09 November 2014

ITF Patterns: Artistic Expression or Self-Defence? -- Neither

Recently there was a poll on a Taekwon-Do Facebook group that I belong to that asked whether or not practitioners view the ITF (Chang Hon) patterns to be more involved with “artistic expression” or more to do with “self-defence skills”. When I responded that it has more to do with combat than creative expression, some members were quite surprised. After all, I have argued both here on my blog and in print that I do not believe that the ITF patterns are combative manuals. I have also claimed that the ITF patterns were indeed composed with certain aesthetic principles in mind, and even that parts of it have symbolic value, not solely combative value. Since people found my answer to the poll surprising, I explained my position there, and decided now to post my explanation with some amendments below:

With regards to the patterns being “artistic expressions,” I do not believe the performance of the ITF patterns is like a dance performance. Firstly, during dancing the purpose of dancing is in fact dancing, while for the patterns, their purpose is not “performance.” Some people may indeed practise the patterns only for performing them at competitions, but the patterns were not composed for the purpose of competition. A sport focus is something that only came in much later and is a secondary or peripheral usage of the patterns.

Rather, the patterns function as one of several aspects in the ITF pedagogy that teach particular skills. In other words, the patterns function as a type of drill—as a training tool to teach particular skills, of which the ultimate aim is self-defence. (Note, I’m not saying the patterns are self-defence skills; instead they add to the skill set that can contribute towards self-defence.)

Secondly, in the case of dance, dancers usually have lots of artistic freedom to creatively express themselves. This is not the case for the ITF patterns. They have a very specific number of motions, and require a specific way of movement. The patterns are artistic expressions, but only in a limited way for the performers. Instead, they are the artistic expression of their author(s)—or to use dance terminology, their choreographer(s), which in this case is General Choi and his helpers that composed the Chang-Hon patterns. When we perform the patterns, we are in a manner of speaking merely repeating the motions prescribed to us by a choreographer. Or to use poetry as an example, we are merely reciting poems of a great poet; we are not the poets ourselves. I don’t think the patterns lend themselves that much to personal artistic expression. Of course, someone reciting a poem can in a limited way creatively express him or herself through, for instance, vocal inflections, dramatic pauses, word stresses, and so on. Similarly, one can have some creative expression in the ITF patterns, but they are limited. Someone reciting a poem is not composing it, but merely repeating it. This is the same for performing the patterns. There are other Taekwondo groups who do what is known as “creative forms” that may indeed cross over into personal composition; however, ITF Taekwon-Do does not have this as part of its pedagogy or competitions. (ITF Taekwon-Do does have a self-defence demonstration category at championships, which may relate to this idea of creative expression, but which I will leave for another discussion.)

Other drills, such as one-step sparring, allow for much more personal artistic expression. There is not much room (i.e. freedom) for creativity while performing the Chang-Hon patterns. I’m much more creative while doing sparring.

The following is a paragraph from a related article of mine that was published in Totally Tae Kwon Do: “Dr. Bruce D. Clayton argues in his book Shotokan's Secret that: “Karate kata are combatives manuals, which contain no poetry” and that the kata are without “symbolism” (p. 197). This is definitely not the case for the ITF patterns. While I am convinced that there is much we can learn about ways of moving (kinaesthetics) and even some fighting strategies and self-defence application, the ITF patterns offer another, albeit less tangible, contribution—in that the patterns do indeed contain poetry and symbolism, and are used as a vehicle for the transmittal of Oriental philosophical principles, and Korean history and culture. They are also to be understood as mediums for artistic expression.”

Unlike Karate’s kata which are “combatives manuals” and wholly without “symbolism,” according to Dr Clayton, it is undeniable that the Chang-Hon Taekwon-Do Tul do indeed have symbolism and that certain aesthetic elements were considered in their composition. The floor plan of a number of the patterns are based on Chinese characters, for instance; and some patterns have symbolic starting or ending positions. In this way, the Chang-Hon patterns are like poetic compositions. They were designed with aesthetic concepts, such as symbolic meaning, in mind.

I’m getting the sense that some people feel uncomfortable with that idea, as if the inclusion of aesthetic concepts such as symbolism somehow distract from the patterns. That is a faulty understanding of what a symbol is. For example, a red rose has the symbolic meaning of romantic love. The fact that the rose symbolizes romantic love doesn’t make it any less a rose. “A rose is a rose is a rose.” The fact that a punch with a left fist at the end of a Chang-Hon pattern symbolizes tragedy doesn’t mean that it does not still function as a punch. Yes, the patterns are poetry that include symbolism, but the “vocabulary” of the patterns remain offensive and defensive techniques. “A punch is a punch is a punch,” to reference Bruce Lee. In other words: a punch may be more than a punch—it may be a punch that symbolise something abstract such as tragedy—but in the end it is still a punch.

Furthermore, understanding the patterns as poetry, rather than combative manuals, allow us interpretive freedom. A manual is specific with usually just one result. When you follow the instruction manual for putting a table together, there is no room for interpretation of the instructions. You have to follow the instructions in only one way, otherwise your table will not be stable. On the other hand, a poem is open to interpretation. Different people can come to different possible “answers” when interpreting a poem. Some answers are more plausible than others, but seldom is there only one ultimate answer. When we look at patterns and deduce self-defence applications from them, we are busy with poetic interpretation. In other words, people like Stuart Anslow that explicate particular self-defence applications from certain parts of the Chang-Hon patterns are busy with interpretation—not unlike one would interpret a line from a poem—rather than simply taking the obvious application from the ITF Encyclopaedia, which would be a following-an-instruction-manual approach. 

