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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

The “Intensity Effect” and How to Make Tournaments Fun for Everyone

I hope you compete in taekwon-do tournaments from time to time, or at least watch them. Because, even though I have my issues with them, they’re a fantastic learning experience. And if you’ve been to plenty of tournaments, you might have noticed a trend. If you haven’t noticed it yet, keep an eye out for it: the higher the belt rank, the fewer competitors there are and the better they get.

OK, so there aren’t usually many white belts. Just the few brave souls who want to try competing. There often aren’t many yellow stripes, either, because that’s when many people are just learning to spar. But the other lower-ranking colour belt divisions tend to be pretty big. As you get higher in the ranks, the organizers may have to start combining belt levels into divisions. And the calibre of competition gets a little better. By the time you reach the black belt level, the divisions aren’t huge anymore and competitors tend to be pretty darn good.

Why is this?

The “intensity effect”

Well, I’ve noticed a few things that could explain it. One is that the ranks in any club tend to form a pyramid, with lots of beginners and fewer high-ranking students. People drop out over time. It happens. And the people who stick around are usually dedicated and often get pretty good.

But I’ve noticed another reason as well. I call it the intensity effect. Taekwon-do tournaments tend to drive out the less serious, less skilled competitors.

It’s not intentional. No tournament organizer wants to tell a student, “No, you shouldn’t come because you’re just not good enough to win gold.” Organizers encourage people to come have fun, regardless of skill level.

Instead, it’s a product of having one level of competition.

What do I mean by that? Let me explain by using another sport as an example.

Let’s say you love playing soccer and you live in a city with an ultra-competitive league. If you’re really good at soccer, you might bust your butt trying to get a spot on a team in that league. But if you’re not so good, you probably won’t bother. Even though you love soccer, if you’re not an amazing player then trying to make the top-tier team just won’t be fun for you. But you might have tons of fun playing in a recreational league. You still like competing, but you just can’t have fun trying to compete at the highest levels.

Taekwon-do doesn’t have anything like that. Not really, anyway. We have the “fun” divisions at the lower colour belt ranks, and the “serious” divisions at black belt. As you move up the ranks, your opportunities to have fun at a tournament diminish unless you’re among the best. Your only chance for fun sparring exists in class.

News flash: not every black belt is a championship-level competitor. And that’s OK.

But does that mean they should be passively discouraged from competing?

Alphabet soup

I would like to find a way to adopt the model of other sports. (And yes, at a tournament, taekwon-do is a sport.) I would like to see several levels of competition that allow more people to come and have fun. For example, the “A” level could be for those ultra-serious competitors who want to try to prove they’re the best (or at least among the best). The “B” level would be for those people who are pretty good, but just can’t hang with the A-crowd. And the “C” level could be for those people who just want to come have fun.

That’s just one idea. I would love to hear more.

And it’s not like this is unprecedented. The Canadian arm of the WTF is splitting its black belt competitors into “elite” and “recreational” divisions. Other countries may have tried similar things.

Now, this idea presents some problems. And I don’t pretend to have all the solutions. But I can make some guesses.

For example, how would people know what category they fall into? I think we could trust people to know that for themselves, but maybe we would need some sort of competitive ranking criteria. What happens if an A-level competitor chooses to compete in the C class? Well, they’re a jerk and should be confident enough to compete with the serious competitors. What happens if a C-level athlete is over-confident and signs up for the A class? Then they’ll lose pretty quickly. (You’ll already see a couple of these people at any given tournament, and good for them for showing up.)

More importantly, wouldn’t this make tournaments even longer? Many taekwon-do tournaments already take way too much time. And no organizer or competitor wants to make the process longer and less efficient. But every tournament organizer I’ve ever seen already wants to attract as many competitors as possible. Partly because more competitors means more prestige and more money. More divisions mean more people. And more black belt divisions also means more referees, which is a chronic problem at tournaments.

I think it’s a win-win. The organizers will just have to make sure they rent venues that are big enough.

This is just an idea right now. We have to find a way to flesh it out and make it work. Any input is appreciated. Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to host a tournament right now, but if I ever am, you’d better believe I’ll want to try this. I just hope others are willing to try it as well.

Because competing should be fun for everyone.