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. 



richardc said...

interesting read while i am unfamiliar with the specific forms utilized as examples and the practice of doing them at "fighting speed" i agree with your position generally. I have often had students practice their forms at "tai Chi"speed, because as you point out momentum can cover a multitude of sins and leave out the minor details that make things actually work.

i would point out with reference to Tai Chi etc, that part of the slowness of the form is didactic in nature in another area than the ones you mentioned and that is the maintenance of correct bodily structure ("peng") throughout the entire movement. i personally reference that sentence as a goal as i am really bad at achieving it, and, in my experience so is 90% of the TKD world.

your post did trigger a thought of mine on slow movement that i would like to toss at the TKD group, i will reference this post and hope that you don't mind. Thank you

SooShimKwan said...

Hi. Thank you, I'm glad you found the essay useful.

I agree with your point on "peng". Body structure is something I think about a lot, but I don't think I have written much about it.

I don't mind the reference of this essay on our Facebook group.