Ah, Taekwondo. Yes, I can tell you quite a bit about it. It’s a good thing you don’t want her to be a prodigy, because in the land of competitive sport martial arts competition is fierce and competing is really the only way to get any real name recognition in the national (sometimes even just local) martial arts community. There have been a few prodigies to come out of the sport, one of the most famous in the United States is Ernie Reyes, Jr. Who at the age of eight in 1979 was the first child to ever qualify in the National Top Ten (in the Adult Division). His father Ernie Reyes, Sr has also had a rather illustrious career. This is the second (and most important half) that when coupled with phenomenal talent allows a child prodigy to be successful.
So yes, good that you decided not to go with a prodigy.
As far as things go, Taekwondo isn’t actually a very old martial art. It has it’s roots in taekkyon and subak but has since evolved into it’s own martial form. Taekwondo dates back to 1957 as the official name for Korean martial arts. The Korean Taekwondo Federation was founded in 1961 and since then has gained worldwide popularity and recognition. The World Taekwondo Federation was created in 1973, taekwondo was accepted into the Amatur Athletic Union (AAU) in 1974, and became an officially recognized Olympic sport in 1988 where it was a demonstration sport. It has since become a medal sport. Taekwondo is an internationally recognized martial art that is practiced by more than twenty million individuals in 112 different countries. (Taekwondo Techniques and Tactics, p14) It is primarily a sport martial art with competitions ranging from the state, national, to international with events in the Junior Olympics, Collegiate Championships, World Games, World Cup, Pan American Games, and the Olympic Games (Taekwondo Techniques and Tactics, p14).
Taekwondo is primarily practiced as a competitive sport, but there are many dojangs that do focus their training on health and fitness or train for self-defense. It is not really practiced as a combative martial art outside of South Korea. So, if your character is serious about her martial arts career, she may be on the tournament circuit. If she wants to go to the Olympics, she’ll primarily focus on point sparring, if not it may be: forms, creative or open forms, breaking, and weapons to name a few. Most competitive martial artists do all of them. In today’s world of sport martial arts, she may also be into tricking which like the open forms above is a combination of precision kicking, high flying gymnastics, and dance routine choreographed to music. (Technically, any martial artist who focuses on kicks can do tricking, including karate, capoeira, different kung fu disciplines, etc. Taekwondo with it’s almost total focus on precision kicking at the upper belt levels just makes it a natural fit for the creative and gymnastically inclined). To train in Tricking, she’ll probably be taking gymnastics and dance lessons on the side. If she’s not, then there will probably be at least one or two (if not a whole subset) in her school who do. In a community sense, those kids who are into tricking or the tournament circuit will be the school’s rock stars, however, the flip side is that their entire life will pretty much be based out of the dojang (life, school, friends? what’s that?).
After three years in the taekwondo system, she’ll either have just received her black belt (1st degree, choganim) or be in training to take the test. This is at least a four day a week commitment to the school with early Saturday mornings thrown in for extra conditioning (she’ll probably have started doing these at blue or brown belt). How that test is run is going to depend on the size of the school and the instructors involved, my black belt tests were through the Ernie Reyes World West Coast Martial Arts Association which had the involvement of twenty or so schools and they were (are) huge, day long affairs with hundreds of testers participating and thousands of audience members who come for the night show in the evening. Your character’s school may be much smaller, possibly somewhere between 40 to 100 students with a testing group that could be anywhere from two to fifteen. The school will probably shut down on a Saturday or Sunday every two to three months to run belt rank tests.
Taekwondo: Taekwondo as a martial art is pretty much all about kicks. There are quite a few hand techniques which are mostly used in the different forms (sometimes sparring), but the primary focus is on precision kicking. The upper belt ranks and self-defense training steal a few joint locks and wrist breaks from jiujutsu and depending on the dojang, the curriculum may be padded out with some MMA ground fighting (jiujutsu/judo).
Ask any white belt with two or three months of training what he has learned from his martial arts experience and the answer may surprise you. Certainly he will talk a lot about improved flexibility, strength, and overall fitness, but he is likely to conclude by pointing out improved self-respect and self-confidence. Through many long hours of arduous training and struggle to overcome fatigue and other physical limitation, the taekwondo practitioner perseveres to forge his will and enhance his life.
The taekwondo school (dojang) is a special place, a world unto itself. You take off your shoes before entering the dojang and when you step onto the practice floor. In the dojang, you are introduced to a code of ethics and morality that teachers nurture and strictly enforce. Respect, discipline, self-control, and honesty are words you hear—they are concepts you learn to live by. The new adult student will learn a lot about humility. Everyone comes to the school at the same level, regardless of race, religion, economic, or professional status. No one is given special consideration, and everyone is judged on diligent practice and dedication to the school, the art, and to each other.
(Yeon Hwan Park and Tom Seabourne, Taekwondo Technique and Tactics, p 2)
This is important to understanding and building your character and the supporting characters from the school including the instructors and the other students. In a Taekwondo studio, the instructor’s favorites and the school rock stars are going to be the kids and adults who spend the most time at the school. They’ve earned their status and they’ve earned the recognition they get from their fellows through years of dedication. They will also often be humble and spend a lot of time giving theirs back to their community. Higher level students are expected to donate and volunteer in lower belt classes. When your character started at 13, she may have had assistant black belt (1st, choganim and 2nd, busabumnim) in instructors helping the Head (3rd degree, sabumnim) and Master (4th degree bukwanjangnim or 5th degree kwanjangnim) teach the classes who were her age or slightly younger.
