Friday, February 2, 2018

Are there too many forms?

A problem with traditional martial arts is the abundance of static patterns. Besides the traditional forms (kata/hyung/tul/poomsae) schools like to add on partner exercises and kicking sets. All this material to memorize leaves less time for live training such as sparring. It's also said that the old karate masters only knew a handful of kata. Indeed, Chinese martial arts (which Karate is based on) typically have a small number of patterns. This has got some researchers asking: are there too many forms?

I would say that in theory no, there cannot be too many forms, because I see forms as records of techniques. There can be a problem of studying too many forms in-depth, because the end result will be that you know many techniques poorly and no techniques effectively. I liken the situation to Judo's throwing curriculum. Officially there are 67 Kodokan Judo throws, some of which have many variations. But top Judo players have only 2 or 3 go-to throws that they win matches with time and time again. So why learn 67 throws if they only end up using a handful? Because 1) it allows them to pick the throws best suited to their body type and 2) it increases their understanding of the art of throwing.

Of course, no one is going to accuse most taekwondo schools of too much in-depth study. Form applications are rarely taught. Instead, a great deal of time is spent memorizing forms, getting the movements exactly right, ending right where you started, and making them look pleasing to watch. Live training is spent learning punching and kicking techniques; form applications (most of which involve grappling) would detract from this. Due to the limited time most taekwondoin have to train, I've wondered whether we can simply teach less forms. This way there would be time to go over the self-defense applications of each form we teach.

However, selecting a handful of forms to teach is difficult in the case of taekwondo, since many of the patterns are specialized to certain self-defense situations. I would consider neither Po-Eun or Joong-Gun to be good general self-defense forms. But Po-Eun contains a neat side headlock defense, and Joong-Gun contains useful ways to escape a leg grab. I can't say I draw my self-defense knowledge from a handful of forms; it's more like I have compiled information from various sets across all the forms I know.

So how do you limit the time we spend teaching forms but keep useful material? There are a few options.

Teaching the techniques, not the forms

One method is to avoid teaching forms altogether: just teach the techniques. This is often suggested on martial arts forums.

The pros are that we could skip the whole interpretation process and get into how to use the technique right away. Some of the most respected martial arts out there (BJJ, boxing, wrestling, muay thai) don't bother with forms. Almost every technique they teach can be tested in sparring. Furthermore, the students would not have to memorize anything they do not know the application of, which speeds up the learning process.

However, this line of logic ignores the other core uses of forms. Forms are for solo practice, to be performed on the student's own time when they don't have a partner. The student is meant to not just learn a pattern, but to make it their own. Forms can be used to practice techniques with full intensity, especially the "dangerous" techniques contained in the art. They are also useful for training stamina, balance, moving meditation, and muscle memory. Finally, most instructors do not know the techniques contained within forms, so if we jettison them then a number of techniques would be "lost". People who are interested in making taekwondo like MMA or kickboxing would not mind this, but the fact is that we are not MMA and many students do enjoy the traditional aspects of taekwondo.

But if we are keeping forms for their conditioning value, then surely we don't need 20+ in our curriculum. The conditioning value could be obtained from as little as one form. So what can we do instead?

Core forms vs optional forms

Instead of jettisoning forms entirely, one could slim the syllabus down to a small number of core forms that students have to memorize, but keep a number of optional forms that students may voluntarily learn as they progress. One could even personalize the optional forms: different students would learn different ones. If you think about it, the availability of free online information about forms makes this possible. No longer do you need an instructor to teach you a form, although the instructor can provide some applications to the form if they are knowledgeable enough.

This brings up the question of which forms should be core and which should be optional. When I pose this question, many taekwondoin seem to favor the simpler forms. Personally I prefer the advanced forms, because their applications are more one-to-one with their movements.[1] But it's ultimately subjective based on the knowledge of the instructor.

What do you think? Do we have too many forms? How would you teach forms differently, if at all?

[1] For the record, if I had to select four core forms I'd use Do-San, Choong-Moo, Gae-Baek, and the Modern Koryo (yes, really). I think these forms provide a strong set of self-defense techniques. Hwa-Rang, Po-Eun, and the Original Koryo would also be contenders. 


  1. Great article. Mirrors my view as well:-)

  2. All forms taught in your style should continue to be taught to students regardless of the instructors personal preferences or views on each form. You say that po eun is not as good as other forms, I disagree. It is one of my favorites to teach due to the many practical applications. It is for this disagreement reason why all the forms must be taught. By all means emphasize the ones you feel are better, that is your prerogative as instructor to use your wisdom and judgement on guiding the class. But don't disregard or throw away a form just because you find no value in it. Another eye looking at it from a different background might see a diamond.


    1. Hi Kris, thanks for commenting.

      I agree that the forms all have value to the them; in fact I said that I prefer NOT to throw out any forms. I would not be writing this blog if I did not think favorably of the ITF patterns. The issue is how do you avoid the "classical mess" of focusing so much on learning patterns that you don't spend enough time practicing the live applications? Maybe this isn't a problem in other taekwondo clubs, but it is a big problem in mine; we get students complaining that we spend too much time on forms and not enough on sparring. (Keep in mind that I do not set any of our training policy; our parent organization does). There are other solutions than the two I mentioned in this post; you might incorporate some kind of form-based sparring that allows grappling, for example. This would allow students to see what applications work for them. What I DON'T think is a good solution is teaching the forms but expecting the students to come up with applications on their own, which is unfortunately a strategy some instructors employ.

      Also, I don't believe Po-Eun is a bad form. It's actually one of my favorites. What I meant to say is that it's not a good STAND-ALONE self-defense form, because I think it's most applicable in specialized self-defense situations such as bear hugs or side headlocks. This is a key difference between many karate kata -- which were made independently -- and taekwondo patterns -- most of which were made as part of series.