Martial words: Master

Years ago, I am told, black belts were rare, and second degrees were unheard of. It would appear that those days are firmly behind us, we live at a time of black belt children and arts with up to 15th degree black belts!

This idea of pushing out ranks and titles has extended to the point that every school owner is a master. So much so that even the word ‘master’ has lost all meaning and the abundance of titles has diluted the status of what real masters there are.

For my own journey I accepted a long time ago that would not reach the level of master. While studying the martial arts I have travelled too much and had too many breaks in my training. If it ever was a possibility, that ship has most definitely sailed. However, realizing I would never be a master did not make me quit. The strip of cloth around my waist is only one indication of my years of training. There are of course many others.

Largely today, the rank of master is given to someone who can display the external attributes of an art. High technical precision and knowledge along with years of dedicated training and sacrifice for the art, are quite righty rewarded with rank. However, the internal aspects are rarely considered of even focused in in training these days. Whereas mastery of an art is a tangible and clear goal, self-mastery is something that is much more difficult.

To look at this we need to first look at what self-mastery is. What does it mean to have mastery over oneself? Put basically it would be to control yourself, control your urges and your addictions. This is of course a rare thing and something that few people even understand let alone achieve.

There may have been a time time that self-mastery and martial arts went hand in hand. Alas those days have gone now, I once had a student complain to me after e had attended a long training camp. He felt that all the instructors seem to have huge egos and were wanting to make a name for themselves rather than just train, he thought that martial arts were meant cure you of that. While he maybe was correct it is a hard truth that just turning up and training each night will not lead you down that particular path unless you want it to.

We all know people who turn up to training but never seem to get any better physically. Generally, this is because they are not focused and not putting in the effort. Self-mastery is much the same, we cannot expect to achieve it by accident we need to actually focus on it.

Aside from martial arts there are a few practices that can help us practice mastering ourselves.


Fasting, this is maybe the easiest one to access since it just involves not eating and because a lot of use have a poor relationship with food, to completely stop eating for 3 days can be harder than it sounds. But again, if you approach it through with thought and introspection, rather than just punishing yourself with it. it can teach you a lot.

Controlling your addictions.

This is similar to fasting, because many of us are actually addicted to food rather than using it to fuel our body. However, we have a lot of other addiction that we have manage. We all know the big ones, drinking, smoking etc. but what about the smaller addictions that you have? Damaging habits that you tell yourself are ok or maybe blame others for, can you control yourself and stop them for 2 months, 6 months, a year or even stop for good?


This is a little different from the last previous examples because it involves doing something rather than resisting temptations. Meditation especially standing meditation from the Chinese martial arts can teach you a lot about your relationship with time and how fussy your mind can be.

What all these things have in common is how much people try to talk themselves out of the practice while they are doing it.  Thoughts like, “this is stupid”, “I won’t learn anything” ‘I have done enough already”, and more will continually bubble up in your mind, all to try to justify that giving up on your chosen task is ok and in fact the right thing to do.

In time you may realize that this same internal voice is popping up all the time. Driving your addictions, your emotions, and your fears

It is that voice that we need to master on the path to self-mastery. To master it, however, we first need to be able to hear it.

Martial Words: Tradition

In my martial journey I have been lucky enough to have great instructors in both the traditional and modern art. Unsurprising each seem to have very different views on traditional practices.

The traditional arts hold traditional as some thing that must be observed and never questioned. I was watching a class the other day and a small child got told off for turning the wrong direction when fixing his dobok. The staunch practitioners of these arts tend to think of the modern arts as soulless with no roots or culture.

On the other hand, more modern martial artists tend to view all the traditional as a was of time. Something archaic or indeed fake that should be discarded in favour of training time. One argument against this is that these arts have their own practices that will in time become tradition. They just haven’t been around long enough yet.

As a person who has spent time in both camps my view on this lies somewhere in between. I like the tradition of the older arts it makes me feel linked to the past that I am continuing a practice and I am part of something bigger. However, I do try to understand each of the traditions, for me it is important to know the background of what we do so that we can see a reason for doing it. Without this understanding we can fall into practicing something that in fact has no meaning and maybe isn’t even as traditional as we have been led to believe.

