Training Warriors for the 21st Century

Training Warriors for the 21st Century
Joong Do Kwan Traditional Taekwondo cross training with Kidokwan Perth

15 Nov 2018

Your Taekwondo Doesn't Even Look Like Taekwondo

Hey, your Taekwondo looks different.

I get that a lot. Our training is compared to Wing Chun. Our technique interpretation seems to emulate Goju type bunkai.

It's no secret, I often say that a 'style' isn't artistic flamboyance. It's training methodology. It's a school's approach to dealing with threat and risk. Thus, my style is labelled 'Taekwondo' and we do have legacy Taekwondo patterns. But it is also how we interpret our syllabus, how we assess risk, how we prepare our members, how we train, and of course what are our goals for training.

So when a person says we "look Wing Chun" or "move like an Okinawan," it's probably because there's similarities in the various tactics we use or in our perspective of training. Really, it's not like I want to look like a specific something. Nor am I trying to say some other martial art is better than mine so I follow their lead. Of course, you can take it as a compliment to the relevance of the other style. I'm good like that.

Actually, to be honest, the videos I've shared extensively from our training sessions are unlike anything you've seen from Taekwondo. There are very few high kicks, for instance. No trick ninja kicks. No K-pop dancing. No manic drills. And no aerial hijinks.

But more so, yeah ... I would say there's the fact that the techniques we share on YouTube themselves look nothing like the patterns!

What I know from many years of sharing these precious few moments is that they hardly show the context of our pattern practice. And, yeah, you don't get all the drills, the prerequisite buildup of skills, the complementary tactics that may make that video work, and my gosh, because all of these videos are done unscripted, whatever I say is said on the spur of the moment. Often I'll come back and would prompt myself to include issues or tips I want to share from a specific video. And then this tidbit is not associated with the video because, hey, it's not like I have unlimited time. I'm married with kids, don't you know?

For instance, check out the video from 6:25 onwards. This should be the takeaway from the video, rather than the tactical value of the spearhand. Don't get me wrong, I think this lesson is not bad. The video shows technique, shows what to do whilst dealing with a dynamic opponent. But it doesn't include other associated lessons varying the position of the spearhand in relation to the opponent. What happens if my spearhand is over his left shoulder? Or over his right?

This quick tappity tap exchange sure looks impressive. But it is the bane of Hollywood on martial arts training. I can move my hands fast! Wow. I can do cool-looking hand locks. I can do amazing kicks. There's a trend in Hollywood or throughout gyms across the US or social media, and we should then follow it! Right.

There's always benefit to some training. Yes, any training. But going Hollywood will not lead you to the essence of a hard-style system. A hard style system is about putting down the opponent with tactics that make sense to your bag of skills. It's about mitigating the threat. Destroying their structure. Your training should be blitzing out doable tactics. It's a recipe - like baking a cake - so most of your students may have a fighting chance of serving up something palatable.

This is the context of our pattern training - we preserve the pattern but we are not simply trying to visually emulate the pattern. We want to get to the mind of the architect of the pattern. Those guys who came before us who wanted our system to be relevant to all students. It is certainly not to preserve a 'look'.

Colin Wee
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19 Mar 2018

AKATO 40th Anniversary Speech

Two years ago I was invited by GM Keith Yates to speak at American Karate and Taekwondo Organization's 40th Anniversary banquet.

When I left the US, I was a young black belt. Over the intervening years, I started my own training groups, have expanded on my knowledge, supported my local and international community, and have developed a unique traditional training methodology. All of my effort however, I felt was propelled only by the training I received from AKATO, my instructors Bryan Robbins, Mike Proctor, and Paul Hinkley.

So to say it was a huge honour to have been invited, asked to instruct, and then to address the audience, is an understatement. At the end of the evening as I was unwinding from the presentations of all these award, I was absolutely blown away to have been called up to receive AKATO's Instructor of the Year Award. This was a momentous affair - and I was emotionally affected and suffused with a great pride.

The following is the speech I delivered.

Colin receiving AKATO Instructor of the Year 2016 from GM Keith Yates.

AKaTo Speech Mar 19 2016
GM Yates, Grandmasters, Masters, Instructors, Fellow Practitioners, Ladies and Gentlemen.
A good evening to all of you. 

