ITF vs WTF vs ATA: How to Choose The Right Style of Taekwondo

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The more you learn, the more you realize how much is left to learn.’ Taekwondo as a dojo and a sport is no different to this belief.

Stemming from Korea Taekwondo Association formed in 1959, Taekwondo currently has three major bodies, i.e. World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) and American Taekwondo Association (ATA).

Thus, the world of taekwondo possesses a lot of diversity. Though all these forms have evolved from its inception in Korea during the 1940s, there’s a vast difference between how the three aforementioned bodies operate.

Another notable point to keep in mind is that World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) is the same as World Taekwondo (WT). it’s been renamed World Taekwondo (WT) to avoid negative connotations of WTF.

The differences can be observed through history, applied techniques, tendencies, approach, rules, patterns & forms. Let’s begin with general differences:

Approach

World Taekwondo (WT) is sportive in nature as compared to the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF).

While ITF is considered by many as the body which carries the traditional taekwondo beliefs, WT is more commercial in nature. Furthermore, ATA is an entirely different entity which is a blend of ITF & WTF.

Having said that, WT is quick and tactical, whereas the other two bodies are traditional and defense based. Since WT largely relies on scoring, a Taekwondo bout in WT is often considered as boring due to its technical nature of emphasizing on points alone. 

Since the approach is different; the way the fighters train, spar and prepare for a bout is also different.

Sparring

 World Taekwondo or Olympic Taekwondo

The rules of the old-school Olympic Taekwondo were different and they imbibed the traditional spirit before the implementation of electronic Hogu.

Before the electronic Hogu initiation in 2008, the intention while sparring was to knock your opponent.

However, after the change and addition of a sporting flavor, old-school transformed into more tactical taekwondo emphasizing on scoring points off of your opponent’s weaknesses.

While the world sees Taekwondo as Olympic Taekwondo, people who’ve been practicing WTF Taekwondo for over a decade can tell the difference between Olympic Taekwondo and the Old-School WTF Taekwondo.

The old-school Taekwondo is usually referred to as Taekwondo before the electronic Hogu was introduced in 2008.

It was a knockout sport & quite vicious version of Taekwondo we see today.  The practitioners were required to leave a trembling impact and try to incapacitate their opponents with the help of kicks.

International Taekwondo Federation

International Taekwondo Federation follows No Contact or traditionally semi-contact.

Herein, the approach is defensive, and knockout isn’t necessarily the intention of the practitioner. A drawback of semi-contact sparring is that power is undermined. It follows the traditional militaristic approach as set by General Choi. Thus, the techniques are locked down, and those are limited in numbers.

However, with time, considerable changes have been introduced in ITF as well, and it’s no longer direct.

American Taekwondo Association

ATA, as mentioned above, is seemingly a blend of both the styles mentioned above. However, ATA in the 80s did not require wearing chest protectors.

Only a mouthpiece coupled with hand and foot padding was enough. ATA didn’t emphasize on trembling shock to score a point, as seen in traditional WT or ITF.

A focused blow with proper contact towards a legal target without the attempt being blocked was enough.

Fast forward four decades, ATA with regards to sparring is much lighter than WT or ITF. Sparring in WT & ITF is considerably heavier as compared to ATA.

Punches

  • When it comes to throwing punches, WTF doesn’t allow punch to the face though it’s a full-contact sport.
  • On the contrary, ITF does allow punch, but due to its semi-contact nature, there’s a limitation, i.e. the punch should be thrown clean and only with as much power as a referee can see it. You’re not allowed to leave the juice behind, upon doing so, you might be penalized.
  • ATA with regards to punches follows the same protocols as that of ITF.

Basics

ITF follows patterns, whereas WTF has forms. Though the same thing, these are different terminologies as per the style. Though the primary objective of all these three styles stems from “Hosin Sul” i.e. self-defense, there are many variations with regards to everything else.

Grappling

Either of these Taekwondo federations or associations is not known for grappling.

The practice of grappling is as minimal as that of locks and takedowns. Some schools teach grappling to strengthen the practitioner from a practical combat standpoint.

