Friday, March 11, 2011

Taekwondo Competition Rules and Self Defense

Photo credit: Aminoacid91

A nice post by Self Defense Source on the difference between ITF (International Tae Kwon-Do Federation) and WTF (World Taekwondo Federation) rules for sparring in competition. Why post about specific federation rules? Well, it relates to the discussion started by John Zimmer at My Self Defense Blog on what I called Competitive Distortion in Martial Arts Competition, meaning how tweaks to the rules emphasize (or de-emphasize the practicality of certain techniques. Zimmer’s post focused on open tournament rules, and then it started a healthy discussion on MMA in his comments. The Self Defense Source post is a pretty fair comparison of the difference, pros and cons of the two federations’ rules, with the admonition that, “Although both organizations have admirable characteristics and traits, receiving training in WTF vs ITF Tae Kwon Do, can lead the student down different paths.” What are those paths?

The gist of it is that, “Individuals who want to compete in tournaments that may lead to Olympic try-outs will be most interested in the WTF sanctioned schools. When self-defense or the art of movement is the goal, the ITF sanctioned schools will be most appropriate” Absolutely correct. Or is it?

Full disclosure: I hold black belt ranks in both styles of TKD, but favor the ITF. I do recognize, however, that there are distinct advantages to the WTF approach, at least as I understand it (not having taught pure TKD of any flavor since 1996). The two biggest advantages for the self-defense oriented martial artist is that WTF competitive sparring is very physical – heavy contact is the only way to score; in some traditional (ITF) competition, power is de-emphasized over clean technique and control (reducing power while retaining speed and technique). There are other differences, and to make it easy for even someone like me to understand, here is a handy comparison chart:

Comparison Point WTF ITF
Knockouts? Allowed (wins) Not allowed (Disqualification)
Power Level Heavy (to score at all) Controlled (or point deductions)
Body Protection Equipment Yes No
Head Punching Illegal Allowed
# of rounds Three with 1-minute rest periods One 2-minute round
Continuous Action? No Yes
Point Scoring Body (punch or kick)=1
Turning during score+1
Head kick=3
Punch to head or body=1
Kick to body=2
Kick to head=3

Can you pick out the distinct advantages for self-defense oriented practitioner? No? Well, it’s not that clear. Here’s my humble opinion, and I’ll invite our TKD oriented readers to correct and interject as to whatever I may have missed.

  • The WTF sparring style is extremely fast – footwork is unique among martial arts and very deceptive. I’ve found out personally how effective the sport footwork is for controlling range. And I didn’t like it when applied to me! It CAN be applied in self defense, but must be tempered by the conditions (as all styles must), including the room needed, and the footing.
  • ITF sparring’s inclusion of face contact via punches is a big plus. There was nothing I hated more than watching ITF players standing and trading kicks while almost hip to hip, when a elbow or hook punch would have taken so much less effort and been immeasurably more effective. The primary benefit of allowing face punching is that the practitioner learns to defend face punches, which are probably the most common attach there is, besides grabs and shoves.
  • The WTF style is all about kicking HARD. That’s a big plus since the competitors learn to hit a moving, resisting target with power. They also learn to absorb a hit and not get stunned. On the other hand, the ITF emphasis on control is, to me, dangerous for two reasons: 1) you’re expecting a certain level of control, and if it’s not used, you can get hurt very badly, and 2) there is a distinct lack of control in a violent encounter, and you need to be aware of, and ready for that! The continual threat of getting knocked out in WTF sparring adds a sense of gravity to the idea of hitting while not getting hit! I’d thought of mentioning the hogu as a reason to dump on the WTF as unrealistic, but it’s not as much a factor as you’d think, since the emphasis is to heavily on head kicking. And the shots are so powerful that they hurt anyway.
  • WTF conditioning is a nice plus. There are few sports that demand a higher level of conditioning than an elite WTF fighter. I got tired just watching Gordon’s young fighters getting ready for a regional tournament.That training can make the difference in an encounter lasting longer than expected, or even if you just want to put some distance between yourself and the situation.

    To sum up, I think both are unrealistic enough due to the emphasis mentioned in John’s post about open rules: more points for head kicks. That leads to a distortion in that what is being used in competition is one of the last things you want to use in self defense. Sensei Matt Klein’s comment in the Zimmer post was right on: for a sport that can also apply well in self defense, pick MMA.

    For more information:

  • Read the original post at Self Defense Source

  • Wikipedia post on TKD

  • Traditional Taekwondo Techniques


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    Craig Willits said...

    > for a sport that can also apply well in self
    > defense, pick MMA

    As one who has taught traditional TKD for a number of years, I have to say you nailed it with respect to TKD sparring's utility as self defense training.

    However, I find it interesting that you'd follow a well-reasoned, well-written analysis of TKD sparring by glibly repeating the mantra "MMA is great for self defense".

    I grant that MMA, with its alive training against resisting opponents, builds skills that are much closer to reality, at least in general terms. The same could be said for any grappling or full-contact striking art.

    But there's that pesky problem of rules again.

    Many of the techniques prohibited by the MMA Unified Rules are among the most useful in personal protection (eye and groin attacks, for example).

    Any time you train to operate under a rule set you are limiting your options.

    The problem is on the street and in real life, there are no rules. The other person is trying to damage you as quickly and brutally as possible. In such an environment. limited options hinder survivability.

    To be logically consistent and intellectually honest, you need to give MMA the same *objective* treatment you did for TKD sparring when it comes to utility for self defense.

    I've got a post in work on this very topic, but I'm interested in your take.

    Craig Willits
    Martial Arts Spectrum

    Craig Willits said...


    Thanks for the excellent post.

    Speaking as someone who has taught traditional TKD for several years, your points about sport TKD sparring and its utility for self defense are spot on.

    I do take issue with this passing comment, though:

    > ...for a sport that can also apply well in
    > self defense, pick MMA.

    This strikes me as being a little too glib, following as it does your well-reasoned dissection of TKD sparring.

    (I know you said "can also apply" instead of "applies", but it's still a little to close for my comfort, anyway.)

    There's a lot of "MMA is great for self defense" marketing hype out there, and it needs to be subjected to the same type of scrutiny as you applied to TKD.

    I have a post in the pipeline on this very topic that I think is quite sure to stimulate discussion. Looking forward to reading your take on this issue.


    Craig Willits
    Martial Arts Spectrum

    KFS said...

    I thought the Self Defense Source post was pretty brutal to be honest, it got so much wrong in such a small piece!
    A summary:
    "ITF sparring relies on sine waves..." - no, the traditional forms use the sine wave motion.
    "...which make it appear as movement that is used in Karate." - no karate style uses sine wave.
    "ITF competition allows hits and kicks to the groin" I don't know of any martial art that allows this, not even MMA.
    The author also mentions aspects that are common to both styles as if they were unique to one or the other.

    Your summation nails it though; both sparring styles are of little use to self defence training. Semi contact training makes for ineffective striking, and the WTF rules remove a students ability to either throw or defend a punch.

    I have fought in world and european championships in ITF and there are some saving graces (from an sd point of view) at this level. The first is contact; kicks are all thrown at full power/speed as there is no reasonable way of judging the difference between full and semi-contact. Punches (straight only) are thrown without 'winding up' but otherwise as hard as possible, it is the winding-up that makes a heavy punch illegal.
    The other saving grace is the pressure, when you get caught in a flurry of hard punches and kicks it can be hard to keep your head, cover move and fight your way out.
    That said, I recently found that I could be hitting a lot harder than I have been, even when I though I was giving it full power - which demonstrates the danger of long term semi-contact training. I am now working to fix this.