Searching for Taekwondos Identity
A Proposal for an Analytical Framework
Originally published in WTF Taekwondo, Winter 1999.
Since the development of competition sparring,1 a debate has ensued over taekwondos identity. Some prefer to think of it as a martial art with roots in Koreas history. Others would emphasize recent technical developments and term it an Olympic sport. Yet another possibility is to call taekwondo a martial sport, implying something of both. Such discussion relies heavily on the definitions of sport and art, and makes for an interesting semantic and philosophical endeavor. However, to label taekwondo with such terms only describes perceived purposes of training, and distracts from taekwondos more fundamental essence as a method of training and a set of skills.
Central to the issue of taekwondos identity is its technical content. As a manifestation of physical culture, taekwondo exists as it is practiced, and must be taught to new generations of practitioners for its survival. Effective instruction and transmission presupposes a defined curriculumwhether to call that curriculum art or sport is of secondary importance.
The real identity crisis, therefore, is that there is not universal agreement on what techniques comprise taekwondo, and a coherent interrelationship among extant skills is missing. This situation is made even more complicated because taekwondo can be different things to different people, as evidenced by the sport versus art debate. In an effort to clarify taekwondos technical content, any model of practice or unifying principles for techniques must take this into consideration.
The Existing Contextual Model
A useful method of analyzing technical content is to define how training takes place, or the contexts in which techniques are practiced. The World Taekwondo Federation suggests that taekwondo consists of three areas of practice:2 forms (practice of established pumsae), breaking (testing skills against inanimate objects), and sparring (application of techniques from forms with a partner). This models primary weakness is that it does not apply to competition sparring techniques,3 whose popularity and visibility have made them a feature of taekwondo practice too significant to be ignored.
For example, breaking practice is not a necessary part of competition training. The rules governing competition encourage the use of certain techniques by limiting potential striking surfaces and targets, but place no restriction on degree of contact. Because competition sparring allows for full-speed, full-power, spontaneous application of techniques, it is not necessary to test the efficacy of competition sparring skills through breaking practice. Instead, competition provides its own built-in proving ground.
Another problem arises when we consider the applicability of forms practice for competition sparring. Established forms do not contain the footwork and kicking required for competition sparring, so their practice is greatly marginalized for the competitor. It may be argued that forms competition creates an incentive for the competitor to perfect forms, but it still does nothing to bridge the gap between forms and competition sparring techniques. Of course, the technical content of forms training could be altered to better reflect skills used in competition sparring.4 However, under the current model, this change alone does little to create a consistent relationship between the three areas of practice. Rather, it suggests that techniques be evaluated in different venues, some through breaking and others through sparring. To persist in trying to fit existing practice into the current contextual model will create two specialties within taekwondo, ultimately exacerbating the schism that already exists between forms and competition sparring.5 What is needed instead is a consistent training and evaluation method for all taekwondo techniques.
Redefining the Contextual Model
To create such a consistent model, three contexts for taekwondo training will be defined. These three component areas of practice (forms, arranged sparring, and free sparring) are supported by a fourth area, basic techniques.
A Proposed Contextual Model for
At its most fundamental, forms practice can be approached as simply solo training. Too often, forms practice is narrowly defined by the technical limits of the set of forms currently in use. This places unnecessary limits on the possibilities of practice without a partner. Instead, forms practice can provide a broad spectrum of methods for refining skills alone,6 incorporate the entire range of basic techniques, and suggest likely scenarios for their application. Furthermore, because issues of timing are absent when there is only an imaginary opponent, forms practice encourages analysis of a given techniques component parts.
Such an approach to forms practice clearly points to the need to develop new pumsae. This is a daunting task, but required if forms training is expected to play an equal role in taekwondo training.7
- Arranged Sparring
Arranged sparring is practice with a partner where one (or both) persons movements are predetermined. It encompasses all manner of competition sparring drills and self-defense scenarios, and may be implemented in many ways. Depending on the goal of practice, the level of contact, speed of execution, and spontaneity of movement may be varied. However, the defining characteristic remains that at least one participants technique is determined in advance.
- Free Sparring
Free sparring is best defined as spontaneous practice against a partner or partners, a definition that includes competition sparring. The free element implies that nothing is prearranged, that a participant may strike or move at will. Free sparring is perhaps the best proving ground for determining how often and how well a particular technique works. However, as a practical matter, some limitations (either on contact or techniques used) must usually be placed on free sparring to prevent injuries to the participants.8 The competition rules are one such set of restrictions for safety, but by no means the only viable set for training purposes.
