In the beginning
It all began a long, long ago in a place and time much unlike the present.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” -Genesis 1:1
This was a bad place, certainly not a place for humankind, or any other form of life. However, God changed all that. He created the heavens, the earth, and, on the earth, he created plants and the Garden of Eden, and in the garden:
“…God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” -Genesis 2:3
To accompany man, God created animals and gave man dominion over the animals. However, man was lonely so:
“...God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” -Genesis 2:21
Man and woman brought forth children, two of whom were Cain and Able, and all lived in harmony until the woman ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This brought disharmony and pain upon humankind, which culminated in Cain killing Able. Since that time, humankind has thrived upon fighting and killing each other to attain power and position in society.
To make fighting more effective and efficient, mankind developed methods of hand-to-hand fighting, and, to practice these methods of fighting in a relatively safe manner, mankind developed sparring.
Development of sparring
We all know Taekwondo is a Korean martial art, but it is also a sport. The history of the formation of Taekwondo as martial art is discussed in detail in the Taekwondo History topic. However, what about its development as a sport?
In the early 1970s, new patterns and sport fighting tactics were developed in Korea. These techniques were designed to take advantage of a fighter's maximum efficiency, while maintaining his or her speed and power. Korea's World Taekwondo Federation developed new Taeguk patterns to replace the older palgue patterns still taught extensively in the United States. The traditional hyung patterns of the more traditional International Taekwondo Federation are still used. Running kicks replaced the old one punch, one kick techniques. Traditionalists say the new stances are too high and that the kicks lack power, while sport practitioners say the old ways are too slow.
Some Taekwondo organizations strictly adhere to traditional Taekwondo methods, others adhere to the sport methods, while in some organizations, the two types have blended. The following investigates how Taekwondo sparring has evolved. To discuss this aspect of Taekwondo development, we first need to look to France.
Pierre de Coubertin
For most the 18th and 19th centuries, France was the most powerful nation in Europe. However, it lost practically every military engagement. Even in wars with England, a formidable naval power but with a small army, the English armies usually won.
Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat, noticed that French military leaders argued among themselves more than they did in preparing for battle. France was not preparing its leaders for leadership. To find out why, he studied various national characteristics, concentrating on the educational system.
De Coubertin noticed that sports played a different role in English education than they did in France. In France, individuals and teams played "games," but this was considered a lower-class activity and was looked down upon by the aristocracy. Athletic activities of the aristocracy were highly individualized, such as fencing, and sports were not part of their formal education. While in British aristocracy, sports, both individual and team, were an integral part of their education.
British leaders could be just as quarrelsome as their French counterparts could, but generally, they seemed to get along with each other, especially in times of crisis. De Coubertin noticed that the British had a fundamental sense of fairness, whether dealing with each other or with other nations. He noted the use of sporting terms in British conversation, such as a certain behavior not being "cricket." When a sport was played "by the rules," it was easy for the losers to offer congratulations to the winners, and the winners took the losers to the local pub.
From his observations, de Coubertin developed the theory that sports could be an important educational tool for developing certain types of behavior. Noticing that sports were a form of controlled violence, he conjectured that sports played on an international level could replace political and military rivalries, and that, like the British, the participants could remain friends off the playing fields. At that time, about the only way people met each other internationally was during war. De Coubertin saw sports as a way for people from different nations to get to know each other in the context of the friendly rivalry of sport competition.
Searching for a way to promote this concept, he looked to a revival the ancient Olympic Games as highly visible historic event that could promote cooperation between nations. After convincing enough national leaders to support the idea, the first modern Olympics was held in Athens in 1896; it was a great success.
During this same time, Japan was just coming out of 300 years of closed feudalism and Jigoro Kano was one of a group of young intellectuals who were trying to bring Japan into the modern era. Kano especially admired England and became fluent in English. He studied British philosophy, economics, politics, and the British sport culture. As a philosophy, sport has no counterpart in Eastern cultures; the word simply does not exist, so they had to adopt the Western word, "sport."
Kano was an avid martial artist but the Japanese martial arts were unsatisfying. He observed that the 300 years of peace under the military dictatorship of the Shoguns had robbed the martial arts of their vitality. Most of the martial arts seemed to be more concerned with the form of movement, rather than the realistic usefulness of the movement. When movements were applied realistically, they tended to promote injuries, so no one really practiced realistic movements. The arts preserved technical skills that had little practical usefulness under the guise that they were good for self-improvement.