However, grappling realistically is not the center piece of Taekwondo in any of these three associations.

Gear

  • In WTF sparring, each competitor wears a headgear, mouth piece, forearm pads, chest protector and shin guard.
  • In ITF sparring, each competitor wears a headgear, gloves, and feet protectors.
  • In ATA sparring, each competitor wears headgear, gloves, mouthpiece and feet protectors.

Rules

  • In WTF sparring, kicking is allowed to the following areas: Chest protector, Headgear and Face. Punching is allowed to the chest protector only. If you’re a young practitioner (below 14) only light kicking to the head is allowed. However, if you’re a black belt, you can kick to the head with full power.
  • In ITF sparring, you’re allowed to punch and kick both body and head. Only light contact is allowed. However, the rulings in ITF are a little complex and might vary based upon the schools, studios, and the country you live in.
  • In ATA sparring, the primary consideration is given to preventing injuries, and thus, it promotes light contact with increased emphasis on form.

Sparring Style

  • In WTF the sparring is continuous, kicking, dodging, avoiding kicks. However, there’s not an ample amount of blocking in WTF sparring. A counter is preferred over blocking.
  • In ITF, the sparring is not continuous. For instance, if you land a hard shot, the contest will be stopped, award the point and then continue. Thus, it follows the Stop & Go principle.
  • In ATA, hand and foot techniques are used, and judges emphasize the effectiveness of each technique. Herein, the flow and rhythm are mostly noted along with proper eye contact and alert demeanor. It reflects the overall combination of mind and body.

Differences in ranking systems

WTF

9th Gup

White

8th Gup

Yellow

7th Gup

Orange

6th Gup

Green

5th Gup

Purple

4th Gup

Blue

3rd Gup

Brown

2nd Gup

High Brown

1st Gup

Red

1st Dan

Black

ITF

 

No Belt

10th Gup

White Belt

9th Gup

White Belt with Yellow Stripe

8th Gup

Yellow Belt

7th Gup

Yellow Belt with Green Stripe

6th Gup

Green Belt

5th Gup

Green Belt with Blue Stripe

4th Gup

Blue Belt

3rd Gup

Blue Belt with Red Stripe

2nd Gup

Red Belt

1st Gup

Red Belt with Black Stripe

1st Dan

Black Belt

ATA

No Belt

White

Orange

Yellow

Camouflage

Green

Purple

Blue

Brown

Red

Red/Black

Black

Notable difference in forms or patterns

The major difference between the forms stems from the characteristics – ITF is self-defense oriented, WTF is sport oriented whereas ATA is self-improvement oriented.

What’s the difference between Poomsae/Tul/Hyung?

All three refer to shape & form. World Taekwondo is integrated with ‘’Poomsae”, International Taekwondo Federation has “Tul” and American Taekwondo Association has “Hyung”. But as said earlier, all of these refer to shape & form. Similar to the names, even styles are different. Here are some notable differences: 

 

  • In WTF, poomsae are more upright as compared to ITF tuls which puts limitation on the power being distributed or generated. As an example, if a WTF practitioner is throwing a punch, only shoulder strength is being utilized in the form.

 

  • ITF uses sine wave – a rising and sinking form while delivering a strike, kick or block, which requires ITF practitioners to sit deeper. ITF emphasizes on cycle of breathing while going through motions and emphasis on height and sequential movement.

 

  • WTF has stances and techniques in colored belt levels which ITF doesn’t use. These techniques include double kick, elbow strike or back fist. ITF on the other hand has U & W Shape block which is unique in ITF colored belts.

