Not your average spar day

Made popular at the 2012 London Olympics, Taekwon-do competes at many levels as an alternative sport for young athletes. Caroline Kings explores the fundamentals of this martial art and discovers that enthusiasm is just as important as talent.

Back in 2011, Jade Jones was a name that not many of us knew. By the summer of 2012, Jade was making the headlines as she sparred her way to taekwon-do gold glory at the London Olympics and became the poster girl of this Korean martial art. Locally, taekwon-do is a popular hobby and many children who start young, progress through the belts and achieve great things along the way.

Taekwon-do athletes learn ‘fundamentals’ – kicks, punches and blocks – which are combined into predetermined patterns that are learnt by the student and tested at gradings. As students become more experienced they also, spar, applying all they have learnt in order to beat their opponent. Successful gradings lead to the next belt – this is the path to achieving the ultimate goal of black belt, within which there are then numerous levels or ‘degrees’.

Alongside this, students are taught key principles or tenets such as perseverance, respect for elders (coaches are referred to as Mr Simmonds, Mrs Holland etc) and courtesy which they are expected to demonstrate in the dojang during classes.

Perseverance is certainly on show within the Fortitude taekwon-do academy. Fortitude has 17 schools across the south-east with three in the local area – Sevenoaks, Hildenborough and Southborough – and they have recently been awarded for their high pupil retention rates. At a recent grading, some Sevenoaks’ students, with years of coaching under their belts, achieved personal success.

Isabelle and Fleur started when they were three & four years old respectively with Sevenoaks’ coach, Mr Simmonds and he remains their coach now. Isabelle’s parents wanted her to try something other than ballet and gymnastics and interestingly, Isabelle has only continued with taekwon-do. Both girls’ dedication to taekwon-do seems effortless; it is obvious that they absolutely love the sport and they’re keen to emphasise how much they have been encouraged and cared for by Mr Simmonds & the Fortitude staff from the beginning.

They both seem to relish the journey they’ve been on, with all the highs of successful gradings and lows of struggling with new patterns. The girls have always been motivated to achieve the next belt, enjoying the patterns as they become more experienced and sharing what they’ve learnt with other students (all black stripes and black belts must help other students as part of the black belt programme).

I can sense how excited they were when the black belt was within reach! Now, aged 11 & 10 they have secured that belt – a great achievement for such young students.

Living Well is another taekwon-do school, with a dojang in Tonbridge. In 2016, one of their students, Georgia Burbridge aged 16 won gold in her age group at the Nationals in Nottingham making her a national champion in poomsae or patterns.

Georgia started later than Fleur and Isabelle, when she was 11 after a family friend suggested that her younger brother might like it. Not wanting to miss out, Georgia joined her brother and is now two belts ahead!

Taekwon-do is a large part of Georgia’s life now especially as she aims for black belt next year. She attends taekwon-do classes for three hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays and exercises on the other days to maintain her fitness by running, going to the gym and stretching.

She maintained her training schedule throughout her recent GCSEs, admitting that it helped to control stress levels and acknowledges that the ‘softer skills’ that accompany taekwon-do such as focus and concentration have certainly helped with her studies.

All the girls have said how happy taekwon-do makes them and how their confidence has had a boost as a result of participation. It’s a sport with a transparent ascension to success so athletes can easily gauge how they’re doing.

Aside from that, students learn how to defend themselves, and how to stay healthy – the classes themselves improve fitness let alone the additional training top performers need to achieve peak fitness. All of this combined contributes to a positive body image and high levels of self-esteem – critical for girls and boys in this modern world.

The next Olympics are in 2020 which is perhaps a little too soon for Georgia, and for Isabelle and Fleur, especially given their young ages. But their achievements to date are testament to their commitment to the tenets of taekwon-do – perseverance, courtesy, integrity, self-control and indomitable spirit.

And it is that indomitable spirit in them all which may mean we stay up late, watching them on our TV screens in years to come – remember their names!

By Caroline Kings (caroline@carolinekings.com)

Both clubs are always looking for new recruits and can be contacted directly:
The Fortitude Academy: www.tkd4u.co.uk Living Well: www.livingwelltkd.com