Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Long and Short of Tae Kwon Do

My buddies Bob over at "Striking Thoughts" and Nathan at "TDA Training" have been splitting hairs over which style of Tae Kwon Do offers the most bang for your buck. Controversy centers on the WTF using chest protectors and heavy contact, but no punching to the head. The ITF does not allow heavy contact, but punching to the head is allowed and adds a sense of realism to the fight.
This is not a new discussion. In it's inception, the founders of Tae Kwon Do literally fought over these issues. Not surprisingly, rivalries focused on Korean National politics and power struggles that established hierarchy among Korean operatives and agents of the government working in foreign countries.
I'll have much more to say about this subject at a later time, but for now here is a repost of a 2006 piece I wrote about my journey in Tae Kwon Do, which I began in 1979:
The Long and Short of Tae Kwon Do - November 24 2006

Awww,... Look at the junior Rat.. He jumps, he spins; watch out he may bite!
Yessiree folks, this is an actual vintage early '80's photo of the Rat Boy, complete with authentic Beer and pizza stains. Yes, it's part of my first Black Belt test, and this photo proves that it was perfectly acceptable for an assistant instructor to wear flannel shirts at Black Belt tests in Oregon in the old days.
--With that said, this post has been a long time coming and will surely piss some people off. Let me say it now: There are a lot of shortcomings in Tae Kwon Do as a martial art.
My training came at a time when the Koreans were desperately trying to organize TKD to become an Olympic sport. This was an exciting prospect, and I'm afraid it's one that has practically ruined TKD as a self defense art.
Pre-Olympic TKD was closely tied to Hapkido and Korean Judo. Our school practiced both. Our Master, Tae Hong Choi, once commented that TKD was structurally very close to Shotokan Karate, and at the time, it was true. There were powerful sparring sequences and a lot,lot of breaking boards and bricks. We gave demonstrations in front of thousands of people during festivals where Mr. Choi would disarm swordsmen and demonstrate the best of combat Hapkido. Choi had trained Special Forces in Vietnam. Those were heady times, When after events the Master would lead us, his entourage of Black Belts into seedy bars for after-hours celebrations. The training was solid, and the anarchic structure of the organization led to deep trust and friendships I'll always remember.
Then came the Olympics. The hands came down, short-range fighting became non-existent, and head-hunting became the rule.
Tae Kwon Do has always emphasised kicking techniques, but after the Olympics, TKD fighters had stopped using their hands altogether. While the flash kicking is way fun, and excellent gymnastic exercise, it sucks for self-defense. A good wrestler can easily move in on high kicks, and the groin is constantly exposed when you kick high. I know. I lost a tournament fight when I attempted a high hook kick and a Kenpo guy blasted me in the groin with a short counter-kick.
The most natural method of fighting is to hit with your hands. It's easy, quick and effective. The best thing for me is when I started training with my friend who was a boxer. Traditional boxing drills brought my hand speed up considerably, as well as hitting power. Not the brick-breaking type of power, but stick-and-move power, very mobile. Of course, modern TKD does not allow hitting to the head, so they are miserably outclassed by fighters that can hit fast and hard.
In this way, modern TKD has lost it's way. In the past, fighters from Korean systems, like Chuck Norris, who dominated the tournament scene in the '60's-'70's, were power to be reckoned with. Now the system has degraded into a pure sport, where the exercise is great but don't try this shit for self defense.
Tae Kwon Do would find a re-awakening by going back to it's true roots as a brawling Korean art with heavy Japanese and Chinese influence, yet retaining it's Kim-Chee-flavored national heritage.


Craig Willits said...


Your original 2006 post says it quite well, I think.

I'm looking forward to hearing more of your perspective.

As a long-time traditional TKD guy, I think the ongoing discussion between you, Nathan, and Bob is a good thing.

Anything that discusses the shortcomings of TKD as a personal protection system (at least as it is commonly taught in this day and age) is a good thing.

I was going to sit back and let the old heads mull it over, but given the fact that I've been confronting this very issue for much of the past decade I may have to chuck a couple pennies at the discussion.

As an aside, I am truly jealous of the Swamp Ridge Saloon. The best I can muster is a man-cave (unused bedroom with an old couch, floor lamp, and several big stacks of martial arts books).

Martial Arts Spectrum

jc said...

this is insightful, for me, who has never explored tkd, largely due to the factors you have discussed (from a glance, hapkido always seemed more well-rounded). this can be seen as a disservice to up-and-coming TMA students, one that i have heard discussed in the judo world (the focus on traditional training versus olympic success).

Dojo Rat said...

Thanks Craig, If you're in the neighborhood I'll buy you a Beer at the Saloon!
On tap this month: "Manny's Pale Ale"

More on my TKD experiance and what that ment to me coming in the future...