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DATE : 17-08-22 06:09
Self defense in modern Taekwondo: the essence of the martial art revitalized
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Self defense in modern Taekwondo: the essence of the martial art revitalized
By Avner Wishnitzer, 3rd Dan WTF

Taekwondo has never been so popular. From China to California, from Australia to Norway, millions practice this originally Korean martial art. Tournaments held all over the world attract thousands of professional and amateur practitioners. The introduction of Taekwondo into the Olympics has given it an official recognition. Taekwondo has become a world-wide sport.

But success had its price, a price which is much higher than usually acknowledged. In the process of popularizing Taekwondo, the sportive aspect has taken over and Taekwondo as a martial art has lost its identity. In this short article I would like to present the problematic nature of today's Taekwondo in light of the growing distance between its present condition and its roots as an art of self-defense. After discussing the present situation I shall raise a few ideas regarding possible solutions. My hope is to attract attention to the issue of self-defense which is significant to the future of Taekwondo as a whole.

WTF Taekwondo today is all about competing. The growing popularity of both Kiyurugi and Poomsae tournaments has led to the dwindling of anything that does not serve the "ultimate goal" of winning a tournament. What good are low kicks if they are forbidden? What's the point of practicing take-downs if they cannot win a medal in a Poomsae championship?

Thus, in many DoJangs around the world basic self-defense skills are not taught at all. As a result, many Taekwondo black belts, including competing athletes, can hardly defend themselves outside the ring. That leads, in turn, to the gradual decrease in the prestige of Taekwondo within the martial arts community. Already today, Taekwondo is perceived by many merely as a sport rather than as a martial art with a sportive dimension.

More important than image, is what Taekwondo means for the people who practice it. One may even ask what is Taekwondo today? What is its nature?

At a first glance, we may say that Taekwondo has a very distinct style, one that anyone can recognize. But that is not true if we step out of the ring. What would Taekwondo look like then? What form would it have when not confined by rules? Can one still find today Taekwondo which is independent of WTF rules, or maybe its nature has come to be defined only by competing rules, just like any other sport? The way soccer is played, for example, will change completely if the offside rules are changed since it is rules that dictate the nature of soccer. Does the nature of Taekwondo, like football, depends only on the rules according to which it is played or does it still have an independent essence?

The place of the self-defense aspect within Taekwondo is crucial for all these questions. From a self-defense point of view it is clear that neither sparring in the WTF style, nor Poomsae training are similar to actual fighting. If one is to use only techniques which are allowed by the WTF rules, Taekwondo is hardly practical. So what is the point of practicing all these complex stepping and kicking techniques for people who are done with competing? What's the point of doing Poomsae if one cannot utilize the knowledge it conveys?

The answers to all these questions lie in a broader concept of a "martial art". What makes all aspects of modern Taekwondo meaningful is the role they play in the whole, in the general performing level of the martial artist.

Most martial arts share a few characteristics in common: they combine the nourishing of the body and the mind through physical training and the developing of self-defense skills. They focus on the individual and measure his progress not only in comparison with others, but mainly in light of his own ability. A martial artist does not satisfy his ambitions just by winning in the ring, for competing is only a means to achieve a higher level. Why? Because. A martial artist strives to perform better just for the sake of performing better. It is in this context that the self-defense aspect of Taekwondo should be understood. Self-defense skills are not necessarily developed only for practical reasons. They should mainly serve as a guide line, a main theme that ties all other aspects of Taekwondo together. After all, self-defense is the essence of the martial art and what separates it from other types of rhythmic activities such as dancing.

Thus the high level kicking technique, speed, agility and stamina all of which are attained by sparring, and the firmness, precision and focus which are improved by Poomsae should not be seen as unrelated activities. All aspects of modern Taekwondo are part of a wider system, a system in the heart of which stands the constant striving towards higher performance. This performance cannot be degraded to such a level of being evaluated only by points. It should also be measured in more concrete and real terms of "does it actually work". These are the terms of self-defense.

It is the self-defense aspect that makes Taekwondo a true martial art. Without it Taekwondo sparring is not essentially different than boxing or wrestling. Taekwondo Poomsae, without its connection to self defense is not very different from gymnastics. Aesthetic as it may be, many of us do not find it satisfactory.

Reintroducing self defense into modern Taekwondo is important not only for redefining its identity as a martial art. It is crucial for far simpler reasons. Firstly, due to the decrease in the prestige of Taekwondo as a martial art, many potential practitioners turn to other martial arts. Many of them do that simply because they hear that "Taekwondo is not practical. It is, just like Judo, only a sport".

Older practitioners, including former competitive athletes, very often do not find stimulation in Taekwondo training which for the most part focuses on sparring techniques. These techniques are sometimes worthless outside the ring and are thus not enough for people who do not compete anyway. Some of these more advanced practitioners look for "the next stage" in their growth as martial artists. For many, learning the next Poomsae or another Kiyurugi combination that can only work in a ring, is simply not enough. They want to go deeper and further with their understanding and skills but cannot easily find the path within Taekwondo. For these reasons some of these advanced practitioners turn to other martial arts to continue and develop their skills. Others just give up and become instructors.

In short, due to the neglect of some of the more traditional aspects of Taekwondo, mainly the self defense aspect, Taekwondo has become "thinner" and "poorer" in many ways.

So much for the problems that arise from the neglecting of self defense in modern Taekwondo; what can be done to improve the situation?

It is my belief that the main institutional organs of Taekwondo (the WTF, the Kukkiwon, the ETU and so forth) should take the issue into their hands and work out ways to reintroduce self-defense. As is evident in the Poomsae, in the Macho Kiyurugi techniques and in the Hoshinsul, Elbow strikes, Knee attacks, knife hands and punching to the head, take-downs and low kicks, are all an integral part of Taekwondo. Only few practitioners, however, are capable of executing such techniques "for real". All these techniques should thus be reincorporated into everyday training, not just as a part of the Poomsae, but as techniques that are mastered to the level of performance. The way to do it is of course, to set a curriculum, to develop drills and to make self-defense part of the obligatory material for grading. I do not think that anyone can take seriously the way Hoshinsul techniques are performed in grading today and even these techniques are not obligatory in Kukkiwon grading in Korea. (The neglect of self defense may partly explain also why Taekwondo in Korea is practiced almost exclusively by children. Adults, who don't compete and who may be looking for something more "real", just don't see the point.)

The reintroduction of self defense is not simple, of course. This aspect has been neglected for too long and much knowledge has been lost. It can still be found in the older books and in the back of the minds of the older masters. It can also be reconstructed with the help of ITF masters and their knowledge, for that style has remained more true to its roots. I am well aware of the political problems that keep the two federations apart but it is time to work toward a solution of these problems for the sake of mutual enrichment. Obviously, much work is needed but certainly no more than the effort that was put into the reconstruction of the Poomsae system only a few decades ago.

The developing of the self defense aspect does not mean throwing away of all other aspects, rather it completes them. A practitioner who masters the use of elbows will perform, say, Taeguk Hojang to a much higher level. His elbow strikes, formerly an "empty" movement, a movement that only resembled a strike, will now be "full" and meaningful as they can actually be used "for real". Increasing the importance and the time dedicated to self defense will make Taekwondo black belt holders more worthy of their ranks, as people fully able of defending themselves if needed.

Reintroducing self defense will enrich Taekwondo, moreover, it will give it back its identity and integrity as a martial art. It will attract more students and will keep the older, more advanced ones within its realm. It will revitalize this wonderful martial art and push it forward, into the 21st century.