Some of my best memories from undergrad so far come from walking out of Tae Kwon Do practice after a stressful week. In practice sessions, I get to scream, kick, and move around a lot, until I’m so tired I can barely walk. I get pushed to my limits, and it’s actually addicting.Tae Kwon Do is a Korean martial art, and it’s one of the most popular martial arts in the world. It has been an official Olympic sport since 2000, offering competitive opportunities and providing self-improvement for its practitioners all over the world.Like most martial arts, Tae Kwon Do was developed for the sake of self-defence. It stands out from other martial arts, as the use of fast and intense kicking techniques makes up the majority of a practitioner’s skillset, rather than strikes from the hands or grappling.
Competitive experienceSecond-year Rotman Commerce students Andus Lau and William Rodgers are two high-level athletes in the sports aspect of Tae Kwon Do. They’ve both represented Team Canada at home and abroad, and teach with the University of Toronto Tae Kwon Do Organization (UTTO).A few years ago, Lau was fighting in a tournament in Mexico and found himself facing off against Olympic medalist Terrence Jennings — he didn’t know that at the time though. After a tough match, the score was 13–11 in Jennings’ favour, but Lau had put up a strong fight against a world-class athlete. From this experience, Lau learned the importance of a key trait — confidence.“I’m a hundred per cent sure that if my coach had told me who Terrence was and what he had accomplished, my confidence would have been shot and I would have performed horribly compared to how I did,” Lau says. “I really believe confidence is a huge factor in anything you do.”For high-level athletes such as Lau and Rodgers, building up this confidence for every tournament is part of their training. Rodgers says that the mental buildup for fights is crucial for any athlete: “If you can’t get your brain in gear for the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re the world champion, you won’t do well.”As a current competitive team member and President of UTTO, Courtney Siu finds herself discovering, like Lau and Rodgers did, that tournaments take a significant amount of mental preparation. In such tense environments, she’s able to test out what she’s learned from her classes and enjoys doing so.“I also like sparring, and I like getting to figure out other people — that aspect,” Siu says. “And to try to figure out how to beat them.”Tournaments place more and more importance on the sport aspect of the martial art rather than the more traditional aspect of the patterns. The patterns, as opposed to sparring against individuals, consist of set motions that are meant to build up students’ skills and confidence in their techniques.However, this also means that to some extent patterns have fallen to the wayside. Karen Yang, a third-year Pharmaceutical Chemistry student who also referees at tournaments, notes that fewer and fewer people seem to be actively competing in patterns.For students who want a less physically engaged way to compete, patterns have traditionally been a good avenue to take. Yang notes, “Certain people aren’t that aggressive. They would probably prefer [patterns] over sparring, and they’re still interested in the sport overall, but they’re introduced to it in a different way.”The declining popularity of competing in patterns could be due to the fact that they are harder to excel in at higher belt rankings, the criteria seem to be changing on an annual basis, or sparring matches simply draw larger crowds than patterns. After all, patterns are just set movements and are not subject to much change, while sparring matches tend to be more fluid and responsive to human interaction.In competitions, electronic scoring gear is in popular use for higher-level fights. The goal seems to be to reduce human error and bias among judges and referees. According to Rodgers, given that sometimes referees work at least 12-hour shifts in high-stress environments, this makes sense. As a result, the favoured tactics during the fights have moved away from the brutally hard kicks of old school Tae Kwon Do into faster, more technical bouts that dominate the ring.
Community buildingLau and Rodgers train quite rigorously. They’ve been in Tae Kwon Do since they were children and continued without break. Lau has since retired from actively competing, choosing to focus on coaching the UTTO’s competitive sparring team.Meanwhile, Rodgers is currently with Team Canada, with lofty goals for the years ahead. Both of the martial artists stress the same important aspect — community.“The thing is with our training regimen is that we’re not training as much as other people,” Lau says. “If there’s an open and direct communication line between the coach and students, I feel like we can grow faster. And everyone would enjoy it better, to be honest.”As a higher-level athlete, Rodgers notes that his current teammates are the biggest factor keeping him in competitive Tae Kwon Do. He’s found a large amount of motivation to succeed by working with them and wants to keep achieving his goals alongside his friends.“Having teammates to motivate you will help you succeed,” Rodgers says. “If you’re motivated, you’ll succeed. If you’re not, then you lose interest and you’re just setting yourself up for failure. That’s how it is with life.”Derek Chau, a third-year Computer Science specialist, remembers that he got into the sport to lose weight when he was much younger. He stuck with it, after finding good friends no matter where he went to train. Most recently, he practices with the intermediate class at UTTO, finding himself too busy to commit regularly to competitive training sessions.
