There is a youtube video doing the rounds at the moment of an instructor who does a Taekwon-do demonstration where everything that can go wrong does go wrong. The instructor fails to break with almost every technique, despite a variety of excuses and finally when he does perform one break, a piece of wood strikes a young student in the head, who is lead away in tears. There are a number of reasons why the demo might have gone poorly but a fellow Taekwon-do student of mine whose opinion I respect very much said of the video that it looked like the instructor wanted to put breaks in his demo to spice it up but hadn’t practised them at all.
What I am left wondering is who was the instructor and how did the video end up on the internet? Did he graciously and with self-depricating humour put it up himself? Did he put it up not knowing how bad it made him look? The thing is that no-one would mind if such events happened behind closed doors but to permanently (and having gone viral, this is permanent) show yourself, your club (the uniform badge is clearly visible) and your style so poorly puzzles me. I would place a bet that that instructor is so much better than he appears in the video, yet the world only knows him how the video shows him.
The article is not about that video specifically, nor was that video what made me want to write about this but having watched it today, it seems like a great place to start.
It is no secret that the Taekwon-do world is undergoing some seismic shifts. Taekwon-do was once an art for tough burly men and whoever else could hack it with them as they underwent sometimes brutal and often unsafe methods for training, conditioning and sparring. You cannot talk to instructors who trained in the 1960s and 1970s for very long before you hear startling tales of how these people trained.
Positive changes started to creep in. Safety equipment was adopted. Sparring was made less than full contact so that working people didn’t return home with black eyes. For the same reason, the breaking of bricks is no longer demanded. Clubs began to appeal to people who they had previously driven out – people who weren’t naturally tough or athletic, who came from a wider variety of backgrounds. Taekwon-do sought to bring in more women. Taekwon-do sought to bring in people over the age of 30. Taekwon-do sought to maintain students with various disabilities, changing the syllabus to offer them a test that matched what was possible for them to achieve. These things were all amazing positive changes that made Taekwon-do what it was always meant to be – not just for soldiers and not just for physically harming others, but a martial way and self defence for all kinds of people.
However, this amending of the standards lead to a sort of schism as well. If certain standards were being altered, what should they be altered to? If breaking a brick was no longer required, what should people be required to do? Many skilled and scrupulous instructors switched high standards for other high standards whilst those who didn’t care for standards so much as they wanted to make money merely made these changes by lowering all of the standards.
What you can often see nowadays is that someone who wears a black belt often performs at a much lower level than you would expect. I have a seen a number of videos where during demonstrations a black belt will perform colour belt level patterns where more is wrong than is right and even basic white belt errors such as habitually losing balance are still present. I have also seen videos where a black belt will go to spar and move in an awful herky-jerky way, throwing long telegraphed front leg kicks and nothing else, no combinations or footwork or straight punches to speak of. You even see such people still mimicking things they have seen real high level practitioners do such as skipping their feet to circle – as if at black belt level you mimic what a black belt looks like rather than just sparring with good fundamentals.
The thing is that in the new Taekwon-do, we allow for when someone cannot do something. If someone cannot jump, they perform the kick on the ground. If they cannot kick high, they kick properly to low. The syllabus is adjusted to what you can do but always what you do must be executed to a high level, showing the level of skill that the belt implies. It is acceptable to skip the things you can never achieve so long as you achieve well what you can do. What you often see in these videos are people failing to achieve things that are easily within their grasp.
The mind boggles because the people shown are obviously over-promoted to anyone who knows Taekwon-do and then posted to the internet forever. The instructor is more to blame than the student in these cases because they lie to their students by giving them belts that their skills do not deserve and then do them the great disservice to everyone but showing to the internet how poorly they have been served by their instructor. I would be angry if an instructor uploaded to the internet a video of me that showed me performing poorly because that video affects how I may be judged in the future. These people however, are oblivious.
Most of these videos are uploaded to promote clubs. In many cases the instructor who uploaded them will have an inkling that they are not showing the highest quality, however they merely believe that no real standards exist any more and trust that the public cannot tell the differences between good and poor performances.
Further problems arise when comments are posted which illustrate the obvious and the instructor will 9 times out of 10 fire back angry comments, quite shocked and appalled that anyone would dare to question the poor choices they have made in their promotion. Sometimes the videos will be preceded by subtitles asking people not to judge – as this forethought did not encourage them not to post the video in the first place.
You don’t have to post everything your students do. If you want to post something, rehearse and practise until it looks good. A simple exercise which is well executed looks one thousand time better than something which is comically out of grasp. If the student wants to post their own videos, it would be cruel to comment on that and they should be free to do so. When a video is posted to promote your club, you are really doing something horrible to people when you show them in a bad light.
In the modern era, Taekwon-do is often not viewed as a serious martial art. Often people compare Taekwon-do to modern combat sports qualifications as “belts bought in a mall” to mock the supposed useless nature of the rank. I don’t blame the people who speak like that based on the unscrupulous instructors that there are out there. Those of us who still believe that the art can be serious can only be downhearted when we see people publish so publically how low the standards have dropped.
The videos too often feature people who were given black belts because the minimum black belt time is up and the instructor fears the students leaving if they are not promoted. It seems to wait until you are ready is a concept lost on some.
But now the internet comes along and Taekwon-do continues to change. Such people post videos and then are appalled at how their videos are received. General Choi stated that he wanted Taekwondo to be simple enough for someone who has no knowledge of it to tell good technique from bad – and now those people can do that on youtube.
And people are beginning to learn some harsh lessons about how low their grading standards have been. What was once behind closed doors is now in the eye of the martial arts community. If that can be a lifeline to someone to reassess what they are doing in the context of what standard they should be achieving, then long may it continue.
I hope that legitimate criticism is not lost in the wider issue of trolling/bullying. It may be a tough pill to swallow but it’s perhaps one that we have to take. Again, it is the instructors and not the students that need to examine themselves for the good of all of us and for their own sake.