An Examination of the Influence of Sport and Sparring in Taekwondo
by Rexon Y. Ryu
Much has been written and discussed about the path that taekwondo has, is and will take in its development in the United States and across the globe. In what many have described as an "explosion," the interest and practice of taekwondo has spread rapidly since its modern, post-World War II inception. With the establishment and subsequent expansion and legitimization of the World Taekwondo Federation, the International Taekwondo Federation and, here in the United States, the United States Taekwondo Union, it can arguably be said that the institutional foundation for the enduring existence of taekwondo has been laid.
However, notwithstanding the absolute growth of taekwondo, the heightened interest of taekwondo and its institutional basis, many are troubled by what is perceived to be the over-emphasis of sport and sparring. That is, the rapid expansion of competitive sparring, gyoroogi, has placed too heavy an emphasis on winning vs. losing and pure physical development, reducing taekwondo from a martial art to a mere sportdevoid of spiritual, moral or ethical value. Following this argument, students of taekwondo, obsessed with winning, bend the rules, exploit weakness without regard for mercy, show no respect, and train for the mere goal of gaining the gold medal.
It is the belief of the author that this apocalyptic view of the evolution of taekwondo neglects to analyze not only the historical imports of taekwondo but also the deeper meanings of taekwondo sparring and the taekwondo philosophy. Sport and sparring in taekwondo enrich the philosophical basis of taekwondo by challenging taekwondo martial artists to finely develop the skills and abilities which define martial spirit.
In the context of this examination, sport and sparring are defined as the gyoroogi-style sparring matches, as sanctioned by the USTU and the WTF - that is, sparring matches, comprised of a variety of number of rounds and minutes, from which emerge one victor and one loser. The ultimate goal of a gyoroogi tournament is for the competitor to win his/her division, as defined by rank, weight and age.
Unlike sport and sparring, a precise definition of the taekwondo philosophy is much more difficult to develop. For the purposes of this article, I have broken the idea of the taekwondo philosophy into two distinct realms - the concrete and the abstract. At the more concrete, tangible level, taekwondo philosophy is concerned with the acquisition and development of self-confidence, focus, discipline, and concentration, and the overcoming of fear, hesitation and self-doubt.
Removed from the development of these skills is the more abstract ideal of the unification of the mind and the body. In what has been termed the "awareness of the immediate reality," the unification of the mind and the body refers to linking of thought and action, where all action becomes representative of thought.(1) However, beyond the mere linkage of mind and body, "awareness of immediate reality" defines one's ability consciously, yet also instantaneously, to be aware of, understand, and react to one's self, others and the surrounding environment.
In considering taekwondo philosophy, one must also remember that mere attainment of these ideals, both concrete and abstract, does not suffice. Taekwondo philosophy is concerned not only with self-confidence, focus, discipline, concentration and the unification of the mind and body, but also with the process . As a student of taekwondo, one must always ask, "how am I achieving my goals?" Honesty, integrity, respect, diligence and hard work must be employed throughout one's study of taekwondo if one is to truly attain an enlightened understanding of taekwondo philosophy.
Tracing the evolution of taekwondo, in its most absolute sense, takes a student back to the period of the Three Kingdoms of Koguryo, Paekche and Silla. It is during this period, many historians argue, that the first practices of unarmed combat are evident. Most heavily prevalent in the kingdom of Silla, (57 B.C.-937 A.D.), the lineage of taekwondo is predominantly attributed to the establishment of the Hwa Rang, a class of warrior-nobles who embraced the code:
The emphasis of martial arts during this period was on military training and national defense.
The development of taekwondo, known then as Soo Bak Do, continued through the Koryo Dynasty (935-1392). As before, the emphasis of martial arts was found in both the military and civil service. Supported by the nobility, martial arts competition and demonstrations were staged, indicating, for Soo Bak Do, a status both as a martial art and as a recreational activity.
