Life skills through Taekwondo

7th Dan Taekwondo essay

by Michael Tan 2005



For many years I wondered why the length of time in each Dan increased, as you got higher.  Initially I thought it was purely to keep the Dans in perspective.  Where would it end if people were allowed to grade every year or so.  I always new the time in the grade gave you experience and knowledge.  It is only after reflecting on this time that one realises this knowledge is something no practical grading can ever test.  This is one of the reasons why we should always respect our seniors.  They have a wealth of knowledge; which one should explore.  This essay is about what has kept me doing Taekwondo when all around me have quit.  In writing this essay I will endeavour to give an insight as to what I have learnt from Taekwondo.  I shall touch on the challenges, the set backs and the future of Taekwondo for me.

There is not a day that goes pass where Taekwondo has not entered my life.  It has been that way for some 20 years since the opening of our own club and taking on the responsibility of instructing others.  Now at the age of 40, Taekwondo has given me great pleasures for more than ¾ of my life (33 years). Taekwondo is many things to many people; it has so many mystical powers that it becomes part of your life.


I was first introduced to through my father and his friends.  They had started in 1971 and were blue belts by the time I started.  Back then Martial Arts were just starting to boom in Australia as a result of the Bruce Lee Kung Fu movies.  However Taekwondo was unheard of and was often called Korean Karate.  In those days there were no juniors doing Taekwondo.  Not much was known about the benefits of Taekwondo to children.  Most children were at scouts while I was learning Taekwondo.  Taekwondo was only practised by adults wanting to learn a martial art to defend themselves.  It was a lot stricter and competitions would be considered prehistoric by today’s standards.  Perhaps the biggest influence on me doing Taekwondo was my father.  From the age of 7, Taekwondo was the common bond we had.  Even though he was senior, we would train together at the local club and at home in our own dojang.  He founded our club; which I have taken over and I hope my son will take over from me. I have many fond memories of training together and could not imagine what our relationship would be like with Taekwondo.


As a parent, it must be hard to find the correct amount of encouragement without pushing children for your own personal glory.  Taekwondo must be fun and they must enjoy to training.  As an instructor, I see parents wanting their children to grade all the time.  Even when I advise them, their child is not ready, they get very pushy.  It seems these parents want to live their lives through their children.  I also see this at competitions, when the parents display poor sportsmanship in victory or defeat.  Unfortunately, these children eventually rebel against their parents and regrettably give Taekwondo away.  It is disappointing that because their parents push them so much, they don’t get to enjoy Taekwondo.  Most parents have never done Taekwondo, which is part of the problem.


The goal or desire of every student who has ever done Taekwondo would be the black belt.  Although there are many more black belts today then when I started, it still has a high status in society.  The black belt is highly admired as it signifies a mastery of the Martial Arts.  To reach black belt, one must go through a series of tests or gradings.  Gradings are probably the most important tool we have to teach Taekwondo.  It breaks up the goal of black belt into short manageable goals through the coloured belt system.  Most students find it relatively easier to get to red belt – 3rd gup.  Beyond this the gradings get harder to attain.  Harder does not necessary mean physically harder.  Harder means being marked harder to ensure more attention to detail in correct technique and attitude. Many students with nearly perfect physical technique are not mature enough for the rank they are trying to achieve.  I have many juniors that I will not let grade because of this reason.  If the gradings are too easy to get, then the rank loses meaning and is not appreciated.  Making gradings easier at the higher level is not helping the student prepare for harder situations in the future.


I often wonder how I have lasted so long in Taekwondo, when many who I have trained beside have all given up.  Part of the answer is in the transition from being a student to becoming an instructor.  Very rarely do you find someone training for over 10 years who doesn’t instruct.  Once you get to black belt, most have achieved their ultimate goal.  Unless the student has another goal such as competitions, then they must be encouraged to start teaching and become an instructor.  Even if they choose a career in competitions they should be encouraged to do some sort of teaching along the way and maintain some level of the martial arts training.  Today I notice a lot of athletes compete at the elite level for more than 10 years.  Once they retire, they leave Taekwondo instead of returning to normal Taekwondo training.  The disappointing thing is that all their knowledge is not being passed on to other students.  In some ways it is a waste of talent.  When I was competing there were two types of players.  Those who were instructors and those who were just students.  Not surprisingly only the players who were instructors are still around coaching and teaching new students.  They are passing on their knowledge and what they have learnt in Taekwondo.


