Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Revamping mainstream Taekwondo to self defense

Taekwondo is different things to different people, and indeed there are many different reasons why
people practise Taekwondo. Some enjoy the sport of sparring, other the solo performance of its forms, yet others like the "brotherhood" of the Dojang they belong to. If you ask 100 students from the age of 16 and older why they first started though I believe there is a very good chance that the answer is at least partly for the whish to learn self defense skills. Many who reads this blog gets the impression that I am a full time instructor and that I run my own Dojang, but that is a mistaken belief.

I am training in a Dojang that operates out of a school gym with very limited training time as well as equipment. I have for a long time however taken charge of my own development outside the Dojang as well as inside it, so eventhough I only make it to the Dojang twice a week I do some kind of Taekwondo practise every day, and often if you count the small minute sessions I do it several times each and every day. For the most part however I see that most of the students at the Dojang I practise at and I guess based on conversations with other masters, that the "normal" students practises Taekwondo at the Dojang 2 times a week and thats it. When you look at the training time invested coupled with all that Taekwondo encompasses there is no denying that people dont really get their pennies worth when it comes to self defense. It is therefore not strange to observe that other martial arts and "reality based systems" who give more imidiate results gets more popular with the general public. The result is therefore that old students quit after 1-3 years, and new students comes in the door at longer and longer intervals.

This is not a new trend in any way, and I believe the focus on sport that we have seen these last 10-20 years in Taekwondo has been to keep student retention high. After all they come in the door looking for self defense, they get an exciting sport instead. Some quit when they realize they dont really learn self defense (they do, but it takes a couple of years, so I dont think Taekwondo is in any way worse than other arts for self defense, I just think they tackle the self defense portion in a different way than others do), but some stays because of the sport. We have done great this way as a martial art and we have a huge number of participants all over the globe, but with the rise of the MMA we have gotten some serious competition. MMA is also an exciting combat sport (even I as a Taekwondo practisioner much prefer to watch MMA fights than look at the Olympic sparring format), and eventhough it is limited by a ruleset its fighting applications have a larger overlap with the physical components of self defense than Olympic sparring.

I do believe that the solution to the problem (that older students quit and new "older students" dont come to Taekwondo anymore) is rather simple. We simply need to gear everything or as much as possible of our training in to what people want to survive in the current market. If the public whishes for self defense we should give it to them. I am not talking about simply stressing the Ho Sin Sul part of Taekwondo training from day one, rather I am talking about giving the students the key skills for self defense, both soft and hard skills from day one. Most self defense courses are rather short time affairs. They last anywhere from a few evenings, or a weekend to a month course. We on the other hand have about 2 times a week for 6 months for white belts to yellow belts. We should be able to teach those students from day one everything a "normal" self defense course will teach in a more holistic way. Even more so if you structure your syllabus around this goal.

The soft skills of self defense is everything you do to avoid comming into a physical self defense
situation. This is everything from getting good locks on your door, being polite, avoid places that often sees violence, not getting supid drunk in public as well as avoidence, awareness and de-escalation techniques. In many Dojang we teach the tenets and laws of Taekwondo. Linking these to the self defense soft skills is something you can talk about a little each session and then ask the students to write an explanation on this in their own words as part of their written exam for their first grading. Allready they have been given a more thourough understanding of the soft skills than most people practising Taekwondo today get even when they are black belts. This foundation built squarly on the philosophical and ethical foundation we allready teach in traditional taekwondo can be built upon a little by each grade. Lets say that for their next exam in another 6 months they need to explain in their own words the self defense law as it is in their country. Sure they can not be expected to know everything like a lawyer would do, but knowing if he/she is allowed to strike first, what is reasonable force, etc is extremely valuable information. Fast forward another 6 months and have them explain awareness. What are they looking for? Are there times you should be more aware than others? Etc. These are topics you can devote 5 minutes after each class to discuss. They are important topics for sure, but 5 minutes times twice a week for 6 months adds up. According to my simple head it should amount to 4 hours of talking about awareness in total.

Another way of implementing this would be to devote 1 weekend and have lectures every 6 months that were mandatory for the students. It does not even have to take a single minute away from the precious training time is what I am getting at. Following this you can build and build more and more for each rank. Self defense is a huge area and the physical/ hard skills needed is actually just a small drop in the ocean when compared to the "soft" skills.

