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Toward a Broader Taekwondo Curriculum

A Structured Incorporation of Basic Falls, Joint Locks, and Throws

by Brian J. Wright & Charles L. Thornton


The growing popularity of taekwondo competition has encouraged an increasing number of practitioners to train for success in tournaments at the state, national, and international levels. Techniques and training methods employed in pursuit of these goals have become standardized to an unprecedented degree, a direct result of universally applied competition rules. These rules allow full contact to regions covered by protective equipment but, for safety reasons, limit the types of techniques that may be used. To prepare for free sparring competition under such rules, competitors must develop a relatively small set of techniques (footwork and kicking in addition to some blocking and punching) to a high degree of effectiveness. Some common training methods to develop the speed and reflexes with these techniques needed to win in sparring competition include target and bag kicking, counterattacking drills, and actual free sparring.

Success in poomse competition is determined by superior execution of a predetermined sequence of techniques in solo performance. Accordingly, useful preparation for poomse competition consists exclusively of solo practice: repeated drilling of the poomse to be performed coupled with some work on the component techniques. When preparing to compete, there is little advantage in practicing either techniques or combinations of techniques not included in the form to be performed.

When sparring and poomse are considered together, there is a wide variety of techniques (kicking, blocking, and striking) found in taekwondo competition. However, in practice there are significant limitations placed on the usage of these techniques. In free sparring, for example, low kicks, kicks to prohibited areas, and strikes (other than punching) are of no use. Many of these prohibited techniques are found in poomse. However, the very nature of poomse performance and practice only allows them to be used in a static manner, without an opponent. Consequently, it is possible to compete and win in poomse without having the understanding gained from applying the techniques against an uncooperative opponent. This situation is to a great extent unavoidable if injuries from free sparring are to be minimized. However, the dichotomy in taekwondo competition between techniques allowed in full-contact sparring under the current rules and techniques suitable for solo poomse performance has ensured that certain important skills such as falling, throwing, and joint manipulation are completely absent in most curricula.

Rationale for Incorporation

The allure of organized competition certainly motivates students and instructors to emphasize techniques used in tournaments, but should this motivation alone determine the future practice of taekwondo? Instructors and students must not lose sight of taekwondo's origin as a means of self defense, or erode its integrity as a martial art by overemphasizing its competition aspect. Accordingly, techniques other than those currently required for competition must be included in the basic taekwondo curriculum and practiced regularly. These "peripheral" techniques„including joint manipulation, falling, and throwing„have a place in taekwondo training, and complement the repertoire of techniques used in competition.

Falling in particular is a skill that should be taught for safety purposes. Even in taekwondo competition, where explicit throwing is strictly prohibited, participants do get knocked down or sometimes fall during the execution of kicks. In fact, a knock down is scored as a point even if the scoring player's kick or punch did not land with sufficient force to induce "trembling shock." Since the potential for falling clearly exists in competition and is actually encouraged by the rules, it is reasonable to prepare competitors for this eventuality. By introducing basic falling to students early in their training, the appropriate reflexes can be developed to reduce the number of broken arms and other injuries received from taking an incorrect fall.

While success in competition may be important, self-defense is still one of the primary goals of taekwondo training. Although nonphysical factors such as increased self-confidence and awareness of one's limitations contribute to this ability, these factors are developed primarily through physical training. Accordingly, the goal of self-defense is strengthened by training in techniques that are directly applicable to defending oneself in a confrontation. A minimal exposure to grappling techniques will give students a wider array of tools for dealing with attacks such as grabs, chokes, and shoves, and will also make them aware of the many possibilities and hazards of combat not governed by rules.

Even in poomse, which consist mostly of blocks and strikes, there are many techniques that imply grappling attacks and defenses. Explicitly practicing such techniques with a partner is essential if they are to be developed to an effective level and understood to the same degree as those techniques regularly practiced in a realistic context. Furthermore, such practice can only give students a greater appreciation for the poomse itself.

