- Associated Press - Sunday, October 15, 2017

STAFFORD, N.J. (AP) - Growing up in Barnegat, the bullying was bad for Alex Baker.

“I was bullied horribly,” he said. “I was the only Asian person in my entire school. I was picked on, beaten up.”

Then, at age 9, he made a life-changing decision.

“I started Taekwondo and I came out of my little bubble,” Baker told the Asbury Park Press (https://on.app.com/2yJXb00). “I learned how to defend myself, to keep my mental composure when I was getting picked on, and it stopped.”

He’s stayed with Taekwondo for 10 years, and it became both a sport and a lifestyle. Now 19, Baker is the head instructor at K.T.C., or Korean Taekwondo Center, in Stafford. Although he achieved a national ranking in junior competition, Baker - who is known at the center as Instructor Kang - focuses his energy on teaching the virtues of martial arts.

“The smiles and the amount of self-control and discipline I see the kids enhance themselves with, it makes me feel like I’m making a difference,” said Baker, who studies global fitness and wellness at Ocean County College with plans to become a personal trainer.

This formerly shy kid now commands an audience of 5,000-plus on Instagram. Sometimes, when he sees the need, he’ll tell proteges about the bullying he endured and ultimately overcame.

“Right now I’m doing private lessons with a boy who is being bullied,” he said. “We work on self-defense so he doesn’t get hit. We work on composure so he has self-control when he gets picked on.”

The end result: Martial arts taught Baker confidence, and now he tries to pass that along to others who need it.

“I had to defend myself in a lot of cases,” Baker said. “I wouldn’t hit first. I always wanted to use it in self-defense.”

After a while, he said, the bullies “got the message.”

Bullying is what prompted Manchester resident Randy Liljeros to enroll his son, Marcus, in classes at K.T.C.

“He was 4 years old and being bullied by 8-, 9-year-old kids,” Liljeros said.

Marcus took to it. He’s 7 now and still going. In fact, the entire Liljeros family takes part. Nine-year-old Olivia switched over from gymnastics and now competes nationally. Randy, 48, started with adult classes last year.

“The children gain self-confidence, self-defense and mental development,” Randy said. “The number one thing they learn is respect - the ability to earn respect and demonstrate respect.”

They also gain camaraderie without the social pitfalls of team sports.

“In our sport there are no star athletes, no parents trying to relive their high school accomplishments, and no coach favorites or players’ cliques,” he said.

For the adults, he said, “it’s more fitness, coordination and flexibility. We do a lot of cardio.”

There are different levels, of course, but at their most basic, Taekwondo and other martials arts provide exercise without the physical strains and stresses of, say, jogging, cycling or yoga.

Through twice-weekly, 45-minute workouts, Baker said, “one of our parents lost 40 pounds in the last six months.”

Typical sessions include kicking drills, punching drills and jumping. One workout starts with what Baker calls “an obstacle course” of jumping, gymnastics, crawls, kicks and punches. Another features spider crawls - running on one’s hands and feet - to work the shoulders.

In July, K.T.C. sent nine youths to compete in USA Taekwondo Nationals in Detroit. Two of them earned first-place finishes.

The primary focus for kids, though, is personal development.

“If they’re willing and want to learn, immediately on the first day they’re excelling,” Baker said. “If the kid is being pushed into it because their parents want them to learn it, it takes longer.”

When they come around, it’s rewarding for everyone.

“I had this one boy, he really didn’t want to do it but his parents kept sending him,” Baker said. “He used to throw a lot of tantrums and fits; he hit me a couple of times. But we worked on it, and now he’s been here five years and he’s one of our black belts - and his parents say he’s become better behaved than ever.”

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Online: https://on.app.com/2yJXb00

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Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, https://www.app.com


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