Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Fear of Failure Syndrome

Fear of failure syndrome is a psychological phenomena that inhibits a person from being involved in any challenge where a result can be achieved. 

Fear of failure syndrome can affect people from any age and who are involved in any task, from competition sports to college exams and everything in between. 

The cause of FOFS can be found rooted in child hood development. From a sporting perspective children can be made feel that they won't be socially accepted unless they win medals, especially if they have friends on the team that have won medals. 
In some cases parents who create stress and cause pressurised environments around children in sport can also be responsible for creating FOFS in their own child. How many times have you seen a parent barking orders at a child involved in a sports competition? And if that child doesn't win or place, how many parents criticise and tell them what they did wrong? There are plenty. A child in this situation now relates being scolded and criticised to being involved in competition. Inevitably turning what should be a fun endeavour into a task that could result in them feeling like they've let the parent down, which results in a spiralling psychological breakdown where the child equates performance to family acceptance. They inevitably quit sport. Fact. 

The problem with FOFS, if it's not already obvious, is that it can and will plague a child through their teens and haunt them well into adulthood. So much so that tasks such as interviews, exams and other sporting events are avoided or results are diminished due to the hard wiring of their thought processes carried out when they were children back when this fear was established.

When I was in school in 1993, junior cert year, there was a girl who had her arm purposely broken so she could not sit her exams. Her excuse was her parents would "kill her" if she under performed. Of course the school got wind of the arm break incident and councillors and child psychologists became involved. She had to sit the exams anyway. This is a very cruel example of the lengths a human being will go to avoid being challenged or tested, simply based on a result that will either have them accepted or not. 

I've come across many many manifestations of FOFS. I had a mental blockage myself over the years of 2005 and 2006/7 when I became an instructor. Now I felt my performance on the mat would determine whether I was a good instructor or not. I fought in Bulgaria in 2007 and had to ask people who travelled with me to wait outside the arena, in case I lost. I made it into the final which was broadcast on Bulgarian television. FOFS had me by the neck. It wasn't until I became involved with coaching at a higher level and had 8 one on one sessions with a sports psychologist that I began to learn about this phenomena and the damage it can do. Only by understanding it could I move to deal with it. Becoming involved in White Water kayaking and going on the be an instructor in this sport was when I really began to understand the phenomena a whole pile more. 

Coaching juniors in the combat sports can really open your eyes to how FOFS can get in their way of what should be enjoyment. I've seen it first hand, it mostly manifests itself in the form of feigning injury or sickness. At the European Championships in 2008 I had to deal with a fighter who didn't want to fight because of a sore toe. In 2011 a fighter broke down and cried their eyes out. In both cases neither person was concerned about their well being, they weren't concerned about being hurt in the ring, they were concerned about their result. FOFS loomed over them like a black cloud. In both cases in my opinion, it was more about peer acceptance and the need to be seen to perform so they could fit in with the team and the team's results. Sounds silly doesn't it? But it's completely paralysing. 

Social media has also weighed into this problem with its two feet. Now I'm seeing junior athletes, only new to the fight scene with a handful of international outings creating athlete "like" pages on facebook. Youth culture in the 21st century equates the amount of likes they get on a picture or a post to actual acceptance and friendship. To many, including adults, there is no differentiation between real friendship in human terms and the sight of a little blue thumb on a facebook post. 

These like pages can be problematic. The junior athlete will put up their statuses about their fight preparation. About how their training is going, early morning sessions, gym visits and healthy eating habits etc. This attracts well wishes and slaps on the back from all their "friends" both real and virtual. Before long they have created an online reputation of being a skilled and dedicated athlete. Problem is, it's just an online reputation. The athlete wins at some small local tournaments, 14 gold medals strung around their neck, facebook goes wild. The reputation grows. But now they face the real challenge of international competition. All the likes and friends remind them they're going for gold, all out victory is at hand, the crowd await the arrival of the emperor who has told the crowd about how cool they're going to look.
On the mat they face an athlete who has no page, probably no facebook. They've trained in silence. Our online hero receives a defeat. How hard that must be to have to report that back to the virtual fan base. Some don't report back, many will claim they were "absolutely robbed", others might claim to be injured or sick. The excuses will be many. But all of the excuses are not needed. 

Junior athletes no matter what the sport need to have a healthy approach to competition. One that allows them the opportunity to enjoy participating above having to perform for medals or results. A competition day needs to be a day out with friends, having a healthy competitive edge where they want to feel like they've performed their best, even if they didn't. The psychological advantages to this approach will manifest 100 fold as they develop as young adult athletes and into adult hood in society. 

As coaches and parents there many ways to help FOFS stay at bay. 
Here are some tips:

1. Unconditional positive regard no matter what the result. A person's sporting performances does not define them as a person.

2. Parents - Remember it's them in the ring performing, not you. You're not competing for your own reasons. 

3. Allow coaches to do their jobs. Win or lose a good coach will always find the positives and create an atmosphere of achievement. Just because you watch UFC and trained for 6 months as a child doesn't qualify you to know more than the pros. 

4. Always, always, always encourage participation in competition and never focus on the result - "You should go and enjoy yourself! You'll feel great afterwards whether you win or lose!" - needs to be the language used. 

5. Avoid unnecessary parent coaching. Chances are the child knows more about the sport than you do.

6. Make big the effort the child has made in competing, make sure that the effort made is not overshadowed by the lack of a medal and vice versa, never make a bigger deal when a medal is won you don't want to set that bar for every competition. 

For anyone that has competed with me in the corner, they'll know what my last words are to them before they step on the mats "enjoy yourself".

In 2012, Brendan faced a tough Russian in the semi final of the WAKO junior world championships. There was thousands in the arena. We were centre ring, the lights were beating down on us. He did his usual routine when he stands into the ring, he looked nervous but focused. I stopped him in his tracks and said "hey look around, breath in that atmosphere, soak up that energy. You're in the semi final of the WAKO worlds baby you've nothing to prove to anyone, it doesn't get bigger than this. This IS Olympic level kickboxing, you have to enjoy it, just like I am". 
He smiled, he slapped my hand with his glove and he went to work like he always does and made the final. 
We enjoyed ourselves.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Irish Open 2015 - A review, an analyses and our journey towards gold.

