Interview with Master Kim, Founder of Yong Studios
by Daniel H. Jeffers
Master Kim founded Yong Studios after years of teaching martial arts at other Tae Kwon Do schools in the Washington DC area. Born in Korea, Master Kim came to the United States when he was nine. Since then he has studied, taught, and competed in martial arts. He also has a degree in economics from the University of Maryland. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Master Kim while having lunch at an area Korean restaurant. Master Kim spoke a few quick words in Korean, and soon the table was flooded with a dizzying variety of Korean dishes. After a delightful meal we spoke for about 45 minutes. Here is a somewhat condensed version of the interview.
Dan: When did you begin studying martial arts?
Master Kim: I started formally around 12, but I also did it when I went to church. It wasn’t a formal school, we did it there and played around as kids. Also, when I went to school in Korea, I remember doing some kicks in P.E. class.
Dan: Why did you start formally studying Tae Kwon Do?
Master Kim: I started doing it because my mom sent me. She thought I was out of control, that I needed discipline. I’m sure that’s why a lot of people do it. I don’t know if there’s one true answer to why people do martial arts. Whatever reason you come in for, though, you have to be open minded. You might come in looking for one thing but in martial arts there are always more things that you might not expect. Some people come in because they are insecure and they want to know how to fight. They think that if they learn how to fight, that it’s going to make them more confident. Martial arts builds confidence because you do something that’s physical, something you believed you couldn’t do. You overcome that and your confidence builds. I don’t think there’s one definitive answer or 2,3, or 4 answers to why people do martial arts. I do it because I enjoy it. It makes me feel good about myself.
Dan: Could you tell us a little about your competition experience?
Master Kim: I first started competing when I was a purple belt. In my first tournament, I sparred this huge kid, big as a whale. I got kicked in the shin, and I didn’t have shin guards on. I ended up losing that fight. I kept on competing, but I didn’t do very well at the time. I wasn’t very confident. When I got my black belt I started competing more. I still didn’t win for a long time until — it was either the Maryland State or Maryland Open — I won first place in forms. I was 16 or so, and then I started doing full contact sparring.
I started out at an exhibition where they needed someone to do a full contact match. So I said OK, I’ll do it. They just wanted an opening match kind of thing. I fought and I did ok, so I did a couple of full contact matches. I won some, but I was trained more as a point fighter. So I lost more than I won.
Then one of my cousins found out about an Olympic style tournament. I went with him, just to watch, and he said, “why don’t you compete?” So I borrowed his equipment and I entered. I didn’t know that in Olympic style tournaments you can’t punch to the head. I won the first and second fight. In the third fight, I tried not to punch to the head but the guy kept on dropping his hands. I knocked him down twice with a left hook so they disqualified me. I still took third place, so I thought I did pretty well. I asked around and found out more about these tournaments. I started winning the sparring division and I won the Maryland State in 1986 and 1987.
Before 1988, people were trying out for the Olympics. We knew this guy who was part of the Olympic team so everybody said let’s go try out. I won the local tournament and then the regional. I was invited to try out for the coach, he’d heard about me from my friends. I made it all the way to the final fight, before losing.
I was still doing point sparring all this time. I kept losing to couple of top competitors. One day one of the fighters told me: “You’re losing cause you look like you’re going to lose.” At the time, I didn’t know what he meant. After teaching, I understood that I was giving off the impression that I wasn’t confident. If it was close, the judges would give the point to the other competitor because he gave off more confidence.
My competing pretty much stopped after my motorcycle accident. I couldn’t compete for about six months. I did come back and won here and there, then I had to have another surgery, because I had a plate in my arm. After the second surgery, I had holes in my bones where the calcium hadn’t filled in. For another 18 weeks, I couldn’t do any contact. When I came back, all the guys that I used to compete with had moved on to make movies, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and Mortal Combat. It wasn’t as fun as it used to be. From beginning to end I competed for about ten years. I don’t know how many times I won or lost, but I know that I did a lot of both.
Dan: You have taught thousands of students in many different environments. What, in your mind makes a good student of the martial arts?
Master Kim: I like teaching someone who is patient, hard working, and has positive attitude; someone who is disciplined, who does things without being told, who will come in and do things on their own, and who is willing to help other people. In order for you to be good at something you have to do it. If you want to be a good student, sometimes it helps if you teach others. Then you understand what it takes for a teacher to teach, so you appreciate it a little bit more
Dan: Why do people come to learn Martial Arts?
Master Kim: Sometimes I have no idea. If you are talking about young people, like 5,6,7,8, they come because parents don’t know what to do with them. Some kids we get because the kids need someone to discipline them and yell at them and lay down the law. A lot of kids come because they think it’s fun. A lot of adults, back when I was taking classes, came to martial arts, not because they were looking for an alternative to health clubs but because they had a real interest in martial arts. Who knows what kind of interest? Sometimes philosophy, the spiritual side, Eastern culture, or maybe they wanted to know how to fight. Now a lot of the adults we get come in initially because it’s a way of exercising that’s different from what they’re accustomed to. Many still come in because of the martial art side, the spirituality, the discipline.
