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Definition: tae kwon do from Dictionary of Sports and Games Terminology

(sport) a Korean martial art similar to karate but differing from it in its wide range of kicking techniques and the importance it attaches to different methods of breaking objects [Korean tae, “kick,” kwon, “fist,” and do, “way”]

Summary Article: Tae Kwon Do
From The Gale Encyclopedia of Fitness

Tae kwon do, also spelled taekwondo or taekwon-do, is a martial art; it is also the national sport of South Korea. The name tae kwon do comes from three Korean words that mean “to strike with the foot,” “to strike with the fist,” and “the way” or “the art.” Thus, the name of the sport can be loosely translated as “the art of kicking and punching.”


The purpose of traditional tae kwon do is self-defense, specifically, to render opponents unable to inflict harm by striking them with the legs and feet. The purpose of professional or semi-professional tae kwon do is to win a match against an opponent or compete at the Olympic level. Amateurs may participate in the contemporary sport in order to learn self-defense or for overall physical fitness rather than to compete in formal matches; tae kwon do helps to develop the student's strength, speed, balance, flexibility, and stamina. It is also part of formal military training for the South Korean army. More recently, some researchers are investigating tae kwon do as a form of exercise for seniors to lower their risk of falls, as the sport has been shown to improve flexibility and balance in older adults.


Tae kwon do is the most popular martial art worldwide in terms of the number of participants; one American source gives a figure of 30 million practitioners in 123 countries as of 2008, with 3 million qualified at the black belt level. A South Korean source maintains that there are 70 million practitioners of tae kwon do in 190 countries. After entering the Olympic Games as a demonstration event in 1988, tae kwon do became an official Olympic sport in 2000. It is one of only two martial arts included in the Olympics, judo being the other. Tae kwon do is practiced by women as well as men and by people in all age groups except for very young children. A few dojangs (schools) accept children as young as two years of age; however, most do not enroll “little tigers” below the age of four or five.


There is some disagreement among historians about the origins of contemporary tae kwon do. Some elements of it can be traced back as far as the Three Kingdoms period (37 B.C.–A.D. 668), when Korea was divided among three rival powers. Silla, the least powerful of the warring kingdoms, had an elite corps of warriors known as Hwarang, who cultivated a style of unarmed self-defense techniques known as subak. As the Hwarang were recruited from the sons of noble families, they were taught philosophy, history, and a code of ethics as well as martial arts and horsemanship, and it is thought that the ethical code of contemporary tae kwon do is a descendant of this ancient tradition of education.

The unarmed combat techniques and other martial skills fell into disuse in Korea when Confucianism became the dominant philosophy. Under the Joseon Dynasty (A.D. 1392–1910), any skill or activity that was not related to academic subjects was devalued. The military lost its former prestige, while the older techniques of self-defense survived only in the army. When the Japanese occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, they banned all aspects of native Korean identity, from religion and traditional dress to folk customs and even names. Martial arts training was forbidden; however, some forms of subak survived and were taught underground. Meanwhile, some Koreans studied in Japan during the occupation period; there they were exposed to karate and other Japanese martial arts. Some even attained black belt status in Japanese karate schools.

After the defeat of Japan and the liberation of Korea at the end of World War II, schools of martial arts were opened all over Korea. Some claimed to teach the traditional Korean art of subak while others taught various combinations of subak, karate, and kung fu. Nine different kwans (schools) of martial arts emerged in the early 1950s. In order to achieve some degree of standardization, then-President Syngman Rhee instructed the kwans in 1955 to adopt the single name of tae kwon do for the martial art they were teaching and to begin to unify their various styles. Although the Korea Taekwondo Association (KTA) was formed in 1959 to carry out the unification of the various styles taught by the postwar kwans, standardization is still not complete as of 2011.


Tae kwon do resembles karate and kickboxing in that it is a martial art that relies on the use of the legs and feet more than the arms or hands because the human leg is stronger and has a greater reach than the arm. In general, tae kwon do utilizes kicks aimed at the opponent from a moving stance combined with blocks, kicks, punches, and open-handed strikes. Some forms of tae kwon do also permit grabbing, taking down, or throwing the opponent in techniques borrowed from judo, or allow the use of pressure points.

