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The Lost World of Basic Principles
Dr. Jerry P. Galloway, Ed.D.
Having just returned from the United States Taekwondo Union (USTU) National Taekwondo Championships in Cleveland, Ohio, I had an opportunity to observe the nation’s best. I also observed the color belts whose national competition was included in the event. While I enjoyed the opportunity to watch these students compete in form (poomse), I was disturbed by the nature of the performances as indicative of today’s trends in instruction. Specifically, I was disturbed by the lack of or violation of proper basic principles.
I founded in 1983 Chun Tong Moo Do, an eclectic style of Taekwondo, Karate, Hapkido and Kung Fu. We are unique because of our combination of 3 factors: (a) comprehensive, historically authentic and traditional content in all 4 Arts, (b) a family-style atmosphere supported by an infrastructure of sound educational practices, and (c) how we emphasize detail, fundamentals and aesthetic principles. To be sure, I have continued to learn new things in recent years and now expose my students to the USTU and WTF forms and value my relationships in this regard with Grandmaster K.Y. Chai and others.
But, it is necessary to recognize that my style of martial arts, my own performance principles, my values and knowledge of martial arts were formed under my training with my instructor, Grandmaster Kim Soo in Houston, Texas. In the Chayon-Ryu system of Taekwon-Karate, I learned the importance and necessity of basic principles of movement and form. Indeed, much of what I write here is inspired by and must be attributed to my early training, which was nothing short of indoctrination into that “natural” approach to martial arts fundamentals.
Grandmaster Kim Soo had developed an array of fundamentals applicable to form and others to sparring that influenced and guided my early training. My focus here is not intended as a report on Chayon-Ryu principles. But, certainly my focus on and concern for sound basics both in my observations of others and as taught in my school’s style (Chun Tong) will forever be influenced by my background with Grandmaster Kim Soo. It is critically important to always distinguish between show versus substance, mere demonstration versus actual execution, the limits of simple representation versus the practicalities and application evident in real performance. I first learned these things in my roots – my first decade training with Grandmaster Kim Soo. I have since continued to learn these basic principles through teaching and training.
It seems that today’s students do not follow what I now teach and have
always taught in my school. I am forced to conclude that instructors
from all around the country do not seem to emphasize in instruction the
same principles as I. Some may rebut that having observed “mere”
color belts I have not seen students sufficiently trained and therefore
am making judgments based on novice, inexperienced or undeveloped apprentices
of the Art. While color belts are certainly students of rather than
expert providers of the Art, I compare these observations across my own
color belt students who are able to manifest the attributes I value and
yet weren’t in Cleveland, Ohio, representing themselves as our nation’s
finest. Still, I understand that such a critique will likely draw
letters in response, but which I hope will address the merit of the principles
rather than an unnecessary defense of the conscientious and hard-working
color belts. The student performances at the USTU National Championships
are mere fodder for this discussion and, frankly, many of these issues
were problematic among the black belts as well.
There are a number of things worth examining but lets begin with kicking. There are a number of basic principles in the types of kicks one may execute. For example, there is the thrust, the snap and I’ll even acknowledge a “momentum” kick. It is most common for students to execute a roundhouse kick as a snap. That is, the kicking foot springs forward and is retracted in the same motion – just as one might snap a towel or crack a whip. This “snapping” action, while difficult to describe with mere adjectives, avoids leaving the foot embedded against the target. Also, this may constitute a “rechambering” of the foot for subsequent kicks.
So, which kicks employ the snap as the fundamental basis of movement? Certainly the roundhouse kick utilizes or should utilize a snap. Watching students warm up for competition (often several hours before they actually compete) one notices that they work on power kicks on hand-held targets. This common activity often employs a power “swing” that carries the person not only through but far beyond the target spinning the person around backwards well out of position. Aside from sloppily slinging the foot through what should have been a powerful but controlled snap, the foot often far exceeds the angle of the body through the kick. This typically results in the supporting foot (and therefore the hips) being entirely out of position for supporting and driving the kick.
It is critical in a roundhouse kick for the supporting foot’s heel to aim toward the target certainly by the time of if not prior to impact. This usually requires a significant pivot in the supporting foot (and therefore the hips) in order to lead and drive the kicking motion. Clearly, a great many students ignore this important fundamental. Too, the snapping action avoids “throwing” the foot through the target and helps maintain body position.
A roundhouse kick should not involve a full spin or unlimited flow-through such as what might occur in a large spinning “wheel” kick – sometimes erroneously called a spinning back kick. The full 360 degree spinning “wheel” kick relies on momentum and the driving force of the body’s spin to traverse the distance and strike the target. This is conceptually different from the application of force in a roundhouse kick.