Besides being a useful alternative and enhancement to kicks and strikes, practicing joint locks and throws drives home the universal meaning of "martial arts": that is, a physically weaker person overcoming a stronger aggressor by virtue of superior technical skill. This scenario is highly unlikely in taekwondo competition, where competitors are matched according to weight and techniques useful for overpowering a larger opponent are largely prohibited.

Methodology for Instruction and Practice

It is clearly impractical for any one martial art to encompass all known fighting techniques. With this in mind, falling, joint locking and throwing techniques for taekwondo practitioners must be carefully chosen. The techniques must be compatible with and augment the core taekwondo basics taught at each rank level. It is also important not to try to teach too many techniques. As with kicks and punches, falls, joint locks and throws require much repetition to attain even moderate proficiency. Introducing techniques that cannot be regularly and consistently practiced in the available time is futile.

At first glance, it may seem awkward to incorporate falls, throws, and joint locks into regular taekwondo practice. However, there is an established format for their practice identical to that of any of the core kicking and striking techniques (see figure 1). One starts by learning the basic technique itself, then using it in combination with other techniques. Next, defensive scenarios, either solo or with a partner, utilizing the combinations are practiced. Some techniques may be practiced further within the venues of poomse or free sparring, subject to the constraints already mentioned. Those that do not fit in either of these venues may be ultimately practiced in the context of defensive scenarios, using a variety of one-step sparring formats.

For example, a roundhouse kick is first learned by itself as a single technique. Once a degree of proficiency is attained, the technique may be practiced in combination with footwork and other kicks. Later, the combination of evasive footwork and a roundhouse kick can be employed as a counterattack against a kicking opponent. This in turn can be applied to free sparring. The same process is followed for the peripheral techniques, such as an arm bar. Once the fundamental skill is learned with a cooperative partner, it may be practiced in its final form as a defense against a grabbing or striking opponent.

One way to ensure that students are motivated to thoroughly learn these additional techniques is to incorporate them into the promotional requirements. Since there is no motivation in competition to ensure that, given the other demands on the taekwondo student, peripheral techniques will be practiced to proficiency, it is reasonable to include them on promotional exams. Furthermore, since the taekwondo promotional system is rooted firmly in martial arts tradition rather than in success in competition, requiring a limited demonstration of such skills can only strengthen the integrity of the ranking system.

Technical Descriptions

Following are descriptions of certain peripheral techniques useful to include in the taekwondo curriculum. At the end of this section there is a sample curriculum that demonstrates how these skills may be incorporated into a 14 week semester of training. Please note that these technical descriptions are intended for instructors. They are not meant to teach the techniques, but rather to describe them by pointing out their most important elements. A qualified instructor, trained in the proper execution of these techniques, is required to teach them. However, these descriptions may serve as a guide or refresher for taekwondo instructors who may need to relearn these skills.

White Belts

Balance Breaking
This is both the most basic and most important exercise on this list. It teaches students about their own centers of gravity, maintaining balance, and effective and efficient movement. In addition, this exercise teaches one how to affect an opponent's balance, the benefits of proper technique, and the fundamental movements of many self-defense applications.

To begin, the attacker grabs both wrists of the defender ("straight hand": right grabbing left; left grabbing right). By expanding his fingers like a claw ("live hand"), the defender will expand his wrist to make it more difficult for the attacker to hold on. The defender then breaks out of the grab by moving in one of eight directions. It is important to move slowly and avoid quick, jerky motions which throw off one's own balance.

By pushing primarily with the legs and slightly manipulating the position of his wrists, the defender can move in the following directions:

  1. up and back (pulling hands over own shoulders)
  2. up and forward (pushing hands over attacker's shoulders)
  3. forward, left and down (pushing both hands over the attacker's right wrist)
  4. forward, right and down (pushing both hands over the attacker's left wrist)
  5. forward, left and up (pushing both hands over the attacker's right shoulder)
  6. forward, right and up (pushing both hands over the attacker's left shoulder)
  7. back, left and down (pulling hands between the attacker's wrists)
  8. back, right and down (pulling hands between the attacker's wrists).