The Irish Open

A review, an analyses and our journey towards gold.

Lauren, Alan, Pawel, Darragh and Brendan chatting with friends before the kick off

The Irish Open International is a modern Kickboxing phenomena.
2015 saw it reach it's 22nd year. It also saw it reach participant numbers of well over 4,000. Phenomenal.

They say success is a result of many synergising factors or a number of things that coincide within a time frame to create the environment for success to develop. With that in mind, I would like to pay sincere credit to the people behind the Irish Open. The folks who have worked tirelessly over the last 22 years to create the type of opportunities that allow such an event to take place, on such a huge scale, on our door steps here in Ireland.

Roy Baker certainly has the Midas touch when it comes to Kickboxing. He'll tell you different, but that's just him. What he says in relation to the success of the Irish Open is simply modesty at play. He is right however, there is a huge team behind it, but without his vision 22 years ago, without his commitment to the event, without his desire to influence the Irish Kickboxing scene, without his approach that puts the fighter first - none of this could be realised today in 2015. I remember Roy, when I was a kid at the Irish School of Taekwon-Do coming down to train with us and telling us of his new tournament that he was working on.
Congratulations to Roy and his team.

In relation to our own results, they too have been phenomenal. 2014 was the first time we notched up championship status at the Irish Open. Lauren Bradshaw took home the gold in the +70kg's points and Brendan Kenny, who had joined us six months previous, also notched up a victory winning the -84's. Both Brendan and Lauren are unbelievably committed young athletes. Their entire life revolves around their training.
Brendan came to Red Star as a good fighter. He had notched up some nice victories in some small international tournaments. In order for him to develop into the fighter he is today, he had to adapt and modernise his movement. As his new coach, I was concerned at how long this would take him. He had some small habits ingrained in his movement that would inevitably be exploited by real world class fighters and at his first outing with us at a high level, he was left reeling after been beaten by Eric Melhorne of Elite Fighters at the senior national Kickboxing championships. He was swept, kicked and countered by Eric. This was the eye opener for Brendan. From here he took every part of our training programme and worked it to the bone. Two years on and he's now Irish Open Champion for 2015 taking on the very best in the world in the -79kg division.

It seems Lauren has been training and fighting since she was born! Lauren joined Red Star when she was 7 years old. Since she was 11 she has competed internationally with us. Throughout those years she competed at similarly small international tournaments but as our training adapted and modernised, she too led the way as our ambassador on the international stage. In 2012 as coach, I made a decision to move away from the smaller international tournaments and seek out the larger, tougher international events. Our first big one came in Bulgaria in 2012 when she won the ITF European Championships. This was the ITF under Prof Chang Ung. This ITF, the largest in the world at that time, put forward a huge championships with the largest division Lauren had ever fought in. In true form, she nailed it, and from there on we started our journey, next up for us was the obvious step into the world of the WAKO international tournaments. Lauren became WAKO European champion in 2013.

Not to drag this post into the realms of our history, but it is important to note one thing. That one thing is in line with the phenomenal success the Irish Open is, the commonality is this; success takes time. It takes time, commitment, hard bloody work, real tears, and passion, but most of all it takes courage. As a relatively small club in Dublin, we could have easily stayed the pace attending small level international tournaments. But we didn't want to. The sport we were involved in was evolving at a fast pace and we wanted to be apart of it all. We took a gamble but we were eager to learn and eager to be up there with the best. Our gamble paid off, for now. We never take anything for granted, and while we have two Irish Open champs training at Red Star, that was yesterday. That was last weekend. We still have work to do and we're still eager to learn and move forward with our sport.

The Irish Open itself ran seamlessly, or so it seemed from the outside. No doubt behind the scenes the organisers were operating on a higher level of consciousness! In fairness to them, they made it feel seamless.

This year Red Star had a slightly larger team registered, we also had Alan O'Connell who was going to take on the elite of the -69kg division. Alan is a Red Star veteran and is never afraid to step up to the mark. Alan is a different fighter than he was last year and without a doubt he will make his mark. Alan had a tough opener and lost on a split decision (2-1).

We also had Darragh Murphy from Galway. Darragh has only recently joined Red Star and is on his own journey now as he adapts and brings his own flavour to his sparring. Darragh won his first bout in the -74's against Wales. Next up he fought Colm Carroll who is the current junior WAKO world champion. Darragh certainly learned plenty. Movement at this level needs to be experienced, and from there on it needs to be understood and the training methods adapted. Darragh has plenty of potential and I look forward to watching his improvements over the next few years.

In the novice division we had Pawel Dabrik. Pawel is a new comer to Red Star and the Irish Open was his third tournament in Kickboxing. All credit to him for making the big step in to such a huge event. Unfortunately it wasn't to be for Pawel this time, losing out to a British fighter. Everyone has starts somewhere!

Lauren's division was comprised of a current WAKO European Champion from Team Blue blood in Britain and a current WAKO World Champion from Italy. Lauren had already been beaten by the Italian last year so it was a huge challenge for the 17 year old who had cut weight to also compete in the -70kg division.
After dispatching her first fighter from Wales with a unanimous decision she faced the European Champion in the next round. If she was to win this, the Italian world champ had just won her fight and waited for Lauren in the final. I would have been just happy with some improvements that we had been working on to have shown themselves in the fight, winning was a bonus. Well the improvements were there, along with a comprehensive victory over the European champion. Job done, for now!

Next up we had the current world champ in the final. It was easily Lauren's hardest bout to date. The Italian rocked her with a sharp right hand in the first round which put Lauren on to her back. She was shook, I've never seen her so shook. Knowing her as I do, I knew that inside her is an aggressive spirit but to access it you have to be very autocratic with her, and so I was - “get it to together” I said sharpishly. “you can beat this girl, now don't be giving me any nonsense, no tears you're meant to be a fighter” - I told her. She sucked it up and got back to business. The Italian hassled her and knocked her to the ground more than twice later. But, her well timed techniques had the Italian chasing points. In fact Lauren's timing was impeccable. Although she might not have thought it, she was picking off points as the Italian drove forward knowing she was behind. In fairness to the excellent judging they spotted every simple technique that scored.

