The Improvement Season

Photo: Raimon Bjorndalen @burndalen
So you’ve put in months of training for one event, and the performance didn’t go your way. Sound familiar? Usually what happens next is; athletes dissect their whole performance trying to improve for the next championships/event.

Often this can be an emotional decision and may not have the best logical reasons. First take the 80/20 principle. This means focus 80% of your efforts on going all in on the things that worked well; your strengths, advantages. This is a key, which athletes often miss. At this level most competitors have being training for 10+ years, a complete overhaul in what you do is not practical. You have ingrained habits and traits over the years which you will always revert to when the going gets tough anyway through the strong neurological impulses developed through your mental conditioning and long term training.

Instead, lets focus 80% effort on continuing to go all in on the things which you did really well and base your game on this going forward. Of course there is always a need for improvement. Investing 20% of your effort in developing the area that had the largest negative impact on your performance should yield the greatest return. One simple way to break down your performance for future improvements is through the 4 pillars of sports performance.

  • Technical

  • Mental

  • Physical

  • Tactical

This will help give a foundation to the main issues with your performance and help give a sense of reassurance knowing there is no need to fix or improve 100 things, Instead just focus on one pillar above which you feel made the biggest impact on your performance.


Were there technical errors which let you down?

For example was your stance too side facing for you to ever get off your back hand for any punches which might caused you to get trapped side on when needing to engage in punches?

Were you technically executing a back kick with wide knees meaning it never was in the line between you and you opponent?

Once you’ve identified the issue then how do you improve it?

  • Isolated technique development
  • Break the technique down and find out the most efficient way to perform it for our sport.
  • Then use constraints to help build motor patterns with the correct technique, eg for the back kick example above, use a wall to constrain the area which the leg can travel to improve knee position. As seen here:
  • Once comfortable with the motor pattern, it then must be put back into the “chaos” of sparring where things like distance, timing etc will impact it’s execution.
  • To do this look at including constraints on the sparring training whereby you facilitate the action of back kick to happen where it can be practiced through “repetition without repetition”.

Other aspects of technical performance are attributes such as timing, distance, rhythm etc. These skills require a lot of time to hone in and develop to a sufficient standard through experience. Intelligent sparring rounds can help develop these skills are well as some often fundamental exercises.

The only reason an experienced fighter (who has already a foundation of these skills) would not have correct timing and distance would be, inefficient training leading up to this particular event. This would come from not sparring enough, where they need to react to the opponents timing. distance, footwork, techniques etc, instead spending too much emphasis on padwork and drills. ITF TKD is not MMA we do not need to limit sparring, as it’s not full contact where you will take heavy knocks and injuries, if done correctly. You need to have a live training partner who is actively trying to complete their own objective. Static drills and padwork are not sufficient for top level ITF fighters. For this level padwork should be to improve isolated technical issues mentioned above as well as to generate natural flow in combination. Pads cannot be expected to develop the foundations of ITF sparring such as timing, distance, rhythm, decision making etc. for elite level. You can still condition/limit sparring rounds to focus on particular areas or technical issues/ problems to be solved, this requires the coach to facilitate these types of scenarios.


Were the main performance limitations physical? Physical fitness, flexibility, speed, etc.

Be sure to understand the timing of these skills such as physical fitness for example, there is a timing factor in relation to your next performance. Of course, you need to build a foundation “engine” but generally there should be program which considers timing of the event for aspects of building conditioning. For a more in depth explanation on building conditioning for ITF TKD click here.

Don’t go crazy doing plyometric exercises right now if you think you need to be faster. This will not suffice for an event which maybe months away if you go all out for a few weeks and then leave it there. Most of the physical traits for TKD require upkeep and maintenance, so a structured training program will work best here as opposed to a once of block of training which isn’t maintained. Some other physical skills such as kicking flexibility need to developed over a period of time and may take less maintenance in the 2-3 months leading up to an event. You can check out our free high kick development ebook here if that applies to you.


Mental, could be one of the trickiest parts to improve on due to it’s complicated make up. Human personalities can very much effect this part of the performance. This aspect quite often beats the athlete rather than them being beat by their opponent.

The first step is to become self aware. Who are you and what kind of person are you. Own this and embrace it. This will be a much better place to begin as opposed to the “fake it til you make it” attitude, which clearly hasn’t worked anyway if you are reading this. Understand how you feel and embrace the emotions through visualization and mental rehearsal while ensuring not to lie to yourself. Understand you will be nervous, perhaps even scared but you will be prepared and expecting this. Understand that everyone who competes generally feels the same emotions, you need to embrace these emotions and accept them while not allowing them overwhelm you.

3 practical tips for helping mental performance:

Visualization/Mental Rehearsal
This skill allows you to embody the reality of the event. Plan out what will happen at the event from the moment you wake up on fight day to the moment you step into the ring. Make a list of what will happen and how you will honestly feel. Use your senses such as what will you see, feel, hear, smell. Go through this multiple times over and over and use it as a mental cue for the event to understand, ok I’ve experienced this already and I know what to expect.

Self Talk
This goes hand in hand with tip 1, talking to yourself in your head can be very helpful. Of course, don’t lie as you’re fooling nobody. Use anchors or cues which help you to feel grounded. For example, you can take comfort in knowing the work you’ve put in during preparation. Tell yourself you have worked and you are physically prepared. All the work is done and all you have control in now is to fuel up, warm up and give it your best, simple.

Breathing Techniques
Breathing is scientifically proven to help calm the mind and to help think more logically and clearly. This is an important aspect of performance as the mentality will have a knock on effect for your tactical decision making which is vital. Try using the 4-7-8 breathing technique to regulate your breathing and to calm the body.


As mentioned above tactical performance can be affected by your mentality and of course is dependant on technical ability and physical preparation also. For example if you tactically want to have a high pace, close distance approach for whatever reason, you need to be mentally brave, physically fit, and technically efficient in close range.

Generally, when two competitors are at a high level it’s the tactical execution which is the difference. This is generally determined by two aspects once the initial game plan has been established and is appropriate by you and your coach;

  1. Decision Making

Decision making is an essential component to winning performances. The ability to make the correct decision can arguably be the most important aspect of performance. Decision making is essentially the ability to execute the tactics which will put you in the correct position to be successful. Another example, might be using better decision making to avoid exits and building warnings which may have affected the scoreboard against you. Check out our blog post of decision making here to find out how to improve it.

  1. Adaptability

This is a key skill which elite competitors possess. The ability to adapt and adjust in the ring based on what they perceive to be working or not working. Essentially this is knowing instinctively what needs to be done to get the job done. This needs to be read by the fighter in the moment as sometimes it might be too late to wait for instructions from the coach between rounds. This know-how can only developed through experience of problem solving in training. As mentioned earlier with constrained/limited spars, coaches need to understand common problems which need to be solved in the ring and facilitate these environments for athletes to explore, learn and solve the particular problem. This can be difficult for coaches and athletes as it takes patience and requires ego to be abandoned in training.


If you got any value from this please be sure to like and share across social media to help others.

If you have any questions about anything discussed above drop us a message on any of our social media platforms @tkdcoach_academy


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