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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Tournaments: An Exercise in Zen, pt. 3: Sparring

Have you ever been an umpire (a.k.a. corner judge) in a sparring match. It’s hard, right? If you’ve never tried it, I recommend you do when you get the chance. How about refereeing? Have you ever tried that?

Most people never try reffing, but it gives you a new perspective on just how hard an umpire’s job is. That’s because you get to see the wildly different scorecards that umpires hand in at the end of a match. I don’t believe I’d be exaggerating if I said that I’ve probably seen 15-point differences. It’s not unheard of to see one judge score a match 4-0 for red, and another judge score the same match 14-3 for blue.

There’s something wrong here.

The reason that there are four corner judges is because no one can have a perfect view from one corner. There’s no way that you can clearly see every point that’s scored. But that can’t explain discrepancies like the ones I’ve mentioned above. Clearly, different people have different ideas of what constitutes a point.

As far as I know, all the federations of our style provide official umpire training for red and black belts. That’s a good thing. It’s an attempt to standardize the officiating. But things still aren’t as good as they should be. At local tournaments especially, I still see centre referees using myriad ways of running the ring. Terminology and hand signals still aren’t consistent. And scores still aren’t consistent, either. My hope is that these things will correct themselves with time as people attend more of these umpire training seminars.

One thing that has to happen at these seminars is that emphasis must be placed on what is and is not a point. If the criteria are laid out clearly, it should hopefully take away some of the confusion. Perhaps students should go through exercises to familiarize themselves with watching for proper points as well.

Keep it simple

Another thing that could help would be to keep the scoring system simple. In the old-school method of scoring a match, judges can assign from one to three points for a scoring blow, depending on the target (body or head), the attacking tool (hand or foot), and whether the attacker was jumping. The ICTF and one of the ITFs still use this system. Another ITF has decided to add four- and five-point techniques for jumping spinning kicks.

That same ITF has a rule whereby a fighter will be given a warning for throwing more than three punches in a row without a valid follow-up technique. A two-point deduction will be given for not attempting a jumping spinning kick in a round. In the ICTF if a fighter throws more than four punches in a row without a kick or a pause, no points are given for any of the punches that landed cleanly.

This has all been put in place with good intentions. It’s meant to encourage kicking, especially to the head—and in one case, encourage jumping spinning kicks—and to discourage fighters from charging while simply throwing flurries of punches. It’s meant to show off the beauty of Taekwon-Do.

But I would argue that it makes things too complicated. No, it’s not rocket science, but it’s a lot for the judges to keep track of in a lightning-fast sport, and it’s even more confusing for the spectators, who may not understand all the rules.

I like the simplicity that was introduced by the third ITF: all punches are worth one point, kicks to the body are worth two; kicks to the head, three. It encourages kicks more than punches. It’s easy for the uninitiated to understand. It’s easy for the judges to keep track. No, it doesn’t make an attempt to emphasize jumping techniques, but they’re hard to land anyway, and forcing jumping techniques just feels, well… forced.

Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair

Speaking of keeping things simple, I have an issue with one of the sparring terms used by some of the federations. Specifically, “minus point.”

Fighters who commit specific serious infractions will automatically lose a point (i.e. “get a minus point”). If you get three minus points, you’re disqualified. The confusion lies in the fact that you can also get warnings for less serious infractions. If you get three warnings, you lose a point. But if you lose three points due to warnings, you are not disqualified. Minus points and losing points due to warnings are not the same thing.

Simple right?

Instead of “minus point,” some of the federations use the term “foul.” Get a foul and you lose a point. Get three warnings and you lose a point. But you’re only disqualified if you get three fouls.

At least one of the ITFs uses a card system. Yellow cards are for warnings, red cards are for fouls. It’s an extremely simple visual indicator.

Simplicity is good.

Finally on the topic of sparring rules: please make the rules easily accessible online. Every instructor explains the rules to his or her students, and the basic rules are simple. But for the really serious competitors, if you want to truly understand how to play the game it’s a good idea to know the rules inside and out. This is immensely important for referees and judges as well. They have to know the rules if they want to do their jobs.

Out of the five federations that I sort of keep track of, only two had their rules posted on their websites.

That’s a shame.


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