Interview With Ms Louise Reeve, 4th Dan Tae Kwon Do, First Woman FAST Defence Instructor & Author

Ms Lousie Reeve, 4th Degree TaekwondoMs Louise Reeve is a very progressive martial arts teacher.  A 4th Degree at Tae Kwon Do (aiming for her 5th Degree).  Although her early martial arts career saw her enjoy a lot of competition success, she has developed into a more martial path, embracing reality based training.  This includes being one of the first people from the UK (and the first woman in the world) to go to the USA and qualify to the teach the Fear, Adrenaline, Stress Training (FAST) Defence system and introduce it here in the UK.

Having done a FAST Defence course myself with one of her colleagues, I’ll vouch for what a straightforward and effect method it is; which fits hand in glove with any martial arts system.  I’ve passed on the teachings to my own students and out of everything that I’ve taught, the FAST principles have been used much more than anything else.  I’d highly recommend it.

Yet despite embracing this reality training, she still teaches to high technical standards; all things that I consider necessary to a complete and rounded martial artist.

On top of this, she is a great humanitarian who looks into safeguarding children in training, has supported her associations charitable work in Ghana and thrives on teaching children with physical difficulties, (something which many teachers shy away from).  I was therefore delighted when she agreed to do this interview with me and share her insights:-

CW      Before you took up Tae Kwon Do, I understand that you were looking to get on the UK Olympic squad, which would have been an amazing achievement. Can you tell us about that and what happened to stop you going?

LR      That is a distant memory now lol. I was a keen archer when I was younger and used to take two trains and a bus to get to the shooting ground twice a week. I ended up shooting for the county and even heading to America to shoot the Main State Open. I won that one and when I came back my coach was talking about the Olympic trials. I had dates that I was working towards when my brother in law mentioned this ‘club’ he had joined. It was a martial art but he couldn’t remember the name. He knew I had been into Martial Arts in the past so he invited me to come for a class. That first day I was taught how to spar, no gloves, no real explanation – I blocked a kick with an soft hand and twisted my index finger backwards. Apparently the injury was called a ‘bowstrung finger’ but that was enough to ruin my shooting scores and drop my ranking significantly. But I had enjoyed the class so I ended up looking around for a similar club and found Master Black.

CW      That’s a real shame.  But archery’s loss was martial arts gain!  When did you take up Tae Kwon Do?  What was it about Tae Kwon Do that appealed to you so much that you’ve stayed with it for so many years and ended up going professional?

Ms Louise Reeve with Master Black
A young Louise Reeve with a medal, receives some advice from Master Black aka “Captain Fitness”!

 LR      I joined Master Black – actually ‘Captain Fitness’ as he was known in those days in 92 and the first thing that appealed to me was the community. He made his school a happy and joyful place to be. He was an electric personality and made such a difference in so many lives. I think it was telling that on the day of his funeral the driveway to the crematorium was lined with hundreds of martial artists, all coming to attention as he passed by, all different disciplines, different organisations but he brought them all together with his personality. He was the heart and soul of the school. The more I think about him, the more I realise he taught me how to teach. My schools are greatly influenced by him. This was not my first martial art though, I had dabbled in various small clubs in the 80’s but nothing that had the impact of walking through the door of Exeter TKD. Thinking back, there were a lot of egocentric seniors and instructors in the 80’s. I think that’s one of the main reasons clubs were much smaller.

CW      Having had your sporting ambition in archery unfortunately taken away, you became a keen competitor in Tae Kwon Do. Please tell us about your best competitive moments and the highest awards that you won?

LR      I had never been physically fit. Archery makes you strong and works your core but does nothing for cardiovascular fitness. So TKD was a revelation. The massive jump in physical exercise changed my body shape and my stamina. Exercise started to become a celebration of what I could do rather than a punishment for eating junk food. That, coupled with my addictive personality was the right mix to get immersed in the competitive circuit. I was very single minded and in my best year won Golds at all the regionals including the English, British, Welsh and Scottish culminating with the Gold at the Europeans in Eindhoven in the Netherlands. A great experience but so alien to what I stand for now, it’s almost like I am two different people.

CW      Congratulations, that’s quite impressive.  In 2001 you opened up your own school in Henleaze (Bristol) and later in Clifton (Bristol). This was part of the then newly formed Professional Unification of Martial Arts (PUMA). Since then I believe you’ve become a full time professional instructor. Was that hard to do? Was it scary leaving behind the security of a regular job for something that can fluctuate quite a lot?

