One of the most misunderstood aspects of traditional martial arts revolves around one of its most well-known practices: board breaking.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told someone I train in Taekwondo and the first thing they ask me is “So…can you break boards with your head and stuff?”
First off, yes. Yes, I can. What is often overlooked, however is why many traditional martial arts schools break boards, concrete, and bricks in the first place.
At its simplest level, board breaking is a test of the individual’s technique, speed, power, and accuracy. If everything is on point, the board will explode with a shower of splinters as the onlookers ooh and ahh. If one aspect is off though, it may feel like you just struck a brick wall. The physics and methods behind breaking a board is very interesting and, if you’ll allow me, I’m going to discuss some of the basic principles behind breaking so you can better appreciate the process as a whole and what the students have to go through.
First off, you must realize that your target isn’t the board itself, but the space right behind the board. If you aim to hit the front of the board, that is all you’re going to do. You must strike in a way that the ending point of your technique is past the board. Your force must go through the board rather than just to the board.
Second, is the study of exponential growth when breaking multiple boards. Let’s say a board takes 10 lbs of force to break (I doubt that’s accurate, but for the sake of illustration and easy math, just roll with it). So if it takes 10 lbs of force to break 1 board, how much would it take to break 2 boards at the same time? Most answer with the obvious, 20 lbs, but that would be wrong. What they fail to take into account is the fact that you must exert 20 lbs of force just to break the back board, then you must exert another 10 pounds of force to also break the front board, so you actually need to exert a total of 30 lbs of force to break both boards. As you can see, the amount of force needed to break multiple boards at once quickly climbs with the more you try to break at one time.
The last point I will cover regarding the principles behind breaking boards involves the kinetic energy your body is exerting and why it’s so important to ensure your technique is correct, especially when you’re trying to break many boards at once. Think of a practitioner trying to break, let’s say, 6 boards at once. Think of how much force he must generate in order to break such a large stack of boards. Now, what happens if he doesn’t break that stack? Where does all that kinetic energy go? You guessed it, back up into his limb. I can speak from experience that this can lead to some incredibly painful injuries.
So with all that out of the way, let’s dig into the more philosophical reasons why we have our students break boards. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, breaking boards is a good metric to determine if the student is displaying adequate technical competency, power, and speed, but if that’s all they got from breaking boards, the practice would have fallen out of favor a long time ago.
Breaking boards offers the maximum benefit when you fail to break the board the first time. As Roman McClay stated in his book Sanction, “Pain demands a response.” When you strike that board with all your might and the force of your blow reverberates back into your limb, what will you do?
If you are a novice, you will likely get frustrated, focus on the pain, and hesitate on trying that break again. This creates a negative feedback loop as that frustration and fear of more pain accumulates and make your subsequent attempts weaker. When this happens, usually our instructor stops the student and asks them, “What’s tougher, you or this board? What’s going to break, you or this board?”
How many times in real life are we stopped by an obstacle that, no matter how hard we clash against it, doesn’t budge? What’s our typical reaction? Frustration? Anger? Willful stubbornness to bash that damn square peg through a round hole regardless of how bloody we make ourselves in the process?
I want to share with you an experience I had at my 6th Dan Taekwondo testing that I hope illustrates a better way to handle obstacles that we just can’t seem to break through. At our testings, black belts test all day and assist during the junior belts testing session. During this time, we typically demonstrate what they will be doing (forms, sparring, breaking, etc.). At one point, I was asked to break a (as in one) board with an axe kick. Now mind you, this is a very simple break that I’ve done many, MANY times over the years, so I square up to the board holder, and kick it a solid kick.
The board doesn’t break.
“Huh…that’s odd.” I thought to myself. Shrugging it off, I kick it again a little harder this time.
It still doesn’t break!
Now I’m starting to get a bit annoyed. Why am I having so much trouble breaking a single board with one of the easiest kicks? I try again. My foot still bounces off the board.
Finally, I take a step back and think about what the problem is and it hits me. Due to the position of the board holder, I was unintentionally holding myself back as if I went full force, my momentum would carry me through and my kick would hit the board holder. I think he realized the issue as well because we shared a glance and he gave me a knowing nod. With that, I kicked the board full force and broke through cleanly. My kick also hit him in the stomach as I predicted, but he was prepared for it so it didn’t hurt him.
Being able to calmly step back and assess a situation even if you’re hurt, flustered, under pressure, or angry is an incredibly powerful tool that practices like board breaking excel at teaching. Whenever you crash painfully against an obstacle in your day-to-day life, take a moment to assess the situation instead blindly trying to plow forward. You might find a small tweak to what you’re doing that suddenly makes that impenetrable wall nothing more than a speed bump.
You can find Jacob on Twitter @TheGentlemanJak