The final assessment – my 5th dan grading

Back in October 2021, I went to the Black Belt grading in Daventry and successfully passed my 5th Degree Black Belt. I wanted to be the best I possibly could for this grading, so I spent time preparing in advance. This is the story of that preparation…..

I took my 4th degree Black Belt back in October 2014. During the grading I sustained a knee injury, which I firmly believed at the time would be the end of my Taekwon-Do training. There were several weeks of not being able to walk, followed by around 18 months of light training. At this point my instructor decided to retire and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to become the club instructor. My motivation to progress was fuelled again, and I began a four year journey to get ready.

Kicking with bad knees! Receiving my 4th Dan certificate from Grandmaster Michael Dew. The foundations of our club in 2018. My first two white belts getting ready for their grading

Primarily I see myself as a student, I always love to train and enjoy the challenge of learning something new, and the 4th Dan sylabus was not without it’s challenges. Pattern Tong Il seemed to take so long to learn. Both my instructors, Mrs McIlvar and Mrs Tombling are both inspirational teachers and I found I was able to feed off their knowledge and enthusiasm for the art.

During COVID-19 restrictions, I pushed myself with home training, using Zoom. Despite gaining a lot out of this, sometimes training for multiple sessions a day, I was determined to push harder over the 9 months or so leading up to the grading.

Home training – A mixture of Black Belt syllabus, fitness circuits and my own exercises. I was determined to use this period to improve!

In the run up to the grading, I increased my training schedule. I started to get up an hour earlier (3:45am!) and head off to the gym. I used this time to run, train on the equipment then go into the mirrored studio to improve on my forms. I like to think I improved through this, and just before taking the first part of my grading, I felt I was probably the fittest I had ever been.

Watching my forms and movement, working out how to improve my techniques. Using the facilities in a 24 hour gym to push my fitness, to be the best I could for the grading.

The Black Belt grading has different stages to pass. The first stage is a local assessment, where the senior Black Belts in the area put a group through their paces over a gruelling two hour session. My feedback was extremely positive, and I felt at this point I ‘hit my peak’ in terms of what I was able to do.

The grading itself was held in Daventry. This was the first time a Black Belt grading had been held outside of the TAGB academy in Bristol. I was also very fortunate, that the grading schedule of my amazing wife, aligned with mine on this occasion and we were able to take this together.

Grading photo courtesy of Mr Stephen Lamberth. British Championship photos courtesy of the TAGB media team. (Nov 2021)

Our eight year old daughter also trains with us, and is a member of the same club I train at in Malmesbury. I have been encouraging her to compete at the local and national tournaments. To support her with this, I’ve started competing myself again, which I hadn’t done since 2004 when I was a first Degree Black Belt. She has gone on to win some medals which has made me very proud! We are due to compete in the Welsh Championships in May 2022.

As I had completed my grading in October 2021, the first tournament was in November 2021 – The British Championships. I was given three forms to perform at this level, Moon Moo, So San and Yon Gae, all of which are 5th Degree patterns and I was unfamiliar with. I spent the time learning Yon Gae and was pleased with how I did, as I reached the second stage in a large group.

My next challenge is to learn a 2nd 5th Dan pattern and try and perform this at a tournament, maybe in October this year.

It’s good to challenge yourself and have motivating goals!!

May 2021 – Back training

On May 17th, we returned back to indoor training, as the COVID restrictions were relaxed. Over the spring, we had been teaching a combination of outdoor classes and lessons online using Zoom.

We are currently training on a Sunday afternoon at the Lime Kiln Centre – 13:30 – 14:30, and a Thursday evening from 17:50 – 18:30. These classes are by appointment only at the moment. We welcome new starters, but require any session to be booked. This is so we can control class numbers and ensure participants can train safely

November 2020 – 20 Years!

November the 5th is Bonfire night. It’s also a milestone for club instructor, Mr Luker. He has been training now for 20 years! Here is a reflection on how it all began…..

November 2020 sees a personal milestone for me. Way back in November 2000, I attended my first TAGB Taekwon-Do lesson. It’s been a big part of my life ever since. A parallel life journey where I’ve personally experienced love, heartbreak, death, birth, marriage and the isolation of a pandemic lockdown. Taekwon-Do has been the steady line that has been the distraction, often keeping me sane as the world around me has fallen apart.

