What is Taekwondo?
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that is continuing to rise in popularity. The martial art is well known for its flashy kicks and occasionally razor fast punches. Taekwondo is a competitive sport with practitioners being able to compete in the Olympics. But is also practised by many people who are looking to improve both their physical and mental wellbeing.
The literal translation of Taekwondo can be broken into three words. ‘Tae’ meaning foot or kick, ‘kwon’ meaning fist or punch and ‘do’ meaning the way of. So, Taekwondo can be translated to ‘the way of the foot and fist’.
- The origins and history of Taekwondo
- Taekwondo in the US and around the world
- The five tenets of Taekwondo
- Basic techniques of Taekwondo
- Equipment needed when you first start Taekwondo
- Basic rules of Taekwondo as a competitive sport
- Why study Taekwondo over other martial arts?
- Benefits of Taekwondo
- How to get started and find a Taekwondo class!
The origins and history of Taekwondo
The three kingdoms of ancient Korea
Taekwondo didn’t become well known untill around the 1950s. But there are reports that Taekwondo has been around for thousands of years. During around 6 AD, Korea consisted of three kingdoms. Koguryo, Paekje and Silla. All three kingdoms were constantly at war with one another trying to gain more land from each other.
Koguryo was the largest kingdom, whilst Silla was the smallest. Silla struggled to protect themselves from the other kingdoms as they had the weakest military. Chin Heung, who was the 24th king of Silla, decided to create a group of warriors called the HwaRang. They trained with weapons such as swords and spears.
Training was intense with them having to do things such as climbing mountains and swimming in freezing water! The HwaRang also trained in unarmed combat called SooBak which was primarily a foot fighting style. They added their own things to the style turning it into more of a martial art.
SooBak would be complemented with the weapons of the HwaRang to lead the kingdom to glory. Chin Heung believed his soldiers needed mental conditioning too. He brought in the Buddhist monk Won Kang to take charge of the HwaRang training. He distilled a code of ethics that the HwaRang had to follow:
- Be loyal to your king
- Be obedient to your parents
- Have honour and faith among friends
- Have perseverance in battle
- Never take a life without a cause
With the combination of the HwaRang code of ethics and their fighting skills they became known as the HwaRangDo. Meaning the ‘way of the flower of manhood’. Silla became the kingdom with the strongest army led by the HwaRangDo and defeated both the Koguryo and Paekje kingdoms. Korea then unified to become on kingdom known as Koryo.
The Koryo dynasty
Martial arts thrived during this period of the Koryo dynasty. SooBak became known as SooBakGi due to the new techniques and mental discipline added to the style. This influenced new styles to emerge such as Taekyon, which involved more and new kicking techniques. Taekyon was developed to be more of a combat sport than a discipline.
Both Taekyon and SooBakGi became popular with Taekyon becoming mandatory for soldiers to learn. Annual contests known as the ‘Kak Chan’ were held involving both the martial arts. Those who performed well were able to get high ranking government positions.
The decline and resurgence of martial arts in Korea
Martial arts started to decline over the following thousand years. Only the military would train in martial arts. In 1909, Japan took over Korea and banned the practise of martial arts. All training had to be carried out in secret and Taekyon was the major style that survived this process. SooBakGi was also practised but the name was again changed to SooBakDo.
Due to peace treaties, Japanese martial arts were taught in schools during this process. Styles such as Kendo, Judo, Karate and Aikido became popular in Korea. Japan and Korea would exchange techniques and styles of martial arts. In 1945 Korea was liberated from Japanese rule.
In 1946, General Choi, who was imprisoned in Japan after trying to join the Korean liberation army, was freed. Upon his release he would teach the South Korean army his new martial art. They would perform presentations of this martial art around the world.
In Korea there were then five major martial art academies known as ‘Kwans’. There was the Mooduk Kwan, Jido Kwan, Changmu Kwan, Chungdo Kwan, and Songmu Kwan.
A board panel of instructors, politicians and historians decided it was time to unite all the different styles. Lead by general Choi they decided to name the united style ‘Taekwondo’ in 1955.
General Choi would go on to create the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF) in 1955. The World Taekwondo Federation (now known as World Taekwondo) would be founded in 1973 and is the official governing body of Taekwondo. World Taekwondo Federation rules are used for the Olympics.
Taekwondo in the US and around the world
Taekwondo was introduced to the United states in the 1950s and 1960s. This was through demonstrations in military bases in America. During this time styles such as Judo, Karate and Kung Fu were already popular in America. After the Korean war, many Koreans decided to move to America leading to the proliferation of people learning Taekwondo.
