Tae Kwon Do in the 21st Century
by Richard Carlucci, II
I started thinking today, and I decided that I'd sit down and write out my thoughts, feelings,
hopes, complaints, and ideas about Tae Kwon Do. So sit back, grab a cold one, and prop your
feet up because this is gonna be a long one.

Tae Kwon Do today is the world's most popular martial art. With somewhere between 40 and 70
million people in almost 200 countries around the world learning Tae Kwon Do in one form or another, it is easily the world's second or third most popular recreational activity as well (Soccer has us smoked by a long shot!). With this popularity comes a lot of positive and negative externalities. Clearly there's a lot of room for the quality of Tae Kwon Do to be lowered, and this has happened a lot. I know many people like to say, "well, in MY TKD school we learn real TKD, not that watered down stuff." The truth of the matter is that you probably DO learn that watered down stuff, you just don't know it.  Or maybe it's not that TKD is necessarily watered down, it's just changed. In my opinion, the latter is more and more becoming the case.

Tae Kwon Do is evolving. Is it a martial art? Yes. Is it a sport? Yes. How can this be? Simple! Tae Kwon Do is becoming ever more diverse as it becomes more popular. This, I think, is one of the positive externalities of its popularity. To understand this, we have to accept some truths about Tae Kwon Do. Let's start with the most basic. TKD is NOT 2,000 years old. It never has been, it never will be. Even the WTF language usually admits this (read  between the lines very carefully!). Usually you'll read something like "TKD is a martial art which traces its origins back nearly 2000 years"... The key there is "traces its origins". What this refers to is some cave paintings that somebody found in Korea that date to 37BC and appear to be of people in "martial poses". From there, the argument is made that martial arts existed in Korea back then. Then there's evidence of wrestling/fighting tournaments during the Silla  (or maybe it was Koryo, I dunno, it doesn't matter much) dynasty around 1100 AD (I think...) that were entertainment for the Kings and such. This, again, is martial arts related. Then there's the moo ye do bo tang jhi, the first martial arts textbook that was written in Korea in the 1750's. Enter Tae Kwon Do, in 1955. All of these things together have a common factor: Korea. In this way, they are sort of linked together and so the argument can be made that they have a common heritage... However, do not be fooled into thinking that this means that TKD is a direct descendent or result of these various martial arts related events in Korean history. Tae Kwon Do is an adaptation of Japanese Karate as introduced to Korea during the Japanese occupation during World War II. After Japan obliterated almost all sense of Korean identity, Tae Kwon Do was established in order to create something that could be used to unify the country and to give it some identity. So Koreans adapted Karate into a slightly different form of martial arts based chiefly on kicking as opposed to punching. There was also some grappling, a la Judo/Hap Ki Do. Over the past few decades, however, Koreans have further tried to make TKD uniquely their own by purposely distancing TKD technique from that of Karate. Notice the higher stances of TKD in contrast to the low stances of Karate. The continous Olympic sparring of TKD in contrast to the point-sparring of Karate. It goes on. In this way, Tae Kwon Do is evolving. It is becoming less Karate and more something unique. In the 1950's, it was nothing more than Korean people doing Karate. Today, I think it is safe to say that we are doing something unique, we are doing Tae Kwon Do.

So what exactly IS Tae Kwon Do, then? Tae Kwon Do is, as I said, a sport and a martial art. To explain this, I'm going to take some time to outline what I think is an excellent Tae Kwon Do curriculum that illustrates both aspects of it in a way that is in keeping with the philosophy of being different from Karate, but at the same time also keeping a certain sense of tradition while blending in an effective element of self defense. This is what I would ideally teach to those people who are REALLY interested in learning Tae Kwon Do.

I would teach basic kicks
. Front, side, roundhouse kicks. Each kick is distinct in its mechanics and its purpose. I could write 30 pages on the mechanics of these three kicks alone (which I am, actually!), but that's for another time. I would also teach axe kick, back kick, hook kick, crescent kicks, fast-step kicks, double/triple kicks (aka the flutter kicks), tornado kicks, jumping/spinning kicks (360 jump spinning hook, flying sidekick, jumping front, 540, 540 hook, etc.). I would teach these kicks in terms of their true purpose. Some kicks are uniquely for demonstration, some are uniquely for Olympic sparring. Some have different versions for different purposes (front kick in forms, front kick in self defense; back kick for sparring, back kick for self defense, back kick for demonstration, etc.). Making sure students understand the fundamental purpose of each kick is key. I too often hear students who have just learned a double roundhouse kick try to talk about it in terms of effectiveness for self defense. A double roundhouse kick is NOT a self defense kick. This needs to be stressed from day one. I think this is the single biggest flaw in TKD today: not stressing individual purpose. Not every kick is suitable for every application and we need to accept this fact.

