|Life is always better when you have a pocketful of candy, I think…. still.|
As kids my sister and I would pool our money and then take turns hopping the backyard fence in order to escape to the local park and buy
concession stand candy. I am not quite sure why we felt the need to scale the 6-foot fence instead of using the front door, but I’m guessing
that machination was just another part of the romance of those candy runs.
That was the era of Pixie Stix, Abba Zabbas, Gobstoppers, Red Vines, Fun Dips, Nerds, Jaw Breakers, Lemonheads, Red Hots and a whole bunch of
other tooth-rotting balls of corn syrup colored with Yellow No. 5 and Red No. 40. It was glorious! So much so that I actively remember
thinking that it must be even more wonderful being an adult with unlimited buying power and no backyard fence to constrain your
But, a strange thing happened on the way to adulthood. Candy lost some of its appeal. When given total control over grocery shopping and
meals and snacks, I now tend to eat far more healthy than my 12 year-old self could have ever imagined.
The same phenomenon occurred when I was a beginning Taekwondo practitioner. I was enamored with what I now think of as Taekwondo candy.
More than anything else, I wanted to learn how to jump, spin and do the fanciest, most empty-caloried techniques possible. If a kick could be
sugar-coated with a 360-degree entry I was all about it. Instead of learning timing, distance and control, I worked on speed, power and height.
I loved head kicks, spinning head kicks, jumping spinning head kicks and breaking boards with all of the above. On that diet, my sparring
philosophy became all about speed and flash.
But, a strange thing happened on the way to becoming a black belt. For all the cool kicks I wanted to do, my mind did gradually open up to
the concepts of footwork, timing and the elegance of a well-placed counter-punch. My practice was initially inspired by the acrobatics I saw
in movies, but while learning from actual masters of the martial arts (and not the Hong Kong movie versions) I realized that the beauty and
subtly found in true skill might actually be more exhilarating than sheer athleticism.
(Aaaaannnnnd, well, as I started competing against better and
more seasoned practitioners, it was quite literally pounded into my dull being that athleticism and flash even when mixed with a considerable
dose of guts and determination will only take you so far. Eventually, you meet the more skilled practitioners who will mercilessly pick you
So, as I watched and learned and practiced, I saw things that I never noticed before. When executing a simple kick or punch, I began to see the 5
or 10 degrees of difference in the angle of attack that could indicate a feint, a stall in rhythm, a variance in timing or a set-up for the next offensive
or defensive move. Then after the attack, I saw how you can either reposition yourself (or better yet your opponent) to both protect yourself
and open up another safe angle of attack. I saw how traps can be set several moves in advance and how attacks can be neutralized by
simultaneous attacks and how blocks can actually also be attacks. And I learned how to anticipate and feel the opponent instead of relying
on guesswork and visual cues. Taekwondo was revealing itself to me in much richer and more complex tones
than my 1st degree self could ever have imagined.
Oftentimes, the techniques that I saw that were the most effective were the simple ones taught to beginners within the first month of their
practice… front kick, reverse punch, front-turning kick. But it was the front kick, reverse punch or front-turning kick of an artist who
unconsciously performed at a level accessible only to those who have spent thousands of hours contemplating and then experimenting with every
angle and application and counter-application and combination of that beginner’s technique.
When you think about it that way, there is
nothing simple about that pre-meditated and well-executed kick or punch. Like there is nothing simple about Ichiro slapping an opposite-field
single, Greg Maddux delivering an 82 mph change-up for a called strike three, Lyoto Machida countering with the left cross, Pablo Casals playing the
Bach Suites. Not always sexy, but certainly sublime.
I still somtimes indulge myself and my students in Taekwondo candy. But the focus of my practice and my thoughts has shifted to attaining skill, and
hopefully one day mastery… of just one simple technique.