Sunday, 31 January 2016

The first rule of fight club...

Sparring (kyorugi in taekwondo, kumite in karate) is just punching people right? How different can it be for these two martial arts separated by only 500 miles?

The answer, of course, is very!

I've never claimed to be a true all-rounder, and I envy and respect those who can combine the grace and power required for patterns, with the speed, strategy and dynamism of the fighter. In fact, since the 1980s, of my forty-odd competition medals, only eight are for fighting. But there's no reason why we shouldn't be good at both as the core skills for both; speed, power, technique and timing are essentially the same... or so I'm told.

Even within each art, there is a difference between dojo/dojang sparring and competition fights. In class, sparring is more stand-up and close quarters, with fewer breaks and retreats. In a tournament, there will naturally be more focus on clarity of technique and target. But what I've found most difficult to manage as I move between TKD and karate classes is what I'm "allowed" to do.

Again, I'm going to qualify this blog by stating that this is my understanding as a taekwondo improver (I think I'm pushing it calling myself a beginner now) rather than a technical analysis...

The first thing you notice is how protected the taekwondo competitor is compared to karate. Generally, kumite in the EKF doesn't require head guards for adults and has only recently introduced chest-protectors. Karateka do not wear arm protectors. So is this difference indicative of the type of attacks likely to befall the fighter?

As an ITF school, my club adheres to sparring rules but this isn't quite a strict as the WTF Olympic rules - (basically what you'll see if you watch Jade Jones). This means you can punch and kick (no knees, elbows, knifehands etc) and you can target the head or the chest guard only.

Unlike the extremely unrealistic Olympic sparring rules which state you can't punch to the head (What?!) punches, including hooks, uppercuts and jabs are allowed. You'll also not see much guarding and blocking with the arms in Olympic sparring, (kicks are blocked with kicks) but ITF sparring does focus very heavily on guards.

Now, I'm never gong to spar at the Olympics (although hopefully young martial artists will have the choice of karate or taekwondo from 2020) so it's fine for me to focus on my dojang fighting and use punches and blocks - there's no way I could rely on leg flexibility to score - I have none.

So what are the big differences that get me into trouble? In karate, punches must be straight,  no hooks or uppercuts, so I either forget to use these at TKD, or accidentally use them at karate and get penalties.  All kicks are allowed in karate but you will rarely see much outside of turning kick and reverse turning so again I tend to rely on these and miss opportunities at the dojang. The biggie, though, is that I have a low centre of gravity and a quick hand, so my go-to technique is to collect the leg after blocking a kick and sweep the other leg for a takedown and finish. You are not allowed to grab in TKD so you very rarely have take-downs. This leads to my sparring partners hovering on one leg and repeatedly side kicking me(!) because there's no danger.

So who would win? Well, there are plenty of youtube videos that claim to answer this, but realistically you would need to have a no-rules bout to find that out. I'm not a huge fan of the WTF Olympic sparring, it's rule-bound and audience pleasing and doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to a real fight. WKF karate has fewer rules and allowing for punches to the head and take-downs means it has more realism. I sincerely hope these aren't lost if karate does become an Olympic sport.

Outside of the tournament arena, I love that I can throw hooking punches in the dojang, it's a new technique for me but it works. I do suffer from leggy opponents blocking with their legs - I can't get near them and I can't put them on their arse and basically legs are longer than arms so I'm going to be at a disadvantage in taekwondo.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Breaking Bad

In most karate clubs I’ve attended (and I’ve attended quite a few) there is little or no focus on board-breaking outside of the occasional school fete demonstration. When I took my shodan in…cough… 1990 I was presented with a piece of pine for the first time - having never hit anything harder than a bag in the last four or five years - it took me several attempts to snap it.

In the UKITF schools breaking is seen as a fundamental discipline, along with basics, patterns, sparring and drills (more of these later). Whilst sensibly restricted to adults only and with supervision at all times, all grades are encouraged to practice on re-breakable boards held securely in a horse. At each grading, there is a progressive expectation not only that you can break, but break with multiple techniques and using both sides of the body.

