Saturday, October 18, 2014

What Makes Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan Unique and Different from Other Martial Arts and Styles

Note: This is the first of two essays I wrote as part of my preparation to test for sam dan in Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan. It is in part adapted from a blog entry I wrote in 2009 entitled The Blessings of Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan.  I find that the words I wrote then applied now, more than ever, so I used it as a starting point.

In looking at the essential characteristics of Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan, and what makes it a unique art in comparison with other martial arts, I felt there were a couple of different directions to go. Clearly, there are technical aspects of our art that differentiate Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan practitioners from practitioners of other arts , or even of other styles of Tang Soo Do.

For example, unlike “textbook” judo or taekwando it is both a classical martial arts and a full-fledged self defense system, not a sport. Unlike many systems that are rigidly defined by the regions or nations in which they were created Mi Guk Kwan built on the Korean foundations of the art and expanded it to include Chinese, Japanese and Okinawan influences as well as new techniques, creating a composite art that incorporates both “hard” and “soft” styles. And unlike many other Tang Soo Do organizations, Mi Guk Kwan strives to keep Grandmaster Hwang Kee’s vision alive, teaching all of the forms he created and endeavoring to adhere as closely as possible to his vision of the proper practice of Tang Soo Do.

And while these technical aspects of our art clearly set Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan apart, I think the philosophical underpinnings of the art -- and the rigor with which they are applied throughout our organization -- that truly differentiates the Mi Guk Kwan. As a Kyo Sa, and as a student, one aspect of this that I find especially important is the focus on the responsibilities of the teacher to the student, particularly in regard to how that teacher represents the goals of this organization to which they -- and their students -- belong.

In many martial arts organizations this is not so much of an issue, as most "modern" American martial arts schools don't have a particularly strict focus on intellectual or philosophical codes or personal development aside from the more general, physically-oriented high-level goals. Better physical fitness. The ability to defend ones' self. The ability to wrestle or fight in tournaments effectively.

In and of themselves these are all perfectly fine goals, but I've always felt that they are also fairly unlikely to result in any sort of significant change in ones' life beyond short-term improvements of one sort or another. If anything, their very specificity leads directly, in many cases, to student boredom. Without an emphasis on applying the skills learned in the training hall to other aspects of ones' life, to abstracting the physical gains and placing them in a more holistic context, then this is all just another form of exercise that will be replaced by a different physical activity when the novelty of "Doin' Karate!" wears off.

Without a larger goal then, training in the martial arts really isn't all that different from any other structured exercise regimen, and without an effort on the part of the instructor to encourage students to embrace the art as something life-changing as opposed to simply health-improving, it's unlikely to result in a lifelong commitment to the specific art.

Now, obviously, this is in many ways perfectly fine with the instructor, who is as often as not also the business owner as well. Students typically sign multi-year contracts, which even if they allow for breaking of the contract typically include a penalty for doing so (and those are the good ones).

If a student chooses to stop training then the instructor doesn't really suffer any direct or immediate negatives. If anything, they get to draw some more cash out of a student who requires absolutely none of the instructor’s time or resources. If the owner is focusing adequate efforts on marketing and signing up new students then turnover is at worst a non-issue and may actually be beneficial financially. The quickest path to profit is to focus on new enrollment, lock students into contracts, and then passively encourage turnover by running a program that allows all but the most dedicated students -- i.e. the students who least need active instruction -- to become unmotivated, stagnant, or bored.

Conversely, in the Mi Guk Kwan there is tremendous emphasis placed on the historical and philosophical foundations of our art, and on one's success in the physical aspects of our art being dependent on expression and embracing of these principles. There is a tremendous amount of focus placed on reinforcing this attitude in our organization, and certainly in the approaches to training and instruction undertaken by all of the instructors I've had the privilege to study with.

Ironically, this approach makes their jobs much harder (in that it requires far more instructor/student interaction in order to be applied properly) and also makes it much more difficult for them to "cash in." This is not to say that it's impossible to do well financially -- it just means that it's not really possible to do so without personal sacrifice and long-term commitment on the part of everyone involved.

Over the years I’ve seen a number of instructors of varying dan levels leave our organization (sometimes by choice, sometimes by force), and in each and every case it was due to their decision or their desire to act in their own interests, as opposed to the interests of their students. Most often it’s a short-cut to their own personal goals of achieving a specific rank, jumping to another organization in exchange for an opportunity to achieve that rank sooner, or with less rigorous requirements, than if they’d stayed with the Mi Guk Kwan. Other times I’ve seen instructors forced to leave because they behaved in a way that was inconsistent with the principals of our organization. In my opinion, when instructors leave as a result of their decision to put their own desires first, then it is addition by subtraction indeed.

When the ultimate goal of training in a dojang is personal growth and self-improvement through the martial arts, it is especially important that the instructors continually present themselves as committed to these goals as well.  They are by long-term goals, and students need to understand that this is a longpterm commitment, not something that will magically occur after 3 months of sweating it out. A large part of the instructor's job is to demonstrate -- by their own example, and through their own conduct -- their own daily commitment to these principals. If they fail to do so, the students will know that for the instructor these lofty aspirations are nothing more than window-dressing, and will move on.

I've always felt that the Mi Guk Kwan places a heavy burden on its students. The curriculum is vast and the techniques demanding, yes, but it's emphasis on intellectual and philosophical development make it heavier still. This is not a complaint, mind you, but rather something I admire and embrace. I am thrilled daily by the challenges the Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan has placed before me.


But the Mi Guk Kwan also places a heavy burden on its teachers and studio owners as well, demanding that they truly live up to the ideals and expectations of this organization in order to truly guide their students. The lure of easy money is a hard one to ignore, and I consider myself so very fortunate to be part of an association that holds fast to ideals instead of pursuing cash above all else. The Mi Guk Kwan is an organization -- in America, of all places! -- that continually places the needs of the students ahead of the shortest route to profit for the studio owners. This, to me is the differentiator that truly places our organization in class by itself.

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