My life in Taekwondo… so far…

My Taekwondo life started when I was 12. During Junior School (6 years to 11 years in the UK) I was bullied over the last few years of it. When I raised it with my parents, I was told “it’s just kids being kids” and “don’t worry, new school soon, it’ll be different kids and it will all stop”. Well, I changed school at 11 and for the first year things went from being a whole year of new kids who didn’t know each other, to me being back at the bottom of the pile, bullied by the cool kids and being scared to go to school every day (having molten solder flicked at you and chased by people holding hammers will do that). Sadly my mum gave the same advice “wait until next year, everyone will be a bit older and more sensible and it will stop”.

So I turned 12 in the summer and went back to school for the new term in the September. To no surprise, the bullying started again. So after about a month, my mum agreed I should learn a martial art to defend myself. In those days (1986) there was no internet really, so I went to the library and found a martial arts book by David Mitchell. The book had maybe 10 pages on each martial art, and as I flicked through Judo, Jiu Jitsu, Karate, etc, I then came to the section on Taekwondo. It had a World Taekwondo sparring competition photo where one guy was taking an axe kick to the face and on the next page it had a series of diagrams showing how to do a jumping spinning hook kick. Well, as a 12 year old — I was sold! “THAT’s what I want to do to the bullies”.

We went to our local sports centre to look what martial arts were available. The three options were Shotokan Karate, Zen Kempo Ryu Jiu Jitsu and… a new Stevenage Taekwondo class that had opened up one week before! The very next lesson there I was, my best friend came with me for support and together we learnt Taekwondo from a guy we called “Master Pan”. It’s only decades later that I truly understand how lucky I was to have learnt from a guy that was such a well respected master at that time (and a world famous grandmaster when he passed away in 2020).

At the end of every lesson he would finish with “so what situations would you struggle to defend yourself in”, meaning either when someone grabs you in X way or multiple people doing Y, and then he’d give some defences and we’d practice them. In reality five minutes at the end of a lesson on each thing, with no repetition week-to-week, wouldn’t let the defence become second nature — but I know that he was teaching me confidence and that no matter how bleak things looked, there was a simple defence available.

1st Dan

I trained with him as my sole instructor up until my red belt and then he handed the club over to Master Carl Lees. I continued to see him on the weekends though and he kept training me towards my black belt. When I had my black belt grading on the 6th of December 1990 under Master Anthony Slaney of the British Taekwondo Control Board (now known as British Taekwondo), both Masters Pan and Lees were there, and afterwards Master Pan gave me an embroidered black belt with my name on one side in Korean and “Pan Taekwondo” in Hanja (Chinese characters) on the other end.

I had a few competitions up until the age of 17, my first one when I was 13 went horribly wrong! I was a green stripe and the British Taekwondo Federation national championships was held in my home town. You had to be a green belt to enter, so Master Pan in true Mr Miyagi fashion gave me a green belt to wear for the day. He said “it’s 10–13, 14–16” so you’re at the top of the age group, you’ll be OK. I went in on the day and they sat all the juniors down and said “because of the number of entries, we’re going to make it 10–12 and 13–16”. I still felt (naively) confident, I was loving Taekwondo and from my belt tests, doing well at it.

Of course, we never did much sparring, so I hadn’t actually any idea what to do. My first match came up, against a 16 year old black belt and Master Pan grabbed some random guy he know (who was I believe UK heavyweight champion) to sit in my chair. The guy said to me “OK, what we’ll do is throw a skip turning kick as your first kick, as soon as the referee says go, then we’ll see what he does and go from there”. OK, sounds good. So ref says start, I throw my kick and I actually remember at that moment thinking “how will I know what his response means and what to do next?”. Well it turned out to not matter, his response was to axe kick me in the face and knock me out cold.

So being helped out of the ring by medics after maybe 3 seconds of my first fight, was not a glorious start!

