Relaxation : the key to power and performance

An essay by – By James Montier

Spend any amount of time in a dojang  and you will see some guy (and it is more often than not a guy) whose moves look, well, clunky. They have a tense stiffness about them, a forced attempt to generate power. Trust me I know I was that guy (and still am on occasions).

Instructors faced with the clunky guy almost invariably say “try to relax”. Of course as soon as anyone tells you to relax you are likely to find yourself completely unable to do so, in fact, you are likely to actually stiffen up more. Akin to the experience of being told not to think of a pink elephant, the first thing that pops into your mind is a pink elephant.

When I think of people whose patterns I love watching they often seem to have a natural grace, a relaxed air about them. They make the patterns look simultaneously effortless and powerful.  One young lady (a good friend of mine) springs to mind, no one would accuse her of having undue muscles for power creation – watching her try and do a push up is almost comical, but her grace and relaxed fluidity are the key to her generation of power which is  obvious when she performs a pattern. Watching her do patterns is almost hypnotic. She is able to relax and then spring into action with a beautiful rhythm.

The relaxation is key, it allows the muscles to move fast and freely. Think of a piece of rope held by two people. If they hold it taunt, and one of the people tries to send a wave along the rope the angle of the rope will simply move with the hand of the person trying to create the wave motion. However, if the rope has some slack, the same up and down motion will now create a wave. Our muscles can be thought of as similar to the rope. The relaxed state means we can move then faster, rather than fighting against the inertia of a tight muscle. Also like the rope with a wave passing along it we try to utilise sequential action – the kinetic chain with each group of muscles activating at the right time to maximise power starting from the floor in most cases. Tense stressed muscles will not allow the energy to pass efficiently from one group to another group of muscles and the kinetic chain will be inhabited by the muscles inertia.

All good and well you may say, but how do you relax? At the risk of sounding like a the classic paradoxical riddle loving  martial arts master of the movies, you need to stop trying. Relaxation starts in the mind. Stop trying to force the body to relax, and relaxation will most likely occur naturally, trust in the techniques you have been taught, don’t overthink them. Breath and just let it flow.

The psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about the concept in flow which can be desired as being experienced when a person performing some activity is fully immersed. It can be though of as having six components:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of personal control over the activity
  • A distortion of temporal experience
  • Experience of the active is intrinsically rewarding

For me this is the perfect description of the way it should feel to perform patterns. Lose yourself in  the pattern.

This isn’t to say that you should never experience tension. As with most things in martial arts, balance is all important. Tension during impact (the snap at the end of motion) is vital to ensure the transmission of force into a target. So effectively we need relaxation at the start of the moment to allow, mass and muscles to be recruited without the need to overcome inertia, and then at the end of a technique we need a moment of tension to allow for force transmission (what Karateka call Kim’s). However, this tension shouldn’t be forced. It is really just the result of the completion of the movement.

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ITF Technical Seminar On-line

In December 2020 the ITF Hosted an On-line Technical Seminar. We had well over 1000 participants from 60 countries take part.

Here is a bit of behind the scenes background… and some new videos to come out of it.

This course came about due to Covid19. Around the world we were starting to get a backlog of people who wanted to grade for higher degrees but couldn’t, due to the requirement to do an IIC. So originally the idea was to do an on-line IIC.

After some discussion it was decided by the Technical Committee and the ITF Board to do a qualifying course for gradings… but it would be different from an IIC (obviously), so wouldn’t be called one.

The plan was for each of the technical committee members to create videos of our subject matter, and use those videos in conjunction with live Q&As. So we all set about doing that – only to find on our first practice that the videos would be too unreliable to use. Depending on the connection, they could be shaky and with bad audio.

So two weeks out, and already 800 registrations, we had to change our plan.

So we each then had to find people to work with, either in person or remotely, to demonstrate the patterns and do corrections with them. Master Judet and GM Lan were able to do that in person, but the rest of us had to work with people in remote locations.

In a way it worked out well as our sessions took on a different feel as we brought in some of the best pattern performers from around the world. I got to work with some world champions from Argentina and it was nice to meet and practice with them on-line.

Leading up to the seminar I have to tell you we were nervous. How would Zoom cope with 1000 participants… and how would we? With the help of the chairman of the Communications Committee we practiced being able to find the people in Zoom, Spotlighting them to full screen and so on. I also used some slides to try and make the most of what Zoom can do.

In the end we were happy with the way it all went. Everyone was so positive and we hardly had anyone drop off over the four hour sessions each day.

So some of the videos I prepared that didn’t end up being used, so I have uploading those for Members to watch.

This videos ended up being quite different from the Live version so should be of value even if you were at the seminar.