Ms Reeve stretching for side kickLR      It certainly was scary.  I was working as a senior paediatric oncology nurse at the Children’s Hospital in Bristol and we had a particularly hard time on the ward.  My dad had also died a few months before so things were hard emotionally.  In those days because of the intensity of the work we had a councillor who attended the ward to help the staff work though the stresses of the shift.  One suggestion that she made to me was, ‘why not start a small school of TKD and teach some healthy kids to get balance’.  She knew I was a Black Belt but I had never thought about opening a school until then, although I had done a LOT of teaching for my instructor. At that time I had moved to Bristol and was training with Master Ray Gayle, another massive influence on my journey and someone I consider a friend rather than just an instructor.  Having had a regular income for so long and to suddenly become self employed was certainly scary.  But that addictive personality kicked in again and within 2 years I was up to almost 200 students.  Student numbers fluctuate over the years but I am lucky to have a core of great Black Belts who make up the backbone of the schools.

CW      Even today, martial arts are still mainly male dominated, so that makes your achievement all the greater.  It seems to me (though I don’t have any figures to back it up) that more women are drawn to Tae Kwon Do than most other martial arts.  Would you agree with this observation?  And if so, why do you think that is?

LR      I honestly have no idea if women are more drawn to TKD than other Martial Arts.  It’s an interesting point.  And if that is so, I don’t know if it’s the martial art itself or the environment and way it is taught.  As I said earlier, TKD was not my first Martial Art but it was the one I stuck with because of the environment my instructor created.  As a woman working towards 5th degree (sometime in the next 20 years) I’ve had a few conversations about why there are so few senior grade Black Belt ladies. Everyone has a view but ultimately mindset is key.  We all change as we get older, but a step forward is still a step forward no matter how long that step is.  Priorities change through life but if your community is important enough to you, it will stay part of your life despite those changes.

CW      Well I hope it doesn’t take you 20 years to get that 5th degree!  🙂
Personally, when I see an advert along the lines of “self defence taught by ex-Marine” or real “Special Forces self defence” etc, etc; I cringe a bit. A self defence system designed for a big, strong, fit, powerfully built man is not necessarily going to work for a small weak person, most women, older people or unfit/unhealthy people! But if a system can work for weaker people, women, etc; then it can work for everybody. Therefore a weaker person or a woman is more likely to teach in a way that will work for everybody, not just the big and powerful so I see it as a bonus! But I’d like to ask you, have you ever had any problems with male ego and men not taking your seriously as an instructor because you’re a woman?

LR      I am quite selective of who I spend my time with so I haven’t come across that kind of prejudice. I have trained with Geoff Thompson, become a F.A.S.T. (Fear and Adrenaline Stress Training) instructor with Bill Kipp, (I was the first woman inside a Bullet Man suit in the UK) and I’ve done armed response training with Peyton Quinn. The one common thread with all of these experts in their field is their lack of ego.

Ms Reeve with FAST Defence Bullet-Men
Louise Reeve with the FAST Bullet-Men (the name comes from the bullet shaped helmet). The unusual looking suits allows their students to hit them full power without being hurt

You’re right about those adverts, they also make me cringe although having been in the military I know there is a place for that kind of training. Outside of the military world there is a fine line between ‘self protection’ and ‘training to fight’. There are still plenty of instructors who teach the best way to protect yourself is to learn to fight as hard as you can and win. They drill for the 1% of the confrontations in life that will result in a physical altercation but do nothing to address the other 90%. I should point out there are also highly skilled individuals out there teaching a well measured balance of technique, awareness, adrenaline control and aftermath. People like Adam Woodhouse for example. My hope is that this is the way forward for self protection as we all know, the ones who need it most are the ones who will fail that predator interview and end up becoming prey. What they need are simple, effective, large motor function techniques that do not need to be drilled for 10 years before they can be effective.

CW      I agree with you totally, there’s a big difference between self protection and the way many traditional martial arts are taught today.
Would you like to see women being better represented in martial arts with more women following your example and running their own schools and taking up senior positions in their association? And if yes, how could this be achieved?

