Updated: Oct 25
Herb Perez is an Olympic gold medalist in taekwondo and is a featured instructor on the most comprehensive martial arts platform in history—Black Belt+.
*Due to editorial limitations, parts of this interview may have been abbreviated. Black Belt+: Oftentimes in our training we hit a wall, what’s your advice for students who lack motivation or want to quit?
Herb: At every stage of my training, I would be faced with challenges that I thought were insurmountable. They may have been skills, strategy, or knowledge based. And in other cases, they may have been financial or life challenges that I thought would force me to stop pursuing my Olympic dream.
It is important to remember that challenges are part of growth and that without challenges you truly can never become as good or as great as you might be. Challenges reveal what you need to do as opposed to what you want to do to become better. Athletes who are never challenged never truly understand what to do when they are faced with adversity in or outside the arena.
You must remember that trapped inside of you is an amazing individual in the process of becoming the person that they ultimately want to or can be. The only thing that stands between you and true success is you. And the only person that can defeat you is you so face the challenges and even in the times where you lack the motivation to continue understand that that is human and that every great athlete or practitioner feels that.
In 1988, after winning the World Cup championship and being the best American and targeted to be the 1988 Olympic team member I did not meet the mark. I could have quit and if I had, I would not have become the 1992 Olympic gold medalist.
It was incredibly difficult to find the motivation to continue and to sacrifice another four years in pursuit of a dream that may and most probably could have eluded me. In retrospect, the additional four years allowed me to gain the skill sets necessary so that I would ultimately be successful and achieve my dream. I always remind myself of this because patience is ultimately the most important life skill when one is trying to achieve our goal. Black Belt+: Traditionally many martial artists start with one style, when do you recommend the best time to branch out and learn other styles?
Herb: I have had the good fortune to practice with amazing martial artist in a variety of styles including Fu Jow Pai Kung Fu and a variety of karate styles. if you are not training or fighting in the competitive arena for a particular martial arts style then there is no wrong time to try and practice other martial arts. However, remember it is important to continue to master your art of preference and achieve the goals that you set for yourself in it.
If you are competing in a particular high level martial art that is style specific, then I think it is better for you to focus wholly on that martial art and only do cross training in other disciplines of strength and agility that may help you improve your competitive edge.
My biggest and best growth came because of training with Sifu Vizzio and in Fu Jow Pai. it was not only because of the martial art that he taught but more importantly the experience he had from his competition in a variety of different arenas including the PKA. that experience provided him with the knowledge to develop good fighters in any martial art into better fighters.
Black Belt+: What are some changes or developments in your art over the years?
Herb: To be honest, the Olympic sport and martial art of Taekwondo has been dumbed down to such a degree that it is no longer viable as a martial sport. Additionally, much of the culture of the martial arts in the sport has been diluted and erased. As a result, the athletes lack the ability to kick with power and or a strategic framework that could be utilized to damage or incapacitate an opponent. The sport is virtually unwatchable, and I can't think of one of my contemporaries who actually enjoys or watches any Olympic competition.
The Olympic sport in the USA has been hijacked by second- and third-rate performers and coaches who run the organization and can't even qualify a male athlete to participate in the Olympic Games. And this is even in this diluted week and dance version of the competition that we all must tolerate. The martial art side of Taekwondo continues to grow and develop a better framework to develop martial artists and build life skills under the new president of the Kukkiwon. they are developing a set of standards to teach the martial art and to certify master level instructors and hold them accountable under the Dan ranking system.
Black Belt+: Today, what is the emphasis of your teaching?
Herb: When I first decided to teach, I wasn't convinced that I had anything to teach because I didn't believe I was actually the best person to teach Taekwondo. I believed that I had met many people more qualified and better in the martial art and in the sport. However, I then had an epiphany. I realized that what I did have to teach was a method and a process to learn. Most martial artists teach like folk artist, watch me do it like me and it'll make sense later. This was how I learned this was how most people learned there was no set framework or textbook that could provide a consistent and repeatable method for others to follow. With the help of Century, I developed the first Taekwondo curriculum (TORCH) that could be memorialized and visualized through a series of written documents and DVD's. It was method based it described in detail how to build a skill set and a strategic framework. I then went on to develop the Olympic education program for athletes, coaches, and referees for USA Taekwondo. it utilized many of the same methods that were available in the Torch program. we traveled around the country and conducted seminars for every coach in the Olympic sport and provided them with information and practical teaching skills in an attempt to standardize the approach to the sport and to develop the athletes of the future. Many of the athletes we identified in that process went on to become our future national and Olympic team members and are currently developing athletes around the world in various other programs.