The hard skills

The beauty of traditional Taekwondo is that all you need for the hard skills of self defense is allready right there in Taekwondo! If you go to a self defense seminar you will learn a handfull of techniques and that would be it. Taekwondo allready have them and train them from day one, but with little to no emphasis on practical application of the techniques. I get that you need to devote a lot of time on "air punching" to get the correct form, but the instructor could demonstrate the application for the technique for everyone to see so they know what they are doing or supposed to do.

The techniques the students learn for a yellow belt in Taekwondo is usually the following:

  • Arae Makki (low block)
  • Momtong An Makki (inward middle block)
  • Eulgeul Makki (Face block)
  • Momtong Jireugi (middle section straight punch)
  • Ap Chagi Baldeung/Apchuk (front kick with instep and ball of the foot)
  • Apchaolligi (Axe kick)
  • Ap Seogi (short front stance)
  • Ap Koobi (long front stance)
  • Joochum Seogi (horse stance)
The stances show how the students move their body weight into the techniques as well as how to avoid attacks. The defensive parries covers every section of the body, and the attacking techniques are pretty much the same as those learned in krav maga, or any other self defense course as beginning techniques (except the Axe kick, but in traditional taekwondo it was described as "limbering up kick. It was seen as a training kick. Only later did it become a technique you could use in a competition context). What Taekwondo instructors should do however is to make it clear to the students that each traditional basic technique is merely a "template" and that depending on the situation you will use part of the whole movement or you will use the complete movement. To teach the students something they can put into use in the shortest amount of time the traditional block kick punch applications are actually a good place to start. Just make sure you are teaching them the reason for the pulling hand and how they should use it actively or not use it at all when punching (attached or unattached punching), how the parries should follow the same trajectory as the complete movement, but be shortened, parry from wherever the hands allready are and use evasion together with the parries.

When this can be done by the students, they can learn how to use their limited library of techniques in many different situations grasping the underlying principles. The front kick can be used to the groin, to the shin, or to the head if you have manipulated the opponent to bend forward at the waist by an armbar. It can be used as an entry technique, a pre-emptive attack, to create an opening, and in different distances. Likewise the punch can be taught like that as well. How to use it preemptively, good places to target, how to use the pulling hand and punch together, using multiple strikes to multiple levels of the body etc.

The students will no doubt be doing most things in the air the first month or so, but then they should be introduced to partner work. In my dojang and in many others this means 3 step and 1 step sparring. These are formal and fixed in the Dojang I belong to, but in my view they are a great starting point for deeper study and more live training. Once the students have been taught how to avoid a straight punch by sidestepping, parry and counter punch in one move, as well as countering with more than one strike and to multiple planes of the body (which they learn in one step 1 and 2 for their first grading) more live drilling can easily be implemented. The first one I would introduce for beginners would be an adaptation of the formal one. Standing in fighting stance the attacker will feed the same attack on the partner but with no signal. Next they can move around freely but still be limited to the
same attack. Then doing it even more live with the attacker deciding on which side the attack will come from (left punch or right punch). Then how to use the same principle (avoid by sidestepping and counterstrike in one move) against various other straight attacks. Attempted grab, push, even a soccer style front kick etc. This is something I can see be realisticly taught and mastered in a short timespan if taught correctly, and little by little. I honestly think that a green belt being taught like this will know much more about self defense than most black belt students do today. I also think that student retention would be very high, because the people are getting what they want from the get go. If people today stick around with Taekwondo they will learn this after many years on their own, but with focused teaching I think it would take a lot less time.

The point I am trying to make is that traditional Taekwondo has so much to offer in terms of self defense, but this potential is often halfhazardly taught with a focus on sport instead of self defense. We allready have the techniques, we have a formal introduction on how to use Our techniques as well as a formal introduction on partner work. We have a philosophical and ethical foundation to build upon.

I hope to provide much more video content to this blog in the future. I have therefore set up a GoFundMe page on which I hope I can crowdfund a video editing software so I can make good quality videos for the blogs readers. If you want to contribute please visit the link to my GoFundMe page. Every donation helps :-) 


  1. Great article. I love it and this should be apply in every taekwondo school. Keep the good work.

  2. I disagree with the premise of the article:

    "We have done great this way as a martial art and we have a huge number of participants all over the globe (...)"

    Turning this argument around, I would posit that the rampant drive for popularisation (which has resulted in this huge number of [nominal] taekwondoin) is at least partly to blame for the art's current, soulless state. Through catering to such a multitude of people we're stretched far too thin in far too many opposing directions.

    It follows that I also disagree with the proposed solution, i. e. gearing for what people want in the current market, as it presumes that quantity of practitioners equals success. I would prefer that we first decide just what we are, then cut out the pandering. So what if we lose some people?