LR      I think we are particularly lucky in P.U.M.A. as we already have a few 5th degree ladies – soon to be 6th degree. They are already providing a very real role model for the rest of us. I believe there will always be a discrepancy between the number of men and women in Martial Arts as life gets in the way. Starting a family for instance has immediate and permanent body changes that can often mean we have to take years out of training or return to training in a different way, often at exactly the time we might wish to open our own schools or progress to the next grade.  To run a successful school takes a lot of time and effort. Regardless of how much time you commit to your school the one constant is ability to teach.  When I was in my 20’s I used to love destruction and front punch was my technique of choice. Today, 30 years later, it’s more likely I will break my wrist if I tried that technique and although I still want to . . . I need to prioritise my responsibility to my students.  Ultimately I believe it’s less about male or female, and more to do with age, mindset and determination.

CW      Going back to self defence systems that work for everybody, I understand that you were one of the first people to bring FAST (Fear Adrenalin Stress Training) Defence into the UK from the USA.  You were also the first ever Bullet-Women. That must have been an amazing experience, please tell us all about it and how has it has altered your perspectives on martial arts and self defence? Do you still teach it?

A group of FAST Defence Bullet-Men
Louise (2nd from right) in USA after FAST Defence training & qualifying as an instructor.

LR      I loved F.A.S.T. as soon as I heard about it. The idea that self protection training could be effective for everyone regardless of size or ability and that what happens before the altercation can dictate the outcome was revolutionary in those days. The course was a massive influence on me as an instructor and was my inspiration to study de-escalation techniques, body language, micro expressions, verbal dissuasion and so much more.  I already had quite a bit of experience in the field having been Security Officer in the Army but I did a lot of extra training when I was in the US.  Gun safety, weapons defence and anti abduction training were all on offer and I soaked them up.  And now I am passing on all that information to my students in a format that is accessible to all rather than teaching ‘if you are attacked with A, you defend with B’ . This kind of technique based system is always frustrating to me as it looks so good on paper and then falls flat when needed – unless you have spent your life drilling every defence to every attack under stress that is.  I’m sure there will be somebody out there training like this but it’s not the way I would want to live.

CW      Having done a FAST Defence course myself, I also found it a massive influence and can vouch for how good they are.  I teach it to my own students. Of all that I teach, the FAST Defence tactics have been used more than anything else by my students in real life confrontations. So I’m very grateful for you going over and bringing it back! Having been a keen competitor earlier in your Tae Kwon Do career, how do you do you reconcile the sporting side of your art with the harsh reality based training of FAST Defence?

LR      Actually, one has taken the place of the other.  I don’t compete anymore and although all my students have access to a comprehensive international tournament circuit I don’t promote that side of TKD anymore.  No one has to compete although they can if they wish.  My instructor Master Ray Gayle was lucky enough to have had a number of conversations with General Choi when he came over to welcome the creation of P.U.M.A.  When asked ‘with hindsight what would you change about TKD?’ General Choi said he would make sparring less important.  I believe there is a place for competition but you need to decide if you are a Martial Artist who competes, or a Competitor who uses Martial Arts to win medals.  I know many of both types of student but I think if you are training as a means to winning medals, you are missing the point of the art.

CW      I agree and think it’s partly an age/maturity thing.  Many like to compete and test themselves when they’re young (which is fair enough); but look for something deeper as they get older, both in terms of self protection and self development!
Who have been the most influential people to you in your Tae Kwon Do journey and why?

LR      Without a doubt that has to be Master John Black and Master Ray Gayle.  Both my long time instructors and both huge influences in how I run my school and how I teach.  There have also been a huge number of incredible Martial Artists I have had the privilege of training with but the people who have been most instrumental are probably my students.  I’ve been asked ‘who holds the power, the instructor or the student’?  And I can honestly say I am very lucky with the balance that has been struck in my schools.

CW      And who outside of Tae Kwon Do, have been the most influential people on you as an all round martial artist?

LR      I’m sure there have been many, including my dad, one of the kindest people you could have met.  But the one person who has completely changed my teaching and my views as an instructor has to be my son.

Senior PUMA Teakwondo instructors in Ghana
Louise (left) with senior PUMA instructors and Mr Mahadi (right)

CW      I interviewed your instructor, Master Ray Gayle back in 2013 and we talked about PUMA’s charitable support of a fledgling Tae Kwon Do group in Ghana. This included sending out top PUMA instructors to teach them and helping them to build their own Dojang (training hall). I understand that you’ve been out to Ghana yourself, teaching as part of that charity.  Can you tell us what that was like, what you were able to contribute, what it meant to you to be there and how those experiences affected you?

