Practice Design

Does Taekwondo fighting in training adequately facilitate skill transfer in competition?

It is common for fellow Taekwondo squad members to fight each other in training in preparation for combat competitions. While such training activities promote physical competition-like experiences, it neglects to consider if athletes are cognitively and affectively engaged to think and feel like they would in competition.

A similar concept has been explored in diving (see link for overview), yet let’s take a closer look at Taekwondo.

The Study

Michael Maloney and colleagues observed 10 international senior Taekwondo athletes during a national training camp. The aim was to assess whether (1) the fighting in training adequately simulated the cognitive and affective demands of competition, and (2) the demands observed in training impact the representativeness of fighting actions compared to competition.

A mixed methods approach was taken where participants  fought in two distinct conditions – a typical training fight and a simulated competition fight.

The Findings

The collective results from perceptual scales, interviews and pre-fight maximum heart rates revealed that:

  • Fighting in training did not induce a similar level of arousal and anxiety as fighting in competition; and,
  • Athletes fighting against a fellow squad member in training were less likely to cognitively problem solve compared to when they were fighting unfamiliar opponents in competition.

Furthermore, participants kicked less, initiated their attacks from further away and displayed more predictable movement displacements in training.

Take Home Message

Training tasks that are emotionally engaging can help athletes to learn to cope with emotions during competition. Training tasks should also to be designed to appropriately challenge the individual which, in turn, facilitates skill learning. Such considerations can be as important as learning technique.

Aspects of cognition and whether athletes think and feel like in competition are often overlooked when designing representative practice environments. In the Taekwondo example, the findings indicated that fighting in training does not necessarily simulate the constraints and demands of fighting in competition. This is due to the lower levels of anxiety and arousal, decreased mental challenge, and different movement behaviours. Consequently,  such training practices could limit skill transfer from training to competition.


Maloney, M., Renshaw, I., Headrick, J., Martin, D. T., & Farrow, D. (2018). Taekwondo fighting in training does not simulate the affective and cognitive demands of competition: Implications for behaviour and transfer. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 25.


  1. Hi Victoria!

    Man am I starved for content like this! I’m a taekwondo guy who’s really into skill acquisition and motor learning/control stuff and there’s just not much of anything for taekwondo around, leastwise from a representative learning design perspective.

    I feel like affective learning issues are something that instructors pay lip service to, but, as a result of a poor overall understanding of representativeness and how motor control works, they assume that whatever weird drills they put together should do the trick. Then their cognitive biases come into play when students fail to perform under perspective. And thus a vicious cycle continues. But really good coaches understand this intuitively despite lacking an academic understanding of them, and I’ve seen that too.

    I have a question that’s slightly off topic. You mention sparring practice to prepare for kyorugi competitions, but most of taekwondo practice tends to be traditional classes that include little to no sparring and thus little to no representative learning environments designed for sparring. Would you agree that such learning environments are not optimal for, perhaps incapable of, building sparrers adequately adapted for competition?

    Josh Peacock

    1. Hi Josh! Ill reply as Vic might not see this.. great to hear your passion for the topic. And yes absolutely the best coaches intuitively get this.

      I am going to give a very generic answer (sorry) – which is purely due to my lack of knowledge of Taekwondo. But maybe you can help me out… my generic answer is (which I think every coach / player knows): the more we can practice skills in situations that better reflect competition demands (physically & emotionally), the more likely we’ll see positive transfer from practice to competitions. In your experience of Taekwondo practice, how successful do you feel the transfer is between practice & competition? And is there a reason why practice features minimal sparring?

      1. Hi Tim, sorry this took me months to reply to! I had meant to do this a long time ago.

        My experience with this (very traditional) style of training where there’s minimal sparring is that the transfer is very weak. Elite level Olympic taekwondo fighters spar much, much more than you will find in a typical dojang (taekwondo academy).

        Tradition is one of the main reasons there is typically minimal sparring in taekwondo classes. There are established, very blocked, and very isolated, formal ways to practice that are considered standard. Trying to deviate often leads to community backlash.

        The other reason is because taekwondo is schizophrenic. You’re not just learning the sport fighting sport of taekwondo; you’re learning poomsae, which is a prearranged set of movements performed solo, in the air — and a competitive sport activity of its own under World Taekwondo — and most of training is oriented toward improving poomsae. The training culture of taekwondo, worldwide, is biased toward poomsae, which is a sort of holdover from the training culture of karate, which was the main source from which taekwondo was developed in the 1940s and 50s.

        Training time in class is split between this and sparring, or else sparring is one class once a week separate from regular class. No matter how you slice it, most dojangs provide training skewed toward traditional formal exercises and not sparring.

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