- The Role of Basic Techniques
The component skills needed to participate in any area of taekwondo training are basic techniques. These fundamental skills (however they are defined) require a considerable amount of repetitive practice before participation in one of the three areas of training is warranted. Consequently, training in basic techniques is another area of practice, though one which plays a supporting role to the other three. Breaking (and other activities such as hitting paddles or a heavy bag) serve to develop basic skills outside of any specific context, and are subsumed under this prerequisite area of training.
- The Contextual Model as a Proving Ground for Techniques
This model is intended to allow for evaluation of techniques through practice, the established method of development for competition sparring techniques. It is suggested that each area of practice be considered in the broadest possible sense so that for a given technique, its full range of possibilities in solo practice (forms), partner practice (arranged sparring) and spontaneous application (free sparring) can be explored. Also, a broader model allows for specific evaluative conditions (speed, level of contact) to be adjusted for practical considerations, which may not allow for a completely spontaneous, full-power test of every skill. This type of inquiry can be used to evaluate relative effectiveness among taekwondo techniqueswhat remains is to identify which among these valid skills should be included among taekwondos basic techniques.
Concepts for Categorizing Techniques
In the continual process of evaluating and refining techniques through the areas of practice just described, some skills will be identified that amount to multiple ways of doing the same thing. For example, consider if one were attacked with a roundhouse kick. If the desired result is to cause the opponent to fall, one might:
- move in and throw him by the attacking leg
- back up and sweep the kicking leg as he completes the kick
- use a kick of ones own, delivered as the attacking kick is begun, to knock him down.
All three techniques can be validated through arranged and free sparring, and the theory of their use and component skills (footwork, kicking, blocking) analyzed in forms practice. All three techniques achieve the same basic result (the opponent falls), yet even a lay observer would agree that they are three different techniques. When attempting to develop a coherent set of basic techniques for taekwondo, and presented with this type of situation, it becomes necessary to find a method of categorizing techniques.
At first glance, it may seem adequate to differentiate taekwondo techniques using physical attributes such as striking versus grappling or hands versus feet.9 However, attempting to sort out techniques in this manner leads to muddled, unsatisfactory results. For example, should the second technique described above be termed grappling because it employs a sweep, or striking because the attackers leg gets kicked? Or, is the first technique a hand technique because the hands grab the attackers leg, or does it rely more heavily on foot placement to make the throw possible?
To encompass the great diversity and inherent overlap among unarmed combat skills, a conceptual approach to categorization that does not split hairs among the physical attributes of techniques is warranted. Three areas are considered: the strategy within which the technique is applied, a second that seeks a techniques functional limitations, and a third that examines the manner of its application.
- Strategic PositioningAn Organizing Principle
Because of a humans bilateral symmetry, there are few movements one can make that cannot be termed right or left. Consequently, when defending against an opponents unarmed attack, one must proceed either left or right of the attacking limb.10 Two results can come of this: either the defender ends up on the inside (in front of the opponent, between his arms or legs) or the outside (toward the opponents back, with one of the attackers arms and legs between the defender and the other arm and leg). The relative merits of achieving an inside or outside position through a technique depend on the context of the encounter. In competition sparring, for example, it is usually advantageous to position oneself on the inside, because the valid scoring targets are all on the front. In a self defense context, however, to be on the outside places one on the periphery of the attackers line of sight, and mitigates the danger posed by their far hand and foot. In short, the choice to employ inside or outside positioning is a strategic consideration, yet all techniques will result in one or the other.
When analyzing the merits of a given technique, this inside/outside distinction can be used to clarify ones options by asking: Can a defense be mounted from both inside and outside position? If so, is one more viable than the other? Such is the beginning of an inquiry intended to clarify taekwondos set of basic skills.
- Engagement Distance
Another concept that can be applied to all manner of techniques is engagement distance, or the range from which a given technique is viable. Of course, some techniques can be employed at a variety of distances, so a technique should be classified by its maximum range. In the most general sense, three distances can be identified in an unarmed scenario:
Long-range techniques occur at legs length from the opponent, the clearest examples of which are kicks.
Medium-range techniques can be used at arms length or closer, and encompass striking with the hands and certain kicks and throws.
