Feature Article

In Search Of A Grand Master
Master Kevin May

Martial Arts has been a big part of my life since 1986. Since my first beginning class, I have placed TaeKwon-Do ahead of all other activities that before had taken up most of my time. Never before had I been in a location where I could take advantage of learning a martial art form. This training is always something I have taken seriously and look forward to each and every class.

Shortly after my third testing, our training changed dramatically. Our organization dropped three-step and one-step training and added a lot of pre-set drill type exercises to our testing requirements causing a lot of mixed feelings among the members. Many friends and even some instructors left the organization once these changes were put into place.

All of our training time was used to prepare for testing requirements. Forms were still the main focus point of our training. Each Black Belt Instructor taught the forms the way they had been taught. This differed from one Instructor to the next. Our Master Instructor changed the forms from time to time. Each Black Belt was allowed to interpret the forms and make minor changes on their own. Often you would have three different instructors teaching you your form three different ways. The student was allowed to chose which of the three different ways they wished to perform the form. This quite naturally caused a great deal of confusion within the ranks.

As many members, including Black Belt instructors, left our club, we had a severe shortage of instructors. I had been an intern since I was a seventh gup, starting with assisting the beginning children's class and eventually assisting in the children's advanced class. As a second gup I would, on occasion, fill in for the beginning adult Instructor. As a first gup I taught, along with Mr. Myers, the adult beginning class. Shortly after becoming a black belt I was given the task of teaching the adult intermediate class.

The teaching consisted of perfecting the many pre-set requirements which included: Forms, Pattern Practice, Belt Combinations (different for each gup level up to red belt), Three Beat Rhythm Practice, Six Beat Rhythm Practice, Single Counter Sparring, Double Counter Sparring, Kicking Drill (Front snap, crescent, reverse crescent, turning kick, hook kick and side kick), Self-Defense (Three moves required and were the same for all gup levels), and Free Sparring.

All of these testing requirements, except three simple self-defense moves involved blocking, punching and kicking. In order to be ready to test we had to spend all our training time working on these techniques.

With all the time spent perfecting these pre-set combinations and moves, we were not spending any time learning to defend ourselves in a way that would not seriously injure the person attacking us. Our free sparring prepared us to block, punch and kick in order to defend ourselves in a fist-fight. Many situations do not result in a fist-fight, however. Many confrontations could be resolved without having to seriously injure the aggressor. We were promoting people through the ranks who could not defend themselves on the streets without causing serious or even permanent injury to the attacker.

As family members and friends learned of my involvement in TaeKwon-Do, they would say things like "Show me something" or "What can you do". All I would be able to do is say, "How bad do you want me to hurt you?" I would talk about becoming conditioned to seeing punches and kicks come at my head and, without even thinking, be prepared to block and counter. Those counters would always be a punch or kick to different parts of the body. This is very effective if your intent is to physically damage the aggressor.

In March of 1989 I started a printing company located in Vicksburg, Michigan, about 30 miles from my home. About ten months later I had to give up teaching the adult intermediate class in Sturgis because of the time required to get this business started and make sure of its success. Over the next year I had a desire to start a club in Vicksburg, Michigan and had many people from the area ask me to do this. As the printing business grew, we leased a very large building and sub-leased part of it to help pay for the lease.

One of our tenants was Ballards Weight Rack, a free weight power lifting gym. John Ballard had asked me to start a TaeKwon-Do school and have aerobics taught in the same room when not in use for martial arts. I checked into the business requirements and decided to open my own club. Many things had to be done to prepare this building for use as a dojang for TaeKwon-Do. Finally, at the end of September of 1991, the construction and painting of the room completed, I was ready to open the doors for the first group of students.

Before I started the first class, I wanted to have a demonstration so that those who were interested could see what they were getting involved in before they signed up. I had flyers printed that announced the demonstration as well as the starting times for the first classes. To assist me with the demonstration, I invited members of the Union City and Sturgis clubs to participate in a regular class situation. This way those watching would see what they would be doing during a regular class. This proved to be very effective and at the end of the demonstration we had a question and answer session. This helped to assure the parents that the instruction of their children would not be severe or harsh. I also re-assured them their children would not be turned into troublemakers and bullies, nor were they in any great danger of being injured during a regular training session.

As Instructor of the Sturgis club I had no direct dealings with our Master Instructor, nor did I have any knowledge of how other martial arts clubs were organized; what other Master instructors allowed Head instructors to do (ie. training, testing, financial arrangements to split promotion fees, decisions to make major changes in any area, etc.)

