Monday, August 31, 2009

The Real Meaning of Breaking Competition

Two guys walk into a bar... you'd think one of them would have seen it. So goes the old joke. Bars and bar room situations are used frequently to make a point. For instance: A man walks into a bar, leading an alligator by a leash. He asked the bartender, "Do you serve lawyers here?" "Sure do," said the bartender. "Good," replied the man. "Give me a beer, and I'll have a lawyer for my 'gator." Apparently the disdain for attorneys is pretty universal.

Other times, bar room scenarios are just silly. A skeleton walks into a bar and says,"Gimme a beer and a mop."

I've been judging Karate Tournaments for several years now, and the breaking competitions never seem to disappoint me - and by "never" I actually mean "always." For the tournaments I attend, the rules are very simple. The artist can break as many boards as they want, in any configuration, using any techniques, so long as they only use bare hands and feet. Sometimes we'll allow a little medicinal tape, but that's just in consideration that practice can cause minor bruising and we don't want to have to eliminate competitors. The competitors are allowed to break all the boards they want (I said that), but they only get three strikes, i.e punches or kicks.

Typically we see something like a kick, a punch, and another kick. It may sound bland, but the particulars can make it quite interesting. For instance, someone could do an inside/outside kick coming down through three boards, a palm strike through four, and a jump spinning back wheel kick through three more. Some of the combinations are quite interesting and of course, the techniques can be impressive as well.

But...

Most competitors completely miss the point. The number of boards doesn't matter (except maybe as a tie breaker). The particular techniques don't matter, i.e. a jump back kick versus back wheel versus knee strike versus inside/outside, yada, yada, yada. So long as the artist actually breaks the boards, it really doesn't matter. For other judges reading this - I'm not suggesting that someone can just walk up and hit three easy one-board breaks and walk away with a trophy, but am I suggesting that too much emphasis is placed on the number of boards and the cleverness of the strike - which COMPLETELY misses the point.

Three bad guys walk into a bar looking for a fight. Instead they find a martial artist and surround him or her. In Tang Soo Do we use a phrase, Il Kyuck Pil Sal, which means One Technique to Finish. Surrounded by three bad people, the practitioner should be able to vanquish each one with a single blow - i.e. one technique to finish. This is the whole point of the breaking competition, to illustrate Il Kyuck Pil Sal three times in quick succession to demonstrate disabling three attackers.

One must keep in mind that as the artist takes out the first of the attackers, the other two are not likely to sit idly by, wrapped in befuddled amazement and curiosity. No, they are likely to move in closer, so the artist, must not only demonstrate one technique to finish, they must also move with rapidity through the sequence. Boom, boom, boom! That is the point of the breaking competition - to demonstrate Il Kyuck Pil Sal against three attackers.

Here is an example of a pretty good martial artist - I don't know him or his school, and the breaks he does are certainly impressive. But can you see how his presentation does not fit the "three bad guys in a bar" scenario?



We practice with 3/4 inch thick boards which are about one foot square. Breaking one of these boards takes about the same amount of force as it takes to crack a rib. I don't know if you've ever had a cracked rib, but let me tell you - you're done. There's no more fighting, or coughing, or laughing, or breathing after you've been on the receiving end of a rib punch. So demonstrating that you can punch through seven boards after carefully lining everything up, breathing in and out six times, focusing on one spot, with the boards held steadily in place - well let's just say, it's not really that useful a skill.

Being able to kick, punch, and kick through three sets of two boards in quick succession with perfect aim, fluidity, maybe some flexibility and grace - now that is a remarkable achievement and a notable skill.

A penguin walks into a bar and asked the bartender, "Have you seen my brother?" The bartender replies, "I don't know, what's he look like?"

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