Practitioners of tae kwon do wear a uniform known as a dobok (the Korean word for “robe” or “training clothes”), traditionally made of cotton and usually either white or black. The dobok consists of a jacket-like top and wide-legged pants. It is worn with a belt denoting the athlete's grade or rank. The first belt is typically white, followed by yellow, green, blue, red, and then black to indicate increasing proficiency. Some schools of tae kwon do award brown belts in place of red.

Although there is no single pattern followed by all tae kwon do schools worldwide, most teach students some or all of the following:

  • Basic instruction in the techniques and rules of tae kwon do.

  • An aerobic workout that includes stretching exercises.

  • Patterns (hyeong), sometimes called forms, that are systematic sequences of movements intended to promote endurance and the ability to focus the mind as well as condition the body. Patterns are one of the events in tae kwon do competitions, where the athletes are judged on their speed, precision, energy level, and control in performing the movements. While Chong-Ji, the first pattern learned by the beginner, consists of 19 movements, some patterns have as many as 68 or 72 distinct movements.

  • Self-defense techniques.

  • Sparring with a partner.

  • Relaxation and meditation techniques.

  • Breaking objects—usually boards, but may also involve bricks, tiles, or blocks of ice—as part of training or martial arts demonstrations.

  • Examinations for promotion to the next rank. Promotion tests typically include demonstrating proficiency in performing patterns, in sparring with a partner, in breaking boards (or other objects), and answering verbal questions about the history, concepts, and philosophy of tae kwon do. Higher-level black belt tests may require submitting a research paper as well as demonstrating physical proficiency.

  • Instruction in ethical and mental discipline, self-respect, courtesy to others, and a commitment to justice.

Types of tae kwon do

There are two basic types of tae kwon do as of 2011—traditional and sport, although each has numerous variations.


Traditional tae kwon do emphasizes the martial art as a way of life, not just an athletic exercise. In the traditional approach, the student is expected to understand “how Tae Kwon Do can help them and others in their everyday lives, not just in the dojang (training hall).” The five tenets of tae kwon do are taught to students as part of their total development, the qualities of mind and character they should cultivate in order to become true masters of the martial art. These five tenets are courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and “indomitable spirit.”

In traditional tae kwon do, students are expected to recite a student oath at the opening and closing of every class session. The International Tae Kwon Do Association states, “Reciting the Student Oath instills a sense of responsibility and self-discipline as well as respect for one's self and others.” The oath is as follows:

  • I shall observe the tenets of tae kwon do.

  • I shall respect all instructors and seniors.

  • I shall never misuse tae kwon do.

  • I shall be a champion of freedom and justice.

  • I shall strive to build a more peaceful world.


Sport tae kwon do is the form of the art represented in the Olympics and such other competitions as the Asian Games. Most tae kwon do competitions include patterns, breaking, and self-defense techniques as well as sparring; in the Olympics only sparring matches are judged. Competitors in sparring matches wear a hogu (chest guard) in addition to protective gear for the shins and forearms. The hogu also serves as a point of reference in the scoring system, as a kick or punch to the hogu counts as one point, a blow to the hogu that turns the opponent's body around counts as two points, and a kick that knocks the opponent down is awarded three points.

Matches take place in rings that are about 30 ft (9 m) square. Each match has three rounds, with one-minute rest periods between rounds. At the end of three rounds, the competitor with the higher number of points wins the match. Blows are full-force; if one competitor is knocked out by a legal blow, the opponent automatically wins the match. There are two age groups in sport tae kwon do matches: 14- to 17-year olds; and 18 years and older.


Preparation for tae kwon do begins with enrollment in a dojang or school to learn the basic techniques of the art and its underlying philosophy of character building as well as physical conditioning. Most schools in the United States have separate classes for adults and children.


No specialty equipment is required for tae kwon do.