One big example of this, of course is the forms that many arts practice. In my opinion time should be spent in studying the movements and learning the applications. Through this study we will find that some are effective, some are not what we thought, and some are based on cultural practices that are not true anymore. We can then use this understanding to guide our practice. Without this knowledge and understanding of the practice of forms has little or no value. This understanding would also help us distinguish between forms that have been developed as a fighting system or forms that are a group of movements thrown together for aesthetic or athletic performance.

One the other hand, blindly following tradition just because it is tradition is a mistake. This can lead to many pointless practices being included in a desperate effort to be more traditional than anyone else. One of my old articles on the Zen story of ‘the ritual cat’ illustrates this perfects. For ease of refence this is the story.

Ritual Cat

When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So, the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice.

Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.

Another point about blindly following traditional practices, is that it leaves no room for growth. The strict adherence to older practices effectively puts a strangle hold on whatever you are practicing martial art or otherwise. No one is allowed to try anything new because it’s not traditional, this clearly is not a good situation to be in.

Martial words: Bullying

More and more we see victim of bullying on the news. bullying is an age od problem and despite of years or decades of trying to deal with the issue, it is still here. Maybe it says something about the human condition, but we still need to find ways of helping people.

As a schoolteacher and a martial arts instructor, I have been forced to look at bullying and the effects on many levels. Whereas I don’t have any solid ideas, I would like to try to give people something to think about.

First, let’s look at some of the words we use. Starting with the word ‘bullying’ itself. In my opinion it is an old-fashioned word, overused and used in many cases when it shouldn’t be. In a lot of cases bullying doesn’t quite cover what is happening. I think in many cases the phrase ‘peer abuse’ would be more fitting, and make people wake up to the severity of what is happening.

The changing face of bullying

Like many of you reading this, I grew up in a very different social landscape, problems at school tended to stay at school. The standard advice for dealing with other kids who wanted to take advantage of you, was to give them a black eye. Even if you got one too, likely they would learn to stay away from you after that.

These days however, because of the internet problems can follow people home. We can no longer close the door to the world outside and feel safe in our family home. Online abuse campaign, photos and jokes being shared means that abuse can continue no matter where you are. Even if the black eye solution was good advice back in the day, it certainly isn’t now. Fighting back physically is more likely to have the abuse move online where there is no physical retribution. The weak people who like to abuse others, can hide behind fake names and made-up profiles so that they will never be caught.

Of course, the abuse can still be physical, but the mental abuse of negative online chatter will do far more damage.

Effects of bullyng

The effect of bullying can last a lifetime. To illustrate this point I am going to borrow an analogy from a well-known self-protection expert from the UK Mr Geoff Thompson.

In countries where they train elephants, one method of training is to chain a baby elephant to a tree. No matter how much the baby elephant pulls it can’t break free. It is slowly conditioned to believe it has no power. As it grows this conditioning stays with the elephant. When it is fully grown and one of the strongest animals on the planet, but it can be held in place with a small stick in the ground.

This is largely similar to what happens to people who are peer abused. Over time the believe that they have no power and no control. They give up trying to fight and, in some cases, give up trying to live. It is this feeling of having no power and no way out that is one of the most damaging.

What can we do?

Picture the scene of a child who is being abuse by their peers at school, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, they may have a deep feeling of being powerless and having no control. If a parent or a teacher tries to find out what s happening, they can often be very overbearing. Parents especially can demand to be told what is happening or want to go down to the school and sort things out. Whereas this may solve a problem in the short term, we all know that it could actually make the situation worse.

Also, if we look a little deeper, if the child is already feeling powerless, having an authority figure forcing them to be told what is happening and then going to sort it out is likely not going to make them feel empowered.

If we are to help these children, our first step should be to give them back some of the power that has been taken. Letting them know that you are ready to listen when they want to say anything, that they will be no judgement and you won’t take any action without their permission may start to achieve that. If a child does open up to you, it is also important to let them decide what to do, make it their choice, of course we can offer suggestions, but they have to be made in a gentle way so that they child is free to choose how they want to proceed. Slowly we can give the power back to the child.

After that, we can look at other ways of making the child feeling empowered. Due t this being a martial arts blog, I of course feel like joining a martial art helps, they tend to be very supportive communities. Other physical or skill-based activities can also help. As long as it is their choice, and it is something they feel empowered.

If we don’t find ways to give the control back to these children, they will find their own ways. This can lead to a downward spiral of negative or even harmful behaviour.

As I stated this is a very big topic and one that may need to be revisited in the future. I hope that it has given you something to think about.