I would teach boxing punches
. Jab, cross, hook, and uppercut. Elbows, forarm strikes, knees, backfists, etc. as well. These again, however, must be taught with a sense of purpose. You don't do an elbow when you could more easily do a cross. Punching must also be stressed as an integral part of self defense and a minimal part of sparring. Herein is the key in the evolution of TKD, for the most part. While punching is important, it is often neglected in favour of kicking techniques because of the philosophy of distancing TKD from Karate. I do not agree with this. What I agree with is minimizing punching in Olympic style sparring because of its ineffectiveness there. I would, however, stress and implement a comprehensive hand striking program for self defense purposes.

Basic blocking
(low, high, inside, outside, palm, knifehand, etc.) is also key. However, prupose is essential. Adaptation is also important. There is an importance to be placed on "proper technique" to a point, but in discussing self defense, it is foolish and dangerous to demand that 100% proper technique be applied. To block against a punch, the block may be described as an outside block, however, the truth of the matter is that it need not be a 100% technically sound outside block. Some corners can and should be cut in its execution to ensure effectiveness. Proper blocking, however, is essential in forms practice. Sparring is NOT a place for proper blocking. In fact, I discourage blocking in sparring because it has a tendency to distract from the bigger picture. Why spend your time trying to do a perfect low block against a kick, and putting all of your effort into doing that, when you could much more easily slide back, not block, and counter-attack instead? Once again, as you can guess, my focus is on proper applicability to different situations. Self defense blocks will be different from forms blocks, and sparring blocks, if you happen to do them, will be more like slapping away kicks rather than rigidly blocking with perfect technique.

As far as forms, I would personally teach Tae Guek forms because, well, I know them! Ha ha! I might recommend a Pal Gwe as well for each belt level, or one of the ITF poomse (much more on this later!) to complement the Tae Guek. In teaching forms, I would demonstrate some application for the movements, but I generally like to think of doing forms in much the same light as reading poetry. There are the different elements, and you can look deeply at those elements to analyze what's going on.. But at the same time, there is something to be said for simply DOING the form without thinking about it, same as for reading a poem without thinking about it. Sometimes the beauty of the movements (or words, in terms of poetry) is reason enough to do it. Additionally, I think that searching for application can lead people to read too deeply into forms, and really stretch the reality of what's being done. Sometimes a punch really is just a punch. Same for poetry. You can analyze and interpret meaning, and this is good because it makes you think and shows you the reason and the inspiration, but at a certain point you're reading too deeply into what's being said and just pulling things out your ass! A fine line must be struck between interpreting forms and just taking them at face value. Sometimes people say, "this movement is a punch, but notice how the punch is chambered ever so slightly THIS way and this could also be a a grab or a joint lock, or even a throw!". Truth of the matter is if it looks like a punch, sounds like a punch, hurts like a punch when you do it to somebody... It probably is, JUST A PUNCH. It never hurts to think and to examine, but I shy away from examining to the point of absurdity. When I would teach forms, I would stress thoughtful execution combined with a truly artful demonstration. I think forms are a way to demonstrate your true skill in TKD, and you must perform them in a way that conveys your abilities. Do them gracefully, powerfully, with a certain speed and rhythem, and above all, proper technique. Forms are the place where you do your kicks, blocks, punches and stances in textbook fashion. PERFORM a form, DEMONSTRATE a form, don't just do the motions of it. Do some thinking in terms of what the movements really are, but I prefer to focus on the presentation and the proper movement and technique.