Again, slow motion is the key. Attempt to keep one's elbows locked on the hips to minimize the use of upper-body strength. The defender must move his feet and hips to be effective. It is advisable to practice this exercise at the beginning of all self-defense training sessions.

"Breakout & Strike"
Using the balance breaking techniques previously discussed, add follow-up strikes to form complete techniques. For example, after doing break 7 above (turning left and pulling back) immediately turn back and knife-hand strike to the attacker's neck. Once comfortable with balance breaking, these techniques can be executed at a more realistic speed. Maintaining one's balance while upsetting the attacker's remains the primary goal of this exercise. The techniques themselves can be as creative as the students wish, but the simple ones work best.

Obviously, there are many situations where the defender may wish to break out with only one hand, or neither. The follow-up techniques may include punches and other hand strikes, kicks to both the upper and lower body, knee strikes, and throws. The only required element is that they make sense relative to balance breaking technique.

Back and Side Falls
Learning how to fall properly may be the most important self-defense technique a student of taekwondo can learn. Common injuries from falling down while sparring, being pushed in the street, or tripping on stairs include bruised wrists and elbows, concussions, and cracked ribs. Falling properly must become instinctive since when an uncontrolled incident occurs, the student will not have time to consciously react.

The most important elements to stress are keeping the head from hitting the ground, shouting to force one's air out, and evenly spreading out the force of the fall across the body. Students may start out in a sitting or squatting position, then later stand to do the falls. At each stage, they must maintain smooth timing of each element explained below.

For the back fall, bring the hands up in front of the chest or face and bend the head forward to tuck the chin into the sternum. As one falls back, curl the body like a ball for a smooth fall. Slap the mat with open palms as the upper back contacts the mat (arms at a 45 degree angle from the body). Shout when slapping and bring the hands back up. A side fall is similar, only roll onto one side and slap with only that hand. Tuck the chin into the opposite shoulder from the ground and place the non-slapping hand on the stomach.

Remain relaxed throughout all falling techniques.

Yellow Belts

Back and Side Falls with Air
Initially, the students learn how to take basic falls from standing positions. Once comfortable doing so, they can begin practicing basic self-defense techniques safely. However, to practice more advanced techniques, students must be capable of taking higher falls with greater force. Have the students begin by taking small hops, landing back on their feet, then doing the fall. Slowly progress until they are jumping directly into the fall.

Safety is most important. The timing of the slap with the shout and the angle of the slapping arm(s) to the body both help to protect the student from injury. All of these elements must become natural before the students are allowed to throw each other with more advanced techniques.

Arm Bars
There are many kinds of arm bars, but each one must place effective leverage on the elbow. Arm bars can be used as a defense from many different types of grabs, holds and punching attacks. Start by practicing from a single wrist grab then move to two-hand grabs, grabs on various upper-body parts, and finally punches. Incorporate the lessons learned as white belts doing balance breaking.

To bar the elbow, the attacker's arm must be straight. This is most effectively accomplished by either stepping away from the attacker while holding her wrist or pivoting the body away so that the arm straightens. Once straight, a bar can be placed using either a knife hand, forearm or shoulder. If the attacker is on the ground (for example, after the defender executes a wrist lock), the defender can use her leg to bar the attacker's arm. In any case, the defender must hold the attacker's wrist high and steady. If the wrist drops with the arm being barred, no leverage will be placed on the elbow. To help accomplish this, the defender may bring the attacker's wrist up onto the chest and hold it firmly there while stepping or pivoting and throughout the bar.

Whatever body part is used to bar the arm, it must be placed just above the attacker's elbow. Too high or too low will not result in control of the attacker's arm. The students must become accurate at hitting the area one inch above the attacker's elbow. Remember, one can tell which side the elbow is on by knowing where the attacker's pinkie finger is.

