HAPKIDO – Mastering The Art


After twenty-seven years of studying Hapkido under the tutelage of his father Grandmaster Fred Adams, and having attained the rank of 4th Dan Master, Nial Adams talks candidly, in the first of a two-part article, about his experience as a practitioner and now Senior National Coach of the art of Authentic Hapkido.

I was just seven when my father decided the time was right for me to start learning Hapkido. If my memory serves me correctly the catalyst was me coming home from school and having to admit, to some shame, that the big boys had bullied me. At the time I was a little shocked and somewhat surprised that my father’s reaction was one of anger and no sympathy. Now as a father myself I think I can understand why. Whatever the reason, this was to become the point where my life would change forever.

My father had been studying the martial arts most of his life, and somewhat ironically made his first steps in this arena also at the age of seven, when during the war, a Polish immigrant neighbor began teaching him and his own son.

This combat system was no sport or hobby, learning to fight was essential in the lively street culture my father was brought up in and, as he often points out to me, a country at war has a very different perspective on self-preservation.

So, at the age of seven, I found myself enjoying the summer evenings, not out playing with friends but in our back garden learning the basics of this strange thing called Hapkido. Endless repetition of front-kick, sidekick, and spinning-kick became a diet that I had to get used to.

I recall some family friends commenting that perhaps it wasn’t fair to expect a young boy to be forced to train without being part of the decision process. For me, it just became part of who I was and a totally natural way to spend time with my father.

At age eleven my father decided that it would be good for me to begin formal training but under the supervision of another instructor. He was genuinely concerned with the thought that some would point the finger and quote nepotism when issuing me grades. So with this in mind, I was packed off to learn under another Hapkido instructor.

Sadly it turned out that much of what was being taught by this and the other instructors weren’t traditional Hapkido. Modern elements including patterns or hyungs and competitive sparring had been added, while focus on technique seemed to be lacking. A political power struggle resulted in one big mess with instructors pledging their loyalty to one grandmaster and then jumping ship when another offered higher grades.

My first formal grading was a little short of a farce. I turned up with students from three different, but linked clubs, and what seemed like a hundred spectators, only to discover the highlight of the evening was a Black Belt grading. Then literally minutes before my turn to go on the mat and perform for the grading panel I was told by my instructor that I’d be grading with two other students, but they would be doing something completely different their syllabus wasn’t the same, at all. So, imagine it, a young boy of eleven, about to take his first formal grade, in front of a hoard of onlookers, and performing something that looked nothing like the other two grading candidates.

Surprisingly enough, I got through it and then was awarded a double grade. The final straw came though when I, with all the other students of the local clubs were asked to contribute to the costs for bringing the Grandmaster over from Korea. We had our seminar but he never turned up. Amazingly though the next week, all the instructors arrived for training, but with more Dan tabs on their black belts, my father decided enough was enough.

Then came one major element of inspiration in bucket loads. Master Bob Miller arrived from California and landed on these shores, to a country that was totally unprepared for what was to happen next. Bob was like a whirlwind and left an impression that lasts with me to this day. Technically a Taekwondo Master he had studied Hapkido and was an effective and proficient practitioner. Flame-haired and not much over five-four in height the dynamic nature of his teaching had an effect on everyone who met and trained with him. He personally presented me with my first dobok (uniform) to which I said, what if it doesn’t fit? – his reply – we’ll make it fit!! – was a typical example of his can-do attitude.

Bob was a master of public relations and an unashamed self-publicist. He held mass open-air demonstrations in the parks in London and became famous for his display of breaking techniques after one hot Saturday afternoon at The Old Bull and Bush pub. Literally, hundreds gathered outside, drank cool beer, and cheered like crazy when this dynamo smashed bricks, broke flaming tiles, head-butted his way through concrete blocks, and for a finale lay on a bed of nails while paving slabs where smashed on his chest with a sledgehammer! But on the serious side, training under Bob was focused, disciplined, and highly stimulating. Sadly like all great celebrities, his meteoric rise in the UK was cut short and the history of womanizing, unpaid debts, and the small matter of not possessing a UK work permit finally caught up with him.

