Over the course of the last fifty-five years, Taekwondo has come a long way from its beginnings in the Korean Army. It wasn’t long ago that Taekwondo was relatively unheard of in North America, perhaps due to the fact that it has yet to be featured in big budget Hollywood films like Kung-fu or Karate, but Taekwondo is now common in most cities across Canada and the United States of America. The reasons for its popularity are many, yet the most common reasons for its success are that it promotes a healthy active lifestyle, it’s accessible to all ages, and it is just exceedingly enjoyable.
Throughout this article, you will learn the basics of Taekwondo, ranging from its different schools to its multiple features and ending in learning what to look for in a school and instructor. With so much to detail in one article, we must first jump into the past to give you a brief history of the development of one of the most accessible and popular martial arts of the twenty-first century.
Features of Taekwondo
The main feature of Taekwondo that makes it stand out from all other martial arts is its emphasis on kicking techniques, which is significantly different than other popular martial arts like Karate or Kung Fu. The idea behind this is relatively simple as the belief is that the leg is the longest and most powerful weapon a martial artist can wield. Due to its emphasis on kicking techniques, Taekwondo has evolved to the point where specific kicks are designed to overcome certain guards. For instance, the back kick is designed to defend the body and head while delivering a powerful kick backwards driving the heel of the foot into the opponent’s stomach whereas, the axe kick is designed to be lifted over an opponent’s head past their blind spot to be dropped on the top of their head. But, that is not to say that the hand techniques of Taekwondo aren’t just as devastating as their kicking techniques. Just like the kicking techniques, the hand techniques, like punches and knife hand strikes, are developed to strike with enough power and fines to significantly reduce retaliation.
The first thing that is required to know about Taekwondo ranks is that Taekwondo as a whole is based in military tradition. As such, the ranking system is similar to military ranking by placing the higher ranks above the lower ranks in such a manner that respect is expected from the bottom up. The first lesson learned in Taekwondo is to respect your senior. In this way, black belts are referred to by last name only, or by sir or madam. At the beginning of each class, all the students bow to the head instructor or in some cases other highly ranked black belts. Even outside of class, it is expected to bow to your instructor and highly ranked black belts regardless of where you are.
Taekwondo ranks are typically separated into "junior" and "senior," or "student" and "instructor," sections. The junior section typically consists of ten ranks where junior ranks are usually identified by belts of various colors, depending on the school, so these ranks are sometimes called "color belts". The senior section is typically made up of nine ranks. These ranks are called dan , also referred to as "black belts" or "degrees" (as in "third dan" or "third-degree black belt").To advance from one rank to the next, students typically complete promotion tests in which they demonstrate their proficiency in the various aspects of the art before a panel of judges or their teacher.
In contrast, promotion from one dan to the next can take years. The general rule is that a black belt may advance from one rank to the next only after the number of years equivalent to the current rank.
Throughout the world, there are many different schools of Taekwondo, but the two main organizations are known as the World Taekwondo Federations (WTF) and the International Taekwondo federation (ITF). I mention this only because in some instances there may be some slight rule differences, but for the most part, the rules for competition are quite similar. The only time one set of rules gets precedence over another is at the Olympics where the WTF sparring rules apply.
Just as there are multiple sets of rules for the varying Taekwondo organizations throughout the world, there are also different contests held at each tournament. Typically, the two most common competitions are patterns and sparring, but it is not uncommon to see breaking or power breaking contests at Taekwondo tournaments as well. In Olympic Taekwondo competitions, only sparring is contested.
Sparring is a full-contact event that takes place between two competitors in a ring measuring 8-9 (Depends on Organization) meters square. Matches typically consist of a two minute round and gold metal matches consist of two rounds with a minute break between rounds. Being full contact, competitors gains points by striking the opponent with a hand or foot technique. The competitors gain 2 points for a body kick, 3 points for a head kick, 1 point for a body punch and 2 points for a head punch. There are four corner judges that award points based on accurate hits for each competitor, and after the regulation time, a winner is decided based on the scores of the four judges. In the case of a tie, another round, often shorter than regulation, is fought, or in some organizations, sudden death rules apply to quickly decide a victor.
One of the most common fears of parents and young students is that an injury could occur during sparring matches because of the full contact nature associated with the event. Of course nothing could be farther from the truth. Although competitions are full contact, the use of excessive force is not tolerated at most Taekwondo events. The purpose of sparring is to showcase the competitor’s speed, agility, and technique not to simply hurt one another. When lower ranks initially learn to spar, there is little to no contact until the students learn a greater control of their techniques. As students progress, more contact is allowed until black belt level is reached. At higher levels of competition, well disciplined students learn to take contact and perform counter attacks to score more points.
Patterns, or forms, are a staple of nearly every type of martial art across the world. The pattern itself is simple a series of techniques, including hand strikes, kicks, and blocks, that are performed to test the student’s technique. The idea behind patterns is that the student is having an imaginary fight with one or more imaginary opponents. In Taekwondo, patterns begin simplistically at the white belt level and grow into complexity as the student moves through the ranks. Even the highest degree, or dan, or black belt knows specific patters associated with his or her level, but as one progresses through the ranks to black belt, the student is expected to learn new patters yet also retain the old patterns. It is not uncommon for students to be asked to perform additional patterns for tests other than the ones required to achieve the next level. It is also common to hold black belts tests where students are asked to perform all patterns up to their specific level.
