5 ways to improve your kicking techniques in Taekwondo

Taekwondo is a martial art known for its impressive kicking techniques. Fast and complicated kicks are a part of every Taekwondo demonstration, and kicking techniques usually score higher in sparring competitions.

Performing kicking techniques well requires excellent balance, flexibility, strength, and precision. These are not physical characteristics that most people have naturally, so it takes a long time and a lot of effort to learn how to perform kicking techniques well. It also requires good training methods, and so here are five ways that you can improve your kicking techniques.

1. Practise regularly and often

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The best way to improve your balance, flexibility, and strength for kicking techniques is to simply practise the techniques often. I have often found that a good time to practise kicking techniques is just before a regular training session. I often spend the 10 minutes before a class starts practising kicking techniques. If you do two or three training sessions a week, and practise kicking before each one, your flexibility and balance will steadily improve.

Similarly, I find that certain routines of kicking techniques work better than others. I find that the best routines gradually increase the difficulty of the kicks, and also don’t jump from one muscle group to another. The routine I often use is:

  • front rising kicks
  • front snapping kicks
  • inward crescent kicks
  • outward crescent kicks
  • side kicks
  • turning kicks
  • rising side kicks
  • reverse turning kicks

After that you can do any other kicks you like in any order. I tend to do about 20 of each kick before moving onto the next one. That might seem like quite a lot of kicks in total, but you don’t have to do the full list each time – I often just do down to turning kicks.

2. Stance holding

This is actually one of my favourite training activities, though I can imagine most people would find it boring. It’s quite simple: just choose a stance, perform it well, and then hold it for a certain amount of time – often 1 – 2 minutes.

That might sound easy – and for a walking stance it is – but for a low sitting stance (or the most difficult one – a low fixed stance) it’s harder. Doing this activity for certain stances helps improve your balance – in particular sitting stance, bending stance, and one-leg stance. This in turn helps to improve your kicking techniques.

When you start, you might only hold a stance for 1 or 1 ½ minutes, but over time, that will get easier, so increase the length of time you hold the stance for to 2 minutes, 2 ½ minutes, and so on.

3. Basic jumping

The most difficult kicks to perform in Taekwondo are jumping kicks. One of the brilliant things about Changheon-yu Taekwondo, and the patterns that Choi Hong-hi designed, is that the training for jumping kicks is partially built into the patterns. The first jumping kick in the Changheon-yu patterns appears in the black-stripe pattern Chungmu, and then the next ones appear in Gwanggae and Gyebaek. But also in Chungmu is a move consisting of a 360-degree jump and spin on the spot. This technique is just one of several fairly basic jumps that are good for improving your jumping kicks.

The basic jumps are:

  • ‘l’ stance, jumping on the spot and landing in the same stance
  • ‘l’ stance, jumping on the spot and changing from a left to a right stance (or a right to a left)
  • ‘l’ stance, jumping on the spot and turning to face the opposite direction, landing in the same stance (180-degree turn)
  • the same as the above, but spinning in the opposite direction
  • ‘l’ stance, jumping on the spot and spinning 360 degrees in the air, landing in the same stance in the same direction
  • the same as the above, but spinning in the opposite direction

If you’re just starting out at learning jumping kicks (or you are an instructor looking for some basic jumping technique exercises to give your students) these exercises are excellent for improving your balance through a jump. They get you used to landing correctly after having jumped and spun in the air.

4. Slow kicks

This is probably the most effective method for improving your kicks. Try performing kicking techniques much more slowly than usual, holding each of the important positions of the kick. For example, if you were doing a side kick, first bring the foot up next to the opposite knee, then hold for 5 seconds, then lift the foot up so that it is at the height of the kick, but the knee is still pulled in, then hold for 5 seconds. Over 5 seconds, extend the leg to the position of the side kick, then once the leg is fully extended, hold it in position for 5 seconds. Then over another 5 seconds, lower the foot again.

As you get better at the exercise, increase the amount of time you hold each position for.

This technique is excellent for improving your balance, strength, and the precision of your kicks. It’s probably the most effective method for doing so, but you have to do it often – probably at least twice a week – with a wide range of different kicking techniques.

5. Foot shape exercises

A lot of students find it difficult to get the right foot shape for different kicks. A side kick is usually performed with the foot-sword, thus the foot-sword must be pushed forward (so that you don’t hit your opponent with the sole of your foot). A front snapping kick is usually performed with the ball of the foot, thus the toes must be pulled back.

