I’ve had the privilege of doing this interview with Master Colin Wee, 6th Dan, who has his own unique and practical approach to Taekwondo. He first come to my attention as a fellow blogger and has organised some blogging carnivals that I’ve taken part in. As well as being a great martial artist, he’s a natural leader and communicator; co-ordinating projects and organisations around the world.
He’s also opened minded to other styles and like the best martial artists is happy to learn from anybody who has something to teach, not just ring-fencing his style and shutting the others out. He’s equally happy to share his knowledge in an open and friendly manner without any ego. So I was very happy when he accepted my invitation to do an interview with me. His answers are quite detailed as Colin typically likes to give his best to whoever he is dealing with, be it a reader or student and it makes very interesting reading.
Before anybody jumps on me, this is NOT my statement, this is a question I received on the Bunkai Jutsu Facebook page, from Seth Boggs:
“I’ve practiced Tang Soo So and TKD in the past and am confused and dismayed by the lack of respect given to Korean martial arts especially when you consider that TKD was developed for the military besides Olympic TKD why are they held in such low regard”?
I can’t do the question justice with a short answer so I thought I’d do a full post and share my thoughts with you all.
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.
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:-
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.
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.
My on-line friend Colin Wee, 6th Dan TKD, has proposed an Anti-Bullying Blogging Carnival. As I used to be bullied a lot back in far distant school days, I thought this was a good idea, so this is my contribution to the Carnival.
The obvious answer the title question is of course, YES, traditional martial arts can help somebody who is being bullied; but there are some limitations that need to be taken into consideration.
For somebody just starting their training, traditional martial arts can take quite a while to learn up to a proficient standard. Something like Kickboxing is simpler and can be learnt to a proficient level considerably quicker. Confidence is quickly gained when hitting an actual target (like focus mitts or punchbag). Traditional martial arts may have more depth and include a much greater range of techniques and capabilities (grappling, pressure points, grab releases, etc); but the emphasis on perfecting technique makes them more difficult and slower to learn.
For somebody who is being physically bullied NOW, taking up traditional martial arts alone may be a bit slow to produce results.
Another factor which is much more important however is the pre-fight build up and the emotional response to the threat of violence, which is often overlooked in traditional martial arts. A fight can be won or lost before the first punch/kick is even thrown by one person intimidating the other and undermining their confidence. Bullies routinely use this tactic as part of their build up; be it name calling, threatening, minor pushing around; all testing the response and intimidating their victim into a feeling of helplessness and fear. This loss of confidence and fear leads to hesitations and even freezing at a critical moment making it even easier for the bully to dominate in a physical conflict as the victim can become too scared to even fight back.
Simplistically put, the bully psyches them-self up, whilst the victim is psyched down.
Some instructors who have been in a number of altercations in their younger days assume that the pre-fight stage is a matter of common sense once you know how to fight. It may be common sense to somebody who has actually had experience at real fighting. But it is not common sense to somebody who has not been in that position before and hasn’t had that experience. It certainly is not common sense to somebody who has been routinely bullied and has developed an ingrained behaviour pattern of backing down and acting passively when threatened, they just don’t know anything else. When under this type of pressure, blood goes to the limbs (for fight or flight) and away from the brain. Therefore the brain does not think very clearly and relies on instincts and experience. If the last experience when being bullied was to act passively, then the chances are that they will act passively again. Not always, sometimes they snap and go for it, but in most cases they will do more or less the same as before.
Many years ago, whilst rising up through the coloured belts in my Karate, I trained hard, was naturally flexible and had good technique for my grade. However, when sparring or entering in a competition I would often not do very well, even when I was faster, sharper and had better technique than the person that I was facing. I realised later that it was because I was not very aggressive and had a passive nature. Yes, I was bullied a lot at school and no, I didn’t really stick up for myself.
So if I was not doing well in the relative safety of sparring and competition, what would have happened if I’d been involved in a street fight?
Many traditional martial arts give little consideration to the pre-fight stages of the conflict and how to deal with it emotionally or psychologically. Many systems do include pre-arranged sparring routines which can be used to work this area and include emotional intensity/pressure. When you face somebody who is going to come in at you fast and strong and if you don’t block, side step or evade, they’ll take your head off; then you do get used to dealing with the adrenaline and fear but it can take a long time.
Shortly after passing my black belt I was sparring with my Sensei. Whilst he obviously got the better of me, I stood my ground quite well and made it work for it. He said to me afterwards with a little smile, “what happened to that green belt that I used to be able to kick all around the dojo”?
