14 December 2016

Why the Critique against the Slow Tempo in ITF Patterns is Flawed

One critique levied against the ITF way of doing the Chang Hong patterns is that the rhythm imposed on the techniques by the sine wave motion has taken away the clustering of certain techniques that ought to—according to these critics—be performed as small combative units glued together by a more “realistic” (i.e. more rushed) tempo, as opposed to ITF Taekwon-Do's slow tempo.

The Korean word for a group of techniques that generally go together in a pattern is called “poom” (Hangeul:품; Hanja: 品).

An example will be helpful. Take the first series of movements in the pattern Won-Hyo: a twin forearm block, followed by a knife-hand inward strike, followed by a side punch. It is understood that these three moves are part of one combative sequence. Once one finishes movements #1-3, you turn about and repeat them on the other side (movements #4-6). So, movements #1-3 are one poom, movements #4-6 are another poom, and so on.

The little video above shows how I as an ITF practitioner* performs the initial two poom in Won-Hyo Teul. Notice the relatively slow tempo. You can see the full pattern performed by Alexandra Kan here, which I think is one of the best ITF performances of the pattern online at the moment.

It is believed that in the traditional way of performing the patterns one can know where pooms are by the tempo with which a set of techniques are performed together. Usually, such a cluster is performed together relatively fast, then there will be some pause or slowing down in the tempo, before the next cluster of techniques that form a poom are performed in a similarly hurried fashion.

The critique against the way ITF practitioners perform the patterns is that because most techniques are emphasized individually due to the sine wave motion, rather than obviously clustered together, practitioners don’t know where pooms start and finish and therefore lose important combative information, since each poom is understood to be a small combative encounter.

I disagree with this critique.

Poom need not be identified by a connected tempo. There are other ways of identifying a poom. First, they tend to be a sequence of techniques in one direction. For instance, in the Won-Hyo Teul example, we can easily identify movements #1-3 as one poom and movements #4-6 as a different poom because they are performed in a general direction. Second, rational deduction suggests that these moves go together, without the need of a tempo acting as an adhesive. In other words, we can look at a group of techniques, especially if they are clustered together in one direction as in the mentioned example, and then we can ask ourselves if they logically fit together, and if so we can deduce that they are part of a poom.

Those in favour of grouping movements together through a rushed tempo argues that the patterns should be realistic, like an actual fight, hence the poom should mimic the tempo of a real fight. I personally think this is a flawed understanding of the patterns, at least as they are understood in the ITF Taekwon-Do pedagogy, and several other martial arts such as Taichi Chuan. (Read more about this in the section about “Quick Movements vs Forceful Movements” in my post about the patterns and “Accelerated Body Mass”.)

The ITF patterns are not to be understood as complete fighting templates. First, the patterns are far too structures, far too rigid and angular, far too “formal” to be reflective of actual combat. The pooms are put together in unrealistic ways. One poom is followed by a 180 degree turn, then a 90 degree turn, and so on. The imagined attackers conveniently attack you one at a time from perpendicular angles. These are just some examples of how unnatural and how far removed the patterns are from real combative encounters. I disagree that the rhythm in patterns must be reflective of a real fight. Enforcing a “fighting” rhythm is just adding another arbitrary rhythm—real violence tends to be rather chaotic and often not rhythmic at all. Rather than becoming rushed and chaotic, the patterns are contemplative and structured. Consider for a moment how forms are practised in Taichi Chuan. The critique of unrealistic rhythm and speed is applied to Taichi Chuan only by the ignorant. Most martial artists have the insight to know that although Taichi Chuan forms are performed at such very slow speeds, that is not how Taichi Chuan practitioners actually fight. The slow moving forms teach certain principles of movement and a state of mind that are lost when the forms are rushed. Similarly, although ITF Taekwon-Do uses a relatively slow tempo for performing the patterns, it is also obviously not how practitioners are intended to fight and the slower tempo is purposeful—to teach certain principles of movement.

Deciding that certain techniques are part of a poom is useful, but forcing a tempo onto them to boundary movements into a poom is counter-productive. While it might give the practitioner a clear indication of where one poom starts and another ends, it is also limiting interpretation options. Many interesting pattern interpretations occur across pooms. A simple example is in Chonji Teul. Typically, it is understood that the first poom in Chonji Teul is movements #1 & 2: the walking stance low forearm block, followed by the walking stance middle punch. The next poom is the following two movements (movements #3 & 4), and so on. However, one interesting interpretation is to view movement #2 and #3 as part of an over-the-shoulder throw as illustrated below, from the book Taekwondo Grappling Techniques by Tony Kemerly & Steve Snyder.

