In Taekwondo, the Focus Is on Both Mental and Physical Training

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Jason Barnabe runs a taekwondo class in Niverville. Jason Barnabe

For over 20 years, students in Niverville have been training in the Korean martial art of taekwondo. In 1995, Kang’s Taekwondo Academy opened its branch in town, and people of all ages have been showing up to classes at the Golden Friendship Centre to train ever since.

“Taekwondo is a self-defensive martial art,” says Master Bill Tam. Tam ran the Île-des-Chênes location of Kang’s for years, although he now works at the main branch in Winnipeg and manages the academy headquarters. “While training in taekwondo, we focus on concentration, discipline, self-defence, and of course fitness.”

Branches in Niverville and Ste. Agathe are both run by Jason Barnabe. Barnabe began training in Île-des-Chênes in 2008 as a student of Master Tam. Seven years later, he decided to open a new branch of Kang’s in Ste. Agathe. Then, in the fall of 2017, the instructor in Niverville retired and asked Barnabe to take over that branch as well.

The change in role from student to teacher was a challenge for Barnabe, but he felt that it was important to push himself out of his comfort zone for personal growth. It’s a decision he is happy with.

“Teaching has proven to be rewarding, and watching the students go from white belts to black belts fills me with pride,” he says.

It’s also a considerable commitment, for while he has achieved black belt status, he isn’t done learning. Instructors are required to attend seminars to learn about changes to the martial art and the way it is taught.

Kang’s is the oldest taekwondo academy in Manitoba. The first branch opened in Winnipeg in 1976. The academy faced upheaval in 2016 when their chief instructor was sentenced to prison for sexual assault. Since then, ownership of Kang’s has been transferred back to the original owner and founder, Great Grandmaster Kang and Mrs. Kang. That was also when Master Tam returned from Île-des-Chênes to the main Winnipeg branch, one of several changes in leadership.

“We have had a lot of policy changes, leadership changes, many things changed,” affirms Tam.

But one thing hasn’t changed: the long list of benefits the art of taekwondo offers its students.

Barnabe says that most new students are drawn in by an interest in martial arts and learning kicks and punches, but they don’t typically know much about the other advantages offered to them.

“The most obvious benefit is fitness,” he says. “Taekwondo trains quickness, agility, flexibility, and stamina. I think the more important benefit is that we train minds as well. Discipline, respect, perseverance, confidence, and drive are all attributes we try to instill in students… In the end, the mental training is more important than the physical.”

When Barnabe began lessons a decade ago, it was at a suggestion from his wife. He instantly felt it was a good fit.

“I enjoyed it right away,” he says. “I like it because it’s an individual activity where your success depends on how much work you put in.”

Despite the individual nature of the activity, though, he says there’s still plenty of room for teamwork in the martial art. “It’s not a team activity, in that your success is not largely determined by others, but it is like having a team in that you’re in a supportive environment and everyone helps everyone else get better.”

Of course, he adds, going to practices with other people allows students to meet new people and make friends in a way that completely solitary activities don’t.

In taekwondo, there is always an emphasis on respect. Students must show respect to their instructor as well as each other, and particularly by seniority. 

“All martial arts go by seniority, not by age,” explains Master Tam. “As you achieve a higher rank, it doesn’t matter the age. A 70-year-old with a white belt must show respect to an 18-year-old with a black belt.”

This also shapes how lessons are run. Students are grouped by achievement level, regardless of age, and classes are not separated by age.

“They all practice at the same time,” Tam says. “Whatever your age is, you practice with your level and you all work on the same technique at the same time, but when you get to more advanced techniques for higher levels, the lower level students sit down and watch.”

Barnabe says that this means that taekwondo offers a great opportunity for families to participate in an activity together.

“We have fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters who all train together,” he says. “It’s a good opportunity for parents to spend time doing an activity with their kids instead of just watching from the sidelines. It’s also a good opportunity for kids to be given some responsibility. The higher-ranked students help the lower-ranked students, even if the higher-ranked student is younger.”

Since students work at their own pace and move on as they feel ready, there is no start or end date to classes. This means flexibility: new students are free to join at any time throughout the year. People of any age are welcome, although children four to six years old train separately at a special time. 

Similarly, there is no particular fitness level required to start.

“When I started taekwondo I could do three push-ups,” recalls Barnabe. “At my black belt task, I was asked to do 100. So I don’t think fitness level matters when you start, as long as you work to improve yourself.”

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