Getting their kicks in

Shilo Spremich, 14, breaks a piece of wood with a kick as it is

When Jeff King’s parents enrolled him in his first martial arts
class in the late 1960s, he’d been picked on most of his young
life. They wanted him to feel more confident in standing up to
bullies, so they placed the 8-year-old at a martial arts
school.
When Jeff King’s parents enrolled him in his first martial arts class in the late 1960s, he’d been picked on most of his young life. They wanted him to feel more confident in standing up to bullies, so they placed the 8-year-old at a martial arts school.

“Back then they’d hit you, and if you came back they’d train you,” said King, who, through combination of parental prodding and personal determination achieved his black belt.

King continued to train, and was introduced to a popular form of Korean martial art in the late 1970s while taking classes at a new studio in San Jose called Master Choy’s.

The style was called Taekwondo, a Korean derivative of Japanese karate that emerged after World War II, according to Indiana University researcher Dakin Burdick as published in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts.

Excelling at Master Choy’s, King eventually became an instructor in his own right, opening King’s Martial Arts in Morgan Hill 15 years ago. Like him, many of the instructors practicing in the South Valley today owe their start in Taekwondo (literally “the way of the hand and foot”) to Choy’s.

In his Tennant Avenue studio, King leads groups in energetic shouts of “ki-yah!” as they practice forms, patterns of moves that will be useful later in their martial arts careers when the time for free sparring and competition arrive.

From their beginning as white belts, King’s students break boards. It’s not just about strength and skill, but about taming their inner selves as well.

“I’ll write words like anger on the boards so the kids can really focus on breaking through that emotion,” said King.

There are a plethora of styles, originating from different countries but tied together by technique and experience, that fall under the umbrella known as “martial arts.”

Many of these can be studied in local studios, from traditional karate to the advanced form of Japanese swordsmanship known as shinkendo.

However, the vast majority of instruction in the area uses taekwondo as its base.

“Some of the other arts that entail an intense amount of throwing or grappling, which is ground work, are harder for people to learn and feel comfortable with,” said King. “As human beings, we tend to learn better standing up.”

Like King, practitioners of the sport today emphasize values – integrity, responsibility, discipline, respect and honor – along with sidekicks and hand blocks, an idea that parents find especially attractive for teaching children core values.

While martial arts, during their initial adoption in the United States, were considered an adult fitness form, this added curriculum has developed the practice into a kid-dominated field.

Instructors around the area estimate that anywhere from 65 to 80 percent of their students are children, with older teens and adults comprising only a small segment of the martial arts market.

Anthony Figueroa enrolled his 5-year-old son at Jess Jacques’ Western Academy of Martial Arts in Gilroy 18 months ago in an effort to help the young boy learn discipline, but when Figueroa began taking classes along with him, it brought about a change in dad as well.

“It really helps me to be humble,” said Figueroa. “I’ve learned a lot about integrity, and it really taught me not to give up.”

In fact, Figueroa was so focused that he has already attained his black belt, a course that normally takes adults three to four years, and now instructs the class that his son and three nephews attend.

“We do some really hard drills, and it teaches them to keep at it,” said Figueroa, who said his son has also seen improvement at school.

Children, especially those enrolled as early as age five, tend to pick up the style quickly, said Nancy Clampitt, co-owner of United Martial Arts in Morgan Hill with her husband Mike, but because of developmental differences they test for their black belts in a special category separate from adult counterparts.

“They can test for a junior black belt as kids, but they have to wait until they’re 14 to satisfy the requirements for an adult black belt,” said Clampitt. “The focus is a little different. With the kids, were they to be attacked, we teach them techniques to get away so they can call an adult. With the adults, we’re teaching more of what to do if there’s nowhere to go.”

While adult women, the most likely candidates to benefit from martial arts instruction according to Jacques, form the minority of martial arts enthusiasts, they are a growing segment.

Clampitt didn’t take lessons in martial arts until the couple’s studio opened in 1992, but she said their studio has seen a very recent surge in adult women wanting to participate.

Most of the women who are now joining have children who participate, and after a woman in her 40s tested for her black belt in their last studio exam, more moms are now wanting to join.

At the adult class on Tuesday night, Rachel Le Derf tied on her gi (the white outfit of most martial arts studios) for the first time.

“I’ve seen (my sons) coming and progressing and getting to that next stage,” said Le Derf, who has two of her three children enrolled at United. “I suppose my general goal is to learn a new skill, but I don’t think it does any harm to know how to defend yourself.”

Together with the five other adults in the class, she practiced front kicks, striking the air and, later, a foam pad with the ball of her foot.

“What none of the people in this class realize is that one day they’ll be breaking boards with that kick,” said Clampitt. “Tell them that now, and they’d probably laugh at you, but start them off slow and that confidence builds over time.”

Taekwondo classes in the South Valley average $75 to $100 per month for twice-a-week instruction.

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