From "Taekwondo Grappling Techniques", p. 65

This interpretation dissolves the arbitrary boundaries of the pooms. If one were to stick to the pooms based on how the tempo is performed by “old school” Taekwon-Do practitioners, one may miss this interpretation.

When the pooms are not fully fixed, the practitioner can start to play more with different possible combinations. In other words, sticking to preconceived ideas of poom is limiting and stifles creativity. When one does not enforce preconceived ideas of where a poom is supposed to start and finish, it frees one to find more pattern application interpretations.

The critique against the ITF way of performing the Chang Hon patterns, claiming that we lose the benefit of knowing where the pooms are, is invalid. An ITF practitioner can just as easily distinguish where the pooms are as people performing the patterns with poom-limited tempos. Furthermore, when ITF practitioners practise the pooms as drills (possibly in step-sparring or other dynamic context drills), they adjust the tempo of the techniques as needed. Practitioners already do this for sparring and self-defence: it is part of the incremental stages of (pre-arranged) sparring in the ITF technical pedagogy.

Finally, I think the slower tempo of the ITF patterns are actually contributing important skills and principles, which are lost when the patterns are rushed. Principles such as relaxation, body awareness and spacial awareness , and an understanding of the acceleration of body mass are only really learned at a slower, more contemplative tempo, rather than at a rushed, supposedly more realistic tempo. The more “realistic” training, I believe, is practised elsewhere in the system.

* Although I call myself an ITF practitioner, it is important to note that different ITF groups perform the patterns in slightly different ways. For instance, some practitioners de-emphasize the hip rotation, focusing on the vertical force generated by the sine wave motion. I personally apply both hip rotation and sine-wave motion (where appropriate) in my performance of the patterns. 


Arc-hand thrust

In Taekwondo the arc-hand thrust #반달손 #뚫기 is often used to attack the throat (trachea).

In ITF Taekwon-Do the other hand is sometimes used to pull the opponent closer while simultaneously attacking the throat. One hand thrusts, while the other pulls. This yin-yang (음양) type movement is one application of the so-called Reaction Force principle, that is part of ITF Taekwon-Do's "Theory of Power".

A common variation in Taekkyun 택견 is as a #takedown: the arc-hand pushes the opponent's throat or even face, while the other hand is used to reap one of the opponent's legs, and so topple him.

#koreanmartialarts #martialarts #fundamentalmovement #무술 #무도 #무도인 #사범 #호신술 #selfdefense



21 September 2016

Soo Shim Kwan Clubs at the SATI National Tournament

The South Africa Taekwon-Do Institute hosted its first annual national tournament on Saturday, 10 September. The two Soo Shim Kwan clubs, the Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club (PTC) and the Horangi Taekwon-Do Club from Groblersdal, participated in this event.

Riana Serfontein, Adéle Wolmarans, Philip de Vos (instructor),
Edrich Louw, Jakes Gous, and PW Conradie.
PTC was represented by six participants and won a total of 11 medals (2 gold, 3 silver and 6 bronze) for their participation in the sparring, patterns and power breaking categories.

Horangi Taekwon-Do Club (Grobblersdal)
Back-right: Instructor Gerhard Louw

The Horangi club entered 23 participants and won a total of 41 medals for their participation in the sparring, patterns, power breaking and special technique breaking categories, resulting in the Horangi dojang to position itself as the second best performing dojang of all the participating dojang.

A big congratulations to instructors Philip de Vos and Gerhard Louw and all the Soo Shim Kwan students for all your hard work and positive attitude. Well done!

01 September 2016

A Sine Wave Motion Description

Following is a description of the sine wave motion:
“Your waist rises as you twist and falls as you overturn. Rise equals go, fall equals strike. Together they mean to strike like a rolling wave. Each part must be clearly differentiated; all must be done like lightning. This is facilitated by keeping the body relaxed until the final instant.”
Actually, this is from a book on the Chinese internal martial art Hsing-I by Robert W. Smith (Hsing-I: Chinese Mind-Body Boxing, 2003).

Had I not revealed its source, practically all ITF practitioners would have agreed that it is a reasonable description of the “sine wave motion”. I have written in several posts in the past that the principles taught by the so-called “sine wave motion” are hardly unique to ITF Taekwon-Do, as this quotation clearly demonstrates. (You can read a previous mention of the similarities between ITF and Hsing-I here.)

