Three experts — the legendary Hee-Il Cho, the ATA's G.K. Lee and the 1992 Olympic gold medalist Herb Perez — weigh in on how taekwondo has changed since it joined the largest sporting event in the world.

Whenever art becomes sport in an artificially short amount of time, some people are pleased while others cry foul. That’s exactly what happened when some practitioners of the martial art of taekwondo embarked on a mission to gain entry into the Olympics: It left some taekwondo stylists with a new raison d’etre, while plenty would argue that the Korean system of self-defense lost much of its real-world effectiveness. In Part 2 of this series on the Olympic Games, we focus on taekwondo. Our featured experts are luminaries in the field: Hee-Il Cho, G.K. Lee and Herb Perez.

— Editors

Hee-Il Cho (Photo by Robert Reiff)

ART: TAEKWONDO ADDED TO THE OLYMPICS: 1988 EXPERT: Hee-Il Cho, ninth dan, Black Belt’s 1989 Co-Instructor of the Year and 2012 Man of the Year QUESTION: Have the Olympics altered the way taekwondo is taught? HEE-IL CHO: Many schools have changed because taekwondo is in the Olympics. However, many schools have stayed on the traditional teaching path. It often depends on the instructor’s age and point of view. Younger instructors may have had exposure only to the World Taekwondo Federation, which means there’s a new generation of WTF instructors and students who are more geared to the Olympic-sport style of taekwondo. At my school, we prefer to teach a combination of both styles. We do not gear our program specifically to the Olympics. Instead, we use a teaching style designed to give maximum benefit to the students. QUESTION: Has taekwondo changed from a martial art to a martial sport since 1988? HEE-IL CHO: In many ways, taekwondo has changed into an Olympic competition. Many technical advantages have evolved because of the competitive nature of practitioners around the world. Every country wishes to win a gold medal, and therefore many techniques have come about which are specifically geared to Olympic rules. These techniques, however, may not be the most effective for self-defense. For instance, because of Olympic rules, hand techniques in taekwondo have diminished while high kicks have flourished. QUESTION: Have the Olympics helped or hurt taekwondo overall? HEE-IL CHO: The sport of taekwondo has grown immensely in popularity since Olympic recognition. Countries that were never exposed to it now are aware of it. Taekwondo is recognized throughout the world. There have been many positive effects, but there are also some traditional aspects and values that have changed. For many people, the goal of training is different now. In the traditional martial arts, the aim is to perfect one’s character. In sport, the aim is to become a champion. The method and the path are not necessarily emphasized because the primary focus is on the quest for victory, which sometimes is sought at any cost. This is where drugs and cheating can come into play. In sport, the goal of winning can overwhelm any moral values that are part of traditional taekwondo such as those reflected in the five tenets. QUESTION: Does the possibility of winning an Olympic medal in taekwondo result in more children enrolling? Silat for the Street is the title of a new online course from Black Belt Hall of Famer Burton Richardson and Black Belt magazine. Now you can learn the most functional silat techniques whenever and wherever you want on your smartphone, tablet or computer. Get more info here! HEE-IL CHO: It might help generate interest among children because they’re able to watch talented participants in the Olympics. In the USA, however, there’s not much fame or recognition because of minimal coverage of taekwondo competition by the media. One Hollywood movie like The Karate Kid generates far more interest in taekwondo than sport competitions do. QUESTION: For children, is it better to learn traditional taekwondo or sport taekwondo? HEE-IL CHO: Traditional taekwondo instills character-building traits like discipline, respect and focus. The child respects the master. In sport taekwondo, often the title of “master” is replaced with “coach.” This can reflect the absence of respect and discipline. Sport taekwondo is highly competitive, and there’s only one fist-place winner, one gold medalist. Second place is barely even recognized. Because of that, the sport aspect of taekwondo appeals to children with exceptional natural talents. In contrast, traditional taekwondo offers success and accomplishments for all levels of skill and natural talent.


G.K. Lee (Photo by Peter Lueders)

