When I was a kid there was an old WWII vet that ran a Judo dojo (Grey’s Judo) in my home town. He had been stationed in Japan during the U.S. occupation following the war. This is where he learned Judo and earned his black belt (I believe he was a 4th dan). A kid I went to school with took lessons there and I used to go with him and watch. My family could not afford lessons so even though I took and immediate interest I could not participate. When you would see the instructor in town he seemed like a pretty average guy. But something special happened when he put on his gee and started shouting out commands in Japanese. He suddenly seemed powerful and authoritative. It was amazing to watch how he could so effortlessly throw people around the dojo (place of practice)! He could explain the techniques (waza in Japanese) in detail and explain why there was a specific way to perform the technique. There was no doubt that he was very knowledgeable and very well trained. A couple years later the kid that I went to watch the class with got into a fight with me at school. I do not remember what it was about and it really has bearing on the point I am trying to make. When the fight started since I did not know what to do I just rushed him dead center. To my amazement I did not go flying anywhere like the students in the dojo did. I could see the frustration and fear on his face, as he landed on his back, that his well practiced techniques from the very qualified instructor didn’t come to his aid in his time of need. I ended up on top of him on the ground and after a few wild punches it was over. More on this later.
My next introduction to martial arts was when the T.V. show Kung Fu came out in 1972. I was totally blown away with everything about the show. I thought (at the time) that the fight scenes were incredible and there was something intoxicating about the lessons in Buddhist philosophy that the monks gave young Kane . There always seemed to be some amazing lesson in what the master had to say, especially Master Po, the blind monk. When I watched In the Judo dojo it was always a one on one match up but Kane was fighting several people at once! He seemed almost super human. If only I could learn to fight like that I thought. The relationship between the master and the student was something special that I had never experienced in my life up to that point. There was bond there but at the same time there was dedication and obedience from Kane and discipline, wisdom and patience from the master.
I didn’t start my real martial arts training until 1981 when I was stationed in Korea after enlisting in the Air Force. My first martial art was Korean Hapkido. My first teacher was Sabanim Chang, Young-Shil in Song-tan South Korea. Sabanim was a very fit man in about his late thirties or early forties. He was very strict but also had a sense of humor and an infectious laugh. He was lightning fast and could effortlessly kick you in the head or throw you through the air. The dojo was very basic, just a room with many windows and no air-conditioning. Since Hapkido was both a kicking and a grappling art there was an old mat on the floor to cushion the blow when practicing throws. It is very hot in South Korea in the summer and extremely cold in the winter. The closest thing that I could describe would be Georgia in the summer and then if you could somehow pick Georgia up and move it to northern Canada in the winter. It was very humid and damp even in the winter time which made it seem all the colder. In the summer months it was so hot that after the class we would go out by the hand drawn pump. One at a time each person would put his hands on the ground and his feet on the wall. Then a couple of other students would fill large bowls up with the very cold water from the pump and pour it on you. It was such a shock to the system that sometimes your arms nearly gave out! Afterward though you felt very refreshed and cool enough for the walk home.
Although Sabanim and his black belts were very skilled he spoke very little English and the black belts didn’t speak any. So learning the techniques could be very difficult at times and you had to watch very closely. The black belts did not have the patience that the teacher had and sometimes they would act out of their own frustration of trying to communicate with you. If they were trying to teach you a new block for example and you were not getting it right they would just hit you! This was totally foreign to someone from the west and I of course was not a big fan of this type of teaching. I do admit though that it usually did not take long for you to learn the new technique! We would practice different set movements where one person was the attacker and the other was the defender. We would also have sparing at the end of the class. It was usually using only hard techniques such as Kicking and punching or it was grappling and throws but not both at the same time. Only the higher level students would spar using both types of techniques. This was a practice I later saw again when I became a student of Shorinji Kempo in Japan. I still have many fond memories of this time and of my first teacher. He was a very accomplished martial artist and much, much more. One day I arrived early to class and was doing some stretching when I heard a kid crying. He was a young boy about seven or eight years old. At this time Korea was still a bit of a third world country and there were not many doctors available. The boy had dislocated his arm and his mom had brought him to Sabanim for help. Sabanim looked the boy over quickly and all the sudden with a very fast motion he reset the boys arm! The boy stopped crying and soon had a smile on his face. The mom bowed and thanked my teacher and then she grabbed the boys hand and they left. Sabanim did not ask her for money or anything. He just went back to doing what he was doing before they came as if nothing special had happened. I remember thinking how much he reminded me of those monks on the T.V. show.
