WRITTEN BY: Daphne Wang, University of Toronto Taekwondo Organization
Contrary to what many may assume, Taekwondo is not just about learning a martial art. Indeed, much of what we do involves the technical aspect of performing high difficulty kicks, memorizing choreographed patterns and sparring. However, a more important part of UTTO is the team and environment that supports this kind of training.
As with many martial arts, Taekwondo demands a high level respect among the student and the teacher. Even in sparring, there are a number of rituals and structures involved that signal respect among fighters. For example, it is customary to bow before sparring matches and for opponents to shake hands with each other before and after matches. Opponents always end up giving each other a pat on the back, regardless of how hard they were kicking the same person just moments ago, with the mutual understanding that they are actually helping each other perfect techniques to become a better fighter.
When I first started out as a white belt, the entire hierarchy of belts was daunting to me. To train, much less fight, with athletes who are several ranks above me with more years of practice did not seem feasible! However, at UTTO whatever colour or degree of belt you have did not matter during practice. In fact, we don’t even wear belts. The only thing that does matter is the amount of effort each individual puts into practices. However, this does not mean that teammates are indifferent to each others’ skills. Teammates do fight with awareness of each other’s level of experience. If a more experienced black-belt is put into a round with a new fighter who is just learning the ropes of sparring, the experienced fighter would know what intensity of fighting is acceptable so that it is still challenging but not unfair. Under these conditions, fighters from all levels of experience feel encouraged to train alongside each other.
To outsiders, Taekwondo may seem like an aggressive and dangerous sport. But come to see our practices, and you’ll see a great sense of camaraderie and solidarity. As hard or physically intense as practices may get, we like to goof off and make practices more fun for ourselves. Every time I go to practice, I feel like I am getting as much out of the team as I am giving to the team. Whether it is holding the kicking pad for others or offering tips for improving technique or cheering on teammates through a tough cardio routine, so much of Taekwondo practice is carried out through the support of the same people you spar with.
I am proud to say that I am comfortable sparring with my teammates during practice. The kind of team atmosphere fostered by UTTO encourages me to take on more challenges and risks during sparring rounds. In other words, there are only hard kicks but no hard feelings among us.