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Taekwondo Pioneers: Haeng Ung Lee
October 5, 2010 was the tenth anniversary of the death of Haeng Ung Lee (1936-2000), the founder of the American Taekwondo Association. In keeping with Korean tradition gije (annual memorial for deceased family members), we take time to remember an extraordinary man with an extraordinary vision.
Lee grew up amid the hardships of the Japanese occupation of Korea and China. In the chaos of post-World War II Korea, he began studying taekwondo to learn self-defense. At first he trained informally, but eventually he was invited to train at Chung Do Kwan District School in Incheon. With natural ability and constant training, he quickly earned the rank of black belt and began teaching.
In the mid-1950s, Lee did national service in the South Korean army, attached to an intelligence unit based on Baengnyeong Island. His primary duty was as a martial arts trainer for his unit. After his discharge from the army, Lee finally ended up in Osan, running the Chung Do Kwan Branch School near Osan Air Base.
One of Lee’s early students was US Air Force aviator Richard Reed. At first, Reed trained at the air base under one of Lee’s assistants, but due to his ability and dedication, he was eventually brought to Lee’s school in Osan. Eventually, Reed became one of Lee’s first two non-Korean black belts. It was to Reed that Lee first revealed his vision of teaching martial arts in the United States. Lee’s goal was not only to establish one school, but to touch so many people with the martial arts that his students would spread throughout the country. Although he was unsure whether Lee’s goal could be achieved or not, Reed agreed to help Lee immigrate to the US and help him as much as he could.
Lee first came to the United States in 1962. Reed, still in the Army, was stationed in Omaha, so Lee joined him there and began teaching at a small school that Reed had founded. Lee was a charismatic and gifted instructor and quickly attracted a following. However, he only managed to obtain a visitor’s visa, and in 1963 he was forced to return to South Korea. After a protracted effort, including the intervention of one of Nebraska’s senators, Lee was granted an alien resident visa in 1965.
After Lee settled in Omaha, he concentrated on developing his martial arts schools. He also started the Midwest Karate Federation (MKF), an umbrella organization for the growing number of martial arts schools that his students were opening. Due to Lee’s hard work, MKF grew rapidly and gained a reputation as one of the best organized martial arts groups in the country.
Lee’s success caught the attention of General Hong Hi Choi, president of the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF). The general founded the ITF in 1966 and worked tirelessly to build national branches outside of Korea. He saw the ICF as a starting point for building a potential national governing body for taekwondo in the US. In late 1968, the general met with Lee in Omaha, ostensibly to discuss the matter. What exactly was decided has never been recorded. However, the general spent four days with Lee, teaching him the first 16 forms of Ch’ang Hon in the process.
A few months later, in 1969, the American Taekwondo Association (ATA) was formed as the original member of the ITF in the USA. MKF formed the core of this new organization. Although he was considered the driving force behind the establishment of the ATA, and thus deserves the title of “founder”, Lee was not allowed to serve as the first president of the ATA. This was mainly for cultural reasons; in Korean culture, seniority is very important and the senior leads the organization. As a sixth degree in his 30s, Lee wasn’t even eligible to be called a “master” at the time (in the ITF he needed and still needs to be a seventh degree to hold that title), and there are already several senior instructors in the US
The problem was solved when Lee’s original instructor, Kang Suh Chong, was persuaded (most likely by Choi) to move to the US. Kang was an advanced eighth degree with a considerable resume: he had martial arts experience as one of Chung Do Kwan’s first black belts, spent 14 years training in martial arts in the South Korean military, and was (at the time) loyal to Choi. Because of these factors, it was thought that they would attract some of the older Korean instructors to join the ATA. Kang settled in New York and was appointed president of the ATA. Lee was named vice president and chief of instruction, and his school in Omaha served as ATA headquarters.
Lee’s position meant that he essentially ran the day-to-day operations of the ATA. He made it his personal mission not only to develop ATA, but to make it the standard for outstanding Taekwondo training. Also, the financial difficulties of the early days in Omaha — in 1962, Lee’s school’s monthly salary was about $160 — convinced Lee that a martial artist need not live in poverty to teach full-time. So, with the help of Richard Reed, he set about building a support structure that would allow martial artists to run schools full-time and earn a decent living. Among the innovations were business training for school owners, a printed instructor manual, and a standardized instructor certification system.
The 1970s were a difficult time for South Korea and for Korean martial arts in the US. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the changing political landscape and the alliances and loyalties that were forged and broken during that turbulent time. By 1978, the ATA appears to have broken with the ITF. Suh Chong Kang left the ATA to become vice president of the ITF, taking with him some remaining seniors. Haeng Ung Lee took over as president.
Around the time he assumed the presidency of the ATA, Lee sold his school in Omaha to one of his students and moved to Little Rock. When asked why he chose that particular city, Lee replied that the geography reminded him of where he grew up in Korea, but without the cold winters. He bought a building on the south side of town that became what is now the original ATA headquarters wing.
In the 1980s, Lee’s innovations continued. For example, he established a computerized database containing the student records of all ATA members, one of the first automated records systems to include students of color and black belts. The most significant innovation, however, was the establishment of a new system of Songahm form. Lee has long felt that the Ch’ang Hon system of form patterns did not emphasize striking enough in the lower belt forms and that there were too many complicated hand techniques. He also wanted forms that could be paired with step sparring and sparring combinations that used similar strikes; this would form a unique curriculum for each belt, something that was not possible under the Ch’ang Hon system at the time.
By the late 1980s, Lee was eligible for promotion to ninth degree black belt. Instead of simply taking the rank as many other leaders of the organizations had done, he wanted to show that he was worthy of the promotion and the title of Grandmaster that came with it. There was some controversy when he became president of the ATA, and he probably wanted to avoid the same difficulties with rising to grand mastery. That’s how Lee described the nine-step process to becoming a grandmaster. The first of these steps was acceptance by ATA membership; and a huge percentage of ATA members signed a petition to grant him a promotion. With the loyalty of the membership confirmed, Lee completed the remaining eight steps in the process and was proclaimed Grand Master in 1990.
For the next ten years, Lee presided over an ATA that was experiencing explosive growth. The number of active ATA schools grew from 200 in 1989 to over 1,000 by 2000. Such additional innovations as black belt training, an early childhood martial arts program, and a series of books and DVDs on Songahm forms were examples of ATA leads the industry with its innovations.
Unfortunately, in the late 1990s, Lee began to have health problems. He was eventually diagnosed with cancer and underwent treatment. For a while his health improved, but the cancer returned in March 2000. This time the prognosis was poor, so he began to put his affairs in order, including planning a transition at the head of the ATA. On October 5, 2000, Lee lost his battle with cancer.
In June 2001, Lee was marked by a posthumous promotion to tenth degree black belt, with the title of “Eternal Grandmaster”. The promotion documents were signed by a number of legendary Korean martial arts practitioners, such as Jhoon Rhee and Bong Soo Han.
The legacy of this extraordinary man is a testament to the taekwondo principles of perseverance and indomitable spirit. In the space of forty years, his vision of the multitude of schools in the USA grew from a mere idea to the reality of the modern ATA. The politics of martial arts and post-war Korea and fluctuations in the American economy did not stop him from realizing that vision. His exceptional charisma and humanity served him well in this. He had the ability to make complete strangers feel as if he had known them for years. Because of the great personal loyalty he built with so many people, those he touched truly mourned him on a deeply personal level.
And so in honor of the tenth anniversary of Haeng Ung Lee’s death, we say, “Suseung-nim, khamsa hamnida.”
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