Self defense. I think it's very important that we teach a realistic self defense curriculum. We need to address realistic attacks, and perform realistic defenses. If someone punches at you, your best defense is not to kick their hand out of the way, slide back, and perform a flying sidekick to their head! Best defense is to move in, block, and punch back! Grabbing, throwing, joint locking, etc. are also very important. I'm not an advocate of the highly complex joint-locking maneuvers, but I do think that the simple ideas of wrist-licks and such are very useful to someone who is wanting to learn basic self defense. While TKD does not traditionally include these techniques (yes, I'm sure you learn them at your skool, but they are Hap Ki Do or Judo techniques that you're learning.. just cause your skool teaches it doesn't make it necessarily TKD), I would implement them as part of the evolution of the martial art. In this day and age, we cannot ignore the importance of grappling and throwing as an integral part of martial arts training. We cannot stand by and stick to our guns of just kicking and punching; to ignore the truth that close-up combat is more effective is to do a great disservice to ourselves, to our students, to our martial art. As TKD evolves, it must accept these ideas. While I'm not saying we should fully integrate a ground-fighting curriculum, I think that elements of it should be integrated into TKD to form a cohesive self defense program, where the focus is on self defense! To look at a technique and say, "this is not how TKD has traditionally handled this, therefore we will not do it" is foolish. In cases where we once moved back and did kicks, we may consider moving in and doing a throw or a choke. Or maybe we may consider maintaining distance to begin with, and responding to threats in terms of doing a kick, moving in, and THEN working with chokes or throws. For examples of what I think are an absolute fabolous self defense curriculum, I recommend visiting and then going to the members section, login using "tiger" as the username and "t1g3r" as the password, and then view the self defense videos. I would teach a lot of things in exactly that fashion. Keeping in mind, however, that these techniques are merely drills. A drill is a choreographed situation which is designed to teach and ingrain a single idea of self defense into the practitioner. A drill is not the only technique that is to be taught. If a drill begins with a simple cross to the face as the attack, then the defense ensues, then one must understand that perhaps the attack will not always be so simple. Maybe you will be attacked with a jab, you dodge, and then a cross, where you execute the defense. From there perhaps you are grabbed, and so you implement the grabbing defense drills that you've learned. True self defense is the ability to convert the single drills you've learned into a cohesive defense against different kinds of attacks in succession. Maybe the drill you learn is against a cross, and what you do is block the cross and then counter with your own cross. All well and good. So you are attacked walking home one night by a cross. You block, then counter. What now? Your drill hasn't covered what happens after. That's the thing we need to recognize. Drills don't address an entire fight. Drills address different elements of what might happen during a fight. After your counter, he may grab you and choke you! So you therefore apply a technique you may have learned in a drill against a choke. Applicability is key!

Sparring. I would teach Olympic style Tae Kwon Do sparring. We cannot ignore that this is the future of TKD in terms of what most people will think of when it is mentioned. With its inclusion in the Olympics and nearly every major international multi-sport event, Olympic style TKD is here to stay. It is one of the most physically demanding and technically complex sports in the world. It is full contact, high speed, and very advanced. This is how I would teach it. I have no time or desire to teach "non-contact" sparring. I am teaching a martial art and a full-contact sport, not ballroom dancing. Sparring must be viewed as seperate in terms of techniques and effectiveness from self defense. What works in sparring is not what works in self defense, and vice versa. I'll be blunt and say I don't give a flying fuck if a triple roundhouse won't work for self defense; it is very effective in Olympic style sparring and so it should and WILL be taught. Again, seperating sparring from self defense is important. Sparring is NOT, repeat NOT NOT NOT an excercise in preperation for self defense. Sparring is a sport and the object is to score points by kicking or punching to the various legal target areas. Because you are awesome at sparring does not mean you will be awesome at fighting and self defense, and vice versa. I cannot stress enough that Olympic style TKD sparring should not EVER be viewed as any indication of or preperation for self defense. The two are entirely different. When doing self defense, sparring ideas should be ignored. When sparring, self defense ideas should be ignored. With that in mind, I would also teach a self-defense oriented sparring at black belt level. Olympic sparring is the most visible indication of the difference between Karate and TKD. Koreans have purposely adjusted the rules of TKD sparring to engineer an entirely different sport. We must acknowledge that this is the evolution. As I said, a self-defense oriented sparring must be implemented at black belt level in order to truly teach self defense. Doing drills are one thing, and they are good, but we must teach applicability of drills. Rather than simply waiting to be attacked, we must hone our ability to combine drills (as I discussed above) in a controlled atmosphere. A realistic style of sparring (more like fighting) will be necessary, therefore, to address this necessity.

