This Day in History 1991 Welcomes the Token Asian Black Belt to SMU Martial Arts Club ... Come Get Some, Baby

Freshman year in SMU, Dallas, Texas. I had been a black belt for the past four years, and had looked out for a martial arts school I could train at. It wasn't difficult making my way to the SMU Martial Arts Club under Sensei Bryan Robbins. Note: Back then the SMU Martial Arts Club was both American Karate and Aikido (see Australasian Taekwondo Magazine V17 N2 p76 July 2008).

17 years ago today I would have already been equipped with new gi, new foam padded sparring equipment, and I would have been a new 'regular' black belt on the line up on the second floor of Dedman Center on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings.

The club welcomes black belts from a wide range of styles from associated schools around Dallas. Can you believe that? Back in Asia, you'd not just *not* train with another stylist, you'd not even talk to them. And yet these guys are cordial, friendly, hospitable ... even to me! Unbelievable, these Americans.

At the start of class, all black belts line up in front of students for the bow in. During class, aside from the kata (they'd practice whatever style kata they were trained in while we do our own), all black belts work out together. On Wednesday nights, you'd probably expect about 3-4 black belts and about 10 students. On Saturday mornings, you'd probably expect about 7-10 black belts and about 15 students.

Warm ups are taken by coach Robbins and last for about 15 minutes. Line drills almost always follow - fore balance lower blocks, fore balance upper blocks, back balance middle blocks, and outside inside blocks. Basic punches. Basic kicks. Some kick punch combinations.

Most of the techniques are basic techniques. I would be wondering why they'd be choosing to practice basics when there are more exciting things to do. Kicks that are more long range. Strikes that are more fluid. But I tag along for the ride and follow as they go through the same routine (with some variation of course) again and again.

Once done we'll then break for 'self defence' or technique application. These can be drawn from the Taekwondo syllabus or they could be influenced by the Aikido class that coach Robbins also takes. Or they could be from the bag of self defence apps that are practiced often. Typically we would practice with a partner of similar rank. Black belts would go at it a few times and then choose to work with lower belts so that there are always assistants to help the main instructor.

One thing I'd notice with the self defence section is that the students are chatting about techniques in the class! Imagine that! In asia, there'd be no talking at all. But the more I listen, the more everyone seems to be making sense. Beginners would be talking about their difficulties learning or applying. Intermediate belts talk about different angles or dealing with taller or shorter opponents. Black belts talk about other combinations. All of this starts me off thinking that there is much more to learn from each other than just trying to hit a target with a kicking technique.

After this there will be kata practice. Chonji, tangun, dosan, wonhyo, tigye. Wednesdays have about enough time for about three forms. Saturdays we could run through the entire program to cover black belt forms or above. Or we would practice less forms and then focus more on each. On Saturdays, senior black belts may take the group and focus on particular forms. I couldn't get it ... why waste time with kata? What's so good about it? Yet everyone seemed to practice it almost diligently. I don't understand.

All classes have sparring. Gloves, foot protectors, groin protectors and mouthguard. No 'blind' techniques. No strikes through the knee. Senior students get to throw kicks to the groin and knee but control them to ensure there are no injuries in class. Groin strikes and head strikes and commonplace. Takedowns remain in the domain of upper belts for safety. Each round lasts about 2 minutes. We would spar for at least 15 minutes, averaging 30 minutes on good days.

The intensity of sparring is the first thing that I notice. Coming straight out from asia as a young black belt I had very limited experience sparring, and then only with a very limited range of kicking techniques. The black belts are extremely experienced and sparring becomes a very intimidating part of the class. I cop multiple blows in the nose, head, groin and chest ...

The truth is that while my techniques and general movements are there, there is almost zero effectiveness and I'm basically a mess. I wear the black belt, and it makes me a legitimate target. In that period and the few months following, I go through a grinder and have to honestly look at all my techniques to help me respond and deal with opponents at all distances. Even lower belts are frighteningly good - and strong. It's funny to me that for a class that practices basic beginner techniques all the time why is it that they are so effective at sparring or finding my weak spots.

I remember coming back from class one Saturday morning and dropping to the floor of my dorm room - with a splitting headache, a sore nose, a sore eye socket, and totally exhausted/pummeled from the training. It is a challenge which prompts me to rack my brains in-class and out -- to basically figure out where I have to take my martial art to.

See Old School Training from Ipponkumite


Colin Wee
Traditional Taekwondo Technique Workshop


Gordon White said…
Hi Colin,

I enjoyed this post! Love the old school stuff.

I look at some of my new black belts now and wonder how they will look back on their training, and what things will be the milestones.

Colin Wee said…
Yeah, I thought to do this so that I can come up with other posts further down the timeline to show some progress and how it changed me during class. I could go more into detail about the techniques, but I think that'll be an overkill. :-) Colin
Joe said…
It is always a wake-up call when we get to train with different groups and styles. I tried some Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It's a very intense workout and not to much fun being choked out. Very effective art, so I loved it. Had the opposite experience at another school in the area, lots of college girls, so you know where the "instructors" attention was focused. Nice Site Joe

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