With 10 seconds left the Italian came for the kill bashing Lauren to the floor again and as she sat there, blood in her mouth, tears in her eyes not knowing that time was up, I turned to her and said “Jesus you won the bloody thing!”. It was a bitter sweet victory!
The Italians were annoyed that Lauren was knocked over so often. I don't think they realised that it was their fighter that knocked her over! In my experience rushing in to bash your opponent never works in continuous kickboxing. This is where impeccable timing and movement overcomes. And it did, Lauren had won the Irish Open.

Lauren taking centre stage

Brendan had dropped weight from last year and was competing in the -79's for the first time. It was a tough division with 48 fighters registered. The former world champion was there, last years Irish National Kickboxing champion was there, last years Irish Open champion was there, Robbie Haugh was there!
I wasn't too concerned about Brendan's opening bouts. He beat Austria easily enough, he then dispatched Switzerland as he was starting to warm up. Next up was a former WAKO world champion from Belgium. This was a cracker of a fight with Brendan taking a close split decision. However, the semi final and final now comprised of fighters from Robbie Haugh's Elite fighters gym. Last years winner Colly Gilshinan was next in the semi's. Robbie's fighters are always clever. They're tactical, they're super fit and they can box as well as kick. Brendan had already had a knock with Colly in the final of the senior nationals. Brendan had won that bout but Colly was destined to learn from that and come back with a new game plan. Colly was fast, aggressive too. He closed the distance incredibly fast and had Brendan under pressure in the first round. We changed the tactics slightly and opened up a lead with some deceptive head kicks, Brendan maintained a lead and took the win.

Phil O Gorman had stormed his way to the final on the other end of the draw sheet. Phil is a class fighter who has made significant improvements since last year. We had to be clever with Phil.
It was classic final. Light contact continuous kickboxing at its best. Phil went up, then Brendan went up, then Phil went up again. On the break we had a narrow lead. Sometimes a narrow lead on the break is not the greatest place to be in, especially when Robbie Haugh is sitting across from you. They changed tactics to take back some scores in round 2.

Phil blitzed Brendan, just as Colly had done a round previous. Brendan tried to counter with a back kick but his timing was off and he exited the ring. A second exit that resulted in a minus point. Brendan was behind with about 30 seconds on the clock.
We chased and chased, we brought it back to a draw. We chased some more, then Brendan stopped chasing. He held his ground, I thought maybe he thought he was ahead! I reminded him we needed scores, Brendan still held his ground – Phil also needed scores. It was then I realised what was to come. Brendan maintained range, Phil blitzed him and boom... off went the back kick, this time scoring to the ribs. Phil dropped to his knees and the scores flipped. In that 10 seconds, Brendan had taken the win. Very clever thinking by him, whilst being under pressure. That's the fighter Brendan is. A thoroughly well deserved win for him.

That winning feeling

So with all that said and done, it's time to put those wins in the drawer and now move on to the next challenge. The WAKO junior Europeans are this year in Spain. This is Lauren's last year as a junior. We'll have our goals set for this.
The WAKO senior World Championships are in Ireland this year, this will be Brendan's first year as a senior. Lots of challenges ahead, but we love challenges – it's what drives us on.

For now the internet is buzzing with all of the clubs that represented themselves at the Irish Open. We are but a small part of a huge movement of sport kickboxers. Everyone should be proud of themselves that attended and put themselves up against the best that's out there. Those that didn't attend, need to ask themselves – why not? Your egos are not as important as those people that come to you for training, coaching and opportunities.

On we go.

Jon Mackey

Friday, February 6, 2015


Light Contact Kickboxing

A continuous evolution of Kickboxing”

Back in the early days of Kickboxing's development, only two disciplines existed; semi-contact and full contact. In the late 1970's and early 80's both of these disciplines were held on 8x8 meter open mats. At the time full contact kickboxing resembled full contact sport Karate, with Karate moves being executed with full power. It wasn't until full contact moved into the roped ring that it came to resemble more of a boxing style than Karate. Boxing became such an important aspect of full contact training that rules were imposed to ensure a certain amount of kicks were performed in each round. This departure in full contact widened the differences between itself and semi-contact kickboxing. Semi contact being the stop/start discipline where a point is awarded on the execution of the first clean technique to score. The fight is stopped, the point is awarded and then the fight continues.

During the early days, semi contact kickboxing was a stepping stone for fighters to transition to full contact, but with both styles now differing a great deal, it wasn't long before semi contact developed it's own identity, rule set and it's own brand of fighters.

This widening differences between these two original disciplines meant that it was hard for world authorities like WAKO to develop new fighters into the full contact discipline. In his excellent book “Kickboxing a Phenomenology of a Sport” WAKO President Ennio Falsoni describes the circumstances at the time as such - “The ring was revered and feared at the same time. We had to inject new blood into full contact, or otherwise we were heading nowhere.”

Ennio Falsoni WAKO President

It was originally Geert Lemmens who had come up with the idea to introduce a third discipline to try and resolve this problem for full contact. This new third discipline would act as the new transition discipline for full contact. It would entail fighters squaring off on the 8x8 meter open tatami, but unlike semi-contact the opponents would fight continuously, like full contact, over 2x2 minute rounds. This new discipline would be known as Light Contact Kickboxing. 

Geert Lemmens

In early Light Contact Kickboxing all techniques used in full contact were valid, however they were to be delivered with control. Ennio Falsoni described the new system as being similar to that type of sparring already in practice in gyms around the world; “This training exercise enabled them to fine-tune their attack and defence combinations, thus creating the automatic reactions essential for real fighting” (Kickboxing A Phenomenology of a Sport p.68).

