What we take with us

I haven’t posted in a while, my life has been extremely busy. I got married in December and have spent the last few months preparing to leave China and move to Jakarta. Hopefully since Indonesia doesn’t have so many internet restrictions I’ll be able to post more often.

The subject of me moving country is connected to the theme of this posting. In moving country I have had to say goodbye to my students and teacher. It is never an easy thing to do, but sometimes life pushes you in a certain way. However, it did prompt me to thinking about what a person can take from training. I have moved around a lot and have always had to take as much from training as I can and make it my own.

Often I have had teachers move in and out of my life, if I don’t try to assimilate what they teach in to what I do then why bother training with them. I think that this is something people should ask themselves; what do you take from training?

I have known many good practitioners and Dan grades that have moved away from their dojang and as a result stopped practicing. Without the group or their teacher they maybe find out that their art is meaningless, and belong only in the gym. These are maybe the same people that would tell students that martial arts was part of their life.

I don’t think that someone has to leave their club or even travel to another country to find this out but just ask yourself, if you took away the dojang, your teacher, and dobok, what have you got?

In other words, does the art you practice belong to you or does it still belong to your teacher, do you still need a teacher to continue to develop. Of course we all need one in the beginning but there comes a time when you should be able to break free and start altering the art to fit your needs. It may seem strange for some especially in a system that encourages copying a form as closely as we can.

I think we all have to spend time actually studying the art that we practice so that when life does make staying at your current place of training impossible you don’t lose the art


If there is a movement that is more derided and made fun of than any other then surely it must be x-block. I have lost count of the number of time I have seen, in person and on the internet, an instructor throwing his hands up in a mock X-block against a knife attack. This is usually accompanied with a loud theatrical kihap. Over time I feel that this one movement has become a representation of all traditional martial arts and their ineffectiveness. I have my own feelings about instructors that openly make fun of other styles for the purpose of making their style look superior but that is for another article.

The x-block is found in a number of different traditional arts. If you go with the idea that the patterns or forms were created by fighters then X-block has stood the test of time and was preserved in the forms for a reason. It is the modern interpretation of the movement that it wrong.

Even if you take a training partner and practice some short range striking and grappling you will find that there are times that your hands will naturally cross. Maybe in order to clear arms, get to the outside, strip a grab. All are applications of the different forms of X-block that can be found in patterns.

If for example we look at the rising X-block as it is found in Jhoong Gun. A high attack causes us to throw our arms up in defense, in the case of Jhoong Gun this would be our right arms. We then slip our left arm up in front of our right arm, and between our right arm and the attackers arm. The next movement is then to step round and at the same time turn the attacker away from us. The following movements are to secure the arm and counter attack to a target that is presented.

It is quite difficult to write down an application of a movement but I hope you follow it. This is just one example of an X-block application based on a natural motion or reaction. As I mentioned before there are many more, for example

Toi Gye, Stripping a grab from your wrist that has been seized in response to you trying to execute a throw.

Gae Beuk, Stepping back and catching a shove or double handed grab, before stopping the attacker with a kick.

I hope that these few examples lead you to start looking at X-block in a different light. It is much more that a useless relic but a very effective and natural motion for close combat It is deserving of in depth study.

Training Dirty

In my previous article I discussed why many instructors and style choose to omit what are deemed as dirty techniques from their syllabus. Dirty techniques being things like eye gouging, strikes to the groin, head butting, and biting. In this article I would like to go further and look at how to include these techniques into training.

Even instructors that do advocate the techniques mentioned above don’t include them in their training. This can be for a number of reasons but I feel the most common is the belief that these techniques are so low skill that they don’t need to be trained, rather just used when the opportunity arises. It is this thinking that causes me a problem. Whereas it is true that the techniques don’t need to be drilled and refined as much as the high level skill techniques the habit of applying them most definitely does.

To illustrate this point I would like to borrow the term ‘front of mind’ from marketing. This is the idea that by constantly reminding someone of a particular brand, through advertising media, the shopper will reach for the particular brand without needing to spend any time thinking about it.

Similarly we should be constantly reminding ourselves that techniques such as biting exist so that when the need arises they are there without us having to think about them.

This process starts with the patterns. Looking at all the pattern movements, studying them to find where some of the techniques are represented as in the case of the head butt in Toi Gye, or where they can be inserted as in the case of biting while engaging someone using a forearm guarding block.

Then after taking a look at the theory it is time to put it in to practice. This is where the idea of training habit more than technique is important. Of course if we started biting out training partners training would become a very uncomfortable painful place not to mention unhygienic. So the techniques are slightly altered so that they become a safe but close representation of the intended technique. For example some of what I use is:

Biting – moving toward target area and growling
Grabbing groin – grabbing t-shirt or belt knot
Eye gouging – pressing on the eye brow

With these we then move on to freer practice with these representation of techniques included. Both parties have to understand what the techniques signify so that they can react in a reasonable way. By that I don’t mean that we become bad actors but at least if an eye gouge is applied then the defender should try to prevent it even if it is just a press on the eye brow and causes no actual pain.