Kano believed that martial arts training should be "full-contact," to realistically test the techniques and the performer of the techniques. He believed that the training should be in a free-movement context, so the performer would have to adapt to a wide variety of circumstances. Ultimately, Kano developed Randori (free sparring). Kano was a Jujutsu practitioner and knew of its dangerous training techniques. Kano used his Jujutsu training to develop an entire curriculum of techniques (Kotokan Judo) that permitted full power application, but with limitations that reduced the risk of injury. Since these modified techniques were not as "deadly" as their predecessors were, practitioners could develop much greater speed and power in their application. To counter this, Kano developed new break-fall techniques skills to absorb the greater power and speed of the new throwing techniques. Sport techniques were substituted for older combat techniques. To practice Judo, you had to execute the techniques in a proper manner, without harming the opponent, while still developing high level technical skills. A competition format, Shiai, was developed from the Randori concept. This idea of free movement and full power in martial art practice was revolutionary.
In the late 1800's in Japan, challenges and fighting were a commonplace. The new Kodokan Judo often had to defend its reputation against the older Jujutsu. The government, in an attempt to determine the best training for its police and military, sponsored many of these contests. Kodokan Judo won most of these encounters, regardless of the rules of engagement, simply because its method of training was so superior to the older styles. The sport emphasis on speed and power overwhelmed any technical inferiority of the actual techniques. The lesson was that the method of training was more important than the technique itself. As a result, Jujutsu virtually disappeared in Japan, and was replaced by Judo.
Kano was impressed by de Coubertin's modern Olympic movement and, while Judo took several decades to spread around the world and become a universal sport, Kano developed it with the idea of promoting the same "universal humanity" that de Coubertin was promoting through the modern Olympic Games. Kano later became a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1906 and remained there until his death in 1938.
Gichin Funakoshi brought Shotokan karrate to Japan from Okinawa in 1922 as an alternative to Kodokan Judo. It emphasized kicking and punching, rather than the grappling, throwing, choking, and joint locking of Judo.
Funakoshi believed that karate techniques were so powerful that they could not be practiced in a free-style situation (modern protective sparring equipment was not yet available). His motto was "one punch, one kill; one kick, one kill." He believed that free-sparring would dilute karate techniques into light-contact or no-contact sparring, which he thought was was contrary to a true martial art. Funakoshi even modified Shotokan, which had emphasized short fighting stances, into long, powerful stances for the delivery of powerful techniques, believing the older, flexible fighting stances diminished the power of the single fatal technique.
One of Funakoshi's students, Masatoshi Nakayama also studied Judo. He used to return from Judo classes, where he had great fun with the Judo randori, and ask Funakoshi if a type of randori sparring could be developed for Karate. Funakoshi refused, believing it would degrade the power of karate because it could not be practiced full-contact.
After Funakoshi died in the 1950's, Nakayama became head of Shotokan and began developing a competition style of sparring (protective sparring equipment was becoming more available). Shotokan developed a "light-contact" style in which action was stopped by a referee at the possible scoring of a point and points were awarded by colored flags raised by corner judges. This system developed the speed and reflexive response that Kano's randori had shown to be so important for realistic martial arts training. It became a very popular competition style in karate, as well as for early forms of Taekwondo, and it remains popular today. The power of karate techniques continued to be developed and demonstrated through breaking techniques.
Sport vs. Traditional Dilemma
Sport Taekwondo creates a dilemma. In traditional Taekwondo, we are taught that Taekwondo is a defensive martial art, used only after being first attacked. In traditional “flag” or “point” sparring, the one who attacks and scores first gets the point. In point-sparring, when a point is scored, the match stops and any block or counter by the defender is ignored. An initial aggressive, but weak, technique scores, while a more powerful defensive technique is ignored. We are taught that Taekwondo is for defense, but sport sparring rewards aggression; the one who attacks the most has the advantage. The competition aspect of Taekwondo is philosophically incompatible with Taekwondo's basic principles. This creates a quandary. Is Taekwondo sport competition a training tool, or is it something separate from the true practice of Taekwondo? This question is still being argued today.
You cannot train for power by constantly training not to use power. You cannot train to broad jump 15 feet if you are constantly limiting yourself to 5 feet jumps. In class sessions, Taekwondo students train to strike with full-power, using heavy bags, targets, and body shields. We are told that devastating power is the result of using proper technique. Then, when we free-spar, we must use control and techniques that do not harm the opponent. This poses a quandary within us. Kano's research over a century ago proved that this does not work in a martial art.
