Winter 2009

What is the Right Way to do Competition Poomsae?

by Dr. Misha Thackrey
Head Coach, U.S. National Taekwondo Poomsae Team

What is the right way to do Competition Poomsae? It used to be you could just ask your Teacher and that was that. Now everyone's an expert at Poomsae, yet nobody has any final answers. Welcome to the new paradigm! The opinion of Poomsae Referees is now the ultimate criterion--they determine whether you win or lose. You need to understand Referees, their context, their training, and their process.

Political and Organizational Factors: Kukkiwon and WTF are an interconnected network of committees and officers within which individuals may rise to prominence by seniority, alliance, and political savvy more than technical expertise. There are differences between authorities, coalitions and countercoalitions, and a shifting balance of power.

Poomsae Development: Kukki Poomsae has always been subject to change and refinement, a process that continues into the present. The Kukkiwon sets standards through the World Taekwondo Academy. As leadership of the Kukkiwon changes so change Kukki Poomsae styles and interpretations.

Competition Management: World Taekwondo Federation (WTF): Poomsae competition is overseen by WTF through various committees that (a) make the rules and (b) appoint and train the Poomsae Referees. As WTF incumbents change so changes Poomsae competition.

Rule Ambiguity: In sharp contrast to sports such as gymnastics and diving, the rules of Competition Poomsae are imprecise and incomplete at best. Though WTF policy is that written English prevail over the Korean, translation has been notoriously nonprofessional and resulted in ambiguity, contradiction, and gibberish. Other official Kukkiwon and WTF written materials have similar shortcomings in addition to clear factual errors. Moreover, the rules themselves change frequently, sometimes the night before competition. And rule changes are not publicized-indeed, last-minute changes are selectively leaked to allies and withheld from foes.

Neurocognitive and Social Psychological Factors in Judging: Despite the appearance of numbers analyzed to two decimal places, Poomsae Referees do not and cannot follow a precise scoring algorithm. It is simply neurocognitively impossible. Poomsae scoring is a decidedly subjective process, and Poomsae Referees are largely self-unaware of the thousands of rapid mental operations they go through on their way to estimating a score. The social psychology is also substantial: Poomsae Referees are face-to-face with players, coaches, and other officials. Scores are public so everyone-including the crowd-knows how each Referee voted The Referee must please supervising committee members, who give explicit verbal directives not to issue scores deviant from those of the rest of the group. Referees and competitors know one another personally and will see one another again. Successful countries hire famous individuals, well-recognized by the Referees, to sit in the Coach's chair and to serve as Head of Team. Sometimes a favored country's players are actually used as calibration examples in Referee Training. In other instances Officials and Referees have been previously retained as private instructors and consultants to a successful national team. Referees want the right person to win and do their best to maintain fairness and integrity, but their judgments are not computations made in a vacuum.

WTF Referee Training Process: Poomsae Referees are trained in seminars and refresher courses by instructors selected by WTF committee. Seminar content largely depends upon the individual instructor, each of whom brings a particular point of view. Seminar instructors are typically not professional educators, and not all are good communicators. Seminar design is inefficient, organization is poor, time is wasted, and essential information is not conveyed. Vexingly, for cultural reasons specific questioning of the instructor is strongly discouraged (questions are seen as implying that one doubt's the presenter, or that the presenter has not explained well). Oral translation is invariably done by a junior, often a relative youngster with limited technical knowledge of advanced Poomsae who gets elevated to quasi-expert status within the group. Misunderstandings abound. And as with all seminars everywhere, questions may poorly framed and instructors may misunderstand, give inarticulate responses, have an informational lapse, get asked a question they do not know how to answer, or maybe give a quick but misleading summary response, etc. (For these reasons one should be particularly skeptical of second-hand reports of major Poomsae changes-extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence!) Overall, Poomsae Referee training is haphazard, and even after an intensive multi-day seminar Referees may still not agree on the fundamentals.

What, then, is the right way to do Competition Poomsae? The correct way to do Competition Poomsae is whatever the largest number of Poomsae Referees will score highest! Referees disagree considerably among themselves about proper technique (there are usually more differences between the Referees than between the top competitors), so your best bet is to be technically conservative. However, Referees show better agreement about who is strong and coordinated and poised, so athleticism is probably the most important variable of all. Of course you must also be well-known and well-liked. Referees may not agree about what makes good Poomsae, but they do agree about who is good at doing it!

