A Day in the Life of a Martial Art: the Warrior Open

A day in the life of a martial art. The Warrior Open.

Tae Kwon Do is not a sport. Paul Rowinski spent a day living and breathing it with around 400 people in a packed hall. As his Master tells him almost daily, it’s “a way of being.” Damn right.

We are often misunderstood, because the clichés abound, we, because I too am a martial artist. It’s about more than being technically gifted. It’s about discipline, struggle, determination, resilience and willpower. These lessons are far more than about practising a martial art. Master Janitzio Moreno’s words bounce around in my brain.

It’s 8.45. I’m groggy. A man in a blue suit and white trainers is gesticulating frenetically. Jeff Brider is an institution in these parts. Strange combination. I stare at his brilliant white trainers – then his dark blue tie. This is the coaching briefing when we are told how to support our combatants – but not to interfere with the judges. I bow and listen, then bow again. Our war cry Tae Kwon reverberates around the hall, as we let the assembled know we are ready for the battles to come – or rather ready to help our young charges through the battles to come. I cast my eyes across the assembled and take mental notes: ‘he’s still training, so is he. Now he teaches what he remembers and so does she. The woman next to her, well I wouldn’t argue with her.’ The Warrior Open, Harrow Leisure Centre, north London. It’s now 9am in windy March. The finale at the end of today will not disappoint. In one perfect moment the hall will unite, drawn to one particular battle of wills.

The coaches, some over thirty, for some you can almost double that. Don’t ask! In my head those that are still training hard in Tae Kwon Do can at least try to lead by example, even if the high kicks are not quite so high. To spring into attack, is more a slow shift to the left or right and if we commit to a 360 degree turning kick our opponent probably has enough time to go and get a coffee and come back – at which point the leg will be ready to collide with their head. Still, we are still fighting, still combatants, still ready if we had to, ready to stop an assailant, just not with a killer 360 turning kick anymore, that’s all. But that’s the whole point. We’re still fighting on -in life. All that.

The hall is alive with noise and last-minute preparations. The sound system plays that genre of music I can only collectively describe as the Eye of the Tiger. It’s something similar. Staccato guitar rifts, stop and start, interspersed with the drums of battle. That’s appropriate. This event is the Warrior Open. The guttural sound of a Dutch woman enunciating very clearly in better than home-grown English, announces categories and times, intermittently breaking up the guitar rifts. So the Dutch are here – and the Argentinians and the Scots, the Irish and the Poles. My stomach churns a little. My son Roberto will be up later. UK champions are just that, champions in the UK but not in Holland or Buenos Aires or Madrid. This is going to be a real test. Thank God I am not coaching him.

Two more suits meander by, adjusting their ties and indicating the need for last-minute changes. Master Tim Kool and Master Johann de Silva, from Holland and London respectively, are behind today’s frenetic activities, both former world champions. They made all this happen. The uniform is slightly different. They are both wearing gleaming shoes. They rush hither and thither, easing the path for a successful event.

Soon enough it’s time and the very young children assemble in one corner of the arena, rehearsing their patterns over and over. Coaches gently make minor corrections. “Weight distribution Leo. Remember 70 per cent on your back foot and only 30 on your front. Side facing, not front facing. Adjust your body posture Shaheena.”

Slowly, very slowly the seven and eight year olds line up, having responded to the name call. The coach’s job immediately starts, removing name badges from around their nervous necks. Some look at me forlornly ready to run in to the cold Harrow morning outside, disappearing in to the dew surrounding the trees, never to return. Others make to punch the ground and beat their chests (too many movies I think).

Eddie starts and then stops Dan-Gun mid pattern and looks across at me and then in to the wilderness of a hundred eyes. His mother looks as if she is about to cry. Eddie cannot see her in the crowd. I can. He can see me though. I look at Eddie reassuringly. “Breathe Eddie, breathe, it will come back.” And so it does. He remembers and finishes his pattern successfully. A collective sigh of relief and the strain on his mother’s face slowly dissipates. Soon we are at the medal ceremony stage. For those that remembered that patterns are there to efficiently and economically counter a kick or a punch or several simultaneously, their movements demonstrated speed and power in facing these imaginary combatants. It meant victory. I give them the official customary Tae Kwon Do handshake, my left arm at a right angle, tucked under my extended right hand. ‘Tae Kwon, congratulations.” The rumours spread like wildfire. Pantera are currently lying fifth in the league table. Several of my fellow coaches suddently seem taller. The Argentinians and Irish are breathing down our necks, so more imaginary opponents need to be beaten – and fast.

