One of the biggest life lessons in martial arts is humility and confidence. I try to live by the saying: “you cannot fill your cup before emptying it”. You need to be humble and ready to accept what your instructors have to teach in order to rise up in martial arts. With humility, you can even learn from the newbies in the gym by observing and accepting how they are doing things differently from you. Without humility, you cannot improve.
I was born in Seoul, spent half my childhood in Dhaka (the whole family moved because of my father’s work), and I currently live in Berlin. Berlin is the IT hub of Europe, so many great things are happening here!
Outside of work, I love martial arts. I first became interested in martial arts when I was in high school – I was selected for a one-year cultural exchange program to Ohio. Since this was a cultural exchange program, I was encouraged to learn traditional Korean culture. My three options were Taekwondo, Talchoom (traditional mask dance), and Taekkyeon.
I did not choose Taekwondo, because it is such well known martial art, and I would just embarrass myself in front of literally thousands of black belts that live in Ohio. I did not choose Talchoom, because dancing just did not appeal to me. That left me with Taekkyeon. Now, I was a scrawny nerd (I am still a nerd, not as scrawny), who had no interest in physical activities. However, when I began training, I loved it so much! I could not train during high school because there was no Taekkyeon gym nearby. When I got into university, I joined the Hanyang University Taekkyeon team.
So I began my martial arts journey with Taekkyeon. Taekkyeon is a traditional Korean martial art based on rhythmic movement, unpredictable kicks, and takedowns at close range. It is a very unique martial art, and I can only describe it as something between capoeira (rhythmic dance-like movements and kicks) and judo (trips and throws). When I had the opportunity to train with martial artists from different disciplines, it sparked my interest in various styles. This interest eventually led me to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), which I believe is the purest essence of hand-to-hand combat. Most techniques from all styles and forms are allowed in MMA, so it is more interesting and dynamic.
I used look up to UFC fighters – I loved watching their superhuman feats on screen, and I tried to emulate them in my martial arts. Now, my role models are all my teammates with day jobs (or various responsibilities that take up most of the day), that show up to training every day. It takes real commitment and discipline to do that. I only train 1–3 times a week, and this persistence and dedication are what I should really be emulating.
I currently train at Fenriz Trainingzentrum in Kreuzberg, Berlin – I really love this gym! The instructors are very professional and skilled, and I think this is one of the few gyms in Berlin that extensively teach Muay Thai style clinches, and ground-and-pound techniques.
My favorite technique is the roundhouse kick. This kick is a mundane technique, common in many martial arts. It is a relatively simple technique that even inexperienced martial artists can emulate quite easily. However, it is a very versatile technique. It can be used as an opener to a combination of strikes, and it can also be used as a decisive closing strike. You can aim for the legs, body, and head. You can kick with your feet or your shins. If you mix and match all the permutations, you can see that the roundhouse kick has so many possibilities. The roundhouse kick is also a technique that is easy to learn, but difficult to master. As with all kicks, you need to maintain a proper balance, while also trying to avoid your opponent’s guard. The potency of the roundhouse kick relies on some very delicate angles of your body, and it takes a lot of training to get that right.
My favorite part of martial arts is sparring. For me, sparring is like a physical video game or a very complex puzzle. I circle my partner, trying to find openings and weaknesses. I throw a jab to find clues on my partner’s openings, and I follow the clues to find the solution. All good games have an intuitive positive/negative feedback loop. In the case of sparring, the positive/negative feedback loops are very clear: if you do something wrong, you get punched on the nose. If you get punched in the nose, you need to quickly adjust your answer and try again. This is the reason that sparring feels like a fun game to me. After the bout, it sometimes feels like I have been in a dream.
My most memorable fight has been my first MMA fight. I was quite nervous, and to be honest, I even thought about dropping the fight before I even got into the cage. I touched gloves with my opponent, and the first round began.
My opponent rushed me with a quick one-two combination and pushed me against the fence. He quickly went for a takedown. That was when my training finally kicked in, and I put up a knee shield to prevent him from pounding me. Luckily I was able to push him back and get back on my feet. It was time for payback. It was clear to me that my opponent had extensive boxing experience, and he came to me with his bread-and-butter combination again: the one-two. I got hit again, but this time, I retaliated with a knee kick to the body. After a few more exchanges (his punches to my face, my kicks to his body), the first round was over.
Since my opponent scored a takedown in the first round, I knew that I needed to do something to turn the tables in the second round. I noticed that my opponent was visibly slower and tired. My body shots were paying off, so I gained the confidence to push my attacks. In the second round, we traded punches and kicks, but this time, I slightly had the upper hand. By the end of the round, my opponent was completely gassed out, but I felt I had some power to spare.
After the second round, the judges announced the score. It was a split decision win for my opponent. Apparently, the judges agreed that my opponent won the first round, and I won the second round. However, my opponent displayed more dominance in the first round, so he took home the win.
If I had been more focused in the first round, and more committed in the second round, I could have won this fight. This fight gave me a lesson that I will never forget: to commit myself fully and give it all my best at critical moments.
My long term goal with martial arts is to continue training as long as I can get out of bed. I definitely have no aspirations of turning pro, but I want to continue training and get better (and I know I can still improve!). My short term goal is to compete at least once in 2020 (Muay Thai, Kickboxing, or MMA). I have competed at least once a year while I was training in Korea, but since I have moved, it has become difficult trying to manage work, life, and training at the same time. Currently, I don’t train enough to compete, but hopefully that will change next year.
There are many similarities between martial arts and software development. I see sparring as a game or a puzzle; I take a similar approach to solving technical issues. I probe around my task, contemplating my options. I weigh the benefits and risks, and commit to the solution. If I find that the solution is not adequate, I quickly adjust, as I would do in sparring. This gets me into a fast feedback-loop, which is especially beneficial when I am dealing with time-critical issues. Also, as a game developer, I am deeply interested in emulating the feeling I get during sparring in games. One of my goals as a game developer is to implement real-time combat in an action game. I want to implement combat which is intuitive and also believable on an emotional level.
I definitely think that martial arts have been a benefit to my technological career. I believe that the martial artists’ attitude of humility and confidence can help anyone’s career. Also, I think my approach to technical problems is beneficial to all software engineers that engage in live service.
My advice to anyone interested in martial arts is to just do it! The most difficult part is showing up to the gym for your first class. Many people worry about the risk of injury, and I will not lie, it is a very real thing. However, statistically speaking, the risk of injury in martial arts is similar to (or even lower!) than other sports, like basketball or baseball. The most important lesson I’ve learned from my martial arts is that you have to be confident and humble at the same time. Techniques need to be applied with confidence and deliberation for it to be effective. You need to trust in your training, your instructors, and (most importantly) yourself.
There is always more than tech. I think it will benefit all technologists to have a passion outside of work. It allows you to meet new people, and it broadens your horizons. After all, technology is never the goal; it is the means to a goal. Having experience in other fields gives you new insights on how you can apply technology to the world.