Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Tournaments: An Exercise in Zen, pt. 2: Patterns

Taekwon-Do tournament patterns - side kick

One of my biggest beefs with Taekwon-Do tournaments is the patterns system. Like sparring, it works on the single-elimination bracket format. Two competitors walk into the ring and perform their patterns at the same time. One person wins and moves on to the next round. The other person loses and is finished until the next tournament.

Here’s what’s wrong with this scenario: patterns are an individual effort. With sparring, it takes two to tango. You don’t need another person to do Chon-Ji.

Having two people compete at the same time means that the judges have to try to concentrate on two patterns at once. If you’ve never tried to do this, it’s hard. Try as you might, you’re going to miss something. Usually that something is pretty insignificant. But sometimes you’re looking at person B when person A makes a huge mistake. Yes, there are multiple judges sitting at the front of the ring, but if enough of them are looking the wrong way when a mistake it made, it can mess up the decision. I’ve seen it happen.

Remember the people in the ring are paying to compete, and they’re trying to win. This is important to them. They don’t want to lose because of a judging error.

This system is not unique to Taekwon-Do. Some styles of karate use a similar setup, and it would seem that our system was borrowed from them. But this doesn’t mean that we have to blindly stick to old ways simply because that’s the way things have always been done.

I’ve also heard it said from the powers that be that competing one-on-one creates a sense of competition. Okay, sure, I’ll give you that. But I would argue that even just being there, competing one at a time, would foster a sense of competition as well.

Think about other artistic individual sports like gymnastics, snowboarding and figure skating. They don’t compete side-by-side like we do. In fact, I can’t think of another artistic sport that works this way at all. Would you say that there’s a lack of competitive spirit in those other sports? I wouldn’t.

The International Shotokan Karate Federation (ISKF) actually has an option that allows tournament organizers to choose a one-competitor-at-a-time points system instead of elimination brackets. So the same system used by other sports can definitely be used by martial arts as well.

Nice Pattern. Want a Medal?

The other issue with the single-elimination system is that the silver and bronze medals don’t always go to the competitors with the second- and third-best patterns.

A former club-mate of mine once qualified for the world championships. In the first round she lost against the woman who would eventually win gold. She lost fair and square. However, looking at the tape after the fact, she was, in my opinion, clearly better than anyone else in her division. If the athletes went up one at a time and were judged on a point scale, I think she would have won silver.

If this sort of system were in place, not only would it accurately reflect the competitors’ skills, but it would make the judges more accountable as well. Being able to publicly view a judge’s score will go a long way toward understanding why winners were chosen.

It seems that three of the ITFs have at least adopted score sheets, although the ICTF has not. I don’t know about the other organizations.The ICTF does have a point system in place, but it’s up to the judges to tally everything in their heads and then indicate the winner by pointing with their hands. However, as far as I know, even the organizations that use score sheets do not make the scores known to the athletes.

Like the ISKF and other organizations for artistic sports, I would like to see the Taekwon-Do federations use specific deductions for specific errors. The highest and lowest scores would be dropped and the rest would be totalled.

Barring this method, there could be one round where everyone performs their pattern but no scores are assigned and judges could perhaps take notes (black belts would just perform one pattern during this round, instead of their regular two). This would allow the judges to establish a mental baseline that they could use to assign scores during round two.

If the first system is used then there would be no need for a “baseline” round. I’m no fan of performing my pattern over and over if I keep winning round after round, but it also seems like a waste to declare a winner when the judges have seen everyone just once. In this case a certain number of athletes could go on to a second round (say, the top five or top eight), if the division is big enough. This would really give the winners a chance to feel like they earned it.

The obvious downside to this is that it would take more time than the current system—something that isn’t always welcomed when tournaments can drag on as it is. But with good planning and effective management of judges, I think it would make a more rewarding tournament experience.

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