"Block & Grab"
Using the standard taekwondo blocks against punches, practice grasping the attacker's arm or wrist. Do not attempt to grab the punching hand or arm right out of the air. Rather, move first to the side then perform a block. Once successfully defended against, the punching arm can then be snagged by the blocking arm.

To do this, the defender simply wraps her hand around the top of the attacker's punching arm or wrist. Using an in-to-out or out-to-in block, step to the side to avoid the punch, block, then grab. Once comfortable blocking and grabbing, the students should begin affecting the balance of the attacker. After grabbing, continue pulling the attacker's arm in the direction of the punch. This will add a dynamic element to the balance breaking learned as a white belt and set the groundwork for techniques to be learned later.

Green Belts

Forward Rolls
Rolling often causes much apprehension among students. They are usually uncomfortable with inverted body positions and become disoriented while rolling. However, many throws take an attacker into an inverted aerial and the students must be able to protect themselves while practicing. Perhaps what is more important, a smooth roll can save one from injury during common mishaps such as a bike crash or a trip down a flight of stairs.

Protecting the head is vital to this technique. From a standing position, with feet shoulder width apart, take one step forward with the right foot. Place the left hand on the mat beside the right foot and in front of the left. The knife-edge of the right hand is placed on the mat between the left hand and right foot, while the head is turned to the side looking over the left shoulder. If the head does not remain turned, but tucks into the chest, it may impact the floor, defeating the purpose of the roll.

Push forward with the left foot, rolling along the outside of the right arm, diagonally across the back, and end up in a left side fall position. It is important to keep the body curled like a ball throughout the roll. At the end of the roll, slap the mat and shout.

The following basic throws can be incorporated into a taekwondo curriculum once the students are proficient at falling, thus able to protect themselves. The students can be lead into these throws from a range of positions and attacks: wrist grabs, chokes, punches, sparring situations, etc. These specific throws were chosen for these reasons and because they take an opponent in opposite directions: the forward body drop pulls the opponent toward the defender, while the major outer reap pushes him away.

Floating Drop/Forward Body Drop
These throws attempt to maintain an attacker's forward momentum after a punch or shove. In both cases, the defender does not want to use a hard block or other technique that may impede the attacker's forward motion. These throws, therefore, are a good place to apply the "block and grab" lessons learned as a yellow belt. The defender's job is to merely avoid the strike or push and assist the attacker along on his/her forward path created by the attack.

Both throws may be initiated by an in-to-out block and grab of a punch. For a floating drop, step to the opposite side of the attacking hand. (For example, if it is a right hand punch, block and grab with the left and step to the right.) The defender places her free hand (right) on the attacker's ear or neck (left). Immediately pivot 180 degrees to face the same direction as the attacker, keeping her arm high and in front of the defender. At the same time, twist the attacker's head around and down, forcing her to forward roll or air fall to the ground.

The primary difference in the forward body drop is the footwork. Instead of stepping outside the attacker's momentum, stop in front of it with the initial move. Then, pivot 270 degrees into a front stance so that the attacker trips over the defender's back leg. As a variation, the defender may grab the attacker's punching arm with both hands to assist in the pull. For both throws, the footwork must be fluid and with a minimal number of steps: only two each!

Major Outer Reap
This is a sweeping-style throw. As the name implies, the defender reaps the attacker's front leg by coming around the outside of it (as opposed to sweeping between the attacker's legs). To learn this technique, start from a judo-style grab: the attacker holds the defender's left lapel with his right hand and the defender's right elbow with his left hand; the defender does the same. The defender steps forward with his left foot to the right of the attacker; simultaneously, pull down on the attacker's elbow and push back on his shoulder. This is meant to upset the attacker's balance. Lift the right leg up and reap the attacker's right leg out from under him.