After I left Korea I went to England and since there wasn’t any Hapkido classes around I decided to take Taekwondo. The Taekwondo instructors name was Sensei H. I am only going to abbreviate his name for reasons you will soon learn. He was also American and was from Maryland. Sensei H. was a Poomse (kata, form) champion with wonderful technique. He had trophies and certificates from all over the place. He seemed to be a very nice guy and really wanted everyone in class to improve. I felt like I trusted him very much and all the kids in the class loved him. The class was pretty standard fare, punching, kicking, one, two and three step sparing, and of course poomse. One, two, and three step sparing for those that are not familiar are set attacks and responses that you practice with a partner. After practicing my first couple poomse for a few months it was time to free spar. I had been practicing all of these low stances and formalized punches and kicks so when I was ready to spar I got into a low stance. Right away Sensei H. said stop, hold on! We don’t fight like that. We only use those stances in the forms. He then showed me a totally upright stance and had me start bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet. After the sparing was down I asked the Sensei H. why did we practice the forms one way and then spar differently. He said that the forms were the “art’ part of the martial art and not actually for fighting. Although this did not make any sense to me I just accepted it outright, remember Kane the obedient student? During this time we went as a class to many martial arts competitions. Watching the sparing competitions I thought it was odd that you got three points for a kick to the head but only one point for a punch to the body. This was aggravated by the fact that the referees often did not give any point for punches that you could easily see made contact. Soon Sensei H. left England and went back to the U.S. to work at a dojo in his home town.
Years later I was wondering what happened to Sensei H. and I decided to do a google search on him. To my horror, surprise, and dismay what came up was a mug shot and a newspaper article about how Sensei H., after returning to the states, was arrested and put in prison for statutory rape of a 15 year old female student. How could it be that someone so well liked and so well respected had such a fall from grace?
I have had many very good, and a few great, martial arts instructors over the years but I just wanted to communicate the stories above to illustrate some very important points especially for someone just starting their training. Before I start I want to make sure that you understand that I am in no way disparaging Taekwondo as a martial art. If anything my observances and the questions that I asked myself should highlight that there may not be a problem with classical martial arts, in and of themselves, but in the way that they are currently practiced.
It is clear that when I started my training I had some lofty ideas about what a martial arts instructor was. This is a very common thing with many newcomers to any martial style. We have all seen the movies with the exotic somewhat mystical teacher that shows the student “the way”. They are clearly infallible and unquestionable and the student should just follow their every instruction even if you are hearing that silent voice inside your head that tells you something is wrong. It has been my experience that the best teachers have been much more Mr. Miyagi like than the mystical sage of the movies. Just ordinary people (in outward appearance) who have woven the practice of the martial arts into their everyday life. You have to learn to separate the fantasy that is portrayed in the movies and legends about martial arts from the reality. One of my most impressive teachers was Ueno Sensei, my Shorin-ji Kempo instructor in Japan. He had incredible technique that utterly belied his 110 pound frame. He could control people many times his size with no effort at all. After class he would go out and have a beer and cigarettes with the other black belts! He was a chiropractor during the day which gave him a special knowledge of how to cause pain in the human body. In the evenings he would teach Shorin-ji Kempo with his son at a local gym. His knowledge was vast and technique was near perfect. He was dedicated but he understood that the martial arts were just one part of his life that complimented the rest.
Martial arts instructors are just people like you and me. While the good ones do deserve praise and respect there are many fake ones around that do not. Don’t be fooled by charlatans that pretend to be all knowledgeable and have a 15th dan or something ridiculous like that. One of the cancers of modern martial arts are the schools where the only knowledgeable instructor manages many schools and he has his handful of 18 year old (or younger!!) students teach the classes. This is what I would refer to as McDonald’s martial arts. Of course being above a certain age is no guarantee of competency but certainly someone who just got their driver’s license last week is no well of secret knowledge! Certificates on the wall and membership to this or that association is not much help either. The vast majority of federations and associations that are supposed to protect the integrity of a particular system have primarily just become a money making operation that sells their membership to schools willing to pay. Once a lot of the people running the schools realized this they just started their own Federation or association, which of course they were in charge of. A clever ploy to make sure that all the money was going to them instead of some association in a far off land. Unfortunately the title or the level does not mean much either. I remember a time when a Sensei or Master who was a 4th or 5th dan was the highest you would see. Now check the yellow pages and you will see the charlatans that advertise that they are the Super Ultamate Supreme Grand Master and 15th Dan black belt of the “I just created my association last week” association!