Master Kool and Master de Silva are now rushing around at a more frenetic rate than previously. Something is afoot. It’s time for the next stage in proceedings and the young ones will now spar. This is it. This is when the coach has to slow down the heart rates of young beating chests and get them to respond to simple, clear instructions – they may or may not hear or indeed choose to hear.

I follow the drill. Exude calm, so they will be so. I hold Theo, a determined seven-year-old firmly by the shoulders. “Theo, you need to listen please.” I note his nerves. “Breathe deeply in and out, right in to your tummy please.” His heart rate is slowing a little. I give him clear instructions. “Hold, Track, Switch, Go, go, go Theo! Go means you have ten seconds to recuperate, especially if you are behind on points. It’s now or never. Got it Theo?” Theo nods at least fifty times while glancing across at his bigger, stronger more determined opponent. To Theo the boy opposite appears like a tiger, roaring, ready and carrying a mighty fury that he needs to be rid of. The Tiger boy opposite thumps his gloves against each other methodically. Theo looks back at me apprehensively, but he has decided to be brave.

There are trainers that utter the odd word or say nothing during a sparring bout. There are others who try to issue (correction, shout) simple, clear instructions, to try to help the little warrior in front of them to progress. I am the latter. One of the mantras in the Tae Kwon Do oath reads: to build a more peaceful world. At Christmas we have a little fun and Master Moreno gives us silly awards. I am the proud owner of the 2019 award that reads: ‘To build a more noisy world.”

‘Theo, hold. Hold Theo. Theo now track then hold. Hold Theo. Theo good, now move centre Theo, move back to the centre.” Theo, adorning a head guard, still feels a punch to his head and then a kick to his rib and then several others in quick succession from the cruel, heartless Tiger boy. Theo rushes to raise his leg to stave off the blows but the enormous Tiger opposite is relentless and keeps moving forward. Theo does too, to meet the monster head on. “Hold, move to the centre, the centre.” It is to no avail and the judge stops the fight, as he sees Theo is limping, a dead leg, probably caught by a glancing blow at some point and a little tear forms in Theo’s right eye.

“It’s OK Theo. You listened. You went back in there. I am proud of you. It was tough.” A relieved father takes him to the first aid. He’s fine. Normally it is a superficial something.

The Tiger boy comes over and embraces Theo. Then dutifully comes over and shakes my hand, before returning to his trainer. The limping yet valiant Theo does the same. The other boy appears less of a Tiger now, maybe even smaller than a couple of seconds ago, perhaps just another boy really. Tiger boy checks on Theo again before departing.

Dad looks relieved. But today Theo learnt a lot and soon enough he will be the same size as Tiger boy. Maybe he’ll be a lion or, following the name of his club, a Panther, Pantera. That’s it. Theo will be a panther. In each bout the children learn something. It is controlled aggression. Competitors are expected to control their force and they do, or receive a warning or are disqualified. It’s about scoring points to the body and head and demonstrating the techniques learnt.

Next up is Eddie. I go through the same drill, the same heaving chest that I try to slow down. “Eddie centre. Eddie hold. Eddie switch. Eddie centre. Hold Eddie. Hold!!” And as the monster, a Tyrannosorous Rex I think, in the other corner moved forward, smaller, lighter yet nimbler Eddie moved forward too, then tracked and kicked, then centred again. Eddie did not back away, moved sideways, then forward again. But still the attacks kept coming. Eddie returned to my corner, defeated but proud. He gave me that quizzical look, through locks of bright blond hair, as if to say: “So why did I lose Paul? I did as you said, why am I not going through to the next round?”