My experience with our Master Instructor was during testing only. At these testings, we would be told what areas needed to be improved in general. Sometimes we would be introduced to a new training procedure. Other times those testing would be instructed by the Master Instructor to change a technique in the middle of testing. This always caused concern to instructors, like myself, who had been teaching this technique to this student, the way we had been previously instructed to do so. Other times instructors would be reprimanded at the testing, in front of all the students, for teaching techniques incorrectly. Now that I had my own club and faced many decisions concerning what was best for my students, I began to have serious doubts about how effective our training really was. In the real world there are no second chances to get a technique right in order to defend yourself.

During this time Mike Houck was the Chief Instructor for both the Union City and Sturgis Clubs. When I was organizing everything needed to start the Vicksburg club, Mr. Houck and I worked together two to four times per week and stayed in close contact concerning everything from organizing the demonstration to ordering patches and other items needed for new members. During our conversations the problems facing the clubs were addressed and I discovered that quite a number of high ranking Black Belts were also having problems with the direction our training had taken. One of the original founding Black Belts had started doing some checking into finding a new Master Instructor on his own and had been quietly searching for over a year. This same type of search was also started by Mr. Houck and Mr. Haskin, a second degree Black Belt from Union City. A number of leads were developed and were checked into with serious intentions of changing Master Instructor affiliations.

Many things were to be taken into consideration when examining a new Master Instructor. Among these were:

  1. International ranking certificates. This was particularly important to most of our Black Belts and was one of the advantages that was offered by our existing Master Instructor. This did cause confusion among our Black Belts because most of us were registered in Korea under the Kukkiwon system even though none of us knew any of the Kukkiwon style forms. One of our Black Belts had been in Maryland for a number of years and while there went to a school that taught Kukkiwon forms. They thought that he was a fraud because he did not know any of the forms. I had always been told that our Master Instructor registered us with one of the Internationally known organizations so that if we moved anywhere else in the world that another club would recognize and accept our rank. This however is not possible with the style of forms we are taught and the style of TaeKwon-Do in which we are registered.

  2. We were interested in finding a Master Instructor who had a serious interest in helping us to develop our skills to a much higher level. We wanted someone that would be willing to personally teach us and take a hands-on approach. Someone that would be accessible for training seminars and also just to be there to answer questions as they came up. This seems so simple, but it is something new to our organization. We were not interested in a Master Instructor who only wanted our dues and testing fees, but one who was genuinely interested in our club, our students and to furthering the art of TaeKwon-Do.

  3. Consistency. This was something we had never known. Everything from our forms to testing requirements had been changed on a regular basis. Seminars with our Master Instructor, which were rare, were designed to go over changes in our forms. Testing requirements for first, second and third degree were different for each student that tested for these ranks. Temporary belt promotions were more common than permanent promotions, with these temporary promotions requiring the student to make arrangements to meet with the Master Instructor to polish rough areas. This involved a four and a half hour car drive, round trip, to spend one to two hours working out and then having to pay for the lessons.

  4. Reasonable turn around time for receiving certification of rank. Many Black Belt students had not received their certificates even two years after they were given their permanent promotions. This was not uncommon as many Black Belts in our organization had to wait even longer. I personally had to wait from March to January to finally receive my certificate.

  5. Organizational abilities. How well organized and how smoothly does the new Master Instructor's organization operate? Were procedures written down or were they orally conveyed and changed at random? Were goals predetermined and explained with plans of action to achieve those goals? Were fees for services in writing and were they subject to change without any reason given?

  6. Free flow of information. Just to be kept informed of events that were scheduled for the entire organization would be something new. What other clubs were involved in, and a schedule of events that our members could participate in, would also be a bonus.

  7. Back to traditional training. Most of the Black Belts wanted to return to the traditional three-step and one-step sparring.
These are some of the most essential elements we were looking for in a new Master Instructor. What we found when we began to question other organizations took us by surprise. We had been living in the dark ages and had no idea what was generally accepted and permitted by other organizations. This confirmed our belief that it would be in our clubs' best interest to look for another Master Instructor.

From left to right: Master Kevin May,
Grand Master Benko, Master Michael Houck

As the search continued, the name of Grand Master James S. Benko came to us. The initial contact was made and followed up with a package outlining much of the organization. We were impressed: First, from the phone conversation, this appeared to be a legitimate organization to be considered and second, by the quick and professional manner the phone conversation was followed up with the literature we received.