Dan: Some students seem to jump from one school to another, learning a little of this and a little of that before they really mastered anything. Do you think this helps or hurts?
Master Kim: It depends on the person. Personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea. I can understand going from one school to another because you go to, let’s say, Tai Chi and it’s not what you expect. So you go try something else to see if it fits your personality better. But generally, if you are there at least get the basics down. If you’re studying Spanish, you can’t do Spanish for a little while and then decide to go do French. Maybe it translates in some ways and some things might be similar. But in the end you get too much of a mix and you have nothing. If you’re changing school because the martial arts style is not what you thought it was going to be, or because you don’t like the instructor, that’s understandable. If you’re moving, if your school closes down, god forbid, knock on wood, your instructor dies, knock on wood again, something like that, you change schools.
Dan: You teach a fairly traditional approach to martial arts, but you have also incorporated a lot of modern conditioning and competition techniques. Do you have a philosophy of tradition versus change in martial arts?
Master Kim: I think you have to keep some of the tradition and the history so that you can really appreciate it. But at the same time, I think it’s important that you do have change.
The simple technology and science that existed when martial arts first started is different than what we have now. We know a lot more about the human body then they did then, so some things have to change. But at the same time, if somebody’s been doing something for 2000 years there’s a reason. I figure they gotta know more than I do. I think you have to have a mix of both, I don’t think you can go to either extreme, you can’t be all traditional and completely modern either. If you go completely traditional you miss out on some things. A lot of training I do now includes a bit of cross training. But if you do everything the modern way, then you never learn why some things are done a certain way. It’s in the traditional techniques that all the secrets moves are hidden. If you don’t practice those then you’re not going to learn the secret moves. I think you have to do both. I think it’s stupid to do one and not the other.
Dan: You’ve worked with police and secret service, how does that differ from teaching students at a school?
Master Kim: When I teach someone at the school, I’m trying to take them from white belt to black belt. I’m trying to teach them as much as I know about the martial arts. I teach kicking, punching, philosophy, spirituality, competition, the work out, a little bit about everything.
When I work with law enforcement, it’s more about life and death. Some of the philosophy and spirituality gets stripped away. Also, usually when I work with law enforcement it’s all men. Their egos start getting in the way. Because I’m so small, I have to slam a couple of guys before they start listening.
Dan: You got a degree from the University of Maryland and went to work in the corporate world for while. Then you decided to come back and teach martial arts full-time. What brought you back?
Master Kim: I was still competing some when I graduated. It was about a year after my second surgery and I was still teaching. I went to work at an accounting firm. My degree was in economics and I wanted to work on the firm’s consulting side, doing business consulting. But they put me in accounting.
When I accepted the job, I was told I’d be given an opportunity to interview for a consulting job after six months. But after six months, they did not let me apply. So I said forget that. I really didn’t like 9-5. I still remember how I had to do 37.5 hours to be full time, so I would eat lunch at my desk, get my eight hours in as quickly as I could, get out of there and to my Tae Kwon Do school. They gave me all these assignments, and I would be done within like a day or two day at the most. I would bring my report or project back and my supervisor would look at me like “are you done?” I’d say yes. He’d tell me he had expected me to take a week or more to do the project. I realized other people were taking coffee breaks and cigarette breaks and long lunches while I worked at my desk. When they didn’t offer me a consulting job, I left and got a job at an insurance company. That was good because I made my good money and I was basically my own boss. I was still teaching Tae Kwon Do part time here and there. I stopped working and went to grad school at George Mason for a year, and then I went to Korea during the summer and the fall.
Then my dad died. We owned a small deli, and I had to take over the family business. I did that for a year and didn’t teach Tae Kwon Do or anything for that year. It took me a year to understand how unhappy my dad had been. He died of a heart attack, at 56. My mom was having a hard time, and one of my uncles was diagnosed with stomach cancer and given three years to live. My other uncle was diagnosed with heart disease at like 42, ridiculously young. I thought, forget this. I decided that I wasn’t going to live like this.
That’s when I decided I was going back to teaching. Coincidentally, at the same time, one of my friends called. He was a head instructor at a school, but he was moving. He didn’t want to leave the school empty handed so he asked me to come in and teach. I told him I wasn’t really teaching anymore. He kept saying: “but this is what you do.” The deal was that I come back to teach for six months, until they found a full time instructor. But they never did, and I kept on teaching.
The school I went to was owned by somebody else. When I got there that school had very few students. I worked hard to build the school up and make it strong. That’s when my friends said I was working hard to make the school strong for somebody else and that I should run my own school. I was nervous about doing it, although many schools succeed, a lot of schools don’t.