A front kick, whether from a rear-foot or a front foot position, should also snap into the target. Erroneously, many instances show students using a kind of thrust motion that results in the foot being “stuck” into the target. In form performance, the foot appears “stuck” or suspended in the air, presumably on-target. Indeed, many instructors may feel this is appropriate. But, remember, this is FORM – not sparring. When sparring, any kicking impact may entrap the foot in uniforms, gear or even body parts and thus inhibit the inherent recoil that is part of a snap. But, while performances must be realistic, a front kick is not a thrusting motion - it is a snap through and back to a chambered position.
The “natural” position of the leg in a frontal strike is not to be held in a fully extended often-upward angle regardless of whether such heights and distances are targeted. The snapping action front kick still reaches such targets with power and allows the leg to quickly and naturally return to a properly chambered position. Conditioning and training leg power and muscular strength to maintain a forward high-angled straight leg might in fact achieve such strength, but this has nothing to do with the true nature of the front kick. In form performance, the “sticking” of front kicks, apparently designed to demonstrate such strength conditioning, also demonstrates an inappropriate and unnatural kicking technique.
Describing how a front kick is an extension of natural human motion, Grandmaster Kim Soo states that “walking is very similar to the movement of the natural front kick.” (Soo, 1998, p. 93). Further discussion addresses how arms and indeed the whole body play a part in the kicking motion. Yet, I witnessed a very odd approach to the front kick among tournament performers. Their front kick would follow an initial technique such as an outside center block resulting in a bent elbow and blocking forearm in front of the body or other similar techniques. Performers would execute a front kick while maintaining the same-side arm position held still in mid-air. Aside from the lack of full body participation, the kicking motion often traveled outside of the extended arm leaving the elbow often crossed toward the body center and blocking the thigh while trying to kick. Front kicks, rather than on the outside, naturally execute between the arms flowing from the body’s center and certainly unobstructed by arms involved in previous techniques. For a more detailed analysis of front kick principles, consult the Grandmaster Kim Soo article in the above reference.
Shifting attention now to sidekicks, these are often executed incorrectly. A sidekick is not a “side” kick merely because it strikes at targets at one’s left or right rather than in the middle. A sidekick is a specific kind of technique regardless of where the target may be located. This involves a thrust rather than a snapping action. While a snap might be analogous to flipping a towel to crack a friend in the locker room, a thrust is more like a battering ram at a castle door. That is, the battering ram is not snapped against the door but is instead thrust against and through the door presumably continuing ever forward.
A sidekick may be the strongest of all kicks but requires full-body participation. The supporting foot must align with the target, pivoting as necessary, driving the complete body power into and through the target. The erroneous kick attacks lateral to the body position, that is, to the side, in a quick snapping action. While the kicking surface is often the bottom or heel of the foot rather than the outside knife-edge, the real problem is the lack of thrust and the direction of the foot’s path toward the target.
A thrust is a straight-line attack – the path of greatest power – compared with a natural arc found in a roundhouse kick. Like a fist punching straight forward rather than a slapping motion by opening and closing the arm at the elbow, so too should the foot travel in a straight line thrusting through the target. The misconception evident in many performances seems to be that if the target is to the side and if the bottom, heel or side of the foot is used then it must be a “side” kick. Wrong. Such errors are often simple roundhouse kicks done poorly. If the foot travels in an arc toward the target from a knee-bent, chambered position then it is a “round” kick – regardless of what part of the foot is used.
Finally, many kicks in the observed performances were unfocused and
untargeted. It appeared as if performers thought it sufficient to
merely extend their legs in the general direction of a vague location.
Such kicks had no power and, as described above, lacked full-body participation.
Rhythms and Balance
Rhythms and balance are key elements to the proper execution of techniques. Violating these principles can make techniques look ugly, weak and ineffective. A far too common example is the use of single arms in executing strikes and blocks. That is, when executing a downward forearm block, for example, it is critical to balance the downward blocking motion by simultaneously pulling the other in a counter direction. This balances the motion.
This same phenomenon finds consistent compliance in the case of punching. It is common for performers to pull one arm when punching with the other. This principle of balanced motion belongs to virtually all strikes and blocks, not just punching. Performers at the USTU National Championships were observed blocking and striking using only the striking or blocking arm while the other remained isolated and segregated – either prematurely stored at the waist or possibly even dormant, floating in the air. In either case, the extra arm (hand or fist) remained separate and did not participate in or support the technique. This is a serious breach of fundamentals.