To start at the proper beginning, I’d have to go back to 1994, Friday 14th October to be precise. A work college told me about this hobby he had. Taekwon-Do. He was a red-tag who practiced with Leigh Childs. It didn’t take too much persuasion for me to come along. However, I was unfit. I enjoyed a drink. I did swim occasionally. I played football, but not really anything that sporty. In my youth, even though I thought I was pretty good at football, I always got picked last. I played for the school team once or twice, as well as the local under 14s. I can still remember scoring the most amazing own goal where I chipped our goalkeeper from outside the penalty area! A very low highlight of my sporting achievements leading up to my late 20s / early 30s

I had no preconceived idea what Taekwon-Do was. I didn’t really know about any type of martial art. This first class had around 20 other students, most of which were senior coloured belts. I can remember vividly us all running around the dojang. Wigfield’s ‘Saturday Night’ playing flat out over the speakers, as we did press ups and star jumps. We did some padwork drills. I remember putting on loaned sparring kit and sparring with the other students. Each time I trained there over the next month or so, I left with either a black eye or a fat lip. I loved it! I got a buzz from doing this, unlike anything I’d done before.

Changing room before training.

The dojang was in an old railway building in the centre of Swindon. It had a sports bar where my friend and I would have a protein shake afterwards. The walls of the dojang were full of photographs of Leigh holding mysterious looking swords and impressively kicking vertically in the air in just a pair of shorts, leaving you to admire his muscular physique.

After around 6 lessons, my friend, for some reason he never disclosed, stopped attending the class. I went to one or two on my own but felt incredibly alienated. They were not a friendly bunch, and Leigh himself never had a conversation with me. I didn’t know what happened next. How do I grade? What do I need to do to progress? Do you actually even want me to come along? So, I stopped as well.

20 years later and I still look the same!

5 years later I moved to Wootton Bassett. I bought a house in need of complete renovation and moved in with my cats. In October 2000 a small leaflet dropped through my door saying that a new Taekwon-Do club was opening. I was very excited. I shared my enthusiasm with my girlfriend and my brother-in-law who I wanted to come along as well. I was quite shy and remembered the negative atmosphere I’d experienced in the last school. Safety in numbers! They agreed to come along, and I was excited to start training again

The Sunday of the first lesson came, and they both made an excuse at the very last moment, so we didn’t go. I was disappointed and felt the opportunity to start Taekwon-Do slipping away again. The following Sunday they both made an excuse again. This time I was not going to sit back and miss out. I went on my own, much to my girlfriend’s shock, as I left her sat on my sofa for an hour and a half, as I drove off in a huff. This was probably the bravest and hardest thing I’d ever done. When a new student comes along to our lesson, I always try and remember this feeling and make sure they feel at ease and welcome, as they venture into a room of strangers who look like they know what they’re doing.

The class was small. There were two instructors and around 6 students, all who had started the previous week or were also taking their first class. It was quite different than my previous classes. My instructor, Miss Lovelock was learning her trade as an instructor. She had a very friendly and easy going nature about her. The other instructor, Mr Rowlinson, I wasn’t to meet again for a few years. He had just started his club up in Swindon and I would eventually spend a lot of time training with him.

The next lesson, my girlfriend, not wanting to be left alone again, came along to and also got the bug for training. She would eventually go on to achieve her Black Belt five years later. I have a lot of admiration for her. She failed a Black Belt grading but came back with real strength and determination to get it the next time round. We were also to break up a few months after we had starting training together. To continue training alongside me, and the lady who would eventually become my wife, must have been very hard for her.

The lesson after that, my brother-in-law came along. In essence, there are two types of student. One who has talent and natural ability. Then there is one who doesn’t. The one who doesn’t have ability, has to try hard to improve at every stage. That was me! The one with talent, ability, natural athleticism, that was my brother-in-law! He was awesome at pretty much anything sporty. He stood a lean 6ft 2, was incredibly quick and only needed to be shown something once before being able to master it.

About to land a reverse side kick
Chippenham 2001. My Brother in Law (2nd from right) waiting to fight in a team event

I was fortunate that my brother-in-law also worked with me and we used to spend a lot of time practicing together. Over the years we trained together, I never got the better of him in sparring. There was a day of true personal triumph though, when I landed my foot on his head during a sparring bout. I had progressed over time! I could kick higher. I was faster. This small and insignificant event was actually a large and significant moment to me, a barometer that I’d improved and that the hard work I’d put in was worth it.

The pair of us attended tournaments together where he won a few trophies along the way. We graded together where he achieved a few ‘A’ passes and won some grading awards. I didn’t even win a fight! I enjoyed the whole experience and the preparation, but I was training in his shadow. When we practiced patterns and techniques together outside of the dojang, he became my teacher. I was unfortunately not learning or improving as I had become reliant on him.