A main reason ITF Taekwon-Do's “sine wave motion” is so controversial is because the term is a misnomer -- it is not an actual sine wave. It may have been an attempt by General Choi who proposed the term to make it sound more scientific. We should keep in mind, of course, that English wasn't his first language, not even his second language (that was Japanese), and neither was he a physicist. I have heard accounts that he adopted the term after that is how someone else (an English speaker) described what General Choi was trying to explain as a “sine wave motion”. I don't know if there is truth to this, but I do believe that if another term than “sine wave motion” was used, even if it was just called “wave motion”, it would have been less controversial.

To get back to the quotation above, it very accurately describe how the so-called “sine wave motion” is generally used for something like a middle punch: The body should be “relaxed until the final instant,” the rising portion is when the waist is pulled back, and it is during the falling that the strike happens.

In another post from long ago, I looked at another Chinese internal style, Chen style Tai Chi Quan, and noted some similarities with the way we understand movement in ITF Taekwon-Do.

25 April 2016

A Deadly Weapon

“A while ago I was a bit disillusioned by the thought of practicing a martial art that was made out of racism, spite, politics, that was later used for murder, abduction, assassination plots, bomb scares, political gain and segregation. Been feeling that way again for a bit.”

The above is a quote from a post that someone made on a Taekwon-Do related Facebook discussion forum recently.

I remember after reading Alex Gillis’ “A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do” (a must-read) that I felt pretty much the same. Most Taekwon-Do practitioners have no idea with how much vice and corruption our martial art has been embroiled. That book came as a valuable disillusionment to me. It reminded me not to idolize the Taekwon-Do founders and leaders, and not to over spiritualize Taekwon-Do.

Later, it also occurred to me that this very unsavory history of Taekwon-Do actually validates it. Firstly, you don’t hear of flower arrangement being involved in “murder, abduction, assassination plots, bomb scares, political gain and segregation”. Only something with true gravitas (no offense to those involved in flower arrangement) could have been used—and misused—as has been the case with Taekwon-Do. Taekwon-Do is something serious. Something dangerous. This brings me to my second point.

A sword, no matter how decorative and aesthetically designed, always remains primarily a weapon. We should never be surprised to see a sword covered in blood. When it does surprise us, it can only be because we did not give it the respect it deserves. Or it surprises us because the “sword” is fake. A toy sword or stage prop smeared with actual human blood is indeed a shocking sight, as should be all bloodshed. But a real sword scarlet-stained from rust, dirt and blood, is simply true to its purpose, so seeing a crimsoned sword should not surprise us.

Why, then, should we be surprised when a martial art—i.e. a system of combative skills—is used for power, politics and war?

It is true that a sword may be used in conquest or in defence, and in both these cases it may lead to bloodshed, but the sword itself is neither inherently good nor bad for being used in such ways. What determines the value of a sword is not whether it was used to murder in greed or kill in defence, but whether it proved its metal. Was it good at being a sword? Was the blade strong and sharp? Was it balanced and adherent to the wielder’s intent?

Considering its diverse history, I think Taekwon-Do makes for a good sword.

09 March 2016

Interview with Dr George Vitale by Korea-and-the-World

My friend, Dr George Vitale, is one of the world's foremost Taekwon-Do historians. His knowledge of Taekwon-Do and its history is only surpassed by his passion for the topic. In the podcast below you can here a podcast in which he discusses the early history of Taekwon-Do and its connection with the "controversial" General Choi Hong-Hi.

The interview was conducted by "Korea and the World", a really good podcast that is worth following for people interested in Korea. You can read more about the interview with Dr Vitale on their website and also download an extended version of the interview.

I'm pleased to say that I played a part in making this interview happen (by connecting Korea and the World with Dr Vitale). I think it was a great discussion that may be helpful for people to get a little better understanding of the history and politics surrounding Taekwon-Do and its principle founder, General Choi Hong-Hi.

28 February 2016

PhD Graduation

It is with much thankfulness and appreciation of the support of my family, friends, and my Taekwon-Do and martial art community that I can announce the completion of my PhD degree in Taekwon-Do (Oriental Philosophy & Martial Arts). My graduation ceremony was on 17 February 2016, and on 21 February I was pleasantly surprised to receive a “Best PhD Dissertation”-award from the Graduate School of Physical Education.