Short-range techniques require a distance of a forearms length or less, and include much grappling, throwing, butting, and some striking with the elbows and knees.
With these definitions, the entire technical spectrum can be divided into three parts. When used in conjunction with ones strategic position, six possibilities emerge for the defender in any encounter: inside short-, medium-, and long-range position; and outside short-, medium-, and long-range position. Competition sparring techniques employ mostly inside long-range and medium-range position, which leaves two-thirds of the available options largely unexplored in a curriculum that emphasizes training for competition.
- Levels of Initiative
Initiative11 connotes the timing with which a technique is applied, relative to the start of the opponents action.
A dominant initiative technique is one which begins and lands before the opponents own attack. To call such a technique a preemptive strike fails to convey the entire picture: the defender has actually discerned the others imminent attack, and selected a technique to make that attack impossible. It is dominant initiative techniques that lead to the fabled ability to win a fight without resorting to violence: if the attackers every move is anticipated by the defender in advance, how can the attack be successful? To be on the receiving end of a dominant initiative technique can be analogized to losing a chess game: one player says check, and the other realizes that there are no moves left that will protect the king.
This level of initiative occurs when both opponents attempt a technique at the same time (or the defender slightly after), yet only the defender is successful. As with dominant initiative, this type of technique works because the attack is discerned in advance. However, the response is not made until the attack is already underway. Competition sparring provides one common scenario: one player throws a roundhouse kick, then the other a back kick, but the back kick scores and the roundhouse kick is ineffective. The success of the second technique was made possible by the committed, yet discernible nature of the roundhouse kick attack.
Delayed initiative involves an even later response to an attack, requiring some sort of defensive maneuver (block, evasion) on the part of the defender before a counterattack is possible. It should be noted that blocking is always a delayed initiative skill, except in the instance where a block is used to incapacitate the attacking limb. In such a case, the block would be a simultaneous initiative technique.
After determining that a particular technique is viable from one of the six available positions, the next tier of inquiry is to ask which levels of initiative are appropriate for its use. For example, consider an attackers punch to the face, to be countered with a roundhouse kick to the solar plexus from outside long-range position. This technique can be accomplished with delayed initiative by blocking or dodging the punch before kicking. It can also be performed with simultaneous initiative, by kicking before the punch is able to reach its target (no block is required in this case). This roundhouse kick can also be used with dominant initiative (before the punch is started).12
Suggested Unifying Principles
These conceptual principles and the contextual model for training are interdependent. The back-and-forth process of technical refinement is never-ending: experimentation during training requires classification of the results, and analysis of the results suggests other scenarios for practice. However, some additional criteria are required to narrow the technical spectrum, because the full spectrum of valid unarmed combat skills contains too many techniques for anyone to learn thoroughly in less than a lifetime, if that. A toolbox provides a useful analogy for taekwondo: if the toolbox is to be useful, it cannot be too heavy for one person to carry to the job. Accordingly, the only tools (techniques) most appropriate for the job should be put in the box, and the rest left in the workshop.
Taekwondos job varies for different types of practitioners, although they all share the goal of wanting to overcome some opponent: a fellow competitor, an attacker, or perhaps their own weaknesses. In all these cases, the following guidelines may help to select the right tools for the job, or to clarify taekwondos technical parameters:
- A Preference for Long-Range Techniques
Already mandated under the competition sparring rules, long-range techniques (i.e., kicks) have the obvious tactical advantage, in any context, of keeping one away from the rest of an opponents repertoire. Furthermore, a preference for such techniques seems to be a good cultural fit, reflecting a Korean predilection for kicking.13
- A Preference for Acquiring Dominant Initiative
The advantages of employing dominant initiative are obvious, since doing so poses the least risk to oneself, and in an ideal situation, the opponent is prevented from attacking. Even in the realm of competition, where points must be scored, to do so virtually unopposed would be the most direct path to winning. It follows from this preference that the component parts of techniques viable with dominant initiative should form the core of taekwondo basics.
- Movement as the First Line of Defense
When attempting to acquire dominant initiative or use long-range techniques, managing ones position relative to the opponent is essential. This requires efficient movement on the part of the defender, and implies that stances and footwork form the underpinnings of all taekwondo techniques. Furthermore, the importance of movement is a corollary to the ideal manifestation of dominant initiative, winning without fighting. If one is able to discern an attackers intent and effectively manage relative position, it should be possible to use footwork and stance to render commencement of an attack fruitless.