Fall 2008 

Modern Training Methods (MTM) in Sport Poomsae

Dr. Misha Thackrey
Head Coach, U.S. National Taekwondo Poomsae Team

In years gone by, Tae Kwon-Do sparring champions prepared for competition by fighting countless rounds in the do-jang, supplemented by Poomse practice and miles of running. In recent times, however, successful Taekwondo athletes have adopted Modern Training Methods (MTM), a sport science-derived approach characterized by a periodized training plan, strength and conditioning workouts, development of part-skills, situational drills, and psychological training-actual sparring practice is de-emphasized to allow focus on skill-building and to avoid competition-limiting injuries. Similarly, Poomse competitors used to train by doing thousands and thousands of repetitions of their form in the do-jang. However, in recent times successful Poomsae athletes have also come to adopt MTM, especially in Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Poomsae MTM requires that the coach and athlete follow a periodized training plan. Periodized means that the training year is parsed into phases, each lasting several months with its own special emphasis (typically Preparatory Phase, Competitive Phase, and Transition Phase); each Phase is further broken down into smaller cycles of activity and recovery. This periodized plan aims to have training peaks coincide with important competitions. Rather than merely emphasizing massive rote repetitions of Poomsae, MTM devotes the bulk of training time to strengthening and conditioning specific muscle groups, increasing range of motion, improving balance, sharpening part-skills, and developing psychological focus. Cross-training, nutrition, sleep, and recovery time are also integral to the process. Repetitions of whole Poomsae then productively build upon this base of general athleticism and sport-specific part-skills. Video review gives timely feedback and opportunity for self-correction. Structured Visualization give mental rehearsal for what the athlete will actually experience on game day (Thackrey, M., & Thackrey, T. 2003, Winter. Taekwondo Today, p. 41). Poomsae athletes may also draw upon the expertise of a variety of specialty coaches, such as experts in exercise physiology, physical therapy, gymnastics, dance, and sport psychology.

At the highest levels of competition all Poomsae athletes know their forms well-differences between winners and losers have to do mainly with presentation, and hour for hour MTM training is the best way to enhance performance in modern Sport Poomsae.

Spring 2008

Paradigm Shift: On the Future of U.S. Sport Poomsae

By Dr. Misha Thackrey
Head Coach, U.S. National Taekwondo Poomsae Team

            The 1st WTF World Taekwondo Championship was held at the Kukkiwon in 1973. Its immediate effect in the USA was modest, however, as at that time most domestic competitions were "Tae Kwon-Do" point-sparring tournaments. In 1978, however, the 3rd WTF World Taekwondo Championships in Chicago electrified Americans and led to the predominance of today's Olympic-style "Taekwondo" competitions. In the world of Sport Poomsae the 1st (2006) and 2nd (2007) WTF World Taekwondo Poomsae Championships in Korea have come and gone with only minimal immediate effect on Sport Poomsae in the USA.

            Though superficially similar, WTF Standard Poomsae and U.S. tournament Poomsae are as different as Olympic Taekwondo and Tae Kwon-Do point-sparring. International competition standards for Poomsae differ from U.S. domestic standards in both how Poomsae are performed and how Poomsae are judged. WTF Standard Poomsae (based on Kukkiwon Authorized Poomsae) have been developed in committee. WTF Standard Poomsae indeed change from time to time, and they will continue to change with the committee incumbents. WTF judging criteria are also markedly different from U.S. methods, and of course WTF is continuously modifying its criteria. At this time the USA has only a handful of trained WTF Poomsae International Referees, only a couple have officiated at a WTF World Taekwondo Poomsae Championship, and only a few U.S. athletes have international Poomsae competition experience. Poomsae competition at U.S. tournaments does not resemble competition elsewhere in the world. What wins here would certainly lose internationally, and what wins at Worlds would lose here. In contrast, for many years Europe, Australia, and Asia have had well-developed international Sport Poomsae programs and have held modern technical championships.