Those are the basics (not everything, mind you! Just the basics!) of what I would teach in terms of TKD. I think those things address the evolution of TKD and of martial arts in general. Much of the watered down atmosphere that we see now in TKD is the result of a failure to address the evolution of martial arts in favour of sticking to "tradition.", but at the same time making "tradition" more acceptable to people who are too lazy or too ignorant to accept what it means to have the kind of dedication that "tradition" requires. So we've addressed what it means for TKD to be both a sport and a martial art, and we've addressed a way in which these two aspects can be effectively taught so that they are both equally emphasized but not confused.  

Now that I've tried to address what TKD really is, and what its evolution is leading to and has lead to, I wanna talk about the future of TKD. We have to accept that TKD will grow. Olympic style TKD, as I've noted, will become more popular and will eventually be what people think of when they hear TKD. I don't think there's anything that can be done about that, nor do I think it's a bad thing. In fact, I think it's a good thing. It puts a face on what we're doing, a kind of unity in a single vision of TKD as a sport, but at the same time can allow us to have unity as a martial art as well. However, in the future, we have to address the sport as an aspect of TKD which can only be learned in concert with the martial art of TKD. Sport TKD and Martial Art TKD must NOT be seperated. At the core of that, I think, is the divide between ITF and WTF. That is the real test of the future of TKD. I've been told by people in the know that we should expect good things to come out of the push for reunifying the two groups (basicly, it was put to me like this: "I would STRONGLY recommend that you go out and begin to learn ITF poomse on your own so that you will have a good knowledge of them"). What will reunification mean? I'm not entirely sure. I don't think anybody can guess what will happen to TKD if the ITF and WTF are unified. What I can say, however, is that I think reunification will represent a very serious chance for what I was talking about above: having a common idea of TKD and teaching things in a way that incorporates all aspects of martial arts as opposed to a singular concentration of sport OR self defense, etc. I won't speculate much on this, though. There's too much uncertainty to make any concrete statements about TKD's future. I think we need to focus right now on achieving completeness in what we teach individually, and whatever happens politically with the various organizations... we'll have to work with as it happens.

Speaking of teaching, I have some views I'd like to share on that matter, as well. I see too much these days that there are people who have just got their yellow or green belt and they start talking about, "oh, I want to teach TKD some day!" and I think to myself: "How can you possibly be thinking about teaching TKD?! You haven't even learned how to kick and punch yet!". I'm all for enthusiastic students, I really am. It's just that I think it's wrong to take someone who's been doing TKD for 9 months and allow them to have any kind of responsibility in class. Hold a kicking target once in a while during class, sure. But that's where I think the line should be drawn. Teaching is something that requires knowledge of the material. Lots of yellow belts think they know how to do a front kick, and think they're ready to teach it, maybe (lots don't, too). The truth is, many of us who've been doing TKD for years still aren't sure of the best way to teach a front kick! I feel like something is genuinely wrong when there are colour belts teaching TKD. I don't particularly care how good the colour belts are, how much they think they know, how much they like to teach or how good they are at teaching... Colour belts should be learning TKD. Teaching is an incredible way to discover new things about TKD, but it only has that effect if you already know what it is that you're teaching. Colour belts don't have enough knowledge of TKD yet to be teaching it. Even advanced colour belts, like red or brown or high red belts (or however you rank them) shouldn't be teaching. They don't have the skills yet or the experience in TKD to really know what's going on with what they're doing, and so they can't communicate it well enough to be teaching it. I didn't start really exploring and understanding all of what I'd learned until I got my black belt. I simply couldn't! There was always so much to learn at each colour belt, so many new things, that it seemed like I didn't have enough time to really absorb everything from all of what I had learned. Black belt is the time when you should be doing that. You begin to really explore the ideas of what you're doing, the concepts. You've learned the stuff, now it's time to LEARN the stuff! When I was 1st dahn, I did a lot with refining and perfecting and observing everything, really digging deep into what was going on and situational application and stuff. Now that I'm 2nd dahn, I'm focusing a lot on developing theories of movement and body mechanics and trying to explore some basic groundrules of Tae Kwon Do motion. THESE are the kinds of things you need to be exploring when you're teaching. You shouldn't be teaching back kick when you just learned the motions a few months before! Colour belts know motions. They know movements. They know Tae Guek Sam Jhang and what to do at each count, and they think they know what each motion is for and all that kind of thing. And this is good. But what they don't know is the mechanics behind it all, they don't know the reasoning or the theory. For instance, they may know that such and such move is to block a kick and then you punch to counter-attack. Great. But do they know WHY you're doing such and such move to block said kick, as opposed to another move? Do they know why you're using a punch to counter-attack instead of a kick? And it's not as though there's certain reasons for each form that you MUST learn why this happens and that... It's just that as you have so much more time and black belt to really think and learn new things, you start to develop your own ideas (or at least you should be!) about attacking and defending and kicking and punching. There's just so much there that colour belts can't see because they're having trouble just getting the motions correct! And if they can only do the motions... How are they ever going to be able to TEACH anything? Somebody once told me that I could memorize Tae Guek Chil Jhang in 10 minutes, but that it would take me 10 MONTHS to learn it. That makes the difference.

