This is part 2 in the story of my new martial arts journey. If you have not yet “Part 1: Getting Started“, you should go back and read it before continuing. Once you’ve finished reading part 1, continue on to read how Things Fall Apart.
Things Fall Apart
While studying Kuk Sool (note, the art is “Kuk Sool”, the group is “Kuk Sool Won” administered by the World Kuk Sool Association… yeah, confusing), I immersed myself in martial arts. I read all I could find online. I purchased many books and some videos and devoured them. I wanted to learn all that I could about all things martial arts. In my researching and reading, one thing that was becoming evident was the way Kuk Sool Won was run. I could see it in my school, I could see it in other Kuk Sool Won schools, I could see it in the greater association and how things are handled. In short: it’s a McDojo (or since it’s Korean, I guess McDojang). The sad thing is, the art itself is a very solid art. The foundations and underlying principles are very sound and good. But the way the greater organization runs itself (at least today)? The way the schools then run? Classic McDojo, and it gets worse every year. I mean, at this past year’s seminar I was appalled at how much merchandise hocking was going on…. every time there was a break in the action, reminders to go buy t-shirts and other merch. Aren’t seminars supposed to be about learning, not about hocking merch? Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with making money. You have your skill, your product, your service, and you sell it as the way to make yourself money and put food on your table and a roof over your head. So I have zero problem with making money. But it comes across like what Kuk Sool Won is more about now is making money than martial arts… don’t care if the black belts are good or bad, just that we get the testing fees. I’ve often felt that while I’m told to be loyal to the organization and Kuk Sa Nim (title of the leader/founder/head/grandmaster, SUH In Hyuk), that the org and KSN’s loyalty to me would end as soon as the checks stopped coming. Maybe that’s not true, but it’s sure how it feels.
Nevertheless, while Kuk Sool Won’s McDojo-ism was evident to me, I wanted to stick with it. Not so much because I didn’t want to feel like all my time and effort and money was wasted, but that I could see Kuk Sool as a solid art at its core. Looking at old school guys like Marlin Sims and Jay Lee, the art is sound. What helped me was my then instructor, Dewain Perry. Dewain is a fantastic martial artist, really loves boxing and fighting, and that came through in his teaching. You were actually learning stuff with Dewain, learning application, going beyond rote curriculum memorization. Any time I got to learn directly from Dewain, it was awesome. I felt something seriously could be done with the style and so I wanted to stick with it despite all the obvious b.s. that surrounds the organization and the art. Then Dewain had some personal problems and is no longer my teacher (or with WKSA). The school continued on, under a different instructor. The current instructor/school owner is a stand-up guy and I like and respect him a lot. This is in no way a reflection upon him, it’s more a reflection upon the overall state of “the Won”. To his credit, the current instructor has been wanting to take things old-school, which I appreciate… but there’s enough other things that just make it difficult to stick around.
Business of “The Won”
I had always said to myself that I had to get 1st degree black belt. I would like to get 2nd degree, but that when/if I got a 3rd degree black belt I would stop. Not necessarily stop studying Kuk Sool, but at least that I would pause and ascertain where I was and what I was doing and if I wanted to continue. The thing is, when you get higher up in rank like that, you start to get pulled into the politics of “the Won” and I didn’t want that. I don’t need more drama and bullshit in my life, especially when part of the reason I do martial arts is to help me manage and escape the drama and bullshit in my life. But WKSA has all sorts of mandatory volunteerism, which has implications towards your future rank promotions. I’m fine with volunteering, but mandatory volunteerism is not cool. There’s all sorts of stuff like that, and other things that are obvious money grabs. WKSA does not run my life nor dictate it, and while I’m down with the whole Korean filial piety thing (it’s part of my own personal heritage) I’m sorry but they’re a business and we have a business relationship and that’s all — I pay you money to teach me a martial art, and don’t give me this traditional b.s. about honor, respect, loyalty, etc. because I know about that already and can see where yours lies. Yeah I buy into the whole respect and honor and such, but I know those are things that are earned not just given; certainly they are things for you to lose, and while I may “respect the rank” because I’m supposed to, I think it matters more to respect the person holding that rank. Being an unpaid slave to help run your testsings or tournaments isn’t some thing that helps me gain greater enlightenment, it just gives you free labor; call a spade a spade. And if you’re going to hold back things like rank promotion because I haven’t been enough of an unpaid laborer for you then well, what does that say about you, your group and what it takes to earn and hold ranking in this system? I come here to learn how to fight, and if I’m engaging in politics and business and unpaid labor then I’m certainly not learning how to fight. It’s a waste of my personal resources and not meeting my personal goals.
