The Martial Artist of the 21st century

Martial arts were developed to help people fighting, being it for attacking people in battle or for defensive purposes.  If we consider China and Japan, two countries that gave birth to some of the most famous martial arts in the world, they have profound differences in the way martial arts developed over time.  In China martial arts initially developed from the Shaolin temple and from Taoists masters that were teaching martial arts among other things, being also experts of medicine, science, calligraphy and philosophy.  In Japan the martial arts tradition was more based around the training of Samurais and the more military orientation of Japanese martial arts is still very visible when practicing traditional martial arts from this country.

Practicing martial arts in those ancient times was very much a way of life and it often started in very young age, during childhood, continuing for the whole life of the individual that would eventually start his/her own school and move on, maintaining the so called lineage. Fast forward to the 21st century (and good part of the late 20th) and things have taken a completely different perspective, particularly when the same martial arts are now taught in countries where the culture and tradition on which they were originally based is simply not there.  Many styles have somehow evolved while new others have been defined to adapt to the culture or habits of the people where these are practiced.

Being a martial artist today in the western world is challenging because of all interferences caused by our modern and stressful lives.  Most of us need jobs to live and maintain an expected standard of living and although there are a number of “professional”, full time, martial artist I would assume that the majority of martial artist have a full time job and practice martial arts for self defence, fitness, health, fun, self improvement or any other suitable reason in their spare time.

I would like to define here my concept of an ideal profile for a person intending to practice martial arts and what he/she should aim to become in the long term.  A martial artist is a person that should be:

  • training regularly: often this requires to organize your own life around training rather than the other way round.  Regular training helps absorbing even the smallest subtleties of the style and master them appropriately;
  • performing all techniques pertinent to his/her style in a variety of different ways. E.g. demonstrating a strike or a throw at a very slow speed to help a beginner to understand all its subtleties or at maximum speed to show its full, devastating, potential;
  • understanding why each technique in his/her style are performed in a certain way and the bio-mechanical and physiological implications for it;
  • comparing and sharing his/her knowledge with people of the same style or from different styles in order to always enriching his/her personal knowledge of martial arts;
  • having a knowledge of what other martial arts do and what are their weapons and having an objective view of their pros and cons;
  • knowing at least the basic steps of development and history of his/her martial art;

In short a martial artist should be actively collecting and learning techniques and combinations of a given style and applying his/her own interpretation of them.  The knowledge of the background of other styles may well influence the final result.

My toughts about Tae Kwon Do

Finding a Tae Kwon Do class is usually very easy, in most places and for this reason I have practiced Tae Kwon Do (TKD) in a number of locations around the world (UK, Indonesia, Antilles, Spain) and I was lucky enough to train several times with some top experts, exchanging, apart from punches and kicks, opinions and ideas about the pros and cons of this art.

Description

TKD is a traditional, striking martial art based on kicks and punches although the focus is mainly on the formers.  By traditional I mean having a structured format for the class, naming techniques in the original language and a strict code of conduct and discipline about addressing the master and interacting with fellow students.  TKD practitioners use a white Gi similar to the use used by other martial art although the top is usually a V-neck shirt rather than a traditional jacket.  Seen from the outside TKD manifest itself with two opponents facing each other and attacking body or the head with either kicks or punches with the aim of scoring or eventually knocking down the opponent.  TKD originated in South Korea where it happens to be the national sport and it is one of the most popular martial arts in the world: it was also the second Eastern martial art to become an Olympic sport after Judo.  TKD is represented in many different styles and it is organised world wide in a number of different associations that all practice styles that are all slightly different from each other.  The two main associations are WTF and ITF.  TKD is also often referred as the Korean Karate: this is a wrong definition because the two arts are substantially different although the original definition of Kara Te (in Japanese translated as empty hand, intending to fight without weapons) can be applied to TKD as well.

History

Martial arts are usually not invented from scratch but defined by a person that, after studying and practicing other styles, puts together some aspects of those and give to the new art/style a new name, identity, set of rules and etiquette.  TKD followed exactly this route by being a merge of several ancient arts from Korea and the neighbouring countries, with a strong influence from Karate.  The person considered being the father and highly respected founder of TKD was General Choi Hong Hi who was an experienced martial artist from South Korea: he had the opportunity of studying Karate while living in Japan during the Japanese occupation of South Korea and he defined TKD in the late 50es. General Choi also founded ITF in 1966.

What I like about TKD

Practicing TKD develops some of best, fastest and most powerful kicking techniques and if you fight experts of TKD be careful about their legs: that’s where most if not all of their attacks are likely to come from.  TKD training aims at developing a great level of flexibility for the legs and most drills are meant to combine kicks from both the front and rear legs in very fast sequences.  TKD also encourages using many jumping kicks to achieve higher target and, again, allowing attacks from a broader range of angles.  All kicks are practiced at full contact so each strike is very powerful.

What I don’t like about TKD

In my opinion kicks are fantastic weapons and deliver lot of damage: at the same time punches must have a role in a fight because when the distance is too short it’s important to have means of attacking and defending against hand strikes.  The fact that even in Olympic competitions it is allowed to kick the head at full power with but just light contact with punches the whole style develops with rather poor guard. Assuming that kicks will solve all situations most TKD practitioners put little emphasis on a proper guard that protects the head from punches.  Given the level of leg flexibility expected by high kicks, TKD is most suitable for people that are naturally flexible and start training at a young age: in my experience I never met anyone that achieved a decent level of proficiency in TKD when starting in their thirties or forties.  Last by not least: in a self defence situation high kicks are always a dangerous option to go for and they cannot be used when you attacker is already close to you.  Therefore the applicability of TKD in a self defence situation is lower than many other styles available.

Conclusions

I think TKD is an excellent martial art that teaches powerful techniques: I find it incomplete due to poor hand strikes repertoire.  I would suggest it as a good first martial art, particular for children and young people because it instils discipline and respect while I would rule out beginners in their thirties and above for the reasons I explained above.