In the 1990s I started under the then STA when I joined the SMU Martial Arts Club. Back then I remember approaching Sensei Bryan Robbins as a young black belt not really knowing what to expect and possibly carrying a healthier ego and relying on more acrobatic kicks than was good for my safety. 
This is the effect Colin has on anyone. This is me encouraging everyone to strike a pose. From left to right, my former training buddy Master Jon Alster. My instructor Sensei Bryan Robbins. And occasional training buddy Tim Pugliese.

It's been 25 years since I first stepped into SMU - and I have since gathered a generous network of martial arts friends the world over. But walking into the SMU Martial Arts Club for that first time, I might as well have been nobody. Yet, instructors of the STA/AKaTo took me in, and showed me the best of Texan hospitality. And I knew I was onto a good thing as soon as I was able to breathe out of my nose again. 

From when I left the US in the mid 90s, I've been proud to share the best of Traditional Taekwondo with whomever wanted to play. 
Colin with his Karate instructor Sensei Mike Proctor, and training buddy Master Jon Alster.

Now when I say Taekwondo, what I really mean to say is I practice American Karate. And when I say 'Traditional' it means I often act tougher than I am, I do way too many push-ups, and I wear black more often than other colors. 

I'm still hugely inspired by AKaTo instructors who've always been so generous of their friendship, and most importantly, generous with their knowledge. This afternoon, I ran a seminar peppered with Okinawan, Japanese, and Korean terminology. Yet many of the concepts I covered were learned directly from my AKaTo instructors - I merely filled in the oriental terms after the fact. 
There are old friends, and then there are new friends - Ron Jensen flies in all the way to be my demo partner. Ron and I are online friends, and spend a lot of time on The Study of Taekwondo FB Group.

I now live in Australia, which is a little far away from Dallas, but I jumped at the opportunity to come celebrate AKaTo's 40th Anniversary. It transpired I had to first shell out for the flight over, then find alternative lodging for the kangaroos in my backyard. Nevertheless, it is a huge honor to have been invited and I am so pleased to be here. 

Lastly, I can't be up here and not take the opportunity to thank a few key individuals for making my journey in the arts so fulfilling. You may know these individuals: my teachers Mr Robbins, Mr Proctor, and Mr Hinkley, my mentors Mr Tempesta, and Mr Alster. And of course a very special thank you to GM Yates for all the little things he's done to become a guiding light, not only inspiring me, but for so many other practitioners. 

Thank you. 

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25 Dec 2017

Of Secrets and Hidden Techniques

Growing up, my wuxia diet from comics and television introduced me to a steady stream of fantastical martial art abilities where practitioners could fly, regularly displayed external qi transmission, and the most adept of them were adept because of their unique 秘宗 (Mì zōng in Mandarin, mizong in Korean and Japanese). 秘宗 basically means 'secret system'.

As a young child and my want to suspend disbelief, I just assumed that was how it worked because how else, other than for the presence of their 秘宗 would they be able to accomplish such feats?

What made me stop to think about my continued suspension of disbelief was when I came across a book called Iron Fist - not to be confused with Marvel's Iron Fist. The book presented training in 易筋经 (Yìjīnjīng in Mandarin, ekikinkei in Japanese). To my superficial understanding, 易筋经 is a series of exercises and coordinated breathing to strengthen muscles and tendons, and develop a martial form of 內功 (Nèigōng in Mandarin). That's like developing your chi but using it to manifest in physical form.

Masters of 易筋经 were able to strike a series of objects and decide where the force of their blow would cause damage. From Hollywood, this ability was captured in Bloodsport where Jean Claude Van Damme hits a stack of bricks but only breaks the bottom one. In the scene this skill is wrongly identified as 'Dim Mak' or the death touch - which is an entirely different 秘宗.

So 易筋经 was an actual martial art with reports of feats like the above brick break. This made the young Colin think that many of these special effects had some basis in reality.

This unchallenged belief in secret systems stayed in the recesses of my mind and was a subject of curiosity as I grew in the martial arts. There were times where individuals claimed various abilities, and tried to associate their claims to this belief system. Eventually, as a growing expert in my field, rather than being convinced by their claims, I started to heavily disbelieve not only their abilities but their entire credibility. Even to this day I'd immediately question any BS about psychic ability, no touch knockouts, and generally all kyusho practices.