Continuing with the down block as an example, such techniques also involve a kind of rhythm in the timing of execution. This has been described as a 1-2 count. The 1-2 rhythm involves a preparatory or setup maneuver, like that of cocking a pistol, followed by the execution or firing of the technique. These dual aspects of a single technique are complimentary to each other yet distinctly different. The one count might be slower than the actual execution in count two. The one count would or should presumably involve less power and force than that employed in the actual execution during the second count.
Performers were observed often over emphasizing the one count as if it is a distinctly separate maneuver. That is, they separated and isolated the first count destroying the unity of the technique and breaking it into separate pieces. This makes the technique(s) look contrived and more show than real and certainly unnatural.
Closely related to this problem is another phenomenon: the lack of phrasing.
When one speaks in normal conversation, language flows, quicker in some
spots, slower in others. Slight pauses are used to separate ideas,
like commas, while still maintaining a continuity of the flow of the message.
One – would – not – talk – in – separate – isolated – words – or – in –
a – monotone – voice. Yet, that is exactly what I witnessed as performers
linked techniques mechanically, robotically isolating the various pieces
of a form. This, of course, results in a complete lack of phrasing
and appears to have virtually no interpretation. Would a martial
artist be content with the label “sports competitor” to describe who and
what they’ve become? Does the word “Artist” no longer apply?
Certainly, the aesthetic, inspirational and interpretive phrasing of the
form performances was seriously lacking and no longer seems to be a priority
The flow of general movements in a form presentation can have a significant effect on the quality and aesthetics of the performance often more so than the discrete techniques executed. Certainly, stances are important parts of techniques and may be considered indistinguishable from the techniques themselves. But, postures and body management in the transitions throughout a form can affect the very character of the performance.
For example, transitions between stances often find students awkwardly standing upright rather than properly shifting from position to position. One may argue that there are moments where an upright stance is appropriate or specifically called for. Such a claim may be warranted and would be prescriptive for such cases. However, there are far too many performers standing upright between techniques either as an overly theatrical demonstration or as an apathetic abandonment of the realism and context of the performance. That is, blocking in one direction and then shifting or turning to another position to strike involves a transition that deserves as much consideration as both the block and the strike.
The unnatural and contrived can contaminate a number of movements. Turning is a critical element of form quality. An important fundamental involves guiding and leading the turn with the body – the torso – rather than the leg or foot. It is inappropriate to “reach” ahead with the foot to lead the turn. This often involves even planting the foot to the ground far ahead of the turn and then using it to pivot the turn into place. Both of these elements violate proper fundamentals of turning and involve odd or contrived foot and leg movements – far too common today. A turn is “driven” by the turning of the torso and head (like guiding a horse). Of course a foot and leg must accompany the turn or one would fall without support. But, clearly the foot and leg are incidental to the nature of the turn. Many may disagree with this but there lies the controversy and possibly the source of the problem.
Even stepping forward is not clearly established and accepted without controversy. Some sects of martial artists seem to believe that simply stepping forward from a climbing or forward stance should involve the guiding of the foot in a zigzag arc or “snake” movement. That is, the moving foot arcs toward and passes next to the support foot and then continues to arc outward again to the proper width as the new stance is established. This is absurd. A proper movement in walking forward – a natural motion – is simply to move straight and directly forward without the obviously contrived inside arc. That is, the body weight does not curve over the supporting foot but merely drives straight forward to a new foot placement like normal walking. It always seems interesting that those instructors who teach the arc or snaking foot as the correct motion inevitably follow by walking to answer the phone or back to their car in the natural movements common to us all.
Finally, general movements include the smaller aspects of posture and behavior. A “ready” or Go Mahn (“finish”) stance – like attention with fists together – far too often involves an over-emphasized snap or almost a jump into the posture as if making a point of theatrics, macho or bravado. Its one thing to appear weak, casual, lethargic or apathetic but the opposite extreme is also inappropriate. Puffed-up or inflated postures with a contrived boldness out of context are an equally unfortunate extreme. Everything, foot alignment in stances, loose or weak hands in strikes, and more are all critical and seem to be frequently overlooked, ignored or violated. At Traditional Martial Arts and the Chun Tong style virtually all details matter and cannot be overlooked as we seek the perfect performance.
Such subtleties can often have a greater cumulative affect on a performance
than the specific isolated techniques. That is, turning 90 degrees
left to execute a knife hand block with a back stance involves more than
the block and more than the stance. Even in turning the nuances of
timing, balance, flow, emphasis, and more can cast a more significant light
on the performance than the block itself. It seems that instructors
may be ignoring these more abstract elements of real knowledge. A
form performance – a presentation – is more than mere strikes, kicks and
blocks and the targets of such techniques.
