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Why Does Taekwondo Have a Bad Reputation? A Closer Look

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author.

The Korean Taekwondo (TKD) system is declining in popularity, mainly due to its widespread bad reputation that it’s not worth learning. So, what exactly is causing TKD to have such a bad reputation?

Taekwondo has a bad reputation because it focuses too much on kicking skills, making it a one-dimensional art, and also because of its emphasis on rules and competition over self-defense. As a result, taekwondo has lost its reputation as a combat art and is now primarily perceived as a sport.

This is just a brief explanation of why Taekwondo is not as popular as it used to be. So let’s start digging deeper into why TKD has such a bad reputation.

The Problem With Modern Taekwondo

Taekwondo (TKD) emerged in the 1950s as a military combat system rooted in self-defense. The initial, traditional style was an all-around system designed to cover most combat scenarios a person may encounter in self-defense situations. Students used to learn how to strike with:

  • Kicks
  • Punches
  • Elbows
  • Forms (katas)
  • Sparring
  • Aerobic and anaerobic workouts
  • Basics of grappling (throws, holds, falls)
  • Self-defense tactics.

Later, TKD would split into different organizations due to internal disagreements among the different TKD organizations. The problem was that each of these TKD organizations would come up with its own system variation, teaching methods, and rules. And this is where the problems began to emerge.

In the following decades, the sport variation of TKD would become more and more popular. Not just in Korea but around the world. So much so that in 1988, TKD received a chance to appear at the Summer Olympic Games as a demonstration sport and would get accepted as the official Olympic sport in 2000.

The rise of TKD exploded, with more and more academies switching their focus from self-defense to sports competition. In some way, these sports rules shaped and limited the entire concept of TKD. To make matters worse, people began recognizing it as a popular sport, not a self-defense martial art. A once versatile system that used to teach people how to fight in real life has become nothing more than a contact sport.

Taekwondo competition

So when people talk about the problems of modern Taekwondo, they usually refer to the sports variation of the system. This is important because you have to differentiate between traditional and modern practices to comprehend why TKD has gained a bad reputations.

Let’s explore these issues in more detail.

Why Does Taekwondo Have a Bad Reputation?

The reasons for its bad reputation stem from these factors:

One-dimensional approach

Traditional Taekwondo was an all-around system when it was founded in the 1950s. Though the emphasis has always been on kicking techniques, students used to learn other strikes as well. They were taught how to box, grapple, and apply proven self-defense tactics.

Modern Taekwondo, however, primarily revolves around kicks and direct punches. It is far more one-dimensional compared to the traditional variation. Students rarely do any self-defense drills or fight simulations you may encounter in real life besides direct strikes to the body. And grappling was left out of the learning curriculum a long time ago.

The reason is simple — kicks are the most efficient way to score points in TKD competitions, and modern TKD schools today are primarily focused on achieving success in sports competitions.

Therefore, modern TKD schools believe there is no point in teaching anything that won’t enhance your performance in tournaments, as they no longer prioritize self-defense situations.

The system has not evolved much over the years

Overall, Taekwondo hasn’t evolved much over time in terms of expanding the arsenal or coming up with more effective variations of each move. Some aspects have certainly evolved but in the wrong direction.

Students follow very much the same program and learn the same techniques and principles. They rarely, if ever, get the chance to explore new ideas and techniques and implement them into their game.

Other martial arts, such as mixed martial arts (MMA), boxing, and BJJ, continuously evolve. Their coaches and fighters are always looking to improve existing techniques and strategies and come up with new moves to get an advantage in competition or improve their self-defense abilities.

However, TKD is far more rigid because it sticks with traditional philosophy and rules.

Not too popular among adults and teenagers

In modern times, TKD is far less popular among teenagers and adults than conceptually similar arts. Unfortunately, TKD schools tend to focus more on children’s classes and do not put much effort into attracting adult students, even though they are not very popular among adults.

The majority of adults you can see in a TKD dojo are black belts who have been training for years. You rarely see a person in their late teenage years or early 20s joining the TKD academy for the first time. Instead, most of them choose similar arts such as kickboxing, Thai boxing, or boxing.

The primary reason for this is that many adults are not interested in learning about all aspects of TKD. Adults place more importance on practical training than theoretical philosophy, katas, and strict classroom settings with uniforms, which are often associated with TKD. Typically, adults look for practical training that can improve their self-defense abilities quickly without much interest in learning anything else.

However, it’s interesting to note that what adults may find unappealing about TKD is actually favored by parents when it comes to their children.

Parents highly value the disciplined classroom setting offered by TKD for their children. It plays a crucial role in their growth and encourages the development of positive personality traits. As a result, taekwondo has become one of the most popular martial arts among kids, especially in the Western world.

For this reason, TKD is often perceived negatively by adults as a martial art for children.

Too much emphasis on competition

Most modern Taekwondo schools emphasize competition over the self-defense aspect of training. As a result, teaching methods and techniques align with the official competition rules. Instead of learning how to fight, students learn how to represent their schools and win matches.

These point-fighting rules greatly impact the system’s overall effectiveness because point-fighting has very little in common with real fighting.

TKD also receives criticism from other martial arts communities because of its emphasis on competition, leading them to view modern TKD as more of a sport rather than a traditional martial art.

Olympic TKD vs. Traditional TKD – Key Differences Explained

Can You Defend Yourself Using Taekwondo?

The answer to this question varies depending on whether you are learning the traditional or modern style of taekwondo.

