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THE DARK SIDE OF BOARD BREAKING
(Before your kid starts breaking boards, read this...)

Hey Einstein-don't use your hands to break lumber

Roger Salick ©2011

Board Breaking For Kids:
A Parent's Guide

            If you're considering enrolling your child in a martial arts school that encourages board breaking, I have a story you should hear. But first, let me offer you some thoughts on breaking that you won't hear from schools that promote this sort of thing.
Admittedly, martial arts breaking - boards, bricks, etc. - can be amazing to watch. I once acted as a stuntman in a movie with a martial artist who could smash a 2,100 pound, 17-foot stack of ice with his forehead, and proved this on the Jay Leno Show. Is this impressive? You bet. A remarkable feat by a remarkable man. After all, how many people can slam their skull through a stack of ice slabs taller than an 18-wheel semi-trailer? But besides the nifty ability to make cubes for a party of two thousand, what do you do with this sort of talent? And is it the kind of skill set any parent wants to aim their children toward?
Breaking demonstrations--from world-class stunts like the ice break on Leno, right down to the simplest children's board breaking events in belt tests and public performances and even charity fundraising events--are designed to gain attention. But -- and this is a big but -- breaking is a flawed recognition path. That's a fancy way of saying:

It sends the wrong message to kids.

            My view is sacrilege. The smashing of lumber and all things Home Depot is so welded to martial arts that it's almost a cliche. Many -- possibly most -- of America's martial arts schools do this, and would lose one of their most visible rituals if you stripped them of their boards. There are even schools that use board breaking as a "come on" -- an advertisement -- offering new students a chance to try a free lesson where they can "learn" to break a board. They claim it is a lesson in "focus".
So, breaking is encouraged. Spectators expect it, parents are proud when their children crack pine, and the kids can't wait to tell everyone they know that they busted a rinky-dink piece of flimsy pine. They now have thunder and lightning in their fist. If that many people are revved about breaking, why am I standing here shouting against the wind? Well, as the saying goes, if 50,000 people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.
Let’s break it down. Here are the advertised benefits of breaking (what parents and kids are told).

  • Develops focus and concentration

  • Develops self confidence

  • Develops power

  • "Trains" hands to tolerate impact

         There is a limited element of truth to most of these claims. But for each of them, the benefits of breaking are overstated, and are hideously oversold. Pick any category; there are better, safer, more positive means to achieve the same results.

So, What's Wrong with Breaking?

Let's move down the list.

  • Breaking is a flawed recognition path. It tells children that it's OK to do a dumb stunt in order to receive attention. Admiration is something that all children (and a lot of adults, too) absolutely crave. Low self-esteem kids, especially, are parched for approval, particularly from their peers and from authority figures.

  • Hitting hard objects with a bare hand can cause injury. It sounds stupid even to say it, doesn't it? A black belt I know broke his hand performing his first demonstration board break. A mother tells of her daughter breaking the bone on the edge of her hand while breaking boards, raising concerns of potential bone growth problems. Another student breaks a board...and a finger. The list goes on. And for what? I've taken college graduate level classes on human osteology (bones) and spent many hundreds of hours studying anatomy and physiology, and for my money, the human hand is about as good as it gets. Martial arts instructors shouldn't look at a youngster's hand as a way to promote their school. They should see a hand that might someday be tying surgical knots. They should see a hand belonging to a future musician or machinist, someone who will do something important with those hands. Martial arts instructors should do everything possible to protect children's hands. Hitting lumber and stone is not on the list.

  • Breaking teaches you very little of what lies at the physical heart of martial arts: movement, speed, timing, conditioning, coordination, reflexes and technical skill.

  • There are better ways to develop confidence. Martial arts confidence should be about broad-scope abilities, not stunts. If breaking developed superior martial confidence, every Special Forces military organization in the world would be breaking like crazy. They aren't.

  • Boards don't move. Human opponents do. (Add to that the Bruce Lee Corollary. Bruce Lee, the most famous martial artist of all time, once observed, "Boards don't hit back.")

  • Breaking is superfluous to developing power. If breaking skill conferred superior hitting power, every heavyweight boxer on earth would be doing it, and they'd be doing it all the time. They don't.

  • You don't have to be a breaker to be a devastating fighter.  If you did, every professional MMA fighter in every gym would long ago have made breaking a cornerstone of their training regimen. They haven't.

  • Breaking is a stunt. Don't let anyone tell you different. Most breaking is not any part of regular class training. It's the sugar-high "hollow calories" of martial arts, a circus act that instructors trot out on special events to create attention.