Martial words: skill

To continue the martial words series I will be looking at the word ‘skill’

In the martial art we are all chasing skill, we have all spent many hours and maybe many years chasing skills. However, the internet driven world, I see many people denigrating the skill of others just to get likes or to mount some sort of anonymous attack on a person who has risen through the ranks or their particular art or sport. Some of these posts seems to be from people claiming to be martial artists. I can’t help but think that they are missing the point some where along the way.

This is not limited to martial art, all to often I see people from one world disregarding the skills that have, in some cases, taken years to develop just because it is not a skill they value.

I in both cases I think the opinion is misguided and immature. We are all on the long journey celebrating successes and being haunted by failure and fighting the constant urge to give up. Anyone who has taken the years to develop a skill to a high level, no matter that that skills is, deserves respect. They certainly don’t deserve judgement and ridicule. I think it would do us all good to look past the subject matter and instead consider the hours of dedication that anyone has put in.

For those starting out on the journey it would be wise to stay away from negative people, they will try to pull you back into their world. If you achieve anything that you will be reflecting their own weakness back in to them. Through my martial arts and indeed lifting career, I have been told by many people that I was wasting my time. I am not in contact with any of those people now.

I would also suggest that you do not look at the big picture. If you are going to be in anything for the long haul then you need to take baby steps. When I started TKD I was an unfit teenager, black belt seemed impossible for me. So, my first goal was to get to green belt. I was lucky enough that the club I started at had some very good green belts, so it was something to aim for. Then started the long slow process of chipping away at my weaknesses and equally as slowly building up my knowledge bank.

This is an important lesson, and one that I have taken into many different parts so my life. I cam to terms with the fact I will never be a world champion or a master in any of my disciplines, but that is ok. Again, it is a fairly immature attitude that would suggest that not being great at something means you shouldn’t try.

Since we are discussing skills, it think it is important to look at what a skill is. I have written before about how to avoid looking like you have a skill, or going to deeply into the ‘wrong way’ of developing on skill under the mistaken idea that you are developing a different skill.  Your skill should fit the situation that you are trying to fit in. if your chosen discipline is fighting, then you should break down what is needed and work on them. Equally f you chosen discipline is cooking, playing the piano, or coding you should look at the environment and see what having skills in those disciplines mean.

Once you have decided then, start working on it. Do you need, more ability, more knowledge, more experience. Whatever it is go and chase it. I would like to leave this with what I feel are 2 important pieces of advice.

  • Leave you ego at the door, you cant learn without failing, or listening to other describing your weaknesses. If your ego is always telling you that they are wrong and you are right, you won’t get very far
  • Avoid the distractions, on the way you will develop the ability to do many ‘tricks’ whereas they are good and fun, they many become obstacles on your journey.

Martial Words: Fear

One topic and even word that stirs up a lot of emotion in people is ‘fear’. I mentioned in a previous article that there was a time that I couldn’t even read articles abut how to face and conquer fears. The likes of Iain Abernethy, Geoff Thompson and many other self defence experts would write in depth about the benefit of seeking out and facing fears. At the age and stage I was I knew what they said to be right but I just couldn’t bring myself to stare my fears down. As I mentioned in the previous article, if you feel uncomfortable reading such articles it is usually a good sign, people who feel nothing usually either are fearless or numb, usually the latter.

So lets look at fear, for a start we should accept that it is not the same for everyone. I have met people of great physical bravery who are scared of situations that others find easy. Place someone out of their comfort zone and very often they will respond with fear masked as either anger or apathy. Often this fear isn’t based in any sort of physical threat, but  of looking or feeling stupid or inferior.

Therefore, fear is not some objective scale that we are all placed n somewhere but a highly personal experience. Very often what we fear is not actually connected with external reality but more with our own perception. Take sparring for example, many people are afraid of sparring and the fear that they cite is injury. This is despite injuries in club sparring being relatively rare, although I do have to admit they do sometimes happen.

 So let’s look a little deeper into the experience sparring for the first time, if you are not used to it, then you don’t know what to expect. Your opponent will seem to be in control of the situation, and you don’t know what is going to happen. This causes you to either freeze or strike out hard in an attempt to take back some modicum of control in the situation. So here, the fear is less about getting hurt (although that maybe the result) but the fear is really about not being in control.