I know before that I said that I shy away from really digging too deeply into the application of forms, and what I just said may seem to contradict that. But the point I'm making now is not so much that people need to develop concrete ideas of the application of forms, but they need to develop ideas about TKD in general. If you just learn the motions, you're not going to have any theories to back it up, no principles behind what you're teaching. In that manner, you're going to end up contradicting yourself a lot because you have no solid basis for explanation, nothing you prescribe to in terms of deciding what's what in TKD. That's what you develop at black belt. A systematic interpretation and understanding of TKD that you can consistantly apply to different situations and use to explain different movements or techniques. If, for instance, you are someone who truely believes in Sine Wave (just for example), then when you teach forms and such, you will always be teaching them from a Sine Wave persective. That's going to be your basis for teaching. If you're just teaching motions, then what principles do you use to guide what you're teaching?! This is something colour belts simply don't have the ability to grasp yet because they're still so engrossed in just learning the motions. They can't see the forest yet for all of the trees!!!

I'm sure there are more than a few people right now who are asking themselves if they think they can develop those kinds of ideas as black belts, or even if they should or need to be. And I think the answer is most definitely yes. For me, it's an issue of what your black belt means. I wouldn't be comfortable being a black belt if I wasn't doing anything with it. If I just went to class and did my thing and wasn't growing much as a person or, more importantly, as a martial artist, I wouldn't feel like I was doing enough. That's why there are certain black belts that I don't give too much attention to because I know that they're not doing anything besides going to class and going through the motions. Then there are some who are making serious contributions to TKD and really expanding the knowledge of the martial art and the sport. I have no time for people who test for a new black belt the very moment they become eligible, and then they put no true effort into it. It's like I've seen some that are doing nothing more than the bare minimum, and then a few months before they're going to test, they start working on some requirements that they "have to know", and they don't really learn them, they just memorize them for their test and that's it. 3rd dahn black belts who can't even do a side kick properly... There's too many of them these days and I can't stand it. I personally believe that to advance to the next dahn level, you need to really DO something! Wether it's an outstanding competition record (on a national level, perhaps), a truely unique idea about TKD in general, maybe development of a new curriculum on say.... defending against certain kinds of attacks. You know, SOMETHING! Really make a contribution and develop some working knowledge and make a name for yourself. For me, I plan on making a serious contribution to TKD before I test for 3rd dahn. And then before I test for 4th dahn, I plan on giving more to the art, and on an even greater level than when I tested for 3rd dahn! The higher you climb, the more there should be required of you. I've seen some people that're 5th dahn, been doing TKD for the bare minimum of time they could (I dunno, 13 years or so, maybe), and I have no respect for their rank. If I got a chance, I'd ask them what they've done with their time in TKD? What have they contributed? What makes them worthy of wearing a 5th dahn as opposed to 4th or 3rd? Just hanging around long enough shouldn't cut it (sadly, though, it does a lot of times). I really think that there ought to be more value put in the different black belt rankings.