Notably, Master Jhoon Rhee opened the first Taekwondo school in 1962. He is considered the ‘Father of American Taekwondo’. He was a student of Chung Do Kwan in Korea. Haeng Ung (who was also a student of Chung Do Kwan) co-founded the American Taekwondo Association (ATA) in 1969 along with Great-Grandmaster-Suh-Chong Kang.
In the 1970s Taekwondo schools popularly arose with many ATA franchised schools. Taekwondo was becoming more prominent than the likes of Karate in America at this time. Seeing the success of Taekwondo in America, many Korean Taekwondo masters decided to move to America and establish their own schools throughout the whole of America.
Taekwondo populated America and there were much more schools in American states compared to the likes of Karate, Judo and Kung Fu.
Taekwondo continued to spread from there and was first introduced to the United Kingdom in 1967. There were demonstrations for Taekwondo in both the 1988 and 1992 Olympic games. Taekwondo officially became an Olympic sport in 2000 in Sydney.
The five tenets of Taekwondo
A tenet is a guiding principle or a core belief that is held by a group of people. Even though these can vary amongst different Taekwondo schools, there are five key tenets that are essential in all:
- Courtesy- This is about showing respect and having good etiquette to other people. For example, helping someone pick up things they may have dropped.
- Integrity-When you are able to determine what is right or wrong. Standing up for what is also ethically correct. Having strong moral principles is also important in this tenet. An example of showing integrity would be to not betraying someone’s trust.
- Perseverance- This is about the drive inside of you when you may be overcoming a struggle that may make you feel like you want to quit. The willingness to overcome the adversity is perseverance. An example of this could be when you are struggling to do a technique, but you carry on trying till you can do it. This can apply to life in general too.
- Self-control- Having the ability to control both your emotions and actions. Making sure that you have both a pure mind and body will allow you to keep your emotions in check. No matter how difficult the situation, self-control is vital. For example, you may be sparring and not getting your way, you must learn from the mistakes you made and stay calm.
- Indomitable Spirit- This refers to the belief you have in yourself when standing up for your beliefs. Having the courage and will to overcome failure and ultimately succeed. For example, you may have been on a losing streak in a few Taekwondo tournaments. But to have the belief in yourself and your skills you will keep going until you start to succeed.
All of these tenets are crucial values in Taekwondo. All students strive to apply these tenets to their Taekwondo training, but also to life in general.
Basic techniques of Taekwondo
Basic techniques of Taekwondo were inspired from earlier forms of marital arts such as SooBak and Taek Kyon. Taekwondo has a strong focus on striking techniques used with mainly the feet but also hand strikes such as punches.
There are important stances that are taught in order for practitioners to throw their strikes with great efficiency. Along with blocks to defend strikes from opponents. Different Taekwondo schools may teach different things, but all schools will definitely teach the following:
- Poomsae- This refers to the series of movements performed by students when helping them to learn the basic techniques. At each belt level, there is a poomsae that must be learnt and perfected by the practitioner. With each poomsae becoming more advanced the higher the belt you are. When gradings are held for belt promotions, this is key to see whether the person is ready to be upgraded to the next belt.
- Board breaking- This is used to show the power and skill of a technique. Once a practitioner has practiced a technique for a while, their skills are tested by having to perfectly perform the technique in order to break through a board. Boards become harder to break and techniques become more advanced the higher the belt you are.
- Step Sparring- This is a type of sparring that allows students to develop their reflexes and improve their blocking. It starts off with three-step sparring for newer students and goes up to one-step sparring for more advanced students. The number of steps refers to the amount of strikes thrown by an opponent which the student must block, with some strikes being countered.
- Sparring- Students are able to put their skills to the test in full sparring (no limited strikes for either practitioner). By sparring with an opponent, you can see which of your skills is effective in combat and which areas you need to work on to become a better taekwondo practitioner. This is also the competitive aspect of Taekwondo as there are many tournaments that students can enter, especially the Olympics being one of the highest levels.
In Taekwondo a new student will start of as a white belt. This symbolises that they are new to the martial art and don’t have much knowledge or skill. The more time they spend learning and training in the martial art, the higher their belt rank will be.
Usually within 3-5 years Taekwondo practitioners are able to receive their first-degree black belt. But this takes constant training!
Just for some fun. Check out this video of some Taekwondo practitioners doing some crazy kicks to break boards (don’t worry you won’t be expected to be able to pull this off in your first lesson!).
Equipment needed when you first start Taekwondo
When starting Taekwondo all practitioners will be wearing a uniform (similar to that of karate). Don’t worry though! It is completely fine to go in suitable clothing. This could be wearing a t shirt with shorts/jogging bottoms. We are in the process of creating our own range, be sure to sign up to receive updates on our clothing!
For your first lesson you will usually be provided with a uniform once you have committed to training.
