Sport Taekwondo or traditional Taekwondo? Which is best? Are they the same?
This is has been an argument between these two different types of Taekwondo for decades, but the argument is not unique to Taekwondo; other martial art systems have had the same argument, for example, Karate enthusiasts disagree over the differences between the sport of Karate and the art of Karate-do. Some claim the two types of Taekwondo are just two versions of the same thing, while others claim the two types are each separate, distinctive entities; that one is only concerned with competition, while the other is true to the art. To compare the two types of Taekwondo, let us look at the comparison of two distance runners.
Both the runners live in the same area and have run the same trail every day for many years. Both love to run and both encourage others to run. Both teach beginning runners in the correct way to run and, over the years, each has developed a devoted following. One runner enjoys competition, has won many races, and now has formed a running team that competes regularly. As the team won races, the runner developed a reputation as a great running coach and other runners now come to him for instruction on how to run to win.
Winning a long race takes special techniques and specialized training. It takes many years of intense training to master the skills needed to win. Some say that to win a long race, you have to learn to face your insecurities, overcome your fears, and learn to never quit until the finish; things that develops character. However, the ultimate goal of any race is to win. Winners feel elated, while losers pledge to work even harder to win next time.
The other runner still runs the same trail as the first runner. She loves to run and to share the experience with others. She also encourages others to run and has also developed a devoted following. This runner's group runs every day; relaxing and enjoying being one with the environment. They enjoy the sights and give each other assistance during long runs. Many times they see the completive runners along the trail struggling to decease their time. They smile at the competitors but they do not understand why the competitors do not slow down and enjoy the smells of nature.
This runner does not compete and is always in front of her group giving them tips on running and encouraging them to do their best. For this runner, the ultimate goal is not the finish line, but the run itself. During a run, each runner not only increased his or her running skills, but also gained an understanding of the plants, animals, and minerals along the trail, and how they relate to each other and to the runners. They not only run, they understand the relationship between running, life, and the earth. To them running is an art and a way of life.
Now, after many years of running, both the runners are old. They still run the same trails, be it a little slower, and they still teach their different ways of running to their followers. If asked, the general public would say the two are both just runners, people who run. They do not see much difference in the way the two runners run. However, the two runners are very different. One views running as a way to win races, while the other sees running as a way of life. While they both are runners, their philosophies of running are diametrically opposed. The competitive runner can never slow down enough to enjoy the experience of running, and the other runner cannot understand why anyone would only be concerned with winning when there is so much to be gained from the run. While they both still run, sometimes together, they do not understand why the other does not change his or her way of running.
Ways to compare sport taekwondo and traditional taekwondo
Sport taekwondo is primarily concerned with competition so training is geared toward how to scores points in competitions.
Tradition taekwondo is primarily concerned with self-defense so training is geared more toward preventing an attacker from harming you and insuring the attacker cannot continue the attack. Competition is an integral part of the training, but it does not take presence.
Sport taekwondo patterns were created primarily to differentiate them from the traditional patterns. They are performed using short, narrow stances, and smooth movements, with an emphasis on speed and agility rather than on power. Kicks are high with more emphasis on kicking techniques than on hand techniques. Most techniques are at close-range with emphasis on power with minimum movement of the stance, hips, shoulders, etc. Techniques are delivered with smooth, quick, whip-like, speed. The fighting philosophy is that a fight is continuous action with both withdrawals and attacks over the course of the fight.
Traditional taekwondo patterns have been used since the conception of the art. Since taekwondo was heavily influenced by Shotokan karate, these patterns closely resemble the way karate patterns are performed. They are performed using wide, deep stances and linear movements, with emphasis on power rather than on speed and agility. Kicks are low and there is more emphasis on hand techniques than on kicking techniques. Movement is usually toward the attacker followed by a block and counterattack. Whereas, karate practitioners usually move into a new stance and then attack, in taekwondo, the movement and the attack are simultaneous and, at moment of impact, the movement ends in the new stance. Most movements are performed with powerful, relentless, direct, piston-like attacks delivered with precision, focus, and power, which are directed against both short and long-range targets. The fighting philosophy is “one punch—one kill” where every attack is delivered with the power needed to take the attacker out of the fight.
Both sport and traditional taekwondo differ from their karate ancestry in the way the hips are used. For example, in karate, when kicking, the supporting foot rotates very little and the hips stay parallel to the target. Power comes from chambering the kicking leg. Whereas, in taekwondo, the supporting foot rotates until the heel points toward the target, letting the hips “open” (rotate into the direction of the kick) to add power to the kick. At impact, the hips are perpendicular to the target. This adds power to the kick and extends its reach.
taekwondo uses more jumping kicks than karate uses. The primary purpose of the jump is not to kick higher or add more range; it is to allow the hips to “open” more easily and quickly, which adds to the extension and power of the kick.
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.
So which one do you choose?
To help make a decision about whether to train in sport taekwondo or traditional taekwondo, ask yourself this question:
If your life depended on the friend next to you being able to defend you against an attack by a person intent on killing you, which would you want the friend to be: a highly skilled sport taekwondo black belt, or a highly skilled traditional taekwondo black belt?
An even tougher question may be:
Would you rather the friend be a highly skilled traditional karate black belt?
If you just want to compete and like to mix it up and kick a lot with little resemblance to realistic fighting, do not care about mastering focus, control, and precision, and do not care about learning the “martial” part of the art, then sport taekwondo is for you. The key thing to remember about sport taekwondo is that it is a more sport than a martial art. You play sport taekwondo; is it a hobby.
If you like to play tag where the action stops with you are tagged, like the mental challenge of maintaining precise control while under stress, want to learn the “do” or “way of the warrior” part of taekwondo, and want to fight in a way that more closely resembles actual fighting, then traditional taekwondo is for you. The key thing to remember about traditional taekwondo is that it is a martial art not a sport. You live traditional taekwondo; it is a way of life.