I commenced my studies here in Korea, at Kyunghee University, in 2013. It involved two years of course work, and in the third year I finalised my research and wrote my dissertation. At the end of 2015 I submitted the dissertation, had to give a preliminary defence presentation, and had to later defend my dissertation before five examiners on two occasions. Although I was very nervous about defending my thesis, in the end the defences were less grueling than I had anticipated. I was able to answer the examiners' questions satisfactoraly. The examiners' feedback was quite helpful. While there are parts of the dissertation that I think I could develop more fully, the thing I am most disappointed about my dissertation is that I did not have time to get it professionally proofread. Had I done so, I would have failed to submit before the graduation deadline, which would have meant that I would have missed the 2016 graduation and would have only been able to graduate in 2017. (The Graduate School of Physical Education only has one graduation per year, in February.)

Me with Dr George Vitale who came all the way from NYC,
USA, to attend the graduation ceremony. I am extremely
humbled by this beautiful gesture of camaraderie. 
The title of my dissertation is “Promoting Peace, Practising War: Mohism's Resolution of the Paradoxical Ethics of War and Self-Defence in East Asian Martial Arts.” It is basically a paper on the East Asian ethics of war and how this relates to East Asian martial arts. In particular, I aimed to resolve the paradox found in East Asian martial arts that promote peace, while at the same time teach violent martial (“war”) techniques. I honestly enjoyed the research into East Asian religion and philosophy, Just War Theory, self-defence ethics, martial art history, and all the other strands I had to pull from to write the thesis. I hope to continue my research in this and related fields.

Many people ask me, now that I have a degree—and one in Taekwon-Do of all things—what will I do with it? The honest answer is that I don't know. I was already working as a university lecturer before I started with the PhD, so getting a doctorate fits within my career path. The question for me was in what field was I going to further my studies. I considered several other fields, but one of the deciding factors for me as an expatriate living in Korea was the uniquely “Koreanness” of this degree. Doing a degree in martial arts philosophy is something quite specific to Asia. I mean, I could have done a PhD in philosophy practically anywhere in the world—even East Asian philosophy could be done at an Asian Studies department outside of Asia. However, a degree in martial arts is peculiarly East Asian in nature. Thus I decided that as I'm living presently living in Korea, I should take advantage of this unique opportunity. There are only a handful of non-Koreans in the world with a degree in Taekwon-Do and even including Koreans, very few people that specializes in martial arts philosophy.

For those of you that do not know, the whole idea of having Taekwon-Do as a university degree was the initiative of General Choi Hong-Hi, the principle founder of this martial art. Gen. Choi approached the founding president of Kyunghee University and proposed to him to start a Taekwon-Do degree program; hence Kyunghee University was the first university to start a Taekwon-Do department. Kyunghee University's Taekwon-Do department is arguably still the top Taekwon-Do department in the country, and the university is ranked among the top ten Korean universities.

14 February 2016

Jan/Feb 2016 South Africa Trip: Soo Shim Kwan and ATC Workshops

My annual South Africa trip was much shorter than usual – only three weeks, rather than the customary five to six weeks. Nevertheless, I was able to fit in visits at Soo Shim Kwan and ATC dojangs to present some workshops and spend time with my Taekwon-Do family.

I arrived in Johannseburg on Monday, 25 January. The following day I went to Pretoria and visited the Elardus Park, ATC Dojang, run by my good friends, instructors Karel and Annari Wethmar, of our sister federation, the Dan Gun Kwan.

For this first workshop I started with a main theme I had for this visit, namely joint-mobility. As I’m getting older I have a bigger appreciation for the importance of range of motion and joint health. It is common for martial artists to focus on muscular flexibility when they think of increasing range of motion; however, the ease of motion of joints in their sockets is often neglected, yet is of much importance, especially as people get older. Although I tried to cover most joints, my main focus was on shoulder mobility and hip mobility, with emphasis on stretching the psoas muscle.

Explaining the "Golden Move"-principle with the
help of Sabeomnim Manie.

The second part of the evening was more theoretical. First, we discussed certain consideration of the sine wave motion when applied to techniques. Because the Elardus Park dojang has so many black belts, I took the opportunity to touch on a few higher level things. In particular, I aimed to give an overview of the ITF pedagogy, as it may be useful especially for instructors. While the techniques we practised weren’t particularly difficult, I think the concepts were challenging as I questioned the way many ITF practitioners understand some basic movements. My aim was to get the black belts thinking critically about what they are doing.

Finally, we worked on kicks for different angles of attacks, as well footwork for spinning kicks.

My time spent with the ATC folks are always very enjoyable. The students are of great caliber and the instructors are such great friends of mine, we always talk late into the night and always complain that we do not have enough time.

With instructor Gerhard Louw and some students from the
Horangi Dojang, Grobblersdal.

