At some point during your child's life, you may consider enrolling him or her in Taekwondo classes. Or maybe, as an adult, you're considering Taekwondo for yourself. Taekwondo is a wonderful opportunity not only to learn a martial art and get exercise, but it also instills discipline, leadership, character, focus, and integrity in ourselves and our children.
There are many wonderful Taekwondo schools, or dojangs, out there. But there are just as many that do not have the most scrupulous business practices. These schools do not represent the best of martial arts. I learned the distinction the hard way and honest information is hard to come by, so I want to share with you how to find the best - while avoiding the worst.
When you begin your Taekwondo journey, you may not be thinking 3-4 years ahead to a Black Belt. You may be thinking "This will be our spring sport" or "We'll try this for a year." And there is nothing wrong with that. But you should still be aware of what you're getting yourself into just in case your plans change along the way. When our family started Taekwondo with a 6 year old, we certainly didn't think we would all end up training at the same school for 6 years and achieve our Black Belts. But we did. And I wish I had known the following information.
Topics I'll address:
Is Kukkiwon certification really necessary?
How to determine certification
The martial art of Taekwondo is unregulated here in the United States. Anyone can open a dojang and claim to teach you Taekwondo. If you don't know the questions to ask a school before you start, you may end up losing not only time and money, but also - as in our case - trust in others and a family you love.
In South Korea, there is an organization called the Kukkiwon. The Kukkiwon, also known as World Taekwondo Headquarters, and home of the World Taekwondo Academy, is the official Taekwondo governing organization established by the South Korean government. The Kukkiwon's mission is to raise the standards of Taekwondo as a martial art and Olympic sport all over the world.
Since martial arts are not regulated within the United States, Kukkiwon certification of a school, master instructor, and Black Belt (also called a Poom or Dan holder, depending on age) shows that one has been taught under internationally established rules and policies. A Kukkiwon certificate is widely regarded as the most prestigious of all the Black Belt certificates within the art of Taekwondo.
Is Kukkwion certification really necessary?
You certainly do not have to attend a Kukkiwon certified Taekwondo school with a Kukkiwon certified master. There are probably great schools out there that are not Kukkiwon certified. But you do need to know whether or not certification is important to you before you even start. You need to know whether or not the school you are going to attend is certified or not because it will affect the status of your Black Belt.
If your school is certified with the Kukkiwon or is associated with a Kukkiwon master instructor who has the "right to recommend" you for a certified Poom/Dan, you will receive a Kukkiwon Dan (degree: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) when you receive your Black Belt. Your Kukkiwon Dan will be recognized at other schools all over the world (even with the World Taekwondo Federation which governs the Olympic sport), should you decide to continue your martial arts journey somewhere else. Whether you change schools for personal reasons or because of a move, you will receive the respect you have trained for, paid for, and earned as a Kukkwon certfied Black Belt.
If your school is not Kukkiwon certified or associated with a Kukkiwon certified master instructor, you will receive what is considered a "general Dan" or a "school black belt." Your certificate and belt will only hold value at your school. If you change schools, it may be deemed worthless and your hard work and years of dedication may not be recognized, regardless of your ability.
For me, Kukkiwon certification was extremely important. Imagine, if you will, that you attended Harvard University for four years with the understanding that you would receive a diploma recognized all over the world. You worked hard, paid a lot of money, gave it everything you had, and graduated. Harvard told you that you graduated, gave you a cap and gown to wear at the ceremony, and then sent you on your way. But they never gave you a diploma. Now, when you try to apply for jobs or go on to graduate school - no one believes that you actually went to Harvard.
Kukkiwon certification is proof that you have trained within a certain set of standards and those standards are international. Some master instructors complain that the Kukkiwon is just a money grabbing organization and will use that as a reason not to become a Kukkiwon member school. The Kukkiwon has worked hard to raise the level of Taekwondo all over the world, serves as a standard setting organization, and is held in international regard. Sounds well worth it to me.
How to determine certification
Now you understand what the Kukkiwon means to Taekwondo. If you believe that all of your child's hard work—if they eventually test for their Black Belt—should result in a recognized status wherever life takes them, you need to find a certified school. There are many things other than Kukkiwon certification that you should of course consider when choosing a school. Maybe someday I'll write an article on that from a student's and parent's perspective. In the meantime, there are plenty of articles out there if you search the topic.
