The Partial Art of Taekwondo

Last night I was sitting at a dinner table with a bunch of family members.  Enjoying some of the best ribs I have ever had and some local freshly steamed muscles.  It’s truly amazing how cheap muscles are up here in Halifax.  Anyway, toward the end of the meal the conversation switch to my travel plans for the rest of the summer. I told them (and now I’m telling all of you) that next Friday I will be traveling to Florida to board a 45′ sailboat and to embark on a 7 day class.  You see I’m taking lessons on how to sail larger sailboats.  It’s the first part of a three-part class that will end with me sailing from St. Thomas to Bermuda to Road Island.  After I was done explaining all about the sailing school, I told them that I would be returning to Halifax for a week and then I would be going to Rochester to teach two weeks of Taekwondo Camp.  To which my brother-in-law’s wife said, “You know, I took the Partial Art of Taekwondo for 10 years.”  I thought I misheard her and said, “wait, what did you say?”  To that she replied, “I took the Partial Art of Taekwondo.”  At this point I can’t tell you what happened because I don’t want to be arrested.

Ok, not really but I was in shock.  How could someone who actually took Taekwondo for any length of time say such a negative statement.  It’s nothing I haven’t heard before but it completely caught me off guard and led to me writing this post.

I really don’t want to go into a detailed history of Taekwondo in this post, but it will be necessary to offer a brief overview.  After WWII, martial arts started publicly being practiced in Korea again.  What was being taught however was not a pure Korean martial art but a blending of traditional Korean martial arts (this is a topic for a future post) and various martial arts from Japan and China.  These new arts were given names that ended with the word “Kwan” which loosely translated means “house of” (most people translate it as “institute”).  After a number of years the heads of these Kwans got together and under the realization that a single martial art would be able to be spread globally better than a bunch of smaller ones, merged the Kwan’s and formed Taekwondo (there is a lot of controversy surrounding the naming of Taekwondo but none of that is really important concerning this post).  So what were all these Kwan heads to do.  Each Kwan was a unique martial art.  Each practiced a different set of forms, performed kicks and strikes differently, and in appearance might have been similar but in reality were different.  They couldn’t simply adopt one of the Kwan’s curriculum. Can you imagine, “my Kwan is the best we should use my curriculum!”  What they did was create a new set of forms and standardize the way everything “Taekwondo” was done.  They created “the World Taekwondo Federation” to govern Taekwondo and everything was good, or at least that is what everyone thought.

What these men did was truly amazing. I think anyone would be hard pressed to give an example of a group of very proud men getting together and agreeing on anything.  However, what they did is also the reason why comments like “partial martial art” are frequently heard when referring to Taekwondo.  They did create a new curriculum, but a lot of people would argue that is was only “partial.”  From my understanding it was their intention that this new curriculum would be “partial”.  It would be the core material taught at all Taekwondo schools and it would be supplemented with material from the school’s Kwan.   This however is not what, for the most part, happens in most schools nowadays.  Instead, most schools have lost all connection to their founding Kwans and have therefore dropped most, if not all, of their Kwan’s curriculum.  This leaves these schools with a very limited curriculum. There is nothing wrong with this however.  There is a very successful chain of Taekwondo schools in my home town.  This chain only teaches the core WTF curriculum, focusses primarily on Olympic style sparring and is very successful at national level tournaments.  They are very upfront about what they are teaching or rather how they are teaching Taekwondo. They are teaching a sport and they are very good at it.  So how is what they do “partial”?  It isn’t  They are teaching a sport and their students (athletes) are trained by their instructors (coaches) everything needed to be successful in Taekwondo tournaments.  Therefore, what they are learning is a complete system from the aspect of a sport.

Other schools have not abandoned their Kwan’s curriculum and still teach everything from kicks to throws to pressure points to chokes to punches, etc.  These schools are also “complete” because both the WTF curriculum and the Kwan’s curriculum are taught and they are teaching Taekwondo as a martial art.  So what Taekwondo schools are “partial” schools?  They are the Tae Kwan Dough schools, the “McDonald” schools that pop up on every corner of larger cities and are constantly focused on how they can make more money.  Now let me say there is nothing wrong with a martial art school being successful as long as their curriculum isn’t dumbed down to make more money.  Unfortunately that is what a lot of schools have done.  They removed all their Kwan’s material not to focus on sparring competitions or some other aspect of the art but to allow students to successfully pass their promotion exams.  The more promotion exams the more money.  The more promotion exams the more the students are happy because they are higher ranking.  People love being praised and recognized.  The boy scouts have it right with all the badges.  Nothing inflates the ego more (and makes you feel better) than being higher than someone else.  Students that feel good don’t quit.  Therefore, these schools have more students, which makes them more money, all by simply teaching half of what a “complete” martial art Taekwondo school would teach.

I remember I was giving a black belt promotion exam a long time ago.  One of my female students was testing for 1st dan and she brought a friend to watch.  This friend was taking Taekwondo at one of the local “McDonald” schools.  She loved her school and was very proud of her master instructor.  My student would constantly tell her to transfer to my school so they could practice together.  Her friend would try to get my student to leave for her school.  Needless to say, neither one switched.  They spent a lot of time together outside of Taekwondo but never visited each other’s schools until they tested for their black belts.  The friend tested first and successfully passed her test.  She then came, a few months later, and watched my student test (who also passed).  After the exam she came up to me and said, “I am so embarrassed.”  I then asked, “About what?”  She then explained that she was a black belt and never learned a quarter of the material she just saw her friend do on her promotion exam.  I told her she had nothing to be embarrassed about, that each Taekwondo school was different and that she should be proud of herself.  About a month later she stopped taking Taekwondo.

This all boils down to one question: what do you, the Taekwondo student, want out of Taekwondo (and not what anyone else wants)?  Are you wanting to compete in tournaments?  If so, the school you are attending is “partial” if it doesn’t provide you the means to achieve your goal. Do you want to simply take Taekwondo to get in better shape?  A school that focusses on the workout aspect of Taekwondo is for you.  Be brutally honest on what you want or you might just find yourself in ten years saying, “I’m so embarrassed.”

Something to think about…

by Master Sean Pearson

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Throughout his career, in an effort to become a truly well-rounded martial artist in both practice and philosophy, Master Pearson has studied a wide variety of martial arts: Taekwondo, Kali, Kyudo, Iaido, Aikido, Judo, Jodo, Bando and Tai Chi. He holds dan rankings in six of these arts and master ranks in three of them. To this same end he has studied and achieved national recognition as a wilderness survival instructor, a certified hypnotherapist, and a lecturer in Neuro Linguistic Psychology.

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