These guidelines indicate a subjective preference for certain types of techniques, but should not rule out the inclusion of others. To return to the toolbox analogy, suppose we include a hammer in anticipation of driving some nails. Shouldnt we also have something to remove the occasional bent nail, just in case? (It is no coincidence that the typical hammer is designed to remove nails too.) Likewise, although taekwondo encourages the use of kicks, it seems reasonable to include some other skills for those foreseeable situations when the opponent is, for example, too close to kick. Some might argue that we should all be good enough carpenters that we never bend any nails, but such arrogance seems a dangerous attitude to encourage through martial arts training.
The foregoing contextual model, concepts for classification, and unifying principles are intended to encourage exploration by all taekwondo practitioners into the identity of their style. Such a process has been underway for some time concerning competition sparring techniques, but this inquiry must now be expanded into other areas.
Rather than uselessly argue the merits of competition, it would be more beneficial for Taekwondo people to assimilate and apply the products of technical research such as new strategies and structures which are discovered and systematized as the result of countless contests between players, and pitting various techniques one against the other.14
More of these contests need to take place in the training hall, beyond the restrictions of the competition rules, so that taekwondo can become a thoroughly researched, coherent style that encompasses the varying motivations of it practitioners.
- Competition sparring as used in this paper refers to Olympic style sparring using the rules of the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). The WTF has played a central role in the development of competition techniques since its inception in 1973.
- The WTFs online handbook states, Poomsae, Kyukpa and Kyoruki are three components of Taekwondo practice. Poomsae is a line of movements based on the traditional Oriental ideas involved in the name of each Poomsae. Practitioners can learn defensive and offensive techniques against an imaginary opponent through practice of Poomsae from easy to complex, difficult ones.
Kyukpa means breaking. Practitioners can measure their precision of Taekwondo training by breaking solid objects such as planks, bricks and roof tiles with hands, fists, elbows and feet as body weapons.
Kyoruki is the actual sparring between two people with defensive and offensive techniques they have acquired through Poomsae practice. There are two different kinds of Kyoruki according to restrictions on techniques performed.
[Unfortunately, no further information is given clarifying the kinds of sparring being referred to. However, they are most likely free sparring (as for competition) and arranged sparring (i.e. one, two, and three step sparring). In current practice, arranged sparring is nearly subsumed by free sparring, as can be inferred from the lengthy explanation that follows about competition rules and procedure.]
- This forms-breaking-sparring model is a holdover from a time before organized competition sparring, when sparring instead meant arranged (one, two, or three step) sparring, and when breaking practice was the accepted method to test the efficacy of techniques outside of actual fighting. See Capener for a lucid analysis of the history behind this situation.
- Some instructors have already developed so-called sparring pumsae or kicking pumsae in response to the lack of competition sparring skills in the Taegeuk and Palgwe forms.
- It is even reasonable to suggest that this division could force taekwondo practitioners to train exclusively in one area or the other, ultimately dividing it into two styles.
- For example, the slow-motion practice of techniques can be used to improve balance and encourage precise execution.
- See Sol for some suggested roles for forms practice in taekwondo.
- See the U.S. Refereee Seminar Textbook, pp. 53-54, for a full outline of possible methods for implementing free sparring.
- Donahue and Taylor provide extensive explanation of possible systems of technical classification.
- Even backing straight up or dropping down will amount to a right or left side action, once a counterattack is employed. Certain unusual techniques, such as kicking with both feet, may be considered to be both right and left, rather than neither.
- This construction is a translation of the following concepts, first introduced to me in the context of swordsmanship:
- Dominant initiative techniques can be practiced in free sparring or arranged sparring. However, in arranged sparring, it is the designated attacker who attempts to employ dominant initiative, while the defender is limited to simultaneous or late initiative techniques.
- The only remaining repository of pre-World War II Korean martial arts is taekkyon, a style with a clear emphasis on kicking. See Young for a thorough assessment of the lineages of taekkyon and modern Korean martial arts.
- From chapter 4 of the U.S. Refereee Seminar Textbook, Basic Concepts of Taekwondo Competition, p. 59.
Burdik, Dakin. People & Events of Taekwondos Formative Years, Journal of Asian Martial Arts (vol. 6, no. 1, 1997), pp. 30-49.
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