Practise moving your feet into these different shapes – practise pulling the toes back or pushing the foot-sword forwards. This is an excellent exercise because you can do it even just while lying down watching television.

Taekwondo Forms in 1958

It could be argued that the first book ever written on Taekwondo was a book published by Hwang Ki in 1958. The book is called ‘Tangsudo Textbook’ – now while it could be counter-argued that this makes it a book on Tangsudo and not Taekwondo (particularly since Hwang Ki’s Mudeok-kwan remained separate from the other kwans of the Kwan Era, and since Hwang Ki’s style of martial arts still exists today, and still uses the name Tangsudo) Mudeok-kwan was one of the nine original kwans, and this book is about the style of martial arts that were being practised in Korea at this time. The first book to be published with the name ‘Taekwondo’ on it was published by Choi Hong-hi a year later.

Hwang Ki’s book is freely available to view online. A copy of the book is owned by the University of Hawaii in Manoa, and they have scanned the book and made it available online here: http://evols.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/handle/10524/1073

On page 19 of the book is some fascinating information. Hwang lists the forms that are practised in Tangsudo:

List of forms from Hwang Ki's 'Tangsudo Textbook' (1958)

There are a number of things that are fascinating about this information. Firstly: the spellings of the names of these forms. Hwang lists a series of five forms that are called the 삥앙 pping-ang forms. These are clearly the Pinan forms from Karate (here Hwang uses the Okinawan name for them, rather than the Japanese, which is Heian). Unlike nowadays, when it’s relatively easy to use various dictionaries to find the correct Korean pronunciation of Japanese words, Hwang has simply best approximated the Japanese pronunciation of the name of each form using hangeul.

So in order to find out which forms Hwang is talking about here, the first thing we have to do is match each one to the correct name of the form.

Section 1:
  1. 기초형 1부 gicho hyeong 1 bu – This is actually the correct name of the form – 기초 gicho – a series of three basic forms still practised in some schools today.
  2. 기초형 2부 gicho hyeong 2 bu
  3. 기초형 3부 gicho hyeong 3 bu
  4. 삥앙 초단 pping-ang chodan – Clearly Pinan – a series of five basic forms – called Heian in Japanese Karate. The correct name for them in Korean is 평안 Pyeong-an.
  5. 삥앙 2단 pping-ang 2 dan
  6. 삥앙 3단 pping-ang 3 dan
  7. 삥앙 4단 pping-ang 4 dan
  8. 삥앙 5단 pping-ang 5 dan
  9. 나이한찌ー 초단 naihanjji chodan – Clearly Naihanchi – a series of three forms, of which this is the first. The series is also called Tekki in Japanese, and 철기 Cheolgi in Korean.
  10. 빳싸이 ppatssai – Clearly Passai – called Bassai in Japanese Karate. The correct Korean translation is 발새 Balsae.

There’s nothing all that odd about the forms in section 1. This is a fairly standard list of forms that colour belt students today practise as they progress towards black belt. What’s mainly of interest in section 1 is how Hwang has approximated the pronunciations of the names of the forms.