Other equipment needed in Taekwondo includes sparring gear. The types of equipment used in Taekwondo sparring and competition are discussed in the next section.
Weapons can also be used in some Taekwondo schools, such as the Jahng Bong (bo staff), Bahng Mahng Ee (eskrima sticks) and Ssahng Jeol Bong (nunchucks)!
Basic rules of Taekwondo as a competitive sport
Taekwondo is also well known as a competitive sport. Especially in the Olympics. The World Taekwondo Federation (also known as World Taekwondo) is the biggest governing body for major Taekwondo tournaments.
Bouts are usually contested with three rounds (each round is usually two minutes with a one-minute rest in between) with the winner being declared by a knockout or whoever has the most points. Abiding by the five tenets is crucial within Taekwondo tournaments. There are certain rules and point systems that must be followed in the contests.
Equipment that must be worn:
- Head guard
- Chest protector
- Groin guard (for males)
- Forearm guards
- Shin guards
- Hand protectors
- Mouth guard
- One point for a basic punch to the torso
- Two points for a basic kick to the torso and four points for a spinning kick to the torso
- Three points for a kick to the head
Rules of Taekwondo tournaments:
- Competitors must be the same sex and within the same weight category
- The competition area must be a mat is a measurement of 8 metres squared
- Kicks are allowed to the torso and head, but punches are only allowed to the body
- Below the waist strikes are not allowed
- Points can be deducted due to actions such as punch to face, knee attacks, hitting below the waist, turning your back on your opponent, stepping out of the area with both feet and holding/grabbing your opponent
If the match is a draw after three rounds, a golden point round is fought to declare a winner. This is whoever lands the first strike.
Why study Taekwondo over other martial arts?
All martial arts are similar in the aspect that they teach you ways of defending yourself and how to control both the mind and the body.
Many people prefer Taekwondo over other martial arts due to the values they have in place. As mentioned before, these are the five tenets of Taekwondo. These values are good values to have not just in a martial art, but in life in general. Having these values distilled into your life will not only make you a good martial artist, but a better person.
Taekwondo is also good for both a parent and child to partake in. For adults Taekwondo can bring you both physical and mental strength. For kids, Taekwondo is great to build up their confidence. Allowing them to develop their skills and understand the importance of working hard at something and how this will reward you.
As they continue to train in Taekwondo, they will be granted higher belts, building up their self-esteem.
For people that are competitive, being able to train for an Olympic sport is also a motive to pursue Taekwondo. The current martial arts that are Olympic sports are Taekwondo, Karate, Judo, Wrestling, Boxing and Fencing.
Therefore, out of all the martial arts in the world, only six are currently Olympic sports. For many people it would be a huge point of success in their life to be able to compete in the Olympics. Taekwondo allows people to achieve this dream.
Benefits of Taekwondo
There are many benefits of training in Taekwondo. We will go through some of the key benefits:
- Learn how to defend yourself- Taekwondo has been developed from forms of martial arts that were trained by soldiers specifically for war! This martial art will teach you how to defend yourself in different circumstances. Teaching you how to block and defend any attacks thrown your way, but also how to attack if needed.
- Improve your strength and stamina- It can be physically demanding at times! But through constant and active training, the stronger and fitter you will become!
- Improve your self-confidence- When learning new techniques and gradually becoming a better martial artist. Taekwondo will increase your self-confidence. As you learn more about yourself and become more confident in your abilities.
- Improve your mental health- Regular training can help to reduce stress you may have and uplift your sprits by providing you a way of expressing yourself through the martial art. It can help combat depression and anxiety.
- Feel a part of a community- Taekwondo schools are like one big family! Everyone is kind to one another displaying the five tenets. Making you feel a part of something bigger than yourself and welcome to the classes at all times!
How to get started and find a Taekwondo class!
Anyone can start Taekwondo, no matter how old or fit you are. Finding a Taekwondo class is a simple process! Make sure to check online for nearby Taekwondo schools in your area, as most will have an online presence.
Contact the school (if they have contact details) if you have any questions you want to ask. Turn up to one of their sessions and see how it goes! Usually first classes are free, so this will allow you to see if this is a good fit for you.
If your intentions are to compete in tournaments such as the Olympics. Make sure to check that your Taekwondo school is authorised by the World Taekwondo Federation (specifically sparring using their rules as these are the Olympic rules).
After going to a few classes and trying this martial art, Taekwondo may not be for you. Don’t worry, there are many other martial arts out there! Be sure to check out our ‘MARTIAL ARTS…WHAT ARE THEY?’ post to gain a good understanding of other popular martial arts too!
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We have gone through Taekwondo in this post. In our next few posts on the Martial Arts Series, we will cover other individual martial arts. Make sure you subscribe to our blog to keep up to date with the latest posts!