There is a mistaken notion that the sine wave motion (i.e. the iconic relax-up-down movement) is the only way of stepping in ITF Taekwon-Do and ever present; i.e. it is always applied. This idea is held especially by people that have not emerged themselves properly in ITF Taekwon-Do to know how this martial art is put together, but also by some ITF practitioners with a superficial understanding of the art. The iconic sine wave motion is most prominently seen in ITF Taekwon-Do’s fundamental movements as expressed in the patterns (“teul”). This may be one cause for this erroneous notion that the sine wave motion is a universal feature in ITF Taekwon-Do, based on the assumption that the patterns in ITF Taekwon-Do function exactly the same way, and is practised for exactly the same purposes as in, for instance, kata in Karate.
The expression “Kata is Karate” is one, I’m sure, most Karateka have come across and probably a number of times during the Karate careers. “Teul is Taekwon-Do,” on the other hand, is not a common expression at all. The idea that one ought to fight in the same fashion as one performs a pattern is not a strongly held belief in Taekwon-Do (in WTF even less so than in ITF). ITF Taekwon-Do’s patterns are not shadow boxing, nor a fully developed mock case study for a fight. Karate on the other hand, sees Kata as exactly this—a model for fighting. (See Dr. Bruce Clayton's Shotokan's Secret: The Hidden Truth Behind Karate's Fighting Origins.)
While ITF Taekwon-Do does look at patterns for some fighting instruction, it is not the ultimate exercise in this regard. Our mock demonstration of a fight are to be found in other exercises such as one step sparring, model sparring, self-defence technique practise and self-defence demonstrations—not primarily in the patterns. The patterns have other purposes: “pattern practise enables the student to go through many fundamental movements in series, to develop sparring techniques, improve flexibility of movements, master body shifting, build muscles and breath control, develop fluid and smooth motions, and gain rhythmical movements . . .” (ITF Encyclopaedia, Vol. 8, p. 13).
The Encyclopaedia continues to say that “a pattern can be compared with a unit tactic or word” (Vol. 8, p. 13). That a pattern be compared to a single word is proof enough that the patterns are not a full expression of ITF Taekwon-Do, for that would mean that Taekwon-Do proposes only and exactly 24 (the number of patterns) “words”—scarcely the vocabulary of a two year old!
Yes, patterns have some value for “develop[ing] sparring techniques,” but this is not the only, and hardly the most important purpose of patterns.* (I will write a future post in which I discuss, what I consider, some of the most important purposes for pattern practise in ITF Taekwon-Do.) It is also obvious to anyone looking at the fundamental movements in the patterns that they are performed much too slow for real fight application. The preparatory motions for the movements have an almost slow-motion quality to them. As Mr. Manuel E. Adrogué, a 6th Dan Taekwon-Do practitioner, articulated on behalf of the non-ITF proponents: “Why would ITF proponents take so long to perform only one technique, bouncing around, while the ‘Korean traditionalists’ [and may I add, Japanese traditionalists] would swiftly link an efficient combination of several consecutive blocks or strikes taking the same time?” (Adrogué, p. 4). ITF has been dismissed as “simplified martial arts not including combinations in their patterns” and where combinations do exist “their slow rhythm deprives them from [being] ‘combinations’ from a fighting perspective” (Adrogué, p. 6).
Adrogué also provides the answer: “ITF stylists consider their basics simply as a training tool that is much adapted and toned down in actual application in violent scenarios—while in contrast Shotokan stylists aim to apply their motions exactly as practiced in their basics…” (p. 6). The approach to patterns/kata in ITF Taekwon-Do and Karate is obviously different. “Shotokan Karate-type sparring actually works within the same logic of its basics and forms,” while “Taekwon-Do sparring and patterns function as complementary opposites” (13), which function within a “composition cycle” that outlines ITF Taekwon-Do's pedagogy.
I don’t know if other martial artists for whom their patterns (kata, forms, etc.) are indeed contextualised fights and a form of combat training realise that this is not how patterns have been seen in ITF Taekwon-Do for over half if its existence. It would be more accurate (although not completely) to understand the ITF patterns from a Chinese martial arts perspective (think of a Tai Chi Chuan form), rather than from a Karate paradigm.** I feel it necessary to emphasize it here that although ITF Taekwon-Do has roots in Shotokan Karate, it has evolved from its ancestor and is now, at its core, quite different in application and practise; it is different pedagogically and philosophically.
Looking at the basic movements as manifested in ITF Taekwon-Do patterns and from this inferring a proper understanding of how the sine wave motion functions within ITF Taekwon-Do is a gross error.
The down-up-down motion is not universal in ITF Taekwon-Do application and practise—not even in the patterns themselves! There are numerous ways of stepping and moving in Taekwon-Do. The basic sine wave motion (i.e. relax-up-down) is indeed one way, and obviously a prominent way, but definitely not the only way. Even in patterns the sine wave motion itself is often altered into “connecting motion”, “continuous motion”, “slow motion” and “fast motion”. The latter is a form of motion with almost no discernible sine wave motion at all. Then there are the (foot-) shifting motions, which is a very important and highly valued type of moving in ITF Taekwon-Do, where no sine wave motion is present. There is also side-stepping and dodging motions that does not usually involve the sine wave motion either.
The sine wave motion, although a conspicuous part of fundamental movements as expressed in patterns, is not the only way of moving in ITF Taekwon-Do and is in fact not even the most often used way of moving in a combat scenario; i.e. in fighting and self-defence. The most common motions for these scenarios are “fast motion” and “foot-shifting,” not the sine wave motion. For actual fighting the sine wave motion is delegated only to those moments where body dropping or body raising will contribute substantially to the technique's force.
It is important to realise that the patterns are not the exclusive foundation for ITF Taekwon-Do or the only way we move in ITF Taekwon-Do. The patterns are one element in a “composition cycle” of elements that all teach different principles, different skills, different ways of moving. Likewise, the iconic sine wave motion is one of many ways of moving in ITF Taekwon-Do.
Although I believe that the sine wave motion may not be an ever present feature; I do, however, think that the principles (Wave Principle / Circle Principle / Taegeuk) are ever present to all authentic Taekwon-Do techniques.
* Note, that I'm not saying that we cannot and do not learn fighting skill or strategies from patterns. We can, and we do, as seen in, for example, in Stuart Anslow's Ch'ang Hon Taekwon-Do Hae Sul: Real Applications to the ITF Patterns: Volume 1. However, there are other emphases in the ITF approach to patterns.
** Admittedly, I make some broad statements about Chinese martial arts (Tai Chi Chuan in particular) and Karate, as if Tai Chi Chuan and Karate are respectively practised and understood the same. This is, of course, not the case. There are different Tai Chi Chuan lineages and training purposes for Tai Chi Chuan, and there are many different styles of Karate.
- Adrogué, M. E. "ITF Taekwon-Do and Sine Wave as 'Sequential motion': More Power Than What Meets the Eye." [PDF]
- Choi, Hong-Hi. ITF Encyclopaedia. Volume 8.