But I'm focused on you being able to walk into a school and knowing whether or not it is Kukkiwon-certified. I gave you the information to decide if that's even important to you. So if it is important to you, before even stepping foot in a school, check the Kukkiwon Membership System to see if the school is a member:
All Kukkiwon 4th Dans who want to recommend students for Kukkiwon certifications have to formally request through an online process for the right to be considered. Once the Kukkiwon accepts the instructor, he receives a dojang certificate (pictured) and a dojang ID number, which is different from an individual's Kukkiwon Dan ID number.
When you arrive at the school for an initial interview, and after you've had a chance to view the school's classes and asked about schedules and fees, be sure to find out the master instructor's rank. He must be at least a Kukkiwon 4th Dan in order to even have the ability to recommend students. You can double-check the Poom/Dan status of anyone with the Kukkiwon here:
Just keep in mind though, in order to complete this search you will have to know the person's complete name and birthdate. Results only come up if the name is typed in exactly as it was submitted (with middle name, without middle name, etc.).
Confirm with the master instructor that his Black Belts are Kukkiwon certified. If he says yes, ask him for his dojang's Certificate of Kukkiwon Membership.
Now, if you have gone to a Taekwondo school that you found through the KMS membership system, you can skip this next step. But if you chose to go to a more convenient school that was not listed on the system and the master instructor has stated that his Black Belts are Kukkiwon certified, ask him then who submits the applications. It is possible that a senior master or Grandmaster with Kukkiwon dojang certification submits them for him. There is nothing inherently wrong or illegal with this method, but buyer beware: if there is a problem later down the road you should know the chain of command and who exactly handles the submissions.
Find out from the master instructor how long it takes for a person to receive their certification from the Kukkiwon. It should only take about two months if he is submitting them electronically through the membership system. If he gives a longer timeframe, be sure to ask why. I have learned that some master instructors will hold on to the certificates when they return from Korea - for six months, a year, longer - in order to keep a person from leaving after achieving their Black Belt. Ours used to tell us that it took six months to make the long trip back from Korea, or that the Kukkiwon was "running behind." If you leave before getting that certificate—while you may be certified within the Kukkiwon system and on the Poom/Dan Search—you may never get your actual certificate from the instructor.
Before signing any long term contracts, find out from the master instructor how soon after your Black Belt testing you will be certified and receive your certificate. Confirm that they will not delay in sending your application to the Kukkiwon and that they will not hold your certificate back from you for any reason once it arrives. Write up your own contract to this effect if you desire. An honorable master instructor should have no reason not to agree to these terms. You trained, you paid for training, you tested for your Black Belt, you paid for testing, and you deserve your certification and your certificate. If you receive pushback for any reason - find another school.
As far as fees go, they vary by school. Obviously your training tuition should be something your family can afford. Be sure to ask up front how much testings are at each rank. At our school, they started around $50 per testing and went up to $550 for the 1st Degree Black Belt test and $700 for the 2nd Degree test. I didn't find this too concerning at the time. Yes, it is expensive. But after training for so many years and finally achieving such an extraordinary goal, it seemed worth it. I learned afterward how much of that money actually goes to the Kukkiwon - and how much of it goes in the instructor's hands. If he is not a master with the right to recommend, then some of the money may go in his hands, then his senior master's hands, and then his Grandmaster's hands, who will finally submit the application.
Just for your information, actual Kukkiwon Dan Fees are as follows:
1st Poom/Dan: US $70
2nd Poom/Dan: US $90
3rd Poom/Dan: US $120
4th Poom/Dan: US $150
Is what your school charges for Kukkiwon certified Black Belt testing worth it? There are the Kukkiwon fees and your master instructor's fees to consider, of which both are deserving. Our Black Belt tests were always huge affairs with balloon arches in hotel ballrooms, so there were expenses there. And there is of course an inherent value in achieving the status of Black Belt that is worth something, just like a degree from Harvard. The fee is all a matter of perception, I guess. You have to decide if it's worth it to you. Just don't blame the Kukkiwon for fees you think are extraordinary.