Light Contact Kickboxing made it's debut on the world stage at the WAKO World Championships in Birmingham in 1983 five years after the first WAKO worlds in Full Contact and European championships in Semi-Contact (1978). As a demonstration discipline at the 1983 World Championships Light Contact went down a storm. Even though not many had entered into it's divisions it was the -57kg category that stole show with Gianpaolo Spanu exciting the crowds with his ability. Unfortunately and ironically he was disqualified for excessive contact having knocked out his opponent with a beautifully executed butterfly kick. None the less the new discipline attracted a huge amount of interest. In 1987 at the Munich based World Championships Light Contact was made an official sport of WAKO. 

Gianpaulo Spanu
Over the decades and since its inception, Light Contact has evolved and has since become a discipline with its own unique style. No longer is it a discipline used only to train up full contact fighters. Light Contact has become a very fast paced technical sport which includes all the speed and accuracy of Semi-Contact while maintaining the continuous flow of attack and counter attack of full contact.

Throughout the years the discipline has attracted many of the world's greatest kickboxers who have moulded and developed the style with their own unique methods. Slovenia's Tomaz Barada was one of the greatest Light Contact fighters WAKO has ever known. He amassed a staggering 84 Professional WAKO fights without loss, winning 6 World amateur titles along the way. His method of sparring showed the world how tactically useful a sharp lead leg was. He was able to beat world class kickboxers who relied on older training methods with the use of a lead leg. His use of counter kicking and having the ability to spin at short range meant he heavily influenced a generation of Light Contact fighters to develop their dynamic kicking ability at different ranges. 

Tomaz Barada

From the mid 1990's Light Contact became less full contact orientated with fighters now developing their ability to jab with their legs as well as their hands. Light Contact fighters became less flat footed like the full contact of old and became dynamic in movement akin to Semi-Contact but without the limiting side facing position that hampered the use of boxing techniques at close range. The rules also changed to accommodate this new fast and dynamic style of kickboxing. To ensure fast flowing techniques, techniques on the inside, like what you see on the ropes of a full contact fight, were not scored unless they were very obvious and very clean. Fighters today in the Light Contact disciplines will use a tactical exit away from the opponent in a bid to score a clean shot as they create distance, hence why you see good Light Contact kickboxers finishing hand combinations with a kick. Exiting the ring without being forced out three times will get you disqualified and the ring itself has become smaller, scaling down from the original 8x8 meters to 7x7 meters internationally and 6x6 at inter-club tournaments. This creates more action packed bouts with less hiding space for fighters like what you might see in the bigger rings.

Today all world class Light Contact fighters have a lead leg that they could eat their dinner with and a jab that has all the hall marks and speed of the semi-contact blitz or back-fist. They can all kick from close quarters and utilise switching movements to create an operating distance that allows them to score with their legs as they disengage from a clinch.

Present day Light Contact champions such as Ukraine's Katya Solovey, Britain's Elijah Everill and Ireland's Des Leonard are all part of the future evolution of Light Contact Kickboxing. They, and others like them continue to develop the sport as lightening fast continuous display of Kickboxing.

In the words of Ennio Falsoni himself; “In truth the words 'Light Contact' are something of a euphemism, as light contact has become a highly technical tough speciality. It has become a discipline of it's own characteristics and heroes”

Footnote: The next WAKO Senior World Championships will take place in City West, Dublin, Ireland this year (2015). Don't miss your opportunity to see the world's greatest on your door step.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

What makes a world class tournament?

WAKO and the ITF – Setting the standard of international tournaments

One of the major attractions for top level fighters to international tournaments is of course the standard of that tournament. Elite world organisations such as WAKO for example pay close attention to detail when putting together their international events. The same can be said for some of the ITF groups also. The reason why WAKO and some of the ITF groups maintain such a high standard of competitor is mainly because they put the fighters and competitors first. They also put on lavish shows with their events being held in world class venues with all of the trimmings which attract the very best onto the mats.

So what makes the very best tournaments in the world the very best? Well in my opinion it comes down to three things, the venue/logistics, the standard of umpire and the standard of opponent.

To start, having a world class venue is everything. At the ITF (NK) European championships in Bulgaria in 2012 the stadium was a purpose built Olympic class venue with seating for 4,000 plus. The lay out of this venue meant adequate training room and warm up areas for all athletes. The podium itself was actually a purpose built stage that measured at least 10 metres by 5 allowing international decorations a long side huge plants and carpet as well as local Bulgarian design and craftsmanship. The sheer size of the arena meant that 8 full size matted areas could operate without cramp as well as a raised centre ring for the finals. The same could be said for that ITF's world championships in Estonia in 2012 which was held in the very impressive Saku stadium in Taillin. 


The WAKO World Championships held in Ireland in 2011 was staged at the City West Convention Centre. Anyone who has seen this venue knows of it's world class facilities, grounds and support areas. The same venue is used for the Irish Open International Kickboxing tournament. At this years Irish Open I was kept up to speed on all rings via the Irish Open online App, which sent me my fighter's draws, their rings and the times they were on at. It also sent me results, and club standings. It doesn't get much better than that.

Logistical support for teams is also common at world class events. There is nothing more reassuring than landing at a foreign airport to be met by the organiser's bus shuttle service to your hotel, and from the hotel to the stadium. This allows high level competitors and coaches to remain focused on the task at hand without having to worry about exorbitant taxi prices or having to try sort out public bus transport in a country that may not use their language. All of this support and organisation is the trade mark of world class tournaments. It also shows the level to which the organisers are willing to go to make sure their events attract the very best. It also shows where the money is going. Tournaments that are run with the sole purpose of filling the pockets of the organisers will scrimp on the finer detail leaving the athletes to deal with logistics and other issues, this is not putting the athletes first.

