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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Review: TKD Black Belt Project

TKD Black Belt Project screenshot

I first heard about the TKD Black Belt Project a few years ago, and I finally decided to pony up and buy the apps. I have to admit that my expectations were high with the promise of video tutorials from multiple-time world champion Jaroslaw Suska. If you’ve never seen videos of this man’s patterns, look him up now. He’s phenomenal.

I got two apps: Black Belt All-in-One, which covers all 24 patterns, and Black Belt Basics, with instructions on techniques, stances and theory. They came in a fairly whopping total of US$159.

Pros:

  • Black Belt All-in-One is a solid resource for learning and improving patterns.
  • Fantastic patterns by Jaroslaw Suska.
  • Camera angles from the front, back and sides, as well as slow motion to capture all the details.

Cons:

  • Kind of expensive for what you get (but it is a niche product).
  • Awkward interface with small videos.
  • Apps crash every time there’s a Flash update available.
  • DRM and no download option mean you’d better not lose those USB sticks.
  • Black Belt Basics offers no insight at all, and just isn’t worth it.

 

What is the TKD Black Belt Project?

The TKD Black Belt Project was started a few years ago in Poland by a black belt named Lukas Grygiel. The “project” is a series of video-tutorial software to help students learn and improve at Taekwon-Do. It all started with a DVD covering Saju-Jirugi to Choong-Moo, starring the previously mentioned Jaroslaw Suska. Since then, it has expanded to include all 24 patterns, the Black Belt Basics I already mentioned and three books: The Art of Patterns vols. 1 & 2, and The Path to Black Belt.

I haven’t read the books yet.

If you check out their YouTube channel and website, you can see some of the videos of Mr. Suska performing patterns, as well as a video that gives you an idea of how the apps work.

First impressions

As of the time I’m writing this, it’s 2016. We’re solidly in the Internet age. I can download just about any piece of software that I want to. Just about, but not quite. Because I had to order this through the snail mail from Poland. But fine, whatever. I was aware of that well before I hit the “Place Order” button. I knew what I was getting into.

When I said snail mail, I meant it. The thing took several weeks to get here. It was coming from Poland to northern Canada, so I didn’t expect it to be overnight or anything, but I’ve had things come from China and Lithuania much faster.

But I understand. This is a small operation, catering to a niche audience. It’s OK.

I finally get the tiny envelope in my hands, open it up and dump out the contents: a plastic card with a folding USB stick, a metal USB stick attached to a lanyard, and a small piece of paper with minimal instructions and a dire warning: “DO NOT LOSE THE CARD. IT IS YOUR LICENCE.” I feel like I should buy a fire-proof safe to store this thing in.

I pop the card into my Mac and get a warning telling me that it has been improperly ejected from a Windows computer, and that I’ll have to insert it into a Windows computer and safely eject it. So I boot into Windows and follow the instructions. Back to the Mac: I pop the card in again and start up the app. Just a blank grey screen. Hmmm… I told them I had a Mac, but maybe it likes Windows better. Back to Windows. Same deal: blank grey screen.

So I try the other USB stick, Black Belt Basics. Same thing. Not ejected properly; blank grey screen.

I’m starting to wonder if I spent the better part of $200 on junk.

I email the company to let them know what was going on. A couple of days later, Lukas Grygiel replies to my email and suggests I try to update my Flash Player. If that doesn’t work, he can contact tech support if I give him a day or two.

I get the distinct impression this is a one-man operation.

I update my Flash Player. Success! The app starts up and we’re in business. (Irrelevant side note: I’ve set my Flash Player to notify me of updates, but it doesn’t. Why must it disobey me?)

Black Belt All-in-One

Black Belt All-in-One is a useful piece of software, even if it feels a little outdated. The interface was designed to work as a DVD, and looks like something from the early part of the last decade. I’m probably not giving it enough credit here, but some aspects of it almost remind me of Microsoft Encarta from pre-2000.

It’s divided into three sections: Saju-Jirugi to Choong-Moo, Kwang-Gae to Choi-Yong, and Yon-Gae to Tong-Il. All 24 patterns are performed by Jaroslaw Suska, which is fantastic. The best part of this whole thing is getting to watch him perform his patterns so I can pick up on some subtle movements and refine my own technique.

The first section of the app was obviously built before the other two. The video frame is smaller and the controls aren’t as robust. But in all three you can view each pattern from the front, back or either side. And starting in section two you can even do slow motion.