At this point joining a small but enthusiastic class under my father was just what was needed. Formal training a couple of times a week was an ideal supplement to my homework in a household where everything revolved around Hapkido. Being my father’s son didn’t have any negative impact or special treatment and I vividly remember gradings where I was well and truly put through the wringer.

Then I discovered the world of weaponry. Hapkido training includes a strong element of weapon training. As a style where sword work is the foundation, my father was keen that I learn from the best and wanted to feed my interest in traditional martial weaponry. Needless to say, like most others, this took me straight to that point where I too would become Bruce Lee through the medium of the nunchaku. Why is it that everyone starts with one of the most complex (and painful) weapons? And like most others, I went through the experience of serious pain, some minor injury, and various broken household items. Back in the good old days the concept of practice chuks wasn’t about. Instead of the safety of nylon or foam, I was introduced to the more natural feel of Japanese red oak!! Of course, I’m now bound to say I think everyone should start at this point. This isn’t from some sadistic point of view but the reality that to really learn a weapon you must respect it, and although I’ve never actually broken any bones I have learned where all the most painful points are on the human body, been cut several times and nearly knocked myself out on one or two occasions.

My weapons instructor was a rather wild-eyed ex-member of the British Special Forces and a complete weapons nutcase. His entire house was like the scene from one of the Pink Panther films when Clouseau, in the usual spat with Kato, opens a wardrobe, which is filled with oriental weapons. Over the following years, I was trained in thirty-two different weapons. My instructor, whose knowledge was vast, didn’t take his study lightly and expected me to do the same. We worked through the traditional weapons of Korea, Japan, China, Okinawa, the Philippines, and then moved on to modern and advanced weaponry.

Some of the training material was shockingly effective and I now consider myself very lucky to have learned these things (at a very young age, my early to late-teens), which today wouldn’t be taught for various reasons. Many of these became very useful when I later went on to teach and train with the British Special Forces.

The next big step for me was the move to become an instructor. As any practitioner in Hapkido (and other martial arts) will realize, you only really start to learn when you start to teach. Even as a youngster I enjoyed passing on my own knowledge and helping others in the class progress and improve. Most of all it made me think more carefully and deeply about what it was I was actually doing.

There are no formal patterns (hyungs or poomse) in traditional Hapkido but every technique (soo) is like a mini form. Through constant repetition, you learn how to manipulate your own, and your opponent’s body, whether this is through a lock, hold, throw or strike. Teaching wasn’t something I learned it was more a case of copying and trying to emulate the instructors who taught me, primarily my father, of course.

I never really stopped to think about the perspective of teaching adults and soon found myself assisting a class where almost all the students were older than me. By the time I reached blue belt, at the age of sixteen an opportunity to teach my own class came up when a new martial arts training center opened. Without thinking about this my father asked me if I would be interested of course. So, my first real foray into teaching came about and I soon built a class of students and began running and administering it. A small personal triumph came about when two senior PE teachers from one of the large city high schools came and asked to join. I remember casually asking why they wanted to learn from me. They replied that having spent some considerable time looking at other Hapkido instructors in our city, they felt my teaching style was the most effective and why should they be concerned about learning from a boy when he knows what he’s talking about!”

With my small class growing and students progressing through the rank structure I took on a more senior role in assisting with training for new clubs and branches around the UK. I had already, for several years, spent my school holidays traveling with my father to our branches in Scotland, the South West, North, London, etc. I assisted in the development of several new areas and spent much time training the instructors for these. As our international contacts grew I was also able to attend, participate and teach at several European seminars.