Let me tell you from experience and from a coaches point of view, there is nothing, I mean nothing worse than attending an international tournament with a poor standard of umpiring. You and your team may have spent weeks, if not months preparing for a tournament only to be dealt a blow by inept umpiring. It is 'the' most frustrating thing, and is so avoidable yet some organisations put up with it. To put it into some context here is a tale of two tournaments, well actually three. Again to draw comparisons, the ITF Euros in Bulgaria of 2012 had a database of about 200 international umpires, of which the very best were invited and had their trip paid for. I had the priveledge of seeing the list of umpires which spanned over the continent of Europe, each one of them hand picked for their solid umpiring. It was the exact same at the WAKO European championships in Poland in 2013. Each of the WAKO umpires were selected and invited to the tournament. On each ring not one umpire shared the same nationality as either competitor, such was the level of organisation and fairness. 

 Master Robert Howard above was invited to umpire at the European Championships in Bulgaria, 2012. (pic

Compare that to a World Championships that was held recently (2012), which was in fairness a good tournament but was besotted with problems from start to finish. At this tournament I witnessed some of the worst umpiring I have ever seen. From complete ineptitude to blatant biasness. As a coach I have never had to argue my competitors' case more times than at this tournament. I watched umpires give decsions for a competitor who actually landed and faced the wrong way ending a pattern, I saw umpires give decisions to their own students even though said student was not as good as their opponent and the icing on the cake- one umpire fell asleep after being out on the town the night before. In fairness to the organisers they battled hard to keep things on the straight, but with under class umpires like that it was a constant battle. Some umpires out there couldn't be trusted to decide which is brighter, black or white.

World class competitors are what essentially makes a world class tournament and without the world class venue and the solid umpiring, world class competitors just won't show up and could you blame them? It is therefore unfortunate for aspiring fighters and athletes in some organisations not to get opportunities that may land them a respectable world or european title simply because their international organisation is incapable of organising world class events.

For those that really want to test their metal and for those that really want to stand out from the crowd, world class tournaments are where you need to be. Don't be afraid of the standard because even exposure to this standard will inevitably help your understanding of what you need to do in order to achieve this level. It can be a slow process and you need to be patient but if you have the will and the desire, good results are inevitable.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Teenagers and Combat Sports – Are you challenging the social norms?

Life is all about creating opportunities and seizing opportunities, it's about making the most of them and furthering your own personal goals and ambitions. In the last edition of Irish Fighter I wrote about goal setting in the martial arts, this time let's look at the possibilities and opportunities available to the youth through combat sports and why only a few will actually step up the plate and dedicate themselves to a life of training and sacrifice.

Good coaches create opportunities for their athletes and students. Over the years I have created many opportunities for fighters at my club, whether that's through affiliation to accredited sporting organisations that host credible international tournaments or whether it's instilling in them the confidence to be the best that they can be through tried and tested physical and mental training methods. With this approach I can boast about some of my junior competitors that have gone on to win major international titles in the sport of Kickboxing (WAKO) and Taekwon-Do (ITF).

The opportunities are endless for competitors and coaches with the right approach but these opportunities are not easily taken nor understood by the majority of juniors or in particular teenagers that are involved in combat sports. For the many juniors training at clubs across the island, the majority will only ever achieve mediocrity. A small few will do what it takes to seize opportunities and sacrifice the mediocre lifestyle that comes with the teenage years in order to be world class athletes.

This article is not about bashing our teens over the head and labeling them all as mediocre, it is a critical look at society, parenting and some of the reasons why the majority of teenagers opt for the easy life over those that choose to be different. Those that choose combat sports as a way of life.

The inspiration for this article comes from a recent opportunity I had to bring current female WAKO full contact world champion (-52kg's) Monika Markowska over from Jersey to conduct a training seminar for my guys at Red Star Kickboxing. I had only ever known Monika by her title, world champion, it was through the power of social networking that I got a closer look at this phenomenal athlete. Her dedication to her sport knows no boundaries. During a talk that she gave to some of the children at Red Star she spoke about her own training regime which starts at 6.30am EVERY morning, regardless of seasonal changes. After her early morning workout she goes to work as an accountant, after work she trains again. She only gets the best out of her training by sparring men who hit her hard and make her work. She left the children at my club in complete awe of her dedication and through that, her achievements in the ring. Whether she realises it or not she has already inspired a huge number of juniors to try achieve what she has to this date.
There is no doubt that from that group of children, many will try hard to achieve world class status within combat sports. The law of averages tells us that some will be successful, while the majority will succumb to 'normality' and mediocracy when society beats the will out of them while the fight to 'fit in' takes over instead.

Monika's success story started when she was a child. Her parents had her involved in sports from a young age. She started ITF Taekwon-Do in Poland as a child and from there her career blossomed. Parents play a huge part in the development of world champions, they also play a huge part in the huge swathe of young people who amount to nothing, whether that is academic under achievement or sporting under achievement. The roots of all dedicated sports athletes are planted firmly in the home where the parents and or guardians create early opportunities for their children to become active in sports and coupled with this they nourish and guide the young athlete on their journey.

Unfortunately some parents only see sports clubs and martial arts academies as child minding services. Some parents really couldn't care whether the club their child is involved in actually plays tiddly winks or Scrabble as long as they have a free hour to do whatever they have to do. In this case the parents completely miss any opportunities the child may have in any such progressive clubs. The child therefore loses out on the support and encouragement at home and in many cases will leave the training, especially if the parent has other things to do. These situations are in many cases truly tragic and frustrating to coaches who are dedicated to their members.

On the other hand however, there are many parents who are completely dedicated to their children's progression in combat sports. They ensure that their child is encouraged and guided. Of course there are times when the child may not want to go to training, it is the guiding hand of a sensible parent that encourages the child to attend and nourishes enthusiasm in them to progress.

It is at this young age that the junior world champion is created. At this young age and at home. It is only when the child turns into a teenager that this progressive parenting and indeed progressive coaching leads to a mindset of dedication and commitment which leads to a sense of self confidence and from there all goals are achievable.