Section 2:
  1. 나이하찌 2단 naihajji 2 dan – Clearly Naihanchi Nidan – no idea why Hwang changed the spelling here from that in section 1.
  2. 나이하찌 3단 naihajji 3 dan
  3. 찟듸 jjitdui – Clearly Jitte.
  4. 찐도ー jjindo – Clearly Chintō.
  5. 소림 장권 (小林長拳) sorim janggwon – This is fascinating – more on this further down.
  6. 꾸상군 (公相君) kkusanggun – Clearly Kūshankū. The correct name in Korean is 공상군 Gongsanggun.
  7. 로ー하이 rohai – Clearly Rōhai. The correct name in Korean is 로학 Rohak.
  8. 54 보 (步) 54 bo – Clearly Gojūshiho. The correct name in Korean is 오십사보 Oshipsabo.
  9. 지욘 jiyon – Clearly Jion. The correct name in Korean is 자은 Ja-eun.
  10. 완시유ー wanshiyu – Clearly Wanshū. The correct name in Korean is 완수 Wansu.
  11. 삼전 (三戰) samjeon – Clearly Sanchin (based on the hanja).
  12. 전장 (轉掌) jeonjang – This is the form Tenshō. It’s not obvious from the hangeul, but the meaning of the hanja is the same as that of the kanji for Tenshō.
  13. 씨ー산 (十三) sshisan – Clearly Seisan.
  14. 세ー시얀 seshiyan – This would appear to also be Seisan. There are multiple different pronunciations of the name of the Karate form – this is probably why the form is listed here twice.
  15. 씨빠이 (十八) sshippai – From the hanja this is clearly Seipai.
  16. 싼씨빠이 (三十八) ssansshippai – It’s not obvious which form this is. The hanja means ’38’, implying that there are 38 movements in the form, but there is no Karate kata with this name. It’s possible that there is an error on this line in the book, and that this should say 三十六, which is the name of a form – Sanseirū – meaning ’36’.
  17. 빼지유린 (百步連) ppaejiyurin – This is interesting – this would appear to be the form Pechurin (based on the hangeul). Not much has been written about this form in English, and this is the first time I’ve seen hanja / kanji written for it anywhere. The correct hangeul writing of 百步連 is 백보련 Baekboryeon, and it roughly means ‘100 continuous steps’.
  18. 소ー진 sojin – Clearly Sōchin.
  19. 사이후아ー saihua – Clearly Saifa (there is no corresponding letter for ‘f’ in Korean, so here it’s been approximated as a ‘h’).
  20. 구르룽후아ー gureurunghua – It’s not obvious from the romanisation, but from the pronunciation this is clearly Kururunfa.
  21. 로하이 初段 rohai chodan – Clearly Rōhai. Again, Hwang has already listed this form further up. Here Hwang seems to suggest that there are three Rōhai forms, and that this is the first.
  22. 로하이 2단 rohai idan
  23. 로하이 3단 rohai samdan
  24. 얼 씨쓰슈 (二十四手) eol sshisseushyu – This again is interesting. There’s no Karate form with this exact name, but there is one that’s similar: 二十四歩 Nijūshiho. 二十四手 means ‘twenty-four hands’, whereas 二十四歩 means ‘twenty-four steps’. A lot of Karate forms have a name that’s a number followed by ‘hands’ or ‘steps’ so the difference isn’t significant. What’s particularly interesting here, however, is that Hwang’s phonetic approximation using hangeul is not a phonetic approximation of the Japanese pronunciation – eol sshisseushyu and nijūshiho clearly sound nothing alike. But it is a phonetic approximation of the Chinese pronunciation of 二十四手, which is èrshíshǒu (in Mandarin). (If you’re not used to reading romanised hangeul or Hanyu Pinyin, then you’ll just have to trust me that the pronunciations of these words are very similar.) This shows that Hwang had a knowledge of how certain words were pronounced in Chinese.
  25. 운슈 (雲手) unshyu – Clearly Unshu.
  26. 담퇴 damtoe – There is no Karate kata with a name like this.
  27. 타이그권 (太極拳) taigeugwon – This one’s complicated – more on this below.

There’s a lot to remark here.

Firstly is Hwang’s use of the character ー. While this character looks like the Chinese character 一 yi, meaning ‘one’, it probably isn’t. It’s quite likely a character known as a chōonpu in Japanese. In Japanese, the basic phonological unit is a mora rather than a syllable. A single syllable in Japanese can be comprised of one or two morae – a syllable with two morae has a greater stress or length than a syllable with one mora. Hwang is trying to represent the Japanese pronunciation of words using hangeul, and it seems like he’s borrowed the chōonpu character from Japanese in order to represent the stressed syllables. (Read more about this character here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C5%8Donpu)

Now by far the most interesting form listed in section 2 is the one called Sorim Janggwon. This is interesting because there is no Karate kata with this name. (If there were, it’s name in Japanese would be Shōrin Chōken.) Any time the characters 小林 appear in Korean and Japanese martial arts, it’s usually a reference to the Shaolin Temple in China. Since this form has not come from Japanese Karate, the presence of this form in this list would appear to show some Chinese influence on Hwang’s style of martial arts.

This is crucial because Hwang reportedly studied martial arts under a Chinese instructor for a while, but the veracity of this is uncertain. The fact this form appears in this list may support the idea that Hwang had some training in Chinese martial arts.

The name 小林長拳 altogether means ‘Shaolin Long Fist’.