  • Breaking encourages "stuntflation". It starts with the flimsy pine boards. This leads to harder stunts. Harder stunts lead to risky stunts. Risky stunts, well... think "Jackass" movies. Continue reading, and you'll understand exactly what I'm talking about.

          As parents, we desperately want our kids to be happy and proud of themselves. We'll go to inordinate lengths to facilitate this. That's why we get them in music lessons, sports,  gymnastics, Scouts,  school plays...and martial arts. A lot of martial arts schools cleverly use board breaking to insert themselves into this child/parent satisfaction loop. It's the perfect vehicle for lassoing kids into a school. Think about it. It takes no time to learn. The easiest breaks are a trick, not a skill, which is why kids are able to break boards at free lessons, at summer camps, or at martial arts birthday parties. And, it's virtually guaranteed to work. Many of the boards used at these "first break" events are extra thin, baked dry, and even pre-broken, meaning they're split in advance and spot glued back together. Stories abound of how “novice boards” broke in half just by being accidentally dropped on the floor. But the kids neither know nor care that it’s a sham. They break a board, and they’re thrilled. And because the kids are thrilled, the parents are thrilled. And the martial arts instructors with the boards, well, they're thrilled, too, because the dance of the dollar signs has begun. The breaking of a simple board is very often the first step in getting a child signed into a multi-year contract program that will reap a school thousands and thousands of dollars.
But again -- and I hate to be a broken record here -- my central disagreement with board and other breaking is the flawed message it sends to the adolescent mind . When instructors and parents shower praise upon a child for breaking little boards, what kid isn't going to want to reach for more? What do you tell them? That breaking little things for applause is ok, but breaking big things for more applause is really dumb? Good luck with that one.
In the interest of full disclosure, let it be known that back in the day, I dirtied my own hands with these strange lunacies. When I first started out in martial arts, I used to grind out twisting pushups on concrete, and pound thousands of punches into makiwara boards and buckets of sand and pea gravel to get my hands ready to hit stuff. Some of the dedicated breakers I met had huge deformed center knuckles. That was all right with me. I was young and stupid. Who cared? Badass knuckles would let everybody know I was a martial artist just by looking at my hands, right? I'd look tough, and people would be impressed. At eighteen, that didn't strike me as a big negative.
Fortunately, I came to see through this nonsense before I developed malformed joints -- good thing, too, since that's a telling precursor for rheumatoid arthritis. And in truth, I was never a great breaker. I was an OK breaker. I broke boards with my hands and feet and elbows. I stood in locked stances while my instructor shattered lumber over my body. I did other stupid stunts, too: I laid across chairs in the Milwaukee Arena and had watermelons sliced clear through to my bare stomach by an exquisitely skilled blindfolded man wielding a razor sharp samurai sword. I laid on beds of nails and had thick slabs of limestone smashed on my gut by a guy with a 10 lb maul. I had apples knocked out of my mouth right down to the stem by whirling nunchakus. And too, I've had the opportunity, over more than forty years of studying and teaching martial arts, to observe literally hundreds of breaking and martial arts exhibitions, from the very small to the world-class. And as a result of my experience, I'm convinced that, as a parent, the last thing you ought to do when you look down at your child, is say, "Billy, I hope someday you can break a ton of ice with your head."

Here's the story I promised you. It's true. It illustrates what I've been talking about better than any chain of logic could:

            Some years after I met the icebreaker, while working as a stunt double on another film in Florida, my karate instructor at the time (and star of the film), asked me to demonstrate with him in a large public martial arts exhibition being held in Miami. Billed as "Night of the Masters", the event was a flashy showcase for regional Tae Kwon Do teachers who were trying to grow their schools. The fact that my instructor was from a different style appeared not to matter. With a string of film credits and a reputation that spanned the globe, he was a welcome addition wherever martial arts were on display.
I knelt on the sidelines while waiting to perform with my teacher. Next to me was a family of middle rank Tae kwon do demonstrators also awaiting their turn. Together, we watched the proceedings. Most of it was breaking. There was some wild stuff. Guys sitting on other guys' shoulders, holding boards aloft; black belts jumping like gazelles, high enough to reach the boards with outrageous kicks. They could have cracked Shaquille O'Neal astride a Clydesdale right in the teeth. What you would use this skill for on the street was anybody's guess, but it was something to see.
When they were done, another Tae Kwon Do master began spreading several layers of padding and thick canvas tarps on the floor where he was going to work. Then, with a clatter, he dumped a couple of good sized bags filled with smashed glass bottles on the tarps. Nasty looking stuff, the kind of thing you'd find stuck in cement on the top of a wall in a third world country. If this had something to do with martial arts, I hadn't figured it out yet. Then he proceeded to step out onto the glass in his bare feet, crunching around pretty good out there, finding his footing, arranging himself in a fighting stance. I viewed this uneasily and with a bewildered expression. I was reminded of  men in India who crack off pieces of glass with their teeth as a stunt to earn tips from tourists...they munch on the glass like pieces of hard candy before swallowing them.       
With the Master settled in his bizarre nest of recyclable glass, out trotted his students to hold -- you guessed it -- the obligatory boards. They arranged themselves around him, just off the edge of the jagged mess on the floor. Then the Master proceeded to break the boards with kicks. Over the crack of lumber, whispering through the auditorium like a subliminal soundtrack, were the creepy grinding noises of his supporting foot, creaking on the glass. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I applauded. It was the polite thing to do.
Next up was an athletic looking, high-ranking Tae kwon do master who came out, bowed, and began wrapping his fingers with discreet strips of athletic tape. Another breaker. Sure enough, out runs a student with... not boards, not bags of glass... but a good sized watermelon.
The master sized up the watermelon. He stared it down. Coiling himself into a powerful stance, he held his hand aloft in a shaft of white light descending from above and formed his fingers into a rigid spear. Quite the showman, he pointed this weapon at the cylinder of fruit before him and very slowly extended it, touching the skin of the watermelon, then retracting it. He did this several times, hissing like a Monitor lizard, the tension building. Then with a scream he let fly, his hand arrowing toward the mark, and...
Thud.
The Master's fingers crumpled against the watermelon like a Smart Car hitting a bridge abutment. The crowd gasped. The Master gasped. He began walking in tight little circles, his eyes wincing and locked on the heavens, whipping his fingers back and forth in a gesture that needed no translation. I thought he kept it together pretty well, considering. It must have hurt like the bejeezus. Thumb screws of the Inquisition kind of pain. After a minute of walking and massaging his fingers, he came back to the Forbidding Fruit.
More staring. More hissing. More slow pumping of the arm. Another fervent scream that pierced the air.
Thud.
Master 0. Fruit 2.
More walking. More massaging. More eyes on the sky. Those fingers were toast now. This was painful even to watch. I stole a glance at the family next to me. They were staring at the man out there with rapt intensity. Their faces, though, held no concern. Their look was not mere well wishing, and was beyond respect. It was open-mouthed, eye-glittering, face-aglow reverence. I found it vaguely unnerving.
The Master pulled out the athletic tape. This was one determined man. He lashed those pinkies together as if they were a raft he was going to stand on and pole across to the Bahamas, which might've been a good career option right about then.
Once more, the Master stood before the watermelon. It was a battle of wills now. If looks could kill, this devil-spawn from the garden was already seeds, rind, and pink mush. But not yet. More determined than ever, the Master assumed his stance, repeated his ritual. He was unbowed to the point of anger, his focus a scalpel against this hated green thing that threatened his dignity, his moment.       
Once more he screamed, driving his brutalized fingers against the watermelon, a splintered battering ram assaulting a fortress gate. The crowd gasped. The fingers disappeared... within.
The Master had won. The crowd went wild. As applause washed over him, the Master grinned, bowed, and withdrew his hand . He had proved to the world that his will was forged of iron. And that is not a small thing. But he had also demonstrated to his students, young and old, in the most dramatic way possible, that in pursuit of public adulation and an utterly meaningless victory over an inert piece of fruit, the ruin of one of nature's most miraculous mechanisms -- the human hand -- is a worthy sacrifice.

DRIP DRIP DRIP

            The next to perform in the "Night of the Masters" were the middle and lower rank students. There was some self-defense, some forms, a bit of mock sparring... and more breaking. The family next to me headed out. The husband and wife cracked their way through a variety of boards with their fists, elbows, feet, and the edges of their hands.
When finished, they returned to where I was kneeling. Their young children stayed out to do their own breaking. Both the man and the woman were panting and pleased, fairly beaming with pride as they watched their kids hit lumber under the spotlights. Then my ears caught the sound of something rhythmic very near to me, like the beat of a softly muted metronome.  I couldn't place it at first. Then I looked at the man's hand, not eighteen inches from my face.

It was the sound of blood dripping from his fingers to the floor below.

- End -