This post wouldn’t be honest without the caveat that if it weren’t for the soft-style self-improvement values of Haidong Gumdo, I don’t think I would ever have returned to the world of regular, formal martial arts.

Master Kim Seminar Basics Group
Master Bruce works some students at Master Kim’s seminar, White Tiger Martial Arts, photo by Tanya Bartelt

Haidong Gumdo is a non-competitive, low-impact martial art that shares more than footwork with the Korean version of Tai Chi (Gi Cheon), it shares the philosophy that we are here for improvement, for our own well-being and the well-being of our fellowship and our community.  That is what makes a Haidong Gumdo dojang the sort of place where one will find seventy-plus-year-old black belts who can no longer do Tae Kwon Do, who can still line up and train.  You will find them right next to ten or eleven-year-old kids who have barely grown enough strength to hold the sword.

At the age of thirty I fully believed that the injury that ended my Air Force career before it could begin had ended my love for martial arts at last.  My knee wouldn’t let me get back into good enough shape to perform at a standard a dojang would take, and I would just be wasting everyone’s time.

But Range Martial Arts, and then the Midwest Haidong Gumdo community was endlessly there with the two sayings I’ve lost count of, I’ve heard them so often over the past years: “Do what you can,” and “Do your best.”

Dream Big Start Now Ten and Today TrainDo what you can.

Do your best.

They seem simple enough, but put together they become something very valuable, something powerful, and something that I want to incorporate and pass on to all of the Northwind Martial Arts students.  Yes, this part of my vision for the future.  As a brand new master, I want all of my future students to be able to take these two thoughts from me no matter if they trained an hour ago or a decade ago.

Do What You Can

That means start now, where you are.  The dojang floor isn’t just for third-degree black belts who can spin through the air like their sword has no weight and gravity is merely an acquaintance.  It is the place for white belts who are trying to remember which side “left cut” starts on, and everyone in between.  The only qualification to begin is desire, a dream.  One of my favorite cheezy movies of all times is the old Chuck Norris film Sidekicks because a significant portion of the martial artists I know got into martial arts because they wanted to be Chuck Norris/A Jedi/Fremen/Samurai/Zorro.

Do what you can is permission to walk through a place of imperfection.  If you can only do a short stance with your knee 18 inches off the ground instead of 4, then do that sodose, just do that sodose.  Here in the civilian world, and particularly with Haidong Gumdo, unless the zombie apocalypse begins the whole point of the art isn’t to get involved in a land war in ancient Asia.  It is to improve who you are as an athlete and a human being.  It is impossible to improve who you are if you can’t be who you are in the first place!  How would you know what needs fixed and what is already working?!

Bruce Lee PlateausDo your best is the flip side of that coin.  I was fortunate enough in my training to miss the Bruce Lee craze (he passed away before I began training and my master was old enough to have missed Bruce Lee’s influence during his own youth).  I say that I am lucky because I never learned to worship the ground he walked on or to hate him.  I simply get to look at what this significant martial arts pioneer says, take what seems good, leave what doesn’t fit, and to paraphrase Bruce Lee himself, make it uniquely my own.

I remember listening to a taped interview when he was speaking about training.  Bruce Lee would train almost anyone, and his list of students involves game show host Bob Barker to basketball giant Kareem Abdul Jabar.  You could barely get two different sets of builds and abilities!

In this interview, Mr. Lee said that too many people took “Do your best” to mean whatever they decided to do, that was their best.  But to him do your best was an absolute rejection of complacency.  He could always try to be one degree higher, to do the technique one little bit better.  For Bruce Lee, do your best meant that his art deserved 100% commitment and effort.  This man worked out three hours a day, living proof of his dedication to the art.

Do your best is where the passion is.  Master Frankovich recently made an excellent post on the vital role that passion plays in our training.

Have you read it yet?

Seriously… Go read it.

Do your best is what makes all that inclusion worthwhile.  To do your best, not someone else’s best, is an empowering thing.  With a crippled knee my sodose is a good foot higher than Master Kim’s, but I’m not trying to do his, I am training to make my sodose eleven inches higher instead.

When I’m focused on doing my best, negative feedback becomes fuel to push me forward.  Recently one of my students commented on a demonstration video, “Their white belts have better cuts than we do.”  Without passion, that information could lead to defeat and discouragement.

-After all these years of work, someone with a few months’ training is doing better than I am!  No fair!-

Train More Sword VersionBut with passion, the very same bit of data, that a newbie is cutting better, can bring energy and give us new goals to shoot for.   When I ran cross country in high school, I was taught to win the race not by worrying about the lead runner, who might be a quarter or a half mile ahead of me, but to catch the man in front of me.  Once I had done that, catch the man in front of me once again.  So, in Haidong Gumdo:
-That white belt has better cuts than I do!  Hm… If he can do that well with so little training, then I ought to be able to do even better with my own years of experience!  Let me take another look and see what makes that cut look so good.  Let me compare it to my cuts.  I wonder if I can make some progress on that before the next test!-

Do your best isn’t simply about my own selfish status.  The better that I can do, as a teacher and a student,  As a student, the better I do in my own art, the more that others can look at me and say, “That crippled middle-aged guy can move and cut like that!  I’m twenty years younger than he is!  I bet I can do even better!”  As a teacher, my students deserve my best, to be able to look at Black Belt Invinciblewhat I’m doing, copy it, and thereby get it right!  Master Frankovich has commented repeatedly that he can tell whose student any practitioner is, because students pick up the techniques that their masters have.

Putting it all together yields a beautiful sort of symmetry.  It begins with an open attitude towards the world, that I and everyone else can come and do what I can.  From there I have an ongoing internal mission to do my best, because to be a martial artist is to seek improvement as an athlete, a warrior, and a human being.  Then, with every bit that I can improve myself, I am in a better position to help support, accompany, and lead others.