01 May 2011

Should One Always Move This Way?

This morning I had a dream in which I was speaking at a seminar of sorts, talking about the basic way of moving in (ITF) Taekwon-Do. An attendee interrupted and asked if one should “always move this way.” His question was if one should always—under all circumstances, including during a violent self-defence encounter—move in this 'traditional' way one would move like when you do your fundamental movements, for instance when doing patterns. Implicit to his question was another question: “If not, why do you practise moving in this—traditional—way at all?” My immediate response was something along the lines of “Ideally 'yes', but most likely 'no'” and then as I continued to explain my answer I woke up. While in bed I continued for a few moments to think about what the rest of my answer would involve. Following is some of that answer:

Two Schools of Thought

There are two schools of thought in traditional martial arts regarding the actual use of traditional techniques (what we in Taekwon-Do call fundamental movements) in actual fighting. The one school says that one should practise such traditional techniques ceaselessly until you are able to perform them perfectly in the traditional way under all circumstances. The goal is to become so perfect and reflexive at performing your traditional techniques that they can actually function and look in a real fight, in exactly the way they do when you do patterns or fundamental technique line drills or prearranged sparring. The other school says that traditional techniques are ideals. We should strive towards them, but like any ideal, it is unlikely to achieve them all the time, in all circumstances. These ideals are the most powerful and stable ways to perform such a technique and that when we are in an actual fight, we will try to emulate the ideal as close as the chaos of a real fight allows, but at the same time adapting traditional techniques to make them “street” or “chaos” friendly. The first school of thought aims at perfection all the time, every time, and is quite inflexible in how the techniques are performed. The second school strives towards the ideal, but because perfection is unlikely, they are more flexible in the application of the techniques.

I adhere to the second school of thought. This relates back to a previous post in which I argued that in practise, Taekwon-Do is a martial art based on scientific principles, not a science per se. It is not a science per se because to do something that is scientifically accurately predictable requires you to be in a closed chaos-free environment. We can achieve something like that in the dojang, but not in real life.

The first school of thought I described above and the scientific view of Taekwon-Do are basically the same. They espouse the view that there is a perfect way to perform a technique, which we can test scientifically, and this perfect way is the fundamental movements. Like any scientific hypothesis this can be tested in a laboratory and the results will be the same around the world. I like the idea, and a part of me wish for this view to be feasible, but I am not convinced that this view of Taekwon-Do can be sustained.

All People Are Not the Same

Giant Choi Hong-Man (right), definitely does not fit the
stereotype that Koreans have shorter limbs than Caucasians.
Firstly, to sustain this view by scientific experiment, all the variables need to be the same. Unfortunately, that is simply not possible because people are not the same. I've been working and training in Korea for a couple of years now and can without a doubt say that the typical body of a Korean and the typical body of a Caucasian is not the same. Typically Caucasians have relatively longer limbs than Koreans. This means that the relative musculature of Koreans in their arms and legs are shorter to those of Caucasians. Immediately this will affect a number of technical aspects, for instance the stances of Koreans versus the stances of Caucasians. In Taekwon-Do we determine the stance width and length in relation to shoulder width. Because Koreans have shorter limbs, their stances will need to be longer than those of Caucasians who have longer limbs. Furthermore, a person's shoulder width can change. If you do lots of shoulder exercises you can build up the girth of your shoulders, while shoulder exercises will not do anything to the length of your legs. Wider shoulders would require you to adapt your stances (make them wider and longer), even though your legs are still of the same proportion. Clearly a one-size-fits-all attitude is impractical. To say that all people should have the walking stance exactly shoulder width wide is to apply criteria according to a “perfect specimen” and expecting everybody to conform to that mould. Not only is this impossible, it may even have the opposite that desired effect—my trying to adapt to a mould that is not taking into account my unique musculature and genetic make-up is likely to reduce the efficiency of my technique.

A much better attitude would be the second view that espouses the existence of an ideal, rather than a perfection. Being conscious of an ideal, one can work towards it, and try to find “your own ideal,” one that takes into account your own body shape, musculature make-up, genetic characteristics, etc. Instead of attempting to mould yourself according to a one-size-fits-all, it is much better to accept the fundamental movements as ideal approximations that you apply to your own ideal, which is slightly different from other people.

All Fights Are Not the Same

Secondly, and returning to the first school of thought: because the fundamental techniques assume a “perfect” type of combative encounter, they are too narrowly focussed. For instance, practically all the fundamental movement attacks (as we perform them in the patterns and in fundamental movement line drills) are targeted at only three targets. For high-section it is the philtrum; for middle-section the solar plexus; for low section it is the navel or pubic bone—and all of them to an opponent of your own relative size. The problem with this is obvious. The likelihood of being attacked by someone exactly your own size is slim. Furthermore, the likelihood of you always being positioned to hit the philtrum, solar plexus and navel, is also slim. Instead, in the dynamic environment of an actual fight you will find that your targets are much more varied and at all kinds of different heights—a magnitude of different heights that you did not practise for, because the fundamentals practise almost exclusively only three distinct heights.