We can extend this to many other areas of life, think of a time when you felt fear, likely it wasn’t a situation where you felt in control. Equally think of things that you do where you don’t feel fear. No matter how dangerous or difficult it is. If you feel in control you have a handle on the station and can keep fear away.  

Many people who avoid fear will therefore also avoid situations where they are not in control. Clearly this s not the way to grow in any aspect of your life. Only by putting ourselves in situation where we cant control everything will we learn new things and continue to grow. We do this by getting into uncomfortable situations, breaking them down and learning how to have some control in that situation.

Martial Words: Strength

Weakness is a plague these days, most people are weak or believe that they are. We are kept down by a relentless media telling that we should be wanting or being more and constantly offering us ‘trinkets’ that will get us a little bit of the way.

It is well known that these ‘trinkets’, be in a new car, branded clothing, or (sadly in many cases) a black belt are essentially window dressing. Unless we can go inside ourselves and address our individual weakness all of our external achievements will not help us.

This is easier said, and in fact written, than done.

If reading this stirs feelings of discomfort in you, then you are on the path. There are things in you that you need to address. For many years I avoided overly difficult things, I couldn’t listen to podcasts or even read articles about fear, I was already a black belt, had won some championships, been in some fights but I still felt weak.

Overtime I managed to address some of these issues. This was both with ‘soft’ meditation training in China, and hard physical training both in the dojang and the weights room. Little by little I chipped away at fear and weakness.

The battle for everyone goes on, and everyday there is a new challenge to overcome. Weakness is not something that you learn to over come once and then it is done. It is a long (maybe lifelong) pursuit of ‘sharpening the iron’ you are not the same person you were 10 years, 5 years, or even one year ago. Your challenges are different now than what they were.

If you don’t continue to look for challenges ot over come you run the risk of living in the past. Recounting your glory days when you won your medals and lamenting the fact that you cannot do it anymore.

Strength both internal and external should be one of the goals of martial arts training, but in truth it has little do to with belts, ranks, or medals.

Fighting vs Self defense

In many traditional self-defense schools, the instructors are against sparring, they put forward that sparring is the sport side of martial arts and has no place in a self-defense situation. Whereas there is a small grain of truth in what they are saying I can’t help think that they are interpreting information for their own purposes. The purposes, as I see it, would be to have an excuse to not have sparring in their gyms so that students feel more comfortable and feel that just learning techniques will be enough.

This of course is not true and maybe a knee jerk reaction (or flinch response) to the amount that sport sparring has been propagated as real martial arts or real self-defense in the past. However, the idea that we should never spar is at least as misguided as the idea that sparring is the same as self defense.

So where do the 2 training systems fit?

If we look at the techniques contained with in the patterns, they all end (or should end) with either you are striking the opponent or putting them in a position where you have an advantage. As an example, we can look at the palm pressing block in Jhoong Gun. As I see it, it is a defense to an untrained tackle, quite a common attack for someone to drop down and charge at mid-level. With the palm pressing block, we take a lower and more stable stance and ‘press’ up and down with our palms on the shoulders of the attacker. The following movement on Moa Sogi, I see as I arm lock and a hair grab. This puts us in a strong position but as yet we haven’t started a counter attack. If we only use the patterns as they are, then at this point we have nothing left. At this point we drop back to our fighting skills and start delivering strikes.

Another example of this is the arm bar in Chon Ji. Generally represented by the low block, we are putting someone one into an arm bar and then step forward and punching them in the head. If we don’t get a good grip on the arm or if the opponent moves awkwardly or effects a release, then we have to fall back on our fighting to find target areas and deliver strikes or kicks and maybe re-establish a dominant position. Even if we do the technique perfectly the final strike in the technique will have to be followed up with more attacks, the attacks that you use will be dependent on the movement or reaction of the opponent.

Now, it is important to say here that when I say fighting skills, I don’t mean gain distance get up on your toes and start scoring points. I mean, getting in close, controlling limbs and then looking for an escape. The fighting skills are also informed by our pattern practice. If the above example from Chon Ji, if the opponent breaks free, they may very well bring their hands up for protection as they restart their attack. So here you switch from Chon Ji, to the knife hand guarding block from Dan Gun to clear the hands and strike the head.

To put it another way, the techniques in the patterns are snapshots of a violent situation, to move from one technique to another we need fighting skills. Through fighting skills we can connect the snapshots and make them a ‘movie’.