I tell him I am extremely proud of him. I tell him he learnt a lot today about how to spar. I tell him he will soon be bigger and stronger.

Tae Kwon Do teaches you to stand your ground, in the ring but far more importantly in life. Theo and Eddie are starting to stand their ground.

Eddie’s parents thank me for helping him through and for guiding him through it. They look as if he’s just passed a gruelling school exam, one that he needed to pass to progress. Maybe that was it. I tell them why I was pleased and that he will be back.

So I too must be calm in the crisis or what kind of coach am I? The chief adjudicator, Jeff Brider, he of the suit and brilliant white trainers, rushes over to me, clutching two sets of illegal gloves, illegal because they do not offer enough protection for the thumbs and the rest of the hands. I have exactly a minute to salvage the chance for two competitors, both brothers, both with illegal gloves. I beg and borrow, sprinting back to my post with the borrowed gloves, much like a Pantera should really. Mission accomplished.

It is the time I dread most. Thankfully there is a lull in my duties and I am ready to film Roberto performing his patterns and then his sparring bouts. He is clinical in his patterns. He visualises his imaginary opponent – but not quite enough. Silver it is. The sparring commences and he tracks swiftly and efficiently, scoring many points with his legs, but the slightly taller boy uses his hands more and for every two quick punches to Roberto’s head, my son only lands one back. You don’t win anything for grace in this ring, only for points. It was close. Silver again.

And our 19-year-old Joshua get’s a harder time still. He’s in with the weight category above, having been unable to shed that vital extra kilo. They are all taller, ganglier, bigger, with longer arms. He gets caught in the sparring ring and then again. Out Panther met some bigger Tigers of his own today. No medals this time, but a lot of experience of what is to come, when he grows a little, in every sense.

We are ready for the finale. These moments aren’t chosen. They happen. There were sparring bouts before and after. For whatever reason, this is the moment, the moment to which everybody in the hall is drawn.

An unassuming Polish coach in a black t-shirt, in his twenties, takes control of his Anglo-Polish charges, across different teenage categories. Michal Dziubicki, a member of the Polish national team and host of international medals to his name, is my category of coach, a shouter – but in his case, a highly effective one. To hell with that, he has the gracious, self-controlled bawling nature of a true winner. His fighters seem to be slightly smaller, slightly lighter, but with more guile, more intelligence, more speed than their adversaries – at the very end of it all. The crowd fall silent and all are fixated by the bout. Szymon Doniesiewicz is cornered. He holds, ducks right down, to avoid the tirade of punches from his Dutch appointment, Simon Hekkers. We are in extra time. A further thirty seconds of effort. The fighters are drawn. Then as Szymon ducks down and low he springs up and through like a cheetah fighting for dear life, catching the Dutchman with punches to the left, right and then a quick series of kicks – when all appeared lost. The crowd explodes. This is Tae Kwon Do. This is all about learning to dig deep, to find the most elusive of the elements in the oath: indomitable spirit. Szymon has it in spades. Szymon refuses to be beaten – so isn’t. Simon Hekkers staggers back, shocked at the riposte: in this case the leg that sprang back in defence, springs forward now in to full attack, nevertheless controlled. Within seconds Szymon has accrued the points that will secure victory and the Dutchman fights on, but his spirit is suddenly and irrevocably broken.

“Extra, extra,” bawls Michal, encouraging his charge to land just a few extra points and make sure this time. But he knows his charge has done enough. I bawl at Roberto and Joshua from Pantera, to watch and soon they too are caught in the bout’s spell. “Look at this Polish fighter guys and learn. He’s going to win. I can see it.”

I shake Michal’s hand, very moved at the spectacle. Neither he or Szymon gloat in their victory. Your ego is not part of this. Michal appears to have guided all his charges to victory, including Szymon’s brother or cousin maybe. Gabriel Doniesiewicz is also victorious in sparring. Michal and Szymon disappear, as do we. We leave, all a little stronger, all a little more prepared to live in the here and now and see off all adversaries in the ring and outside of it, fitter for the fight, proud to be part of it all. Tae Kwon!

Paul Rowinski. Pantera Tae Kwon Do.