This Chinese influence may be further supported by the last two items in the list. The penultimate item is 담퇴 damtoe. There’s no Karate form with a name anything like this, so it’s nothing to do with Karate. But this sounds very strongly like Tántuǐ – from Chinese martial arts. It’s difficult to discern more about this from the information given, but you can read more about Tántuǐ here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C3%A1n_Tu%C7%90

The final item, 타이그권 (太極拳) taigeugwon, is interesting – it could be a reference to several things. There is a series of three forms in Karate called Taikyoku, which has the same kanji 太極. These forms are known to have been practised in Korea at this time, and they appear in Choi Hong-hi’s 1959 book, as well as many others. However, 太極拳 is also the name of the Chinese martial art Tàijíquán – more commonly known in English as Taichi. The fact that Hwang has given the full name of that martial art style here, rather than just the name for the Karate form, suggests that here he is referring to the Chinese martial arts style. Why he’s referring to this in a list of forms is not clear; however, it would further support the idea of Chinese influence on Hwang’s style of martial arts.

Worksheet: Counting in Korean – Native Korean Numerals 10 to 100

If you’re a Taekwondo instructor, you can give this worksheet to your students as practice of Korean numbers. It contains ten exercises on the Native Korean numbers 10 to 100, using only the romanisation of the Korean in the Revised Romanisation system. Click the link to download the PDF file.

Worksheet: Counting in Korean – Native Korean Numerals 10 to 100

Sahyun and sasung – unravelling the mystery

If you’re fortunate to be the owner of a copy of Choi Hong-hi’s condensed or full Encyclopaedia of Taekwondo, and you’ve wandered through some of the pages at the back of the book concerning belts and ranks and titles, you might have seen a section describing the Korean titles given to black belts of various degrees.

In this section there are some very familiar words such as sabeom (written sabum in the book), which means ‘instructor’. The hangeul for sabeom is 사범, and you can look this word up in any reasonably comprehensive Korean-English dictionary. The word is also listed on many websites about Taekwondo as meaning ‘instructor’, and is used in lots of Taekwondo schools every week around the world.

However, also in this section of Choi’s book, you’ll also see words such as sahyun and sasung. Choi describes these words as being used to refer to high-ranking Taekwondo practitioners; however, if you try to look these words up in a Korean dictionary, they are nowhere to be found.

I’ve done this many times over the last few years to try to figure out what the hangeul and hanja for these words are, but have never found anything in any dictionary to suggest that they even are Korean words. Part of the difficulty in doing this is guessing at what the hangeul might be. In his various books, Choi uses his own system of romanising Korean text that is largely based on the American pronunciation of English letters. Knowing this I would guess that the hangeul for sahyun would actually be 사현 and the hangeul for sasung would be 사성; however, putting these words into good online Korean dictionaries (such as dic.naver.com) reveals nothing.

I concluded that these words were simply too obscure to be included in a normal Korean dictionary. I reached a dead-end. Until that was I discovered this page http://www.masterhoward.com/news/342-explanation-of-itf-tkd-titles.html by a Dublin Taekwondo instructor called Robert Howard, which finally gave me the answers I was looking for.

The reason these terms do not appear in standard Korean dictionaries is because they are new terms invented by Choi. This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising – Choi studied calligraphy from a young age, and seemed to like inventing new words (he came up with the name ‘Taekwondo’). I think this is even evident in the names he chose for the Changheon-yu forms, which I think are far more interesting than those of the Kukki-won forms.

The information on the page linked above reveals that sahyun is actually 사현 師賢 sahyeon. 사 師 sa means ‘teacher’, ‘master’, or ‘expert’, and 현 賢 hyeon means ‘a worthy or virtuous person’ or ‘moral’, thus sahyeon means ‘moral teacher’ or ‘wise teacher’. The syllable 현 also appears in words such as 현자 賢者 hyeonja and 현인 賢人 hyeonin, both of which mean ‘wise man’ or ‘sage’.

Similarly, sasung is actually 사성 師聖 saseong. 성 聖 seong means ‘sage’, and thus saseong means ‘sage master’ or ‘sage teacher’ – a title so honorific it could pretty much only be used for Choi himself. The syllable 성 聖 seong also appears in the word 성현 聖賢 seonghyeon, which means ‘sage’.

사현 師賢 sahyeon; moral teacher, wise teacher
사성 師聖 saseong; sage-master

These two words reflect the idea that Taekwondo is not just a method of combat – it is also a moral culture. They also show that high-ranking Taekwondo practitioners should not just be skilled fighters, but should be moral teachers and leaders.

