My Taekwondo Career: Looking Back as a Physical Therapist

(Originally published in the Fall 2009 USA Taekwondo News Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 3)

It has been a while now since my last competition, which was at the 2005 World Championships in Madrid, Spain. Since then, I have completed my Doctor of Physical Therapy degree at Washington University in St. Louis, and just recently a sports residency with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. I am very fortunate to have experienced the successes and failures that come with being a taekwondo athlete because they have undoubtedly helped shape the person I am today, as well as the way I treat my patients.

While competing, I was always pretty hard on myself when it came to winning. I would like to say I had a very good work ethic and was always willing to put in the extra work. One of the worst feelings in the world after losing a competition is looking back and thinking, “Man… I should have done this or that better.” As a successful athlete, I had to learn to let things go and how not to make the same mistake twice. As a clinician, I need to do exactly the same thing and make sure my patients are given the best treatment possible so that they can perform to the best of their abilities.

 My first World Championships: 1999 (Edmonton, Canada)

My first World Championships: 1999 (Edmonton, Canada)

Now as a current healthcare professional and having the opportunity to treat some very high-level athletes, I’ve learned that putting them on the top of that podium is truly a team effort. Some aspects of a good team are a good coach, appropriate nutrition, solid mental health, a proper strength & conditioning program, and great medical care. Looking back, I had access to all of these things but I am not sure if I utilized them as best that I could.

As a fighter, I was somewhat a “technician” and this fit in well with my schooling in physical therapy, which was focused on identifying and improving movement patterns associated with pain. Our bodies are made to move a certain way and it makes sense that when our mechanics are off, there will be abnormal wear and tear. Taekwondo athletes often feel that their chronic back, hip, and leg pain are just part of the job, and I was exactly the same way. I now think differently and have been taught to “think outside of the box”.

(Example) How many of you have had or are currently bothered by annoying hamstring pain? There are two ways of treating this: (1) Treat the “source” of the pain which is the hamstring or (2) Treat the “cause” which could be coming from movement problems at the low back, pelvis, and/or hip. It is common practice to rest the hamstring, throw some ice on it, stretch it once it is feeling better, strengthen it, and then return to kicking. I am not saying this is wrong, but the hamstring symptoms more than often come back because the “cause” was never addressed. In these chronic cases, I feel this is not a matter of the hamstring being weak per se; it is simply your body asking it to do too much because your other muscles are not doing their job. The human body has a beautiful and complex set of muscles created to work together in order to create movement. With proper hip flexor and quadriceps flexibility, good core and glute strengthening, and some self-massage with a foam roller; many of these conditions can be controlled.

 2009 Steelers Pre-Season Opener (Pittsburgh, PA, Heinz Field)

2009 Steelers Pre-Season Opener (Pittsburgh, PA, Heinz Field)

Efficiency of movement during practice and your strength & conditioning workouts should be of the utmost importance. When your technique begins falling apart is when injuries start to take place. When you perform exercise with improper form, you are instilling bad motor patterns. This results in overuse of some muscles instead of the entire body working as a unit. If your goal is to execute a certain exercise 15 times and you can only do 7 correctly, you should decrease the difficulty and work yourself up gradually. We learn through repetitive practice so it doesn’t make sense to sell yourself short with 7 “good” reps and 8 “bad” ones.

In the modern era of sports, there have been many advancements regarding how we should approach training. I still believe that it is OK to be “old-school” or “hard-core” during practice, but it is also important not to over-train. Over-training can cause your body to shut down and that is the last thing you want to do when preparing for a big competition. Receiving proper rest in between practices, getting enough sleep, and proper nutrition are essential is allowing your body to repair itself after those long hours of practice. Don’t forget that maintaining a positive attitude and learning from your mistakes is just as important as working out.

A lot of my suggestions here are easier said that done so it is important you let your skill coach, strength coach, parents, or health care professional know if you need some guidance. Athletes are the masters of compensation so addressing the body’s imbalances is one of the keys to a long-lasting healthy career. As taekwondo athletes, start to understand that you should, “Get in shape to fight, NOT fight to get in shape.”

~ Dr. Jason Han, PT, DPT, SCS, CSCS, TPI-CGFI