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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Tournaments: An Exercise in Zen, pt. 4: Board Breaking

Board breaking is hard. And it’s supposed to be. That’s the whole point. But breaking boards competitively is sometimes a little too hard. It’s not the physical act of breaking that’s the problem (although that is a worthy challenge). It’s that some rules are just silly.

Silly rules aren’t just bad for the competitors; they’re also bad for the audience.

You’ll usually see two classes of board breaking at Taekwon-Do tournaments: power breaking and specialty breaking (a.k.a. special technique). Power breaking athletes try to break as many boards as they can. In special technique the competitors jump for height or distance to break a board or move a target. Simple enough. And it should be fun to watch people break stuff.

Breaking bad

In power breaking events, most federations have a rule that one foot must stay in contact with the floor at all times. This isn’t an issue for most power techniques. But it is a problem for the side kick. Most people, when breaking with a side kick, won’t just step; they’ll slide a little too. For some people, this slide becomes a tiny hop, which means their feet lose contact with the floor for a split second.

“So?” you say. “Hopping is cheating. If you break the rules you don’t get any points.” The thing is that a hop, or even a full-on jump for that matter, doesn’t give you any benefit over a well-executed stepping side kick. It doesn’t really add any extra power. Sure, you can put your full body weight behind it, but the power in a side kick comes from your legs. By jumping, you lose the leverage between your planted leg and the floor.

Okay, so this just means that people should learn the proper technique and if they follow the rules they’ll be fine, right? It’s not quite that simple. If you’re performing a powerful side kick, a good foot lift and slide will come pretty close to a hop. And it’s sometimes hard for the referee to tell the difference. I know of cases where referees have ruled that a competitor’s foot had left the floor when video evidence later showed that it hadn’t. Think they overturned the decision? Nope. Video evidence is inadmissible. The referee’s decision is basically final. You can try to appeal the decision, but without permissible hard evidence you will lose that argument.

My mom says I’m special

The special technique event has its own problem (aside from the awkward name). The bar is often set too high—literally. The starting heights and distances for the techniques are usually more than even most gifted jumpers can manage.

This does have the advantage of cutting out most wannabe competitors who really have no business being there. The downside is that it’s boring. As a spectator you get to watch person after person miss the target. If someone finally hits the thing it’s exciting, but that’s rare. I’ve even seen referees lower targets after all the competitors missed on their first attempts.

Most of federations have standard heights and distances for the special technique events. And, to be fair, if you want to compete you should be able to jump well enough to make the standards. But as I’ve said above, the problem is that even a lot of gifted athletes can’t do that. The standards are insanely high.

One of the federations has attempted to fix this by making a rule that athletes must declare their intended heights and distances when they submit their entry forms, well in advance of the tournament. That height or distance has to be at least as great as the 3rd place competitor from the previous tournament. Only the candidates with the top five numbers are chosen to compete.

This does eliminate the problem of standard heights, but it has another obvious issue. Most people won’t even be able to compete. If you have an international tournament with, say, 50 countries attending, and only five athletes get to compete in an event, I’d feel a little ripped off if my country wasn’t one of those five.

If you want to make the competition a little more interesting, set the minimums a little lower and let everyone try. Set it so that most great jumpers can make it. (Sadly, this still excludes me.) Use elimination rounds, and jack up the target a little higher each round.

By the time rounds two, three and four come around, only the exceptional jumpers will be left. What’s more, it will feel more like a genuine competition as the candidate pool gets whittled away and the audience gets to find out who can inch the highest. It adds tension. It adds drama. It adds fun.

So what do we break?

Finally, there’s the issue of wooden vs. plastic re-breakable boards. I have to admit, I’m torn on this. Plastic is more consistent, but it just doesn’t compare to the visual oomph of watching wood being broken. For the competitors, too, there’s a certain satisfaction in destroying something that will never go back together.

In the end, though, I think consistency wins over the thrill of destruction. When one errant knot or an extra tough board can throw everything off, why not keep it as fair as possible?

This is especially true for the special technique competition. When you’re jumping that high, you can’t produce a ton of power, so why let a difficult board mess up your mojo? The best solution I’ve seen so far was a board-sized target that was spring-loaded, so when a person hit it with a certain amount of force the board moved. No, this isn’t as exciting as watching a board break, but, again, it’s consistent. In my mind consistency wins.

Are these things nit-picky? Maybe. Will they affect many people? No. Is board breaking even relevant when it comes to the martial arts? That’s a topic for another day. What I can say, though, is that for those competitors who try their hands at board breaking (no pun intended), keeping things as simple and fair as possible with make it more enjoyable for everyone.


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