It has been said, usually in other contexts, that moderation in all things is a virtue. One of the largest problems in form presentation is the extreme. Extreme weakness or strength, passive or hyperactive, lightness or force, etc. Anything can be overdone; anything can be superficial, incomplete or contrived. A proper balance must be part of a quality performance.
Competitors were observed illustrating extremes at both ends of the spectrum: extreme weakness, passive execution, awkward power, loss of balance and control, exaggerations in distance and contrived emphasis, and more. It is difficult if not impossible to achieve a sense of realism and aesthetic quality if techniques are not performed in a direct, simple and natural fashion. All movements must be complimentary to all other movements.
There is a far too common but unfortunate conversion of direct and applied techniques into slow, demonstrative and exaggerated displays of tension, resistance, force and pressure…. all designed to make something different out of a technique that should more realistically be executed in a simple and straightforward fashion. This “Hollywood” effect or theatrics is more reminiscent of a precocious child overacting their “cute” behavior just to get attention than a true protégé humbly illustrating their talents. I find the extremes and exaggerations to be an embarrassment far from my respect for the realism of quality basics and sound fundamentals.
In today’s competitions, it seems impossible to win performing techniques
in “real-time” without including exaggerated displays of tension and pressure
in executing slow and theatrical motions. Such techniques have become
accepted exclusively in extravagant fashion and no other style, regardless
of the realism or refinement, has a chance of winning in competition.
Indeed, performers, inhibited only by politeness, would otherwise balk
at or denigrate such a style as weak or passive, because they have become
accustom to the overdone and the extreme, unable to distinguish artistry
from the “hype.”
I would suggest a 5-level model of considering the nature of a form performance. This model does not specifically address the role of fundamentals but of course it is maintained by this author that proper fundamentals would be a prerequisite for higher levels of performance.
– beginning levels of mere familiarity, the idea of a performance. White belts struggle with this level as they seek to understand what a form is and what is expected of them. They often feel their movements and techniques lack context and purpose as they seek to trust and understand the instructor’s guiding direction.2. Hypothetical & Mimicry
– a tentative imitation. This level lacks understanding and all but basic ability. As these levels are not necessarily mutually exclusive, many aspects of performances continue to show signs of mimicry, blind to the true nature of the prescribed movements.3. Virtual & Simulated
– unrealistic and impractical – a replication rather than the original. This constitutes a very low level of demonstration as if watching life in a play, being in the audience, rather than living it directly.4. Practice and Rehearsal
– a demonstration of something that could be real rather than the real itself. A somewhat higher form of demonstration yet still removed from reality. Like acting in a play, following the script and doing the movements and speaking the words prescribed for that role, it is still nevertheless deferred and removed from the real or the genuine.5. Real and Genuine
– the most realistic “performance” and execution of actual technique. While form is, technically speaking, representative of actual fighting skills, this level constitutes the closest realization of that ideal. Yet, this realistic representation constitutes a fine Artistry illustrating an excellence of ability and accomplishment.These distinctions are of course very abstract and the levels overlap as martial artists progress and advance in the Art to the highest levels. This can only be accomplished by mastering in knowledge and skill the appropriate fundamentals. Consider in the following lists how a performance might be described and beware in which group your work might be found.
of Proper Fundamentals…
Traditional Martial Arts and the Chun Tong style were founded by Dr. Jerry P. Galloway in 1983. Dr. Galloway, Ed.D., is a tenured Professor of Instructional Technology at Indiana University Northwest and has served as the Vice President of the Indiana State Taekwondo Association since 1994. Now a 5th dan black belt, Dr. Galloway still competes regularly in local, state and national tournaments and teaches martial arts at his school in Merrillville, Indiana as well as in the Indiana University Northwest’s Health and Physical Education and Recreation department.
Dr. Jerry Galloway (1991, 1995) as published before in Taekwondo Times addressing educational issues and details on sparring take-down situations.
The system web site, including historical information, can be found on the Internet at:
Galloway, J. P. (1991). Martial arts education: Second class status? TaeKwonDo Times, 11(2), 52-55, 86._______________________
Galloway, J. P. (1995). Sparring take-downs: Timing, not speed. TaeKwonDo Times, 16(5), 42-43, 46-47.
Soo, K. (1998). Front Kick: The Natural Way. Taekwondo Times, (18) 6, p. 90-97.
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