            Just as the 100-meter and the shot put are dissimilar events yet are both part of Track & Field, so are Olympic Taekwondo and Sport Poomsae dissimilar. Some elite athletes do both 100-meter and shot put, yet almost all world record holders specialize. Elsewhere in the world, Olympic Taekwondo and Sport Poomsae have distinct and non-overlapping streams of athletes, coaches, officials, and events. In time U.S. Sport Poomsae athletes, coaches, and officials will also become specialized. Modern Training Methods (MTM) will be applied to Sport Poomsae, with specialized strength & conditioning coaches, technique coaches, sport psychology coaches, and of course famous and influential floor coaches.

            Sport Poomsae is going to be huge! You don't get kicked in the face. You don't have to make weight. People are nice to each other. Families can take part. Older people can compete, and WTF plans to introduce Poomsae into the Paralympic Games. Sport Poomsae will also attract more elite athletes. Sport Poomsae is TV-friendly, too. As with gymnastics and figure skating, viewers need not understand the technical details of judging to enjoy and appreciate the athleticism and artistry of Sport Poomsae.

            The U.S.A. must become cutting edge, poised to adapt rapidly to world developments and lead at the international level. However, we have considerable inertia to overcome, and many in the U.S.A. misunderstand or fear this paradigm shift from Traditional Poomsae to Sport Poomsae (see "Evolution of Sport Poomsae," USA Taekwondo News, Spring 2007, p.10). Moreover, our NGB USATaekwondo is charged with and funded for developing Olympic Taekwondo rather than Sport Poomsae. USAT has committed to devote more resources to poomsae in the future and the coming years will see greater support from them in this area.

            The U.S.A. has won its first-ever WTF World Taekwondo Poomsae Championship medals (2007), but grassroots U.S. Sport Poomsae lags. When the WTF World Taekwondo Poomsae Championship is held in the USA we will finally see extraordinary development in U.S. Sport Poomsae, with profound changes in how Poomsae are performed and judged at U.S. competitions. Some will of course stay with their current ways, as have done some with point-sparring, but U.S. Sport Poomsae will be led by those who want the USA to be #1.

Winter 2008

2nd WTF World Taekwondo Poomsae Championships

November 4 - 6 2007, Samsang World Gymnasium, Incheon, South Korea

by Dr. Misha Thackrey
Head Coach, US National Taekwondo Poomsae Team

The United States of America won medals in three divisions at this year's WTF World Taekwondo Poomsae Championships. On opening day, the USA became the first Western Hemisphere nation ever to make it to the medal stand. The 2nd Female Team (Barbara Brand, Akiko Reyes, Noreen Thackrey) scored 7.37 for their performance of Pyung-Won and Chon-Kwon, good enough for a third-place bronze medal tie with Australia behind 2nd place-Spain and 1st place-Germany. On day two, the USA again won bronze, this time in the 2nd Female Masters Individual division. Noreen Thackrey scored 7.67 with Ship-Jin and Ji-Tae, finishing in a 3rd-place tie with Australia, behind 2nd place-Turkey and 1st place-Chinese Taipei. Finally, on day three, the USA won Silver. Competing in the 1st Female Masters Individual division, as Dure Chang scored 7.96 for Ship-Jin and Ji-Tae, following 1st place-Korea.

The USA also performed well in other divisions. The 1st Male Team (Jason Hwang, Anthony Nguyen, Johnny Nguyen), 1st Senior Female Individual (Young-A Kim), 2nd Senior Female Individual (Akiko Reyes), 1st Senior Male Individual (Johnny Nguyen), 2nd Senior Male Individual (Thac Nguyen), 2nd Pair (Christi Maves and Jim Null), and 1st Master Male (Reggie Ubiadas) all made it to semi-final or final rounds though they did not medal. The Junior Male (Matt Dunlap), Junior Female (Apri Bondurant), 1st Female Team (Natalie Baker, Apri Bondurant, Lauren Overs), 1st Pair (Young-A Kim, Anthony Nguyen), 2nd Male Team (Jeff Anderson, Robert Bradford, Randy Chambliss), and 2nd Master Male (Tom Vo) represented the USA well but were eliminated in preliminaries.

