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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Your Instructor’s Rank is Meaningless

I mentioned in a previous post that I don’t care about your rank; I care about what you know. That statement was aimed at students, but the same is true for instructors. A higher rank doesn’t necessarily give an instructor more intimate knowledge of Taekwon-Do. It also doesn’t mean that he or she is better able to teach that knowledge to others.

When I was still a beginner and was evaluating schools to join, I believed that an instructor’s worth was measured by the number on his belt. Why would I learn from a 2nd degree black belt when I could learn from a 7th dan master? Peer-pressure and convenience won out and I joined a couple of friends at a nearby school run by a man who, at the time, was a 3rd dan.

One thing I realized was that, as a beginner, most schools feel the same. One club basically feels like the next, as long as the arts taught there are similar. It’s all just martial arts. The only thing that really stands out at first is the personality of the instructor.

But as time moves on and you gain more knowledge and technical experience, you’ll be able to recognize a good instructor when you see one. A good instructor has a wealth of technical knowledge and knows how to impart that to others. You don’t get this by being able to pass belt exams or even by teaching for 20 years. You get this by learning from great instructors and by having the drive to learn and discover things for yourself.

Teaching the same lackluster material over and over for 20 years doesn’t make you proficient.

When you first start out in Taekwon-Do, you have no idea what proper technical knowledge is. One instructor teaching poor technique looks the same as another teaching great technique. And if you’ve been with an ignorant instructor all along then you won’t really know what you’re missing.

A master by default

One thing to remember is that the higher-level black belt ranks are partly an exercise in political relations. If you stick around long enough and you don’t cross the important people above you, sooner or later you’re bound to get promoted. Doing things to help out your organization will likely expedite this process.

At the higher levels, rank means power. It means influence within your organization. And unless you’re an absolute moron, you’ll probably keep getting promoted.

This means that there are quite a few high-ranking instructors out there who aren’t all that good. But there are also a lot of lower-ranking instructors who are excellent. I was fortunate that my first Ch’ang-Hon-style instructor—who was only a 3rd dan when I started—had an excellent technical education in Taekwon-Do and knew how to pass that along. So, while I still have lots to learn, I ended up getting a great education as well.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve met masters who have said and done things that were patently wrong, or sometimes just dumb. I was at a seminar once when a 6th dan raised his hand and asked a question: “When it says ‘jump,’” he said, referring to the instructions for a pattern in the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do, “do both feet leave the ground?”

I applaud him for trying to find an answer that he didn’t know, but unless he had mastered some sort of alternate physics that no one else knew about then the answer should have been pretty obvious. That man became a master that very same weekend.

I’m not saying that all high-ranking instructors are bad. I’ve met masters and other high-level black belts who were encyclopedias unto themselves. And to be fair, there is something that comes with decades of training and teaching that can’t be gleaned from any book: practical experience. Time has a way of helping people figure some things out.

But my point is that rank is not an inherent measure of skill, nor of knowledge. I understand that it isn’t possible for everyone to have the best instructor in the world. But try to evaluate what you’re given and, if possible, try to use what you’ve found to help yourself. One thing that makes me happy is when I see people recognize a deficiency of knowledge within themselves and then take active steps to try to correct it.

Unfortunately for beginners, it isn’t always possible to tell whether your instructor is up to snuff. But if you have enough experience to realize that your instructor just doesn’t quite measure up, then maybe you should consider doing something about it.

