Black Belt Magazine, July 2004
Foot Fightingby Jasmine Cho
Renowned for having the fastest back-spinning kick in the world, Hee-Il Cho is one of taekwondo’s most respected practitioners. He was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame in 1989 as Co-Instructor of the Year, and his ongoing efforts to spread the Korean art to the American public have earned him that honor several times over since then. Despite recently turning 64, the founder and president of the Action International Martial Arts Association has no plans to slow down. In this article, he reveals more of his insight into how the Korean art of kicking has evolved during the past 50 years and how that knowledge can help you be a better martial artist.-Editor
To condition the contact points of your feet, Hee-Il Cho advises you to go barefoot during your training sessions. When you wear shoes, your feet sweat, and that moisture keeps your skin soft. “You don’t develop calluses that way,” he says.
People who live in hot climates tend to walk around barefoot most of the time, and that makes the skin on their dogs as tough as shoe leather. Such people are better kickers because their feet are harder and feel less pain, he says.---Sara Fogan
By Jasmine Cho
Taekwondo is one of Korea’s most historically rich and fascinating martial arts. Best known for its dynamic kicks, it became a major influence in the Korean self-defense community after the nation threw off the yoke of Japanese colonial rule in 1945. Only then was the art’s lethal potential fully recognized. The military quickly adopted taekwondo, and after the Korean War, the art rapidly engulfed the civilian population of the country. Then the government started sending instructors abroad, and Westerners became fascinated with the way of foot fighting. They couldn’t get enough of its jumping kicks, spinning kics and jump-spinning kicks. What followed in the 1980s has been referred to as the decade of the Korean arts. When Olympic recognition came in 1988, the style had finally arrived.
Yet it hasn’t been a smooth ride to the top, and not everyone who practices taekwondo is thrilled about the changes that have occurred. Hee-Il Cho, a Korean-born master of the art with nearly 40 years of teaching under his belt, sums up the shift in the attitude of practitioners: The difference between training then and training now can be found in the question, To destroy or not to destroy? Ironically, modern taekwondo schools tout the self-defense benefits of their classes, yet when it comes to fighting, the brand of the art that’s commonly taught pales in comparison to the one Cho immersed himself in as a kid—when it was viewed as a tool for survival during the aftermath of the Korean War. These days, he says, the motive behind most taekwondo kicking is a desire to score points and win matches. And that’s fine—as long as it’s what the student wants.
For students from Cho’s generation, the goal of executing a taekwondo kick was the destruction of the enemy. The Korean term for that philosophy is il kyuk pyl sal, or “one-attack kill.” The aim was to use a single technique to render the opponent unconscious—or worse. “We would put maximum force into each technique we executed,” he recalls. “I was taught to throw a roundhouse kick to my opponent’s arm to break it. Then I would have an opening to knock him out with a punch.”
That highlights the first of two major differences between training in the 1950s and ‘60s and training in the 21st century: the path of motion. The kicks being used these days come in numerous variations and are marked by flashy combinations and acrobatic spins, but the practitioners of yesteryear were limited to four basic foot techniques—the roundhouse kick, front kick and back turning kick—all of which were executed in a relatively linear fashion.
Furthermore, minimal prep time was the way of the day because footwork was of marginal significance to students. They simply saw their target, took aim and unleashed their attack full-force in an effort to knock out their opponent before he could do any damage to them. “I don’t remember Master Cho teaching any footwork until maybe the late ‘70s,” says Philip Ameris, a seventh-degree black belt and senior student of Cho’s. “It seems so obvious now.”
The second major difference between kick training in the past and in the present is conditioning. Cho says modern-day masters rarely incorporate “foot hardening” and “hand hardening” into their curriculum because few students see the value in such seemingly extreme methods.
They might even sue their teacher if he encourages them to undertake the training because sooner or later, it will introduce them to the glory of blood and calluses.
But just as weightlifting builds muscle mass, thus enabling you to absorb more impact while protecting your bones and organs, conditioning can transform your extremities into power-hitting taekwondo tools. “Even if you hit as hard as you can, if you have an unconditioned foot, it can feel like rubber,” says the Honolulu-based expert. “But a conditioned foot will have the impact of metal.”
Cho is such a believer in body conditioning that despite recently having turned 64, he still dedicates hours to it each week. In addition to driving his knuckles into the traditional kong ko, a small wooden block wrapped with rope, he slams the striking surfaces of his feet and shins into it on a daily basis. The activity is extremely painful at first, but it gets easier as time goes on, he says. And the boost in effectiveness you experience makes it worth the effort and the agony.
Taekwondo students of the past had another motive for hardening their hands and feet: breaking. If they neglected to prepare their bodies before attempting to crush concrete and rupture roof tiles, the blocks would break them instead of the other way around, Cho says. These days, breaking is a popular demonstration event—it’s common to see enthusiasts annihilate stacks of boards and bricks—but for the average person, it’s more of a spectator sport.
Interestingly, the materials that taekwondo practitioners kicked and punched 50 years ago were much tougher than what people normally use today. That meant students had no choice but to employ only full-force techniques that relied on major muscles groups and precise body mechanics for maximum power. Consequently, their ways of executing techniques differed from modern methods, which tend to emphasize speed and precision. A prime example of the trend toward reduced emphasis on power is the roundhouse kick. Today, taekwondo students strike almost exclusively with their instep, while their mid-20th-century counterparts used the ball of their foot. To understand why they were so adamant about making contact with the harder, less-sensitive portion of their sole, try roundhousing a hard object with your instep. Pain, as they say, is the best teacher.
Most new students are drawn to taekwondo because of its impressive aerial kicks and spinning techniques. Those moves are a fairly recent development, however, having been born a mere 20 or 30 years ago when the art veered away from combat and toward competition. Around the same time, the drive of il kyuk sal was replaced by the goal of harvesting Olympic gold.
Even before it debuted in the 1988 Olympics, however, taekwondo had gained a reputation for gravity-defying demonstrations. Skilled athletes would launch themselves skyward before commencing 360-degree, 540-degree and even 720-degree spinning kicks. They became the style’s trademark.
Such elaborate techniques—along with their more earth-bound brethren, the crescent kick, the double jumping kick and the twisting kick—were unheard of when Cho was young. Now, they’re an integral part of the curriculum of nearly every taekwondo school in the country. The goal of modern practitioners is no longer to destroy their opponent physically, but to destroy him mentally with a series of blindingly fast kicks designed to win titles and trophies.
The goal of this discourse is not to convince you that the taekwondo practitioners of the mid-1900s were lean, mean killing machines. Likewise, it’s not to argue that kicking for self-defense is superior to kicking for competition. Rather, it’s purpose is to further the public’s understanding of the roots of the Korean art because that’s the only way it can grow, Cho says.
Of course, there will be martial artists who find the fundamentals emphasized in the past are more to their liking, and there will be others who believe today’s version of the art is better-suited to themselves and to society. Cho’s advice to members of both camps is the same: Keep an open mind and continuously learn from others so you can become a complete martial artist in terms of technical ability and moral character. Absorb the best aspects of both methods, he says, and incorporate them into your training.
About the author: Jasmine Cho is a free-lance writer based in Pittsburgh. For more information about Hee-Il Cho’s books and videos, call (808) 396-8900 or visit http://www.aimaa.com.