Traditional taekwondo differs from modern schools as it focuses on self-defense. Students are taught to use all limbs as weapons, basic grappling techniques, and self-defense drills to protect themselves. Students regularly spar and do fight simulations to prepare for most scenarios they may encounter on the streets.

But in today’s world, many TKD schools have moved away from traditional teaching methods and are emphasizing sports competition. Although they may claim to teach self-defense, most of these schools focus on competitive techniques. Rather than learning how to defend themselves, students are taught strategies to score points in sports competitions against an opponent.

Although modern TKD teaching has its flaws due to the differences between point-fighting rules and real-life combat, some skills learned can still be helpful in combat situations. TKD teaches practical kicking, punching, and footwork techniques that can be applied in real-life self-defense scenarios. This training is undoubtedly more helpful than not knowing in combat situations.

On top of that, the sport is hard on your body, and you will know how to absorb damage and stay composed in a stressful situation.

Once in a fight, you will recognize certain patterns and respond relying on muscle memory. However, bear in mind that your skills are limited to certain scenarios. For instance, the fight needs to be in the open space and on the feet.

Overall, if you want to take taekwondo lessons to learn how to defend yourself in real life, do some research and try to find a traditional taekwondo school instead of a modern taekwondo school.

Is Taekwondo Effective in a Street Fight?

What Makes Taekwondo Ineffective in Real Life?

The overall effectiveness of Taekwondo in modern times is limited to a certain degree. But what is the explanation behind this?

MMA/UFC competition is often viewed as a platform to assess the practicality of different martial arts techniques in real-life fighting scenarios. When analyzing TKD techniques in MMA, it becomes clear that some aspects of TKD, like kicks and fighting from both stances, are practical. But overall, the Korean system does not transfer well into freestyle fighting or not as well as other systems.

The primary reason for this is the teaching methods used in most modern TKD schools, which focus on competition and training individuals to excel in matches. They neglect other aspects of training, such as self-defense drills, as most of these moves are illegal in sports competition.

As a result, students are no longer taught how to fight in real life but how to obey the competition rules. And by closely examining point-fighting rules, you can see that the concept of “fighting” in matches does not work in real fighting by any means.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Taekwondo in MMA?

Some TKD techniques can be effective in MMA matches. For example, TKD athletes are very good at fighting from both stances, which makes them very unpredictable in MMA.

Next, their ability to land all types of jumping and spinning kicks is second to none. TKD fighters are masters at moving in to land a strike and angling out without being hit back. On top of that, most of them have exceptional feelings for distance and timing, which makes them a tough matchup for anyone.

But at the same time, TKD also has a couple of cons. For instance, its fighters have a bad tendency to keep their hands low beside their bodies. Since the system emphasizes kicking techniques, they are all used to standing in a wide-bladed stance while keeping their hands low. This greatly impacts their defensive skills, especially against boxing attacks at close range.

Next, TKD does not teach you any type of grappling, even though traditional TKD includes the basic principles of grappling, such as throws and pins. Modern TKD training primarily focuses on kicks, footwork, and direct punches. So in order to prepare for MMA fights, each TKD athlete must spend many hours learning wrestling and submission grappling on the ground before making their debut.

Is Taekwondo Effective for MMA Fighting?

UFC Fighters With Taekwondo Background

Throughout UFC history, there have been many fighters who came into the sport with a strong background in TKD. Of course, all of these fighters have other skills to cover all aspects of the game. But you could often see them utilizing TKD moves inside the octagon, primarily kicks. The following are the most popular ones:

Anthony Pettis

Pettis is the former UFC lightweight champion and one of the most exciting fighters in history. Though he was a well-rounded fighter, Pettis primarily relied on all kinds of jumping and spinning kicks.

He began training in TKD when he was 5 years old, and by the age of 18, he was already a 3rd-degree black belt. Apart from his UFC accomplishments, most MMA fans also remember him for the famous kick he landed on Benson Henderson in their first meeting.

During their fight at WEC 53, Pettis launched himself into the air, and he bounced off the cage wall with one foot while using the other one to land a devastating kick to the head. It was spectacular.

Benson Henderson

Despite the fact that modern MMA fans failed to recognize his accomplishments, Henderson remains one of the best lightweights of all time. He is the former UFC and WEC lightweight champion who was simply good everywhere.

At the age of 9, his Korean mother enrolled him in TKD to learn more about Korean culture and tradition. After earning a black belt, he switched to wrestling before taking on Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Yair Rodriguez

Rodriguez is synonymous with Taekwondo in the UFC. He began practicing TKD at a young age and continued for five years until he turned 13. He is an excellent representation of how specific TKD skills can be effectively used in MMA.

He is one of the most dynamic strikers, and his kicking game is off the charts. He has an amazing ability to land each kick with perfect timing and precision and from all ranges.

Final Summary — The Main Reasons Why TKD Gets a Bad Reputation

As previously explained, TKD’s negative reputation mainly stems from its ineffectiveness in actual combat scenarios.

In modern times, cage fighting is often used as a benchmark to measure the effectiveness of different martial arts. Unfortunately, TKD has generally not performed well in this arena.

Another big reason for the bad reputation is that TKD puts too much emphasis on competition and less on freestyle fighting and self-defense. The techniques learned in point-fighting are too limited for real-life combat situations.

Overall, unless your main objective is to improve your self-defense skills, modern TKD is still a valuable and enjoyable martial art sport for anyone who just wants to improve their health. In fact, learning TKD is far better than not learning any martial art at all.

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