I had a couple of other competitions, but lost both first fights on points. It didn’t matter to me though, what mattered was that I’d got in the ring, full contact with “fighters” and survived, so that gave me a lot more self-confidence. Fortunately, by then the bullying had stopped anyway. I think the turning point was when we had a “show and tell” day at school one day. I took in a big kicking shield. After talking a bit about Taekwondo (I was close to black belt at the time), I gave the shield to our biggest rugby-playing monster of a PE teacher. Then I jump back kicked him across the room! After that I was pretty much left alone.

Kukkiwon Second Dan

So Second Dan test came around in early 1993 — first a private one under Master Pan because he wanted to test me, even though BTCB wouldn’t recognise it, then an official one under BTCB. Fairly uneventful, Master Pan always said that tests shouldn’t make you nervous. If you train hard and work to correct your mistakes, then tests are just milestones along your journey — it’s not a huge deal, it’s just a “you’re at this point” as you move past it.

I spent most of my period during 1st Dan and 2nd Dan travelling the country with Grandmaster Pan, either assisting him with seminars as his “demonstrator” or being part of his “demonstration team”. We spent a lot of time in those car journeys talking about Taekwondo, asian culture and instructing techniques — how to break things down for students and use metaphors to increase understanding.

I remember we did a demo at a semi-contact martial arts tournament on a US air force base in the UK. We were welcomed as VIPs and I still remember the sounds of the crowd as we broke some boards. Of course, compared to the modern Kukkiwon demo team it was nothing, but in those days when I broken a board held at chest high by one of the tournament organisers while he stood on two chairs, that was special to that crowd.

Kukkiwon Third Dan

After that, I decided to take a 2 years out, then started to get back in to it and trained hard for my 3rd Dan in 1998. After it taking over a year to get my Dan certificate from Kukkiwon via BTCB, I was fed up with being a part of them and lost enthusiasm for Taekwondo through the politics and ended up taking another 3 years off. I’d lost touch with my constant source of motivation too, Grandmaster Pan, as he’d moved back to his birth country of Malaysia. I wish I hadn’t had those breaks, both times it was MUCH harder to get back in to.

Fortunately after those three years I came back to the club and had a renewed passion. The reason was that Master Carl Lees was an excellent technician but held the common but mistaken opinion that “the standards from Kukkiwon change every few years because of who the current president/head is, no point staying up to date”. Fortunately, I was able to show him some videos online of the official Kukkiwon poomsae instructional videos from the 80s/90s and current techniques and there were almost no differences. He conceded that maybe they don’t change that often, and trying to bring the club up to date with standards would renew passion all around for Taekwondo (after so many years of teaching the club the same thing, he said was getting a bit bored too).

So we worked hard together to truly suck up the details for all the movements from instructor text books, official DVDs, etc. I’ve always been like a sponge for technical knowledge — likely because of my start from Grandmaster Pan — things were always precise and details were known about exactly where things start, where they finish and how they get there. So Master Lees and I worked on learning all of the black belt poomsae together (neither of us knew them all) and helped each other with technical details. This was amazing, because as a 3rd Dan it was a real confidence boost as I was getting towards Master level to have the club instructor say to people “ask Andy for the detail on that, he knows it”.

In early 2010 I managed to get back in touch with Grandmaster Pan, and found he’d moved back to the UK ages before (one of his daughters saw a forum posting that I was trying to find him). After meeting back up with him and training with him quite a few times he said “why haven’t you tested for your next Dan, you’re past elligible!”. I explained about the breaks and he patiently explained that even excluding the breaks I had enough time that I should be 5th Dan if not almost 6th Dan. He re-explained his milestone perspective and said that he would test me for 5th Dan and jump 4th Dan entirely. I didn’t know this was possible, but if my instructor said to do it that was good enough for me. I was always taught to never ask your instructor to test and to not turn it down if told to test.

