Growing up in Seoul, South Korea, Grand Master Peter Paik learned traditional Korean and Japanese martial arts he’s happy to teach to students. But if they prefer the latest styles, he’s got the staff to help there, as well.

And though Paik and his instructors teach a variety of techniques, their common theme is creating a respect for the martial arts while imparting the wisdom to use those skills only when needed.

Started in Madison in 1971 by Paik’s father, the late Grand Master Sang Kee Paik, Paik’s Traditional Martial Arts Center teaches a variety of styles, with instructors with backgrounds in everything from yoga to kickboxing.

“Today, there are a lot of different martial arts schools and styles; some that started hundreds of years ago and some that were made up last week,” Paik told the Star.

Paik’s Fitchburg, which opened in April, is the center’s third location, joining ones on the west and east sides of Madison. The new addition was prompted by demographics, he said, with students from the Fitchburg area previously having to travel to Whitney Way or Monona Drive for classes.

Now, it’s a much shorter drive to 2690 Research Park Dr. for students of all ages to study the ancient — and modern — forms of martial arts, with classes for all skill levels.

“Our students go from four years old up to 74,” he said. “We want to help people – especially kids – reach new heights in their life.”

Family tradition

Paik said his father was one of the first black belts to come out of Korea, studying under the masters of taekwondo, a “conglomeration of nine different martial arts” brought from Japan. In 1966, Paik started his own training in South Korea before his family moved to Madison where his father got a job as a scientist at UW-Madison.

While that work was inspiring, Paik said his father’s “true calling” was martial arts, and in 1971 he started what is now Paik’s Academy of Martial Arts.

“A lot of Madisonians were in the dark as to what martial arts was all about then,” Paik said.

When his father retired in 1997, Paik took over the family business, and now enjoys passing down all the traditions and lessons he’s learned.

“Like anything significant in life, (martial arts has) been passed down for generations; it’s proven the test of time,” he said. “Those same skills my father learned when he was growing up in Korea, they still apply when I’m teaching and they’ll apply after I’m gone.”

Building character

Martial arts are particularly beneficial for young people, Paik said, as they provide “self-developmental” and “character-building processes.”

“A child may be struggling at school because of lack of focus, and he can learn concentration skills,” he said. “Martial arts teaches the discipline of self-control.”

Learning respect is also something that “probably means more now than ever,” Paik said.

“You don’t answer to a black belt by going, ‘Yeah, man,’ you say, ‘Yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, no ma’am,’” he said. “These are traditions that have been passed down through countless years. Life is more than acting like a baby so you get your way, so you can get on to your video game.”

Park said kids can use the “strong sense of inner strength and self-esteem” martial arts can provide – but that means more than learning “just kicking and punching.”

“Any martial arts school can teach a child how to defend themselves (but) unfortunately, the knowledge, wisdom and skills go by the wayside,” he said. “You’ve got people who are teaching how to kick and punch without the philosophy, without the traditions, like a sport. All you’re teaching the kids how to do is be bullies.”

The key is teaching students to handle themselves in difficult situations, Paik said.

“You teach them how to avoid conflict by improving their esteem and confidence, but if something does happen, (it’s) having the skills necessary to know they can defend themselves and help somebody out if they need to,” he said. “Having the skills makes a huge difference.”

Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at scott.