To summarise, when I say that the patterns are not combative manuals and therefore not fully developed self-defence “lessons,” and when I mention that the patterns do have creative and symbolic value, I do not by this mean that the patterns have no eventual combative value, nor that they are akin to dance performances. Taekwon-Do defines itself as the “Korean Art of Self-Defence”—and so ultimately all parts of the Taekwon-Do pedagogy contributes towards the goal of self-defence. The patterns are merely one of several tools in the ITF pedagogy that contributes towards self-defence skill. Understanding that they are a tool that contribute to a self-defence skill set, rather than actual self-defence practise, provide us with three important realizations: Firstly, we can acknowledge that the patterns are not realistic representations of a real combative encounter. Secondly, now that we are not under the dangerous illusion that we are somehow engaged in real fighting, we can safely use the patterns as a training tool to practise certain skills for which the patterns are ideally suited, like kinaesthetics. And finally, acknowledging that the patterns are “poetry in motion,” we have the freedom to interpret them for different purposes. For example, some parts of a pattern might be used to practise certain skills as part of a dynamic context drill, or as the catalyst for a self-defence drill, or for practicing specific footwork. In other words, the patterns provide material for training different skills.

07 November 2014

On Teaching Self-Defence Drills

Teaching self-defence skills to people is always a tricky business because it is difficult to say what will work or not. Sometimes I teach a particular skill to students, and while it might work for nine out of ten of the students in the class, there might be one person struggling with it. I can walk them through it, and they might get it the technique to work under guidance, but when they do it by themselves they just fail to get it right. Generally I avoid overly complicated techniques for self-defence training, keeping in mind adrenalin dump and the loss of fine motor coordination during a violent conflict. Therefore, I don’t think the “fault” lies in the technique, but is more likely just that the particular skill just doesn’t come naturally for that particular student.

Now, another instructor, convinced of the effectiveness of this particular technique will insist that the student practice it repeatedly until they “get” it. I’m of a different opinion. If the technique doesn’t work for a person with a certain degree of “naturalness” at the student’s current level of proficiency, then the technique is even less likely to work in a stressful context. Also, I don’t want students to become fixated on one particular technique. Of course, we do try and practice particular techniques and try and improve their efficiency, but I seldom hammer on just one technique as the ultimate (i.e only) self-defence skill for a specific situation. Instead I try to provide students with a skill set—a series of related options that are founded on particular martial principles (for example, positioning). I may teach a few techniques and principles and then tell the students to experiment and find what they find to work for them against different opponents. Without being prescriptive, I then comment on what they come up with. For instance, if what they are doing puts them in a vulnerable position (rather than an advantageous position and the opponent in a disadvantageous position) I would point that out and make some suggestions or have them come up with an alternative.

The problem is simply that a violent encounter is dynamic (i.e. chaotic) with only limited predictability. Fixating on one technique, and insisting that it should work is limiting and unrealistic. The ability to quickly adapt and find other solutions is a much more important skill than doing something because that is how their instructor taught them.

Paradoxically, when I started teaching this way I at first threw out all “pre-arranged” drills because I believed they were unrealistic and there is no use in teaching things that are unrealistic. I didn’t make students memorize any sequences or specific combinations. I just taught principles, but not particular techniques and expected them to come up with their own combinations within a dynamic context. What I found was that students could not apply the principles in coherently effective ways. They simply didn’t have the “vocabulary” – an appropriate arsenal – to deal with the situation. I soon realized that for beginners there is much value in fully pre-arranged sparring drills, even though they are unrealistic. Pre-arranged sparring drills are a great tool for teaching a “vocabulary of fighting”. Once the student already built up some arsenal of appropriate techniques and combinations, should one decrease the abstraction (by adding more “reality”).

When taught properly, ITF Taekwon-Do is supposed to provide a continuum that facilitate a progression from high-abstraction, low variable practise to low-abstraction, high variable practice. In other words, at first things are predictable while students get to practice particular techniques and strategies. Then the abstraction level is decreased, and the variables are increased. Things are less predictable and the student needs to literally think on their feet. The more variables there are the less prescriptive do I as the instructor get. Ultimately I have to give free reign to the student and allow them to do whatever works for them in that situation.

Facilitating such a progression from high abstraction, low variables (very prescriptive pre-arranged drills) to low abstraction, high variables (unscripted drills) can be difficult, particularly when you have students who are at very different levels. For instance, in a recent class I had one black belt (2nd Dan), a blue belt, a yellow belt, and white belts. They are all at different places along the continuum. Making sure that each one is practicing (and reviewing) appropriately at their level requires some nifty pedagogic negotiation on the instructor’s part. The instructor often has to improvise his or her lesson to fit the dynamics (levels) of the class that can change on any given day.

Nevertheless, this part of the class—working along the continuum with the aim of self-defence—is what Taekwon-Do is for me. If Taekwon-Do is—as it defines itself—“the Korean Art of Self-Defence” [호신예술]—then working towards self-defence is ultimately what all training boils down to.