Good Sport: Tang Soo Do and the principles of bewilderment

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by Jeff Laughlin

The judges raised their flags, and as quickly as the bout began, it ended. Tang Soo Do moves fast, and understanding that took longer than a few seconds.

The referee yelled that blue had won the point, though the contact seemed minimal at best. The winner’s hand rose in the air, but no one seemed satisfied. Less than 20 seconds later, two similar opponents squared off. The 7-year-old girls were shuffled in and out so quickly that differentiating them got difficult.

That’s tournament life. In one ring, kids fought with slow, yet impatient motions, making little contact. In fact, some of the youngest participants would just move forward, fists extended in effort to take advantage of the one proven fact in children’s sports: Most athletes have very little coordination.

In the ring adjacent to them, adults battled with violent, effective motions and counterattacked viciously. Those matches lasted a little longer, as the elder statesmen of the sport knew techniques and dodges that the kids had not yet mastered.

Still to their left, meek-voiced young folks showed-off non-combat skills, performing kata-like routines called “forms.” Mixing graceful motion with guttural grunting and screaming, these routines varied only slightly, but the judges usually agreed on their effectiveness.

Thousands of participants packed the special events center at the Greensboro Coliseum. They posed in walkways with their countries’ flags or showed off their studios’ logos. Parents crowded valuable walking space to record their kids’ two minutes in the ring, screaming their names while the children tried to concentrate on the incredible discipline it took to anticipate what would happen next.

Martial arts vary so much between practices, and Tang Soo Do makes no exception. This particular form has undergone change over the years and had to be united under this assigned moniker after schisms in form and practice left the art with an array of masters, names and influences.

The World Organization of Tang Soo Do claims the practice dates back more than 2,000 years, though the name is much more modern. Koreans claim the sport’s heritage, but other countries claim influence — the  technique combines elements of kung fu, Okinawan karate and other Chinese martial arts. The name itself translates to “The Way of the Chinese Hand.”

When the Japanese took control of Korea in the early 1900s, they banned all native martial arts, making Tang Soo Do a secret discipline. When Hwang Kee, the master of the form in the ’30s, faced imprisonment, he fled to China and trained there for decades.

As each region found a foothold in the Korean way, the practice gained some worldwide steam, even finding its way to the west — and Chuck Norris. While he gets a lot of credit for popularizing the Western versions, the leaders of the worldwide community believe that the selling point of Tang Soo Do has more to do with the core principles than the celebrity guest stars.

As it says on the World Tang Soo Do Organziation’s website, “Tang Soo Do not only teaches physical techniques but also trains us to practice the ‘DO’ way of life through practice of the five virtues; ‘IN’ -humanity, ‘UI’-righteousness, ‘YIE’-etiquette, ‘JI’-wisdom and ‘SHIN’-trust. When we reach the ultimate level of ‘DO,’ we can live in perfect harmony with the laws of nature.”

Tough to search for harmony amidst chaos.

Even as the kids did katas, the crowds cajoled that peace by screaming for victories. Even the handshakes after matches had the bitter taint of competition in them. Disharmony ruled the tournament life, no matter the point of the overall practice.

In the secondary room, a large man practiced his form. His graceful spin belied his size. He set aside the violence and the grunting and the bo staffs — long, deadly sticks that scared me in the hands of 13-year-olds.

He cut through the constant crescendoes of crowd noise by spinning into a block. He seemed generally unhappy with the move for awhile, but then after a few more tries he nailed one. I’m no judge, but even I knew he nailed it. He smiled and nodded then tried to replicate it.

I had no interest in seeing him try again.

I packed up my notebook and fled. I still had no idea what the sport should look like or how the processes equaled winning. But I had seen peace and humanity, even if only for a brief second, and decided that worked better than judgment and chaos.

Perhaps the founders had intended that all along.