During the Yi Dynasty (1392-1909) and during the Japanese occupation (1909-1945) Korean martial arts were suppressed. There existed no organized public instruction of the Korean martial arts - all skills being practiced in secrecy. It was only after the liberation of Korea, in 1945, that taekwondo emerged during modern history. Between 1945 and the inception of the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) in 1973, taekwondo thrived at the grassroots level - schools were established and some effort was made to unify taekwondo. However, only in 1973 was there formal institutionalization of taekwondo and its basic practices. Since the creation of the WTF, other international as well as national organizations have been established as there have been a variety of efforts to unify and define taekwondo as a martial art.
This cursory overview of the history of taekwondo can no means fully explore the historical influences on modern taekwondo. That is not to object of this examination. This historical outline demonstrates:
There are relatively few records of the martial arts practiced during the periods of the Silla and the Koryo dynasties. Of what is known, the best examples of martial arts traditions stem from the code of the Hwa Rang (as noted above). Yet it would be remiss to say that modern taekwondo is based directly on the Hwa Rang; too little is known of the Hwa Rang. Beyond the lack of knowledge, times have changed. The environment under which the Hwa Rang evolved differs drastically from the present day. And while it is not incorrect to argue that fundamental beliefs endure through time, I believe it is more accurate to assert that fundamental beliefs evolve over time.
Evolution is necessary for survival. The re-emergence of taekwondo following World War II occurred at a time when the geopolitical circumstances of South Korea were dramatically different from that of either the Silla or the Koryo dynasties; cultural values had changed; the level of technology has increased by a hundred fold; the level of education of the general populace is greatly higher; and, perhaps most fundamentally daily life has been altered beyond recognition. In light of these changes, it was inevitable that taekwondo emerged different from the historical Korean martial arts. This change and evolution will continue to be necessary as new innovations and ideas are introduced to this relatively young martial art, taekwondo.
Competition sparring can arguably said to contain many of the philosophical tenets espoused by taekwondo. A cursory examination of sparring may leave one convinced that taekwondo sparring can be reduced to one single idea: winning. That, I believe, is a simple, naive conclusion. Further examination of the rules that underpin every taekwondo match irrefutably demonstrate that competition sparring is a tangible, concrete representation of taekwondo philosophy.
Consider, to begin with, the decorum surrounding a sparring match. Prior to the beginning of a match, competitors bow first to the head of court and then to each other. This bow symbolizes not just respect for the head of court and the other competitor but also an acknowledgment of the contribution each have made to the match. Following the end of a match, competitors bow again to each other and to the head of court, thanking each for their efforts in the match. Informally, one will also often see competitors hugging each other and shaking hands with the opposing coach.
All of these actions, in and of themselves, may seem insignificant. However, taken as a whole, they speak volumes about the philosophical underpinning of taekwondo. Respect, something that is not often shown in contemporary sports, is evident throughout a taekwondo match. It precedes the match and it follows the match. Few other sports demonstrate this level of civility and respect before during and after a match. Who would not argue that respect is not crucial to understanding taekwondo philosophy?
Beyond these symbolic actions, consider the rules that restrict movement, action and technique within the ring during a match. Legal target areas have been restricted to the face and the front torso for kicking techniques and to the front torso for hand techniques. In addition, such actions, including pushing, grabbing, holding, kicking below the waist and running out of the ring are barred. As is noted in the U.S. Referee Seminar textbook, all of these were adopted for reasons beyond safety. With these restrictions, "it was reasoned that...a highly developed system of kicking techniques would be established."(3)
Moreover, as the textbook goes on to explain, full contact during sparring reveals more of the taekwondo philosophy. Full contact allows competitors to experience the true essence of taekwondo techniques. It is only through full contact that one may learn how certain techniques are applied, why they work and under which circumstances. This is a fundamental and crucial understanding for all students of taekwondo. "It is in the philosophy of Taekwondo competition regarding technical development that the process of competitionalization will serve to weed out vacant, formalized techniques from among the traditional techniques, through application in full-contact competition."(4)
The concept of full-contact, coupled with the legal target area restrictions, leads inevitably to the conclusion that taekwondo competition emphasizes not merely winning but rather the mastery of techniques, with balance, speed and power. The development and eventual mastery of taekwondo techniques requires long and determined practice. Only through hundreds of repetitions can one's body master the mechanics of sparring footwork, the round house kick or the back kick. It is during this process that such traits as discipline, self-confidence and focus are developed. The sparring match is merely the symbolic representation - the end result - of a taekwondo student's training. One cannot learn how to counter an ax kick by competing in taekwondo tournaments. Understanding how the ax kick works and how to counter the ax kick comes only from practice, instruction, analysis and time. In this fashion, the rules of taekwondo have shaped the sparring match to require taekwondo students to learn and develop speed, balance and power. During this learning process, the core elements of the taekwondo philosophy are evident.