Teenagers however do face huge challenges in staying fully committed to the tough and sometimes lonely life of being a high level athlete.
The biggest challenge to this is fitting in socially.
Top heavy socialising along side the need to create a persona that in some way helps them to become accepted by peers is the single biggest obstacle to sporting achievement along side just dog laziness, in my experience of coaching teenagers that is.
For me, it boils down to simple choices. The choice between training and going to the pub. The choice between getting up at 6.30am to do a 6Km run or to stay in bed for the morning. The choice between attending that tournament or pretending you're injured so you can't attend. It's the simple choice between dedication and mediocrity. The dedicated are hard to find, the mediocre are every where, best found falling out of pubs in the early hours and hiding behind the idiotic questions on the Ask.FM website.

For every hundred juniors that choose a life of under achievement, there is one junior who rebels against the social norms. For every hundred juniors that couldn't be bothered to be active in life, there is that one junior who dedicates themselves to something positive and worthwhile. When that one mediocre individual is staring down the end of their pint glass there is another champion in the making that is studying opponents, organising and planning their next training session. For every excuse maker there is that one achiever.

Those juniors that take opportunities and dedicate themselves to a life in combat sports deserve all the recognition and support they can get. They are the dream makers, they are the future of everything we do as coaches in this field. To have a junior member or members of your club that strive to be the greatest they can be is truly rewarding. To see them relish in the opportunities created for them is one of the most inspiring things a coach can enjoy. These guys are a rarity in today's society. Coaches worth their salt will continue to create opportunities for these junior athletes and champions of the future.

To all those kids who sacrifice the night club in favour of the their martial arts club - I bow down, to all those kids who step away from the crowd and mediocrity and work towards sporting achievement in the martial arts, the world is your oyster.

Friday, June 15, 2012

General Choi Hong Hi – 10 years on

The man pivotal to the development and spreading of the art of Taekwon-Do will be ten years dead this June. General Choi Hong Hi, the principal founder of Taekwon-Do and founder and first president of the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF) died of stomach cancer in Pyongyang, North Korea on June 15th 2002.

Reportedly a 2nd dan in Japanese Karate he began work on developing a new Korean Martial Art and during the 1950's while developing this new Korean Martial Art of Self Defence he received permission from the then President of The Republic of (south) Korea to use the name Taekwon-Do as the new Martial Art of Korea. The date of 11th April 1955 became the day recognised as the birthday of Taekwon-Do.

For over nearly half a century and being well into his 80's General Choi worked tirelessly to develop Taekwon-Do through his seminars and International Instructor courses. He controlled the International Taekwon-Do Federation with an iron fist and commanded genuine respect from followers the world over.

Historical Context

On March 22nd 1966 General Choi formed the International Taekwon-Do Federation after separating from the Korean Taekwon-Do Association in a bid to spread Taekwon-Do around the globe, a feat he lived to appreciate. The separation from the Korean Taekwon-Do Association was caused in part by General Choi’s autocratic leadership style and differences with the second generation leaders who were emphasising sports rules as a unifying rallying point and not the first set of Korean patterns that General Choi had designed. Along with his contentious battle to have them adopt his name of Taekwon-Do over their preferred compromise name of Tae Soo Do, General Choi eventually parted ways with the KTA.

General Choi courted controversy. He was incarcerated for resisting Japanese rule during the Japanese occupation of Korea. He was also an outspoken critic of the military dictatorships that plagued South Korea at that time. It was during the height of this government brutality in 1972 that General Choi exiled himself to Canada while leaving his entire family behind. He remained a fierce critic of the government while exiled.

When the Korean dictator General Park was assassinated by the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, General Choi had hoped he could return to Korea to continue his build of Taekwon-Do. However this was not to be. Another military coup took control as General Chun Do Hwan became the leader of South Korea. The South Korean government and the KCIA were adamant on destroying the ITF as it provided General Choi with a world-wide traveling platform which he used in addition to his teaching to severely criticise his government back home. Additionally South Korea was looking to use Taekwon-Do as a political and cultural propaganda tool. Dr. Kim Un Yong (first president of the WTF) was already working on his vision to have Taekwon-Do become an Olympic Sport. So naturally they would also look to minimise the influence of the ITF, a rival organisation. As the pressure from the KCIA of South Korea increased and the WTF became more successful in attracting and building their Taekwon-Do, General Choi's Korean following shrank.

In light of this General Choi courted North Korea in an attempt to gain more Korean instructors, as well as political and financial help to battle the political influence and money South Korea was providing to the WTF. This was a move that greatly helped the ITF but also one that was to frustrate it in the years ahead.

His desire to see the ITF grow led General Choi to make many enemies and even in death he stirred controversy. His final wishes in relation to the future of his ITF remains a topic of controversial debate, with many ITF members disputing the direction of his final wishes.

He died in a Pyongyang hospital ward surrounded by North Korean officials some of which were his closest masters. From that ward it was announced that General Choi chose Prof Chang Ung a North Korean politician and member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to become the next and second president of the ITF.

It has been documented that this was in fact General Choi's wish, it was not a last minute decision, but rather one that took place over a course of time. At this point there were serious and very high level government talks between South and North Korea, which included an idea to exchange Taekwon-Do Demonstration teams while discussions to merge the Taekwon-Do's of both Koreas took place. As a result, General Choi, who fought his adult life to get to this point wanted to be at that table and he probably would have been if he hadn't passed away prior.

In light of these political circumstances General Choi thought about who would be the best person to politically accomplish what was a highly political move, so he picked a politician, Prof. Chang Ung. This of course did not sit well with many members of the ITF, as they did not wish to be political, many members were not interested in politics, with some even resenting General Choi’s politics and his constant use of Taekwon-Do and the ITF as a political tool.
The cracks begin to show

At the ITF congress in Italy 2001, General Choi's son, Choi Jung Hwa along with his supporters initiated a plan to unseat General Choi as president by having him voted in for only two years out of the six year term with the remaining four years being presided over by Choi Jung Hwa. This was passed at the congress but due to the nature of the vote it caused divisions between General Choi and his son. They fought furiously after the congress with Master Choi Jung Hwa saying the North Koreans would not work with him as he would not let them control the ITF or exert their influence over the ITF as they did with his father.
General Choi met with his senior masters and instructors in a bid to plan the undoing of the vote at the 2001 congress. General Choi stated that the vote had to be undone as their were serious and significant merger talks taking place between the ITF and the WTF at which he needed to be remain as the president of the ITF. The WTF denied there were talks happening, but that organisation had signed an agreement in the early 1980's that WTF president Dr Kim had never honoured. The talks that were taking place were above and beyond Taekwon-Do and resided in the hands of the North and South Korean government's reunification ministries. The pressure was on General Choi to remain ITF president.