In Korea, in the early 1960's, a few instructors began experimenting with a more full-contact form of free-sparring using protective equipment that included a chest protector. They wanted to prevent unduly "aggressive" and even unrealistic approaches to sparring, while also permitting the opponent to use defensive techniques. They found that Kano's idea of continuous action was the only solution, and since this precluded the intermittent action of point scoring, they turned to using paper scoring, such as used in amateur boxing. The result of this experimentation was the development of continuous action, full-contact sparring. However, it was not accepted by all masters. The founders of the World Taekwondo Federation participated in its development and accepted it but, among others, General Choi Hong Hi, founder of the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF), opposed it. Even after Choi's death in 2002, the ITF still opposes it.
Under this new system, defensive techniques could now be fully scored. In point sparring, a quick, aggressive fighter can drop his or her guard and score on a weak technique and the action is stopped, even though the opponent immediately counterattacked with two or three powerful techniques to the attacker’s unguarded areas. This is what I call the “fastest gun” fighting strategy. The one who “draws and fires” the quickest will score, even though the opponent had numerous “shots” that hit their target after this initial point was scored. With continuous sparring, attacking strategies must account for counterattacks, thus it is believed that continuous sparring promotes more realistic sparring than does point sparring.
Whereas point sparring is philosophically and technically incompatible with the principle of "no first hand," continuous sparring considers itself the fundamental core of sport Taekwondo training. Continuous sparring achieves the same goals that Kano and de Coubertin were seeking, using sport as a way to control human relationships. They both looked at the British sense of "fair play" as a governing factor in distinguishing the philosophical ideal of sport from simply organized game playing. Sport Taekwondo accomplishes this.
As continuous sparring developed, it became clear that some of the older ways of executing techniques were not useful or efficient, just as Kano had discovered while studying Jujitsu. The traditional snapping roundhouse kick was relatively weak, but sport Taekwondo used the turning of the hips and full body rotation to make it a very powerful kick. The traditional way of blocking the kick to close distance for a final punch or kick was not effective against the new powerful roundhouse kick. The difference in mass and power between the kicking leg and the blocking arm simply became too great. It was found it was better to evade in response to a kick, rather than intercepting the kick with a block.
The development of the axe kick emphasized this even more. In Taekwondo textbooks published prior to about 1970, you cannot find mention of the axe kick; it is a recent development. It is difficult, if not impossible, to block the kick, so you must evade it or risk either a broken arm or a concussion.
Sport roundhouse kicking techniques also dictate which portion of the foot makes contact with its target. Instead of striking with the ball of the foot as do traditionalists, sport practitioners kick with the instep since it has greater range. However, it has less penetration reach and cannot strike as powerfully as the ball without injury. Other kicks, such as the spin side kick, have also changed regarding striking surface. The traditional kicker's heel makes first contact, but sport fighters prefer to strike with the bottom or ball of the foot.
In traditional front and side kicks, the body is upright and the knee rises before the foot is thrust or snapped outward. Sport kicks incorporate moving footwork and the kicks start from the knee. The knee is held close-in to protect against an opponent's kick and the body does not move much during a kick. The idea is to kick quickly and powerfully without telegraphing intentions. With the knee held in close and turned slightly to cover the groin, more speed is available. In fact, the kicking leg may be used offensively and defensively at the same time. For instance, a practitioner might deflect an oncoming front kick with an upraised leg, which immediately turns into an offensive kicking leg, enabling him or her to defend and attack with the same action.
Traditional front kicks are wide open so kickers are exposed to a quick counterattack. In the sport front kick, the knee is instantly brought up and turned slightly inward to protect the body.
Traditional side kicks require the knee to be cocked into kicking position and the fighter leans forward toward the target as he or she kicks, leaving an opening for a counterstrike. In sport side kicks, the knee comes up at an angle that is directed away from the target as the kicker turns his or her body toward his opponent for protection. This allows the kicker to put all of his or her body's power and momentum into the kick.
In traditional back kicks, the fighter first cocks the kicking leg, leaving him or herself open to a kick from the opponent. The sport version does not open the leg as widely and keeps the knee in closer to prevent any counter kicks and to facilitate a speedy back kick.
Traditional roundhouse kickers cock the knee of the kicking leg, and then snap the leg out, while leaning forward. This invites a quick counterattack to the open and defenseless body. The sport version keeps the knee turned toward the inside for a powerful close-in roundhouse kick. This allows the kicker to kick inside of the opponent's roundhouse attempt.
The traditional spin side kick is too wide, unbalanced, and leaves the fighter unprotected. In the sport version, the fighter brings the knee in close and snaps the kick out in a whip-like fashion, while lowering the body so balance is easier to maintain. If the fighter is combating a roundhouse kick, there is no need to block since the body is already lower than the opponent's roundhouse.
