As we celebrate International Women’s Day all over the world, it’s heartening to know that more women are practising what was once a male-dominated martial art of Taekwondo these days. We’ve also seen more female Taekwondo black belters perform on screen, like Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil), Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld), Katheryn Winnick (Vikings), and Jessica Alba.
The trend is not just in Hollywood. For instance, right here in Singapore at J H Kim Taekwondo Institute (Bukit Timah), 30% of their students are female, and close to half of their instructors today are women. One of them has won 2 gold medals each at the Korean Open and the ASEAN Taekwondo Federation Championships and a bronze at SEA Games.
Learning martial arts is often touted as a great way for women to protect themselves, but as Singapore is a safe place, being proficient in Taekwondo is about more than just a form of self defence. What’s it like for women to practise Taekwondo, and what benefits are there? Hear from Rachel Chia (20), Brenna Tan (20), and Andrea Andradi (17), all of whom are black belt students at J H Kim Taekwondo Institute (Bukit Timah).
Rachel (3rd Dan) specialises in Poomsae (artistic routine) and is currently a first-year student at a local university. Brenna (3rd Dan) specialises in Kyorugi (sparring) and Sibum (demonstration) and will be attending university this year. Andrea (2nd Dan), who’s currently in JC, specialises in Poomsae and also has a blue belt (5th Keup) in Kummooyeh, a Korean martial art specialising in swordsmanship and archery.
The physical benefits of Taekwondo
As martial arts are a physical sport, participants are often at their physical best, especially when it comes to those at an advanced level, like Rachel, Brenna, and Andrea. During the course of training, all three have noticed significant health gains. Research has shown that black belt Taekwondo athletes have above-average muscle strength, flexibility, and aerobic capacities. More experienced black belters, even if they’re older, were also seen to be more athletically fit compared to their novice counterparts.
However, it’s not just about gaining the strength and stamina to run up several flights of stairs with heavy bags in the day-to-day commute – it’s also about sleeping well, having mental fortitude, and the instinct to make better food choices.
Rachel: As an athlete, it is essential for me to eat healthily. I consciously avoid processed food as well as fried and sugary foods. I pack my sandwich order with vegetables, and would choose fruit juice and a plain salad over bubble tea and fried chicken any day. After a tiring day of training, I tend to fall into a deep sleep, allowing me to feel refreshed and ready to start each new day.
Brenna: I remove processed meats and fried food from my diet as much as possible in the run-up to competitions. I’ve also found that I subconsciously make similar decisions even outside of the competition season; for example when stuck between two dishes at a restaurant, I tend to make my final decision based on the one which I feel has better nutritional content.
One of the most important skills I’ve picked up is the ability to tune out all noises apart from the referee’s and my coach’s, so I can concentrate on the opponent while also receiving advice from my coach as I’m fighting. This has proven to be an invaluable skill as I’ve been able to apply it to other aspects of my life such as schoolwork, where I can channel my focus much easier to complete tasks in short spurts of focused work hours thanks to the mental training that comes along with sparring.
Andrea: Some of the biggest and most obvious physical changes and health gains I’ve noticed include flexibility, healthier food choices, improved stamina, and muscle gain. I also know my body and my physical limits much better, so I’m able to recognise when I’ve reached my limit or when I need to take a break from physical exertion.
The female Taekwondo community in Singapore
When it comes to martial arts, Taekwondo has always been very accessible to girls and women, since it’s also taught in schools in Singapore. Despite martial arts as a whole being seen as a more male-dominated sport, there’s a diverse community of female Taekwondo athletes here.
Rachel: I’ve always been surrounded by fellow females during my years in Taekwondo, who’ve played a huge role in making me the athlete I am today. Many of my first instructors who introduced me to the world of Taekwondo at J H Kim were female. One of them in particular taught me how to tie my belt for the first time, saw my potential, and encouraged me to go for competition training more than a decade ago. This reinforced my conviction that I could do everything that my male counterparts could, and more.
I’ve made many female friends in competition classes, with whom I still train after all these years. Moreover, I’ve made many new female friends in my university’s Taekwondo community, which is exciting because being under a wide variety of different majors, we wouldn’t have otherwise met. Outside of training, we occasionally eat together, run together, and study together. Taekwondo has provided me with a strong, supportive female community which I’ll treasure throughout my life.
Brenna: It’s heartening to see that a larger proportion of the younger fighters on the competitive sparring team today are female, compared to years ago when I was a junior on the team myself. On the non-competitive side of things, the female Taekwondo community which attends adult classes at the school is surprisingly large and tight-knit. On some occasions, the female students even outnumber the male students in class!
Everyone in the community has been approachable and I felt welcomed from the first day I joined the adults class not too long ago, despite being new. Many of the members of this female community are serious about the sport, always showing eagerness to learn and not being afraid of the hard work required to attain, and even surpass the rank of black belt.