In competition, students are asked to perform either the patter of their choice or the pattern of the judge’s choice, and they are then judged on how well they performed their pattern. In some cases, the student is asked to perform their pattern alone where they are given points as to how well the pattern is performed, but the more common method is to have two students perform their pattern, often different patters altogether, at the same time and once both are done, the judges pick a winner who moves onto the next round to perform again. But what exactly do the judges look for? The most important aspect is perfection. The student must perform the pattern’s movements and techniques exactly as they were taught. A sure sign that the pattern was performed perfectly is that the student will finish on the exact same spot that they started on, which is the same for all patterns in Taekwondo. Other things judges look for are fines, power, flexibility, sine wave, and self confidence. From the second your name is called to perform to the moment you sit down, you are being judged.
One of the most exciting aspects of Taekwondo is the addition of team contests in most Taekwondo associations across the world. These types of competitions are usually held for international or world championships where a team of five men travel to compete as a team. So far, competitions are held without mixed men and women teams because sparring is not broken into ranks or weight categories. It is common to have an assortment of black belt ranks and weights competing against one another regardless of fights being favored to one competitor or another. Generally, the same rules apply as normal sparring, only the first team to win three matches is declared the winners.
Team patterns are judged in the same manner as individual competitions, but are considered significantly harder because not only do the patterns have to be perfect, but they have to be performed in sync with the rest of the team. If one member is off, the match is over. In the case of team patterns, there is the opportunity for teams to make small changes to make the performance greater in the eyes of the judges. For instance, members can start the pattern at different times, speeds can be altered, and other such changes can be added so long as the pattern’s movements and techniques remain the same.
One competition that often draws a large crowd is the breaking or power breaking competitions. The most common competition is the power breaking competition where students compete to break the most 1 inch think boards at one time. So if one person breaks five boards and another only breaks three boards, the competitor with the most broken boards wins. The most common techniques are kicking techniques, like sidekicks or jumping back kicks, which if performed perfectly produce a massive amount of force used to break multiple boards in one strike.
Other breaking competitions often held are ones to judge distance where competitors use flying kicks to jump over obstacles to break a board on the other side. The winner is the competitor who flies the farthest while still breaking the board. The other variant of this completion are flying high kicks where competitors jump as high as they can in order to break a board, and like the flying kicks, the person who breaks a board at the greatest height is considered the winner.
The first thing every new student to Taekwondo needs is a uniform to wear to class that is often worn through all ranks including black belt. One can simply find these easily on the internet, but it is nearly 100% of the time sold to the student by the Taekwondo instructor because the name of the school is often found somewhere on the uniform, and a badge of the Taekwondo organization, WTF, ITF, ect., is often sown into the chest of the uniform. The same goes for the color of belt that the student wears is provided by the instructor with the purchase of a uniform, and as students test for new ranks, new color belts are awarded. Essentially, this really is all one needs to learn and practice Taekwondo. Where it is normal to train bare foot, it is acceptable to train in light weight shoes specifically designed for martial arts.
As far as sparring equipment is concerned, the basic necessities are padded gloves and foot covers. For male competitors, a groin cup is also a necessity, and for both sexes, a mouth guard is also always required. In competitions, head gear is often required by all students until one competes as a black belt, but even then, most associations are moving towards padded head gear for all competitors. Again, all of this gear can be purchased through the instructor for a reasonable cost, or you can go to most sporting good stores to purchase all of the above. Some people choose to buy their own head gear, but it is common for instructors to provide these for tournaments. Because of the amount of kicks associated with Taekwondo, padded chin guards are worm by a growing number of competitors, but are not required by any associations.
Should you not be able to afford such equipment, most organizations will subsidize the cost of equipment for students who are willing to help with fundraising opportunities, but this is only available through a school to school basis. But on the whole, when compared to sports like hockey or football, the cost of equipment is significantly lower.
Where to Train
With the popularity of taekwondo growing each year, the numbers of schools are growing in union. It is almost impossible for one to live in a city or town that does not have a school of one or more different organizations. The most important aspects to choosing a school are the instructor and the school itself.
It is not uncommon to see young black belts starting up new schools, but the best instructors are those who hold higher ranks. In general, a black belt that has a higher rank has more knowledge to pass on, and can therefore train you to a higher rank than someone who is only a first degree. Knowledge is important, but the instructor must also embody the tenants of taekwondo being curtsey, integrity, perseverance, self control, and indomitable spirit. The main thing to look for in a Taekwondo instructor is someone who has heart. If they promise you a black belt in 2-3 years, then they are more in the business for the money. Taekwondo, like all martial arts, take ample dedication, and your instructor should reflect that aspect.
The moment one walks into a dojo, it should be apparent that it is a place you want to train in. Whether the training hall is new or just a school gym doesn’t really matter, but what is important is the presence of other black belts. You can tell an instructor and school are successful when there are a number of black belts that stay with the school once they have worked their way through the ranks. In theory, the more black belts in a class, the more opportunities there are for you to learn different aspects of the martial art from more than one angle. Black belts are the center of pride when it comes to Taekwondo schools because it is they who are the ones out traveling, often paying out of their pocket, across North America and the world to compete in various national, international, and world championships. Their success reflects positively on the instructor and school.
To join Taekwondo is a life changing experience that will positively change your entire life. Its entire foundation lies in the tenants of Taekwondo: curtsey, integrity, perseverance, self control, and indomitable spirit. The ITF student oath sums up the life changing experience with its last two oaths being "I shall be a champion of justice and freedom" and "I shall build a better and more peaceful world”. Even more, Taekwondo builds self consciousness and self awareness by setting goals that allows students of all ages succeed to greater heights than they could ever imagine. Once the basics are firmly in place, the sky truly is the limit. It is not uncommon for an instructor to tell someone to hold a board above your head, and tell you if you want to pass your test, you will break the board with a sidekick by simply jumping in the spot. One learns pretty quickly that in Taekwondo, the impossible breaks as easy as a board.