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Deprive Opponents of Their Most Powerful Weapons

The successful deployment of this technique creates ripple effects that are difficult to quantify but impossible not to discern.

In a typical college or professional basketball game, the teams combine to attempt well over a hundred shots. Over 95 percent of those attempts arrive at the rim untouched. They either go in the basket or they don’t. And the game goes on. A small percentage of the time something else happens.

A player with the ball barrels towards the basket. A few feet from the rim, they let the ball go. As the orb floats through the atmosphere, a defender leaps into the air and swats the ball away from the intended target.

A statistician records this moment as a blocked shot. It might not seem like a very big deal–the successful execution of this play does not change the score–but very often, it changes the whole complexion of the game. As commentator Carter Strickland once put it: “Nothing in basketball is quite as emphatic, demoralizing or confidence-crippling.” Players who have their shots blocked fear nothing more than reliving the experience. The next time they venture close to the rim, they keep one eye on their target and the other on the player who rejected their prior attempt. If that defender is close by, sometimes the shooter will try to add arc to the shot; often times they choose not to shoot at all. Even if they decide to take the shot, the memory of being thwarted takes them out of their natural motion, increasing the odds that they’ll miss on subsequent attempts.

Conversely, players love having a skilled shot blocker as a teammate. They can take chances on defense knowing that if their efforts to steal a pass don’t pan out, they’ve got someone on their side who’s adept at protecting the rim.

What does any of this have to do with Tae Kwon Do?

Let’s suppose you’ve got a male classmate with a great side kick. Not only does this classmate deliver this technique with speed and power, he has the kind of pinpoint control that allows him to find and penetrate even the smallest opening in your guard. This hypothetical classmate has so much confidence in his side kick, he stalks you during your sparring sessions like a predator chasing his prey. Well-timed inside and outside blocks might prevent some of his side kicks from findings their target. However, you know from experience that these blocks, even when executed flawlessly, do not cause the attacker to change his approach. The side kicks from this classmate keep coming until they connect. And the law of averages holds that one will eventually breach your defenses.

What can be done?

As third gups, we learn a technique called drop side kick. The thing that drops is your body. The faster your body drops, the better. Sometimes dropping fast means landing hard–particularly when you are first learning this technique.

Compared to some of our other kicks, a drop side kick does not require much in the way of physical skill. Nevertheless, doing it well often requires overcoming significant internal impediments. One of first great projects in life is to avoid falls like this. Once we master a skill of remaining upright, we generally try to avoid regression.

In short, learning to do a drop side kick requires us to unlearn something very basic. Experience has taught us that falling down is sometimes painful and performing a series of drop side kicks is bound to result in a some bodily discomfort. All of this contributes to a general dislike for a technique and its placement at the bottom of many of our toolboxes.

This is unfortunate. For if there is one technique capable of making someone think twice about throwing a side kick, it’s the experience of having an opponent counter with a drop side kick. Much like a blocked shot in basketball, the successful deployment of this technique creates ripple effects that are difficult to quantify but impossible not to discern.

This happens even–and perhaps especially–in a school like River Valley Tae Kwon Do that usually practices non-contact sparring. One of the many martial art debates raging across the internet concerns the efficacy of this type of sparring. (One example can be found here.) Critics of our approach often note “the false sense of security one could gain from one’s opponent’s aiming to not make contact in sparring.”

This, in my view, is a valid point.

The first time an opponent’s heel stops a centimeter from a student’s solar plexus is a memorable moment. But for the prohibition against contact, the student knows they would be gasping for breath. With experience comes the danger a student will become desensitized to moments like this. In the heat of sparring, as the student’s competitive juices get flowing, they may decide to disregard the opponent’s successes and press ahead with counter-attacks that, of course, would not be possible had the opponent been permitted to strike the student’s body. When this happens, other students sitting on the side of the dojang may not realize what has just occurred.

This sequence of events does not unfold when success comes in the form of a perfectly timed drop side kick. The classmate on the receiving end of this technique stands on one leg with the other extended into empty space. Your disappearance produces a split second of disorientation followed by relief–upon locating you on the floor–and utter helplessness–as it dawns on your classmate what you are about to do. When delivered well, the kick leaves an unmistakable impression: of vulnerability on one side, and of dominant skill, timing, and surgical precision on the other.

Technically, the drop side kick is an offensive technique. However, to modify the old Wing Chun maxim, the foot that strikes also blocks. Every witness to a well-executed drop side kick–from the instructor to the eighth gup attending his or her first class in sweatpants and a tee-shirt–will make a mental note that this is an arrow in your quiver. Develop a reputation for having an effective drop side kick, and your nemesis with the great side kick might suddenly become reluctant to deploy his best weapon.

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