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Why Is A Traditional Martial Artist Like An Alcoholic?

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

Well this may seem flippant or be a bit tongue in check but the point is very valid. Two things that seem very distant and mutually exclusive share striking similarities.


“How so” I hear you ask? Well it’s all down to perception and a somewhat distorted view of reality.

In the alcoholic this view would be somewhat blurry  but undeniable self-obsessed and requiring help or some kind of intervention.





In the case of the TMA, their view of the world is often rose-tinted and their perception of reality is often dramatically at odds with how the ‘real world’ and in particular, ‘real violence’ occurs. As such the practices of the TMA are often at odds with the strategies and training necessary to deal with such violence.


In the case of the alcoholic and the TMA neither can really be helped to overcome their particular obstacles in their own particular circumstance until they do two things:


1) Admit that there is a problem

2) Ask for help


I am not a doctor or an expert in addictive substances thus I am unqualified to offer help to alcoholics despite having first hand experience of how this terrible affliction can devastate families. However, I know a thing or two about TMA and especially Taekwon-do, so…I’m going to offer my two pennies worth. And this might seem unpatable but as practitioners of TKD we have to admit two things:



1) There is a problem:


Most TKD training does not prepare the student for the realities of ‘real world violence’. Not only does most TKD operate at a distance that is incongruous with the close nature of physical assault but it also concentrates on techniques that support this idea of violence occurring as great distance. This situation is further compounded by the inevitable transition of TKD to a mixture of solo training (i.e. line work and patterns) and heavy emphasis on sport-based sparring. Neither of these practices prepare one for the realities of violence. As is well documented now, violence is a close up thing. People cannot hurt you from a distance apart from psychologically or with projectiles. Martial arts training that purports to teach self defence should address this distance. Taekwon-do does not.


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The nature of violence is very idiosyncratic. If you ask a doorman or a lady on the receiving end of domestic abuse, their idea of violence will vary dramatically. Their individual circumstances will dictate how they need to respond. There should not be a one size fits all approach addressing their differing needs. Therefore, learning and perfecting a reverse punch with a loud kiap may not get you home safely. TKD training needs to address all the possibilities that may occur for a student should the worst happen and they need to fall back on their training. A reverse punch may work well in the dojang with a compliant partner but if you’re a 7 stone lady being dragged down the stairs by your hair then it will be about as useful as a chocolate tea pot. As the ancient Greek poet Archilochus said:


"We don't rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training."


If your training doesn’t address your particular need then when the proverbial hits the fan…you’re going to come up short (it should also be noted that intense psychological training is always necessary to prepare one for actually using what they have learnt).





There have been a long succession of pioneers who started in the ‘Traditional’ arts and once encountering the ‘real world’, realised that ‘life’ was not like the dojang. Thank you Geoff Thompson, Rory Miller, Peter Consteredine among them. However, the most revolutionary of these was the Hong Kong film star Bruce Lee.


Among Bruce’s many achievements are breaking into Hollywood as a Chinese man, developing his own martial art (Jeet Kune Do) and inspiring a generation by making some of the best Kung Fu films of the era. However, an achievement that is often overlooked, but not by martial artists, was his challenging of the status quo and radically undermining traditional Chinese Martial arts and their untested idea of how violence works. It is well documented how Bruce openly challenged the grandees of the traditional Chinese Martial arts establishment to come and prove that what they were teaching would actually work. Many came…and many failed to prove their worth. Bruce in his short time debunked many widely held beliefs on the efficacy of certain traditional arts and techniques. He became very unpopular amongst these arts for doing so. He did this at a time before MMA, UFC or YouTube Masters. But arguably one could say his work paved the ground for the development of these phenomena.



Accepting that there is a gap between the nice safe dojang and the cold hard smack in the face of reality is something most TMA’s still find impossible to reconcile. But unless one can accept that there is such a discrepancy then addressing the problem is impossible.


2) Asking for help: Taekwon-do is unfortunately wed to the idea that traditional step sparring is the ideal way of training for ‘real world’ violence. No matter how many times I have this same conversation with intelligent and senior people within TKD, I still come across the obstacle …namely:


“set sparring is TKD and TKD is step sparring”.


I am told this despite the fact that I explain to them that set sparring is a modern Japanese invention and was never meant to be used to train the numerous and diverse techniques of the patterns. Still I come across the same stock answer ‘its traditional’.


Well yes… it is NOW but so was beating your wife or owning slaves until very recently. Yet as a society we moved on. As a society we agreed that the benefits of engaging in such behaviour did not outweigh the demands on others and injustice of doing so. So we stopped and began to change our behaviour to those we had wronged. This became enshrined in law and became the NEW tradition.


Now I’m not equating the seriousness of domestic abuse and inhuman treatment with teaching nonsense in a TKD dojang but I am attempting to point out that things change, and for the better. And such changes may seem impossible until they happen. It is just fear that prevents us from accepting the need for such changes. Within TKD there is tremendous fear that if we start unpicking parts of it then the whole thing will unravel, and we will be left with uncertainty. But it need not be so. Instead of concentrating on problems we should become solution focussed.


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With regard to removing set sparring from TKD altogether (or modifying it if you’re not


that radical) to make a case and thus reduce the fear we need to identity what our objective is and then assess what the best way of achieving this is: If ones objective is:


1) To simply to practice TKD exactly as it was originally bequeathed to us by General Choi, then fine! Keep the set sparring. But don’t make fraudulent claims that you are preparing people for the realities of violence. In short DON’T say you teach self defence.


2) If your objective is to teach self defence then you need to have a program of psychological and physical preparation. This needs to mirror reality but also support the student by increasing resistance and difficulty in an incremental manner so as not to overwhelm. It needs to include all the ‘habitual acts of physical violence’ one may encounter such as grabs and holds and pin downs as well as the vast array of orthodox and unorthodox striking methods. One this is established you can select or create drills that students can use to practise these techniques in a safe but high energy manner. Like so, their training will be dynamic and fun yet still familiarise them with the physical demands negotiating such specific acts of violence place on the body and mind.


And… the reality is that you probably won’t have time to do this and set sparring both. One will have to go ;) Hooray!


But this can only happen if we are accepting that change is necessary, and we may need help getting there. Of course this would be ultimately much easier if large organisations like associations were brave and took a stand for ‘reality’ instead of pretending set sparring is helping. Change comes from assessment. People teach what’s on the test… but that’s a subject for another day.



So squaring the circle let us come back to why a traditional martial artist is like an alcoholic. Both are somewhat deluded and have a skewed perception of reality. Until either is ready to accept reality the way it is rather than hope it would be otherwise, then they are doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes. Both need help to change their own personal circumstances. Though both may be resistant, those of us in the know, know, that ultimately change is what is best for them. Thus all we can do is offer and wait until they are ready to accept our help.


Here to serve


Taekwon


Ciaran McDonald



P.S. If you want your TKD self defence training to become functional, realistic and dynamic I have designed a fantastic course full of unique ‘real’ two person self-defence drills for TKD. Get a FREE look at some of the drills CLICK HERE.




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