Development of these kicks meant that new sparring strategies had to be devised. Blocking these kicks is ineffective and retreating serves no purpose except allow the attacker another opportunity to attack. The only effective defense was to evade in a way that permits an immediate counterattack. This led to the development of lateral movements with a kicking component. In response to the axe kick, an extremely close-in kicking technique, using a punch as a counterattack as traditional Taekwondo used was not effective and even dangerous. Because of the axe kick, longer kicking distances started being used. Fancy footwork, which positioned the defender for executing a counter kick, became a hallmark of Taekwondo sparring. The development of a whole class of "receiving" kicks ensued.
The development of the more powerful roundhouse kick and axe kick caused an explosion of new movement strategies. Punching and blocking almost disappeared from the repertoire of effective techniques in continuous Olympic style sparring. Fast, dynamic footwork and body movement, as foundations for powerful kicking, replaced traditional techniques. Using an attacker's movements to generate powerful counters, rather than intercepting the attack directly, as tradition Taekwondo does, places sport Taekwondo perhaps more philosophically with Judo and Aikido in terms of utilizing body movement, than it does with traditional Taekwondo. Perhaps the most revolutionary development of sport Taekwondo is the development of stances and footwork.
The sport Taekwondo walking stance is a more natural way of moving. It is a relatively short, upright stance that allows the practitioner to move quickly in any direction. Traditional low, wide stances force the practitioner first to raise his or her body before performing any technique, which is too slow for competition.
Sport footwork is broken down into steps rather than stances, similar to the way boxers move. For instance, the walking stance is executed by stepping 15 degrees to the side, with the front of the leading foot and the heel of the back foot in a straight line with each other. From this close, natural stance, any kind of step or footwork easily follows. Steps are broken down in basic numbers and directions. For example, the double step is a sideways movement. Besides being evasive, the side step is also a hop that propels the practitioner into a jump kick aimed at the opponent's unprotected side. Fighters may now quickly move forward and backward in short steps as a boxer does. A fighter may change his or her forward foot with a hop, which allows him or her instantly to angle his or her body away from the opponent's blows. If a fighter wants to confuse opponents, he or she can change his forward foot two or three times in rapid succession, so the opponent does not know which foot will do the kicking. Perhaps most confusing to an opponent is the triangle step where the practitioner does a side-step hop to completely change direction while both feet are in the air.
Another revolutionary kicking technique is the running kick combination. It is not a kick where the fighter runs and jumps into a kick, such as a flying side kick; rather, it is a series of forward steps with a kick in between each step. Running kicks are always done with as much speed as possible, but still maintaining maximum power. They can be executed by kicking with the same foot or by alternating feet between steps. Running kicks are continuous kicking techniques that leave no room for counterattacks, unless the opponent stays stationary and counters with powerful hand techniques.
Although basic hand movements between traditional and sport Taekwondo are similar, the difference lies in the speed, angle, and distance of the techniques. For instance, a traditional low block travels to the outside of the knee. However, the sport block only moves far enough to deflect the blow and stays close to the body's centerline. This is a much faster and more efficient defense and permits a quick counterattack.
In the sport guard position, hands are loosely held and are positioned about the same distance away from the body as in American boxing. If they are held too far away from the body, the fighter is too open to attack. If held in too close, the fighter cannot defend and strike easily. A good fighting position is with the chin is tucked, the eyes looking up at about a 15-degree angle, and the fists held just below eye level. In sport Taekwondo, the defender will block a kick with one hand and simultaneously counterpunch with the other.
Because of these developments, Taekwondo has evolved into two distinct versions, sport Taekwondo (popularized by the World Taekwondo Federation [WTF] and their connections with Olympic Taekwondo) using continuous sparring, and traditional Taekwondo (popularized by the International Taekwondo Federation [ITF]) using point sparring. Each side has its reasons for supporting its viewpoints and, as usual, each side rejects the viewpoints of the other.
Points of Consideration
The hard contact of continuous sparring means that if you spar regularly, your chances of immediate injury increases, as does the risk of a cumulative injury due to continuous hard blows to the head (even with protective headgear). As one ages, the risk of injury increases. As is seen in boxers, hits that seemed uneventful at a younger age may come back to haunt you at an older age. If you want to spar daily and have fun, even in later years, point sparring or light-contact continuous sparring is the better choice.