For practitioners of taekwondo, this throw can be easily applied from several situations. First, if the attacker does a front punch, out-to-in block with one hand, ridge hand strike to the front of the neck with the other, step forward and reap. Similarly, from a closed fighting stance, skip forward into the opponent (like the beginning of a two-step side kick). Grab the opponent's shoulder, push down and back, and sweep the front leg. From any attack or grab, it is most important for the defender to get the attacker's balance onto one foot while maintaining his own.

Basic Wrist Techniques
Along with arm bars, learning wrist manipulation is basic to joint locking. Begin by having the students play with their own wrists to get a feeling of which directions the wrist will and will not bend and twist. The techniques should be learned at a slow pace so that proper form rather than strength is driving the action. Two wrist techniques are described here, but there are countless others that are just as effective. It is important, however, to teach techniques that are simple, but vary in scope and application. For example, of the two described here, one moves to the inside relative to the body, and the other to the outside. For all techniques, the defender must use a "live hand": by tensing and spreading the fingers, one's wrist expands making it harder to hold onto.

First, the attacker grabs the defender's right wrist with her left hand. Circle the right hand counterclockwise as the right foot steps 45 degrees forward and to the outside. Place the palm of the left hand across the back of the attacker's left hand and grab her knuckles. Keeping the attacker's knuckles in a vertical position, place the knife edge of the right hand at the bend in the attacker's wrist. With one's body weight (rather than arm strength), twist the attacker's wrist directly toward her center body line.

The second technique starts with the same grab. This time, circle clockwise so one's palm turns up. As the left foot steps forward, place the left thumb on the back of the attacker's hand and grab the flesh of the attacker's palm with one's last three fingers. Keeping continual pressure on the opponent's left wrist, pivot to the right while breaking out of the attacker's grab with the right wrist. Place the right hand on the opponent's left knuckles and force down with a twisting motion. All of these motions should be as fluid as possible.

With all wrist techniques it is important to first distract the attacker from the grab. Do this by yelling, punching, kicking or any other method that naturally flows into the intended defense. Likewise, once the defense is completed, some type of finishing off strike or controlling technique may be applied.

Blue Belts

Elbow and Shoulder Locks
As with wrist techniques, there are many different kinds of locks against an attacker's elbows and shoulders. This will cover two basic techniques that can be applied from a number of different positions. The first is called a chicken-wing. Starting from a right cross-hand grab, the defender grabs the attacker's wrist with both hands. Step under the attacker's arm with one's left foot and pivot around to again be facing the attacker. Brace the lock by placing one's right elbow against the attacker's upper arm. Now pull the attacker's wrist away from his or her shoulder. Or, pull straight down on the attacker's wrist behind her shoulder, forcing her or her to the ground. This technique may also be applied as a finishing lock after the opponent is already on the ground.

The second lock starts from the same position (but can, of course, be applied in several situations). With the left hand, chop the inside of the attacker's elbow so it bends. Hook under the attacker's arm with the left hand and place that hand on the back of the attacker's upper arm. At the same time, step behind the attacker and lock his arm behind him. To complete the lock, secure the attacker's body either by grabbing his collar or choking him. As with the first lock, this technique can be used to hold an attacker on the ground if she ends up on her front side.

Knee Locks-Fighting from the Ground
Once on the ground, either in a seated position or on one's knees, a taekwondo practitioner must still be able to defend him or herself against a standing attacker. Although one may not be able to use footwork to evade attacks, or counter with the array of kicks usually available, the defender still has a number of accessible targets. The techniques described here focus on the attacker's knees, as they present sizable targets and are easily manipulated. First, start from a kneeling position. The defender, while sitting on his heels, must remain on his toes and balls of feet. As the attacker places weight on his forward foot, hook the back of his ankle with one arm. Place the forearm of the other just below and perpendicular to the knee cap. From this position, the defender can bar or twist the attacker's knee in any of three directions:

  1. Barring straight back.
  2. Twisting inward by pulling with one's hand against the side of the knee.
  3. Pushing outward with the forearm against the other side of the knee.