By the age of seventeen, the day had arrived for me to take my first Dan grade. For most, moving up to this level and attaining what is seen as a rank of excellence holds many strange feelings. Naturally, there is a great sense of achievement, and have made it. In some cases, though there can be a feeling of apprehension. Putting on that black belt, and in our case, the coveted white jacket means students will look to you for superior skill, leadership, and even mastery. Some consider the Black Belt as a grade of Master and particularly in the United States this term is used liberally. The fact is that attaining 1st Dan simply means you have demonstrated that you are a serious student. It is from this point on that learning really starts.

For me, putting on the white jacket and black belt was an important moment, I knew that Hapkido would always be something important in my life, but by achieving Dan Grade status I felt this had opened a new door and I had come of age. The respect is shown to a Dan Grade is important and welcomed, not for egotistical reasons, but rather that it shows respect for the art we have spent so long trying to master. In truth, you really just begin to realize how much more there is to learn.

My sword training began in earnest around the age of 18. My father had a very close friend Eric Pleasants, an intriguing character, who had settled back in rural Norfolk after a lifetime of high adventure and a dedication to the arts of Budo.

Eric, now in his seventies, had a remarkable past. A performing strongman, pugilist (bare-knuckle), personal bodyguard to the royal princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, he had a fascination for sport and exercise. He had found himself in both German, and later on, Russian prisoner of war camps, worked as a secret agent for the British and ended up as a much-feared member of the Blat-noy or Russian gangsters during his seven years in a Siberian POW camp.

Finally exchanged he was able to return to his native Britain and continue his formal study of the martial arts. Eric was one of the first practitioners of Judo in Norfolk and I remember as a small boy seeing him teaching classes in Norwich.

Outwardly Eric appeared a frail old man. Having suffered a stroke several years previously, when I met him I found it hard to imagine what this man knew. His voice was slurred and he needed the aid of a cane to walk, dragging one leg behind him. However, once I began my studies I quickly recognized a man who had lost nothing of his skill and a mental will borne of a lifetime in real combat.

Factually Eric was a killer he never boasted of this but his past was littered with incidents where he was required to take life, often with his bare hands, and in some cases against armed and even multiple assailants. He had no great stature and in fact, his diminutive size was perhaps why he had always wanted to learn to be strong and fight well. His recounting of life in Siberia was hard to get a handle on; he had lived daily with the risk of death and as a result, literally had to kill to stay alive. His prowess and fearsome fighting ability brought him into the world of the Blat-noy and he became a senior member, respected and honored. This life had left a mark that no minor physical ailment could remove. His mind was like steel and when training with him there was a fire in his eyes that could bring about total fear.

Accepted as a private student, I was honored to train with this man for one day every week. Being self-employed I had this luxury and I would visit his small cottage in the depths of the countryside and spend hours learning the art of the sword, in all its forms. Eric was a master of Kendo (sport fencing), Kenjutsu (combat fencing), and Iai (the art of sword drawing). My training comprised hours of cutting practice until my hands blistered and bled. Then he would teach me kendo sparring (where he would frequently beat me stupid), sword drawing, combative application, forms, and double sword skills.

His collection of authentic Japanese weaponry was amazing, everything from Daito (longswords) to Tanto (short knife). Training with Eric was to open my eyes and realize where the origins of Hapkido had a clear impact on the techniques and skills we practice today. Our Founder Yong Sul Choi had studied under a Japanese Master of the Daito Ryu Aiki Jutsu (Longsword school of Combat) and so it is clear that the use of the sword has a great influence on our style. Learning simple sword elements like centering is essential for anyone wanting to fully understand and grasp the basics of Hapkido.

After several years of studying with Eric, I was unable to continue with my private training as work pressures took over, and yet the knowledge passed to me has formed a key foundation of my understanding of Hapkido. I still, practice the sword today, always aiming to improve. Sadly Eric died a couple of years ago from another stroke. Missed but never forgotten, his legacy however lives on in everyone who knew and trained with this great warrior.

To be continued

In the second part of the article, Nial goes on to talk about his experience on training with and then becoming an instructor to the British Special Forces.

Written by Nial Adams

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