The ability to smash stacks of wood, piles of bricks and giant slabs of ice with a single appendage demonstrates the power that can be generated through martial arts training. However, beyond the piles of rubble such a demonstration leaves in its wake is the invisible strength that allows a mere mortal to accomplish what seems to be an impossible task. That “strength” is based on students having the “confidence” to slam their hands and feet into inanimate objects that would otherwise be targeted with an ax or sledgehammer.
Of the many attributes associated with martial arts training none is more important than the confidence such training gives a student. While there are many facets that make up the foundation of a well-rounded martial artist, there are few things that will boost the confidence of a student faster than breaking.
According to Tae Kwon Do Grand Master Young Bo Kong, breaking is a key element when it comes to giving a student the confidence to take his or her training to the next level.
“Breaking is a very important part of Tae Kwon Do training,” says Grand Master Kong. “When I hold up a board and tell a new student that they will soon be able to break it with their bare hand and foot they look at me as if I’m crazy. That is because they don’t have confidence in their ability. When the time comes that they do break the board for the first time you can see the excitement in their eyes. With that first broken board their confidence soars. They now have much more confidence in themselves and in their Tae Kwon Do techniques.”
Grand Master Kong elaborated on the principles behind a successful break. He contends that speed equals power and breaking is the best way to test the power of a technique.
“Kicking or punching in Tae Kwon Do is very powerful and you can’t test that power on a human body, even wearing pads, without causing serious injury,” says Grand Master Kong. “Breaking boards and bricks has always been a way to test how strong your techniques are, but if you don’t have confidence the break will usually fail. That’s why we start people out breaking a ¾ inch white pine board, generally 12×12. Even a small child can break that size board if he or she uses good technique with proper follow through. It is an excellent way to build their confidence. Then as they progress the breaks get more difficult.”
Grand Master Kong is quick to point out to his students that boards don’t punch back and they are merely stationary targets used to develop timing, technique, and power.
All of these attributes are put to task when Grand Master Kong’s students test for rank. From beginner to master each student must prove that he or she has the confidence and skill to do a variety of breaks. Should any one of them fail to successfully do their break, they would subsequently fail to be passed on to their next belt regardless of how well they do in forms and fighting.“It is for this reason that breaking is practical only if students realize the difference between breaking a board and kicking a moving target,” says Grand Master Kong. “In most cases you won’t be able to put the same kind of power into your kick or punch when fighting a human that you can when breaking boards. That is because the board is a stationary target. However the same principles still apply whether you’re breaking a board or fighting and that is speed equals power and your techniques must be executed with accuracy, good timing and follow through.”
“As much as I want everyone to pass they must demonstrate excellence in every phase of their test or they will not be promoted,” says Master Kong to his students. “I take into consideration that they are very nervous and if they aren’t successful on their first go-round I will give them a second chance to succeed. However if they still don’t do it I cannot pass them. Learning how to focus under pressure is part of being a black belt.”
An example of that pressure occurred when one of Master Kong’s most accomplished black belts stood ready to demonstrate his breaking skills. He had superbly flowed through his sets (forms) and was about to enter the final phase of his test for 4th Dan.
Master Kong took a long look at the number of boards his black belt has elected to break. Instinctively Master Kong knew that his ambitious student had bitten off more than he could chew. The room fell silent as Master Kong warned his student to the consequences of his decision.
“You do not have to break that many boards you know.”
“I know sir,” replied the black belt.
“If you do not break all of them you will fail,” Master Kong reminded him. “Do you still wish to attempt so many boards?”
“Yes sir,” he said back confidently. “I can break them sir.”
You could have heard a pin drop as he attempted to smash through the thick stack of wood with a jump spinning hook kick. If this were an Olympic diving event this kick would have had a difficulty factor of 10. Up he went, spinning mid-air, his foot thrusting backwards toward the awaiting boards. It all looked picture perfect, then the unthinkable happened. Only three of the 12 hand-held boards broke.
