Master of Self

Grand master says tae kwon do reaches beyond physical skill

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Instructors bowed to their teacher, Young Bo Kong, each time they entered or left the gym where they gathered on a recent Tuesday morning.

The men and women also bowed to one another before they began a round of sparring.

They had come to the Young Brothers "do jang" in Ross for 90 minutes of advanced training in tae kwon do. A sign on the mirrored wall of the exercise room proclaimed "House of Discipline."

"This not just fun, fun, fun," Kong said of the Korean martial art he has studied, practiced and taught most of his life. "Tae kwon do teaches you that difficult things can be accomplished if you work hard."

Kong, 52, lives in McCandless with his wife, Mi Il, and daughter, Kimberly. As president of the East Coast division of Young Brothers Institute, a family business, he oversees eight martial arts studios in the Pittsburgh area.

He recently was elevated to a ninth degree black belt, or grand master, by the Korea Taekwondo Association, one of several groups that regulates the sport. There are fewer than 100 grand masters in the world, Kong said.

While high kicking and board breaking are often what catch the attention of spectators, Kong believes there is much more to his sport than physical skill.

During one recent lesson, he advised his instructors to concentrate on strategy. "Don't look down at your opponent's feet," he said. "Watch the eyes and face."

Teaching by demonstrating, he showed the teachers how to vary the paths of their attacks and retreats. "Don't just go front and back," he said. "Shift to the side. And keep bouncing, so you can move in any direction."

If you are sparring with a stranger, don't attempt an attack that leaves you vulnerable until you have learned what your foe is capable of, he advised.

"It's the highlight of my week," Dee Cottage said of the Tuesday class for instructors. She teaches at the Young Brothers studio in Richland.

"It's not just blocking and punching. ... He wants us to use our minds -- and our souls -- to solve problems," she said.

Her son Brad took his first tae kwon do classes 10 years ago, when he was 7. "I became fascinated with it, realized I wanted to do it and joined soon after," she said. Her husband, Dale, and daughter, Emily, now 14, began to take classes a year later.

"It's excellent for the whole family," she said. "You build self-esteem, self-confidence and self-discipline."

"Emily knows she can achieve her goals, if she goes at it 150 percent," Cottage said.

The mental and spiritual aspects are as important in tae kwon do as the physical, Kong agreed in an interview after the instructors class. "We teach values," he said. Students, starting as young as 4 learn discipline, skill, respect for others and confidence.

His need for confidence and discipline came early. Kong was born in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, in 1952. The Korean War, which took the lives of as many as 3.5 million North and South Koreans, 1 million Chinese and 37,000 United Nations troops, was still raging. In the previous two years, control of Seoul had changed several times and much of the city was in ruins.

Kong came to study tae kwon do via his older brother, Young Il Kong, who also is a ninth degree grand master.

Young Il Kong had been a captain of the South Korean army's all-star tae kwon do team and a master instructor who taught the Korean self-defense techniques to American soldiers. He also visited 127 countries as part of a martial arts demonstration team selected by Korean Gen. Hong Hi Choi. The general named the sport in 1957 as a fusion of several Korean martial arts with roots that date back more than 1,000 years.

Young Il Kong came to the United States in 1967 and opened his first martial arts school in Baltimore. In 1972, he invited his younger brother to join him.

"It was a dream to come to America," Young Bo Kong said.

Young Bo Kong competed for more than a decade in tae kwon do competitions, becoming the 1973 Pan American Games grand champion, the 1974 North American champion and 1976 middleweight World Champion.

Over the past 30 years, Young Brothers Institute has opened 50 schools, training as many as 10,000 students in a half-dozen states and Puerto Rico.

Learning tae kwon do techniques has been life changing for many people. "I've seen many students walk in with no confidence and have seen them grow through training," Kong said.

Confidence shouldn't be confused with aggressiveness, he said. "Tae kwon do training -- if it is authentic -- can give you peace of mind."

That was a hard lesson for Kong to learn, he said. As a young man, he said he often was too willing to settle minor arguments with his feet or fists. "If someone was giving me a hard time, I'd deck him," he admitted. "Now I know these disputes are petty, and I can walk away."

In his classes, he said, he tries to emphasize the Asian values of respect that the young owe to the old and that students owe to their teachers.

"I also tell my instructors they have responsibility to their students," he said. "They are not just teaching you kicking and punching. They are there to aid you in becoming who you are."

Another way Young Brothers tries to give back is through annual fund-raisers to benefit local charities and relief efforts. This year's "break-a-thon" raised about $25,000 for flood victims in Millvale.

"He is very compassionate, caring and community oriented," Millvale Mayor James Burn said.

The fund-raising effort is "an example of generosity, leadership and kindness exemplified by the tenets of tae kwon do," Burn said. "Grand Master Kong, the instructors and the students put forth an effort that has lifted the spirits of everyone who was affected by the flooding."

Burn himself has been a student of tae kwon do for the past six years, and he plans to pretest soon for his third-degree black belt.

Kong needs to look no further than his own family to see benefits from the study of the martial art.

His younger brother, Young Joon Kong, has parlayed the physical skills and self-discipline he learned into a second athletic career.

A member of the U.S. tae kwon do demonstration team at the 1988 Olympic games, he is now a professional golfer playing in Asia.

Kong's daughter, Kimberly, 17, began studying both martial arts and piano at age 5.

The North Allegheny senior has excelled in both fields. She was a martial arts black belt by age 13, and has performed with symphony orchestras.

In February, she won the National Symphony Orchestra's Young Soloist Competition in Washington, D.C. She will play the Saint-Saens piano concerto with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center on May 25.

Len Barcousky can be reached at or 724-772-0184.


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