As soon as Mr. Houck saw that video tapes were available, a number of them were purchased immediately. Among these tapes were the videos showing the first ten forms. You cannot believe what a treasure this is to a club that cannot even get two Black Belt Instructors to agree on all the moves of a particular form. The video, TaeKwon-Do: Phase One, introduced us to a few new stances, punches and blocks. During the Forms presentation portion of the Phase One video, Grand Master Benko would explain different points to consider for each form. During one of the forms, the statement was made, that all students should be performing the forms the same way, and that the forms would never be changed. I believe the direct quote is, "These forms should be the same two thousand years from now". Is it possible that other organizations do not change their forms from year to year? It seemed that we had found an organization that not only didn't change the forms, but insisted that they not ever be changed in the future. This was very exciting news to us and only fueled our desire to know more about this Grand Master Instructor.

The second tape that just really overwhelmed us was the Unarmed Self-defense video. This tape began to show in detail and slow motion how to use joint locks in different situations. There was more self-defense techniques taught on this tape than I had been shown in over six years of TaeKwon-Do training. The tape showed how an aggressor could be subdued and controlled without causing any serious or permanent injury. This is exactly the kind of techniques I had continually asked about all during my training (all through the gup levels and even as a Black Belt). I was always told, we would get to that type of training later. Here was an organization that included this type of training for all levels.

We immediately began to study these moves and each one of us would introduce a different technique when we got together and worked out in our Black Belt classes. I think all of our Black Belts have expressed that we feel like we are white belts again, when it comes to learning all the self-defense we were being introduced to from Grand Master Benko. This had never been part of our training. Now that we have begun to feel more comfortable with the techniques, we are spending more of our class time teaching these things to our students. This will give them many options that they would never have received from training from our previous Master Instructor. Armed with this knowledge, it is not necessary to cause serious or permanent damage to another person unless the situation calls for such action.

The TaeKwon-Do Phase Two video began to teach us why we move at certain angles and how these angles can be used to our advantage. During the two-step and one-step sparring segments many take-downs were demonstrated. Again, this was an area of training that we had all been begging for further instruction. Now we could see the technique for ourselves over and over again until we could get it right.

All this information was being passed around from Black Belt to Black Belt. Whenever two or more of us would meet, all we talked about was the tapes and books, and how great they were to be available to us. The enthusiasm level throughout our club was rekindled, as a natural response to all of the instructors increased enthusiasm. Still, we had not yet made a decision to change Master Instructors and we had not told any of the gup level students that we were even thinking of making a change. We felt it would not be in the best interest to tell everyone until a decision had been made, just in case the decision would be to remain with our current Korean Master Instructor. Still, many students could see changes being made in our training sessions and began to suspect that something major was about to happen.

The turning point came when a group of our senior Black Belts made a trip to Lapeer, Michigan and met Grand Master Benko. I was to be one of these Black Belts, but because of surgery to my jaw I was unable to attend. I have never seen such an excited and impressed group of martial artists, as the group that returned from Lapeer. The first thought that always comes to my mind when I think of that meeting, as relayed to me by those who attended, was the courtesy extended to them by everyone there from the ITA (International TaeKwon-Do Association). The workout they went through was very thorough and many corrections were made to the forms. Grand Master Benko's demonstration of nerve strikes and pressure points on Mr. Jack Houck is something we all still talk about. The respect and self-control demonstrated by the children during the class, that was in progress when they arrived, was very impressive.

Above all was the patience and willingness to answer all questions completely and honestly. Never before had a Master Instructor been willing to just sit and talk about any subject that we would chose. Since my first conversation by phone with Grand Master Benko I have understood how easy it is to talk to him. What a great benefit it is to have someone willing to listen and answer your questions with the many years of knowledge that this man has. That knowledge is a treasure that is now available to all of us since we have made the decision to join the ITA.

My second degree testing has been put off for over a year for one reason or another. I am very happy that I will be the first, from our group of clubs, to test and hopefully be promoted as a Black Belt in the ITA. An ITA Black Belt means so much more than a Black Belt from my previous organization. Since we have begun to train with the new self-defense techniques, my confidence level to defend myself on the streets has soared to new heights. As I look at others who are Black Belts, I now make a mental distinction between ITA Black Belts and other Tae Kwon Do Black Belts. I now know the level of expertise that is required to obtain a Black Belt in the ITA. So much more training and knowledge is taught that I cannot help but make this distinction.

As Head Instructor of my own school, I now feel confident that I am teaching my students to adequately defend themselves. They are given options and taught how to determine how much force is necessary to take care of a given situation. Books, video tapes and other materials are available to assist them in their progress toward Black Belt and beyond.

This change in Master Instructor affiliation has been a very exciting time for all of us. We have made our choice and we have chosen well.

Copyright © 1998- James S. Benko and ITA Institute.
All rights reserved.

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