Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

The Four Arts of Taekwon-Do

Composition of taekwon-do

Have you ever thought of taekwon-do as a bunch of separate arts all under one roof?

In his description of the composition of taekwon-do, General Choi saw TKD as being made up of five related parts: fundamental movements, dallyon (conditioning), patterns, sparring and self-defence.

According to the General, each of these pieces fits into the next, like a wheel. The fundamental movements are the individual pieces. They fit together into long combinations to form patterns. The skills learned from patters help with sparring. All the while, you should be conditioning your attacking and blocking tools, as well as the rest of your body. When all of these things are in good shape, you’re ready to test yourself in self-defence. But you’ll always come back to your fundamental movements on the road to perfection.

That’s all fine and good in theory.

But have you ever noticed that in practice the relationship between the pieces is tenuous? It’s almost as if four of the pieces are arts unto themselves, within the circle of what we call taekwon-do. But does it have to be that way?


First of all, conditioning (or dallyon) sort of stands on its own. It can—and should—be done at any time. It doesn’t build on the pieces that come before it, like the other components do. Being in shape helps with all aspects of taekwon-do training, and hardened attacking and blocking tools can be good for self-defence, so it is important. But it doesn’t fit into the chain like everything else. In the “Composition of Taekwon-Do” article, General Choi lists it in either second or fourth position, after fundamental movements and sparring, respectively. But we don’t need fundamental movements or sparring skills to be able to do conditioning drills. Perhaps it could come first in the list, but we also don’t need conditioning drills to be able to do fundamental movements.

Rather, I think dallyon should be it’s own circle, encompassing and feeding into everything else.

Fundamental movements, patterns and sparring

But enough with the nit-pickery. More important are the relationships between the remaining four pieces of the composition of taekwon-do.

Fundamental movements and patterns have an obvious relationship. The fundamentals are the techniques that make up the patterns. If you want to perfect a technique from one of your patterns, practice the fundamental movement on its own. But simply practicing fundamentals gets boring. Patterns allow us to take those movements and use them along with things like body shifting, angles and combinations to show new ways of using the techniques.

But that’s where the relationships end.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that patterns and sparring have almost nothing in common. (And if you haven’t noticed that, you may want to pay more attention in class.) From what I hear, General Choi very much wanted them to feed into one another, but they’ve evolved into two distinct species.

It makes sense that they’re different. Just look at taekwon-do’s roots. TKD grew out of karate, and their sparring and kata (patterns) are at two ends of the spectrum as well—no matter how much they believe that kata is the soul of everything they do.

Sure, our kicks are similar between patterns and sparring, as are some of the hand strikes. But we don’t move the same way. We don’t stand the same way. We don’t attack or defend the same way. Because patterns and sparring aren’t the same.

And this is where the composition of taekwon-do begins to break down. If patterns and sparring aren’t similar, patterns can’t help students develop sparring skills. And they don’t.

Self-defence and everything else

If patterns are nothing like sparring, then it should go without saying that they have little to no relation to self-defence. I’m pretty sure that nowhere in the history of humankind has anyone ever forcefully blocked an oncoming attack, stepped forward to dispatch the attacker with a single punch to the chest, then performed a blind 180-degree turn, knowing they had to repeat the process with another attacker who decided to conveniently wait until his buddy had been incapacitated before launching his own attack, rather than gaining a physical advantage by attacking at the same time.

It just doesn’t happen that way.

But what about sparring and self-defence? They’ve got to be more closely related, right?

Yes and no.

Sparring can prepare you for some aspects of a fight. But a criminal attack doesn’t look much like a sparring match. I’m not an expert in criminal violence, but I do know that it often happens up close. It’s ugly. And the attacker has no intentions of making it a fair fight.

Sport sparring is a great stepping stone toward self-defence training, but it’s not a substitute.

Thankfully, a lot of taekwon-do clubs recognize this, which is why they do separate self-defence training.

I haven’t done a thorough survey of the taekwon-do self-defence curricula out there, so I can only comment on what I’ve seen. I do know that some clubs don’t do self-defence training at all. That’s fine, as long as they aren’t telling students that they can simply use sport sparring and patterns to learn to defend themselves.

I’ve also seen clubs that do self-defence training, but it isn’t very practical or realistic. That isn’t helping anyone.

Much of what I’ve seen called self-defence training—whether it’s practical or not—has been focused on limited grappling with some close-quarters striking mixed in. Because taekwon-do doesn’t have a set self-defence curriculum, this training is often based on arts like Japanese jujutsu and focuses on predefined scenarios, like escapes from grabs. Learning this stuff is fine as long as it’s taught well, but it isn’t the extent of physical self-defence. What happens if a student gets attacked with something other than a pre-set hold? Do the instructors think that sport sparring training will round out the skills they need?

To learn effective self-defence, students need to learn the appropriate striking and grappling techniques, and then, when they’re ready, practice them against fully-resisting opponents. “Fully-resisting” doesn’t necessarily mean full contact. But it does mean that your partner doesn’t try to help you or to just stand there and let you do your techniques. They’re fighting back.

That means self-defence-based sparring.

I’m sure there are clubs out there that do real self-defence-based sparring but I haven’t walked into any yet. Maybe someday I’ll find one of these mythical creatures…

Making the circle whole again

If we think about the pieces of TKD in this way, then General Choi’s composition of taekwon-do falls apart. We have one circle for fundamental movements and patterns, one for sparring, one for self-defence and one for conditioning.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The composition of taekwon-do can be whole (sort of); we just have to think about it a little differently.

Let’s start with the easy one: sparring. If we introduce effective self-defence based sparring into the equation, then sparring suddenly becomes an essential component in learning to defend yourself. And sport sparring can be a stepping stone to self-defence sparring.

But what about patterns? How do they fit in?

Well, believe it or not, the patterns contain effective self-defence techniques. The problem is that the way many of them are described in the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do isn’t effective. But if we can find effective ways of using the techniques, we can integrate them into our self-defence sparring. The patterns will never look like a real fight, but they can be considered a blueprint for real techniques to be used in both drills and free sparring.

I still think conditioning has to stand on its own, surrounding the main circle. But aside from this, looking at the composition of taekwon-do this way makes it complete. And even though we don’t practice taekwon-do this way today, something tells me this is what the General had in mind all along.