (Karate, Taekwondo, Kung Fu) punch.
Firstly, the disclaimer part 🙂
I want to make it clear that this for informational/interest purposes and is not meant to be an attack or criticism of any fighting system and is just my opinion. Anybody who can punch well is going to be a tough opponent on the street or in the ring regardless of which system they train in. Although I would argue that some systems are optimised for certain purposes (ie: sport or self defence, etc), that is not say that they are not capable of being used for other purposes as well.
Traditional martial arts have a large variety of different punches. Furthermore, within each art there can also be some differences in how they are performed, with some people sticking strictly to the traditional way whilst others have adopted more of a boxing approach. Certainly Kickboxers punch more like boxers than like strict traditional martial artists, and Kickboxing has influenced many traditional martial arts.
So for the sake of the post, I’ll be focusing on the basic Shotokan Karate extended punch (kizami zuki) and reverse punch (gyaku zuki) with the “corkscrew” twist of the forearm at the end of the punch as Shotokan is my primary style. These punches are however common to many other martial arts and are demonstrated below:
Although many styles of Kung Fu use these (or very similar) punches, some Kung Fu styles (such as Wing Chun) do not use this type of punch at all. Their method of punching is beyond the scope of this post.
Boxing fortunately is a bit more standardised without the vast array of different punches (though they do have variations on a theme). The boxing equivalent of the 2 martial arts punches shown above are the jab and cross, demonstrated below. You will see a lot of similarities:
If we look at the technical differences first, then we can examine what uses these different variations are optimised for.
Probably the most obvious difference is that the Karateka pulls their non-punching hand back to the hip, whereas the boxer keeps theirs in a high guard around the head. I’ll come back to that later, but a more important difference (in my opinion) is the way the shoulders are used. In the start position the boxers shoulders are hunched very slightly upwards and forwards, which making the chest very slightly concave, minimising any potential target areas. The gloved hands are also held much closer to the head and head is tilted forward slightly protecting the facial features more.
The Karateka on the other hand, keeps the shoulders lower and more relaxed, the chest in a more neutral position, the hands further forward and the head is kept more erect.
Part of the reason for these differences is quite simply the use of gloves (though there is more to it than that, which I’ll come to in a minute). When fighting with gloves, the hands are effectively much bigger. This means 2 relatively large gloved hands have to get through 2 other relatively large gloved hands!
When defending, you don’t really have to worry too much about blocking and parrying as you can absorb the opponents blows on your forearms and gloves! Glove to glove is not going to hurt and even glove to forearm is not going to do much damage. Keeping the head down and the chest slightly concave allows you to “hide” most of you upper body and head behind your forearms and gloves. The lower body is quite well muscled (boxers always do a lot of conditioning before going in the ring) and there is no punching below the belt!
The Karateka and most traditional martial artists however do not use gloves. So trying to absorb bare knuckle blows to your forearms will be more painful. Granted, it is still preferable to absorbing the blows with your head, but it can soon damage your resolve and weaken your guard. Rather than trying to absorb the blows of bony knuckles, the hands are held further forward to give more opportunity to block or parry incoming blows.
The hands are also . . . . well . . . . hand size, making it easier to slip a punch through somebody else’s guard, when your hands are small enough to slip in between their guard and their hands are not big enough to “hide behind”.
In Karate (and most other martial arts) competition you are also not allowed to kick/punch below the belt. However, anybody who trains for self defence must take low shots into account, hence the Karateka holds his hands lower than his boxing counterpart.
Another influencing factor is when you consider the difference between a fight and self protection. In a fight (sport or street) 2 people agree to have a go. With self protection, you do not agree to fight yet you have a physical altercation forced upon you. Even if you are severely provoked, the moment you agree to “step outside” or to “sort it out”, you have left the self protection realm and agreed to enter into a fight.
Boxing is all about fighting. It is designed as a sport where 2 people enter a ring with a referee. They will be in the same weight category and usually have a similar level of ability. As such there is no surprise attacks, sucker punches or pre-emptive strikes. They only fight when both are ready and prepared.
Many traditional martial arts have become sports and have a similar approach. However, they were originally designed for self protection where you can use (or encounter from others) surprise attacks, sucker punches and pre-emptive strikes.
