`Little Dragons' get their kicks in taekwondo

Howard At Play

December 26, 2004|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

The youngest beginners in the martial art called taekwondo begin and end classes in a line, facing their instructor, kneeling.

For about a minute, an eternity for some so young, the 4- to 6-year-olds studying with John Bannon, the Columbia Park and Recreation Association's martial arts director, quickly learn that they are to be still - and silent.

The kneeling goes hand-in-glove with some of what taekwondo is all about. It's not just busting bricks, boards or heads, or fighting an opponent.

Pupils kneel to focus on what they are about to do or have just finished doing. Kneeling also shows respect for the art and the instructor, who always is addressed as "sir."

Over and over, pupils learn, taekwondo (the spelling preferred by the sport's world governing federation) trains both the body and mind.

Which might be said of any sport, although experts in martial arts - which emphasize precise moves and thoughts - have learned to blend the dual concepts at the earliest opportunity.

Ask a parent such as Vanessa Fuller of Fulton, whose daughter, Raquel, 4 1/2 , is one of Bannon's "Little Dragons" (as was her older brother), why a child so young is taking karate, and part of the answer is "for the discipline of it."

Watching Bannon's youngest pupils reveals another commonality in youth sports, teaching skills far beyond those needed to win.

Dora the Explorer may be the vehicle for teaching youth a smidgen of Spanish, but Bannon, and teachers like him worldwide, add a little Korean.

Even the simplest moves - postures, punches, kicks and yells developed centuries ago as defensive measures for a combatant, but also potentially leading to lethal strikes - all carry Korean names.

Bannon's pupils quickly learn to count to 10 in Korean. Slamming tiny fists and feet into a floor-based punching bag taller than some, they crisply utter, "hana," "dool," "set," "net" - one, two, three, four.

"Good job," Bannon says often, valuing at this level enthusiasm and confidence over exacting style. Each Dragon grins, because it's a compliment to savor.

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