My limited beliefs however, met another challenge which would set me on another path in later life, during several seminars with Soke Don Angier (1933-2014) of Yanagi Ryu Aikijujutsu. Don was a genius-level martial art master and the most brilliant practitioner I have ever met in all my life. The YouTube videos don't do him justice but please research of his legacy. Anyway, Don (he insisted I called him that even though I met him only a few times), was able to do the most incredible and graceful feats - but was able and willing to explain each of them in terms which we could all understand. His explanation would often include various issues like biomechanics, physics, the way the eye perceives movement, psychology, and tactics.

This was a man who was explaining that his 秘宗 had nothing to do with chi or magic. That his skills were entirely explainable by physics, and that each of us could do it. Yet what he did still looked like a cross between a Jedi mind trick and force powers.

I was blown away. Here was a man who was not trying to deceive me by using my limited beliefs and assumptions. He was gifting us his insight - however rarefied it may be, in order to progress us as practitioners.

Fast forward to my 34th year practicing martial arts. I am now at the point of steadily discovering 秘宗 within my system. Literally my growing understanding from training and practising has led me to hidden techniques I was previously unaware of. You could say this is the secret system within my own system. And I was led to their discovery by infinitesimal increments of my own knowledge. Forcing myself to test out techniques, to extrapolate from previous lessons, to use traditional training methods, and to mix and match from what I already know.

Some of these 秘宗 correspond very closely to how I was originally taught, so in a way you could say my teachers did teach me this material either directly or indirectly, and such 秘宗 are their knowledge repackaged and drilled in different ways. Then there are other bits of knowledge where the connection is less direct, and you need to look at them on a conceptual level. In such a way then they do correspond to everything I've been taught including the patterns. They are the same and yet not the same.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not shooting out a laser light show from my fingertips or knocking someone out through my winning personality. All my 秘宗 are doable, explainable, based on legitimate training, and are all tactical. In some instances, I might have snitched them from other practitioners. What? Snitched from other practitioners? So how can you believe that it's your 秘宗 or secret system. Well, it's my secret system or hidden technique because I don't believe the secret for this hard style approach is about esoteric content - I believe it is in the training methodology.

To put it simply - hard style is a meat and potatoes approach to martial training. I'm not meaning to demean it, but it'll never be a Yanagi Ryu. It'll never be as epic as the bullshit George Dillman feeds his students. When you see things from our secret system, it'll mostly appear mundane and innocuous - because they are based on tactical need.

Yet the 秘宗 is from our system transforms the way we understand the world. And it allows us to access other 秘宗 when we need it. It remains a secret to others just because of the amount of work we've done and the length of time it takes to transmit this information.

Look at this video from the Fajin Project (if you can't see it, check out Fajin Takedown Using Horse Footstep). This is a clear example of someone understanding the 秘宗 of their technique. Both of these practitioners are doing the same series of techniques - an outside arm control, gap close, and takedown. The guy in the black t-shirt looks like he's doing a fairly good job of it, and for all intents and purposes, the application is not a bad one. But when the video progresses and you see the guy on the right (in the white t-shirt) ... you know he's just doing something different ...

... There's a brush-draw and unbalancing of the opponent's lead hand whilst the back hand is ready to strike, then there's an open palm check of the opponent's body - which could have been a devastating strike to the back or side of the head, the leg is raised as a vertical strike to chin or to the underside of arm then is extended to strike the back leg, during the gap close you can see how his hip and thigh drives into his opponent's front leg, and lastly, the takedown could have easily driven the opponent face first into the pavement if he wanted to.

Just because we claim to have 秘宗 - this doesn't mean that you are doing worse off than us. We have taken pains to share as much of our insight as we can. If you sight some of said special techniques - a good number of them might even appear mundane to you. As if their presence was logical, commonsense ... in fact, anyone could have seen that before we did. Well, if you sight them and they fail to excite you or if you've tried them and they fail to fit with your bag of skills - they are after all prized as *our* 秘宗, not as yours. :-)

Keep training!

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18 Dec 2017

Lethal Martial Art Training is Not Self Defence

There's so much baggage in the martial arts. In Self-Control, Aggression, and Deescalation of Violence I discuss how the moral high ground of self-control can be self-defeating, 'defanging' the snake of your martial arts. In Etiquette, The Tenets, and the 道 of Taekwondo, I discuss how self-control allows a student to better access the combative nature of our training.

It is a difficult subject in this day and age. Many martial art classes are filled with young children whose parents are enthusiastic for them to acquire this mystical discipline from our practice of Taekwondo. These are people have no idea about the realities of violence nor the idea that learning 'a little self defence' may fill their child with a false sense of confidence.