Continuous sparring is not as realistic as its proponents proclaim. If you have witnessed real fights, you have seen that no matter how they start, with punches, kicks, or both, they quickly progress to grabbing and groundwork. Point sparring techniques are also not very realistic. In a fight, even an untrained, ordinary person will grab, hold, and thrash around without letting go.
As to promoting comradeship amongst competitors, continuous fighting is no more effective than point sparring. Both stress compliance with the rules and good sportsmanship.
Continuous sparring has evolved into “leg fighting.” It has very little blocking or hand techniques, just standing back and trying to execute more scoring kicks than the opponent. Taekwondo is known as a kicking art but there is more to Taekwondo than just kicks; hand techniques should be an integral part of your fighting repertoire. As seen in Ultimate Fighting Championship matches, a good puncher or ground fighter can beat a good kicker. Kicks are useful but we only use our arms for accomplishing tasks, our legs are primarily for movement, therefore, our arms are more versatile.
Proper point-sparring techniques are not “pulled”; they are focused or controlled. The only difference between a blow that barely touches and one that knocks the opponent off his or her feet is a matter of range. When point sparring, you maintain a sparring range so techniques make light-contact. In a real fight, you merely adjust your range a few inches closer so techniques make full-contact.
In a self-defense situation, you are legally permitted to protect yourself with all the reasonable force necessary to stop the attack. Using more force than is necessary may get you charged with assault or even manslaughter. Point sparring requires precise control, which is also required when defending yourself. The law assumes black belts have control of their power because of their training, so, if too much force is used by a black belt, it is assumed he or she meant to use that amount of force. This means a black belt may be charged with assault or a greater charge where an ordinary person may not be charged at all under the same circumstances. Point sparring fighters usually have more control than Olympic style continuous fighters due do their training methods. To learn to maintain stability when making full-contact, point-sparring fighters need to practice full-contact sparring periodically.
Continuous sparring was developed to overcome the limitations of point sparring, but it only succeeded in developing another way of sparring, with its own limitations. Point sparring stops the action for a scoring point, which hampers counter attackers, such as myself, but hand techniques are encouraged. Olympic style continuous sparring would seem to be advantageous to counter attackers, but it has evolved into a kicking contest where hand techniques are not encouraged. Some say sport sparring is better, as evidenced by its winning so many matches in international competition, but this is not a valid argument. It may also be said that sport sparring wins in international competition because international sparring rules were designed to encourage the use of sport sparring techniques.
Patterns changes have also affected the development of sparring. In Korea, patterns play a valuable role in Taekwondo, but only as training aids in learning the basics. After the basics are mastered, students spend most of their time sparring. Koreans always practice while wearing protective equipment. As a result, they do not get hurt easily and are used to delivering their techniques full force. In Korea, there is no forms competition, only competitive sparring, so Americans easily beat Koreans in forms competitions, Koreans consider the made-up patterns so often seen in the United States as strictly for show, not for any good purpose in Taekwondo.
Taekwondo is still evolving, and over time, traditional Taekwondo and sport Taekwondo will either draw closer together or further apart. Probably what will happen is that sport Taekwondo will continue to develop and traditional Taekwondo will adapt some of its techniques while still maintaining its link to the past. This means there will always be a difference between the two. Note: In 2005, the WTF changed its sparring rules and now allows hand contact to the head.
One such adaptation is touch continuous sparring, such as used by Taekwondo America, which combines point sparring with Olympic style continuous sparring. Touch continuous sparring uses some of the stances, footwork, and kicking techniques of Olympic sparring while stressing hand attacks and counter attacks. To score, techniques must have power and full-extension as in point sparring, but they must be fully controlled and only touch. Action is continuous with points accumulating during the match. Head, elbow, hand, shin, and foot protection are worn but body protection is not used. Punches to the head are not allowed to lessen the chance for injury. Extra points are scored for head kicks or jump kicks. A hand fighter may take a one or two-point kick so he or she score two or three points with hand techniques. The result is effective sparring that does not favor kickers, punches, or counter attackers. All types of sparring have an equal chance of scoring. Also, students may spar every day with little chance of serious immediate or cumulative injury.
Sport or traditional? As usual, it all depends on the one in which one you first started your training. Loyalty usually overcomes reason. People stay with that in which they are familiar and they resist changing. So, before you choose a Taekwondo school, know the differences between point sparring, full-contact continuous sparring, and touch continuous sparring, decide which one you prefer, and know which type the school uses.
Sol, Kim. (2002). Taekwondo Free-Sparring Philosophy and Development. [Online]. Available: www.bstkd.com