I have always been a big proponent of poomsae (forms) practice. However, recently I’ve been studying a method of training called “Aliveness,” championed most famously by Matt Thornton of Straight Blast Gym international, which has caused me to doubt forms-training as efficacious for teaching anything other than good body mechanics. This is the method of training that is typical of Boxing, Wrestling, BJJ, Muay Thai, Sambo, and Judo.
According to Mr. Thornton in the video above, “Aliveness” is defined by Timing, Energy, and Motion. Energy is resistance: pushing, pulling, etc. Essentially it is force. Motion is self-explanatory: footwork, shifting, etc. In both cases these have to be unscripted. Finally we are able to incorporate Timing. It’s easy to have good Timing — using, for example, a leg reap take-down — when your opponent is moving according to a pattern. It becomes more difficult when he moves wherever he pleases. Which take-down is applicable to a real fight? The pattern training lacks timing; so only the one trained against an unscripted opponent has a real chance of working. Anyone who trains in Judo, Wrestling, or BJJ can confirm this.
I still believe forms have some worth insofar as they train good biomechanics in the context of weight transfer and shifting. They also, as a byproduct, cultivate a high level of focus and precision. But I do not see the need for a large quantity of forms, nor a need to allocate any more than a few minutes of class time to training them. That is a discussion for another time, however.
Presently I want to shift into a discussion of application. Many Taekwondoin, myself included, have spent a lot of brain power on analyzing forms for applications. But I have come to realize that this is an extremely inefficient way to train.
For example, let’s say we take out a segment of a poomsae. It looks like a step, a stomp, and a forearm block. But after we’ve analyzed it we realize we recognize some of the core machanics. If we modify the angle here, change the trajectory of the leg there, and execute it a little faster, we can apply this segment as a take-down.
Let’s think here. We didn’t actually learn the throw from the poomsae; we projected that throw onto it as an application based on knowledge that we already possessed beforehand. Such a method is backwards; teaching it as an application to that specific poomsae segment is only to teach a glorified mneumonic. It helps you remember, but in practicing the poomsae version you are practicing the take-down incorrectly. In effect, you are building neural pathways for a completely different movement. So saying poomsaes have worth because of their applications is epistemic nonsense.
Functionally, this is the equivalent of saying you will practice your front kick to get better at your ax kick. Any Taekwondoin knows instinctively that this is ludicrous.
Here’s a visual example. It is an application to the down block, but notice how in application the move becomes functionally different. The angle of trajectory for the block changes, the fist turns so that it becomes a hammer fist, the posture shifts, and the leg steps outward rather than forward. Though they look vaguely similar, the two — the poomsae move and its application — are kinesthetically different techniques!
So here’s the hard truth. In terms of developing an ability to successfully use a take-down, which is more efficient: practicing the take-down for 4 hours; or practicing a different but vaguely related technique for 2 hours and then the take-down itself for 2 hours? The answer is obvious. If you put the guy with 4 hours of take-down training up against the guy with 2 hours, we know who is more than likely going to win in a throwing match. Unfortunately, many Taekwondoin I respect will remain in denial on this point. They will undoubtedly contend that somehow, in some way, through some complicated and indirect chain of events, forms will make you better at [insert area of combat].
Some will make a blanket statement: forms are effective when practiced with all methods of training, including one-steps, drills, and free sparring. But drills and sparring are just as a effective without forms and one-steps, so how, exactly, does that indicate forms and one-steps themselves have any practical value? And how, exactly, does it warrant forms practice when it’s functionally obsolete?
So here comes the million-dollar question…
Is Taekwondo Training Ever Alive?
Jidokwan, Moo Duk Kwan, and sometimes Chung Do Kwan, were all historically alive schools of Tangsoodo/Taekwondo. In fact, they were revolutionary in that, contrary to most of the karate at the time, they sparred both full contact and continuously (no breaks whenever a blow landed). Nowadays, Olympic Taekwondo is always alive. While the rules are not realistic to no-rules fighting, it does teach you to kick well under pressure, manage distance, and develop timing, accuracy, and power. If you go to the right school, you might even develop a good straight punch to the body, too.
The kicking tactics of Taekwondo are next to none. I was watching the UFC the other night, and could not help but wonder why some fighters can pull off spin kicks but they won’t do something as simple as switch their stance and kick with the other leg. The openings were plentiful. I also could not understand why a fighter would throw something like only one or two ax kicks in the entire fight — ax kicks thrown at a mystifying times and that usually don’t come close to landing. It’s no secret that Taekwondo is making a come back through its usage by fighters in MMA. But what’s happening is, they’re adopting some of the kicks but not the tactics that make those kicks effective.
Taekwondo is more than just its awesome kicks; its the footwork, feints, set-ups, and counters that make those kicks usable. This is the context in which Taekwondo fighters develop superior kicking skill. Not poomsae, not one-steps. When Olympic athletes train for the Olympics, they do dynamic line drills, hogu drills, and tons of sparring. They don’t do any one steps or poomsae.
Let me make my point clear: good kickers develop good kicking by kicking a lot in live kicking drills and sparring, not by performing poomsae or one-steps. I don’t think any Taekwondoin would really disagree with this. But it’s precisely that point that reveals a double standard in how we as Taekwondoin believe we ought to train to become proficient in different areas of combat. On one hand, we train with aliveness and modern sports science for Olympic sparring (with good results); on the other, we train with dead patterns, and little resistance, for what we commonly call “self-defense.” What in the world have we been thinking?
Imagine a world where 90% of Taekwondo training is alive and practical. Imagine a world where 1st dan black belt is based on sparring performance rather than an ability to memorize and ritualistically regurgitate the curriculum. Would Taekwondo have more respect?
It’s time to rethink our traditions.