Traditional martial arts training had made a big difference to me mentally and emotionally and by the time I had obtained my black belt I had overcome much of my limitations caused by my passive nature. However, it had taken me nearly 4 years to get there. For somebody who is being bullied NOW, that is a long time.
This is why I am in favour of reality based training which uses scenarios to de-sensitize people to the threats, abuse and taunts, and teaches them to function even under the effects of adrenaline and fear. Humans always learn much more quickly when in an emotional state, which is why reality based training gets very quick results and change that freeze reaction to an active response. As mentioned above, when under pressure the brain losses blood and relies on experience. If you can simulate a realistic experience where the victim takes action (be it assertive verbal behaviour to dissuade an attacker, or actual physical fighting back), then that becomes the default experience the next time that person is in that situation.
One of the first times I did this kind on training there was a young lady who was a reasonably high grade in Taekwondo. When the trainer (as part of the training scenario) venomously called her a “f***ing bitch”, she started to cry. She had obviously been through some abusive experiences in the past, but her traditional martial arts training had not prepared her to emotionally deal with this simple abuse and she went straight into the old ingrained behaviour pattern. However, she continued the exercise and learnt a new response to take away with her, so I applaud her courage for sticking with it. She took a bigger step forward that day than the rest of us.
I would warn however, that although learning under heightened emotional pressure produces quick results, it also hard-wires the response. So if you overcome the “freeze” response but swing wildly, then the wild swinging could become your hard wired (and not very effective) response. This is why I believe that scenario based training (reality based training) is very beneficial, but it should be used sparingly and should NOT become the default training method. Traditional martial arts are the best way to obtain the best long term results, but if you don’t have the time, then you need a little extra.
I came across this story by chance in a local paper. It was just so awesome that it had to be shared. Next time you feel too tired to train, or think you’d rather watch the telly instead, think of this young lad from the Bath TKD club. This is where the grown ups can really learn from the kids.
The following is copied from the Bath Chronicle On-Line paper:
A boy who had to learn to walk and talk again after a brain tumour is now heading for a black belt in tae kwon do.
Daniel Kimmins, 11, from Odd Down was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2006.
After a battle to walk and talk again, he returned to school and tae kwon do in 2009, and has won his red belt and is now working towards his black one.
Bath Tae Kwon Do Club Instructor Rob Morris said: “I truly never thought I’d see the day Daniel would return, let alone reach such a high level.
“He continues to be an inspiration to all members at the club.
“In the 20 years I have been teaching I have never seen anyone with as much fighting spirit – it is truly humbling.”
Daniel was six years old when he started suffering from constant headaches and vomiting, causing his worried mum Heidi to take him to the Royal United Hospital.
She was told he had a virus and they were sent home, but when his health started to deteriorate, the health problems returned.
Daniel was then diagnosed with a brain tumour, and was transferred to Frenchay Hospital near Bristol for two operations.
Five weeks later, he was moved to Bristol Children’s Hospital for chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Daniel faced another challenge to learn to walk and talk again, after one operation to remove the tumour left him mute and unable to move the left side of his body.
The cancer had also spread to his spine, confining him to a wheelchair for two years.
Now, five years on, Daniel still has six monthly MRI scans at the RUH, and check-ups at Bristol Children’s Hospital. Although he is not yet in remission, he is improving all the time, but still has problems with balance and walking up stairs.
Heidi said she was very proud of his courage and determination.
She said: “Everything Daniel does amazes me.
“He is so determined to have a normal life and carry on with all the things he loves, like tae kwon do.
“I am just so proud of him. He is a very brave and determined boy.”
As a mark of his courage Daniel was awarded an award from his club for his “indomitable spirit”.
He has also been given a Cancer Research UK Little Star Award in recognition of his achievements.
I have to confess that I haven’t read this book, though I would like to when I get the chance. My brother-in-law, Martin who is a 2nd Dan TKD has read it and has highly recommended it. Then I saw a review on my friend Bob Patterson’s Striking Thoughts blog, so I thought I would copy it here for my TKD readers.
It is along similar lines to (Shotokan’s Secrets, by Dr Bruce Clayton, which is the only book that I’ve ever finished and then read again almost straight away. Both books explore the history behind the arts in question and expose many of the so called “truths” behind the “official history” of these arts. I do believe that it is helpful to get behind the myths of the art and get to the truth. It helps give a bit more of an all round understanding and appreciation of the art(s) that we practice.
As with Karate (which at one stage deliberately sought to hide it’s Chinese influences) so some in TaeKwonDo have hidden some its history. In particular, that it was mainly based on Shotokan Karate with hardly any influence from ancient Korean martial arts as is often claimed. It’s all in the marketing and there is an element of this in every style. Whereas Shotokan’s Secret revealed how Funakoshi and other Okinawan masters had been economical with the truth of Karate, so General Choi and other Korean masters have been economical with the truth of TaeKwonDo’s past.