A collective gasp broke the silence as students, instructors and spectators sat in a suspended like state of animation. The black belt wore the shock of the missed break on his face as if it were a mask.
Master Kong calmly said, “you have one more chance. This time use a back kick.”
In a Solomon-like moment Master Kong realized that his student would have no problem breaking the boards if he used a less complicated kick. The Master’s command gave the black belt a way to save face and at the same time accomplish his mission.
The student bowed, and attacked the boards once again. You could feel everyone’s energy moving with him. It was a rare and exceptional example of collective chi and how the power of positive energy can affect the outcome of a situation.
This time the senior black belt and champion fighter easily destroyed the boards, thus earning another stripe on his belt.
“Breaking gives them confidence,” explains Master Kong. “You will notice that sometimes people will fail to break the boards on their first try; it’s because they’re nervous and not focused. So I tell them that this is their last chance. Then they really focus and usually end up breaking the boards. Learning how to stay focused all the time, in the dojang and in life is very important. That is what I am trying to teach my students. The breaking of boards is one way to accomplish that goal.”
Using the martial arts to set goals and accomplish the impossible was evident in another one of Master Kong’s black belts. Susan Sanderson has been training in Tae Kwon Do for 8 years, and recently she used her black belt chi to defeat a very deadly adversary, Cancer.
“It was my Tae Kwon Do training that got me through my struggle to deal with my cancer physically, mentally and spiritually,” said Susan. “It was 3rd stage cancer which put me into a heavy experimental chemotherapy program. I was taking the strongest drugs in the highest dosage in the shortest amount of time. It was really brutal. I didn’t realize how much I’d derived mentally from my martial arts training until I was forced into my fight with cancer. I use the same kind of focus and confidence to fight cancer that I used to break boards.”
“Susan’s spirit is the very foundation of what the martial arts is all about,” says Grand Master Kong. “Her courage and training enabled Susan to face an almost insurmountable foe and overcome it with style and humility. To me, she is the very essence of a black belt. I am very pleased to say that she aced her test for 2nd degree black belt.
As impressive as it is to watch the adults turn pine into kindling it’s the kids who get the biggest kick out of their newly discovered power. Grand Master Kong’s pint sized wonders show no fear as they leap into the air smashing boards with everything from flying side kicks to spinning back kicks.
“The parents are absolutely jubilant when they see their children breaking boards,” says Grand Master Kong. “You can see how proud they are when they watch their son or daughter doing things that they would expect to see only in the movies.”
One of those cute-as-a-bug kids is 8-year-old Gina Cercone. She was aglow with confidence as she leaped into the air smashing several boards to the delight of her mom who was watching eagerly on the sidelines. With all of her tasks completed Gina then volunteered to be one of the human barriers used to test the jump kicking skills of her peers.
“Jumping over classmates to accomplish a break is very difficult but the kids make it look easy,” says Grand Master Kong. “For them it’s a game. But they must have very strong legs and much confidence to leap over three, four, sometimes five bodies and execute a break. It makes them feel like Superman.”
The essence of breaking is but one of the many building blocks upon which Grand Master Kong uses to develop his students’ overall abilities in Tae Kwon Do. However, the total sum of his work as a master instructor is to help his students be the best they can be, inside the dojang and in life.
“Tae Kwon Do should be about building character,” Master Kong explained. “We place a strong emphasis on being a better human being. Martial arts aren’t about fighting, that’s merely something you learn for sport and self-defense. I am trying to teach my students to have confidence so they can excel in school and at work. If they have a foundation of respect for themselves and others then they won’t get into drugs and alcohol and such things that destroy a person’s life and character. Learning how to break is one of many steps used to develop that confidence in themselves. They are all champions to me. Each one tries their very best. That is the proper attitude and Tae Kwon Do spirit, and that is all you can ask of someone.”