When you start out with this you may be thinking that it is going to be easy. That you can go all out and use all the techniques that have been taken away from you in sport sparring. However, what you may well find it that you end up with a lot of missed opportunities or start focusing on the ‘new’ techniques too much causing you to over extend and get hit more. This can be frustrating and uncomfortable for some causing them to go back to their previous way of sparring. My advice at this point is to slow down, literally slow down the fight and investigate where the techniques can be a applied and more importantly where it is reasonable to apply them. Through this you slowly bring all of the dirty tactics to the front of your mind where they should be just in case you need them

All the gentlemen are dead

In the martial arts the concept of fighting fair often gets deeply engrained in the student. We can easily get swept away with the romantic notion of being able to dispatch a group of snarling, dirty fighting thugs with very clean knock out blows and solar plexus kicks that makes us the hero of good clean decent people.

As exaggerated as this sounds I think is this the secret image that many practitioners, teachers, and even master level teachers have. If you look at some of the mainstream applications to patterns it goes some way to support this idea. Simple brutal movements are often altered to make them more palatable. What may have been at one time a head butt changed to a shoulder strike or missed out completely and is just referred to as a step forward.

Techniques like, eye gouging, head butting, and biting are not only effective but easily accessible. It is sometime this accessibility that makes people disregard them as low skill techniques that should be left for the poor philistines and thugs that don’t train in martial arts or are so low skill that they will always be there for us when we need them. One more reason that they are being left out is that they are seen as unsporting or not fighting fair. Here in lies the issue, no one said fights were meant to be fair. In fact they are very often not. I don’t think that people head to the streets looking for a challenge match, what they want is a beat down with them on the winning side. Sticking to the idea of ‘fighting clean’ or ‘fighting fair’ could very well put you at a disadvantage

One argument that I hear from people who don’t want to include these techniques is that they are not traditional. This is based on the idea that they are not in the forms. This may very well be true but the fact that some of them are low skill, for example biting, that we can make the assumption that the student is already familiar with the ‘technique’. Therefore we can use the patterns to point out positions where a particular low skill technique may be applied.

The other issue with the ‘it’s not in the patterns’ argument is that they very well could be. Take a look at the opening of Toi Gye as an example. Instead of the first movement that is often seen as a block has our hand in the same position as it would be in a shirt or clothing grab. The following movement, pulling our hand to our chest and stepping forward, looks very much like a head butt to me. Later in the pattern there is a twin vertical punch., I don’t agree with the name or the standard application of the movement I teach it as an eye gouge.

Now this may be slowly my interpretation of the patterns but my point is that they techniques can be found there if someone wants.

We should of course look for skill and try to develop ourselves in different ranges and techniques, but this doesn’t mean that we should veer forget the low level skill techniques. In my next article I will be looking at ways of safely training these techniques.

Are you ready for applications?

Anyone that has trained anyone anything will have come across students who want to jump to the more advanced things without working on the basics. The instructor will often remind the student the importance of building a solid foundation before starting more advanced skills. Yet this sound teaching practice is all but forgotten when teaching pattern applications.

First the empty form is taught and then the and then the application but without teaching the student anything about distance timing control etc. in other words the bare techniques are taught without the basic support skills.. This leads to a set of largely useless isolated techniques. No matter if they are reactive or proactive without certain general skills the techniques become academic.

In the past forms were some of the last things that were taught in some systems. They were not seen as a product that is sold which is essentially how they are treated today. They were seen as the end of a part of training where they had the techniques show so as could better remember the techniques they had learnt.

So what dd they do the rest of the time? In a modern dojang patterns/forms training could easily take up 50% or more of class time. During that time the position of the hands are feet are analyzed to pin point precision but never used. In the past I believe in the past most of a class would be taken up with moving with a partner in a number of different formats. Only with that hands on knowledge can people have the basis to make use of the information in the patterns It is important that our students know what is it like to be hit, be grabbed or grab other people before we start looking at the details of techniques.

In my own classes there are 3 fundamental formats that I look for my students to be comfortable with before I feel they will really understand the patterns. We try to explore these formats as much as possible and the ability in the formats should rise with the level of the patterns.

The fundamental formats that I look at are:


This is a very natural movement, someone hits you in the head and you throw your hands up to guard. I want my students to get used to this and be desensitized to the panic feeling. We go from four main angles (front, back, left and right) and mix in some body shots. I don’t want student trying to block every shot nor do I want them just to weather all the blows. I want them to react in a protective manner, covering their head, and then escape or find a way to counter the attack.


The students take hold of each other in a formal grip. Usually I go for tricep/elbow and back of the head/collar. Then they practice moving each other and being moved and touching target areas to represent a strike or grabbing at areas like the groin or throat etc. As we progress we vary the grips, look at defending the initial grapple, and breaking free and escaping.