The second school of thought believes that techniques are to be made “street friendly,” adapted to the situation. While those three specific heights might be a perfectly good target if your opponent happened to be exactly your size, this is seldom the case. Instead, a new ideal should be strived for that is better equipped for your current opponent. There is therefore freedom to adapt your technique at leisure—not only on the streets, but even in the dojang.

All Attackers Are Not the Same

Thirdly, the first school of thought, which requires techniques to be done in the traditional way, assume a certain type of attacker and certain types of attacks. I explained the problem with this in a previous essay: “Why I Don't Like Your Self-Defence.” People in this first school of thought tend to become very good at fighting very specific types of opponents—opponents that look very much like themselves. This is a regular problem among traditional martial styles that become experts at fighting within the confines of their own systems, but lacks the versatility to adapt to wholly different types of opponents.

The second school of thought, on the other hand, likes to spice things up: sparring sessions are varied, not just tournament rules; self-defence practise involves opponents doing likely (street) attacks, rather than traditional attacks; practise are not only confined to the controlled environment of the dojang, but also taken into the outside world; and so on.

Not Paint-By-Numbers

One can think of the first school of thought as a paint-by-numbers approach, where the principle is provided with a pallet of colours and told exactly how to apply each colour. It creates a very crisp and clear final painting, but it is a picture that lacks realism. The second school of thought provides the principle with the same pallet of colours, but is much less prescriptive in how to apply the colours. In fact, the principle is free to even mix the colours on the pallet and come up with new colours. The final painting is unlikely to look as crisp and clear as the paint-by-numbers picture, but what it lacks in crispness, it makes up for in authenticity. The second school of thought uses the fundamental movements as a base and then adapt them freely for different scenarios. The first is a rigid scientific approach that lacks in the flexibility required in a real combatic encounter; the second is an artistic approach that is free to improvise according to the scenario.


Stuart W. Mirsky said...

"There are two schools of thought in traditional martial arts regarding the actual use of traditional techniques (what we in Taekwon-Do call fundamental movements) in actual fighting. The one . . . says (to) practise such traditional techniques ceaselessly until you are able to perform them perfectly in the traditional way under all circumstances. . . . The other school says . . . traditional techniques are ideals. We should strive towards them . . . but . . . it is unlikely to achieve them all the time . . ."

There's a third option though: Treat the traditional moves in the forms and basics as training methods intended to teach certain principles which, when effectively learned, will be expressed in a wide variety of responses consistent with the chaotic conditions of real fighting situations. I've always felt that to learn a form one needs to do it a hundred times but to understand it a thousand. And this only shows that the point is to make it a part of oneself, of one's feeling of the movements in action. When that happens there is no real difference between the loose and unplanned movements of real combat and the formalized repetitions of the movements enshrined in the forms. So it's not just a choice between achieving an ideal and merely keeping it in mind to be striven for. There is also the notion of making the ideal part of oneself by merging one's natural movements into the formalized moves and so becoming the fighter the forms attempt to dynamically express.

SooShimKwan said...

Hi Stuart,

I think what you mention as your third option is actually what I had in mind in my second option. As "ideals", we extrapolate from them principles as you describe.

Thank you for your input, Stuart.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

Ah, thanks for the reply. What I hoped to do was differentiate between the idea that we ought not to expect to achieve the ideal in reality (which I took to be your point) but use them as targets for improving, with what I take to be a very different notion: that the moves in the forms are not ideals per se but methods for changing the dynamics of our movement.

That at least has been my experience. Since "retiring" from martial arts more than thirty years ago, I have continued to practice the moves via the forms and have come to see them, not as particular techniques (though they are that, too), but as a way of teaching the body to move in the chaos of real fighting. One could study and practice the moves for their bunkai value as many do, looking in them for an array of variations that apply in this or that situation. Or one can simply practice them for the way they teach you to transition by applying critical principles, e.g., eluding, feeling for an opponent's core, shaking off the force of another (like water from a duck's feathers) and so forth.

My experience with the forms I learned showed me their value for staying in condition as well as retaining a record of the system they represent. But most importantly, they are a method or tool for training the whole body because fights, when they happen in real life, are never pre-arranged.

But perhaps you're right and we are really talking about the same thing. If so, it's good to find someone else who understands this!

SooShimKwan said...

Hi Stuart,

On your point that the patterns don't really teach "particular techniques (though they are that, too), but as a way of teaching the body to move in the chaos of real fighting" -- I've thought a lot about this over the past year, and have come to very much agree with you, that the primary function of the patterns is to teach principles of movement, rather than techniques. Thank you for your insight.