LR      I have been to Ghana with P.U.M.A. a few times and each trip was incredible. On the first trip I was the only woman heading out there and I did have a few reservations about how I might be viewed but the greeting from the Ghanaian people and students could not have been warmer.  Mr Mahadi who was the instructor was so dedicated and passionate about the changes he could make to his community and he was hugely determined.  I met some members of the royal family and some of the regional chiefs and was proud to be able to talk to them about what we could do to help.  One personal highlight for me was when we taught for a day at the Ghanaian Police HQ.  Even in the UK this would have been daunting but to be a woman teaching self defence in a foreign country to a hundred police recruits taught to a military standard was a career highlight.  There were a small number of women in their numbers and I’m hopeful that it would have been an inspiration for them too.  The second time I went, there were more female instructors in our group so the experience was different but still just as rich.  Another highlight was travelling to the orphanages in different regions and putting on demos for the children – that was

something I will never forget. Students in Ghana thought nothing of walking half the day to get to the dojang, and every lesson was a community celebration with all the elders coming to watch – just AMAZING.  When my son is older I will go again as it’s a place I would LOVE to take him.

Louise Reeve with Ghanian Police
Teaching self defence to Ghanian police

CW      That’s amazing.  And from royalty to orphanages, what a variety!
I’m told that you’re a very “technical” teacher.  I personally like that and think it’s very important especially as we get older (no longer being a spring chicken myself)!  But how important do you feel that fine technical detail is compared with say fitness and strength, especially when real self protection is so messy?

LR      For me they are sides to the same coin.  Balance is everything in training and I don’t believe you can have one without the other if you are going to call yourself a Martial Artist.  Knowing the technique is one thing but performing it correctly requires true strength and stamina.  Many students come to learn TKD as a form of self defence but as I said earlier, for me they are two different things.  That is not to say you don’t learn many of the skills you need to protect yourself by training in TKD.  You will definitely improve posture, gain the self esteem you need to stand up for yourself and gain the confidence to talk someone down if needed.  You will learn balance and control of your body but – learning to spar will not help you win on the streets when someone is mugging you.  Some of the applications in TKD text books are simply unrealistic and will not work in real life so I try to keep the two things separate and just allow the TKD to enrich the self defence training and the self defence enrich out TKD.

Louise Reeve with Ghanian police officer
Not sure what’s happening here, perhaps Ms Reeve is being arrested! 🙂

CW      With regards to the unrealistic applications, we have a lot of that in Karate too.  Many Japanese masters (and I assume Korean masters too) put form before function.
I’m assuming that you’ve probably had people go from junior to adult with you and you must have seen many people grow physically, emotionally and in terms of their own personal development. How important is personal development to you, both for yourself and for your students?

LR      I am now at the point in my teaching career where this is exactly what instructing is all about for me. I will teach anyone as long as they wish to learn.  I have many students who have tried in other organisations but were either told they had reached their potential or left because they felt their needs were not being met.  Granted it’s hard sometimes for new instructors to arrive at the realisation that the best instructors teach each student differently depending on their needs and abilities.  You can only effectively teach once you have discovered the students learning style.  Having been a full timer for over 20 years, the students who give me the best sense of achievement are the ones who struggle the most.  The students with significant disabilities who might not be able to progress elsewhere.

CW      I agree with you totally on that one.  On the subject of self development, I gather that you specialise somewhat with children with dyspraxia. What differences have you seen your teaching make to those children?

LR      I do have a lot of students with challenges including dyspraxia.  The repetitive action and symmetrical combinations in TKD are great for this condition. TKD has a good reputation in helping with dyspraxia although when you think about it there are only so many ways you can move your body.  Other Martial Arts also have the same useful qualities but maybe it goes once again to how it is taught rather than what we are teaching.  All our junior classes are child-centric so they address the needs of the age group within the class rather than expecting those kids to act like mini adults.  A sense of fun will always be the core of my junior classes as if you enjoy what you do, you are far more likely to remember it.  I have seen amazing results and it’s always a joy to see someone attain the next grade, or even learn the next technique with a smile on their face, knowing that they had to work twice as hard as anyone else to achieve the same goal.

CW      I understand that you’re the child protection officer for PUMA.  What does that entail and why is it important?  Do you think that other martial arts associations should take this subject more seriously?