There are some ideas on how to work on this with my articles sparring drills, and more sparring drills.

Self defence system

The terms “self defence system” or “martial arts system” got popular years back. It certain sounds good but how accurate is it?

First let’s look at the definition of ‘system’

  1. a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole.
  2. a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method

Certainty both of these would seem to fit many people’s idea of what a martial art should be. A set of principles and techniques that fit together. Sadly, this is not often the case especially when dealing with martial arts that profess to being a self defence style.

All to often when people cross train, they take a technique from a different art and bring to their dojang without really trying to make it fit Taekwondo. A good example of this is wrist locks. I have written a little bit before about ideas on wrist and other joint locks.  However, Taekwondo is primarily a striking art, there is limb control in the patterns, but they are generally there to open up target areas.  It is by no means bad to learn wrist locks but if you do you should learn them on a principle base and then integrate them in to the self defence system of taekwondo, find out where they fit and train them accordingly.

Without this process, you end up with a very messy martial art that is not a system but merely a bunch of techniques that look good stuck together. This is certainly not a system and is also a very good way to forget techniques and not progress in skill.

Through my investigation of the patterns and experience in other martial arts, I have changed my approach to Taekwondo. There are striking techniques which lead on to grabbing, controlling and hitting. There are defensive postures and techniques, which lead into grabbing controlling and hitting. There are stand up grappling techniques which lead into grabbing controlling and hitting.

Around these principles and techniques from the patterns I am free to looker deeper into each one and see what different patterns have to offer. It also gives me a base to work from when I am developing applications.

I would suggest that when you are looking into your own applications, that you try to see where the technique or principles fit with other things that you teach. If they don’t then you may need a little rethink. Either alter what you are teaching, or just accept that the technique is an optional extra

More information on my understanding of some of the things discussed in this article can be found in ‘the pyramid of skills’ and ‘the 3 C’s of tactical taekwondo

What we take with us (repost)

This is a repost of an older article that I wrote when I moved from China to Indonesia. having just moved to Australia many of the thoughts here seem, once again, relevant.

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

Only once or All the time

The movements in the patterns have gone through changes over the years. Going way back, there was no sine wave, then sine wave was altered after its introduction, the way some movements are performed was changed and even a whole pattern was replaced. This all happened after the patterns were formed by changing Shotokan Kata.

The applications have also changed, as the people that have looked into the history of the kata and pattern have written a lot about. With all these changes and different ideas on application is can be very difficult to sort thought the applications and decide which are for you.

In this article, in will be looking at 2 principles which can help with digging though the applications.

All the time

As I mentioned in the Yul Gok article, if something happens consistently through all the patterns then you can assume that it is maybe something practiced for aesthetic or technical reasons rather than application. A good example of this is the cross hands position before most blocks and strikes. I have written before how the cross hands can be taken as a flinch that puts us in a good position for grabbing limbs and counter attacking. However, when we do it all the time there are techniques that just don’t fit that principle. So we have to be somewhat flexible in our thinking and if the small detail of a technique don’t fit then try without them.

Another example of a principle being present all the time is the ending of the patterns. Almost all end in a left and right repeated movement and almost all of them are blocks. These can largely be disregarded largely because it does really make sense from a practical sense. We can come up with all sorts of ideas for how a knife hand guarding block can be changed into a throw or lock when done to the left and the right, I’d rather just accept that that part of the pattern is there for a technical, artistic, or even philosophical reason.

Only once

Opposite to ‘all the time’ we have only once. This is when a movement has been given an application that is completely disconnected to anything else.

A good example of this is the U-shaped block in Jhoon Gun. It is often presented as defending and grabbing a stick. Now, apart from the obvious issues with trying to grab a weapon that is being used against you, the stick angle is not one that you would often see. There are also no movements in other patterns that are specialised to other stick attacks, a swing from the side, an attack down the way, or thing else that you would naturally do with a stick is represented. Therefore, we can largely disregard this application as an attack being made for the defence rather than the other way round.

What are we looking for?

If we remove the ‘all the time’ and ‘only one’ what do we have left? Hopefully, what we have are group of techniques that fit together in a system and represent common principles. The principles of one the techniques should be present in other patterns, we should be able to see the links between the different movements whether they be defensive, offensive or for grappling. In the next article I will be looking at what makes up a martial art system.