Dan: Some martial arts school seem all about business, others try to pretend there is no business side, how do you find the balance?
Master Kim: I don’t lie about the fact that this is a business. I have a rent to pay. I provide a service, so I want to be paid for that service. But I don’t want to rip them off, that’s why I don’t do a lot of in school marketing. A lot of other schools require their students to bring in a certain number of new students a month, or they sign you to a contract and you’re locked in whether you come to classes or not. We don’t do anything like that.
I’d like for my students to bring in their friends, I’d like to make a million dollars from teaching martial arts. I don’t lie about it, but I don’t put up this front that we’re this zen buddhist traditional martial arts place. I think a lot of that is nonsense. I provide honest service for a fair price. There are guys out there who charge $250 a month, and you can come only 2 or 3 times a week. Then they sign you to a 2 or 3 year contract, and if you don’t come they still take your money.
We’re pretty simple, if somebody doesn’t want to come in; all they have to do is call me. I love Tae Kwon Do. I would do it for free. If somebody would give me a grant and pay for my bills and let me live, I would still do it. If I won the lottery, I would get a small space and I would have classes 3 or 4 days a week. I wouldn’t advertise; I would just teach class, and I would charge just enough to pay rent. I have fun teaching. We’re more martial arts than business, and we’re a martial arts school that happens to be a business. A lot of people open up a business that happens to be a martial arts school.
Dan: Most people go through a period when they want to quit martial arts. Have you ever gone through a period like that? What do you recommend when people feel as though they want to quit?
Master Kim: I think that most people pretty much go through that. I don’t think they really want to quit. They’re frustrated because martial arts is hard. As you do it over the years, it takes a toll on your body, and it gets harder. I stopped for about 18 months, mostly because of outside circumstances. A lot of people stop because they get tired. It’s physically demanding and mentally challenging. Not to sound mean, but most people quit because they’re just wimps. They don’t want to face up to the challenge, because it’s difficult. But that’s what winners do; winners challenge themselves when it gets hard. Most people always have an excuse, they’re too busy, too this. too that. Those are all excuses. I was taught a long time ago not to make excuses. You either do something because you want to do it, or you don’t do it because you don’t want to do it. There’s no “I can’t do it because of this or that.” In the end most everybody does whatever they do because they want to. Most people who quit are quitting because they’re not having fun or they’re not learning and enjoying it for some reason.
If you’re quitting because you don’t enjoy it, that’s fine. I always say “Not everybody likes cheese”. You do martial arts for 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, then you might realize you’re not enjoying it anymore. That’s fine. But when people want to stop because it gets difficult or challenging I ask them to think about what they would say if they were a parent or a teacher. You’d say it’s going to get easier. You’d want to teach perseverance. Taking a break sometimes is not a bad idea. One of my instructors used to say, “no matter how much you like ice cream, if you have it everyday, you’ll get sick of it.” Taking a break doesn’t mean you’re not going to want to have ice cream ever again. If you’re doing martial arts consistently every day, taking a break is not a bad idea.
For parents, sometimes the kids are going to say “I don’t like it, I don’t want to do it anymore.” Usually that’s code for “I need a break.” Sometimes as adults we say “no you gotta go”, because we want to teach them discipline. But at the same time you should understand they might be really tired, maybe they had a fight with their best friend, maybe they had rough day at school, maybe their teacher yelled at them, maybe they just need a break. A day, a week, is not a bad idea. If it goes beyond that, then it’s time to say “you made a commitment to do this you have to follow through.” It is important to teach them perseverance and discipline.
Dan: Is there a best martial art? Or does it depend on student and teacher?
Master Kim: I don’t think there is one true martial art. Some people say “my martial art style is better than yours.” I don’t think that’s true. Different personalities fit different martial arts. I’m very straightforward. Some people say I’m aggressive. I don’t think I’m aggressive I think I’m assertive.
Tae Kwon Do is based on linear, straight-line techniques, so it fits my personality. It fits a lot of other personalities too, not just mine, but it fits me well. One guy taught Tae Kwon Do for 16, 17 years, only in the last 5 years he’s decided to go to a soft circular style. That’s fine, that doesn’t mean that style is better, but it’s a different approach.
I don’t think there’s one style that’s the ultimate martial art. I think it’s a combination of what you are like, what you enjoy, and what you’re good at. Part of it is how the instructor teaches the martial art, too.
Dan: How do you see martial arts and Tae Kwon Do developing in the 21st century?
Master Kim: I wish I were as smart as these guys that say, “I see this and that.” I wish I could tell you, but I really don’t know. When I was doing martial arts it was all boys and young men, very few women. At my school right now I have almost an even balance of women and men. It’s changing.
The people who study martial arts are changing. The way it’s presented is changing. I don’t know if its going to become more hardcore self defense training or if it’s going to become more philosophical, more internal, and more personal.
All I know for sure is that, I want to be like my instructor. 70 some odd years old and still kicking and punching everyday.