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Taekwondo is a popular and diverse Korean martial art that has evolved over time, with three major bodies governing the sport: the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), International Taekwondo federation (ITF) and American Taekwondoa Association (ATA). While they all share similarities in how it began with origins from Korea in the 1940’s, but there are vast differences between them in how they operate, with differences stemming from their tendencies, approach, rules, patterns and forms.

Embodiment

While World Taekwondo is renowned for its involvement in international competitions, primarily Olympics, the International Federation emphasizes on traditional Taekwondo approach developed by General Choi, while the American Association (ATA), which is a blend of both WT and ITF, focuses more towards overall development and growth of the practitioner instead.

Approach

World Taekwondo is viewed as a more commercial taekwondo style in nature compared to ITF-style taekwondo and ATA Taekwondo. Focusing more on a body score, WT is more quick and tactical, whereas ITF and ATA are more defense-based and traditional, with ITF carrying more of the traditional beliefs.

Since each style of taekwondo is different in it’s approach, it’s only right that their sparring techniques are different as well.

Sparring

World Taekwondo, or Olympic Taekwondo

Nowadays, Olympic Taekwondo is a much different sport than it used to be. The old-school rules were quite different and the intention, while olympic sparring was always for both competitors in a match, were trying their hardest to hit each other without being too rough or gentle with one another’s body parts. However, after 2008 when electronic Hogu came into play, there’s been this shift where people started attaining a body score off of their opponents’ weaknesses.

International Taekwondo Federation

The International Taekwondo Federation follows sparring rules that doesn’t involve contact, or at least semi-contact. In this traditional style of taekwondo, the fighting the intention is to avoid being hit and not necessarily knock out your opponent with power-based techniques like punches or kicks; it’s a more defensive way that militarily resembles General Choi’s traditional military rule from back when he was in charge of the Korean military. Herein, not only are the techniques that can be employed limited, but they’re also limited in numbers. Nowadays, ITF sparring is no longer direct.

American Taekwondo Association

As previously mentioned, the ATA is a form of taekwondo that is a blend of the previous two styles of taekwondo. However, in terms of sparring gear, one needed only a mouthpiece coupled with hand and foot padding, without the need for a chest protector. In the past, blows that are legal at close range without being blocked or dodged, like a focused strike towards an appropriate target, would do. Fast forward to today, the sparring in the ATA is lighter compared to the heavier WT & ITF.

In terms of sparring style, In WTF the sparring is continuous, with kicks and dodges being utilized to avoid or deflect attacks. However there isn’t a lot of blocking present in this form which makes counter strikes more effective than shielding against an incoming attack. When you spar in ITF, you follow the Stop & Go Principle, where if you land a hard strike, you’ll be stopped, the point will be awarded, and then you’ll continue. Finally, for ATA, techniques in hand and foot can be implemented, with the effectiveness in technique and eye & body demeanor being particularly noted.

For sparring gear, In WTF full-contact sparring, each competitor wears a shinguard, a mouth piece, headgear, a shin guard, forearm pads, and a chest protector. In ITF sparring, each competitor wears feet protectors, headgear, and gloves. In ATA sparring, each competitor wears feet protectors, gloves, headgear, and a mouthpiece.

When it comes to sparring rules, in WT, you’re allowed to kick the face, headgear, and the chest protector; whereas punching is only allowed to be applied towards the chest protector. If you are 14 years of age or younger, you’re only allowed to light-kick the head. In ITF, you’re only allowed to lightly punch and kick the head and body. Take note: in ITF, the rules may vary from school to school, where you spar and where you live. In ATF, it emphasizes form of technique, light contact, and preventing serious harm.

Punches

When it comes to fighting, WTF does not allow punches that land on the opponent’s face. The ITF however has semi-contact rules where you can throw a punch with enough force but you must make sure that not only the referee can see it, but also that there’s no lingering power behind them or else they will be penalized for leaving their mark. When it comes to ATA, they follow the same rules as the ITF.

Belt Ranking System

Though all three types of taekwondo have different ranking systems, they nonetheless have the same color belts, starting from white belt all the way up to black belt. 

Criticism

In WTF, since kicking is an integral part of the sport, it often draws criticism for being ineffective in a real-life situation, despite being a full-contact sport. In ITF, there is more flexibility, as the hand techniques can be compared to muay thai or kickboxing. In WTF, since kicking is an integral part of the sport, it often draws criticism for being ineffective in a real-life situation, despite being a full-contact sport. In ITF, there is more flexibiity, as the hand techniques can be compared to muy thai or kickboxing, though its main heat of criticism comes from light contact. Finally, for ATA, regarded as a blend of the previous two  styles of taekwondo, it is ofter referred to as a “cash-cow”. But ultimately it is up to you as the individual to determine which fighting style is right for you.

Conclusion

Even though there are a lot of different styles to choose from, you’ll find that the fundamentals stay the same. All types focus on sparring and techniques in hand & foot with strong emphasis placed on form and eye contact. In general, any style will work as long as it’s tailored to your needs and what you’re looking for out of fighting or training. Thanks for reading this blog!

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