Being relatively new to breaking despite my many years of training I was slightly nervous/excited to see which of my techniques had the focus and power to break the plastic board. The board we use, I am informed, is about twice as resistant as a 1 inch pine board and must be hit on the break-line, (unlike wood which you can pretty much whack anywhere on the grain). Now, in any fighting art the principle of attack tends to be (whether on a bag, board or a body); complete the technique past the point of impact. In other words, focus on a point a few inches through what you want to hit and follow through.

My first few attempts have varying success. A roundhouse elbow strike (palgup chigi or mawashi empi) I have no problem with and break on both sides, ditto with a piercing side kick (yeop chagi or yoko geri kekomi) which pops the board into two pieces with a satisfying crack. However my side fist, palm heel and front punch attacks don’t guarantee a break every time and after a few goes my wrists are beginning to get a little sore. I’m sure there will be plenty of karateka tutting at my poor technique and sighing but as a 5’5” 9 stone veteran, hitting the board exactly on point every time from a standing start with enough power to break is not as easy as it once was.

Now I see the value of the sine wave! Yes, it still feels slow and impractical to me compared to the single line snap of a karate technique but for generating power it has a lot going for it.  By rising and dropping my weight down into the punch my small frame can generate more power and the board shatters. As I discussed in my blog on taekwondo basics, I would not use the sine wave in regular sparring, but as a finishing technique or to bring a slower larger opponent down, I am storing this one for later use.

For confidence building, for proper alignment and for power I can absolutely see the value of having breaking as a regular part of the class and would happily add this to my karate repertoire.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

A pattern is emerging...

As an exponent of mainly Wado karate for the last 5 years I’ve got used to the comparatively few kata within the syllabus. There are five Pinan and ten senior kata, although this can vary to eleven or twelve under some associations. ITF Taekwondo has 24 tul (or poomsae or hyeong) which seems a lot to take in as a white belt as they all loom above you.

What’s interesting is that there are some striking similarities between the structure and execution of the ITF patterns and those of their karate cousins.

I’ve blogged before about the similarities between Shotokan Heian and Wado Pinan, the differences are often quite subtle to the observer but complex to the transitioning practitioner, they are differences in stance and in application.

Between tkd and karate there are fundamental parallels that can’t be argued away, the embusen (or footprint) for example; of the first few patterns is like a capital H on it’s side (two techniques to the left, two to the right, three down the middle, repeat),  a familiar karate kata pattern.  But it doesn’t stop there.
Is it coincidence that the pattern Do San has so many similarities with the kata Pinan (or Heian) Sandan? The knifehand, followed by a grab, tuck and turn movement and ending with a fist strike is extremely similar to Sandan.  The opening of Won Hyo and the opening of Pinan Shodan (Heian Nidan) are again, very similar. This is both a help and hindrance to the karateka, who has to maintain similar but distinct moves in the mind and cannot rely on muscle memory. Whilst the patterns I’ve learnt so far (Chon-Ji, Dan-Gun, Do-San, Won-Hyo, Yul-Gok and Joong-Gun) haven’t yet impeded on my senior wado kata in any way, they have made me have to concentrate much more on my Pinan.  This is apposite reminders that as black belts we should, but perhaps do not, practice these basic kata every day.

Followers of the founder General Choi can tell you the names of each pattern refer to a great Korean of history and the number of moves relates in some way to their life (their age at death etc.) and this may be true, but there is some suggestion that taekwondo has inherited and reformed the traditional karate kata, and then retconned the provenance to fit the Korean model.  Look more closely at the 3rd, 4th and 5th patterns.

Sandan                 Do San

Yondan                 Won Hyo

Godan                  Yul Gok

Coincidence? You decide.