It was January 2002 in Vienna when an emergency meeting was called by the ITF, General Choi and his supporters voted to undo the result of the previous congress on the grounds that these were important political times. ITF meeting agreed with General Choi and he was reinstated as president for the full six year term, the vienna meeting also removed Master Choi Jung Hwa as Secretary General. This caused major frustration for Master Choi Jung Hwa resulting in him and his followers leaving the ITF and setting up their own organisation which was also to be called the ITF. Master Choi and some of his supporters were later expelled officially from the original ITF. This was the start of a very bitter division between Master Choi and General Choi which continued until before the time of General Choi's death when as father and son they reconciled.

It was also the beginning of a number of further divisions within the ITF as General Choi planned for the future of his organisation.

Following on from the Vienna meeting which reversed the decision to have Master Choi as the next ITF president, a hastily called meeting of the ITF ratified Prof. Chang Ung as the next president in accordance with General Choi's wish to have a politician lead through a politically charged period for Taekwon-Do and for Korea.

The decision to elect Chang Ung should have taken place at the scheduled congress which was to take place in 2003 in Poland. Some members were disgruntled at how this decision was handled and decided to challenge the decision at the congress in 2003. However this congress did not happen as agreed, Chang Ung and the ITF moved the world championships to Greece where the congress took place, while back in Poland opponents to the move held their congress as was agreed previously by the ITF. At this congress in Poland, Master Tran Trieu Quan was elected as president of the group emerging from this congress also to be called the ITF.

Tran Trieu Quan was a professional business man with an MBA, in addition to a knowledgeable martial artists with a depth of experience as a close and long time student of General Choi.

The stage was set, there now existed three International Taekwon-Do Federations. All three groups dispute the legalities of each of their respective congress meetings and votes taken within.

The ITF today ten years on

Master Choi Jung Hwa’s ITF went on to attract new member schools and also attracted some followers from the original ITF structure.
Choi Jung Hwa’s ambition was to return the ITF to South Korea, the country that his father had been exiled from decades previously.
In 2004 his organisation ran the first world championships held in South Korea and again in 2010 at which he attended himself which was as a result of his cooperation with the South Korean government. It was during this time that he gave an interview to an international news paper about his involvement with North Korean intelligence. Choi jung Hwa had been previously jailed for his role in a plot to assassinate the South Korean dictator president – General Chun Do Hwan.

Many of the changes introduced to Taekwon-Do through his organisation are confined to the tul, or patterns. Master Choi Jung Hwa introduced the ‘kihap’ into the patterns and also changed the name of a controversial pattern titled ‘Juche’ to ‘Kodang’ a move seen as a sweetener to the South Korean government as the organisation moved closer to that country. ‘Juche’ is a North Korean communist ideology based on Marxism and Leninism.

Today Master Choi Jung Hwa’s ITF appears to be the smallest of the three main organisations with 14 countries at their last European championships held in Italy 2011 ( They continue to work within South Korea which appears to have become the headquarters for that organisation. Choi Jung Hwa’s organisation has lost many significant master instructors and countries over the past few years with many returning to either of the other international groups or operating independently.

Grand Master Tran Trieu Quan presided over his ITF until he was
tragically killed in Port Au Prince, Haiti by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. Ironically he was there in his capacity as a civil engineer surveying buildings in a bid to make them safer; he was killed when the hotel he was staying in collapsed under the pressure of the earth quake. His organisation is now presided over by GM Pablo Trajtenberg. GM Tran was the first non-Korean to preside over an international Taekwon-Do Federation.

GM Tran's ITF introduced many changes also, but most noticeable is their work towards giving the organisation a more corporate image. The introduction of a new logo is a significant step away from the original recognisable blue and gold logo which is still in use by this ITF presently but sources close this organisation say it will eventually use the new design as their corporate logo moving the ITF’s even further away from each other. In relation to performances, this ITF tends to use a much slower rhythm when performing patterns, nearly giving more emphasis to the aesthetic beauty of the patterns over martial application.

This ITF attracted twenty four countries to its last world championships in 2011 held in New Zealand ( and maintains a considerable competitive standard.

Prof Chang Ung remains as president over the ITF which has it's headquarters in Vienna, where controversially an Austrian court found that the consultative committee of the ITF properly followed the rules at the time of Prof Chang Ung's election and hence ruled him as the president of the ITF. Much of Chang Ung's work to date as been around courting Olympic recognition for the ITF.

This work has resulted in many of the changes made to Taekwon-Do competition by this organisation which many say help to promote ITF Taekwon-Do as a dynamic kicking art. In order to achieve recognition this ITF has introduced a two punch rule, where the competitor may only throw two punches before kicking or pausing to throw another set of punches thereby encouraging more kicking. Its rules have also changed to include the compulsory use of 360 degree kicks during a bout again to promote more aerial kicking. This group ran the largest of the recent international tournaments with fifty eight countries participating in the last world championships in Pyongyang North Korea (

Newer organisations

Although it is acknowledged that these three groups represent the ITF, other smaller organisations have also popped over the course of the last ten years.
GM KS Hwang who originally supported General Choi's wishes to have Prof Chang Ung as the next president eventually left the ITF and formed Unified ITF as he felt Chang Ung had deviated away from General Choi's wishes. Unified ITF is relatively small but has a mission statement to unify all the international groups again at some point in the future.

The Future?

Across the ITF grass roots there is common desire for unifying the membership. Unification of the international bodies lends more credibility to its world and European-class tournaments as well as it’s standing as the official world governing body for traditional Taekwon-Do.

