I’ve had people ask the question many times over the years what the differences are between “sport poomsae” and “normal poomsae”, I’ve had some answers but my answers were always incomplete examples, rather than an understanding of what and why they are different. I invited Master Rabia Kim Karışık, a former World and European Poomsae Champion to my dojang to put on some seminars of the differences and expectations when performing sport poomsae.
After her seminars with my students, I then spent some time comparing details in Grandmaster Kang, Ik-pil’s latest 3 book set and Kukkiwon’s official 5 book set of the latest Kukkiwon Textbook, along with the Kukkiwon poomsae videos on YouTube, as well as analysing poomsae competition videos to show them performing poomsae as Master Rabia described.
When most people say they are a “WTF black belt” or even a “WT black belt”, they are actually confused about the two major organisations responsible for Taekwondo (ignoring ITF for all of this post). Kukkiwon (KKW) is the “World Taekwondo Headquarters” and is responsible for:
- Defining the syllabus of techniques of Taekwondo
- Educating master instructors and examiners
- Issuing dan certificates based on recommendations from examiners.
They also run a much more varied content Taekwondo competition each year and perform a research function, but those three are the major reponsibilities. Anyone can (as of 2022) be a member of Kukkiwon via their online T-Con system. Anyone doing Taekwondo does “Kukkiwon Taekwondo” not “WT/WTF Taekwondo” and has “Kukkiwon Dan/Poom” rank, not “WT/WTF Dan/Poom” rank.
World Taekwondo (WT) is a member of GAISF (Global Association of International Sports Federations) and is a purely sports organisation. Their responsibilities are:
- Defining the rules for sporting competitions for poomsae (forms) and kyorugi (sparring)
- Educating referees and coaches in the application of and training towards those sporting rules
- Authorising and organising elite competitions such as world championships and the Olympic Taekwondo competition for these sporting rules.
They do not have the responsibility for defining what is and what is not Taekwondo, nor issuing any form of rank (for that, even officially, they require Kukkiwon certified rank). Individual people and dojang CANNOT be a member of WT. WT only accepts National Governing Bodies (one in each country) as their Member National Associations.
Obviously when Kukkiwon defines the poomsae and WT creates its own set of rules for what will and what will not be considered correct, there is scope for the two to differ.
My late instructor Grandmaster Pan, Sim-woon always speculated that the reason is that to be a WT top qualified International Referee you only needed to be a 4th Dan, but to be a KKW referee for their competition, you needed a minimum of 7th Dan. That can be the difference between someone with 7 years' experience of Taekwondo and someone with 22 years' experience - a considerable gap in experience and the ability to spot mistakes. Because of that the rules are different in WT sports events to allow someone with less experience to spot the mistake and therefore differentiate between two competitors.
A maybe less politically charged way of looking at it is that in a Kukkiwon poomsae for gradings you don’t need to decide who is best, only if each person is good enough to pass. So you don’t need to worry about missing odd tiny mistakes, as long as they hit the pass mark. But given two elite competitors in a world championship, where let’s face it - both are outstanding at poomsae, you need to be able to spot the tiniest mistakes in the blink of an eye to give one the edge over another. So a lot of differences feel like they are made to make it easier for judges to spot and spot quickly.
I personally think that while they both may be partially correct, another aspect to consider is simply that when WT is competing with other martial arts for global recognition (e.g. Karate’s Kata which was a demonstration sport in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games). In trying to considered the best solo martial arts activity, they want poomsae practitioners to simply look better (more powerful, more impressive) than other martial artists, regardless of if those changes made in order to do so make sense with the martial arts side.
KKW also has a different perspective in that they believe Taekwondo is for people of all ages, so there is a lot of consideration to being healthier for the joints for the long-term, specifically around the knee and ankle, as well as being more realistic on flexibility required of the average practitioner.
All the differences are stated from the point of view of “When performing sport poomsae under WT rules…”, and then potentially compared with Kukkiwon’s view.
When bowing the bow is performed to almost 90° and should take 3 seconds down and 3 seconds up. Compared to the Kukkiwon’s more natural 30° body angle and 45° head angle over a few seconds, this would be considered a more respectful bow. However, we were told on the Kukkiwon 2013 International Master Course that bowing as deeply as WT requires should be reserved for meeting kings, queens or gangsters.
When changing stances, the active (moving) foot should be the first one to move and the secondary foot, should rotate and/or move only at the last second. There are many places this is visible, but to give two specific examples - first, in Taegeuk 6 from the 2nd movement (dwit kubi, bakkat makki - back stance, outer forearm block) to the 3rd movement (180° turn in to ap kubi, arae makki - long stance, low block) the front foot of the dwit kubi is left pointing forwards until the split second of the right foot landing, meaning effectively your feet are facing almost 180° away from each other! Second, in Keumgang, when transitioning from the final dwit kubi, sonnal an makki (back stance, inward knifehand block) in the front section to hakdari seogi, keumgang makki (crane stance, diamond block) Kukkiwon allows for a two stage foot movement, it’s OK to turn the back foot to face forwards first, then pull the front leg back and up. WT requires that the front foot comes back and at the last split second the standing foot turns 90°. Both of these put incredible torque on the ankle and knee of the non-active foot.
