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Global Training Report



The Globalization of Taekwondo

 By Dr. Lim Smith

Reprinted from the Korea Herald, c.1996 


    Around the time I first became interested in the Northeast Asia martial arts, during the early 70's, there was a taekwondoist named Byong Yu, teaching and competing out of Berkeley, California. Yu, as he was known, was famous for his spectacular jumping, spinning, flying kicks. Watching him fight, I thought, "this guy is twice as good as David Carradine, Chuck Norris, and Billy Jack, combined." I mean, this guy was good. 

   It came to pass one day that Yu agreed to fight a full contact exhibition match against an amateur boxer, a young Mexican-American kid from San Jose. My first reaction was one of sympathy for the boxer, whose gloved hands could in no way be expected to be any match for Yu's awesome arsenal of kicking techniques. I visualized the hapless boxer being decapitated by Yu's supersonic jumping axe kicks. 

   But that didn't happen. Instead, Yu got his butt kicked.

   It took me many years to understand what had happened, paradoxically, precisely because the answer was so obvious: Yu, one of the top ranking sport karate fighters in the United States, got his butt kicked by an inexperienced boxer of no particular accomplishments, simply because boxing is better than taekwondo for anything remotely resembling real fighting.

   Boxing is effective for fighting because a boxing match is similar in important ways to a real fight and that's the kind of contest boxers train to win. Boxers are in the business of hitting hard and avoiding getting hit, and failing to avoid getting hit, to take it and come back slugging. Even a mediocre boxer is  tough. Taekwondo, however, is a game of "tag" and granted it can be a lot of fun to kick someone in the face. That's fine if the objective of training is taekwondo competition. But anyone taking up taekwondo as a form of self-defense will not be getting much bang for their bucks.

   Even taekwondo players sometimes concede that the kind of kicks that score tournament points are not the ones that will take their adversaries out on the street--or in the ring. In a real fight, they say, they'll kick low, not high. They keep their hands up, protect their backs, and punch to the head. 

   But how will they do in a real fight precisely the opposite of what they have been drilling into their muscles and nervous systems for years? 

   It won't happen.  

   I realize that taekwondoists like taekwondo the way it is. I'm not going to propose changing taekwondo. I am merely going to propose one modification in the way taekwondoists train. It is a method that has been proven to be effective, and its effectiveness can be verified by anyone with a pair of arms.

   Taekwondoists practice kicking at a little paddle. The paddle produces a sharp slapping sound when kicked. Players apparently believe that there is a positive relationship between the loudness of the slapping sound and the power of the kick. The relationship is illusory. In addition, the paddle is used less effectively than it could be. Typically, one person holds the paddle in a stationary position while other players kick it. The paddle offers no resistance so they knee extends fully at high speed, which is tremendously destructive of the joint. What's worse, the player doesn't even get the benefit of attacking a moving target, which is ironic if the supposed objective of the drill is to develop accuracy.

   Pads should offer one or both of two things, either resistance or movement. There is no useful purpose in kicking a non-resisting, non-moving target.

   The solution is simple. Replace the paddles with Thai pads. These are thick pads strapped to the trainer's arms. Through the padding, the impact of the shin bone can easily be felt and feedback immediately conveyed to the athlete. Plenty of resistance is provided and the trainer can move the pads at will to simulate an advancing, sidestepping, or retreating opponent.  The taekwondoist will be confused at first because he will be judging the power of the kick from the loudness of the slap. But the trainer will register something different. Because powerful kicks don't make a sharp, slapping sound. Rather, they make a dull, thudding sound.

   If the taekwondoist wants to throw his axe kicks, crescent kicks, hook kicks, and so on, he can practice these on the Thai pads too. The feedback from the trainer will not be encouraging however, because these kicks lack power. The kicker will also notice that his feet get easily caught and he loses balance when that happens. A technique that combines a low payoff in terms of power with high cost in terms of the probability of ending up flat on your back may not be the best technique to do.

   Taekwondo is a wonderful sport, and I think it should be promoted more as a feel-good leisure activity like bowling, darts, golf, and aikido, for refined people who don't like violence or underarm odors. It should not be marketed off as a method of self-defense. I hope that my simple suggestion will help popularize taekwondo and I believe the world will be a better and more harmonious place when everyone learns to practice taekwondo together. 


(c)1996, Dr. Lim Smith. All rights reserved.

Note (November 22, 2016). The original newspaper article is here. Dr. Smith received death threats from members of the ex-pat TKD community in Seoul after penning his seemingly inoffensive opinions (or so a normal rational person might think). According to this article (Combat Hapkido in the ROK), Dr. Smith was found mysteriously dead, apparently by foul means, in a short-time room above a go-go bar on Soi 6 in Pattaya,  Thailand, sometime shortly after his article rocked the TKD universe. His body was completely drained of blood, yet there were no signs of bleeding anywhere to be seen. Pattaya police ruled it either an accident or suicide, or possibly murder. The case remains cold to this day. 


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