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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington!

Welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse Blog, your home for all things Tae Kwon Do. This week I have the pleasure of recounting one of the best martial arts events I've had the pleasure of participating in in a long time...U.S. Tae Kwon Do's recent SPARTOBER Saturday!

The demo team sure was excited about it

What is Spartober? Great question.

This recent event at U.S. Tae Kwon Do was an opportunity to spar a variety of martial artists from different schools in a more relaxed, friendly environment. That is, it was a gathering space for Tae Kwon Do competitors (like a tournament) but without all the hyper-competitive blood-lust (...unlike a tournament). Participants got a chance to spar multiple rounds where no points were recorded and no winners were named. In other words, each person got to spar for the sake of sparring--each player got to compete against their own personal best.

Not only that, but everyone who attended got to see the U.S. Tae Kwon Do demo teams perform for the first time this season!

And, as you can see, they were all very serious about it.

Except for Master Vahid...

All Master Vahid cared about was busting balloons with nunchucks...

In all seriousness, I wanted to write about this event here because it's something I find particularly important. The more Tae Kwon Do grows into a competitive sport, the more potential it has to lose touch with its traditional roots. I don't mean some connection to millennia-old occult practices, I just mean the spirit of Tae Kwon Do before it become an international sport with winners and losers determined by points and champions determined by sponsorship deals. The difference, according to Allan Back (2009), between the traditional martial art and the martial art as combat sport is that the former is focused on the violent technique (and the ethics of using such a technique) whereas the second is focused on the rules of contest (and how to win). What this means for the practitioner is a shift in the kind of moral education they receive through practice. Back presents some interesting empirical data which supports his belief that traditional martial arts can improve the character of practitioners:

The martial arts tradition offers a way promising to eliminate the violence and dominance (although not necessarily the risks) over others in the very process of fighting and competition. It turns out that what studies we have using the standards use to measure the moral character of athletes suggest that practicing a traditional martial art does produce a good moral character, indeed, just in the ways that are often claimed for sports. For instance Michael Trulson had three groups: a control group, a traditional martial arts group, and a martial arts sport group of delinquent teenagers (72). The martial arts group had better results than the control group; the martial arts sport group had worse ones. Somehow, traditional martial artists learn how to deal with aggression and violence—without, so the evidence suggests, becoming aggressive or violent themselves. In contrast this does not hold for violent, aggressive sports like boxing or martial art sports (Back, 2009, p. 228-9)

According to the study Back discusses, there is a measurable difference in moral character between students with a more traditional focus than those who simply fight for sport. Spartober was an effort to facilitate a different kind of competition, one where each student had a chance to learn from one another, to trade notes and make new friends, and to encourage one another.

That's why so many of our students were smiling in these photos! Even me :)

So how does this work in practice? My theory is that its all about focus and intent. When you train to spar traditionally, you focus on the speed, power, and precision it takes to land a shot on your opponent without getting counterattacked. At the same time, however, you recognize that the person you are sparring is a teammate, a fellow student, someone who you are struggling against for mutual benefit. The higher the skill levels of each student, the higher the level of respect. Why? Because as your own technique improves and becomes more dangerous, you become more and more attuned to the potential power of others, especially those who train like you. As you spar more frequently, you encounter people who are even better than you and can strike you with ease. This conditions you to deal with emotional and physical stress while persevering. Eventually, you spar people who have a lower skill level than you. If you've developed the empathy from your own tough matches, you get to exercise a level of control to help these students learn. Finally, when sparring people on your level, you recognize that neither of you is competing against the other for something as trivial as a "win." Instead, you are each pushing the other to their limits, encouraging them to transform and become someone better than before--more determined, more resilient, more focused. And at the end of the match, you shake hands to show good sportsmanship, bow to show respect, and hug to show love.

When sparring in high-level competition, the focus is different. Suddenly, it doesn't matter how you improve as a person in the long-term. The only thing that matters is winning by defeating your opponent, specifically by scoring more points than them. The self-cultivation element of martial arts has all but evaporated in this sport arena and there is little time to be critically self-reflexive or empathetic. When your only choices are winning or losing, how can you focus on anything in between?

Of course, in both situations, you still try not to get kicked in the head

And get your licks in

I'm thankful that so many of our students showed up to Spartober with that traditional attitude, one crafted through years of training, one that invited others to compete with maximum effort and utmost respect. Even if some students didn't arrive with that same attitude, I'd like to think that they left inspired to be kinder, more empathetic, and more reflective after seeing the way our students performed. I know I did.

Thank you to Master Vahid for organizing such an amazing event, to Miss Jess for taking all these quality photos, for the masters who brought in students from other schools, to the demo team for being awesome, and for all the parents and students who showed up to compete. I hope you were all as impressed as I was by the commitment to the art all the participants showed.

Looking forward to taking this show on the road for the Florida Tae Kwon Do Open on November 2! Let's see how well our students fair there after getting so much good practice in. More importantly, let's see how well those positive attitudes hold up in a competitive scene. I have high hopes :)

That's a good looking crew! Thanks everyone!!

That's it for today--as always, thanks for reading!


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