These days in my schools I focus on developing young athletes into better people and developing life skills that will help them be successful in life and not just in athletics. We serve as the guardians of the flame and as the last wall between chaos and ethical behavior. It is important to remember that we must deliver on this promise every day and must develop the leaders of the future through the training that we do as individuals in our communities.
In these days of social media and various incarnations of social irresponsibility we must continue to develop young people who are ethical, capable, and responsible.
Each one of my martial art instructors was uncompromising in their expectations of me. Yes means yes and no meant no. It never occurred to me to ask why, nor would they have entertained my question. they expected good and great things from me, and I did my best to make them proud. In my schools every young athlete is required to go through a series of life skill teachings and to submit writings at the end of each. Additionally, they have community service that they perform at the black belt level. Our school motto, is “Excellent is Earned.”
I still teach the full contact martial sport and art of Taekwondo and I refuse to capitulate to the current k-pop dance version of it and the lack of athleticism it requires. I had hoped not to become such a naysayer, or I guess what they call a boomer but that is difficult if not impossible. Black Belt+: You inspired so many, who or what inspired you?
Herb: I always wanted to make my mom proud of me. I was fortunate that I found great mentors along the way, and this was a result of needing mentors and a male role model to follow. My father was not part of my world my mother left my father when I was quite young because he was abusive.
As a result, I gravitated towards teachers and ultimately a martial art teacher who provided a strong foundation and an ethical framework. A fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Murtha, who taught history inspired me to follow a path of education and ultimately go to law school.
Master Anthony Alvarez and Master Ki Chung Kim Were my first martial art instructors and idols they both possessed outstanding technique and expected great things from me in terms of athleticism and personal development. They held me to high standards and were unrelenting in their expectations of ethical behavior.
Sifu Paul Vizzio Was singularly the most important person in the development of my pathway to the Olympics and my ultimate success in 1992. He provided the inspiration necessary to undertake this arduous task he was uncompromising in his approach to martial arts training and what he expected from his students and athletes. He was the one martial artist that I met who lived and practiced what he preached.
Ultimately, we all walk into martial arts schools hoping to become this magical mystical figure and to harness and understand this mysterious thing called the martial arts. I like many others were inspired by movies and books and this was my first inspiration.
Black Belt+: Black Belt+ was started to help students outside the dojo, what are your expert tips on training solo or remotely?
Herb: It is amazing to have so many resources available so that young athletes or old practitioners can better themselves and their skill sets remotely. It is important to remember that your best to practice time is done by yourself we will have an opportunity to experiment, hypothesize, and realize your true path to excellence.
Currently I train and learn new information through a variety of online resources and some remote teaching and learning as well. It is important to take notes and record your sessions so that you can review and see from another perspective what you are doing and how you are doing it.
The hardest thing to do is to hold yourself accountable for your progress and your ability to absorb information. You must first realize that you are capable and that this was the original form of learning. You would watch others do an activity or a skill and you would mimic it and by yourself try to find a pathway to mastering it. Now you can watch it repeatedly, slow it down, and repeat it as often as necessary so that you can interpolate the information and utilize it in a practical situation.
So, remember to slow down take your time and truly listen to what is being said and watch how it is being done. Additionally, if you can find someone on the same path either at your level or above your level they can serve as a colleague or as a mentor to help you as you try to build this new skill set. Black Belt+: What motivates you to stay passionate about your art?
Herb: The greatest gift I was ever given was the gift of martial arts. The day that I wandered into a dojang and was able to take my first class changed my life forever. We all must remember that it is these moments of opportunity and choices that allow us to become better than we thought we ever would be and better than we ever thought we could be. I stay motivated because I realized that every day a young person wanders into my school that I will change forever and for always. We must stay consistent and provide others with the opportunity to be better. It is our duty, it is Our Calling.