By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Taekwondo classes at the Schenectady JCC are a scene from the world’s most adorable action movie.
Grinning elementary school kids in white uniforms and colorful belts flow through stances, kicks and punches, often while shouting “Yes, sir!” at their teacher, Tim Tocco.
On Mondays and Wednesdays after school, these taekwondo classes teach children as young as kindergarten to practice patiently while helping them stay physically healthy.
Josh Wagner, the JCC’s sports and wellness director, has an office just outside the gym where the tiny martial artists practice.
“Just watching [Tocco] teach the class, it gives the kids discipline,” he said. As they grow, he watches them show better and better listening skills and more powerful concentration.
“The benefits are endless,” Tocco said. “We’re in an instant-gratification era with kids.”
He believes taekwondo helps mitigate the spur-of-the-moment mentality, instilling patience and self-control in the young students.
“They have to earn their ranks over a period of time,” he said. Each belt, with colors and bands representing the wearer’s skill level, takes three or four months to earn.
At one recent practice, he presented each student with a new belt representing a higher rank. They said cross-legged, backs straight, waiting to be called to the front of the gym. They walked the long way around their classmates to Tocco, then bowed respectfully before being handed their belts, which they had to carry with two hands.
The scene was a demonstration of the positive qualities Tocco had helped the children develop.
They’re honest, too.
“Who here had good self-control after trick-or-treating and only had a couple of pieces of candy?” Tocco asked the group at the end of November’s first session.
Just one hand went up, announcing just three pieces of fun-sized candy, while the rest of the kids counted on their fingers, then gave up.
It’s a start. They may not all have mastered the art of self control in the face of colorful sweets, but there is one quality they’ve all begun to acquire.
“Confidence. I think that’s the biggest thing you can see immediately with the kids,” Tocco said.
The squirmier, elementary-school set are a change in pace for Tocco, who trains highly competitive taekwondo athletes.
After practicing for about 23 years, he started coaching less than four years ago. Since then, eleven of his trainees have joined the national team and a handful have been invited to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo. Local athletes, who practice at his Glenville gym, have competed in China, Egypt, Germany and Mexico.
“They practice five nights a week,” he said.
His most competitive students spend ten to twelve hours each week practicing martial arts, plus additional time building their strength and conditioning.
Even though he’s gotten used to grown-up students, Tocco, who started learning taekwondo at age 5, has a teasing, brotherly demeanor with his littlest athletes. They seem to respond well to the treatment.
“I’m going to put it under my pillow,” one student said proudly after receiving his new belt.
“There’s no taekwondo fairy,” Tocco joked. “You have to earn it.”