Most students who take up Taekwondo don’t think about being an instructor until they are close to black belt.  I believe that up to 2nd Dan you can train for yourself and you are probably at your physical prime.  From 3rd Dan onwards, you need to be teaching and passing this knowledge on to the next generation.  Being an instructor helps you learn and develop personal skills, which you do not get by just training.  When you instruct you have the responsibility of developing others and making them into good student.  My father always said that a student is a reflection of their instructor.  A bad student has been either misguided or their actions have not been corrected.  Either way, the instructor must take some responsibility for this.


Not all students can be taught the same way.  An instructor needs to develop alternative ways to explain techniques.  As the instructor, you are always asked question for which a careful answer is required.  Sometimes there is no black or white answer.  Whatever the answer, you must always keep your integrity and the integrity of Taekwondo intact.  I see so many instructors blame others or the organization instead of accepting responsibility themselves.


Teaching is important to the development of Taekwondo.  Not only is it a way to hand down the art from one generation to the next, it also evolves in the current era.  I can remember when I started in 1973 there were very few juniors.  Now days, there are many more juniors then seniors and they are starting younger.  In the 80’s and 90’s there were 2 classes – junior and senior.  Now days a lot of clubs have broken up their classes into 4-7 year olds (tiny tigers), 8 – 11 year olds (little dragons) and 12 – 15 year olds Juniors.  Each group has a different emphasis and exposure to Taekwondo skills.  The younger age groups seem more about keeping the children entertained then about teaching them Taekwondo.  Hopefully, the clubs are building a solid foundation so that the child can look forward to a lifetime of Taekwondo.  It would be a shame if all these juniors give up before they become an adult.


When I was in Korea last year, a friend of mind who operates a dojang has only kids and no adults.  He told me that the demand for Taekwondo amongst the adults was virtually non-existence.  They are too busy and have no time was his reason.  Yet they send their kids because they remember the benefits of Taekwondo when they were growing up.  I felt a bit said about this as Korea is the homeland if Taekwondo.  Although they learnt Taekwondo as a child, the benefits are for life.  So many adults are missing out on the benefits of Taekwondo.  Part of the problem has been the success of Taekwondo as an Olympic sport.  For more than a decade, leading up to Sydney 2000, the Olympics were a distraction to many Taekwondo schools.  Many thought this would increase the popularity of Taekwondo in their clubs.  Even though we achieved a good result in Sydney, I don’t believe any club had an influx of students.  Nowadays clubs are starting to promote Taekwondo as a marital art again.  Hopefully adults will make a return to Taekwondo in Korea and be viewed as a Marital Art and not just a sport.


Prior to teaching in 1983, I always had a passion for competitions.  I was introduced to competitions before I even started Taekwondo.   Throughout the 70’s, my father was the medical doctor for State and National competitions.  A dream of mine was always to make the national team and represent our country.   I remember watching and thinking how tough these fighters were.  This was a time when they had no guards apart from a groin protector and it seemed to be a real fight to the end.


I still remember the first Victorian championship to include black belts.  Back then many of us had never seen a black belts fight except in class.  Prior to 1974, there were only a handful of black belts and they only judged at competitions.  The Victorian championships was used to select the top two black belts in both light and heavy weight divisions for the first Australian championship in 1974.  The following year the next Australian championship was held to select the first team to compete at an international event.  It was the 2nd World Championships in Seoul Korea.  Five out of the seven fighters came from our club.  The team finished 5th overall and came back with 1 silver and 2 bronzes.  To this day some 30 years later it is still the most successful team to compete at a World Championships.


These guys were like super heroes.  It was at this point where I first wished that I would one day be part of the Australian team.  I would always dream of having Australia on the back of my uniform and walk around proudly wearing the Australian tracksuit.  For the next 5 years I would compete at local and state competitions.  Unfortunately they never had Australian championships for juniors back then.  When I got to seniors I never believed I had what it took to win the Australian championships.  The guys I would be fighting were the ones I use to idolise.  I entered once in 1978 as a 15 year old only to lose first round.  Part of me would say I was too young but the real reason was the fear of losing.


It would be another 10 years before I would enter another Nationals.  It was only after the announcement that Taekwondo would be part of the 1988 Seoul Olympics that I thought about making the Australian team again.  After a 3-year absence from competitions, I came back to fulfil a childhood dream. The dream of going to the Olympics was far greater than my fear of losing.  I made it to the quarterfinals before narrowly losing to the eventual winner – Jinho Jo.  Although I didn’t make the Olympic team, it gave me the belief that I could win a spot on the National team soon.  Through hard training and determination I would win the next 3 Nationals in the Featherweight division.  I was selected to go to the 9th World championships in Seoul Korea.  Finally I was fortunate enough to fulfil my childhood dream.


