I have been training in ITF Taekwondo for 4 years now and I'm a red belt but I'm struggling to keep going on as I don't know if taekwondo is for me. My instructor is really good but I have been getting told for all the time I have been there that I am too tense and need to relax. Also I'm not a fan of free sparring but I understand it is part of the training. Should I maybe move onto try something else or should I try and fight through?
Being tense and not relaxing is problem for many martial artists; actually, it is a problem in all sports. Ever noticed how you are able to kick and punch for 30 minutes during class exercises and not get winded, but after 3 minutes of sparring you are wasted, even though you used only a few kicks and punches. The controlling factor is whether you are relaxed or tense. The best fighters seem unconcerned while fighting; they actually seem bored. Instead of tensing and concentrating on the opponent, they just relax and let their trained reflexestake over.
You do not think about applying the brakes when a child runs in front of your car, it just happens. You have performed the braking motion so many times that your body has developed “muscle memory” and it responds unconsciously. To be relaxed while performing the martial arts, you have to have performed the motions thousands of times. An old saying in karate is that “to know a pattern, you must perform it a thousand times.” It is not that you gain some great insight from performing it this many times, it just that the movements become as natural as breathing.
When sparring, the moment the referee says “fight,” many students stiffen and move around similar to robots. Again, repetition helps; the more you spar, the easier it gets. When attacking, the entire body should be relaxed throughout the movement of the attack, then the entire body tenses for the split second of impact to transfer energy into the target, and then the entire body relaxes again as the attacking limb retracts.One thing I have found that works is to practice on a punching bag. Play some good exercise music and start moving around while concentrating on keeping the entire body loose and relaxed similar to a rag doll. Exaggerate your movements and try to stay super relaxed. Then, periodically, throw a punch or kick, while still trying to remain relaxed. When doing this sort of training, it best to be alone, since you will look silly in your movements.
Breathing is also important in staying relaxed. As you know, once you get winded, you tense and become defensive instead of attacking. To breathe properly, breathe deeply, slowly, and rhythmically, in through the nose, out through the mouth, using the diaphragm. One way to judge your breathing is to watch your abdomen. When breathing correctly, when you inhale, the abdomen should swell outward as the diaphragm drops and draws air into the lungs; the chest will expand atomically to accommodate the extra volume of air. As you exhale, the abdomen should pull inward as the diaphragm rises to expel air from the lungs. When told to take a deep breath, most people suck in their abdomen and expand their chest, the opposite of the way the system works. The intercostals muscles between the ribs were not designed to be the controlling factor in breathing, they merely assist.
Many people hate their jobs and want to change, but once they have been with a company for a few years and have built up seniority, like the boss, and feel a part of the company and its people, they are hesitant to leave. The same is true for a martial art, the longer you train in an art, the more difficult it is to change to a different art. For most arts, no matter your previous rank in another art, you must start at white belt level with them, so the higher a person’s rank, the more the person is reluctant to change arts. You are at a point in your training where you need to commit; either stay with TKD or try another art. It may be good to try some trial classes in some other arts to see if one better suits you. To get better at TKD, you must commit to it and train daily; not necessarily in class, you may also train at home. The trick is to train everyday; it does not have to be a lot, ten minutes here and there will add up. I work at my computer all day every day. Most days I don’t feel like a long work out, so I have developed a routine where, every time get up to urinate, which is often at my age, on the way back to the desk I do at least ten minutes of sparring on the bag. It relaxes me and, over the span of a day, it adds up to a lot of training.
Another secret is that, when not performing a skill, think about performing the skill; how you would move around, the proper movements involved in performing a kick, etc. Performing a skill is best but research has shown that thinking about performing a skill increases the skill level more than not thinking about the skill or not performing the skill.