These two words also, to an extraordinary degree, show the presence of Confucianism in Taekwondo. Korea was, for a very long time, a model Confucian society, and Confucian ideals still permeate modern Korean culture. One of the central ideas in Confucianism is that of the sage-king – the idea that the leader of a nation (and leaders in general) should aspire to be like the great sage-kings of antiquity – benevolent rulers who embodied Confucian ideals. The fact that Choi has chosen words here that seem to specifically refer to sagehood shows the influence of Confucianism on Taekwondo.

These two words will be added to the next edition of Taekwondo Terminology (whenever that comes out).

Should forms be part of Taekwondo at the Olympics?

Taekwondo has been an Olympic medal sport since the 2000 Sydney games. It is the second East Asian martial art to be introduced to the Olympic Games – the first being Judo. In 2020, at the Tokyo Games, Karate will be the third East Asian martial art to be included in the Games.

At most non-Olympic Taekwondo competitions, there are a variety of events: sparring, tag-team sparring, forms, team forms, board-breaking, and sometimes even musical forms. In the Taekwondo at the Olympics, there are only sparring events – sparring being one of the better spectator sports. However, when Karate joins the Olympics, there will be both kumite (sparring) and kata (forms) events. This leads me to ask: should there also be forms events for the Taekwondo at the Olympic Games?

Firstly, the Olympics are odd in how they include East Asian martial arts. It’s odd to include only Judo, Taekwondo, and Karate, and not so many of the other equally-valid East Asian martial arts, such as Kendo or modern Wushu. The Olympics are, of course, originally a European tradition, which is why they include so many of the traditional European sports, such as javelin, discus, shot put, the triathlon, and the pentathlon, but if East Asian martial arts are going to be included, why only those three? And given the similarity of Taekwondo and Karate, why is Karate only being included in the Olympics 20 years after Taekwondo?

Part of the reason for this may be which sports and events are best for spectators. Taekwondo and Karate are similar, so will spectators want to watch both? And this may also be part of the reason why forms are not part of Olympic Taekwondo. Sparring is faster and more explosive, so more exciting for spectators to watch. It’s also easier to understand – whoever lands the most shots (generally) wins. With forms, however, unless you have some training in Taekwondo, it’s difficult to know when watching a form whether it’s been performed well or not.

However, if forms are being included in the Karate events, then there’s no reason why they can’t be included in the Taekwondo events. Also, since forms are part of every other Taekwondo competition, and the Olympics are supposed to be the ultimate world competition for the sports that are included, then there should be forms events in the Olympic Taekwondo. As for making the forms events interesting for spectators, that’s what commentators are for – commentators are experts on the sport who guide the audience through what’s happening.

So I think that forms should be included in the Taekwondo at the Olympics. They show a different set of athletic abilities to sparring – jumping reverse turning kicks are rarely used in sparring, but they are difficult to perform well and spectacular to watch. Kukkiwon recently announced the development of ten new forms specifically to be used for competitions, and they are notably ‘flashier’ than the other Kukkiwon forms (and than most other forms in Taekwondo), with more kicks and kicking combinations, and more complicated kicks. Perhaps these forms were designed to be more exciting to watch, and thus designed to be used at an Olympic Taekwondo forms event.

Taekwondo Training Advice: Practise a form no more than three times on any one day

Something that I say to students when I teach them forms is that you should not perform the same form more than three times on any one day. (Three doesn’t have to be the limit, but the point is don’t repeat the same form too many times.)

When I see students practising forms, I often see them do the same form over and over again, at the same speed, and without much concentration on the individual techniques. This is not a good way to practise forms – if you just repeat the same form over and over in the same way, it will become boring, and then you’re more likely to perform the form with incorrect technique. Over time you then learn the form incorrectly, and it then takes much more effort to correct the techniques.

The key to learning forms well is regular repetition. It’s much better to perform a form once a day for ten days than it is to perform that pattern ten times in one day. Regular repetition is much better for building memories. In this regard Taekwondo is similar to learning a music instrument or learning a foreign language. It’s much better to practise a piece of piano music once a day for ten days than it is to practise it ten times in one day.