Before he has begun his class, the instructor is already caught between the difficulties of verbalising his way through difficult issues, and an enamoured audience who doesn't really know what their children are getting from martial arts training.

So let's just train martial arts to the best of our ability then. We do this with impunity: going to full extension on strikes, aiming one or two inches behind to make boards break, nodding at the right instances when the instructor tells us a particular technique is lethal, getting our game on during sparring until our bout has to be stopped, thinking that we've taken the moral high ground because we don't lurk in dark alleyways to pounce on unsuspecting passersby, and lastly, because protective gear and soft mats prevents us from knowing the full extent of our martial skills.

All of which seems 'legit' because we are told to avoid fights and practice self-control.

Yet all of which would contribute to getting yourself jailed because you weren't trained to use reasonable force. In fact you have no idea when physical self defence is warranted. Nor did you think you have a moral obligation to defuse a situation and back away. Think about it, the smart phones are out and what do the witnesses record? They might have first seen some people shouting at each other but they've got video of you using your karate chop sockey and dropping someone to the ground. You did what you do just like you did in class. Excellent, slick technique, but how does that really look on video? It would look like you were the aggressor.

I train Traditional Taekwondo in a garage dojang. However lethal I think I am, if I really do want to hurt someone, it would be far easier for me to reach for the spade and use that against my opponents. That of course has never been my intent. If possible, I want to use the system to eschew unfairness and injustice, to protect the weak and defenceless, and to protect my family and myself. The practice allows me to gain insight into the human condition, I enjoy the physical exercise, and my little school gives me fulfilment.

However courteous and morally upright I go about my life, when things go wrong, I need to be able to think clearly despite any emotional turmoil. I must seek to defuse the situation. I must sincerely attempt to de-escalate to the best of my ability. I know that no one wins in an altercation. So I'm constantly reading the situation - I may already have my fence up with palms facing outward, and I may be slowly backing away.

If things go south, I still attempt to disconnect and distance - putting objects in the path of my oncoming aggressor. I want to make sure I'm safe, so I scan the environment and perhaps look for equipment or weapons on the attacker that he might use on me. I also shout for the attacker to stop and to seek help or attention. A great idea is to ask the attacker some nonsensical question so the guy is forced to process my ludicrous logic.

If however, this fails, then I get my cover up and to start to move tactically. I might attempt to slow him down. Or deflect the strikes. Or gap close, go for limb control or a hair grab. Or do a safe takedown and immobilisation. All this while still trying to talk him out of it.

If your sincere deescalation attempts fail. If you could not control him with a lock or takedown, and you feel your life is in imminent danger ... this is when you go for your striking tools. It's not appropriate to strike someone if they looked aggressive and are walking away. It's not a great look to cross the threshold and king hit the bikie who's talking trash about your girl. Even if the person is holding a knife, but he's eyeing the door, not making a move toward your person, and is thinking of making an escape - you cannot use 'self defence' (read lethal martial arts) techniques on them.

You also have to use reasonable force to only stop the threat. If your attacker is on the floor with a brain haemorrhage from the fall to the ground (you didn't think to hold him up), broken elbow from your arm break, collapsed trachea from the neck strike, and a subluxation of the knee from your low side kick ... well, your 'self defence' (read lethal martial arts) training did stop the attacker but the overkill will fail to protect you from the jury.

Don't fake yourself to think that people use self defence everyday and are wrongly convicted by the legal system. Don't fake yourself to believe it is better to be judged by twelve than carried by six. It is your obligation to understand how best to manage your own training. You cannot practice lethal martial arts with impunity. The training message must be clear - dangerous techniques must be used with caution, with awareness that they are to be used only when you feel your life is under imminent threat. To put it in physical terms, and I know this must be difficult to hear - the knife must literally be coming for you if you aim to shut down his airway.

If you are interested in self defence skills you lastly need to train with awareness. It's not all about the absolute speed you can throw that kick. You need to be sensitive and you have to be able to read your opponent. Spar slowly. Take off the gloves. Get close and personal. Mix it up and practice in a multiple opponent environment. You practice so you should be able to answer this one question - what did the opponent do? In a court of law, other practitioners will testify that your Taekwondo or martial art training helps you become more observant whilst under duress. You can use this to make better reasonable choices. You can decide when enough is enough on your part. You can use this to justify your actions when it comes time to.

Please research, seek guidance or legal advice on the use of force continuum.

