Adaptive Martial Arts


WTF-Low-Res-3Taekwondo is an ancient Korean martial art using dynamic movements including a variety of foot skills. The sport gets its name from the combination of three Korean words “Tae” meaning foot, “Kwon” meaning fist and “Do” meaning way or discipline. The combination provides the basis of the sport, which focuses on sparring techniques utilizing kicks and punching motions that incorporate both speed and agility. An emphasis is placed on head-high kicks and jumping and spinning kicks. Taekwondo attempts to teach athletes the balance of unity and confrontation.

Earning Your Rank

As with many martial arts, Taekwondo students wear a colored belt on their uniform to show their rank. Rankings are separated into junior and senior sections.

Junior Rankings

Junior ranks typically consist of a variety of colored belts. Traditionally, the darker the color belt, the higher the rank. To advance in the ranks, athletes complete tests in which they demonstrate their skills in three of aspects of the sport: 1) an execution of patterns to highlight specific techniques 2) sparring to show practical application 3) breaking of boards to demonstrate power and control. A panel of judges will score the athlete and determine if their skills qualify them for a promotion to the next rank.

Senior Rankings

Once a student has earned the ranking of black belt they are moved into the senior ranks. A black belt also qualifies athletes to compete in international adaptive competitions. Those who have been moved into this category no longer receive a different colored belt as their skills advance. Instead, black belts range from first degree through ninth degree. Within the World Taekwondo Federation, first through third degree black belts are considered Instructors (Sabum), while and fourth through sixth degree black belts are Masters (Sahyun). Seventh through ninth degree black belts have earned the title of Grandmaster (Saseong).

Competition Rules

WTF-Low-Res-6-300x199At the Paralympic level, Taekwondo competitions are broken into two categories: Poomsae (forms) and Kyorugi (sparring). Recreational competitions and demonstrations may also include Gyeokpa (breaking), where athletes incorporate techniques to break wood, bricks or other blocks.

Pooomsae competitions ask athletes to perform a prearranged sequence of techniques, while judges score them on precision, speed and control.

Kyorugi competitions pair two competitors against each other to spar. Depending on the competition, sparring could be freestyle (competitors spar without interruption for several minutes), timed (three rounds of two minutes each) or point sparring (competition is paused between each point scored). Timed sparring is the most commonplace, and is utilized within all USA Taekwondo and World Taekwondo Federation sanctioned competitions including Paralympic competition.

In sparring competitions, points are awarded when a permitted technique is delivered to the scoring areas of the head or the trunk with a proper level of impact. Points are awarded for permitted, accurate and powerful strikes delivered to scoring areas. Light contact does not score any points. Scoring areas are defined by the colored areas on the opposing athlete’s trunk and head protector. The competitor with the most points wins the match.

Points are awarded as follows:

  • One point for a valid attack on trunk protector
  • Three points for a valid turning kick to the trunk protector
  • Three points for a valid kick to the head
  • Four points for a valid turning kick to the head
  • One point awarded for every two warnings (Kyung-gos) or every one deduction (Gam-jeom) given to the opposing athlete

Simple Adaptations for Athletes with Disabilities

WTF-Low-Res-7-300x199Adaptive Taekwondo is remarkably similar to its able-bodied counterpart. The difference comes into play in sparring competitions, as adaptive athletes are not allowed to earn points for strikes to the head area. Instead, athletes earn points only when a permitted technique strikes their competitor’s trunk protector. Athletes earn a warning for any unintentional attack to the head and a deduction for intentional attacks to the head area.

Permitted techniques include foot and fist strikes. Fist techniques involve a straight punching motion using the knuckle part of a tightly clenched fist. Foot techniques involve a variety of movements using any part of the foot below the ankle bone.

Points are awarded as follows:

  • One point for a valid kicking technique on trunk protector
  • Three points for a valid turning kick to the trunk protector

Getting Started is Easy

To begin participating, athletes should invest in a uniform, mouth guard and protective cup. Uniforms are traditionally white with a colored belt tied around the waist to indicate the athlete’s rank within the sport.

When sparring, padded equipment, including forearm guards, shin guards and helmets are worn. These can all be borrowed from your local Taekwondo school until you’ve committed to the sport and decide to purchase your own set.

Athletes are encouraged to train with their local Taekwondo school and compete in integrated competitions until they earn their black belt, which is required for international Paralympic-qualifying competition. If your local Taekwondo school is unfamiliar with adaptive techniques, encourage them to reach out to USA Tekwondo for information on coaching training.

Who Can Participate?

WTF-Low-Res-300x199Taekwondo will be featured as a Paralympic medal sport for the first time in the 2020 Tokyo Games. To qualify for the Paralympic team, athletes must be medically classified under the minimum disability rule for their discipline. Athletes looking to qualify in the Kyorugi (sparring) discipline are required to have an upper arm disability, such as amputation or paralysis of the arm. The Poomsae (forms) discipline is open to athletes with intellectual disabilities. The medical classification process ensures athletes are paired with competitors who have the same ability levels.

In other adaptive competitions, the following sport classes are also recognized: Visual Impairment, Deaf, Short Stature, Limb Deficiency/Impaired Passive Range of Movement and Wheelchair.

At a recreational level, competitions are integrated, allowing athletes with disabilities to enter local Taekwondo competitions and compete against able-bodied athletes and other athletes with varying disabilities.

As with many other martial arts, all sparring competitions are broken up by gender and weight class. In recreational settings age groups may also be utilized to help keep an even playing field.

For More Information

  • Adaptive Martial Arts Association, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA, has information on adaptive techniques, instructor training and schools with adaptive programs in a variety of Martial Arts.
  • To find a Taekwondo school near you, or a calendar of national competitions visit the USA Taekwondo website. You must be a member of USA Taekwondo to participate in USA Taekwondo sanctioned competitions.
  • The World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) is the international governing body of Taekwondo and Para-Taekwondo. Visit their website for a full list of international competitions as well as focused information on Para-Taekwondo.

Thank you to USA Taekwondo for contributing information for this article.
Photo credit to World Taekwondo Federation.