The more erect position of the Karateka’s head may seem to be more vulnerable at first glance, but from a self protection point of view can have some advantages. A bully or thug will often try to intimidate with a lot of threats and abuse. They will often be “peacocking” whilst they do this (puffing themselves up to make themselves look bigger). Whilst peacocking, they actually leave themselves very open with a lot of vulnerable targets. As soon as you agree to a fight, or show any intention or capability of fighting, they will usually go into a similar stance to the boxer and close of those vulnerable targets. If you keep the head erect, the shoulders low and relaxed; but instead of making a proper stance and fists, you face your opponent with hands open/palms down, you can mask any intention that you are preparing to defend yourself. The bully is therefore more likely to keep peacocking leaving plenty of good targets. This allows you to take a nice clear pre-emptive strike to a vulnerable target and hopefully end the situation in one go.
Also, having the hands in a more forward position means that they are actually closer to your assailant. So when you do launch a pre-emptive strike to a vulnerable target, your assailant has less chance of stopping it.
Many traditional martial arts also have a whip like effect to their punches. This requires a rapid rotation of the spine, which is more easily achieved with the spine straight. This is another reason why the head is held upright. Lowering the head (like a boxer) puts a slight curvature at the top of the spine which creates a slight amount of tension in the upper body, which works against the whip effect.
Furthermore, big gloves spread out and dampen the impact (which is necessary when 2 people are hitting each other full contact for a number of rounds). So a whip like snap punch will not work quite so well for a boxer wearing gloves, so they needs to go for a more deeply penetrating punch rather than the snap/impact of a traditional martial arts punch. This necessitates more commitment of the shoulder to achieve that extra penetration.
Now this is where we come back to the traditional martial artist pulling the non-punching hand back to the hip. This is very often explained as a way to increase the power of the punch, but when you see how powerful boxers are without it, then there has to be a bit more to it. The non punching hand is called “Hikite” in Japanese, meaning “pulling hand”. It can be used to grab the opponent and pull them off balance whilst striking them with the other hand. Again, this works better with a straight spine, hence another reason for the head being erect.
Although boxing has obviously been developed as a sport, it is all about fighting. Once a situation has become a fight (in the ring or in the street, it is a very simple and pragmatic system. It is very effective, very powerful and generally speaking boxers train to absorb more punishment then most traditional martial artists do.
The traditional martial arts punch is more optimised to self protection scenarios. Having said that, many instructors are not very good at teaching self protection and teach more for sport fighting anyway!
But like I said at the beginning, this is only my opinion and there are only a few degrees of differences between the 2 types of punches anyway.
Please leave your own comments below and build on my observations.
Any technique can be developed into a number of variations. However, when it comes to the front kick, I would say that there are main variations (and many sub-variations). These are hips side-on (FIG 1: hips facing about 90 degrees to opponent) and hips forward (FIG 2: hips facing toward the opponent).
Both have slightly different advantages which I’d like to explore. But firstly I want to make it clear, I’m not saying that one kick can ONLY be used ONE WAY and the other version can only be used ANOTHER WAY, as that would be silly. What I would say however is that each version is optimised for different purposes.
If we start with the hips side on version first. This variation gives a slightly longer range. It is also easier for doing a front leg kick. If you get into a fighting stance with your weight on your back leg and your feet more or less in line, it becomes very easy to raise the front leg of the ground and kick with it. This give you a better chance of keeping an opponent at a distance due to it’s additional range (especially compared with hands) and speed.
The hips forward version however has slightly less range, but it does put more actually body weight behind the kick.
This gives it more stopping power for somebody charging in. Generally speaking, your body weight moves in the direction that the hips face.
Another detail is the position of the supporting foot. If you look at Fig 1, you’ll see that the supporting foot is also pointing at about 90 degrees away from the opponent. This is necessary or the supporting leg would be twisted and could do hip/knee damage. However, if the opponent is able to absorb the kicks impact and keep moving forward, then the supporting foot will end up resisting the push on the little toe side of the foot which is obviously weaker. The kicker could find themself being unbalanced and pushed back.
With the hips forward version at Fig 2, you’ll see that the supporting foot is facing forward too. Firstly, being able to put more body weight into the kick means it would take more for the opponent to overcome and even be able to move forward. Secondly, as the supporting foot is pointing forward, it is able to dig into the floor with the heal of the foot which will afford more resistance than the little toe side of the foot to any pressure being applied by an opponent absorbing the kick and trying to push through.