In any case, the attacker must do a side fall. Remember, the defender must place his head either on the inside or outside of the attacker's leg; otherwise he may catch a knee in the teeth.

To be effective from a seated position, the defender must be able to spin easily on his or her rear end. Practice by placing both hands flat on the ground behind oneself and holding one's feet up. Now pivot around, frequently changing direction, while bicycling the legs. Once comfortable and balanced, add an attacker who will attempt to touch the defender's body without getting kicked in the knee or thigh. After the defender is able to fend off an attacker with this type of pivoting and kicking motion, he may practice takedowns. First, hook the attacker's forward ankle by wrapping one's own ankle and foot around it. Be sure to keep one's leg between oneself and the attacker's leg. Otherwise, one might inadvertently pull the attacker's foot into one's own groin. Second, take the attacker down using the following methods:

  1. Side kick to the underside of the knee cap.
  2. Hook the heel around the knee and twist. Use a roll of the body to help force the attacker down.

Front Fall
As with all falls, the object is to protect the head and torso. Start from a kneeling position to learn this fall, progressing to a standing and finally jumping positions. Bring both hands in front of the body, fingers open. Fall forward and break the impact with the palms and forearms by forcefully slapping the mat. The hands form a triangle in front of the face, and both elbows make 45 degrees angles. Be sure to turn the head and look to one side so one's nose does not hit the ground. As one slaps the mat, kick the legs out and land on the balls of the feet. Only the forearms and feet should be touching the mat.

Once this becomes comfortable, try the fall from a standing position then after jumping. At each stage, make sure that neither the head nor body hit the ground. This is an important fall to know for sparring situations. Injuries often occur after a high or spinning kick is thrown and is either blocked or misses. In either case, the attacker can end up falling on his front side. Being able to instinctively bring the hands up and turn the head may protect one from chipped teeth, broken noses or bruised ribs.

Red Belts

Kick Defenses
These differ from most other taekwondo defenses in that they involve grabbing the kicking leg and throwing the attacker to the ground. Two special blocks must be learned to execute these defenses. The first, a cross block, is similar to that used in Taegeuk 7. Simply cross one's arms at the wrist in a downward motion in front of the body. Start with a closed fist, then open the hands after contact with the kicking leg to catch it. This block is used against front and side kicks. The second, a Y-block, is used against a roundhouse kick. Drop the back arm straight down against the body. Bring the front arm back so the wrist crosses the upper part of the rear arm. As the roundhouse kick arrives, bring the rear arm up to hook under the leg, while bringing the front arm down to complete the grab.

Against front and side kicks, use the cross block, then step forward on either side of the kicking leg and sweep the supporting leg out from under the attacker. Against a roundhouse kick, use the Y-block and pivot back, away from the kick. Step in front of the attacker while pivoting, so the attacker trips over one's leg. A second method is to step into the attacker's open side as he does the roundhouse. After Y-blocking, sweep the supporting leg out from under the attacker. The attacker, of course, must do either a back or side fall after each defense.

Low Spin Hook Kick
Just as in a regular spin hook kick, one must pivot on the ball of the supporting foot and keep one's hip turned over. To initiate the kick, turn one's forward heel toward the target and sink directly on to that foot. With all one's weight on that front foot, place both hands under the kicking leg to help balance and spin the body. Snap the knee out and swing the foot through the target, usually the opponent's ankle or knee. As a variation, the knee of the supporting leg may be placed on the ground. Be sure to snap the head all the way around to see the target.

Turning Side Kick from Ground
From a left fighting stance, pivot 180 degrees and drop onto the left knee. Place one's full left forearm on the ground, and one's right hand next to it to create a solid base. Side kick with the right foot up at 45 degrees toward an attacker's stomach, groin or thigh. The opposite applies to a right fighting stance.


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