10 October 2011

Why Taekwon-Do is Not Good for Self-Defence

In this post I want to explain why I think Taekwon-Do is not good for self-defence and it is probably not for the reasons you might expect. Paradoxically, I think that authentic Taekwon-Do is too good a system, and for this very reason it is a bad form of defence for civilians.


Taekwon-Do is called the Korean Art of Self-Defence. The Korean version of the Condensed ITF Encyclopaedia states: “이런 점이 태권도를 호신예술이라 부르는 리유의 하나이라 하겠다.” The definition of Taekwon-Do is distilled in this idea: Taekwon-Do as a 'self-defence art'—호신예술. When taught and trained properly, I do not doubt the effectiveness of Taekwon-Do as a good combat system. Unfortunately it is exactly this point that has me concerned. Taekwon-Do is too effective. When trained particularly for combat, Taekwon-Do looks almost exactly like Krav Maga, another exceptional combat system. The problem with both these styles is that they are brutally effective. When performed correctly they will seriously injure the opponent, possibly fracture something, and can cause death. The reason for this is that both styles were developed as systems of combat for military purposes. There is a reason why Alex Gillis called his book on Taekwon-Do's history “A Killing Art”.

Korean Soldiers in Vietnam were versed in early forms of Taekwon-Do
Image Source
When you are on the battlefield with your attacker intending to kill you, retaliation of the kind that authentic Taekwon-Do and Krav Maga offers is reasonable—in fact, it is expected. However, very few of us are combatants engaging national enemies. Our attackers may indeed be violent criminals intend on killing us, in which case we need to defend ourself at the level of brutality that such an encounter necessitates, but a significant percentage of attacks do not by default require the type of aggression and savagery asked for by a combatant on a battlefield. As non-combatants, in other words as civilians, living in normal society rather than the battlefield, we are required by law to act civil. Even when we are attacked, law puts certain limits on self-defence. Law does not allow me to break the knee of a pickpocket. Law will look very unfavourably on me for fracturing with repeated elbow strikes the skull of a man that hit me once in the face. Killing someone unless I can prove that my life was in definite jeopardy will have me incarcerated. The law only allows me to use the amount of force to escape from the situation and nothing more. Imagine being attacked by your drunk Uncle Fred at the family reunion. This is where the problem with martial arts like Taekwon-Do and Krav Maga comes in. We have great arsenals of combative techniques, but a lousy arsenal for civilian defence. Styles like Taekwon-Do and Krav Maga lacks the more civil techniques required when you do not need to fracture someone's skull.

In modern society where the rule of law is generally in effect, a softer type of martial art that will limit the physical damage to the opponent is better. Proper Taekwon-Do, like Krav Maga, is too barbarous.

Since true combative violence is frowned upon by normal society, Taekwon-Do has undergone some serious changes, particularly in the way it is packaged to the masses. The focus has moved away from it being taught as an actual military combat system, to it being presented as sport or a recreational activity. Emphasis is put on tournament sparring, which has little value for actual self-defence; or emphasis is put on it as an artistic discipline, not much different from dance or an ascetic discipline such as yoga. Self-defence practised in this version of Taekwon-Do is highly stylised, basically choreographed performances. What is left is something that looks like it could be used for self-defence, but it has been tamed to such a degree that if a real violent attack were to occur, combined with the chaos that goes along with real life violence, it would be ill-equipped to handle the situation. Basically, it is a type of pre-arranged sparring pretending to be self-defence.

So what am I saying? I'm saying that Taekwon-Do provides us with two extremes, neither of which is ideal for civilians in a civil society wanting to defend themselves. On the one hand we have a brutal combat system that is of value for combatants on a battlefield, but does not provide us with the delicate tools to properly take care of a much less violent civilian situation, like when your drunk uncle Fred gets raucous at the family reunion. The Taekwon-Do combatant is equipped with kicks, punches, strikes, all of which will severely hurt dear uncle Fred. On the other hand, we have a recreational activity with ritualised and stylistic combat mimicking which is great for teaching children discipline or wonderful as an artistic or ascetic recreation. Regrettably to achieve this level of “civility” Taekwon-Do has been watered down so much and been stylised to such a degree that if a real violent situation occurs, it often lacks the authenticity of genuine fighting that real self-defence against real violence call for.