In general Kukkiwon allows for reverse hand techniques (such as the second punch in a double-punch) to have the upper body square to the target. The same-side techniques have the body turned to approximately 30° in ap seogi (short stance) and ap kubi (long stance), but reverse techniques finish with the body square. Biteuro makki (twisting block) from Taegeuk 6 Jang is one of the exceptions, but intentionally so, hence the name.
WT requires that the upper body on reverse techniques such as that second punch in a double punch to be twisted approximately 45° towards the oppoinent. This puts more pressure/torque on the core for more of the movements, but adds reach and power to the techniques for presentation purposes.
This combination parrying movement and spearhand strike in Taegeuk 4 Jang should have the pressing block closer to the arm pit, maybe half way from elbow to arm pit, in comparison to Kukkiwon’s “at the elbow” definition. This is one I find weird, I can’t think of any reason why that would aid presentation for WT poomsae.
The downward backfist strike in Taegeuk 5 Jang takes a much more direct and fast path in WT rules. When performing it for sport poomsae, the elbow pretty much moves out like it it was a backfist, but the lower arm rotates upwards to form a semi circle vertically to finish downward at about eye level. Kukkiwon takes a much larger circle with the arm/fist going over the practitioner’s head. To me the WT version always looks more like a backfist, but having seen Master Rabia perform it in person and slowly, it is a hammerfist, just one that takes a much tighter path.
This low dual side block in Taegeuk 6 Jang has a more natural starting position for Kukkiwon with the palms facing towards the body but in WT the palms must face towards each other. The finish position is also different, Kukkiwon has the arms finishing towards the sides, but stopping as if an iron bar was in front of the thighs, for WT the fists must come all the way to the sides of the body.
The turning kick in Taegeuk 6 Jang must go past the centre line of the body. Kukkiwon has it going to the centre line.
Sonnal Eolgul Biteuromakki
This knifehand face-high twisting block performed in Taegeuk 6 Jang should have an almost straight elbow. For Kukkiwon a little more bend is allowed, maybe to 120°, but for WT it should be much much straighter.
Using this term to mean body blocking in general, WT wants the blocks to all finish below the shoulder line. Kukkiwon has them at the shoulder line. My prediction on the reasoning for this is that it’s much easier from a seated judge’s point of view to see if it’s at the right height of a standing practitioner if it’s lower from the shoulder. At the shoulder line may look “higher than” from a seated position.
This slow movement performed in Taegeuk 7 Jang takes different paths for the two organisations. WT has it come close the body elbows bending as necessary, then coming out from the dan jung (solar plexus) to end up almost straight elbowed with the thumb side of the fist facing upwards. Kukkiwon has it raise almost straight elbowed and when the arms are about 30° from vertical, start to bend the arms until the fist is at about mouth high and facing more towards the practitioner.
Hechomakki then Mureupchigi
After the hechomakki (wedging block) in Taegeuk 7 Jang, WT requires that your hands just open and then move down when kneeing with Mureupchigi, no reaching forward for the shoulders or upward for the neck, just opening hands as your knee lifts. Kukkiwon has this as a lift up for the head with the palms facing inwards currently (but have done both historically).
Timing of Poomsae
There are differences in timing for some of the parts of poomsae, these can change depending on the particular competition, but as a few examples, there’s a part of Taegeuk 8 Jang where the differences in timing can be clearly seen. After the (first) jumping double front kick, the practitioner does a momtong makki, dubal jireugi, then quickly in to another ap kubi jireugi, as if it was all one combination, don’t pause. Kukkiwon has the step and punch after the initial combination as a separate count/movement. When doing Keumgang’s triple batangson apchigi (palm heel strike), Kukkiwon has them as three separate motions, but WT wants them as effectively a single strike, then a combination of two strikes in rapid succession. Another one is in Koryo where the three sonnal arae makki ageumson apchigi should all be done in quick succession for WT, but in Kukkiwon the beat is in between each combination.
This is a circular parry done in Taebaek poomsae, WT finishes the movement lower like an arae makki height for the parry, but Kukkiwon has it maybe stomach section (basically keep the elbow in place and rotate around the elbow joint in space, dropping a little, but not intentionally to the lower stomach or two fists above the leg height).
When spinning to perform the backfist in Taebaek poomsae, judges want the backfirst hand kept open as long as possible, thumb downward on the shoulder and the assisting arm kept behind the back as long as possible, then as you finish, bring the assisting arm round, clench and strike. Kukkiwon has this much more naturally with the striking hand forming a fist early and the assisting arm coming round as soon as you start to step.
Danggyeo deungjumeok apchigi
This double elbow strike in Pyongwon poomsae should be done really fast like a single motion, almost thinking like Kung-fu punching sort of look and speed. Kukkiwon has a much more natural pace, still two hands in combination but at a more normal pace where it’s obviously two moves, not one movemement.