Something I am struggling to adopt (although it does make the patterns easier) is the one-technique, one move approach. If you’re used to watching karate kata your first thought watching tkd is “man, these guys are slow”. But this is how taekwondo patterns are performed. Precision and a defined start and finish for each technique is of course critical in any art, but I feel the tkders overdo it a little. There is very little grace to the tul. It is, like everything in taekwondo, a demonstration of power. There are some techniques that are taught as a double technique (the first of these in chon-ji where a low block segues into a rising block) but these are still done deliberately with a one-two count. Even at a senior level where the black belts have mastered acceleration, the higher degree patterns tend to have a one-second technique, one-second pause rhythm which feels alien to the karateka. Think of Seishan (Hangetsu) or Kushanku (Kanku Dai) where the pace rises and falls, there is a story to the kata, a journey and a true imaginary opponent. In taekwondo you just don’t get that feeling, and as someone who loves forms  I think this is a huge loss.

The comparatively recent deliberate design of taekwondo (developed in the 1950s) versus the organic and sprawling growth of indigenous Okinawan karate over several hundred years has provided one of my favourite elements of tul. That is, they get progressively harder each time in a very deliberate and planned way. Karate does this with Pinans but then the senior kata vary wildly. Is Bassai really a more difficult kata than Kushanku? Does Jion really need a greater knowledge than Naihanchi? This is something I have always struggled with in karate, the order of kata does not seem to make sense to me. In ITF Taekwondo the hardest pattern is generally accepted to be So-San, a 5th degree pattern with 72 moves, but I am still wondering if it is the hardest technically or just because you have to remember the order of that many techniques. It will certainly be a while before I have to worry about that - I will soon begin to learn my seventh pattern Toi-Gye (37 moves) so I only have another seventeen to go!

Monday, 7 December 2015

Take a stance

My journey from Shotokan to Wado taught me a lot about stance. It took me away from long and low Zenkutsu Dachi, to the more natural Jun Zuki Dachi front stance, and from the planted Kokutsu Dachi back stance, to a raised heel version more akin to the Neko Ashi I had learned in the AKA (although wado also has Neko Ashi of course). Most notably the knee trembling Kiba Dachi horse stance – which many Shotokan proponents will recall from hours of hellish sitting stance reverse punches, was replaced with the altogether more civilised Shiko Dachi (sumo stance).

Ah, then blackbeltsuze, welcome home! Taekwondo stances are much more like Shotokan than wado. They are long, low and notably much wider than a karate stance. Gunnun Sogi or walking stance, with the hips facing forward is a “shoulder width” stance in theory – but where the measure is taken from outside the shoulder, making in wider than any karate stance I am used to. It feels stable, but impractical. Much like the Shotokan stances, I can see the benefit for helping to tone and condition the legs though. The back stance, Nuinja Sogi is a traditional L stance with weight distribution 50:50, rather than the 70:30 a karateka may be used to. The sitting stance, Annun Sogi, is basically Kiba Dachi….dammit. There are many more stances in both arts of course, but these are the most common I have come across in the coloured belt syllabus.

These stances make sense in taekwondo, where the emphasis on the sine wave (down up down) motion means one rise and falls with the technique. A wide and low stance lends itself to the crashing and pushing blows that are part of the taekwondo toolbox. Muscle memory will help me get low and long but I will struggle with the width of the stance, it is unnaturally wide, being wider than my natural walking stance and having to bring the leg in as well as up to kick feels slow and clumsy to me. Having said that, I have a new found respect for  taekwondo which readers of my earlier blog might find surprising…

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

You? Taekwondo? Really? ....