The USA's success this year is a pleasant contrast to last year's outcome. At the 1st World Poomsae Championships only one USA athlete survived the initial round of competition and none received a medal. Several factors underlie our improvement. This year, most USA athletes were better-informed about the latest technical updates to the Poomsae and most were in excellent physical condition. Team Manager Randy Chambliss arranged for us to have a few days in Korea before the competition to adjust to the time change and to practice. Coach Bob Maves led warm-ups and cool-downs and took special care of strains and injuries. As a result, our actual performance of the Poomsae was much better than last year.

In addition to physical performance there is a social psychology of Poomsae scoring, and crucial to our improved standing in the eyes of the Poomsae Referees was the show of support we received from distinguished dignitaries. Grandmaster Chan-Yong Kim served as Head of Team, a respected ambassador who, as former WTF Referee Chair, ably represented the USA to the senior WTF officials. USAT CEO David Askinas appeared on the medal stand with the U.S. Team, and the U.S. Martial Arts Commission (Grandmasters J. P. Choi, Hong Kong Kim, Jhoon Rhee, Young Sook Kim, and others) rallied to support the USA team. Moreover, two U.S. International Poomsae Referees (Daniel Rogers, Scott Serbin) were part of the judging pool. As a result of this visible support we were taken seriously and scored accordingly.

The next U.S. National Taekwondo Poomsae Team Trials will take place July 2008 in conjunction with the U.S. Senior National Taekwondo Championships in Detroit, with qualification through State Championships and National Qualifiers.

Spring 2007

Evolution of Sport Poomsae

By Misha Thackrey
Head Coach, U.S. National Taekwondo Poomsae Team

1st WTF World Taekwondo Poomsae Championship, Seoul, Korea

Fighting Poomsae. In the distant past, sequenced prototypical fighting movements ("Poomsae") were taught as rehearsal for actual combat. Physical training predominated. Mental training was secondary, added only to make a better (more self-controlled, fearless, even fanatical) fighter. Surviving warriors were the ultimate authorities on Fighting Poomsae, and each veteran had unique experience and skill. The proving ground for Fighting Poomsae was actual combat.

Traditional Poomsae. In later years, Poomsae came to be practiced for their intrinsic value (philosophy, self-development, health, enjoyment) more than for actual fighting application. Mental training (e.g., abstract meditation) became even more important than physical skill. Fighting Poomsae movements and sequences were modified to emphasize abstract and symbolic notions, hazardous techniques were eliminated, and Traditional Poomsae lost much of their fighting value. Traditional Poomsae were the products of individual "masters," not necessarily warriors, and were handed down to generations of disciples. The "master" became the ultimate authority on Traditional Poomsae, and myriad systems and interpretations abounded as the proving ground for Traditional Poomsae shifted from combat to phenomenology.

Sport Poomsae. In recent times, Sport Poomsae has brought athleticism, skill, and presentation to the forefront. Modern Training Methods (MTM) to increase strength, flexibility, and conditioning are now enhanced by scientific mental training (e.g., Structured Visualization). Significantly, Sport Poomsae are developed by committees rather than created by individuals, with standardization, frequent revision, and written rules. The actual fighting value of Sport Poomsae remains limited, as the proving ground for Sport Poomsae has become athletic competition. Poomsae Judges now supersede "masters" as authorities on Sport Poomsae. The 1st WTF Taekwondo Poomsae World Championship in Seoul, Korea established Sport Poomsae as the emergent model.

Future Poomsae.  Sport Poomsae is open to innovation, and major changes in Sport Poomsae are certain to come. We can anticipate Dance Poomsae, Gymnastic Poomsae, Creative Traditional Poomsae (classical stances, blocks, kicks), and Modern Creative Poomsae (Olympic Taekwondo footwork, motions, kicks). We can also expect ever more capable athletes coming into Sport Poomsae competition-gymnasts, dancers, traditional martial artists-with a common core curriculum in MTM.

We can also expect popular participation in Sport Poomsae to grow substantially. Sport Poomsae is safe and enjoyed all over the world by people of all ages and all levels of ability. Ultimately Sport Poomsae will help to secure Taekwondo's future in the international athletic community, and it is not difficult to envision the eventual inclusion of Sport Poomsae in Olympic play.









Fighting Poomsae




Actual Combat

Traditional Poomsae




Inner Experience

Sport Poomsae