The following day, Wednesday, 27 January, I went to the Soo Shim Kwan school in Groblersdal. Instructor Gerhard Louw’s Horangi Dojang was a priority for me this year. Last year I was not able to go to Groblersdal, so this year I placed it high on my priority list, as I promised Instructor Gerhard that I will visit him the next time I go to South Africa. Spending time at the Horangi Dojang was an absolute treat. The passion of the students and their families is tangible, and the level of some the children are some of the best I’ve seen for Taekwon-Doin youngsters in a long time.

Unfortunately I came down with a bug, and felt terribly under the weather. I had a fever and was lightheaded while presenting the two hour workshop, but I tried to hide my discomfort as best I could, and focussed on teaching as best I could. I really aimed at highlighting specifics that the students could make part of their basic training.

We started again with a focus on mobility work, as well as other stretching and warm up exercises that I thought they may benefit from, to supplement their current warm up routine. Since a number of the new members of the Horangi Dojang are adults in their thirties and fourties, I felt it imperative to emphasize the importance of proper warming up.

We then moved on to kicking drills, and foot work.

Third, I spent some time in teaching break falls and rolls. I focused mainly on the basics for falling and rolling and showed some more advanced techniques that the students could do as they master the basics.

Finally, we did some self-defence training.

At the very end the students requested me to perform some patterns. By this time I was really feeling sick and jet-lag was in full-swing, but I obliged. I chose some of the forms that I thought I knew best; however, I got stuck on both forms. So I asked Instructor Gerhard to join me for a form to help jolt my memory. We did a form—without getting stuck this time—and the students really seemed to enjoy it. I know that my technique was not very good (and pray that nobody uploads the video onto YouTube), but I am happy for the opportunity to have performed a form with my friend at his school.

The following evening the Horangi Dojang planned a special dinner. It was amazing to share some time with them and get a feeling for their great camaraderie and passion for Taekwon-Do. It is definitely a testament to Instructor Gerhard’s character to get his students and their families behind him in such a manner.

As I was still feeling rather awful, the Louw’s nursed me with some medicine, and I must admit that I felt much better by Friday. I should really have taken medicine earlier.

With instructor Philip de Vos and some students from
the Potchefstroom Dojang, North West Province. 
The following week I went to Potchefstroom and got to teach at the Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club on both Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Since the Potchefstroom Dojang is my first dojang that I started, I will always have a soft spot for it, and it always feels like coming home when I enter the Potch Dojang.

Over the two nights I covered much of what I had covered at the ATC and Horangi schools the previous week. However, the longer time allowed me to go into a little more detail. I also shared a little more philosophy and focus more on theory. Since the Potchefstroom dojang has fewer members than the Elardus Park and Grobblersdal schools, it was easier to give more individual attention to the students, which was nice.

On the Thursday evening Instructor Philip de Vos and I went out for dinner to catch up and talk about some important topics.

While in Potchefstroom I also met up with Master Louise Villiers of Tang Soo Do, who is the president for Martial Arts South Africa (MASA), which is a branch of SASCOC. It was great to catch up with Master Louise again, and also a very informative and fruitful meeting. Master Louise and I have a long history of cross-training and supporting each other with our respective events.

For the rest of my time in South Africa I focused on seeing family and friends. An important part of my trip was visiting my ailing, 80-year old father. I was able to give my father a formal, printed copy of my PhD dissertation. While my father is too weak and will likely not read it, it was nevertheless nice to give it to him, as he will not be able to attend the graduation ceremony which will occur later this week.

My trip in South Africa, although much shorter than usual, was most definitely a fruitful one.

24 January 2016

Sb Sanko's Tentative South Africa Schedule

Hello Soo Shim Kwan students and friends. Here is my tentative schedule for the next 2-3 weeks in South Africa, which will include visits and/or workshops at several dojang.

Tuesday, 26 January: Pretoria, ATC Elarduspark Dojang

Wednesday, 27 January: Groblersdal, Horangi Dojang (Workshop)

Thursday, 28 January: Groblersdal, Horangi Dojang (Workshop & Braai)

Tuesday, 2 February: Potchefstroom, Potch TKD Club

Thursday, 4 February: Potchefstroom, Potch TKD Club

Tuesday, 9 February: Vanderbijlpark, Vaal Dojang (Not confirmed yet)

Thursday, 11 February: Johannesburg, (Exact location still unclear)

Sadly I won't make it to the coastal areas during this trip, unfortunately.

I look forward to training with and seeing you all soon.