Before I go in depth into the sport, I will first like to define the breadth of it. Many scholars and observers of this form have defined it in the past, and the one I like best comes from the book Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts written by Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith. “Taekwondo is an empty-hand combat form that entails the use of the whole body. Tae means “to Kick” or “Smash with the feet,” Kwon implies “punching” or “destroying with the hand or fist,” and Do means “way” or “method.” Taekwondo thus, is the technique of unarmed combat for self defense that involves the skillful application of techniques that include punching, jumping kicks, blocks, dodges, parrying actions with hands and feet.”
In today’s society, Taekwondo is one of the most widely practiced martial arts in the world. Various estimates have membership totalling 30 to 50 million in over 130 countries. What makes it so popular? Why do people join it?
To me personally, in all its grandeur, it is more than a mere physical fighting skill- it is a way of thinking and a pattern of life requiring strict discipline . It is a system of training both the mind and the body in which great emphasis is placed on the development of the trainee’s moral character. During trainings we work through pain. We undergo a lot of exercises to improve our flexibility so that we are less rigid and more fluid. We focus on control and inner strength over raw power. When you kick, you don’t hit as hard as you can. You focus on getting the technique right first. You focus on improving your form.
I had experience in two of the main federations- The International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) and the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). My time under ITF was… different. The original form engineered by General Choi was for military purposes. It was designed and practiced as a form of hand-to hand combat for troops. It wasn’t for developing health or fitness of any sort. This form of taekwondo was all about ending the conflict as soon as possible in as direct a way as possible. But this ‘kill or be killed’ style can’t still apply today. Therefore one of the most common distinctions made between ITF and WTF is that ITF taekwondo is the self-defence martial art, and WTF taekwondo is the sport. In ITF taekwondo I was to learn self-defence techniques: throws, breakfalls, joint-locking and disarms. Along with the regular patterns, there was also a large focus on board breaking in my belt tests. The style of sparring is also more ‘realistic’ – no protective armor is worn, just gloves and foot protectors. Strikes to the face and body are allowed, and so an ITF sparring session looks closer to kickboxing or Karate than the ‘Olympic Taekwondo’ most people think of. I can say I had many bruises and bloody wounds during my training then.
Under the WTF, I had a lot of pressure to perform. Probably because when the WTF gained Olympic Status in 1980, it proved to be a double edged sword for the federation. Though it became iconic, a lot of instructors have the obsession to ‘win, win ,win’. This sort of thinking has led to the dilution of the art. Me? I was to do better, be better, and become a more efficient fighting form. There was much stress on my stance, my accuracy and precision of my blocks and kicks. I had ensure my feet were ‘this’ far apart from one another, and had to ensure my punches and blocks were at the right level. Training became much more vigorous under the WTF. But it taught me patience and control. It taught me to trust my instincts; to rely more on intuition and faith in my training.
The warrior’s spirit is never broken. He fears nothing and dominates his fears. In times of peace he thinks about war. A fighter studies his opponents’ moves so he can anticipate them. One that learns the art of taekwondo can use it to bring much pain to others, or to train his mind and body.
We all fight the good fight, but what do you fight for?
Ben Ng 15S46