What good are patterns? That’s a question that an awful lot of Taekwon-Do students ask themselves at some point. We spend all this time learning patterns, but it’s hard to apply the techniques in sparring. Patterns and sparring are too different from one another. It just doesn’t work.
So if patterns and sparring are so different, are patterns techniques even effective? Can we make them effective?
To understand the differences between patterns and sparring, you have to understand where Taekwon-Do came from. In a weird way, it kind of makes sense that the two things look nothing alike. Taekwon-Do was primarily based on Shotokan Karate, and Shotokan’s kata (patterns) and sparring look nothing alike, either. If Taekwon-Do was modified from Shotokan, then it seems natural that our patterns and sparring would look even more different from one another than theirs do.
Even though a lot of the the techniques don’t work in sparring, I don’t want to say that patterns techniques can’t be effective. Many of the strikes can be performed in a dynamic way, and they can work well. It’s the blocks and some of the other techniques that become a problem. But I know someone who, as a yellow belt, used the inner forearm block and punch from Chon-Ji to stop someone from attacking him. So it is possible to use one of those blocks. But it’s hard to pull them off.
But maybe there’s something that we’re missing. Maybe to make the techniques effective, we have to think about things in a different way. Maybe sometimes a block isn’t a block at all.
People don’t block like that
Think about this: most Taekwon-Do blocks are designed to be powerful, with the arm finishing away from the body. But when you watch good fighters, whether they do TKD, boxing, MMA or whatever, how often do you see them use a powerful block against an attack? Probably never. Instead, they dodge, slip, parry and just plain cover up. Why? Because it’s quicker, requires much less physical effort and has a lower chance of failure. To block and dodge, you need excellent timing and lots of practice. Meeting force with force requires even better timing and precision, and it’s easy to get it wrong. Not to mention the fact that it can leave you open.
When people are new to sparring, they often try to swing their arms out wide to block kicks. But instructors quickly train them out of the habit. If forceful blocking was effective, wouldn’t we encourage that practice?
An instructor once told me that the techniques in the patterns are exaggerated. If you even need to use the move in real life, it should be much more dynamic. He said that we learn the exaggerated versions so they become ingrained and we can do them properly when they’re needed. I don’t buy this. Except perhaps at the beginner level, other sports don’t teach exaggerated versions of techniques. They may slow them down to teach proper form, but that’s about it. Baseball pitchers aren’t taught one throw for practice and another for the game. Boxers don’t learn one exaggerated block for outside the ring and another for inside. What makes Taekwon-Do and Karate so different from other sports?
A different view
There’s a relatively small group out there, including Karate experts Iain Abernethy and Elmar Schmeisser, who believe that the proper use and meaning of many Karate techniques has been lost somewhere along the way. While the Karate techniques that make up the kata have been passed along and written down, the applications of those techniques haven’t been well recorded. Many students were likely shown the techniques without being shown exactly how to use them. The end result is that no one can be completely sure about things like the purpose of certain techniques and why the movements are performed in the order they are.
The popular theories that developed about the applications of techniques are similar to the applications that General Choi illustrated in the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do. It looks like he, and the other TKD pioneers, learned the popular applications from their Karate instructors and passed them on. They developed their Taekwon-Do techniques based on these impractical applications that they believed were correct. These are the same impractical applications that we know and love today.
According to Abernethy, Schmeisser and others, if you have a good martial arts education and think creatively, you can find some practical applications in the kata. These people don’t always agree on what those applications are, but they also don’t claim to have all the answers. They don’t claim to know what the original kata creators were thinking. They’re just making educated guesses and trying to find things that work. “Things that work” means that many of the techniques might not be what we think they are.
Take the low outer forearm block, for example. It could actually be made up of two components: a block and a counterstrike. When we perform a low outer forearm block in Taekwon-Do, we cross at the wrists, with the hands away from the body. In Shotokan, however, students prepare for the low block with one hand by the face and the other extended downward. The arms cross near the elbows. (See here for an example.)
If the low block is meant to be a forceful block, then how we prepare makes little practical difference. You could make arguments why each one is better than the other, but the differences are minor. The block gets to the same place in the end.
But what if the Shotokan-style preparation was actually the block? Take a good look at the photos on the linked page. Doesn’t it kind of look like the guy is covering up? Imagine his top hand sitting a little higher, by his face. Suddenly, that whole side of his body is protected. The next part (what we refer to as the block) could be a strike, most likely to the groin. During the preparation, the lower hand is extended, and could even be used to grab the opponent and pull him closer.
If a “low block” is meant to be a block and counterstrike, then as TKD practitioners we’re doing it all wrong. We’re missing the blocking half of the equation.
A bigger taste
I know I’ve only given you a taste of this alternate view of kata/patterns application. At this point, I don’t even know a lot about it myself. I still haven’t read enough and I just don’t have the education in other martial arts like Judo that I would need to begin looking at the Taekwon-Do patterns in a completely different way. But I’m interested and I want to learn more. To find out more for yourself, check out Iain Abernethy’s blog and videos. Or try to track down a copy of one of Dr. Elmar Schmeisser’s books. (Warning: his books are specifically aimed at Karate students and get extremely technical.) Stuart Anslow has written a couple of books about practical application of Taekwon-Do patterns called Ch’ang Hon Taekwon-Do Hae Sul – Real Applications to the ITF Patterns. But I haven’t read those yet, so I can’t comment on them.
Of course, no one can be 100 percent sure of the intended applications of Karate and Taekwon-Do techniques, They can only make educated guesses. But what they say seems to make sense. And if they’re right, this could be the missing link we’ve been looking for.