Taekwondo, or simply TKD, is the national sport of South Korea that places heavy emphasis on kicks geared more toward power and speed. Though the forms and techniques have been around for centuries, Taekwondo was officially established shortly after the end of imperial Japanese occupation. Regardless of the stereotypes against this art, it gives its practitioners (taekwondoin) some serious power, speed and mobility.
A Brief History
Throughout the long-storied history of Korea, several martial arts have risen and fallen, each building upon the usage of the entire body to end fights and empowering the spirit of the fighter. Modern taekwondo was formed in the 1940s based around traditional Korean martial arts such as Taekkyeon combined with Chinese martial arts and karate. Taekwondo is broken down as tae (foot) kwon (fist) do (way). When the Japanese left Korea, several Koreans who had trained in Japan brought back their new skills and formed schools known as kwans. As the kwans began to gain traction, the Korean military picked up the art, at the time known as Tae Soo Do (foot hand way). It was Choi Hong Hi, a South Korean general, that advocated for taekwondo and established the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) to unify and govern a common style.
Because of the Cold War, heavy tensions and controversy arose around how taekwondo, a South Korean martial art, should be grown. It was Choi who wanted the art to grow from all angles that caused a bigger rift. After South Korea withdrew support of the ITF, Choi moved the headquarters of the ITF to Toronto, Canada as it was the more welcoming location whereas South Korea formed the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). In 1988, taekwondo was demonstrated at the Summer Olympics in Seoul and in 2000, it was included as an Olympic sport and is the second of only two Asian martial arts to be included in the events, the other being judo.
Taekwondo is a global combat sport and was even at one time featured as the martial art of the US military. Throughout the decades, it has grown and developed some incredible techniques but has had a lot of stigma on it because of the rise of McDojos and child black belts, issues that a lot of martial arts suffer through. Regardless, several highly successful fighters had their start in taekwondo and still use its devastating speed and power so efficiently to this day.
What Sets TKD Apart
Though taekwondo is known for its devastating kicks, it still retains some hand strikes and even defensive grappling. Often confused with karate, taekwondo focuses more on high-flying, spinning techniques and uses narrower, more fluid stances with generally more movement than most styles of karate. The difference in stance allows the practitioner to move with less stability and a relaxed demeanor before exploding with rapid, unpredictable strikes. It was this expressive and dynamic style of fighting that makes taekwondo an effective way of training reaction, timing, and unpredictability.
Like many other modern martial arts, taekwondo uses a belt ranking system. Though it varies between federations and schools, it is commonly known that one could progress to black belt in taekwondo with relative ease. This is known because of the fact that many children, particularly in the US, have acquired their black belts at such young ages and go on not pursuing it any further. Many people, even some taekwondoin themselves, don’t know or understand that a black belt in taekwondo simply means they’ve mastered the basics of the art. In my mind, a fresh black belt in taekwondo is cool, a 3rd or 4th dan black belt in taekwondo is dangerous.
Taekwondo for Self Defense
One of the primary issues of taekwondo for self defense is the need for space and mobility. For a taekwondoin to fight effectively, they would typically require space for their movement and range for their attacks. When an opponent closes the distance, it becomes more defensive striking then offensive which is not really an issue but when distance is closed in a confined location, then this is where the real problems start. The less mobility the less power can be used, that is just simple physics.
A more personal issue is more on the mental side, because of the board and brick breaking and the high-flying action of typical taekwondo training, there is oftentimes a heavy dose of arrogance and overconfidence just as when a powerful boxer lands KO after KO. If a taekwondoin who has done phenomenal in training and is world class in competition walks with an air of confidence instead of humility, they would fall prey to their own hubris.
None of what I say could take away from how effective taekwondo can be because all it takes is one well-placed strike and the fight is over. However, the issue is how you are trained; if the instructor emphasizes progression in rank over progression in spirit and body, you’re in the wrong school. If the instructor cares more about money and pride than honor and security, you’re in the wrong place. Find the right instructor, the one who will guide you through your journey, teach with humility and openness, show you that taekwondo is a way of life and not a hobby.
Taekwondo, like all martial arts, is a way of life and started and stands as a source of humility, understanding and self-awareness. There are thousands of schools all across the world and tens of thousands of black belts. There have been times of great controversy and times of great success and joy, but through it all we have an art that is almost unparalleled in power and speed and ability. It is a fantastic art to start your children off in for all of the great benefits but in my humble opinion, it must be supplemented just as any and every other art should be. Regardless, taekwondo is beautiful, it is electric and dynamic and above all it is a path for all to walk.