Unfortunately with all of the technical and aesthetic changes taking place as well as a number of bitter court battles over trademark rights, the unification of the ITF’s has never been so distant. While all of the groups pay homage to their founder and still hold him dearly in their hearts, only one action can truly show the respect and appreciation for the work that General Choi carried through his entire life and that is the action of unification. Until then, his legacy remains a myriad of disputes and conspiracies as the international Taekwon-Do Family walks in different directions.



A special thanks to Dr George Vitale of New York (Taekwon-Do Master and reputed TKD historian) for his time and assistance in compiling information for this feature.

The Author and Dr Vitale would appreciate any feed back, new information, memories and insights that any Taekwon-Do practitioner may have about these past turbulent times for the ITF.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

ITF competition rules, is it going in the right direction?

ITF Taekwon-Do has created a competitive standard for itself that out shines many if not all of the other Chang h’on Taekwon-Do groups in the world today. Post the 2002 split, ITF World Champions were a class amongst themselves, and even today with three ITF groups in existence each of the groups can boast some highly competent champions, every one of them are outstanding athletes and are a credit to their associations.

Over the years, ITF tournaments have undergone a step change. Most of the international groups have introduced changes to the sparring rules that some say enhance the sport and may make it more appetising to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as they scout for new combat sports. Others, however, say that some of the new rules are strangling the sport and that these new rules may encourage top class ITF competitors towards the like of the World Association of Kickboxing Organisations (WAKO). Here I will endeavour to outline this argument as best as possible. Before starting, I would like to acknowledge those ITF senior instructors whom I have discussed this topic with over the past month.

ITF Taekwon-Do is a dynamic, explosive martial art. In the ring Taekwon-Do athletes possess some of the fastest legs in the business, many also have sharp tactical hands. Taekwon-Do itself is based on Newtonian physics which is the scientific application of body mechanics to generate maximum power. In short, Taekwon-Do is an explosive, dynamic and powerful martial art when trained correctly - not unlike many other combat sports that take competition seriously. However, recent rule changes have been brought in to penalise any competitor with disqualification if they have injured their opponent and he or she can no longer continue. In Kickboxing this is called a ‘technical knockout’ and the injured fighter loses having been unable to continue.

For ITF Taekwon-Do, this rule change will water down some of the dynamic kicks that it is famous for within the ring. Competitors who have trained vigourously for international tournament will be very cautious about landing for example a reverse turning kick to an attacking opponent. The reverse turning kick when landed correctly is a powerful tool and has stopped opponents many times in the past. Likewise the axe kick will now become a kick that could lose you a tournament. Both the axe kick and the reverse turning kick in particular are kicks that are thrown with speed and power, they are difficult to throw gently, especially at an attacking opponent. You could in fact say the same about any kick aimed to head. These kicks will all now carry the possibility of disqualification for the competitor and because of this they now risk becoming rare kicks in ITF Taekwon-Do.

Other international groups have introduced the compulsory use of the 360 degree jump kicks mid round. These kicks when performed are the trade mark of ITF Taekwon-Do. However these kicks, due to their method of execution are also capable of delivering knockdown power. So in one hand competitors are encouraged to throw jump spinning kicks during the bout, but in the other hand they are penalised severely for any injury that they may cause. International rule makers need to make a choice, ITF Taekwon-Do at it’s finest, or ITF Taekwon-Do watered down.

The new two punch rule, which inhibits a competitor of throwing more than two punches in any combination was brought in to encourage more kicking, that’s fair enough, but with the already mentioned disqualification rule for knocking someone out kicking is already a touchy subject. However this two punch rule also waters down the Taekwon-Do competitor’s ability to use nice clean combinations while incorporating hands with kicks also. There is an opinion on this that even if the rule was made into a three punch rule it would allow a lot more combinations to flow. The blitz for example will suffer due to this rule. The blitz which is a flurry of straight punches that gains a competitor an explosive entry is generally no less than three punches with the lead hand used as an initial attack followed by a cross and lead hand again which can then be followed by some kick combinations.

While the new rules are meant with the best intention for ITF sport, they may serve to turn competitors away from top level events. Why train to increase your speed and power, if you may get penalised for it? It was General Choi who coined the phrase – “One strike, one victory” but now that victory may lie with the individual you have struck. Even in a self defence context if you train only to pull your shots well then you will pull your shots for real.

Competitors may seek other avenues to perform at a high level. WAKO have already made significant steps towards Olympic recognition, and while Kickboxing at the Olympics may be a bit into the future, it will certainly perk the ears up of any ITF athlete that fancies themselves in the ring. The rule set in Light Contact Kickboxing is relatively similar to that of ITF Taekwon-Do give or take a few minor details. There is a legal foot sweep in Light Contact, but the scoring is the same. The ring in Light Contact Kickboxing is two metres smaller which encourages more action and the sport in general is more safety focused in relation to equipment; mandatory head protection, mandatory wrist and hand protection and bigger softer gloves. Light Contact at a high level possesses all of the explosiveness of ITF Taekwon-Do except hand combinations are allowed to continue, there is no separation of competitors while clean techniques at close range are used.

WAKO is also presently a prestigious organisation, there is only one. So you can understand how any top level ITF fighter would eye up the WAKO’s as an organisation that would accommodate explosive and dynamic technique. Having said that, in WAKO a fighter can still be disqualified for lack of control, however clean technique within the realms of Light Contact will not lead to disqualification like it can in ITF.

The first person who managed to be successful at ITF Taekwon-Do and Light Contact Kickboxing was Slovenian Tomaz Barada. After dominating the ITF circuit for years he then went onto become one of WAKO’s top fighters, maintaining the Pro title at his weight for over 80 fights.

The message should be clear to the international rule makers involved in ITF sport. Allow the competitors the freedom to use the kicking and punching techniques that have made ITF sport what it is today. Allow competitors to be explosive while in control, and if a competitor gets injured because of it, count them out. The WTF is a knockout sport which is one of the reasons why it has held onto it’s Olympic mantle for so long. The ITF need to think about doing the same.