Please visit the One Punch Can Kill website at and support their community service message.

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Note: This article was submitted to Totally Taekwondo in August 2017.

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11 Dec 2017

Why chamber a kick when we can throw it faster without chambering?

A question was posed to me about the issues between how traditionally we are taught to chamber a kick, and then what you have in sparring where kicks are thrown without the chamber. This was my reply, edited to be read on this blog.

From a historical perspective, and this might not relate fully to the chambering itself but may be of interest to your background, I believe I read somewhere that Funakoshi sensei was an advocate that the snap back of the kick was essential to deliver the full power yet reduce the injurious recoil or the vibration going back to your joints.

From my perspective, the chamber allows for the full range of motion. This means that one can deliver a textbook perfect technique at the prescribed range and towards a prescribed target. This is a teaching approach for beginners, and for instructors to ensure everyone is learning the prescribed biomechanics, understanding angles of entry, and 'parameters' (my instructor's term not mine) of various fundamental strikes.

However, for the sake of tactical delivery, the full range of motion is not always available or preferable. To reduce distance to target, it may be better to strike from where the tool is, rather than to bring it back and go for the full range of motion. Thus the end tool is picked up from where it is at, thrown at the opponent, and 'rejoins' the flight path of your textbook perfect technique at some point.

Additionally, facing off a more adept opponent may require you to explore additional angles of entry - the practitioner is forced to adapt the flight path, while considering the framework provided by the various basic kicks, in order to fly the weapon through three-dimensional space and deliver its payload to the target, and not to the obstacles placed in the way.

Lastly is the issue of makiwara training and power generation vis a vis the chambered kick. Before I trained the makiwara, I powered most of my punches through shoulder rotation, speed, and effort. I lifted heavier weights to gain more muscle mass. I hit the bag like a boxer. However, when I gained insight through the makiwara, I understood that I could pulse the legs and hips, and send much more body weight through the core, and transmit that with incredible effectiveness into the end tool. This traditional training spurred me to apply the insight that power generation is influenced by transmission of body weight at point of impact.

For the chambered kick, and for all processes we get student practitioners to go through - this is as much for timing, as it is for biomechanics. The student needs to deliver the strike within possibly 2 or 3 inches - whilst throwing a technique at considerable speed and performing under duress. This means to be able to structure the body most effectively to time the transmission of as much body weight as possible whilst remaining tactically effective and staying in the fight.

For this reason ... as a 47/8 year old practitioner, I am able to generate a heap of power whilst not having an equal amount of muscle mass as other students who are much younger and stronger than me.

On a separate note, the act of chambering a kick has additional tactical use aside from delivering the kick. In this video applying the low side kick from Bassai I show a chamber for a side kick used to clear the lead leg. It could variously be used to knee strike other parts of the opponent's anatomy or defend against primary attacks. Similarly, the chambering of the front kick can stop another front kick. The chambering of a wave kick can cause the practitioner to defend the wrong part of his body - before sidekicking the knee or ankle. Etc.

Something to think about - the chamber of the kick and its full extension lengthens the movement and stretches out the power cycle of the technique. Shortening the power cycle requires a fairly good grasp of its dynamics, and allows the practitioner to go for the zippy and punchy moves more appropriate in a sportive arena. Delivering power like this however, takes much more skill IMO. I'm not saying I don't see sloppy techniques knocking people out. I'm just saying a correctly applied kick is not only hard to read but frightening.

Anyone care to talk about chambering and combination kicks? :-)


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4 Dec 2017

How Traditional Taekwondo grows yet stays the same

The Traditional Taekwondo instructor - very
much keeping it alive ... and real.
A traditional art is a collection of wishes from long dead masters.

The Traditional Taekwondo system - any system - however inspiring or epic in proportion and tale does not describe the totality of their ability. Nor of the totality of their methodology. To gain proficiency in fighting arts, practitioners need to follow their form, vary their form, and then depart from their form to realise its lessons.

  • Follow the form by endowing it with fundamental combative skill.
  • Vary the form by drilling it mnemonically.
  • Depart from the form by addressing our opponents' abilities.

This is how Traditional Taekwondo grows ... how it changes, yet stays the same.

As a Traditional Taekwondo instructor, I feel the weight of our legacy. But this weight doesn't hold me down. It anchors me, and my role is to set my students free by allowing them to play with the system, challenge the system, and choose the best of what they like from it.

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