Similarly, don’t always practise a form in the same way. Vary how you practise a form to prevent forms practice from becoming boring. Sometimes perform the form very slowly, or pause on each technique and check that it’s correct. Sometimes just perform the stances of the form, or practise a particular combination that’s in the form in line-work. Sometimes look at techniques in the form and think how they could be used in sparring or self defence.

Four more principles for teaching a good Taekwondo class

1. Don’t substitute actual Taekwondo with general fitness

I’ve been to a lot of Taekwondo classes where, instead of doing line-work, or sparring, we’ve just done very general circuit training – the aim of which has just been to improve students’ fitness.

But when people go to a Taekwondo class, they want to do Taekwondo – they are enthusiastic about Taekwondo. Taekwondo, when done correctly, IS incredibly physically demanding – doing 10 fast, powerful, high-section turning kicks along a line is a physically intense activity. There should be no need to do general fitness activities instead of Taekwondo, because Taekwondo itself should improve students’ fitness. And Taekwondo is why the students are there – that’s what they want to do.

This is not to say that general fitness exercises can never be done in a Taekwondo class, but they shouldn’t be a large chunk of every lesson.

2. Plan every lesson

Planning a lesson will give it structure, and you’ll be able to focus on a specific aspect of Taekwondo training – for example: jumping kicks. Planning a lesson prevents each lesson from being the same, and makes sure that your students cover everything they need to between gradings.

Now this doesn’t mean that you have to plan the lesson in the same way that secondary school teachers do – you don’t have to spend hours thinking of and writing out your plan. Often all you need to do is come up with a few unique or interesting ideas ten or fifteen minutes before the lesson starts, and then just make those ideas the theme for the lesson.

3. Speak in Korean often

Students generally have to learn Korean terms for gradings. A lot of students find learning Korean difficult, but one way that you can make it easier is by using Korean terms often throughout a lesson. By doing this, students learn what words mean in context, which makes them easier to remember.

Always give instructions in Korean in a Taekwondo class. When you mention specific techniques or stances, give the name of the movement in English and Korean (and if it’s a very easy movement that everyone knows the Korean for, sometimes only give the Korean, and let students work out what you’re referring to).

4. When students are training in pairs, shuffle students around so that they aren’t always training with the same person

A lot of activities in Taekwondo training are pair-based: set sparring and free sparring are the main ones. In these kinds of activities, students tend to choose a partner who is either a similar grade to them, or is one of their friends (often both). This means that, if they’re always left to choose who they pair with, they always train with the same person.

The problem with this is that students don’t learn as much when they always train with the same person. This is especially true with sparring. If students always free-spar against the same two or three people, they will get used to how those people spar – what techniques they use, their speed, where they tend to leave openings. If students spar against lots of different opponents – opponents of different grades too (it’s fine for a green belt to spar against a black belt, as long as the black belt sees it as a training exercise for the green belt and doesn’t go all-out) – they will have to adapt to different sparring styles, and they will also see new techniques that they can use that they didn’t think of before.

So whenever students are doing pair-based activities, mix the pairs up every few minutes. Often the simplest way to do this is to have the class do a ‘circular change to the left / right’, where students are facing each other in pairs, and each student steps to the left to face the next person along (and those at the ends move around onto the opposite side of the line).

Why do we practise forms in Taekwondo?

Forms are practised in all styles of Taekwondo, and they are practised by students of all grades and degrees. Clearly they are central to Taekwondo training. Some people (like myself) like forms, and like practising them, but a number of people dislike forms. I’ve met a number of people over the time I’ve been training in Taekwondo who strongly dislike forms, and who vastly prefer to do other kinds of training such as sparring and self-defence training, and who wonder why we train in forms at all in Taekwondo. It is to those people that this post is written – I aim to show that even if you don’t like forms, there are good reasons why they’re such a big part of Taekwondo.

1. Body Control

This, I think, is THE most important reason to practise forms. Body control is just the ability to move your body into a specific position and know, without looking to check, that your body is in the correct position. It’s the ability to perform a punch and to know that your wrist is straight and that the opposite hand is on your waist without having to look to check, or without having an instructor come along and adjust the position.

This might sound like a very basic ability – and it is – but a lot of people, when they first start training in martial arts, do not have this ability. This is especially true with older students (30 years and older), who – if they have never done any physical activity that requires precise movements of the body, such as martial arts or dance – will have become used to a certain way of moving. When they first start training in martial arts they have to unlearn the way they have learnt to move over the first few decades of their life.

