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 is what 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, 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 traditions 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 to first 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 to angle his or her body away from the opponent's blows instantly. 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 a 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 the 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 be 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.
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 is 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.
As Taekwondo grew and developed worldwide, a drive began to get Taekwondo accept as a sport in the Olympics.