When looking for a school look for one that is run by a middle aged or older teacher who does the teaching himself. Actually go to the class and watch for a while before joining. . Pay attention to the teacher’s demeanor and how he deals with the questions that the students ask. He should be able to answer the “why’s” and “how’s” that come up during the class. Find a school that teaches basic techniques, kata (forms, poomse, juru…), preset drills, some form of sensitivity drills using a variety of attacking styles, and free sparing. Contrary to popular myth practicing kata’s, forms, or any preset movements are a must to develop good technique. You cannot separate the “art” from the “martial” as Sensei H. implied. The movements and stances that you practice in the kata should be the same that you use in sparing in fighting. You should fight exactly as you practice. The problem with a lot of schools is that they only practice preset movements with the attackers using the attacks from their own martial art. This is why the boy in the beginning of this post was not able to apply what he had learned in his Judo class. I did not attack him in the exact same way as he had practiced in the dojo and his brain locked up! This in my opinion is the thing lacking most in almost all modern martial arts classes. A fight is fast constant unpredictable movement. In most cases since the attacker will not have had any formal training it will be wild unpredictable movement. If you don’t train for it you will not be ready when it happens. If you don’t believe this is true try this simple experiment. Pick the best student in class (or even the instructor). Practice one of set movements (i.e. one, two, or three step sparing for example). On about the third or fourth try where you are supposed to throw the straight right punch throw a straight left punch or a left hook. See what happens? It is almost guaranteed that the defender will totally miss the left. This because at a point where you understand the techniques you have to move past the set movements. Do you really think that some guy is going to fight in a predictable way? No, the real fight is total chaos! Some of you will say that you do free sparing that handles this issue. Well while free sparing is a great exercise too almost all schools wear a bunch of padding and all technique goes out the window. This can develop some really bad habits. Have you ever seen a Kali (Arnis, escrima) practitioner wielding his stick? It can be an awesome sight. Put that guy in all the body armor and have him spar and both people revert to what they call the cave man strike (A straight over hand strike like a cave man would swing his club). They also start taking strikes to give a strike. Doing this in real life (especially with a knife) can put you in an early grave. So no sparing is not the total answer, only a partial one. I believe that there are many sensitivity drills that you can practice such as chi-sau or Hubud that can give you a framework. The thing that you have to change is once you understand the basics of these drills you have to introduce the strikes from other styles and even grappling. If you don’t use this type of sensitivity drills in your system just have one person be the attacker and one the defender and allow the attacker to throw what comes to his mind. Just like in the sensitivity drills the intent of the attack in this case is not to take the defenders head off. It is to feed the defender attacks or even better yet a series of random attacks that the defender has to deal with in an intelligent way. It is much more difficult than it sounds.
I know that I will probably get a lot of flak over some of my statements but I think that there is a lot of truth in what I have put forth. Sensei Grey the Judo instructor had all the attributes of a good instructor. The only problem was the method of practice stopped its development at the pre-determined set level. So if you were attacked by a trained Judokai who followed strict dojo protocol you were all set. Have a crazed untrained boy rush you and you ended up on your back where all the throws you know are useless. Even as good an instructor as Sabanim Chang was his class did suffer from the classic “practice defense only against Hapkido practitioner attacks” paradigm.
Unfortunately due to the fact that martial arts instructors are just people there is no real way to protect yourself from the likes of Sensei H. The only protection you have is realizing that the martial sage is a myth (at least in this day and age) and to be aware that there are people like that (Sensei H.) out there. His is certainly not the only case. So when you hear that little voice in your head that tells you something is not right, listen!
Of course the last option if no instructor is available is to train on your own. While not ideal, for some who live in remote places or travel often it may be your only choice. That will be a future blog…..
Note – The author took the photo at the beginning of this blog in Korea. While out for a walk I happened to be passing a elementary school and I saw this fight start up on the playground so I snapped this photo. It did not end well for the one doing the high kick!