This can be frustrating for some students, especially adults, in the early years at a studio because physical age has almost nothing to do with showing respect. The color of the belt around the waist means everything.
It’s not just talent that sets someone apart in the school, it’s time. She’s probably already volunteering her time after school and before her own evening classes to work with the younger students.
Taekwondo dojangs develop a strong sense of family and community, the longer she’s been with the dojang, the more time she’ll spend there.
Most martial arts programs are actually fairly racially diverse, so her classes will usually have one or two (or more) ethnic minorities of either gender (though the instructors may or may not be white). For example: in my school, almost all the instructors were minorities and they ranged from African-American, to Hispanic, to Chinese, and Japanese. The uniform and rank are what you see, the rest stops mattering.
Lifestyle Hint: Quite a few black belts in their teens and in college pick up summer jobs working at their school once they’ve spent several months (or a few years) volunteering. They also can develop contacts among the parents of the younger students and pick up babysitting jobs on the side. After I joined the dojo, the people my parents hired to babysit myself and my brother were always late teen and twenty something instructors from our martial arts school.
Martial Arts Schools:
If her head instructor is a martial artist full time, then it’s important to understand that martial arts schools are a business. They have to attract a student population to survive and it is a very, very, very competitive thing. One of the few things that a martial artist can do with their knowledge (beyond becoming a stuntman) is teach, so many martial artists attempt to open their own schools. If the school is successful, then it has a high level of involvement in the community at large.
So, it’s important for you to come up with how she found her school before she received her training. What got her inspired and involved? She could have discovered her school a number of different ways.
Through a friend: this one is common, she may have had a friend who was a student at the school recommend her. Or through a birthday party, this is more for kids under ten, but often martial arts schools will host birthday parties for students and provide a freebie lesson with special activities.
Through a sibling: in a successful school, many kids who have a participating older sibling often get enrolled by their parents.
Through a parent: families sometimes sign up together as part of a family activity. Though, the parents are often the ones who stay long after their kids quit or have gone to college.
Through a demonstration: many martial arts schools put on volunteer demonstrations at local elementary and middle schools as a means of attracting students. They may participate in football half-time shows, special assemblies, or parades.It may have been something like this (which was how West Coast lured me in).
Through a desire for self-protection or a self-defense seminar: many instructors offer self-defense seminars in their local area and this can be one of the major ways they attract students.
Through a workout class: most martial arts schools offer workouts like kickboxing or yoga or other kinds of routines on the side to draw in the fitness crowd. If her mother or father is a health nut, this could be how she found the school.
Through an ad in the local paper or magazine or a flyer at the YMCA or at her school: this one is self-explanatory, but many martial arts schools advertise this way.
Martial arts schools have a fairly high turnover rate (less than 50% of all students make it to black belt) and they’ll offer classes for a range of ages, beyond just belt ranks. When she was younger, her parents may have used the martial arts school as a proxy “After School Daycare”, which would mean that she spent a lot of time there. Martial arts schools primarily make their money with the little kids, so there may be a higher focus on the small ones over the big ones. Kids have more free time in the afternoons and Adult classes will be later in the evenings (after the adults get off work).
These schools are often closed in the morning and open at 2 or 3. The classes happen in descending order and are often arranged by age, the youngest and the lowest belt ranks are earliest starting with the littles (4-6) and working up.
The school’s average schedule per day may look something like this and most classes last an average of 30-45 minutes:
White (poss Orange) (5-8): 3:00pm
Yellow -Green (7-10): 3:45pm
Blue (poss Blue I) (7-13): 4:30pm
Brown (poss Brown I) (8-13): 5:15pm
Red (poss Red 1, Red-Black) (9-14): 6:00pm
Black (10-15, Adult included): 6:45pm
This is the weekday. Weekends: Saturday Morning: 9:30-10:30M. Often, they’ll be closed on Sundays. Saturday Morning Trainings will happen at a local high school or park and will be devoted to practicing techniques on a variety of terrain and conditioning. 7am to 8:30am is the usual.
Because the adult classes are smaller, they tend to have more belt classes lumped in together.
This is getting long in the tooth so: Recommended Reading:
Taekwondo Techniques and Tactics by Yeon Hwan Park and Tom Seabourne: this book will be very handy to you because it covers all the important bases from forms, to techniques (including combinations), how to choose a school, and the rules for point sparring competitions (and diagrams of the layouts). Everything you’re going to need to know to build your character’s base is in here, including tactics for how to use Taekwondo for self-defense.
We did an article on Basic Kicks: it’s a three part series
This article on Training and Physical Contact which may also be useful to you.
Commonly known fact: because of the focus on kicks, Taekwondo practitioners are notorious for dropping their hands when they fight and forgetting to guard their face. This can occasionally get them in trouble when they face practitioners from a different style.
Hopefully, this will help get you started.