Kukkiwon Fifth Dan

So in December 2010 I tested for 5th Dan under Grandmaster Pan. He applied to Kukkiwon and it was no problem. To some people, skip dans are very controversial and some people feel you should test for every ranks. Grandmaster Pan always felt that they’re not Pokemon (gotta get them all) but markers on a journey, so if you didn’t spot the fourth mile marker it doesn’t make the fifth mile marker any less significant.

However, for a different reason, again politics reared it’s ugly head. At the time, Grandmaster Pan was an 8th Dan and a 2nd Class Kukkiwon International Instructor. However, BTCB felt that his promotion test wasn’t good enough (and that maybe I’d just paid for the rank — anyone thinking that about Grandmaster Pan doesn’t know him at all!). I’d also at a similar time start my own club for children, but did so under a different association (one that more closely followed Kukkiwon rules and attitudes than BTCB at the time).

So BTCB flared up and said I’d have to stop my club (or transfer them all to BT) and re-test for my rank under them. Again politics had reared its head in to my Taekwondo life. At that point, I thought carefully about my future. I knew I wouldn’t be able to train with Master Lees and Stevenage Taekwondo any more, but maybe over time we could do a sly way of me just popping in every so often. Also I knew that my future was in teaching my students and I wasn’t going to be ruled over in such a way over petty politics.

So I left the club that had been my home since 1986. This was in late 2011. In 2012 sadly Master Lees died in a freaky scuba diving accident. His brother called me one day and told me, as I was known as the senior grade at the club and was destined to take over when Master Lees retired (he always told his daughter “this is the man that will teach you Taekwondo when you’re older”). I had the horrible job of going along to the club and announcing to all of the students of Master Lees’ passing. After telling all the children with their parents’ knowledge (I offered them all the chance to tell the children privately, but all preferred them to hear it from me), and the adults I then spoke to the black belts.

My statement was something like this “I know I’m not a current member of BTCB or the club, so there are some political hurdles here, but if you want me to take over running the club I’m happy to. If you want to have one of you do it, that’s fine, I’ll keep out of it as I have my own club to run. So feel free to discuss it and let me know”. Pretty much immediately the group told me they wanted me to do it.

So I had a discussion with BTCB, told them of Master Lees passing and that I was going to be taking over Stevenage Taekwondo (that was one of their oldest member clubs). I gave them the choice of recognising my grade and accepting me back, or I’d take all of the members over the other association. They agreed and after a “kiss the ring” meeting where I had to promise never to take an external grading again, they let me rejoin BT with my current grade.

I notified Kukkiwon of Master Lees’ death too. Later that year, I received an email inviting me to the World Taekwondo Leaders Forum in Seoul that year. I’d always wanted to go to Korea, and to be invited to go by Kukkiwon made it an offer I couldn’t refuse. I had to pay airfare, but the event was free and they’d pay for the hotel and food. I went to the event, made loads of great international friends from around the world and learnt a load.

Changmookwan 6th Dan

While out there I also met the President of Changmookwan, Grandmaster Kim, Joong-young. Master Lees’ 1st Dan was under a Changmookwan instructor in Germany and Grandmaster Pan considered GM Kim, Soon-Bae (past president of Changmookwan) as his Kukkiwon-Taekwondo instructor (he started in ITF and switched to WTF/Kukkiwon), so Changmookwan was my lineage. I spoke with Grandmaster Kim about joining Changmookwan and he said (through an interpreter) that he had seen my poomsae during the poomsae training session and was happy to accept me as a Changmookwan 6th Dan. For the original kwans, dan rank is membership.

In 2013, I went back to Korea. While I was in Korea I went to a very famous dojang run by Grandmaster Kang, Ik-pil — he’s known as the author of the “poomsae bible” (he doesn’t call it that, but internationally that’s what it’s known as in dojangs). GM Kang was trying to correct my power generation “too much strength, more speed”. I understood the words he was saying (a few words in English, some physical demonstration) but couldn’t get my body to do it any differently.