When we got to Blue belt, there were some changes that happened. These changes enabled me to grow, improve and gain a confidence that I’d never had before. My instructor, Miss Lovelock decided to retire and a new instructor, Mrs McIlvar took over. I also met Annette, the lady who was to become my best friend, my wife and mother of my daughter.

The structure of the lessons changed. Miss Lovelock liked to join in with us during the lessons. She would put on her sparring kit and lead by example. She would demonstrate techniques and drills, and we would perform them with her. Mrs McIlvar placed a lot of importance on discipline and how a techniques was performed. The lessons were structured differently, and she began getting us, as senior students to help teach the lower grades. My brother-in-law didn’t take to these changes. I was spending more time with my wife (to be!) outside of training, so my brother-in-law and I didn’t practice together as much. He didn’t like the fact that the lessons were stricter. I’ve since come to the conclusion that his natural talent had possibly got him as far as it could. This was the moment his journey stopped, and mine probably truly began. At some point a talented student will be challenged with learning something difficult and their ethic to work hard to improve may not, or ever have been there.

In my time of training I’ve seen that most students fall into these two categories. On a rare occasion, I’ve seen what happens when a student with ability also has the ethic to want to work hard to improve. This is actually truly inspiring to see. An example of this would be one of my instructors, Mr Brad Tombling. He has a natural talent where he can perform almost any technique with grace, strength, fluidity and speed. As an instructor, the years of experience of training through his youth, have given him countless drills to put a student through to help them improve. His end game is to help that student become a little more like him in the mindset. He can also push himself over a class and lead by example. His stamina seems endless. It’s no surprise to see how successful he has been in tournaments over the years. This is what hard work and talent can achieve when harnessed together.

Another student who I believe has this is my wife. She is the only student I know who achieved an ‘A’ pass at every coloured belt grading. She was successful at both sparring and patterns in tournaments. She has fantastic technique and overall knowledge. I’m fortunate to have her as my assistant at the club, more about that another time…….

Kettering 2002. I managed to compete at every belt
2002. My first year under Mrs McIlvar. Here I am being presented with ‘Student Of the Year’
Mr Lamberth, Mr McIlvar and Mr Brad Tombling. Just competed at a team tournament
Mrs Luker springing into action

October 2020 – Reflection on six months of lockdown

The last six months have been tough. It was full of uncertainty for our club. We weren’t ready to just give up, but unknown challenges were ahead. Was it possible to teach martial arts using a camera in your living room?

Over the six months from the end of March to the beginning of October, our faithful club members tuned in to us twice a week, as we learnt different ways of presenting the knowledge and skills we’d learnt over the last 20 years.

We pushed our six-year olds toys to one side of the room out of camera shot, put on a Dobok, drew up a lesson plan and waited to see who turned up. I don’t think we ever had lower numbers than four, with the highest being around twenty-four. We started with focused lessons, teaching specific syllabus to those who were just learning it. It was also an opportunity for those experienced students to revisit techniques and sets of movements. As the saying goes, ‘To teach is to learn twice’, and I would say that this new way of teaching was us learn thrice!

My own instructor added a huge syllabus of online sessions and this was inspirational to motivating us and installing belief in what was possible. I kept a count of how many classes I personally participated in, and over the initial four months it was over 130 sessions. It was an opportunity to correct bad habits in my Tuls, which I don’t think would have ever been noticed during a traditional class in the dojang. I loved this!!

As an instructor team, my wife and I realised our strengths during this process. There are different types of teachers. Some are very visual. Some are very aural. Others may be very kinesthetic. Or maybe a combination of these. My wife and I found that she was better taking the class through the lesson plan, while I demonstrated and participated with the class. It was an opportunity for us to make fun of each other and inject humour into what we were doing. My lesson plans often were intended to be physical excursions that were aimed at making the legs hurt for days after. Developing ideas in my mind after drinking three or four strong cups of coffee, where I still believed I was in my thirties and wasn’t going to be a fifty-year-old man with a bad knee and moderate ability at best! That said, I always felt amazing at the end of each session and hope my endeavours motivated students to go the extra mile.

In July, the school very kindly allowed us to use their grounds. We started on the grass. We found the ground was quite bumpy and coming on one leg to perform a high section turning kick felt more dangerous to the practitioner than it ever would be to a potential assailant. We switched to the playground, which in turn provided us with two areas, so my wife and I could teach simultaneously. This proved popular, and some students who’d not bought in to the possibilities of participating via Zoom came back to training. The weather was awesome! When it wasn’t sunny, we were presented with an atmospheric thunderstorm on several occasions. We cancelled one lesson due to rain over the summer, and that could have gone ahead, as the weather cleared up just before the session. We had however already committed to teaching via Zoom that evening.

