Master Cutler Seminar

Master Paul Cutler

At USMA we were privileged to have Master Paul Cutler give a 2 day seminar. Unfortunately, due to work commitments (a conference in Queensland), I was only able to attend the first day, but one day was probably enough for me to try to absorb anyway. Below are my notes from the day and apologies for any misrepresentation or misunderstanding of what Master Culter had to say to us.

Master Cutler began by telling us a little bit about himself, and the fact that he has trained in taekwondo for over 30 years but has only ever had one instructor, Grand Master Rhee Ki Ha. Since Grand Master Rhee was the right hand man of General Choi, Master Cutler’s training has only been one step away from the founder of taekwondo right from the beginning. He also made the point that all the writings on taekwondo in English are translations from Korean, with inevitable confusions arising over language. Now that General Choi is no longer with us and cannot arbitrate on issues where clarification and guidance are required, it is left to those close to General Choi to pass on as much as they can of their understanding of taekwondo – and the further away people are from the source, the more likelihood of confusion in interpretation.

The other really important point he made (which puts politics and doctrine in perspective) is that our individual journey in taekwondo is about building a relationship with our own Instructor who is the person through whom taekwondo is brought to us. That relationship is the core relationship we have with taekwondo, and the next most important relationships are with the other club members with whom we train. (As an aside, I guess the student oath emphasises that by stating that “I will respect my Instructor and seniors” rather than stating that “I will respect the Grand Masters, Masters, Instructors and seniors … “)

He also made the point that other martial arts are not better or worse than taekwondo, but are different – so that it is important to follow what General Choi has given us if we want to be martial artists in taekwondo. This does not restrict us to only using taekwondo movements in our martial arts, but if we are using other movements, they are not taekwondo …

The other point he made about taekwondo and us as martial artists is that different people will apply taekwondo differently depending on their way of moving, their way of thinking and their body shape and rhythms. No one way is the only correct way, and taekwondo is our own personal embodiment of the principles articulated by General Choi.

During Day 1 of the seminar, we covered the sorts of things that would happen in a normal class – warm up, stretching, fundamental movements and patterns – and Master Cutler observed our technique and provided insight and specific exercises to address some issues with our performance. I’m not sure how much of what he said to us was new to us, but a different perspective and a different way of explaining things is always helpful. My notes below are my interpretation of what he said and other people will certainly have picked up different emphases and different key pointers depending on their own way of thinking and moving.

Our stretching and warm-up needs to target our hips and groin areas as clearly the lack of mobility and flexibility in this region is restricting many of us in technical execution. We are also lacking strengh in core lower abdominal muscles which are the key muscles in driving taekwondo movements. We also need to focus on staying on the balls of our feet rather than stomping around on our heels. Although many of us are trying to use sine wave effectively, our timing and coordination between sine wave movement, technique execution and breathing is not very effective.

Although I didn’t take extensive notes of the stretches we did for hips and groins, a key point was that it is critical to maintain the body (especially the foot for leg stretches) in the correct orientation to achieve a proper stretch – so quite often in the more difficult stretches, we are moving our feet to a “more comfortable” position, thereby kidding ourselves that we have stretched further, but not actually performing the intended stretch. Much of what he was suggesting with respect to stretching corresponds to the ideas expressed by Thomas Kurz in his book Stretching Scientifically, particularly the statement that it is our muscle length rather than our joints that place restrictions on our flexibility… and presumably there are no age limits on one’s ability to improve flexibility (damn! no excuses !!)

Other comments with respect to training which are not new but bear constant repeating were:

1. Practice a technique or pattern at least 200 times to get it right
2. “Practice makes perfect” only if you are practising correctly – practising incorrectly will mean that you become perfectly incorrect …
3. Check stances and ensure they are correct when practising patterns and techniques otherwise you will not be performing them correctly – need to obsess about this in training so that it will be natural if it is ever needed.
4. Set goals for training and for grading
5. Learn how your opponents react – watch other people and see where their openings will be when you spar with them

An interesting theoretical point that was new to me was that jumping kicks are completed as the foot lands (as in the back fist in Yul Gok and the X-block in Toi Gye) so that the jump (or leap) brings you to your target more quickly over a greater distance, whereas techniques which are completed in the air are called flying techniques.

The other theoretical point related to speed of movement and I’m not sure that I got it all sorted:
normal speed = full power and speed
fast motion = faster than normal but two sine waves still
continuous motion = like jumping continuously – the down of the last action is the initial down of the next action, so half a sine wave for each technique
connecting motion so far as I understand it, is like a continuous motion but using different tools (eg circular block / punch in Yul Gok) … but I must say I don’t really get this properly.

A particularly insightful exercise from my perspective was the one where we were asked to describe certain perceptual experiences in words (eg describe what blue is like to someone who can’t see …) – his point was that you need to “feel movements” to truly understand what they are. So we had difficulty seeing the difference in his stepping in walking stance when he pushed off his rear foot rather than driving from his leading leg, until we felt the difference ourselves. This driving with the leading leg rather than pushing off the back leg is important for balance. The other important thing was to ensure that we were on the balls of our feet when moving, and especially when turning. Many of us were beginning our turn (doing the first 90%) on the balls of our feet, but then finishing our swivel on our heels – we need to remain on the balls of our feet for the whole turn.

The specific exercises for basic kicking put together the basic ideas described earlier.

Front Snap Kick
We performed this kick in slow motion
knee up > snap > hold there > back
and of course most of us could not hold our leg in the extended position above waist height without turning our back foot – which makes it some other kick but not a front snap kick … I’m assuming the limiting factor is the mismatch between the flexibility / strength of the opposing muscles in the thigh – our hamstrings generally will need to be more flexible, but our quads require holding strength while maximally contracted and are working against gravity (something about eccentric contraction and some exercise physiology of recent times but currently escapes me) … I’m not sure what exercises will assist with this specifically.

Side Piercing Kick
The side piercing kick was broken down into three steps
1. Bending Stance with footsword at knee
2. Extend leg to 3/4 extension and bring fists to crossed position ready for block/punch BUT don’t turn leading foot !!!
3. Rotate hips which will swivel leading foot from 90 to 180 degrees while fully extending footsword to target and executing guard or block

(Step 2 is the upward phase of sine wave, and step 3 is the downward phase of sine wave). Note that most of us are turning our leading foot in step 2, thereby robbing step 3 of its explosive power from the hips.

Turning kicks and back kicks also need hip rotation, and we worked on executing them from a position where the opposite knee was raised which seems to force the hip rotation better and also assists with speed.

Anyhow, that was probably the major points for me from the seminar, and I will be keen to hear what was covered in Day 2.

The only other thing that stood out to me from the seminar relates to the fact that I went straight from it to a conference where some of the focus was on education and training. I work in the area of educational design of learning materials for higher education, and it is remarkable to me that nearly all of what Master Cutler was saying about learning and teaching and how to apply theoretical knowledge in the real world is pretty much a restatement of high-faluting pedagogical theory. His ideas about setting goals and being clear on learning objectives are not revolutionary but were concisely articulated in language appropriate to the audience and his teaching methodology was a practical implementation of pedagogy based on contextual learning and situated cognition.

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