The way I look at it is that our arts today are what they are. Whether they come from Japan, Okinawa, ancient China, ancient Korea or Disneyland, the arts are still what they are. They will not be any different just because you discover that they had different influences to what you have been told. Besides, understanding the actual influences go a good way to understanding the full potential of the art.
Anyway, here below is Bob Patterson’s review from his Striking Thoughts blog:
(Note: The Striking Thoughts blog has since closed).
Alex Gillis is a university instructor, journalist and author of A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do. He has studied the art for 25 years in both ITF and WTF styles. Much like many of us who have studied Tae Kwon Do, he has heard fantastic stories of Tae Kwon Do from his instructors and other Taekwondoists. In this book Gillis grants us access to interviews and information from the early pioneers of the art. Along the way he also debunks a lot of the fantastic claims and dubious history that surrounds Tae Kwon Do.
Simple fact: Tae Kwon Do is not thousands of years old nor did it spring from the Hwrang warriors. Rather, it’s a derivative of Shotokan Karate that Choi originally learned while in Japan during the 1940′s. Nor, for that matter, is Choi the sole inventor of Tae Kwon Do. We have the art of Tae Kwon Do because of a poker game. The young and hot-tempered Choi Hong-Hi lost all his money on a game of poker and enraged a local wrestler by throwing a bottle of ink at him. This loss forced Choi to flee his village and later learn karate.
The books starts before the Second World War when Korea was occupied by the Japanese and Choi was a young man ready to set off to Japan to complete his education. From there we follow the story of Tae Kwon Do from Choi’s experiences of WW II, to the Korean civil war to the war waged between the ITF and WTF Taekwondo organizations. No political detail is spared as we learn how far Choi would go to keep control of his beloved ITF. Along the way we also learn how pioneers like Jhoon Rhee and others helped to develop the art.
Alex Gillis has written a biography of Tae Kwon Do and a gripping thriller that’s as worthy of a movie as the story of Ip Man! Included are Choi’s brushes with death and his involvement with the Korean CIA. What is also quite disappointing is the shear corruption and greed associated with Tae Kwon Do. As Gillis notes: “I am stuck on the path of Courtesy, which instructors in small gyms around the world know well but which is largely ignored by Tae Kwon Do’s leaders.”
The history of Tae Kwon Do is rightly titled ‘A Killing Art’ because it was created at a time when the martial art was used on the battle fields of Korea and Vietnam by the U.S. and South Korean military. This book is essential reading for karate players and taekwondoists and should be mandatory reading for both ITF and WTF styles.
One of biggest assets in a real fight is to be able to move naturally. And there is no more natural bodily function then breathing.
Yet in Karate, I believe that one of the biggest problems over the years has been an over emphasis on the exhalation at the end of the technique. In fairness to other styles, I should point out that most of my experience is with Shotokan Karate so it may not apply to other styles quite so much. But if everybody is honest, I don’t think that Shotokan is completely alone with this fault.
An over-emphasis on exhalation at the end of a technique, especially if the exhilation continues after the technique is competeled will unnecessarily waste energy, create pauses between techniques (where your opponent could counter) and create stiffness and tension in the movements. Not only is this counter productive for self defence, but it not the healthiest way for the body to move either.
I would guess that a lot of this come about because many of Funakoshi’s early students where lost during the War. After the war, Funakoshi was quite old and not able to steer the teaching quite so much. Also Karate was dumbed down a lot for political and social reasons (see my 5 part video course for more info) so more emphasis was placed on the physical development.
Over the decades Shotokan Karate (and probably most other styles) has progressed and become much more fluid and relaxed (hence more effective). Some of the very senior Karate masters like Kanazawa, Kase and Abe have also studied Tai Chi (as does my Sensei) and have brought some of that knowledge back into their Karate. There are still many who do it the old way tense way, but it’s changing.
However, I think that for the majority, the details of breathing are seldom broken down in the way I’ve been taught. So I’ve put together a couple of videos to help anybody who is not quite sure of how it should be done.
Ironically, the way it performed in the more modern versions of Shotokan is quite similar to how it is done in the more modern versions of Tae Kwon Do where they use the sine-wave movement. Although Shotokan does not rise up and down like the sine-wave, both breath in during the first half of the step to get relaxation and fluidity and exhale in the second half of the technique. It is explained a bit more in the following video’s which I hope you enjoy.