Can you learn Taekwondo without having an actual instructor standing in front of you telling you what to do? The short answer: in my opinion, no. It is not possible to learn Taekwondo – assuming no previous training in a martial art – from just printed and online materials. If you’re completely new to martial arts, and you want to learn Taekwondo, you need to find an instructor.
I think the main reason for this is that people who haven’t done a martial art before – and who haven’t done anything that requires very precise movements of the arms, legs, and whole body – generally have very limited body control. Body control is just the ability to move you arms and legs into very specific positions, and to know whether or not, without looking, an arm or leg is in a given position. It sounds deceptively simple, but a lot of people, particularly by the time they are 20 or 30 years old, have gotten used to a certain, quite limited way of moving, and when they start Taekwondo, they have to unlearn this. Without having a physical instructor in front of you, watching the techniques you do, and correcting them, it’s very difficult to learn body control.
Thus if someone who had never done martial arts before tried to learn Taekwondo from one of Choi’s books, or from some Kukki-won videos online, they may be able to roughly mimic the movements, but there would be a lot of inaccuracies. Furthermore, they wouldn’t be aware that there was anything incorrect about the techniques they were doing.
In addition to that, someone who had never done martial arts before would generally not be able to know whether any one learning resource they find is good. For example, there are loads of forms videos available online; some of them show a person performing a form well, others show a person performing a form incorrectly. Unless you’ve had a lot of training from an experienced instructor, you’re unlikely to be able to tell one from another.
However, there are a lot of caveats to this statement. If someone did have previous martial arts experience, for example – whether it’s Karate or Muay Thai or even something like Judo or Kendo, which focus on very different kinds of combat – then I think they would stand a much better chance of learning Taekwondo without an instructor, and just using books and videos. This is because even though Judoka and Kendoka learn to move in a different way to Taekwondo-in, they still learn body control. They learn to identify the positions of the hands and feet in movements, and can translate that into their own actions. Such a person trying to learn Taekwondo in this way would still face a number of difficulties without an instructor, but not as many.
And similarly, if you’re someone who already has a grounding in Taekwondo, you can certainly learn more Taekwondo without needing an instructor. If you’ve been training in Taekwondo for, say, three years, and you read about the next form you’re learning in a book, or you watch a video of it, then you’re definitely going to be able to learn a lot.
So in conclusion, if you’re completely new to martial arts, and you want to learn Taekwondo, find an instructor. If you have some experience in martial arts, you will definitely benefit from having an instructor, but you could also learn some parts of Taekwondo without one.
Beyond just learning the movements, there are a number of other reasons to train with an instructor. An instructor or the organisation they are part of can promote you through the colour belt grades, and then eventually to black belt. Training with a larger organisation will likely also give you access to Taekwondo competitions and seminars.