"Balance" - Maybe Taekwondo's Greatest Benefit

Taekwondo creates balance in many areas of life. The study of Taekwondo fosters harmony and helps to restore energy in the martial artist. Those who practice Taekwondo find that the daily physical and mental training provides a unique avenue to find their center. The balance earned through the study of Taekwondo is unique in that it is both balance of the physical and of the mental. This paper will explore the many great ways in which Taekwondo gives balance to those who train in the art.

Physical Balance

Physical balance is a key component of any athlete. The ability for a person to right themselves when their energy or inertia has taken them too far in one direction is essential to avoid falling, tripping, stumbling and thus potential injury. The increase in balance from Taekwondo training is often most easily seen in young students. Many martial artists start training as early as 3 years old in Taekwondo schools across the world. At that early age of development an unsteady gate and the ability to effectively control momentum is often absent. Taekwondo instructors employ countless fun, exciting and challenging exercises to improve their young students’ balance. For instance, simply placing striking pads on the floor in a path and having the young students walk across repeatedly results in significant increases in balance noticeable to both teacher and parent alike. Balance beams are also a great addition to a Taekwondo agility course to help improve balance. Finally, one legged hopping drills are a fun way to further focus on balance with young Taekwondo practitioners. The balance gains derived from such early Taekwondo training pays off in multiples as the young athletes mature.

In addition to fun training games for youngsters in the dojang, balance training is woven through all parts of Taekwondo by the large emphasis on kicking. With one leg in the air kicking, the martial artist’s body has to learn out of pure necessity of how to control movement, energy and most importantly to find balance. Muscles, nervous system, reflexes, core strength – all have to adapt to become successful as a Taekwondo student practices ever more challenging kicks like jumping roundhouse, spin kick, back kick, etc. It is this innate ability to create balance at a high level that makes the discipline of Taekwondo such a popular choice for athletes who are looking to cross train to gain a competitive advantage in their chosen sport.

That Taekwondo improves balance has also been well studied and documented especially in regards to older martial artists. Multiple studies have shown that the practice of Taekwondo is effective in reducing falls, increasing walking ability and overall sharpening of balance skills. In a study reported in 2007 in the Journals of Gerontology, Taekwondo exercises were engaged in by a group of senior citizens with the average age of 72.7. See R. Cromwell, P. M. Meyers, P. E. Meyers, R. A. Newton, (2007), Tae Kwon Do: An Effective Exercise for Improving Balance and Walking Ability in Older Adults, The Journals of Gerontology: Series A. Volume 62, Issue 6, Pages 641-646. Taekwondo was selected for this study over other martial arts (such as Tai Chi) due in large part because “Taekwondo is a martial art that combines kicking, blocking, and striking techniques which require participants to actively shift their body weight between the lower extremities while the upper extremities are moving. This type of movement necessitates stabilizing the body for efficient movement of the extremities to maintain balance during these dynamic activities. These activities also include moving between long, wide stances that require older adults to spend more time in single-limb support as they lengthen their stride to achieve the desired stance.” The group of volunteer senior citizens met for 1 hour, twice per week for 11 weeks. The study group engaged in traditional Taekwondo training such as kicking, blocking and striking while standing in place along with marching combination drills and the practice of forms. The study found: “Taekwondo exercise was effective for improving balance and walking ability in community-dwelling older adults. These improvements were attributed to Taekwondo movements that emphasize movement components typically deficient in the older adult walking pattern. Improving balance and walking ability through Taekwondo exercise may serve to restore function that has declined with age and preserve mobility for older adults.”

In similar research study conducted on 24 middle age healthy volunteers (40-71 years in age), the effects of Taekwondo training of one hour a week for one year was investigated. See G. Pons van Dijk, A. F. Lenssen, P. Leffers, H. Kingma, and J. Lodder (2013), Taekwondo Training Improves Balance in Volunteers Over 40, Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 2013; 5; 10. The study group engaged in striking, blocking, punching and Poomsae and hand to hand self defense techniques. Specifically the group “practiced the style of the World Taekwondo Federation, and in accord with the guidelines offered by the Kukkiwon.” The participants were evaluated based on a number of tests including: Single leg stance test (for static balance); One leg hop test (for dynamic balance); and Motor Orientation Ability (subjects had to stand barefoot and blindfolded on a randomly tilted platform and with the aid of a joystick had to adjust the platform orientation back to completely horizontal). As with the previously cited research study, this one also found that “Taekwondo training improves various aspects of balance…and may contribute to lowering the chance of falls in the elderly.”

In another study released in 2014, the aim was to compare the postural balance of professional Taekwondo athletes versus their non-trained peers. The study was based on individuals between the ages of 19 and 31 years old and from both sexes. The research participants were evaluated on a number of different balance measuring tests and platforms. The report found that the high-performance Taekwondo athletes demonstrated significant balance advantages over their untrained counterparts. See L. Rabello, C. Macedo, A. Wilson, M. Oliveira, V. Coelho, G. Silva, R. Silva. (2014) Comparison of Postural Balance Between Professional Taekwondo Athletes and Young Adults, Fisioterapia e Pesquisa, vol. 21, no. 2, Sao Paulo Apr./June 2014 (“The results herein may be explained by the development of the vestibular system of TKD athletes. Such training involves acrobactic jump and spinning kicks which would stimulate the vestibular system and increase its sensitivity.”). That balance is improved for the young and old by Taekwondo training is scientific fact.