EXPERT: G.K. Lee, chief master of the American Taekwondo Association, Black Belt’s 2014 Instructor of the Year QUESTION: Does the ATA teach primarily taekwondo for aspiring Olympians or for people who want to become proficient at self-defense? G.K. LEE: Our main focus is traditional taekwondo — mental and physical self-defense. The ATA does not currently train members specifically for the Olympics, but we do not prohibit it. The ATA could easily adopt an Olympic-coaching system in the future. Since 1996, we have integrated Olympic-style training into our curriculum. We have employed Olympic coaches and provided Olympic-style seminars and Olympic training camps for our instructors and students. QUESTION: Has taekwondo changed since it was added to the Olympic Games in Seoul? Has it become a sport rather than a martial art? G.K. LEE: For some, maybe. But the majority of classes are still being taught by first-generation martial artists who want to keep it traditional. At the ATA, we make certain that taekwondo is a traditional martial art that people can enjoy and practice through old age. Taekwondo hasn’t really become more popular here as a result of the Olympics. Maybe it has in small countries, where they have government support, but not in the United States. Traditional martial arts are not generally supported by governments. QUESTION: Does taekwondo’s inclusion in the Olympics make the art appeal more to the next generation of students? G.K. LEE: Of course. And the ATA would like to develop a world champion or an Olympic medalist. However, we prefer to teach our young competitors that while taekwondo is a set of martial arts skills and life skills that can take them to the Olympics, it’s an art that they can practice long after their competition years are over.


Herb Perez (Photo by Doug Churchill)

EXPERT: Herb Perez, 1992 Olympic gold medalist, Black Belt’s 1992 Male Co-Competitor of the Year QUESTION: What’s your stance on the pre-1988 vs. post-1988 question? HERB PEREZ: Taekwondo has been bifurcated into disparate arts with differing expectations, goals and outcomes. The height of taekwondo as a sport was 1988, maybe with a second crest in 1992. The greatest increases in the skill sets were seen during the years leading up to Seoul and Barcelona — the best players our sport has seen were developed under the rules and objectives used in those Olympic Games. Wang Bo, formerly of Shaolin Temple, is the featured instructor in a new online kung fu course from Black Belt. Titled Tree of Shaolin, it streams video to your smartphone, tablet or computer. Sign up here and start your journey along the 1,500-year-old Shaolin path! They were creative players known for their power, speed and ability to transcend the technical parameters of the game. Techniques were rewarded based on power. They were not rewarded if they were not executed properly and with trembling shock. As a result, athletes had to commit in order to score, and they did so knowing they might be knocked out. However, the referees were unable to keep up with the athletes, and there was a fundamental disconnect between the game underway and the results shown on the scoreboard. Spectators and the Olympic hierarchy became disenchanted with the sport and the ability of its referees to conduct fair matches. As a result, electronic scoring was implemented — prematurely. The early versions of the electronic-scoring system were worse than the referees they replaced. The situation was exacerbated by rules that disallowed the correction of false positives. I was chairman of the Education Committee and vice chairman of the Technical Committee, which wrestled with these issues. Dr. Steven Capener and I created a multitier point system that rewarded different techniques with different points. However, it was based on well-executed techniques and power. The intent was to create a merit-based scoring system that depended on technical and power superiority. This has been bastardized, resulting in basically a watered-down version of a bad point-karate event. In fact, I believe that a decent point-karate open-circuit fighter with a little training could win an Olympic medal in one year. QUESTION: Technically, what effect have the Olympics had on taekwondo? Kelly McCann’s Combatives Self-Defense Course, a new remote-learning program from Black Belt, will help you fine-tune your street-defense skills using your tablet or smartphone! HERB PEREZ: There are three versions of taekwondo these days. One is traditional taekwondo, which focuses on fighting and training as they were done before 1992. Another is "traditional taekwondo as a martial art," which is taught by most instructors who are not in the Olympic pipeline. The third is the “electronic-scoring taekwondo.” The shame for the art is that kicking is a superior method for achieving one’s objectives in a fight. The shame for the sport is that kicking is a great base on which to build a competition format. Because of “electronic-scoring taekwondo,” however, fewer people are focusing on developing power and properly executing techniques. QUESTION: With taekwondo going in three directions, how should instructors lead their students? HERB PEREZ: I own and operate four dojang with more than 1,800 members. We teach life-skills development through taekwondo. We believe this is the most important benefit of training. Last year, one of my students was accepted to Stanford University — that is my measure of success. In Part 3, Black Belt will examine how the Olympics have affected wrestling. Read Part 1, which addresses judo and the Olympics, here.
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Do you want to maximize your self defense skills? Learn the game of combat chess and most importantly the queen of all moves.

Allow me to intercept those who would object to the title of this article. I'm not claiming that there's a secret move, shortcut or hack that will give you the edge in any fight. Even if there was an ultimate weapon or strategy, you likely would avoid it because you
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Looking to buy some weights to gain some strength?

Looking at Dumbbell, Kettlebells or Weighted bar? How about an all in one that won't just save you some good amount of money but also space? Look no further, we bring you the GRIPBELL!