Switching between camera angles on the fly doesn’t work, unfortunately. If you want to switch from front view to one of the side views, you have to start the pattern over.

You can also go through each pattern step by step. The video will pause at the end of each movement until you click to proceed to the next move.

For each movement, you will also see the English and Korean names of the technique, as well as a translation of each word in the Korean name. And there are notes to let you know if a particular technique is done in a different motion (such as fast motion or continuous motion).

If you happen to read Polish, that’s available too—it was produced in Poland, after all. Spanish and Russian are also available (in the Saju-Jirugi-Choong-Moo section only).

Black Belt Basics

Black Belt Basics is less useful. I’m not quite sure who this app is aimed at. It sounds good on the surface, though, with:

  • videos of all the individual techniques from the patterns up to Choong-Moo, as well as some additional kicks
  • photos of all the stances from the front and side
  • English-to-Korean translations of what seems like all the terms from the Condensed Encyclopedia
  • some of the articles from the Encyclopedia

It sounds like a nice little complement to the BB All-in-One app, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t really add anything. Not from my point of view anyway.

First of all, I didn’t do enough homework and I didn’t realize that the techniques only went to black stripe. But I guess that’s why they call it “basics.”

Second, most of the techniques aren’t even performed by Jaroslaw Suska. He only does around 20 techniques, all of which are kicks. The rest are performed by three other black belts, including Master Jerzy Jedut. Their skill level is fine, but not perfect. So you can use their videos to show you what a technique is, but not necessarily how to master the subtleties of the movement.

And that’s the problem I have with it. I don’t need a reminder of what a technique is. I want to know how to make it better. Perhaps colour belts studying at home could use that reminder, but that’s also what their instructors are for.

Speaking of instructing, that’s something else I hoped to see in the app. The videos show you the techniques and the photos show you the stances, but there are no instructions to tell you where each part of your body should be, or how you should perform the movement.

Even the “theory” section is just a copy of articles from the Encyclopedia, and adds nothing new. I guess that could come in handy if you don’t have a copy of the Encyclopedia for yourself. But if you want the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do, get the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do. It has much more information.

The good

Black Belt All-in-One is a solid resource for watching a multiple-time world champion perform all of the patterns. You can learn the diagram of a pattern, remember something you’ve forgotten or study the subtleties of a technique to try to improve. It’s not a stand-in for in-person instruction, but as a home resource it fits the bill. For years now, I’ve been using YouTube videos of Jaroslaw Suska as a study aid, and they don’t even have multiple camera angles. So this is a definite step up.

What good can I say about Black Belt Basics? It’s is a video-based partial stand-in for the Encyclopedia, I guess.

The bad

I’ve already mentioned the outdated interface and the general letdown that was Black Belt Basics. But I have some issues that go beyond that.

First of all, I was sent a physical copy of an app in 2015, without the option to download it. I realize this is a small operation, but making software available for download nowadays isn’t hard.

There’s also the issue of Flash Player. Two things here: a) Who uses Flash Player to build something anymore? And b) Every time there’s an update available for Flash Player, my apps stop working until I update.

I’m also not in love with the interface. The videos in section 1 of All-in-One are small and the video controls aren’t as good as something like VLC, or even Windows Media Player, for that matter. I would like to see smoother video control and the option to make the videos fullscreen.

Considering the lacklustre interface, I think a better option would be to simply make the videos available by themselves. That way, people can play them essentially how they want. Or better yet, play them online Check out tkdcoaching.com for one place that’s doing just this already. Even if Mr. Grygiel wants to keep Digital Rights Management (DRM) on his videos, there are options such as Vimeo or iTunes.

Finally, remember the warning: “DO NOT LOSE THE CARD. IT IS YOUR LICENCE.”? From the sounds of things, if I lose one of these USB sticks, I’m screwed. And I can’t even make a backup copy because they’re locked down with digital rights management (DRM) software. Now, I’m not a huge fan of DRM, but I get it. They don’t want their stuff getting pirated. But it also means I can’t back up my USB sticks in case I lose one and there’s no option to re-download the software from the Internet if something gets corrupted. That doesn’t make me feel terribly confident.

The verdict

Get All-in-One if you want a good companion for your Taekwon-Do studies. It has its flaws, but it’s good. I would skip Basics, though, unless you have a serious need to have something show you the techniques and stances at home and the Encyclopedia just isn’t an option.