Social Balance

The society of today is so much different than it was merely 30 years ago. Social media, video games, on-line interaction, Facebook, Instagram, Snap Chat – reality in many respects has become virtual instead of “real”. In such a virtual environment it is easy to see how individuals can begin to lose a sense of presence and perspective that is so essential to maintaining a positive and healthy outlook on life. In other words, people (mostly teenagers and those in their early 20s) can begin to lose a firm grip on what is important in life and how to effectively deal and overcome challenges. Martial arts, and in particular Taekwondo can play a pivotal role in helping to give this often vulnerable group of society the tools they need to be successful in wading through such tumultuous times.

First, Taekwondo is real. When a Taekwondo student goes to their dojang, puts on their uniform and ties on their rank belt and steps on the training mats, it is a real experience. A student must interact with other members of their peer group face to face. Communication is not done via text or email, instead Taekwondo students have to practice together, talk and become efficient training partners to achieve the desired training goals. Individuals cannot hide behind simple words on texts and emails. Kicking a bag can hurt a little. Real sweat drips from the forehead during push-ups. Board breaking can leave a bruise. Sparring can result in a body that knows it has dealt with contact and survived. Every time the human body has to experience true feelings such as exhaustion, great effort, sweat, pain, soreness – its brings the mind back to reality.

More and more we hear sad stories of young people who lose perspective and will commit suicide or become very depressed or turn to vices for escape from virtual bullying, negative social media interaction, etc. Taekwondo is special because it can ground young people and help to remind them what is truly important in life. To progress through rank belts, students are challenged with physical and mental requirements. Students have to practice, get frustrated, practice some more and then after months of effort get up in front of their peers and perform their skills for review. Along the way bumps and bruises and hurdles hit and then eventually cleared – these struggle are real and results in real sense of self-worth and self-esteem. It is amazing how confidence and liking oneself can change an outlook.

For example, in high school how peers treat an individual becomes extremely important for many. This peer pressure can have enormous negative effects if left unchecked. Thus when an individual chooses, based upon a solid moral compass, to not go along with their peers’ bad suggestions they can become ostracized from the group and the target of negativity and attack. But, a Taekwondo student who trains regularly and has a presence and source of identity and confidence based in real achievement from their martial arts - can see the shallow nature of such peer pressure attacks for what they truly are and have no inclination to over react.

Often before a student attempts to break a board in class, the Taekwondo teacher instructs the student to visualize the hand or foot going through the board. This positive mental imagery is key, because without a strong positive thought in the mind, the mind will often go to a negative thought of “this is going to hurt” or “I can’t break this.” This basic principle “of without positive than negative will take over” is far truer than most give it credit. A Taekwondo student who has a balanced mind and body will have their thoughts and mindset predominantly filled with positive ideas and not be susceptible to great lows that often afflict their peers due to strong social pressures.

Balance of Mind & Body

Taekwondo is unique in that it is truly a balanced discipline for the mind and body. So much of Taekwondo continually reminds a student of how important this attainment of balance is and should be. Both ends of a student’s belt should be tied evenly to reflect this balance. The center of the Korean Flag with the Um-Yang and its symbolism for balance. Ten degrees of color belts and ten degree of black belts. Meditation mind training in a Taekwondo class to balance out the strenuous physical activity of sparring and kicking training. Balance is in every part of Taekwondo.

This type of physical and mental balance is continually becoming harder to achieve in modern life. Some adults spend their entire workday chained to their computer in a small cubicle hardly moving at all and often eating at their desk to achieve the required work out put. Younger individuals spend countless hours in front of the television and playing video games. And, both young and old are now seemingly tied to their smart phones with little hope of escape. All this mental stimulation with little or no physical exercise is not healthy. Limited movement with great stress leads to harmful effects on the body and the brain.

Students who train in Taekwondo discover this all important balance of the body and the brain. For instance, the body is not happy and able to rest properly at night unless both the physical and the mental have been properly exercised. And, strenuous exercise releases endorphins that help make the mind happy and at ease. Negative energy is generally something that builds up from mental stress albeit from work, school, social, family or monetary issues faced on a daily basis. The cathartic release of such negative energy through the physical realm of say kicking and punching a striking bag is remarkable. Many a Taekwondo student can be heard as they bow off the mats after a great training class – “wow, I really needed that!” Positively channeling this harmful built up stress-filled energy into a positive exercise of practicing Taekwondo skills helps to maintain the balance between mind and body.

A Taekwondo master often becomes more of a therapist to his students and their family members when they are sought out to offer guidance to a student who is struggling with life issues. It’s funny, how the problem is quickly identified by the master instructor as one of an imbalance in some aspect of the student’s life. Too much of this; too little of that – without the scale of life being in harmony – an individual will drop too far to one side and suffer the consequences. The Taekwondo student is often surprised by the suggestion of his instructor that more training or less computer time may be just the medicine that is needed to right the ship. Simple, but true.