Forms are excellent for teaching body control, because they are a choreographed sequence of movements, and they should be performed in a very precise way. Importantly, the transitions between movements in forms are very specific – you have to move a specific foot, you have to turn a specific direction, you have to start the next technique at the correct point, and you have to maintain balance throughout. All of this forces you to think about how you are moving, and this is how forms train you in body control.

(This point isn’t so relevant if you’ve been training in Taekwondo or another martial art for several years. After a few years of training, you will have learnt body control, and it’s not an ability you will forget quickly. However, for beginners, learning body control, and hence practising forms, is essential.)

2. Competitions

Some people dislike the ‘sport’ side of Taekwondo: the style of fighting that’s used for competition sparring – which is often criticised as unrealistic – and the performance of forms. However, Taekwondo practitioners want to be able to compete, so there should be a part of Taekwondo which allows them to do that (even if it doesn’t completely emulate a real fight).

Forms are an excellent way of judging a Taekwondo practitioner’s ability. They are a test of balance, flexibility, and just the ability to accurately perform any given technique. Since everyone in a given style of Taekwondo will learn the same forms, they are a standardised way to compare the abilities of a group of practitioners. Indeed, so useful are forms for competitions, Kukki-won created a set of 10 new forms specifically to be used in competitions.

3. Forms are the lexicon of a martial art

This is another very important reason for practising forms. The forms of a particular style of a martial art contain all of the techniques that are part of that martial art. They are a dictionary of techniques – if you learn all of the forms, then you have learnt all of the techniques taught in that martial art.

This idea is arguably somewhat undermined by the fact that people like Choi Hong-hi and Hwang Ki wrote encyclopaedias for their styles of Taekwondo, and those encyclopaedias are far more detailed and specific than the forms are. Nevertheless, it is still the tradition, in the martial arts that are related to Karate, that each generation of students teaches forms to the next generation, and that knowledge is passed down through those forms, which encapsulate all of the knowledge of that style. Forms form a kind of ‘oral history’ – a ‘choreographic history’ or a ‘choreographic lexicon’ – and passing that from one generation to the next is part of the traditions of Taekwondo.

4. Fitness

Forms are not performed particularly fast, but practising them does improve your fitness. Forms often involve performing low stances and various different kicks, which improve your flexibility and strength. They often also involve one-leg stances, which together with any high kicking techniques improve your balance.

One could argue that there are plenty of general exercises you could do to improve these aspects of fitness, but forms do all of them at the same time. Forms are excellent for improving your general fitness.

Forms do not teach you how to win a fight, but they’re not supposed to. They’re supposed to be a foundation of training from which other forms of training – free sparring, self-defence training – develop.

Five general principles for teaching a good Taekwondo class

I’ve been training in Taekwondo for more than 13 years now. In that time I’ve attended classes as a student, and I’ve also taught as an assistant instructor and instructor. As a student I’ve seen which classes are enjoyable and interesting, and I’ve tried to distill what it is that makes a good Taekwondo class. And as an instructor I’ve tried to use these ideas to teach interesting and effective Taekwondo classes, and through trial and error, have found what works and what doesn’t work. Here are five general principles that I try to follow when teaching a Taekwondo class.

1. Students shouldn’t be standing still for more than 30 seconds.

I’ve been to too many Taekwondo classes where students have been left standing around with nothing to do for several minutes. You can see them getting bored – it doesn’t take long. While I don’t think that the primary purpose of a Taekwondo class is to keep students physically fit, it is something that should just happen incidentally – students should be doing enough exercises to become and remain physically fit. Many people do attend Taekwondo classes for that reason.

2. Never do the same class twice.

I’ve also been to too many classes that have just been exact copies of previous classes. This is a sure way to make your students bored. Variety is essential for maintaining your students’ interest and enthusiasm.

This doesn’t mean that no two lessons can be alike in any way – if you were to try to make every single lesson completely different from every other one, you’d quickly run out of teaching material. It just means that no two lessons are exactly alike. There should always be something different about any two lessons, even if it’s just doing a different warm-up exercise.

3. In every class, teach your students one thing they haven’t heard before.

This relates to the point about variety, and that no two classes should be alike. An easy way to make sure that no two classes are exactly alike is to try to teach your students one completely new thing in each class. This could be almost anything to do with Taekwondo: it could be a new sparring technique, it could be how to score points when refereeing sparring match, or it could be something about the history of Korea. There is a lot to know in Taekwondo, and most students only ever see a fraction of it. Teaching your students one new thing in every class not only adds variety and keeps your students from becoming bored, but it might introduce them to some aspect of Taekwondo that they find particularly interesting.