I don't in any way claim to be an expert on all things Taekwondo or Kukkiwon, but I am a Kukkiwon 1st Dan and a mom of two Poom holders who suffered through an extremely unpleasant experience during our journey. I did a lot of research to try and get answers after our experience, so the information I have provided here is what I have learned along the way. Taekwondo did wonders for us as a family and as individuals, and I do hope other families can find such fulfillment in the martial arts. My goal was to clear up some of the confusion on how to find a reputable school and whether or not Kukkiwon certification is important to you and your family.
Our learning experience
We moved from Florida to California in 2009. It was a huge adjustment for our family - I was extremely homesick with a 2-year old and a 6-year old who felt displaced. I immediately wanted to find a place for our oldest son to make some friends and get his bearings in this new life while allowing me to get out of the house and meet some new people.
We found a school just five minutes from us. When we first went, I was so impressed with the friendliness and respectfulness of the staff. The school was clean, the staff energetic, and the families seemed kind. I signed my oldest up for a 9-week trial and he fell in love. We all did.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I had started training with my now 8-year old and his now 4-year old brother. This place was our home in California. We had so many friends—a family—to be with several times a week. My boys were learning about character, leadership, discipline – all the wonderful things you want your young men to learn. We were training hard and were constantly challenged, learning not only kicking combinations and forms (poomsae) but also nunchuks, boxing, Kali, and sword. Every six months there was a Black Belt testing where the candidates were told that in just six months, their certifications would be coming directly from Korea. It was an exciting goal to work toward.
Fast forward a couple more years and you'll find the three of us as Black Belts. My oldest tested for his Kukkiwon 1st Poom in July of 2012. My youngest son tested for his Kukkiwon 1st Poom in February 2014, when I also tested for my Kukkiwon 1st Dan. In July 2014, my oldest son was performing his 3rd step test (of 4, every six months) toward his 2nd Poom, and my youngest and I were completing our 1st step test toward the same goal.
As we approached my oldest's 2nd Poom final testing in February 2015, things began to happen at the school. There's a lot to the story. We decided to keep our heads low and get our oldest through his testing. He wanted to focus on another sport after he achieved this goal anyway, so we decided to just try and make it for a few more weeks.
The rumors started about the status of our certifications. People started asking why they hadn't received their certificates from Korea yet for our February 2014 testing. Then people from the 2013 testings started talking - they hadn't gotten theirs either. According to the master instructor and his staff member, the certificates were lost, or the apps were lost, or they were taking a long time to come back from Korea…. there were several excuses. I checked the Poom/Dan search online, and while my oldest son had fortunately received his certification for his 2012 testing, my youngest and I did not for 2014. We were not listed on the website. Our applications - from a year ago - never made it to Korea.
The school wasn't listed on the KMS site. I never even knew to check before now. I started asking questions of the master instructor. I couldn't get straight answers, or proof. He wouldn't show me a Kukkiwon dojang member certificate. He kept deflecting the questions, questioning my loyalty, and claiming that he would get them.
Unfortunately there was another incident one week before my son's testing. This incident was so frightening that we decided never to return to the school and completely cut off ties. It was painful. An entire family torn apart, and we weren't sure what the heck had just happened. But we realized our master instructor was not the person we thought he was. The school has since closed.
And here we all were, having trained for years and having earned our Black Belts, but without the certification we were promised.
I found out later how the system probably worked at our school. Our master instructor was not a KMS member school, so he would take our applications and send them up the line. His senior master would take some of the money. His Grandmaster would take some of the money. And his Grandmaster was the one who would submit the applications to the Kukkiwon. Which explained not only why they took so long, but why they were also so incredibly expensive. I'm still not really sure what happened - why he stopped sending the applications up the line - but he did.
It was a very difficult lesson to learn and my ignorance of the entire process resulted in a lot of pain. I hope to prevent it for another family.
If you are having a problem with your Kukkiwon Dan certification, sit down and talk to your master instructor first. If you are not getting the answers you think you should, contact Dr. George Petrotta of ISA Martial Arts. He helped us sort through the mess, and could possibly help you as well. http://www.isamartialarts.net/