  • James Turpin

    This comment isn’t about this particular post, per se, but I really appreciate your blog, sir! I like your slightly irreverent attitude towards TKD too, and I think it would be of benefit if that attitude would spread. I feel that we need to stop thinking of martial arts as some mystic, holy, all-practical thing, we should stop deifying General Choi so much, etc. It seems you would agree in general, yes?
    I guess I’ve been struggling recently within myself when it comes to the (as I am starting to view it) overwhelming and usually useless strict adherence to tradition that permeates TKD, and martial arts in general. Questions like: Is there really any legit reason for wearing cumbersome doboks for training instead of modern clothing? Why must we turn to the right (or backwards, as some clubs do) when we adjust our uniforms in line, so the picture of the guy who had a big hand in originating TKD won’t be offended? Why is there one particular way that the encyclopedia says we must fold our uniforms? etc etc. I understand that TKD originated in a very militaristic environment (the ITF more so than the WTF, I think, right?), but I find it tough to plug into so many of our protocols and practices that have such an air of ego-pleasing pseudo-mysticism. It can be a bit eye-rolling at times. Can you speak to your own feelings on it all? Is there really any practical reason for that side of our martial art?
    (PLEASE NOTE: I am not saying I think it’s all BS or anything, and no disrespect is meant… Just that I personally find it hard to wrap my head around. Any advice?)

    • Hi, James. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad to see you like the site. I definitely agree with your outlook. I love Taekwon-Do a lot (I even have a tattoo of some of General Choi’s calligraphy), but so much of what we do is kind of silly, or pointless, or both. And that’s definitely not limited to TKD.

      As far as I can tell, there isn’t really a practical side to the sort of things you mention. So much of what we do is based on showing respect toward our seniors (whether we actually feel that respect or not). Some things come from actual Korean customs, and others come from militarism. Believe it or not, much of it can be traced to Shotokan Karate in Japan, as opposed to the Korean military. When Gichin Funakoshi brought Karate from Okinawa to Japan, Japan was a very militaristic country. In a (clever) effort to get the Japanese to accept his foreign martial art, it seems that he adopted some military-style practices. When Gen. Choi and other Koreans learned Karate and later morphed it into TKD, they kept all the trimmings.

      I’m all for having some standard practices and respecting the history of Taekwon-Do, but I also believe that everyone should be free to adapt all the gift-wrapping around TKD to their own personal style. I don’t mind the dobok, for example, but wearing pyjamas doesn’t make me better at TKD.

      As far as advice for wrapping your head around it all, just keep a healthy skepticism. Train your butt off, but don’t take it all too seriously. If other people want to play ninja, let them. At the same time, remember that your instructor is running the show, so there’s no need to do things like refusing to turn around to fix your dobok (and I get the impression you wouldn’t be a jerk like that anyway). You know your instructor better than I do; if you think he/she is open to it, ask questions about why it’s so important to do the things we do. Don’t actively try to change anyone’s mind, just ask the question. Maybe they just haven’t thought about those things before and have been doing them because that’s what TK students are supposed to do.

      Speaking of instructors, when I opened Disqus, I saw another one of your comments where you said you’re from Yarmouth. Do you train with Muise TKD?

      Oh, and there’s really no need to call me “sir” 😉

      • James Turpin

        Right, and I’d certainly not be contrary just for the sake of it, and DEFINITELY not in class, as you say. I do believe that if it is all part and parcel of the whole thing then I should be doing it, otherwise it just ISN’T TKD. But it can all feel
        silly at times, that’s for sure. I can’t help but feel that all the ridiculous TKD politics that goes on can be fed by the ego-trip pomp and ceremony we do.

        I am from Muise TKD, yes. I see in your bio you were from Halifax. Do I recognize a Fall River crest? Master Stoerig’s school?

        • “I can’t help but feel that all the ridiculous TKD politics that goes on can be fed by the ego-trip pomp and ceremony we do.”—sounds fairly accurate to me.

          When I was in Halifax I trained with LeBlanc TKD, and another club before that. One of the things that Mr. LeBlanc taught me (without even trying) is that it’s possible to run a dojang without being super strict about all the pomp and circumstance.

          I don’t know Mr. Muise really well, but he strikes me as the kind of guy who would be open to discussion about why we do things the way we do.

          • James Turpin

            He is very open to talking about stuff like that, yes, we’ve talked often about it. He keeps a nice balance: always open to talking to students and answering questions, but making sure we know the correct protocols when we need to. We tend to be more “protocolly” at tournaments and similar events, which I like.

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  • TVG

    I’m not a TKD guy at all, but I appreciate your critical thinking. It’s all too rare.