ITF Taekwondoin (and various other old-style Taekwondo independents) often remark that the “WTF style” Taekwondo is only a sport, with little hand technique or self-defense curriculum. I demonstrated this to be false. But it is worth examining why this stigma has become attached to the WTF/Kukkiwon style.
There is a legitimate disconnect between the obviously Karate-based system taught in the Kukkiwon approved poomsae and the Olympic sport regulated by the World Taekwondo Federation.
Examine the first Kukkiwon poomsae, Taegeuk Il Jang:
And compare it with some typical (albeit older) Olympic style sparring matches:
The contrast is stark. The dollyo chagi (round kick) only appears in one poomsae in the entire Kukkiwon system — Taegeuk Yuk Jang — yet it is the most prevalent kick in Olympic sparring. Defensively, the two disciplines share only the arae makki (low block), palm black, and sometimes a bakkat makki (outside block). Offensively, most the kicks used in Olympic sparring never appear in the poomsae, with the exception of the crescent and front kicks. However, the front kick is rarely used in Olympic style, and the crescent kick is usually a close range “last ditch” move to score from clinch, not a proper offensive kick such as round or ax kicks. And of all the hand/arm techniques — hooks punches, hammer fists, neck strikes, elbow strikes, etc. — only straight punches to the midsection are legal.
The dynamic differences are as equally stark. Poomsae use techniques meant to be applied in the middle range — i.e., the punching range: about an arm’s length to the opponent. Whereas Olympic style, truer to the Taekwondo stereotype, is predominantly a long range game — i.e. kicking range: a leg’s length to the opponent, or farther. Fighting in this range begets a lot of fancy footwork, because rushing in and smothering the opponent with elbows and knees from a Thai clinch isn’t an option. But the system espoused in the poomsae reveals just exactly the opposite inclination: the use of mid range techniques and the frequent implication of grabbing indicate that the traditional Kukkiwon system is meant to stop an attack. That is, rather than dancing around exchanging blows, the poomsae teaches you to stop the attacking limb, arrest it, and then move to finish the opponent so that he cannot harm you anymore.
In that sense, the system taught in poomsae is much more practical for self-defense. Darting in and out, engaging, disengaging, and reengaging — typical of sport bouts — are things not typically possible when you are defending yourself in an actual attack. You have to stop the problem as quickly as possible in order to keep yourself safe. That means moving in, getting control (grabbing something), and finishing the fight (strikes, take-downs, manipulations, etc.). It’s hard for someone to really hurt you when he has no room to breathe and a forearm jabbed into his neck!
But don’t take this to mean that Olympic sparring is useless practice. While it doesn’t apply directly to self-defense, neither does poomsae. Some of the transferable self-defense skills built through Olympic sparring practice include learning to fight under the pressure of a fully resisting opponent, closing gaps, stopping momentum with midsection kicks, quick reflexes, timing, using angles, speed, kick accuracy, good footwork, and distance awareness.
Both poomsae and Olympic sparring are important parts of Kukki style Taekwondo. Despite the large difference in dynamics between them, with a good teacher and proper application, both can enhance your self-defense ability. However, different types of sparring should be used to enhance your Taekwondo training. This would include a more integrated kickboxing style, where the hands, knees, and clinches are allowed. While this style doesn’t entirely match the dynamic of a violent attack, the fact is, this sort of aliveness training will do far more to prepare you for real world violence than all the pressure testing drills in the world. Fighting is fighting, and good fighters win fights. Fending off an attacker is still a fight. If you can defend and exchange blows for an extended period of time against a skilled opponent, you can certainly defend, close the gap, and successfully dispatch of the average assailant. Therefore, practicing the whole system of Kukki Taekwondo will round out the practitioner’s ability and better equip him to defend himself outside the dojang.