The hips facing forward (Fig 2) is the older version of the kick and the hips side on version (Fig 1) was developed later. Why? The hips side on version is better for the sport environment. Although in sport, the opponent is still trying to hit/kick/strike you, because there are rules the opponent is still partially co-operative. Unless you are in competing in Mixed Martial Arts cage fights, most competitions (traditional martial arts/Kickboxing) do not allow you to grab or grapple. Therefore the opponent is usually co-operative in that they are staying at kicking/striking range and not trying to rush in at you.
This creates an environment where that little bit of extra range is useful and the weakness on the supporting foot is not an issue.
However, the hips forward version has limitations in the sporting arena but has more stopping power in the street. In a real assault, the attacker will not be co-operative in any way at all and will most likely be charging forward to grab you. Most street fighters/muggers/etc are not martial artists so would not fight the same way. Therefore range is not an issue as the chances are that your attacker will be closing distance straight away (especially for assaults on women).
I am not suggesting that you should practice one way or the other, all I would suggest is that be aware of what you are training for and chose the appropriate version of this technique.
I was surprised to see in one of my regional papers today a story about a slightly-built unassuming 15 year old Taekwondo exponent who got the better of a would be mugger. So I thought I’d share it with you. The following story is reproduced from the Bristol Post:
WHEN a would-be mugger approached slightly-built teenager Henry Watts determined to steal his wallet and phone, he got much more than he bargained for.
The criminal, who grabbed the Staple Hill teenager on the Bristol to Bath cycle path and aggressively demanded his possessions, had no idea his potential victim was an expert in the martial art taekwondo.
Instead of handing over his valuables, Henry, 15, put his self-defence skills to good use. And in a scene straight out of the movie The Karate Kid, he freed himself from the mugger’s grasp and punched him in the face.
But rather than bragging about what he had done, Henry carried straight on to school, where he did not tell anyone about his unusual start to the day.
It was only that evening when he told his dad, Paul, what had happened. Mr Watts then contacted the police. Henry told The Post: “I usually walk to school with my younger brother Josh but was running a little bit late, so was on my own.
“I saw a man walking towards me with his head down, but suddenly he had hold of my jacket and was asking for my phone and wallet.
“I used an arm lock move to get his hand off my jacket – it basically involves getting his arm and twisting it around – and then I punched him in the face so that I could get away.
“I got off the track and ran up some stairs onto the common before carrying on to school.
“I didn’t really think much of it until later in the day, and then I felt quite shocked.
“I didn’t really want my dad to tell the police at first but he said what if it had been my brother, who is only 11?
“That made me realise that what had happened was quite serious.”
Henry wholly credits his twice-weekly taekwondo lessons for his quick-thinking reaction.
“The whole thing didn’t take longer than 15 seconds,” he said.
“It never crossed my mind to hand over my things.
“My first reaction was to defend myself, and I think that’s because of my taekwondo lessons.”
His mum Alice Watts, 41, a finance officer, told The Post: “Henry is quite slight for his age and was wearing headphones.
“I think the man might have thought he was an easy target, but didn’t realise that he knew how to defend himself. He’s been doing taekwondo on and off for about five years and obviously used some of those moves to defend himself.”
Andy Davies, chief instructor at Black Belt Academy in Staple Hill, has been Henry’s taekwondo teacher for around 18 months.
Henry, who is in Year 10 at Mangotsfield School, is graded a green belt, which means he knows around half the skills needed to be awarded the elite black belt.
“We teach a mix of taekwondo and kick boxing using a range of oriental weapons,” said Mr Davies. “The biggest thing that we try to do is to keep things simple and practical.
“Henry is a very diligent and quiet person – he’s the last person I would have expected to do what he did.
“But it shows that he had the confidence to use the moves he’d learned in a real setting to defend himself.
“It’s that confidence that we really try to instil in people.
“That takes time and training – the moves have to be practised and repeated over a period of time.
“We try to teach martial arts as a way of life and I am very proud of Henry and what he did to defend himself.
“I would like more children to learn the skills that martial arts teaches so that more can learn how to defend themselves in these sorts of situations.”
A police spokeswoman told The Post that no arrests had yet been made but an investigation continues into the incident.
It happened between 8.30am and 8.40am on November 6, on the Bristol to Bath cycle track near Rodway Common in Mangotsfield.
Police are looking for a man aged 20 to 30, with a pale complexion, who is about 5ft 7in tall and skinny, with green eyes, a goatee beard and light brown scruffy hair. He was wearing a grey or blue hooded jumper at the time of the incident.