Form & Technique Guide in all the three Taekwondo Styles

World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) – Color Belt, Form & Technique Guide

WTF

Gup

Color

 Forms

Technique

9th Gup

White

 

Basic Stance

8th Gup

Yellow

Taegeuk Il-jahng

Walking stance

Front stance (also called long stance)

Low block

Inside block (also called middle block)

High block

Middle punch

Front kick (also called front snap kick)

 

7th Gup

Orange

Taegeuk Ee-jahng

High punch

 

6th Gup

Green

Taegeuk Sam-jahng

Back stance

Knifehand middle block

Knifehand neck strike

 

5th Gup

Purple

Taegeuk Sa-jahng

Double knifehand block

High knifehand block

Palm block

Back fist strike

Spearhand strike

Side kick

 

4th Gup

Blue

Taegeuk O-jahng

Cross stance

L-Shape Stance

Outside block

Hammer fist

Elbow strike

 

3rd Gup

Brown

Taegeuk Yuk-jahng

Outer forearm block

Double wedge block (also called opening block)

Roundhouse kick

 

2nd Gup

High Brown

Taegeuk Chil-jahng

Tiger stance

Horse stance

Lower knifehand block

Double block

Knee strike

Double upset punch (i.e., uppercut)

Crescent kick

 

1st Gup

Red

Taegeuk Pal-jahng

Mountain stance

Jumping front snap kick

 

WTF – Black Belt Guide

Belt

Form

1st Dan

Koryo

2nd Dan

Keumgang

3rd Dan

Taebaek

4th Dan

Pyongwon

5th Dan

Chung Hae

6th Dan

Sipjin

7th Dan

Jitae

8th Dan

Cheonkwon

International Taekwondo Federation (ITF)

ITF

 

No Belt

Forms

10th Gup

White Belt

No Form, Basic Exercise

9th Gup

White Belt with Yellow Stripe

Chon-Ji (19 movements)

8th Gup

Yellow Belt

Dan-Guri (21 movements)

7th Gup

Yellow Belt with Green Stripe

Do-San (24 movements)

6th Gup

Green Belt

Won-Hyo (28 movements)

5th Gup

Green Belt with Blue Stripe

Yui-Gok (38 movements)

4th Gup

Blue Belt

Joong-Gun (32 movements)

3rd Gup

Blue Belt with Red Stripe

Toi-Gye (37 movements)

2nd Gup

Red Belt

Hwa-Rang (29 movements)

1st Gup

Red Belt with Black Stripe

Choong Moo (30 movements)

1st Dan

Black Belt

 

ITF – Black Belt Guide

Black Belt

Forms

Moves

1st Dan

Kwang-Gae

Po-Eun

Ge-Baek

39

36

44

2nd Dan

Eui-Am

Choong-Jang

Juche

45

52

45

3rd Dan

Sam-Il 

Yoo-Sin

Choi-Yong 

33

68

46

4th Dan

Yon-Gae

Ul-Ji 

Moon-Moo 

49

42

61

5th Dan

So-San

Se-Jong

72

24

6th Dan

Tong-Il

56

American Taekwondo Association (ATA) - Colored Belts

ATA

Belt

Forms

Moves

No Belt

  

White

Songahm 1

18

Orange

Songahm 2

23

Yellow

Songahm 3

28

Camouflage

Songahm 4

31

Green

Songahm 5

34

Purple

In Wha 1

44

Blue

In Wha 2

42

Brown

Choong Jung 1

44

Red

Choon Jung 2

46

ATA – Black Belt Guide

Belt

Form

Moves

1st Dan

Shim Jun

81

2nd Dan

Jung Yui

82

3rd Dan

Chung San

83

4th Dan

Sok Bong

84

5th Dan

Chung Hae

95

6th Dan

Jhang Soo

96

7th Dan

Chul Joon

97

8th Dan

Jeon Seung

98

Difference in Doboks (Uniforms) in all the three styles:

Differences in the uniforms are visible in all the three styles, noticeable ones include, the length of shirt, traditional robe style in ATA, new design approach in WT, shorter sleeves in ITF and major visual pattern difference. WT has a thick black border neckline whereas ITF has only the Torso part with tick black borders. ATA on the other hand has multiple black stripes.