Let’s ignore the whole current drama regarding the “franchise” agreement. Suffice it to say that what I’ve seen of this reeks of bad business practice. It’s another example of WKSA attempting to exert way too much control over schools, instructors, school owners, and students. I understand the supposed reasons for doing it, and while noble, this is about the worst way one can go to meet those ends. I fear that SUH Sung Jin is going to inherit quite a mess someday.
Training, or Lack Thereof
Then there’s the training itself. The training in my and most other Kuk Sool schools is best described as “fancy dancing.” If you’re doing forms, you’re dancing alone. If you’re doing technique work, then you’re dancing with a partner. It’s all compliant training, where your partner stands there, loosely grabs you and doesn’t just go along with the technique but often “leads” the technique by falling down instead of letting you take them to the ground. It reminds me of an old Jim Carrey sketch:
While there’s certainly a place for this sort of training, to me it’s a beginner place. You start there, but you must progress from there. You must have non-compliance, you must have resistence. You must actually apply the technique and take your partner down. Then you must go beyond the rote technique and work to apply the techniques in free sparring and dynamic, alive training. We rarely did that. Most work is all memorization and regurgitation. I tried to find people willing to train with me, to take it to the next level, but rarely did that work out. For the most part, people just weren’t interested, or were blinded by the shroud of Kuk Sool-ism and not wanting to branch out. Then there are some people that didn’t care. To them, this was just an activity, it was fun, it was exercise, it was social, and that’s all they wanted out of it. I find nothing wrong with that. If this sort of avenue meets your goals, awesome. It’s not meeting my goals, thus my change in direction.
Again, the techniques on the whole are solid. I mean, Ki Bohn Soo, Sohn Mohk Soo, Maek Chi Ki, Maek Cha Ki, these teach very important fundamentals and foundations. Body can only move in so many ways (push, pull, twist), there are particular points to strike that are more productive than others. There’s certain concepts of leverage and such that are fundamental to know and hold no matter what you study because again the body only does so many things. But as you progress up the Kuk Sool curriculum you start to see that so much of what’s being taught is the same thing rehashed in a slightly different manner. While there’s merit to that, it feels the curriculum structuing is done to drag things out… for whatever reason.
Then there’s the emphasis on kicking. Kicking emphasis is directly responsible for my ankle injuries. Plus, apart from a few foundational kicks, what good are most of the kicks that are taught? Sure if I had goals of martial arts competition, movies, or whatever, things like 360º spin kicks and double jump split kicks are nifty. But I would never break out in such a kick in a real fight. If my training goals are for combat and self-defense, why am I wasting my limited training time training things that are of no use to me? Maybe in some fantasy world fight I might drop through a low spin kick, but in a real fight I want to do what I can to break away and draw my gun. 😀
On that note, there’s the weapons training. While sword is cool, it’s totally impractical. I cannot carry a sword down the street, at least not without attracting a lot of unwanted attention. I do appreciate practical weaponry like staff, dan bong, and cane. But when you see how Kuk Sool presents those weapons, for the most part they are presented in a stylized way with little real application. I was hoping in the dan bong seminar that there might have been some practical application work, but there was just some fancy choreographed sparring sets… which again have a place, but you need to move beyond that because combat isn’t a bunch of fancy memorized moves. Or, the curriculum extent of the study is very limited. Cane has been the weapon I’ve looked forward to studying, but what is Kuk Sool’s formal cane curriculum? 10 techniques, all some sort of lock/throw technique. That’s sad. There’s no discussion even if just using cane to do something as simple as a thusting poke or simply whacking someone upside the head. Hapkido probably has the most extensive cane curriculum of any modern martial art, and despite Kuk Sool’s ties to Hapkido, it just pales in this area. In fact, some of those 10 techniques are a bit flashy and would be difficult to pull off in a real fight. There’s no discussion of how to use the cane to get yourself into a position to execute those techniques, so what’s the point? It’s just memorization and regurgitation.