Training and conditioning

Individuals should train with a qualified instructor. Due to the physical nature of tae kwon do and the need to use multiple muscle groups and limbs, participants should be physically fit, be able to move quickly, and have a good sense of balance.

Tae kwon do instructors often give commands in the Korean language during class sessions, and students may be required to show that they understand these words as part of their promotion examinations.


Tae kwon do can lead to significant injuries; it is estimated that about 8% of those who participate in sport competition are injured, without regard to sex, age, or level of skill. A study of injuries among athletes in the 2008 Olympic Games classified tae kwon do as one of the riskiest sports, along with weightlifting, soccer, hockey, and boxing. Most tae kwon do injuries are minor, however. Bruising is common, with the leg being the most common location of injury. Tae kwon do participants are also at risk for injuries to the foot and ankle from the twisting and impact mechanisms involved in kicking the opponent and pivoting on the ankle joint.

As with any form of physical exercise, a person interested in tae kwon do should consult their primary care doctor first to make sure that they do not have any previously undiagnosed conditions that might make martial arts workouts risky or unsuitable. Those with a history of leg, knee, or ankle injuries from other sports or from accidents should be particularly careful to have a checkup before enrolling in a tae kwon do class. The sport emphasizes the use of the legs and feet, and injuries to these parts of the body are common during practice or competition.

Participants injured during a competition match should seek immediate medical attention, particularly if they have been kicked in the head or been knocked out.


People who enjoy tae kwon do usually report improved muscular strength, endurance, agility, and coordination as well as overall physical fitness. Studies of the benefits of tae kwon do as a method of fall prevention for seniors differ in their findings.

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  • Park, Yeon, Hwan. Tae Kwon Do: My Life and Philosophy. Checkmark Books New York, 2009.
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  • Cromwell, R.L., et al. “Tae Kwon Do: An Effective Exercise for Improving Balance and Walking Ability in Older Adults.” Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 62 (June 2007): 641-46.
  • Jones, K.D.; G.L. Liptan. “Exercise Interventions in Fibromyalgia: Clinical Applications from the Evidence.” Rheumatic Diseases Clinics of North America 35 (May 2009): 373-91.
  • Junge, A., et al. “Sports Injuries during the Summer Olympic Games 2008.” American Journal of Sports Medicine 37 (November 2009): 2165-72.
  • Kang, C., et al. “Acetabular Labral Tears in Patients with Sports Injury.” Clinics in Orthopedic Surgery 1 (December 2009): 230-235.
  • Lystad, R.P., et al. “Epidemiology of Injuries in Competition Taekwondo: A Meta-analysis of Observational Studies.” Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 12 (November 2009): 614-21.
  • Matsushigue, K.A., et al. “Taekwondo: Physiological Responses and Match Analysis.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23 (July 2009): 1112-1117.
  • Vormittag, K., et al. “Foot and Ankle Injuries in the Barefoot Sports.” Current Sports Medicine Reports 8 (September-October 2009): 262-66.
  • Hee-Sung, Kim Taekwondo: A New Strategy for Brand Korea. Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of the Republic of Korea (MCST). December 21, 2009. (accessed October 18, 2011).
  • International TaeKwon-Do Association (ITA). Chon-Ji. (accessed October 18, 2011).
  • American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), P.O. Box 1440, Indianapolis IN, 46206, (317) 637-9200, Fax: (317) 634-7817,
  • International Taekwon-do Federation (ITF), Via Cesare Pascoletti 29, scala A2, interno F, Rome, Italy, 00163, 390645443165, Fax: 390645443165,,
  • United States Taekwon-Do Federation (USTF), 6801 W. 117th Ave., E-5, Broomfield CO, 80020, (303) 466-4963, Fax: (303) 466-3587,,
  • World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), 4th floor, Joyang Bldg. 113, Samseong-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, Korea, 822566-2505, Fax: 822533-4728,,
  • Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
    Laura Jean Cataldo, RN, EdD
    Copyright © 2012 Gale Cengage Learning

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