That's the trouble, though. There's not enough accountability anymore in TKD. There's not enough acceptance of the fact that things aren't supposed to be EASY. When I teach TKD and somebody says, "that's hard, I can't do that, I don't know how", I wonder why it is that they're even there... People come to learn TKD because they want to learn something that they don't know, something new. But then it baffles me when I'm met with opposition in trying to teach something new! There's far too much discouragement from students when they don't get things perfect the first time. In this day and age, people expect instand results and if they don't get things the first time around, it frustrates them immeasurably. TKD is not something that people should be understanding on the first day. It is something that they should be working hard to understand. And they should put forth the effort to truly LEARN something, not just memorize it enough to get by. This is important. I've noticed that in the vast majority of cases where I see someone who just plain sucks at TKD, it's not so much an issue of "such a shame.. his instructor is very bad and doesn't teach well"; it's nearly always an issue of "he doesn't put forth the effort." No matter how fantastic the instructor is, no matter how much he knows and how much he tries to teach you as best he can, the true determinant of TKD skill always will be the student. I personally feel like I have one of the best instructors in the world today, Master Jung Ho Lee. His skill is unmatched by anyone I've ever seen, and his reputation is among the most respected (he and his five brothers make up the largest single family of masters and grandmasters of TKD in the world today, and possibly ever). HOWEVER, no matter how great he is, no matter how good what he teaches is... Not all of his students will end up being fantastic martial artists. There is only so much that he can do in the way of developing quality students. The student must take a certain responsibility in learning and practicing and demanding of themselves. I can do the things I can today partly because of my instructor, but also largely because of what I demanded from myself. I never accepted anything less than my absolute best, and always strove to improve. That's the key. YOU have to want to put forth the effort to become the best. The student can't expect the instructor to work miracles! If you can't kick past your knees, there's nothing the master can do to make you kick any higher! All he can do is teach you the proper technique; YOU have to make the progress by striving ON YOUR OWN to improve flexibility and strength. YOU have to want it, YOU have to do it. The instructor can provide inspiration and instruction, but again, that means nothing if the student isn't willing to put forth the proper effort. Somebody once said to me, "wow, Mr. Carlucci, I wanna learn how to do those kicks that you do some day! I want mine to look like that! You were lucky that you had Master Lee there to give you so much attention when you were first learning! There's a lot of us now and I don't think I'm going to be as good as you because I don't feel like he has enough time to devote entirely to me". And I thought about this for a second, and I said, "It doesn't matter. Master Lee teaches you right now the same things he taught me. He shows you just how he showed me. Because he could spend half the class time on just ME, versus only 10 minutes of class time on just YOU, that doesn't make a difference. You still learn the same things. The way you get to where you want to be is by practicing. Master Lee is going to give you all the advice and instruction he has to offer in those 10 minutes. Beyond those 10 minutes or so, honestly, he's just watching you practice! That's all he did for me! He gave about 10 good minutes of instruction, advice, ideas, etc. and the rest of the time was nothing more than him watching me practice! That's all there is to it; you just have to PRACTICE!" Those comments that I recieved illustrated a point to me that I think is too common these days.. People expect that Master Lee is going to do the learning for them. That's simply not true. Master Lee is an excellent, fantastic instructor. But there's only so much he can say to you. At a certain point, it's no longer about how much he can teach you, it's about how much you're willing to do with what he's taught you. If you want a perfect side kick, you learn a sidekick, and then you practice! Master Lee can teach you side kick in 15 minutes. After that, there's not much more that he can do for you besides correct you once in a while as he sees necessary. Beyond those 15 minutes, the difference between a "bleh" sidekick and a "WOW!" sidekick rests entirely in the student and how much work they are willing to put into the learning and the practicing.

I'm amazed if you've read this far! No doubt by now you've gone through a few beers, a nap or two, probably your butt has fallen asleep in your chair... Yeah, I know I wrote a lot. I just hope that maybe some of what I said has made sense to people. Maybe I helped somebody, maybe I inspired somebody, or maybe I just said some of the things others have been thinking, too. All I know for sure is that what I've written is what I believe about Tae Kwon Do. Please feel free to disagree, to think, to absorb. As I said, if you're a martial artist (especially a black belt!) and your mind is stagnant... then you should be doing something more with yourself!

I'll leave it at that....

Richard Carlucci is a 2nd dan at Lee Brothers Tae Kwon Do, in Raleigh, NC, USA. He is an instructor & member of the demonstration team. He has been training in WTF TKD sice 1997 & was a bronze Medalist at the 2002 United States AAU National Championship (among many others).