World Taekwondo (WT)

International Taekwondo Federation (ITF)

American Taekwondo Association (ATA)

Criticism

  • In WTF, since kicking is an integral part, it often draws criticism of being ineffective in a real-life situation. However, ITF with more flexibility with hands can be related to the kickboxing.
  • Contrastingly, since ITF receives heat due to light contact as its drills are less heavier than WTF (being a full-contact sport).
  • ATA however, if often referred to as a cash cow, totally ineffective of standing anywhere close to ITF or WTF. For instance, here’s a mom trying to find a cheap gear for her kid on a Reddit thread and the only suggestion she gets is to switch the style.

A complete comparison guide:

Elements

WTF

ITF

ATA

Logo

   

History

Formed in 1973, the World Taekwondo Federation was renamed World Taekwondo to avoid negative connotations.

Founded in 1966 by General Choi Hong Hi, ITF is based upon the styles developed by General Choi.

Founded in the year 1969 by Master Haeng Ung Lee also referred to as the ‘Eternal Grand Master’.

Headquarters

Seoul, South Korea

Benidorm, Spain

Arkansas, USA

Concentration

Olympics

Most Practiced Style

Combination of WT & ITF

Highlights

Though the name World Taekwondo suggests World Leadership, WT dictates standards just pertaining to World Taekwondo (WT) and not ITF & ATA

Not affiliated to World Taekwondo, ITF has its schools, requirements and even different sparring principles. It is the most popular Taekwondo body around the world.

American Taekwondo Association has over 1500 schools in North America alone, and the teachers of this form are required to have ATA licenses.

Competition

Full Contact Point Style

Semi-Contact or Point Style

Both No-Contact & Full-Contact

Gear

Headgear, mouth piece, forearm pads, chest protector and shin guard.

 

Headgear, mouth piece, forearm pads, chest protector and shin guard.

 

Headgear, gloves, mouthpiece and feet protectors

Suitability

Olympic Dream

Self-Defense

All-Around Development

Rules

Kicking is allowed

 

Punch allowed only on the chest protector

 

Fully Body Contact

Kicking is allowed

 

Punching is allowed

 

Light Body Contact

Kicking is allowed

 

Punching is allowed

 

Light Body Contact

Form/Pattern

Continuous

Abrupt

Abrupt

Ranking

Seeding

Grading

Belts

Criticism

Boring

Ineffective in real life

Considered Useless

Having seen the comparison guide, let’s head towards the penultimate question.

“Which taekwondo style should you choose?”

A sensible answer to this question lies in your heart. At their basis, all three are good with regards to self-defense.

How much of that works in a real-life scenario? It depends upon who you are up against.

By reading this comprehensive blog, you now have a fair bit of knowledge about which style suits you the most. However, if you’re still having trouble choosing one, you can rely on the following test:

Approach: Which of the following do you relate yourself with?

  1. Hitting the opponent with force – 10 points
  2. Emphasizing on touch rather than force – 20 points
  3. Demonstrating your skills – 30 points

Competition: Where would you rather want to compete?

  1. Olympics – 10 points
  2. Local, National & International Tournaments – 20 points

Gear: Would you want to be fully protected during a bout?

  1. Yes – 10 points
  2. No – 20 points

Mentality: Which one would you rather prefer?

  1. A Tactical fighter – 10 points
  2. A fighter with better self-defense – 20 points
  3. A fighter with better self-confidence – 30 points

Ranking: Which one is more appealing to you?

  1. Worldwide seeding – 10 points
  2. Grading – 20 points
  3. Belts – 30 points

Fighting Style: Which fighting style do you prefer?

  1. Quick – 10 points
  2. Slow but effective – 20 points
  3. Slow but protective – 30 points

(Not down the points, you scored with each answer, and you will have your result)

Here’s what taekwondo style you should choose based upon your personality:

  • 60 points – World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) or Olympic Taekwondo
  • 70-120 points – International Taekwondo Federation (ITF)
  • 130-360 points – American Taekwondo Association (ATA)

Conclusion

I hope that this guide was helpful and helped you choose the correct taekwondo style for yourself. Remember, any form of taekwondo is ineffective if you don’t follow the principles.

Thus, keep the motto intact, and not only will you take your opponents down but will improve your fitness, self-confidence, focus and self-defense. Keep these five things close to your heart – Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-Control and Indomitable Spirit.