Humans like all creatures need to find balance. Animals naturally seek it out. Animals caged in an unnaturally small enclosures that do not closely enough resemble their nature habitat become overly stressed and often ill. Humans are the same. The static existence of cubicles, cars and couches is unnatural. And, individuals in today’s society can get off track so quickly. Taekwondo helps to restore this balance. Without balance of the physical and the mental individuals can turn to negative and harmful vices and escapes and medication to try and put a band aid on the lack of balance. But, this is only a short term fix that only masks the problem and does not solve it. Taekwondo can and does in its purest form restore this balance and that is why Taekwondo can and should be practiced for life.

Perfect Balance Of Movement

Taekwondo movements are perfectly balanced. For example, like a work of art, a martial artist performing a Taekwondo low block demonstrates a beautiful, fluid exchange of energy in opposite directions so the kinetic energy of the body is symmetrical. The extended fist recovers back to the side of the body while the chambered raised fist is brought down at the same exact time to protect against an attack to the lower torso or upper leg region. Not only does this place both fists and arms where they need to be to defend and prepare for a counter attack; but, it also keeps the martial artists’ body in harmony with opposing energy so there is not an over extension of the body.

The same balanced precision is seen again and again through Taekwondo movements and techniques. Horse-back riding stance punch is probably the most paradigmatic example of such a balanced energy display. A student crouching low (as if riding a horse) to build tremendous static strength and flexibility in legs and lower back punches out with their left fist at the same time he or she pulls in the previous punch of the right fist. Repetition after repetition of this traditional and effective staple of Taekwondo training builds and reinforces the concept of balance.

In addition to the balance displayed in a technique such as a block or a punch, balance is also revealed in the self defense and sparring concepts of Taekwondo. Of all the striking martial arts, Taekwondo most heavily stresses and teaches students the concepts of footwork and movement. In fact, in many sparring classes and self defense training sessions, movement garners 50% of the attention while striking or blocking takes up the remaining 50%. Once again this is balance. With the emphasis in Taekwondo sparring on full contact (as compared to many martial arts that only utilize light or even no contact), Taekwondo is much more realistic to what a real life self defense scenario would actually be. Thus, with strikes coming at a Taekwondo martial artists at high speed and power in a sparring match or training session, the philosophy of balanced movement to avoid such contact over blocking or absorbing such contact is a key to Taekwondo also being such an effective form of self defense. Although a hogu can absorb great power, a Taekwondo student will often seek to lunge or slide away from a roundhouse kick and then immediately take advantage of his or her opponents vulnerable opening and counter-attack with their own roundhouse to score a point.

Taekwondo Balance Is A “Keystone Habit”

A keystone is that uniquely shaped stone or brick above a window or other opening in a wall that helps to shoulder the large part of the weight from above and provide structural integrity. Without a keystone a doorway or window in a brick or stone house might collapse from its very own weight. And, a “keystone habit” is a habit or discipline or activity that a person engages in that helps them to maintain stability and positive growth in many other parts of their life.

That Taekwondo is a keystone habit comes as no surprise to almost any Taekwondo instructor who has witnessed firsthand how Taekwondo has dramatically and permanently altered their students’ lives. Students are brought into or find a dojang on their own for so many important reasons. A young mother is struggling with their child’s lack of respect and failure to listen. A teenager walks into a Taekwondo school with his parents because he or she is failing in school or may have no confidence. An adult seeks out Taekwondo because they just went through a divorce or are struggling with their weight and fitness. Taekwondo touches and improves each and every one of these vastly different types of students – but it also reaches positively into every part of their life.

Bowing in, meditation, stretching out, kicks drills, poomse, striking bags, sparring practice, board breaking – on their face they seem like limited physical movements, but when done in a positive group, over time, with goals, leadership and great sacrifice the sum becomes far greater than the parts. A typical Taekwondo student may spend two to three hours a week at the dojang. In addition, they may practice at home another couple of hours. But, this mere five hours a week out of 168 hours can change so very much.

Taekwondo students at my Academy must submit a paper when they test for their first degree black belt. The paper is supposed to cover their journey in martial arts. I am continually amazed at the credit they give to Taekwondo for the far reaching effects. The challenges overcome by Taekwondo include: stopping drinking, stopping smoking, going to earn a college degree, improved financial discipline, less anger or temper, lowered blood pressure, reconciliation with family members, promotions at work, new friendships, positively handling the loss of a loved one, etc. The list goes on and on. Taekwondo by equally affecting the body and the mind of those practice the arm form can have such an impactful improvement on all parts of their lives.

Taekwondo is Balance and Creates Balance

In summary, Taekwondo is rooted deeply in the principle of balance. The movements and practice not only are balanced but they foster balanced harmony in the martial artists of all ages who step into a dojang. And, it is not surprising to those who have trained in Taekwondo for years that the disciplines’ greatest gift is balance.

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