I think it’s time I told all seven of my readers my ITF Taekwondo story. About the time I pulled the plug on the “Striking Thoughts” blog I finally caved to my lack of martial arts practice and signed up with a local ITF school. There is a sordid political history behind the evolution of taekwondo. This link will at least give you the dates and major organizations associated with that history. Up until this ITF experiment I had two runs in the WTF style of taekwondo. Run #1 got me to 5th gup which is one belt over halfway to black belt. My second run finally did get me to 1st dan or black belt. After that my school closed and I moved on to Preying (Praying) Mantis kung fu and YMAA chin na. I spent a little over three years in those two arts.
The bulk of my taekwondo experience is WTF. ITF is a different breed of cat to say the least! Main differences:
- Instead of ki-yaps they utilize breath exhalation for power generation (practice sounds like a room full of leaky balloons!)
- Blocks and strikes do not chamber at the belt like Shotokan Karate or other styles of taekwondo
- Instead of the classical chamber they cross at the wrist with arms extended
- Everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – comes from General Hong Hi Choi’s catalog
Now this particular school is pretty high up in the national ITF scene. Their Grand Poobah, an 8th dan, runs the main school and he has several high masters that run satellite schools in town. The master that ran the school I tried was a 6th dan. My point is that the credentialing was solid.
Black Belt Factor
The first issue came when I had a disagreement over being grandfathered in as a black belt. Apparently this is the Grand Poohbah’s general rule. Heck, I was even told that the Grand Pooh Bah once grandfathered in a black belt from karate. Forget the fact that I came from a WTF school. Also forgot the fact that it had been over four years since practicing TKD or that I had spent the last three years in kung fu. Needless to say my taekwondo skills and flexibility had degraded.
Despite all this the master kept telling me to bring my black belt and I conveniently kept forgetting to. This did not stop him from telling the class that I was a black belt. This, in turn, changed how the senior students tried to teach me things which eventually got very frustrating and detrimental to learning.
One example: the ITF wrist chamber. Pretty much all blocks cross (aka chamber) at the wrists with arms extended. All good and fine but after you have close to six years of chambering at the hip – nine if you consider that mantis chambers at the belt sometimes! – we can at least establish that my neural pathways for the belt chamber are engrained. So now, instead of treating me like a white belt and trying to help me unlearn the belt chamber, the senior students would just assume that since I was a “black belt” that I could learn the wrist cross after one demonstration!
The MA BS Factor
This school’s master knew the General’s catalog and had lots of experience teaching it – I’ll grant him that. His head was also as thick as a tree stump. Another example: The classic roundhouse kick that strikes with the ball of the foot. Every time – and I mean EVERY TIME – he would demonstrate it, teach it, talk about it he would compare it to a .45 caliber bullet. The typical pattern would be to trash talk how other arts execute the kick and then laud it from the ITF perspective.
“If you do this kick the way we teach it and hit someone at the base of their skull – bam! It’s like a .45 caliber bullet and will kill them!”
The Grand Leader Factor
Man but they love General Hong Hi Choi. Everything is about learning things “the General’s way”, no deviation from the catalog, and absolutely no studying ANY other martial art while learning ITF taekwondo. EVER!
This last point was the biggest rub and the last straw. After my Praying Mantis Kung Fu experience I can truly say that I spent time learning a classical martial art. The lineage of this particular kung fu school was solid; they did not deviate from the original art, and so on. However both my sifu and his sifu could give a shit if you decided to study another martial art. The only time they’d probably say something is if you tried to bring techniques from another art into a regular kung fu class. They’d also probably say something if you were a senior student and your extra MA was degrading your overall mantis skills. Past that they did not care. They also did not make us practically swear allegiance to Luo Guangyu, the originator of 7-star mantis! Instead, in ITF-land, I saw shades of that whole North Korean Grand Leader mentality which got old really fast.
Let us close with a video on ITF taekwondo. In it you’ll see the wrist cross, breathing (if you listen carefully), and a glimpse of the General with one of his sacred tomes.
(Note: They do ki-yap in this video. Nobody in this school ever ki-yapped — not sure if the General eventually did away with it and I really do not care.)