This is done in a number of ways. We start with one partner standing in a guard and the other working round them practicing clearing arms to open target areas, this shown by a light tap to the area. We can then move on to moving and adding more resistance.

In all of these formats we add in various strikes and tactics as the students progress.

If you have read my previous articles you may notice that these three formats come from my interpretation of the patterns, covering from the crossed hand position, clearing from knifehand guarding block, and grappling from forearm guarding block. In themselves they seem very easy but as you work on them you can keep adding new variables to make them more challenging. They give the student the basic skills to at least understand where the application of the patterns fit

With practice the three formats can blend into each other. When covering, either person can go into limb clearing, which could be responded by grappling. This added with striking is already a fairly solid, if basic, stand up system.

From there we add in and investigate the techniques found within the patterns. Surprisingly a good deal of the techniques may have already been discovered by the students through just practicing the drills. From there we can formalize them and make our TKD to a truly integrated system

Taekwondo Grappling

The question of whether TKD has grappling included in the forms is an old one that has been answered many times. Whether a person wants to study it or not,however, is up to them. Grappling will have no place for the competitive TKD fighter but is very important for someone wishing to use TKD for self defense..

For someone starting out I would think that the place to start is getting use to the basic grappling range. This is represented in the patterns by forearm guarding block. Similar to knife hand guarding block, forearm a guarding block has a few issues when applied as a defense to a punch or mid line attack. However, it fits very well into a grappling grip maybe elbow and back of the head or lapel. From there we first get used to moving with someone and being moved around by someone. One student should be leading and the other following strongly. It is important that the ‘follower’ is not being too relaxed and just going anywhere and not resisting too hard. Both open you up to getting tossed around.

The next step is to add some sort of resistance or competition. To do this I often put something in the back of their belt, maybe a training knife, and give one student the goal of working round and getting the knife out of the back of the belt. I find this as a useful bridge to grappling as it helps with moving around and dealing with arms without the stress of being attacked. These are basic drills or games that are just to get people used to moving around with another person. There are lots of other progressing from just moving to some sort of competition.

This process I believe is actually closer to the traditional process of training. According to some of my older teachers, forms were some of the last things to be taught. Before getting in to the technical aspects people had to be given a frame of reference to what it was like to move with someone. This is why in the past forms were considered important and even secret in some styles no like today when they are typically bought from the instructors

When the student are used to holding and moving with a person we can start to adding techniques. After doing releases etc,. Since we are using a forearm guarding block frame the next logical step is to look at the forms and investigate the techniques that follow immediately after a forearm guarding block. This uncovers throws, defenses to tackles, and close in strikes. All of which can be developed and built upon to create new techniques based on the same principles.

Of course it doesn’t stop there. With a little work you could be amazed at how many movements work from the grappling holds. For me working at this range really opens up the patterns, and in fact opens up the whole art of TKD.

I hope you found this article interesting and it make you want to go and play with the close-in range of TKD. Thank you for reading.

It’s OK it’s art

Time and again I see the movements of forms dismissed as ‘art’ whether it is the movements themselves or the application that has been demonstrated. The idea that anything is OK if you refer to it as art is not one tht sits well with me. In this article I will be looking at the art argument.

Over the years “it’s art’ has slowly replaced the answer “I don’t know” ask many teachers about the application for a movement in a pattern and maybe they will show the mainstream application. At this point if the student questions the application he is quickly closed down being told it is the art side of TKD. This excuse has been used so much now that almost the entire style of TKD has been reduced to ‘art’, save the small handful techniques that you need for competition.

However if we look at the history and purpose of forms, to hand down fighting methods from teacher to student, then why would art be included? This would be akin to asking a boxer to perform a pirouette during a session of shadow boxing. It serves no purpose and if the forms were created by fighters for fighters then art would have no place in practice.

To take a more modern day view, if I paid someone to fix something in my house but instead they did a whole lot of extra work that looked good but had no practical purpose and in fact didn’t address the issue I needed fixing. Very likely I would call the police. However, this is exactly the same thing that happens when someone goes to a traditional martial arts school wanting to learn self defense. They are put through learning a whole series of applications that aren’t addressing the issue of self defense but is passed off as art.

What does the term ‘art’ mean in this sense anyway? In demonstrating these movements there is no high level of skill presented, most of the poor applications are not ascetically pleasing. In fact I feel the word ‘art’ in this sense only has one other meaning ‘fake’ a useless defense against a useless attack. This idea has allowed people to create any number of applications and forms that have no purpose. Is it any wonder then that respect for traditional martial arts have declined over the years.

In my mind what the term ‘art’ should be meaning is’ beyond skill’. When a person reaches the level that ever the most complex movements are part of their natural responses. As an example I also study the Filipino marital art of Balintawak, the movements of this style are vicious to say the least, but when you see two high level practitioners training together it Is impressive and beautiful. There are no wasted movements but just people acting and reacting. Like all other expressions of art to get to this level takes time and dedication. Most importantly it takes research into the real purpose of movements.