Chau constantly sees how much effort his friends put into their training and how excited team members get at tournaments. As a result of being in this high-energy atmosphere, he’s inspired to continue on with his own training.Most recently, Siu was one of the key figures in putting together a joint-training session between the Tae Kwon Do team and the University of Western Ontario. The U of T and Western teams trained together from November 5–6, building up skills while also fostering a sense of camaraderie between the university teams.This sense of community is something that keeps people coming back to Tae Kwon Do, especially in the university setting. UTTO’s blossoming friendship with Western’s team is one manifestation of this. There are also tangible connections built up within U of T’s Tae Kwon Do community.“I do feel closer connections with people from UTTO than anywhere else,” says Yang, who returned to Tae Kwon Do in her second year. “[Tae Kwon Do] is my main passion, and hanging out with people with the same passion helps connect everyone.”While Yang wanted to get used to the pressures of university life, seeing the opportunity to train again was irresistible. As the club’s Webmaster, she has adjusted to a more socially active role this year, which gives her the opportunity to maintain strong relations with her friends.
Real life applicationsSince committing to the regular club practices in his first year at U of T, Chau found that his sense of time management and prioritization has greatly improved since high school.“For studying, I tried to manage my time so that I can achieve things quicker… Like try to figure out which one is quicker to finish… like prioritizing the faster tasks, and the longer ones I tackle in chunks before finishing it,” Chau says. “It’s also a big idea in the world of programming, which I’m going to go into. There’s this idea of teamwork in programming as well — you don’t work just as one person, because it’s hard to get things done as a single person, you want to efficiently work as a unit.”In the ring, Rodgers describes his attitude against his opponents. In 2014, one of his opponents was getting unruly and aggressive when he started losing, so William put his foot down — on his opponent’s head — scoring three points and a win by knock out in the process.Having done Tae Kwon Do competitively since he was in high school, Rodgers feels that he has learned how to apply his ‘I can win’ attitude to exams, saying that while he may look cocky while walking into an exam, that’s just his mental state; it’s how he beats his nerves.Tae Kwon Do also teaches leadership and instruction. While traditional schools have their higher ranking students teach lower ranking students — Rodgers started teaching in this way at previous schools he trained at — this is not always possible for university clubs. After all, they’re mainly student-run. Executive positions also offer leadership opportunities for a few students.
Coaching studentsWhile it is still early in the season, the UTTO instructors have already created a positive environment for their students to achieve their potential. New and experienced students are encouraged to work with and push each other throughout their training.
“I love teaching university students!” Rodgers says. “That’s because university students — you tell them to do it, and they’ll do it. I also enjoy working with the students because they learn very quickly. You tell them to turn the hip a little more for a specific kick, and every single time, you see them turning it a little more until they can do it every time. You tell them once or twice, things like ‘oh, a little more’ or ‘a little less’ and then they learn it. And that could take just one class, and they still have it the next class.”He also points out, “It’s not an easy sport to pick up, especially at the competitive level. Learning it is one thing — but actually competing in it is different. And I commend them for being able to do that.”As the current coach of the competitive team, Lau wants to create an open and friendly environment. From his experience, he feels that this will encourage them to achieve their potential — possibly going on to provincials or nationals in the near future.“Coming to the setting where I’m teaching everyone who’s not as high-performance but they enjoy the sport, the environment is so happy, and nice, and friendly, and I’m learning as I’m teaching. I’m learning to communicate in different ways from how I was taught. And that’s helping me grow as a person and I really enjoy teaching,” Lau says.Lau turns to his experiences as a high-level athlete to determine how to motivate his students. He wants to build a team that’s driven not by titles, but rather by their own passion for the sport. In his competitive career, he finds that athletes who think too much about gaining and maintaining rankings tend to plateau and stop improving, so he tries to guide his students away from such a mindset.“As soon as I hit that peak, there came a time when I realized I didn’t care if I was fighting someone better,” Lau says. “That was when I stopped growing at TKD. I hit a plateau, and I realized I was being selfish and wasn’t actually loving the sport. I was loving the title. After taking a step back and taking a coaching role — a whole different aspect of it — I realized that was a huge setback for any athlete. If you’re trying to maintain your spot, it’s worse than if you’re trying to grow. So, always be searching for a new way to improve yourself… If you’re trying to maintain a title and position, someone will always outgrow you. Don’t think about that. It should be about trying to improve yourself.”
Tae Kwon Do is a fun and engaging way to get or keep in shape, while learning self-defense skills for the casual practitioner. For more competitive-minded students, it offers an outlet. Besides offering competitions, Tae Kwon Do also boasts leadership opportunities for participants to continue growing as people, not just as practitioners.“Martial arts are a good idea because they’re different,” Rodgers says. “It’s something better to do than just going for a run. Everyone goes for a run — it’s boring and you get pains and get sick of it… U of T offers a lot of programs. There are many opportunities, and you guys should take advantage of that. If you want to be a little more athletic, or slim down or be more fit, or feel better about yourself, martial arts are really good.”