September has seen COVID restrictions decrease and the gyms open, then increase again as the government tighten things up again. In this time, we started reusing the halls again. Fortunately, a portion of what we teach is formatted in such a way, that the transition to being COVID friendly is an easy one. The students line up, automatically social distancing, they perform the same techniques, moving backwards, forwards and from side to side as a unit. Black Belt adults and White Belt six-year olds punching and kicking together with almost military precision. Slow down the Taekwon-Do patterns to an instructors timing, and they are practicing their syllabus, getting ready for their next opportunity to progress

July saw this opportunity realised, when the TAGB committee made the unprecedented decision to allow us to assess our own students for one grading. As instructors, we were given an opportunity to voice some opinions on this. I personally felt proud of our organisation and what they stand for. The belt in any organisation is only as good as the standard that comes from the top. I’ve trained and taught Black Belts from other organisations over the years. One, I kid you not, did not know Taekwon-Do originated from Korea and knew no terminology. That said, I’ve heard other organisations that include self defence in their gradings, have much tougher physical tests and may even incorporate weapon use. As I always say, if you plan on starting a martial art, do some research first, and consider what you want to achieve. It can be a life journey if you want it to be, but if your organisation has you running your own club after eight months there’s a good chance that the business module of your organisation is to make money out of you and your students, and the art is very secondary to this.

So, I personally felt that the integrity of what we teach was very primary. The student should be prepared to perform this syllabus at their next grading if required. It was needed though. The basic foundations are just that, intended to be basic to learn and give the student the foundation to progress on to the next stage of more complex patterns of movement. They were not intended for a student to be locked in their lounge performing it for six months, slowly developing very bad habits that may never be able to correct. This opportunity was for them to make a small progression to allow them to develop and not feel stale and stagnant in their journey. It proved to be very successful and we had 12 students progress at this stage

The next grading is already scheduled for November which will allow some of these students to progress further. No more than they deserve for the dedication they’ve shown over the last six months. It will be important for them to have a more formal experience rather than a test in a playground

The positives from this situation we’ve found ourselves in over the last six months have been utilised as best as possible. That said, its not all good! We’re teaching a martial art. A method of defending yourself. Practicing kicks and punches against thin air develops muscles and technique, but we’re not doing it against a target like a pad or another student, where the valuable lessons of distancing and timing are practiced. We can practice a sequence of blocks and punches, originating from a Taekwon-Do pattern, borrowed directly from a Karate Kata where the origins may be you are applying a shoulder dislocation. Almost impossible to teach or demonstrate this kind of application without being able to use a partner to practice self-defence or advanced set sparring. Free sparring is also currently not practiced. While this is the sport side of Taekwon-Do, distancing, timing, technique, fitness and stamina will improve through the practice of this and it’s also really fun!

What will happen over the next six months? Only time will tell!

September 2020 – Back to the Dojang after 6 months

As we reach the end of September, both our venues have been made available to us!

We are currently training as follows

Sunday 13:30 – 14:30 – Lime Kiln Centre

Thursday 17:45 – 18:30 – Noremarsh School

New starters are welcome! Please contact the school instructor for further details, as we are following COVID guidelines so we can all train safely

June 2020 – Your lounge becomes your dojang!

The COVID 19 virus, has forced us to change how we teach. Over the lockdown period many TAGB instructors have been busy holding online classes via Zoom. This has given us the opportunity to both teach Royal Wootton Bassett students, and participate in other lessons from other instructors

Some aspects of training, such as free-sparring and padwork drills obviously cannot be taught in the way they normally would be. Patterns and individual techniques however can be looked at in great detail, and it has proved to be a fantastic opportunity to help students develop and improve

Between April and June we taught around 40 Zoom sessions, increasing our lessons from twice a week, to three or four. We also offered one to one sessions with all students

Really looking forward to getting back to the dojang, and finding how the benefit of such focused training has improved a students ability!

March 2020

Regretfully, we have decided to cease training at the moment. Our training locations have closed as instructed by the government, to try to contain the COVID-19 virus.

We will return to training as soon as we are able to. Please contact the school instructor, Mr Paul Luker, if you require any further information.

You can also follow us on Facebook, which we will keep updated.

In the meantime, stay safe…..and be nice to each other