    I do however agree that taekwondo has potential for real-world usage. I consider that there is likely tremendous potential depth if one is willing to invest the requisite time and look beyond the arbitrary labels of "styles" and "arts."

    1. "I disagree with the premise of the article:

      "We have done great this way as a martial art and we have a huge number of participants all over the globe (...)"

      Turning this argument around, I would posit that the rampant drive for popularisation (which has resulted in this huge number of [nominal] taekwondoin) is at least partly to blame for the art's current, soulless state. Through catering to such a multitude of people we're stretched far too thin in far too many opposing directions."

      You might disagree With the premise but what I meant by the part you quoted me just to clarify was that Taekwondo is a (or was a) comercial sucsess and that the spread of Taekwondo and number of participants today can be atributed to the sport focus.

      I agree With Your comment that this has spread us too thin, which is why I am suggesting that we should refocus ourselves on Self Defense as that seems to be one of the original goals of the first generation masters.

      If we were to follow the following proposed solution you would be catering to the older students or the demographic that are older than the mainstream student today. We would not pander for "everyone" as those who wants sport, those who wants acrobatics and those who want to only learn high kicks would not get what they want.

      Another thing that we "traditionalists" (I think you can also be under that term but correct me if I am wrong :-) ) overlook is that the reason we are practising Taekwondo today, can be attributed to the fact that somewhere along the line People started focusing on sport and this sport made the art spread like wildfire. Without the sport of Taekwondo we would likely be practising other arts. I know that if I had not begun Taekwondo I would probably be blogging about how JKA Karate does not teach what Funakoshi wrote about as "his" Karate :-P

      I am sad you did not like this article (but as we are two different individuals it is actually good that we have differences and that we are both thinking individuals) but I am also glad we agree that Taekwondo has potential for real world usage.

    2. Oh, but I do like the article -- anything that helps shift the paradigm back towards function is A+ in my book. I get too carried away when writing these comments!

      The JKA reference made me smile. I'd probably make a comment on your article mentioning Funakoshi Yoshitaka and Nakayama as points of divergence. ;) I'm not sure I believe taekwondo has provided me something modern Shotokan or WKF karate couldn't have, though. I imagine I'd likely be as dissatisfied with that as I am with TKD.

      I might mention that I'm actually quitting TKD come summer, due to time constraints and a growing interest in classical Goju-ryu. This is probably where we differ most -- I don't see any specific benefit to TKD anymore.

    3. Ah, I did not think you liked it as you wrote you did not agree With its premise nor its solution.

      I am also interested in classical karate (both Shurite and nahate) but I still see value in Taekwondo. I might change my views in the future (one never knows) but personally I see Taekwondo as a great thing and those Things that I feel is lacking or missing I can (re)introduce through research :-)

      The reason I said I would likely be blogging on the shortcommings of JKA is that when I first started those were the two options that I managed to narrow it Down to. It was Master Cho who made me go Taekwondo. In the end I chose the instructor over the art and I am very happy I did. Like you say there is nothing in modern Karate that is not present in Traditional Taekwondo. Exept of the fact that modern Karate still practises Kata that are Okinawan based, but for someone trained in traditional taekwondo Learning 1-3 kata is very easy.

      I hope you will start Your own blog up again because Reading about how you as a Taekwondoin go about studying Goju Ryu would be highly interesting to me to read. If not I hope you can PM me once in a while ;-)

    4. I think we're generally on the same page, actually. I enjoy discussing details, but our differences are really quite trivial. :)

      So far, what little of my own (re-)introduction I've allowed into my TKD instruction has led to our guys being told at seminars to stop with the karate stuff. I'm not nearly as interested in taking up that discussion as I am in simply finding stuff that works.

      I ended up in TKD by complete chance, myself. Perhaps if kwanjangnim lived down here in Østfold instead, our roles would be reversed? You could break ground as the only JKA guy to even slightly question dogma. ;)

      I definitely understand what you mean, though, about teachers over style. I've no real relationship with the TTU (nor even TKD itself any longer), but Løbak sabunim will always be my teacher. I don't see my pursuit of Goju as anything other than a natural continuation of my training with him.

      I'll keep being difficult in the comments, no worries. ;)

  3. Every taekwondo school should follow this. Having a taekwondo school i will follow this!

    1. Thanks for such a positive feedback Jeongsin Taekwondo:-) Do not hessitate to ask if there is anything I can do to help you in this regard. I am easily contacted through this blogs facebook page at

      Best regards from Ørjan

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