Taekwon Do: Both Art and Sport
Some students of this martial art find that its principles can enhance other parts of their lives
BOSTON — 'MOVE your left foot next to your right, quickly. Place your right hand over your left fist and jab backwards, hard. Switch hands and repeat."These are instructions to thwart an attack from behind given by Michael O'Malley, chief instructor at the Jae Hun Kim Taekwon Do Institute in Boston. "Then, you can run away as fast as you can, or you can turn around and counterattack." Mr. O'Malley's students are finding that they not only are learning about self-defense (taekwon do is Korean for the art of kicking and punching), they are learning values and habits that enhance many areas of their lives. Taekwon do can be described as an art, an aerobic exercise, and a sport, says O'Malley, who began studying it at 14, became a black belt one and a half years later, and has been an internationally certified instructor since 1977. The one-hour classes are performed at an intense pace. Each "form a sequence of techniques - is a creative expression of a person's physical ability, style, and power. About 2 million people practice taekwon do in the US, and 10 million worldwide - twice as many as five years ago, says Sang Lee of the US Taekwon Do Union. Taekwon do has been an official Olympic sport since 1988. Here at the Kim school, beginners receive four private lessons where they learn basic moves. Then they join a class where they practice these moves and learn more. Instructor O'Malley has a unique perspective on the sport. He was a member of the US taekwon do team from 1978 to 1982, a gold-medal winner at the 1981 Pan Am games, and coach of the 1986 US Olympic team. "Kids are the most important aspect, to me," says O'Malley in an interview. "Here we have a mini-society, a melting pot," he says, observing that his students come from Boston and surrounding communities with diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds, and they "extend a lending hand to one another." "When the kids come into the school, they're not only receiving, they're putting back, too, and that attitude transcends the school, and it becomes a part of their daily life," says O'Malley. Marina Oleynikova is a 14-year-old taekwon do student who moved to Boston from the Ukraine two years ago. When she arrived, she didn't speak any English. She attended public schools and learned English, but hasn't had an easy time adjusting. She says that she's had problems in school academically and socially. But since Marina began taekwon do classes last fall as part of an extra curricular school program, she says it has improved her self-confidence immensely. "I used to have butterflies in my stomach before school tests. Now I don't worry because I know I will get an A, and I do. I concentrate better. Before I started taekwon do, I spent about four hours a night on homework. Now I can get it finished in an hour and a half." O'Malley stresses the importance of school work with Marina and all the children in the school. He talks with parents regularly. Nine-year-old Michael Sempert has been taking taekwon do for a little over a year and says it has helped him concentrate. "I try to follow orders more and pay attention to instructions. When Mr. O'Malley tells you to do something, he doesn't want to hear you can't do it. He wants you to try. He's strict, but fun. He makes you feel good - encourages you."You find people from many walks of life and different ages coming to the Kim school and for various reasons. There are students as young as four on up th rough, shall we say, mature adults. "It's typical for most people to come in because they've seen taekwon do and they're awed by what the human body can do," O'Malley says. "Often you find their original reasons for coming in changes. They meet friends and enjoy coming here for the good feelings they get from being part of the school." Lenore Sempert, an artist who began classes about nine months ago to join her husband and two children, praises the instructors: "The instructors are incredible examples for our children and us. They are skilled and proficient, but every day you feel they are doing their absolute best. You find you want to emulate them." Ben Foster, a social worker and a black belt (highest level of colors), who has been practicing taekwon do for a little over 10 years, comments: "I live a more peaceful existence. There's not as much turmoil in my life because I have no need to prove my manhood or macho-ness. It's easier to walk away [from a confrontation] knowing I could have done something, but didn't want to." Movies like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" have drawn more young people to martial arts. Some believe kids are being sent the message that learning to become a bully is OK. O'Malley says the reverse it true. "Our banner in the dojang [work-out room] says, 'courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit.' We believe in those tenets and teach kids that they must respect themselves and one another." Norma Clarke and Ann Gomez both have seven-year-old sons and say their boys aren't becoming more aggressive, but more disciplined. "They are taught values at taekwon do - like respect, patience, and honor. It builds restraint," says Mrs. Clarke. John Fields is a computer administrator and blue belt (7th out of 10 levels) who has been practicing taekwon do since age 14. He says that it's the instructor who often sets the tone. "You could have an instructor who teaches you to be vicious," he says, but that's not that case here. "All you have to do is watch Mr. O'Malley.... He teaches you respect, confidence, and patience." If you're interested in joining a martial-arts program, Richard Baptista, a teacher of karate at Brandeis University for over 20 years, suggests shopping around. "Karate, taekwon do, kung fu - these styles are very good and reputable. The most important aspect rests in the teachers. Just because you are a great martial artist doesn't make you a good teacher. Michael O'Malley is a superb martial artist and emulates what we wish every teacher would of the martial arts. "It is very important that parents or students select schools appropriately," says Mr. Baptista. "Go to three or four schools and watch classes. Make sure the instructor is teaching what the school dictates."