Gen Choi instructing

Over two decades have now passed since the Founder of Taekwon-Do passed away. Every now and then I reflect that most of the people in my classes, even senior black belts, never got to meet and train with General Choi. That is a great pity as he was certainly a legend – an amazing figure and source of incredible knowledge.

In April 2002, practically on his death-bed, Gen Choi travelled to the United States to fulfil his promise to Grand Master CE Sereff to teach a course for his students. That was considered his last IIC. The previous September was the last full course, held in Jamaica shortly after the devastation of 9/11. As you will hear him say at the end of the video, the world was chaotic and people were afraid to travel. But 30 fanatical Taekwon-Do students gathered in Jamaica regardless to learn from the man himself.

This footage was shot by myself, Mark Banicevich and Graham Patterson – the three Kiwis at the course. It’s not high quality, but nevertheless it is valuable, historic footage to be cherished.

General Choi always encouraged us to ask questions. In fact before each course, he would approach some seniors privately and encourage them to ask lots of questions at the course. He usually wouldn’t discuss techniques much before that – preferring instead to save that for the seminar.

These videos show some techniques that have since been modified slightly since Gen Choi’s passing. The various organisations around the world have sought to standardise techniques as much as possible so it is natural that decisions had to be made on certain points that were ambiguous. The point here is that over the last decade some of these techniques have been changed so check with your instructor before quoting Gen Choi from this video. And in many cases there was no right or wrong answer on how a technique is to be performed. Gen Choi himself would show different variations at different courses. And he modified techniques over time too.

General Choi was most gracious and generous with his time, and was always careful to repeat his key points so they were clear. Sometimes though he would not quite understand what was being asked and go on a bit of a tangent. It was tricky to try and push for an answer sometimes without being disrespectful, so I would normally just stand and wait for as long as I could comfortably get away with – but sometimes eventually you just had to bow and sit down.

Classic IIC : Gen Choi in Jamaica 2001

Over a decade has now passed since the Founder of Taekwon-Do passed away. Every now and then I reflect that most of the people in my classes, even senior black belts, never got to meet and train with General Choi. That is a great pity as he was certainly a legend – an amazing figure and source of incredible knowledge.

In April 2002, practically on his death-bed, Gen Choi travelled to the United States to fulfil his promise to Grand Master CE Sereff to teach a course for his students. That was considered his last IIC. The previous September was the last full course, held in Jamaica shortly after the devastation of 9/11. As you will hear him say at the end of the video, the world was chaotic and people were afraid to travel. But 30 fanatical Taekwon-Do students gathered in Jamaica regardless to learn from the man himself.

Snippets of amazing old footage

DON’T FORGET TO WATCH No. 10 – Paul McPhail performs Juche forwards and backwards

For my 5th degree black belt grading in 1993 I thought it would be a cool idea to perform Juche Tul forwards then backwards for General Choi.

The plan failed miserably as I started the backwards part… I hadn’t even considered the possibility that General Choi would take offence to it. He turned his head and refused to watch. I figured… well… I may as well carry on now and struggled through to the end.

I passed the grading so I guess the General had forgiven me by the day the results were announced.

Here is the footage of the pattern at the grading.

Movement Relaxation

Movement Relaxation with World Champion Mira Sjövall

Miss Mira Sjövall is a ITF Taekwon-Do World Champion in patterns. Her powerful yet relaxed style is something to behold, and obviously in favour with the judges.

Mira is the student of Master Thierry Meyour, 7th dan from Finland. Master Meyour has always made good use of sport science and other disciplines to assist in his Taekwon-Do coaching and instructing,  with a particular interest in thinking “outside the box”. This led him to experimenting with Alexander technique and other methods used by dancers and other athletes.

Master Meyour and his team of enthusiastic instructors and practitioners are always pushing the boundary of knowledge, and Mira is a good example of some of the amazing results they have achieved. Of course much of it is Mira’s hard work herself – as with any world champion, it is the hours and hours of repetition we don’t get to see that makes the difference.

This video was filmed as a part of the ITF  Patterns Unleashed series of on-line courses. We are proud to be partnering with ITF Patterns Unleashed and have some new projects planned for the near future.

Mira Sjövall – Finland

World Champion 2019 (2nd dan patterns)

European Champion 2019 (2nd dan patterns)

European Champion 2018 (1st dan patterns)

World Champion 2017 (1st dan patterns)

European Cup gold 2018 (2nd dan patterns)

Double European Champion 2016 (1st dan patterns and sparring)

We apologise for the quality of the video, as this was recorded from an on-line Zoom seminar. We are working on improving the quality in the fut