LR      I’ve been in that role since just after P.U.M.A. was formed 20 years ago so a long time now and it’s pretty much a full time job.  I head a team of 5, all come from backgrounds that have a good understanding of safeguarding in their jobs.  Between us we run regular face to face safeguarding courses to all instructors and helpers teaching best practice, we design the regulations and ensure they are followed.  I am also the point of contact and advice 24/7.  I have the opportunity to teach safeguarding in martial arts courses outside of P.U.M.A. to other organisations and have seen a lot over the years.  We are lucky that we have a good administrator in P.U.M.A. and she deals with all the enhanced DBS forms now but that used to be my job too.  The Designated Safeguard Lead (used to be Child Protection Officer) is still a role that is very underrated in most organisations.  I’ve had occasion to talk to other groups and often the person holding responsibility is the senior grade, regardless of if they have any knowledge or training.  Sadly martial arts is one of those places where access to children is easy.  It can take 4 years to get a Black Belt and to open your own school, less than that in many cases so it’s a great position for people trying to get authority over kids.  This is why we have to be vigilant.  The idea that safeguarding issues don’t happen in certain schools or that ‘it never used to be like this’ is a nonsense. The difference is we now teach with our eyes open and are not afraid to do what needs to be done in order to protect our kids.  In fairness, if you have absolutely no experience the whole subject can feel like a minefield which is why I’m in the process of writing a book specifically about this topic designed for instructors and parents.

CW      Well I wish you every success with your book and I must admit, in all the Karate associations that I’ve been with, I’ve not heard much about child safeguarding outside of getting a CRB/DBS check.  And on the subject of children, I believe you’ve adopted a young boy. How’s he doing? Is he following your path into Tae Kwon Do?

LR      I have and he is wonderful. He is taking his time and enjoying the journey.  Right now he is 12 and a Blue Belt.  He’s done about 4 years of training all together but as with all adopted children, he has some major challenges to deal with and I’m mindful to let him lead the way and walk alongside him.  He says he is determined to make it to Black Belt and if he does I will be the proudest mum in the world – but to be honest everything he tries hard at makes me the proudest mum regardless of being TKD related or not.

CW    That’s really lovely.
You’ve been very successful over the years. You’ve won some big competitions, your students are winning big competitions, you have a large successful club, you’ve turned professional and you’ve produced a number of black belts. But if you had to choose just one achievement as your proudest moment, what moment would that be?

LR      My proudest moment in TKD is always the last class I taught.  As I drive away I try and find one thing that makes me feel proud of the students or the team, it’s a great way of staying focused on the next challenge.  Outside of TKD – it’s got to be the day I met my son.

CW      What other areas are you currently branching out into, outside of your standard club-night classes?

LR      After discovering zoom and then getting over my dislike of being filmed (had to get over that lightning fast this year) I am starting to put together a series of self protection films for my students focusing on what happens and what to do before the confrontation.  How to defuse, what body language to look for that might be a threat level indicator, how to control your own body language and display compliance or assertiveness depending on what the situation calls for.  And I am also working with a young student who uses a frame to stand, looking at how we can modify the existing syllabus to allow him to progress.

CW      That’s certainly going to be a challenge.  I wish you every success with that.
What are your plans for the future? Do you have any particular projects that you’d like to tell us about?

Clifton & Henleaze Taekwondo club
Clifton & Henleaze Taekwondo club – a happy bunch! Louise Reeve on the left, middle row in the blue top.

LR      Right now I have two main priorities.  Firstly, celebrating my schools 20th anniversary in 2021.  It’s going to be an amazing year and I have a lot of plans for fun and educational events and to give something back to those students who have been with me from the beginning who are now senior Black Belts in their own right. My second priority is to finish the book I have been putting together for about 6 month. It’s called ‘The (martial) Art of Safeguarding’ and deals with all the safeguarding issues for instructors to consider when setting up or running a school and what parents should look for when trying to find the best school for their kids.

CW      Well good luck with celebrations and your book.
If anybody is interested in training with you or maybe hosting a seminar with you (FAST, Tae Kwon Do, whatever) how should they contact you?

LR      We are making a few changes to our webpage and Facebook page this year for our anniversary but the name will always be the same. You can find us at www.cliftonandhenleazetkd.co.uk – there is a contact button on there or you can email me direct on louy@cliftonandhenleazetkd.co.uk – I’m always happy to teach self protection, safeguarding, FAST, Taekwondo, teaching children or anything else training related.

CW      Ms Reeve, thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview and sharing your thoughts.  It’s been very interesting and insightful, you’re a great role model, especially for other women in the martial arts and I hope more of them feel inspired to follow your example.
Thank you very much!

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