Anyone with information about the attacker should contact the police on 101.
Russ Martin, 5th Dan TKD is recognised within the Taekwondo Association of Great Britain as an expert on applied Taekwondo (the practical application of the basics and patterns). He should really be known further afield as he has a very extensive knowledge.
To better understand his own art he decided to study Shito Ryu Karate as well and has attained his black belt in that too. He has also attended seminars with many of the great names in applied pattern/kata bunkai.
In the videos below he demonstrates applications to a number of basic blocks and pattern movements, most of which will be very readily recognised by most Karateka as well.
Going back further in Okinawan Karate history before Karate was introduced to Japan, they had the interesting concept of Shu-Ha-Ri, which I have discussed before. However, to recap:
Shu: means that you copy your master as closely as possible, to learn his techniques in as much detail as you can. Ha: means that once your technique is up to a good standard, you have the freedom to make subtle changes to suit your own physique and experiences. Ri: means that you have mastered the techniques to the extent that they are a natural part of you. At this point the student may transcend the master.
This is not a far cry from Bruce Lee’s famous quote: “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”
The “Ha” part in particular tells us that it was expected for the advanced student to adapt their Karate to suit themselves. Although there is a certain amount of leeway for us to do this today, we are still in the main confined to what our seniors tell us is our style. We are not free to change our kata’s to do (for example) a Front Kick rather than a Side Snap Kick which we might struggle with. Can you imagine the masters of old raised with the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri, insisting that their student continue to do a technique that damaged their joints, simply because it was always done that way? If you want to train in the traditional manner, rather than a “traditional style”, then maybe you should consider making little changes to suit your own body.
To quote Matsuo Basho a haiku poet, we should progress: “Not by blindly flowing the footsteps of the old masters, but by seeking what they sought”
There are a number of examples of Shu-Ha-Ri in modern martial arts. I hope martial artists of other styles will forgive me for focusing on Shotokan Karate, but it is the style that I’m most familiar with, (though I’m sure other styles have similar examples).
Those of us who have trained in Shotokan Karate over the decades have instinctively known (especially in the early days) that something was missing. Not just in the unrealistic bunkai that was taught to us by our Japanese masters, but sometimes technically in the art. We would see films or read magazine articles about masters doing great feats with seemingly no effort, yet we were encouraged to put more and more effort into our training (overly exhaling and tensing to create kime) as we progressed. That seemingly mystical ability to generate masses of power with little effort, derived from pure technique which we thought we would attain as we progressed, seemed to become more elusive as we rose through the grades. Very few senior Sensei in those earlier days seemed to be able to show us anything except more of the same. As my former Sensei, Graham Mead used to say, “ We were ending up with 2nd & 3rd Dans who were really just very good brown belts”.
However, over the years things have gradually changed and mainly for the better. Sport science has obviously shown that fast movement requires relaxation rather than more tensing. The emphasis on deep stances has relaxed (though Shotokan stances are still deeper than many others). Little things like bending the back leg slightly in Zenkutsu Dachi (front stance) relieves the tension on the lower spine and hips has replaced the straight back leg which was common years ago.
These all help to reduce the damage to our bodies that many early practitioners suffered from.
The availability of many other martial arts have allowed exploration to fill the gaps and bring some of the answers back into mainstream Shotokan.
Master Hirokazu Kanazawa, 10th Dan and founder of the Shotokan Karate International, also studied Tai Chi. When he taught around the world he would often have Tai Chi seminars alongside the Karate seminars. His Karate has become much more softer and more relaxed than most others and he has inspired many Shotokan practitioners of all associations to take up Tai Chi (including me).
The Late Master Tetsuhiko Asai, 10th Dan, lived and taught in Taiwan form many years. During this time he also studied White Crane Kung Fu, Dim Mak (critical nerve points) and Qi Gong. He placed great emphasis on relaxation and using the body like a whip. He was the founder of the Japan Karate Shotorenmei and brought his own special influences to bear on the Shotokan world.
These influences along with many others have led Shotokan Karate to become very varied depending on which association or instructor you train with. Some versions are quite relaxed like the original Okinawan Karate making it a healthy art to practice, whilst others are still quite stiff like the early post war Karate which can be damaging.
Taekwondo too has also changed significantly over the years and now has many variations. Some associations for example have introduced a sine-wave movement into their step to also create a more relaxed manner of moving.
Please add any other examples below of how any martial art has been adapted to make it healthier to train.