Andrea: I’ve definitely made plenty of new friends over the nearly 12 years I’ve been training, and I’ve kept in touch with most of them over the years, especially the friends I’ve made through the elite competition team. I feel that the female martial arts community is extremely diverse in many aspects, including cultural backgrounds, age range, and personalities. This community of friends is extremely encouraging and provides lots of moral support, especially during peak competition seasons, when many of us feel the stress and pressure of performing well.
Many members of this female martial arts community also inspire me to continue practising the sport and they also remind me to not be fazed by the fact that Taekwondo is a male-dominated sport.
The pros and cons of Taekwondo training
Taekwondo training is arguably not for everyone, and it takes grit and perseverance to conquer the self. Those who’ve mastered the art have found their lives benefited by it, whether it be benefits to their physical health, mental wellbeing, or simply the friends they’ve made over the years.
Rachel: One of my favourite things about Taekwondo training is that I can cultivate my physical and mental strength using an age-old martial art practised by the Korean military. I’m thankful that I’m pushed to my limits during each training session, as it helps me build up my stamina, refine my techniques, and develop my character. Hence, my least favourite part about Taekwondo training would be the part when I have to leave.
Brenna: Martial arts has been a fulfilling journey in which I’ve been able to experience tremendous growth. It’s led me to always be in constant pursuit of bettering myself, both on and off the mats. The experiences I’ve had with people I met along the way have added much purpose and meaning to my martial arts training journey as well. Though we may be of different ages and come from different walks of life, we’re able to bond through this common interest in Taekwondo.
My least favourite part of training would likely be the drills and techniques which require balance. While balancing, it’s important to be able to detect and make small changes to your posture where needed, to remain in the same position (e.g. standing on one leg bent at the knee, also known as the ‘crane stance’ in Poomsae or even raising one leg up in the air to perform multiple kicks without dropping in sparring). Failure to do so, such as making too big or too sudden of an adjustment in these positions, may result in the loss of balance. The key is to make minor and controlled changes to hold these positions where necessary. Such a skill can only be picked up over time and with much practice, one which I’m still working on even after so many years.
Andrea: My least favourite thing would probably be the feeling of insecurity, especially being a competitive athlete. Having competed since I was 8, I’ve beaten many competitors, but also seen many of them surpass me over the years, which occasionally causes me to doubt my abilities. But having a supportive community and knowing that my friends have experienced this same feeling brings me comfort and relief, and they help me to feel much less alone in times of self-doubt.
My favourite thing about martial arts would be training and improving with friends. Subconsciously, we’d compare ourselves with each other to help ourselves improve, but ultimately, we’re competing against ourselves and constantly trying to improve and better our techniques as individual athletes. As each of us have our own individual strengths and weaknesses, it’s a special experience when we train together, as there’s always something new to learn from someone else.
The best thing about Taekwondo is…
While the motivation for picking up Taekwondo is different for everyone, the benefits and achievements are what keep practitioners going. Whether it’s winning a medal at a competition or being able to do aerial cartwheels, the skills gained would be something to be proud of.
Rachel: As a Poomsae athlete, I’ve had to learn many patterns throughout the years, which makes me proud to declare that I’m now able to perform and teach all 15 Taekwondo patterns that I’ve learnt with power and accuracy. At present, I’m able to put these accreditations to good use in my university’s Taekwondo community, by simultaneously representing the school in competitions and helping to coach the lower belts – both of which I find most meaningful and fulfilling.
On a related note, my greatest mental accomplishment would be my integrity, which is defined as the ability to stay true to oneself amidst life’s challenges, and in my case, doing what I think is right, instead of what is popular.
Brenna: Of all the physical milestones I’ve achieved, breaking a board with an aerial cartwheel ranks highly on the list. When learning aerial techniques, which require jumping and flipping, it’s crucial to fully commit the mind and body to the trick for the best possible outcome. I recall a number of times when I instinctively backed out of tricks halfway when doubts crossed my mind, causing me to lose control in the air. Over time and with practice I eventually learned how to approach these techniques with tenacity and a ‘go for it’ attitude, fully committing to the trick, placing doubts aside for a split second and ensuring that I follow through from start to finish.
Andrea: My proudest physical achievement would be my flexibility, which has improved greatly. Over the years of Taekwondo training, it’s always extremely gratifying to see how my kicks and techniques have improved, especially my sidekicks.
Another achievement is the growth in mental resilience. Being a student leader since primary school, I’ve had to juggle many commitments, ranging from schoolwork to CCA and leadership responsibilities, as well as Taekwondo training and external commitments. Being a competitive athlete has also taught me the value of mental wellbeing, as oftentimes, performance is greatly affected by our mental headspace and mindset. Taekwondo has truly taught me the value of hard work, resilience, and a healthy support system.
Want to be part of the Taekwondo community?
When it comes to signing up for martial arts, one can see why Taekwondo remains a popular choice. It’s also very accessible: J H Kim Taekwondo Institute has four branches spread across Singapore – Bukit Timah, Toh Tuck, Sembawang, and Woodlands – where you can kickstart your journey.