Some may say that these things are taught at higher levels. Well, am I supposed to wait another 20 years in hopes of maybe perhaps being taught? Sorry, but I need answers now, not later. Frankly, lofty promises of “secret techniques” taught at higher levels and such is bullshit and another sign of McDojo-ism. Or as one chap put it:
Actually, there is no ‘hidden stuff’, unless you’re talking about the myriad variations on the same themes. Or another spooky form containing little real meaning or value. They do, however, want you to believe that there is something else waiting for you just around the corner. So the promise is, cough up yet another wodge of dosh for your next grade and they’ll fill you in with the next part of the jigsaw, leading to the mythical Kuk Sool Holy Grail…
Throwing It Away?
I should mention that I’m in process of testing for my 2nd degree black belt. I have to admit, it’s hard to walk away from that. There’s a part of me that would like to have a 2nd degree black belt. It shows you stuck with something a little longer, went a little futher, a little deeper. And while it’s also hard to walk away from the fact I plunked down a big testing fee (another McDojo-ism), what’s the alternative? To stick with something for another year or two that I’m unhappy with and isn’t serving to meet my goals in life? And then what do I get for it? Another certificate? And what does that certificate mean? It reminds me of that scene from Futurama:
Announcement Carbot: Calling all scientists, calling all scientists! Be advised there will be a worldwide conference on global warming in Kyoto, Japan.
Some scientist-looking guy runs up.
Guy: I’ve got a degree in homeopathic medicine
Carbot: You’ve got a degree in baloney!
I learned long ago that once you truly realize something isn’t working for you, you’re doing yourself disservice by continuing in that unproductive way. It’s hard to walk away, but the reasons for staying just aren’t compelling enough.
My Bottom Line
I’m done with Kuk Sool. The way WKSA/KSW runs their organization: money grabs, control freaks, closed-system, ego, etc.. The way things are taught and tested: memorization-regurgitation, compliance-only, lack of true knowledge and a wider understanding of things, etc.. The organization either provides things I don’t want or things I don’t need, and anything the organization provides that I do want is unfortunately outweighed by the negatives. Then in terms of meeting my personal goals: who cares about spin kicks, swords, and other things that are impractical to me, so why spend the time and money studying that stuff? It’s just not working for me any more.
If “the Won” has any problems with this, if they do not like what I’ve said, all I can say is that this is my own opinion, my own perceptions, my own experiences. I also believe that WKSA has at least in part done this to themselves (look at the Masters that leave, look at the franchise agreement, and you can’t deny the merch hocking nor the politics and egos). If WKSA doesn’t like it, they’d do well to take the log out of their own eye before they worry about the spec in mine.
That all said, I don’t regret what I’ve done. I received a good foundation in martial arts. I did as best as I could on my own to take my understanding and application further, deeper, and beyond. I’ve met some wonderful people and I hope to remain friends and friendly with all of those people. I do hope the best for all involved in KSW: my (now former) instructors, my fellow students, the school, and the greater organization… I really hope the messes all get figured out and the organization gets back on track to being a martial art of high respect. I am happy for the knowledge that I received, and even tho I am discarding what I don’t find useful, to know about those things is certainly a good thing.
So with that, what now? Continue to part 3 of the story by clicking here.