28 May 2011

WTF and a Lack of Hands

A young man who is new to the martial arts asked me this afternoon about the differences between ITF Taekwon-Do and WTF Taekwon-Do. I gave him the boring answer: WTF is a sport; ITF is an art. (The setting was not ideal for a detailed compare-and-contrast exposition.) The reference to sport, of course, took the conversation into the way WTF does tournament sparring and why they spar with their arms dangling by their sides.

Image Source: Focus Fitness Centre, Scotland
It all comes down to tournament rules and sport sparring – a topic I've complaint about before. There are three main reasons why WTF Taekwon-Do players do not use their hands to guard as is common (even obvious) in most other martial arts.

The first is the padding. With their bodies protected with body armour and their heads with a helmet, the player does not feel a real sense of danger. When you are kicked, it just doesn't hurt enough for you to use your arms to guard. When I was a colour belt the black belts I sparred against during class training cracked a rib and bruised my sternum. This was needed only once for me to learn to guard properly. Pain is a wonderful teacher. Body armour removes the fear of pain and therefore also the incentive to guard with the arms.

The second is that punches to head in WTF Taekwon-Do is illegal. Because you do not have to worry about being punched in the face, there is no reason to keep the hands up to guard for face punches. Yes, kicks to the head is legal, but you have a helmet for protection and the power of the kicks make it unlikely for the blocks to work in any case. Again, keeping your arms up is not a serious consideration..

Finally, points are scored by means of “shock techniques.” The techniques basically has to shift the opponent or knock him out. Although it is legally permisible to score a point to the body with a punch, it is extremely difficult to achieve that type of “shock” power necessary, especially keeping in mind that the opponent has a thick chest protector on.

In short, the reason WTF tend not to use hand techniques (including keeping their arms up for guarding) is strongly determined by their tournament rules.

ITF Taekwon-Do may not suffer from a hand issue that much, but that does not mean that tournament sparring does not affect us negatively either. For one, attacks below the belt are illegal in typical ITF tournament sparring. The result is an unfortunate lack of knowledge by most ITF practitioners of how to perform the many possible low attacks; and even more importantly, how to defend oneself from low attacks. I've learned more about low attacks (and defences against low attacks) in two months of Taekkyeon training than in 15 years of Taekwon-Do study, even though most of the Taekkyeon ideas are embedded in ITF as well. Part of the reason why I learned so much in such a short time is because in Taekkyeon the sparring focusses on low attacks. Apart from low attacks, other things we (ITF practitioners) should spend time on are the clinch and grappling; for the same reason -- these ranges of fighting tend to be neglected in ITF Taekwon-Do, not because they are not part of Taekwon-Do, but because they are illegal in tournament sparring.

Luckily a few people still teach traditional sparring where anything goes and students can learn about the whole arsenal that ITF Taekwon-Do has to offer.


mark russell said...

hi, thank you for using my picture in your site- i study and teach WTF style of taekwondo in Scotland and when i teach my beginner students to keep their guard up but as the student learns the ability to move with ease and react faster then the hands may come down - it also makes it seem you are more open for your opponent to attack so you may counter etc we do also block using our arms but our footwork helps us avoid or reduce the impact of attacks

SooShimKwan said...

Dear Mark,

Thank you for stopping by. I usually put a link to the source of images I use and because of your visit I was able to track down where I got this picture from. I added a link to the relevant page on your website.

I'm also appreciative of your contribution. Indeed, WTF's footwork is probably it's main defensive method. I'm planning to write a post someday on the value of Taekwon-Do's footwork in self-defence. I hope you get to read it.

I am glad you dropped by.

Best wishes,