4. Always give higher grades something harder to do than the lower grades.

Again, I have been to too many classes where the class consists of a wide range of grades – from white belt all the way up to third degree black belt – and because there are white belts in the group, the entire class does white belt (or often yellow belt) line work. While black belts do need to practise basic techniques like punches and knife-hand strikes, they don’t need to do this all the time, and they DO need to practise the more advanced techniques that they’re learning for their grade. If you always give black belts white belt exercises to do, they will get bored.

If there are a large spread of grades in a Taekwondo class, the class needs to be split into groups. If there are black belts (and if there are enough of them), they almost always need to be split off into a separate group, and given very hard, physically demanding exercises to do – they are black belts after all. If the group of colour belts is large enough, they should be split too – normally around green or blue belt. If you only have one or two black belts in the class, one of them can instruct one of the colour belt groups.

And even if the class is not large enough to be split, if you’re doing something like line work, you should still give the higher grades some harder line work to do.

5. Get the senior grades to teach the junior grades.

This is something that we did a lot in the Taekwondo classes I go to 10 years ago (and which we still do now, though not to the same extent). If two green belt students need to learn the pattern Wonhyo, and there is a blue belt in your class who knows their own pattern quite well, get them to teach the green belts Wonhyo. It gives the blue belt something interesting to do; it helps the blue belt ‘revise’ Wonhyo, and think about it in a different way as they have to describe the moves to someone else; and it frees you up to monitor the class at a higher level – to make sure everyone is active, rather than just concentrating on teaching two students in your class one pattern.

Are you still a black belt even if you stop training in Taekwondo?

This is an interesting question, and one to which the answer does not seem to be agreed upon by all Taekwondo practitioners. In this post I will give my opinion.

I generally believe that if you have achieved the level of black belt in Taekwondo, that you remain a black belt even if you stop training in Taekwondo. I also believe that you retain your degree of black belt – i.e., if you are a fourth degree black belt, and you stop actively training in Taekwondo, you remain a fourth degree black belt, even if you don’t train for several years. (However, I believe that if you are a colour belt, and you stop training for several years, you do not necessarily retain your grade.)

There are many people who disagree with this point of view, arguing that if you are a black belt, and you stop training for several years, you will then no longer be able to do what a black belt Taekwondo practitioner can do – and should be able to do. A black belt should be an indicator of a certain level of ability, and if, through not training for several years, you lose the level of martial skill required of a black belt, then you should no longer be a black belt in Taekwondo.

However, if we were to revoke the status of those people who no longer have the level of skill required of a certain degree of black belt, this would cause some problems. For example, perhaps someone trains in Taekwondo for fifty years, starting at age 20 and finishing at age 70; they reach the level of grandmaster, but at 70, for health reasons, they have to retire from Taekwondo. Should such a person no longer be considered a ninth degree black belt and a grandmaster because they no longer retain that level of skill? It is generally the precedent in Taekwondo that such a person would be a ninth degree grandmaster for the rest of their life (and may even be promoted to tenth degree (in some organisations) posthumously). It would seem evident from this example that in Taekwondo a person’s degree is not revoked when they stop training.

But let’s consider a different example: consider someone who starts training in Taekwondo at age 20, and at 25 becomes a black belt. Upon becoming a black belt, they then quit Taekwondo altogether. By the time such a person is 50 or 70, are they still a black belt in Taekwondo? To say that they are might seem preposterous – by the time they are 30 they will have already not been doing Taekwondo for as many years as they were training in it. By the time they are 50, they are very unlikely to have retained much of the skill that they developed.

However, even in this second example, I would say that such a person still retains their status as a black belt in Taekwondo. A belt in Taekwondo is primarily a symbol of what you have achieved, and secondarily an indicator of your current skill level. And someone who has achieved black belt in Taekwondo, but who hasn’t trained in it for a long time, and who no longer has the level of skill required of a black belt, will be aware that they are no longer at that level of skill. Such a person probably should not go around saying ‘I’m a black belt in Taekwondo’, as this implies currency. However, they are, in my view, technically still a black belt. And this is, I think, the convention followed by the vast majority of Taekwondo organisations around the world.