While examining the process of training that precedes every sparring match yields evidence of the philosophical tenets of taekwondo, further light is shed when the mental challenge of sparring is examined. For the competitor, a competition sparring match holds the unknown. The anxiety of entering the ring with an unknown opponent is a sensation that is unmatched by practice or training. "The aesthetics of particular movements instantly become secondary to the competitor's own anxieties, self-control, confidence, strategy and spirit. The mechanical mastery of kicking and punching techniques become meaningless without the spiritual means of overcoming fears and doubts, and developing the strength of mind to overcome what may be in fact an opponents superior mastery of the mechanical and physiological skills. ." (5) Competitive sparring pushed a student's martial arts development to the extreme. In this context, competitive sparring can be said to "ground" taekwondo in reality. As a martial art, taekwondo provides its students with the physical and spiritual awareness to defend one's self and sparring allows taekwondo students to apply their knowledge.
Finally, as briefly noted above, competitive taekwondo sparring provides taekwondo, as a martial art, a laboratory to test, develop and refine foot and hand techniques. With the rules restricting the legal targets and allowing for full contact, sparring attempts to emulate, as closely as possible, real-life fighting while also emphasizing high-quality techniques and martial spirit. As is noted in the U.S. Referee Seminar textbook, "technique is the starting point as well as the ultimate goal of taekwondo."(6) Taekwondo, as a martial art, is a physical activity, designed to empower the student physically and spiritually. Competitive sparring provides taekwondo students a balanced forum through which physical development is eminently displayed and spiritual development, more subtle.
As has been previously asserted, evolution in taekwondo is and will continue to be inevitable. New techniques will be developed, old theories will be challenged as we, as human beings, inexorably push to improve taekwondo. As a laboratory, competitive sparring allows taekwondo students to apply and experience contemporary and new techniques. As the debate concerning the merits of competitive sparring in taekwondo continues, I believe that it is important to remember that the study of taekwondo is a personal, individual choice. A student must approach taekwondo with an open mind and a willingness to dedicate substantial personal resources to the study of taekwondo. The ability and willingness to grasp the mental/spiritual aspects of taekwondo are much more difficult than understanding how to correctly execute a round house kick. The emphasis and importance of either facet of taekwondo should not be diminished; taekwondo cannot survive as taekwondo without the balance of both aspects. Yet it must be recognized that it may take taekwondo students years to understand the philosophical underpinnings of taekwondo. The devotion and commitment of the individual will dictate the path chosen in the study of taekwondo.
The development of respect, honor, self-discipline, confidence and focus are almost tangibly evident in taekwondo competitive sparring. All of these aspects illuminate the student's path toward understanding the essence of taekwondo - understanding one's mind, body and surroundings. As has been discussed above, competitive sparring houses many of the philosophical underpinnings of taekwondo. Many, I believe, will agree to this. If a problem does exist, it is that taekwondo students have not fully grasped the deeper significance of sparring. While this is troubling, the blame for the lack of understanding cannot be placed on the concept of competitive sparring. We, as students of taekwondo, should all strive to spread a complete understanding of taekwondo - balance is essential. We must work to strengthen not only within ourselves, but also within our fellow students, both our bodies and our spirits.
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