Sport taekwondo uses hand, foot, head, and chest protection and allows full-contact. There is no punching to the head, kicking below the waist, sweeps, or open hand techniques. Points are awarded only for techniques that shock the body sufficiently enough to displace the opponent. More points are awarded for kicks to the head than are awarded for kicks to the body so there is an emphasis on very fast, head-high, powerful rear leg kicks. Matches consist of three rounds lasting two minutes each with a one-minute rest between rounds. Sparring is continuous with corner judges calling points as they occur.
The length of the rounds and the continuous fighting require a high level of conditioning. Since the action is not stopped to award points, competitors throw multiple, sometimes sloppy, techniques rather than single, precise techniques. Defensive strategy often includes a luring an opponent to attack so a counterattack may be delivered.
Due to the rules, a silly looking technique has developed. Because it is difficult to displace an opponent with a punch to the chest protector at close-range, and since both pushing and grabbing are forbidden, competitors in close-range often clutch each other with their chests pushed together and their arms hugging each other with hands extended to show the referee that they are not grabbing. They stay in this silly embrace until the referee separates them.
Since punches to the head are not allowed and most of the fighting is at long-range with arms just hanging down, the competitors mostly just dance around throwing kicks. The fighting resembles Irish river dancing. You see lots of sloppy kicks fired in rapid succession with the hope that one of them scores. There is a lot of action but the execution of techniques is poor.
Traditional taekwondo sparring uses hand, foot, and head protection but no chest protection and only allows light-contact. Both open and closed fist techniques to the head are allowed if they are used with precise focus and control. Referees stop the action to allow judges to call a point. Points are awarded for clean, focused techniques delivered to permitted targets. Excessive contact will draw a penalty.
Since the first clean technique stops the action, counter fighters are at a disadvantage since their subsequent techniques are not scored, even though they may have been more devastating than the opponent’s first technique. Since hand techniques to the head are allowed, even back fists and knife hands, traditional fighters tend to keep their guard up, protecting their torso and head. Close-range fighting is common and the silly clutching technique is not even considered. Since there is no requirement to displace the opponent's body, quick front leg snaps kicks and other “weak” kicks are often used. When the rules do not award additional points for head kicks, these techniques are used less frequently since they expose the attacker to counterattacks.
Techniques must be precise, focused, and powerful, and delivered to a scoring area without striking with excessive force; therefore, the fighters are usually hesitant about rushing into an attack. The action is slower, but when it occurs, you see beautifully executed techniques being used.
Some traditional taekwondo organizations use continuous fighting so the action is not stopped to award point. Traditional sparring with continuous action seems to be the best combination of sparring to use.