Why Taekwondo? Why now?
A couple of years ago I began to work more and more in London, often staying over during the week to operate from our London office and avoid the commute. As a martial artist the downside of this is obvious, I was disconnected from my local Aiwakai club. Oh and I was getting a bit porky!
With no Wadokai club in the vicinity, I found a local kickboxing class which turned out to be the fight-club night for a taekwondo group, and as time went on I began to attend their technical classes too. I found that I could reasonably well separate my karate brain from my taekwondo brain (although some bleed-through was inevitable which I’ll cover in a later post) and enjoyed the completely new way of generating power, the focus on breaking and on flexibility.
I was happy training in TKD during the week and picking up my karate at the weekend, and I worked hard at maintaining my wado technique. As I began to spend more time in Leicester again wanted to continue to learn about taekwondo and train in karate (I know, greedy right?) so I joined a local ITF school and now I do both!
After 25 years of wearing a black belt, wearing any other colour is strangely liberating as it allows you to shrug off the expectations placed on being a senior grade, and the role of sensei (both of which, don’t get me wrong, I relish as part of being a black belt for the other half of the week).

So this is me, buying a few new tools to put in my toolkit, testing them and seeing which are the best fit for which job, whilst still trying to ensure the old and trusted tools don’t fall out!

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Back to Basics

If you think because you can do karate you can do Taekwondo, or vice versa, then you may be in for a shock. I made a number of assumptions when I started taekwondo that I would probably be quite good at it, given my background, and that I would find the sporty element of it ineffectual.

Taekwondo comes at kicking and punching from literally a different route. In wado we are taught to take the shortest distance from start to finish, wasting no movement. We are also taught to flow movements into one another and to use our opponents force against him or herself. The fist sits high up above the waist so that the distance to attack or block is minimised. Stances are generally higher than in, say Shotokan or Shito-ryu and more natural.

Now, taking into account that I am a beginner in taekwondo and my understanding is very much at that level I fully expect some tkd experts to challenge this comparison but here is my understanding of the basic differences.

In blocking, taekwondo blocks tend to come from the centre of the body with the hands crossed. This emphasises the “reaction force”, both sides of the body move equal and opposite distances. This creates power and a good defensive position. However it also slows down the transition and creates risk. Used correctly with a side facing stance it can be effective, but my observation is that this is rarely used when sparring, only in patterns and line work. One advantage is that it does teach newbies some excellent principles about defending their centre-line which will pay dividends as it becomes ingrained.

Upper: Taekwondo Sine Wave, Lower: Karate economy of motion
A wado karate punch drives directly from below the shoulder, generating force through speed and a twist of the fist and the hip at the end. It’s very hard to generate a lot of power this way until you master it. A good karateka performing tsuki does not rise and fall but maintains his height. By comparison a taekwondo punch drops down from the hip, picks up the whole body as it rises and smashes that whole body-weight down into the punch. This is the “sine-wave” of taekwondo; the down-up-down motion that characterises the art, and it’s bloody hard to get right if you’ve spent 25 years doing the opposite.

Similarly with kicks; in taekwondo the whole weight falls forward into the kick, in karate the kick is controlled and the weight is held over the hips. Is one better than the other? Well, I’m siding very slightly with karate on this one because whilst it is much easier to generate a fight-ending kick or punch using the Korean method, I think the sine-wave provides too many opportunities for your opponent to send you off-balance or strike first. That said, if I want to break a board or had time to generate the power for a finishing strike, I would totally use it.

My reflection is that in taekwondo the emphasis is on generating as much power as possible even at the expense of some speed. But who would win in a fight? Well judging from the little sparring I’ve done I would say that a good karate technique is more likely to connect but will struggle to generate the raw power of a good taekwondo attack. But if that attack fails they are then at the mercy of the karateka.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Tkd or karate?

Well. It's been a while since I posted and lots has happened in my martial arts world. I've been lucky enough to continue training with the inimitable Peter May and Sakagami Sensei. I've competed in European Championships in England, Hungary and Lisbon but missed out on a place in the team for world Championships in Japan and moved away from Leicester Karate Association to join Hei Jo Shin.

I've also, by virtue of being able to train on Mondays, taken up a new martial art; taekwondo.

Followers of my earlier blog will know I've tried a few taekwondo clubs in the past, but I'm really enjoying the opportunity to learn more about the art, and starting as a white belt and working ones way up is the way to do that.

This blog is my attempt to compare and contrast karate and taekwondo and comment on the different benefits of each.

I hope you'll join me..