Let's face it, when we do want to work on some strength building, we don't want to go around shopping for 20 different weight equipment things. That would just not want us to even do any sort of strength training. But what if we only needed a few, a few that can do the things we want without having 20 things lay around? That's where the GRIPBELL comes in. Let me clarify with you first, these are not some heavy duty, muscle exploding weights, they are for building the level of strength we as martial artists want without going crazy and insane in bulk sizing!

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Many different types of "blocks" are taught in most martial arts school. We are taught high blocks, low blocks, middle blocks, knife hand blocks, etc. Some schools will also teach how to use the legs to block an attack, as well.

The purpose of this writing is to possibly open some minds to the possibilities of going outside the box and considering alternatives to the basics.

Blocking is taught as a way of protecting oneself from harm. Truly, we don't "block" anything, as a non-martial artist would think of it. What we call "blocking" is more of a redirection of an opponent's attack, or even a counterstrike against the opponent's attacking limb.

To block something would mean to put something, like your arm, leg or other body part directly in front of the attack. That would certainly hurt and possibly cause some damage. The goal should be to move the attack out of the way in order to prevent injury and provide a way to fight back. For example, many schools teach blocks as a limb moving toward the strike such as a circular high block.

The movement required for a block might have other uses, if you keep an open mind. The blocking techniques can also be used as attack techniques. For example, your "low block" may be used as a striking technique against the outer thigh of the attacker. Your high block might be used as a strike to the jaw. The set up for a block can be used as a deflection, as well as the actual block.

Doing a block or a series of blocks will most likely not end an attack. A block needs to be followed by a counterattack. While the block is usually taught as a separate technique in order to learn it correctly, it should also be used in combination with a counter.

The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know. Intensive books can and have be written about basic techniques. With this writing, I am hoping to create interest in exploring the additional possibilities for what we have been taught and what we teach others.

About Grand Master Stevens

GM Stevens has been training in taekwondo for 47 years under the tutelage of the late legendary Grand Master Richard Chun. He holds an 8th degree black belt and is certified in the USA and in Korea. Grand Master Stevens is a member of the Board of Directors of the prestigious Richard Chun TaeKwonDo World Headquarters organization. He has been very active in his community and has been a volunteer with the Glen Rock Volunteer Ambulance Corps for over 11 years. He is a certified member of C.E.R.T. (Community Emergency Response Team).

Gary Stevens Taekwondo is located at 175 Rock Road in Glen Rock, New Jersey.

For more information: call (201) 670-7263, email: or go to

Having partners at or above your skill level is important for improving in your martial arts training. At some point, however, you will probably find yourself with a shortage of skilled partners, especially if you are an instructor.

This can happen for any number of reasons: students can move away, change their work schedules, start a family, etc., and just like that, you find that you're the highest-ranked student, or sole instructor, in your gym or dojo. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. In fact, if you take advantage of it, even working exclusively with lower-ranking classmates or students can improve your skills.

I used to host a twice-a-week training session at my dojo where I invited mostly black belts from other schools (as well as a few of my advanced students) to come and run drills. It was a blast. These were tough two- to three-hour sessions where I got to work with fighters of all different sizes, speeds, and technique preferences. My sparring improved dramatically over the next few months, and I don't think I've ever been in better shape. But unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. And as the old saying goes, "You gotta work with what ya got." So, make it hard on yourself.

I like to set handicaps when fighting my students. Specifically, I focus on forcing myself to work on improving my weak areas. Is you right leg weaker than the left? Then only kick with the right leg when sparring your students. Not much of an inside fighter? Don't kick at all. Training with partners of lesser skill not only helps you improve your weak points but gives them an opportunity to improve as well by working on strategy. It's also great for building their confidence. It can also be a low-cost opportunity to test new techniques and combinations, which benefits you as well.

In grappling, just like sparring, there is little benefit to wrapping lower ranking classmates into pretzels over and over, for them or you. Instead, let your partner put you in a bad situation. Let them get the mount; help them sink in that choke or armbar. If you start standing, such as in judo, allow your partner to get the superior grip before attempting a throw. This way you will get comfortable working out of a weaker position and your less-experienced partner can perfect their technique (and get experience using multiple techniques, if you get out of their first one).

You might think that giving advantages like these to students who may be far beneath your skill level is much of a challenge. Trust me, you'll reconsider that sentiment when you wind up sparring a 6'5" novice with zero control over his strength after deciding to only use your weak leg, or have a 250-pound green belt lying across your diaphragm trying to get an armlock after you let them get the pin. Remember, this is exactly what you signed up for: a challenge.

If you find yourself at the top of the heap without partners who are sufficiently challenging, there is no need to despair. Use it as a low-stress opportunity to improve your weaknesses and develop avenues to help your less experienced classmates and students to grow. You may even be surprised. One day they might present more of a challenge than you ever imagined!
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