A few days later I attended the “Foreign Taekwondo Master Course” (some of us that knew Kukkiwon staff) lobied them to change the name, as “foreign” can feel very exclusionary). On the course, aanother instructor explained it in a slightly different way and suddenly it all clicked in to place. The lesson GM Kang gave me was suddenly worth it’s weight in gold now I understood what he meant.

Grandmaster Pan also attended the course for his final time to qualify as a 1st Class International Master. The course was excellent (I have a full diary online) and again I made so many friends. However, I did feel that I was missing details because they didn’t have official translators but one of the class members did it. It would feel like the instructor in each session would say five sentences in Korean and the translator would say one in English. For all I knew he’d just cut out waffle, but I hated not knowing what all the missed content was.

On the course in the evenings, we’d finish officially at 5–6pm, then train on the Kukkiwon floor until 8–9pm, before a quick dinner and study for an hour or two before bed. One of my cherished memories of that trip was helping some of the other candidates with poomsae details they hadn’t picked up on the course. During one of those sessions Grandmaster Pan was watching. I tried to yield the floor to him (no point learning from a student when the expert is there), but he said “you’re doing just fine, I want to watch” and he watched me teaching the whole time.

I ended up passing the course and receiving a Kukkiwon Citation for my efforts (maybe 20 given out, from 150 masters).

While in Korea, I managed to get in touch with Changmookwan HQ and made an introduction for Grandmaster Pan to meet President Grandmaster Kim Joong-young. While in Grandmaster Kim’s office, GM Kim was talking about old instructor courses and showing Grandmaster Pan old photo books. Grandmaster Pan then suddenly pointed to one of the photos and said “that’s me, but I had hair back then!”. Grandmaster Kim was so happy to learn that Grandmaster Pan had been Changmookwan for so long. On that trip Grandmaster Kim promoted Grandmaster Pan to Changmookwan 9th Dan and I was proud to be present at the certificate presentation.

So when I returned to the UK, I decided to start learning Korean. I’d wanted to for decades — I could read and write Hangul (although slowly) and had so many books, CD, etc on learning Korean that it should have been easy. But it could never stick. I found an online tutor through iTalki.com and while slow, I managed to get to an intermediate level in Korean.

Kukkiwon Sixth Dan/ Changmookwan 7th Dan

In true Grandmaster Pan fashion, in December 2015 my “milestone” was up and it was time to test for Kukkiwon 6th Dan (and this time concurrent test for Changmookwan 7th Dan). This time though the test was done during a normal class, so while my students practiced on the dojang floor, I was up on the stage being put through my paces. I wonder how many students were secretly keeping an eye on what was going on instead of training and how many were shocked when Grandmaster Pan announced “Everyone stop, I’m happy to tell you that your instructor just tested and passed his Changmookwan 7th Dan test”. Such a proud moment and I’m glad I did it in my dojang with my students there, rather than in some random remote hall.

In 2016 I returned to Korea to sit the 2nd Class International Master Course (2nd Class needs Kukkiwon 6th Dan AND 3rd Class pass) with some students. We had a great time, but the best compliment for me was when my students said “all the things they’re teaching and some people are learning, it’s exactly how we do it at home already”. This time although I was only a few years of Korean in (and Korean is a TOUGH language for an English speaker), I understood some of the instruction in Korean and the Kukkiwon staff and grandmasters were so appreciative for my efforts in trying to speak Korean.

I passed the 2nd class course too, and received another Kukkiwon Citation for my efforts.

I’ve been to Korea about 7 times now over the past decade and if you do Taekwondo, it’s so worth the effort. Korean people love you if you do Taekwondo! I’m still studying Korean, I’m comfortable labelling myself a “lower advanced” now. Nowhere near fluent, but my Korean lessons these days are an hour of Korean with maybe 10 words of English. Anyone listening in may think I’m fluent but sometimes my sentences are things like “What do you call the thing that’s really cold with drinks and food in it” — when I can’t remember refridgerator or something like that. But hey, I’m happy with that level and don’t care if I ever reach fluency.

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