It is within the context of normal civilians living in generally law-abiding societies that I think Taekwon-Do is not a good system for actual self-defence. The type of “self-defence” required in these societies are not the type of “self-defence” that real Taekwon-Do offers. What authentic Taekwon-Do offers is much too barbarous to fit in a civil society and its usuage is likely to get you thrown in jail. An apt form of “self-defence” in a relatively civil society will be a system with less hard attacks and more controlling (i.e. “soft style”) techniques.

I believe that there is a solution to this problem, but it will require a serious rethinking of how Taekwon-Do is practised. It will require a re-evaluation of what self-defence in a civil society—rather than the battlefield—looks like. It will require a re-evaluation of the types of techniques that are typically trained, with a new emphasis on “soft” techniques, and may even require the adoption of “foreign” techniques. And finally, it will require the honesty to admit that what is often practised as “self-defence” are instead stylized rituals that mimics fighting, but is not the real thing. We have to rethink the purpose of Taekwon-Do as a civilian defence system, rather than a martial system, i.e. a system intended for warfare.

Image Source
Now having said that Taekwon-Do is not good for self-defence in a typically civil society, there are societies that are not as civil as the one I allude to above, where crimes are often violent and life threatening. I'm thinking, for example, of my home country, South Africa. In such a violent society almost all direct encounters with crime are potentially life threatening. Self-defence in this type of society is much different from a society like the one I live in presently, South Korea, where cases of violent crimes are ridiculously low. In a country where violent crimes are prevalent, authentic Taekwon-Do with its brutishly effective techniques are indeed a good system for self-defence. Unfortunately, Taekwon-Do is seldom taught in its authentic combat focussed form, so that what people often learn are the “stylistic combat mimicking” I spoke about earlier, instead of the “Killing Art” it originally was.

Of course, speaking about self-defence, it is important to remember that training in self-defence is a much bigger issue than merely the acquisition of an arsenal of techniques.

If you are really interested in self-defence, consider these books as starters:





I highly recommend both.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

What you say can make sense, but I believe that if you are good and well prepared you know how to calibrate and not to go over the limit. First thing I learned in TKD is to control whatever I'm doing.

SooShimKwan said...

"First thing I learned in TKD is to control whatever I'm doing."

Very good point.

Anonymous said...

I did many different styles of martial arts for years and decided to train by myself most of the time because in North America people many people doesn't get (by choice or stupidity maybe) the spiritual side of Martial Arts. An awakened mind will never use the self-defence techniques if he doesn't get the feeling his life is in danger. Before I moved, my old Muay Thai teacher took only a few people like me which he felt that understood that Martial Art teaches love and respect over violence and destruction. He trained us in the noble art of Muay Boran and just like the "dark side" of TKD or Krav Maga, killing blows and joint and organ demolition, you name it. I have no clue why I would use them unless I'm the worst of situations. Respect and self-control at all times in all aspects of life, not only fighting.

Gravy said...

There are plenty of "softer" moves in Taekwondo, such as palm heel strikes or front kicks aimed at winding an opponent or a punch to give them a bloody nose. The skill is in applying the correct techniques in the correct situation and knowing what are the serious target areas. A good Taekwondo school should test students on the ability to assess situations by putting them in scenarios, e.g. a hand on the lapel may just need a couple of softer techniques to deal with, whereas a knife attack demands a serious response, distract, disarm and then cripple or otherwise destroy the opponent's ability to use the knife - two or preferably three hard techniques that mean they won't be able to launch the attack again. The key thing for the student to learn is REASONABLE FORCE and this is exactly what a court of law would look for.

SooShimKwan said...

Thanks for dropping by, for your input Gravy.