The World championships opened my eyes to a completely new dimension of Taekwondo.   Although I remember the 2nd Asian championships in 1976, I was only 11 at the time.  I was too young to realise the magnitude of this event.  After competing in Seoul, I found a new passion.  I would then go to the next 5 world championships as either a spectator or official.  I remember scheduling my holidays around the World Championships.  I would count the days before I departed and would look forward to meeting old friends.  These championships allowed me to see the world and visit countries I would never have done so.  It showed me that Taekwondo was not just a Korean martial art; it was a true international sport.  I have made many friends overseas through these championships.  I feel part of a giant Taekwondo family when I see them again.


I remember being a spectator at the World championships in Canada and watching the finals.  Most of the Australian team had gone home for the evening.  I was thinking how could they come all this way and miss the most exciting matches – the finals.  At this point I realized that this is what I enjoy about Taekwondo.  Evening not being part of the team, but to witness the World Championships live was something I will have lasting memories.  Watching the last three World Championships on video is not the same as being there.  I hope to take the family to Beijing for the next world championships and rekindle this passion.


Apart from operating my own club, I have held numerous positions as an official at both state and national level.  This is something that most senior instructors do at some point in their life.  We all start off with the right intentions to make a solid contribution to the organization.  Most are not interested in politics, however it seems to always get in the way.  It is for this reason why nearly everyone resigns or gets expelled from official positions.  In 1993 I became state president of our national body (Australian TKD association).  Being on the national executive council was a very prestige position.  I was the most junior member on the executive who had a desire to proudly represent our state.  No one had groomed or warned me about how cutthroat politics can be.  Everyone was friendly and people seem to view me in a different light.  Then came the day of major turmoil.  After being included in the Olympic there was a major split in the organization.  There was enormous pressure put on me to decide which side I should support.  From that moment on I knew there were no friends in politics.   There was no fence sitting and you could not sway from one side to the other.  I started to wonder who were really my friends as oppose to my political alleys.  I had many sleepless nights and often wondered why I had to put up with so much stress. To remain strong was another test of my character and help me mature as a person.


The organization feel apart and I was eventually over thrown a few years later.  Although I felt hurt and betrayed at the time, it was the best thing that could have happened.  Even though I felt no one else could no a better job, the lesson I learnt was not to fight change.  If the majority do not want you in a position, you are best to step down with honour.  A few months after I left, I felt a whole burden had been taken off my shoulders.  I now see others in the same position and wonder if they will soon realise this valuable lesson.


Taekwondo has not been all positive experiences.  Two of my biggest set backs were the failing of 4th Dan twice and the non-selection on the Australian team 3 times.  Both these setbacks were for political reasons, which made it even harder to accept.  Looking back 15 years later, I am able to maintain my dignity and not dwell on those disappointments.  Most would have given Taekwondo away, but I managed to put these setbacks behind me and believe this test of character has made me a better person.  Not because it happened, but because I was able to rise above it and not let it break my spirit.  At the time, I was one of the senior instructors in our state, and had to show a fighting spirit for those behind me.


Even as a junior a remember feeling that I was a leader and setting a new standard for others to follow.  When I was a coloured belt, there was always the challenge to be the youngest at the next belt level.  At our club, I would hold that honour for 6 weeks before my younger brother would hold the record after me.  Looking back I can see how I was paving the way for others to follow.  Even now going for my next grading, I feel I am doing the same thing.  Sometimes I feel it is not necessary for me to keep grading.  However if I stop, then the instructors and students under me have no reason to strive forward.  I have seen this happen in other clubs where the head instructor has stopped grading at 4th or 5th Dan.


In conclusion, Taekwondo will always be part of my life.  I am now a full time professional instructor teaching 6 days a week.  It is now 5 years since I stop my previous career in the computer field.  My next goal will be to open a full time dojang.  This will enable me to teach more people about the benefits of Taekwondo and pass on the knowledge Taekwondo has given me.  As for my family, I believe Taekwondo has given me the skills needed to better bring up my children.  I am very conscious not to push my children into Taekwondo just because it has been so much part of my life.  They must choose to do Taekwondo because they want to and not because of me.  The most I can do is hope they will not be over exposed to Taekwondo and that they carry on my legacy.  This will be the ultimate goal of mind.





Mr Michael Tan