Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Where is the interest in Poomsae applications?

Searching the internet for information regarding practical applications for the Taekwondo patterns I study, I am always suprised as to where the information is. All I can find is a big roaring silence. I can find a wealth of information regarding Karate and Quan Fa applications and their history, theories, etc etc, but I can not find anything on Taekwondo. Why is this? Are practisioners of Taekwondo less interested in pattern applications, grappling and vital points applications than their Karate and Quan Fa counterparts?

There are a great deal of people researching the above in the fields of Karate. I can mention Iain Abernethy, Bill Burgar, Patric McCarthy, Lawrence Kane, Victor Smith and several others to name a few but where are the Taekwondo researchers? It is the same on the book front. Tons and tons of books have been written and are being written on Karate, but only a few on Taekwondo. I have yet to find more than 4 books on the subject that covers the Taekwondo patterns and they are (in random order):
  • Chang Hon Taekwondo Hae Sul (ITF Patterns Stuart Anslow)
  • Taegeuk Cipher (WTF/Kukkiwon Simon John O`Neil)
  • Practical Taekwondo (WTF/ Kukkiwon and ITF Mathew Sylvester)
I have and I reccomend them all of course and the authors are really nice and open for discussions. With Taekwondo being one of the most widely pratised martial arts in the world you would believe that it was the other way around or that there was at least as much published and written of Taekwondo patterns as the Karate patterns.

What is the reason for all of this? I think we can safely say that the focus on sport has shifted the focus from self defense towards sparring competition style. One result of this is that most practisioners are very young people who practise mainly to compete. They might start out with self defense in mind (and or competition) but with the focus on sport they either change their mindset and practise the sport or they think that the sport will prepare them for self defense. Either way, finding out the deeper application for their poomsae (if they even practise poomsae) are not prioritised by many schools today. If they practise poomsae the most schools I have seen only pratise them as performance sport or as basic techniques, but strung together in a coordinated "dance".

When they do spar in training they are doing competition sparring and many fail to even consider that there should/might be a relation between the two. Competition sparring is unlike the application for poomsae deeply researched and understood. I will go so far as to say that Taekwondo competition sparring is the most widely researched martial sport there is. Here you have loads of books on how to do train, eat, condition yourself for competition sparring, but the books and articles regarding Taekwondo poomsae are only focused on how to do the motions of the form.

I have many books that I have collected over the last few years, and all the newer ones (1990s up to present day) are all how to do the correct motions of the form, but no function. Even the book entitled "The official explanation of Taekwondo" did not explain any application of the poom (movements) in the poomsae.It did however explain just how you should perform the poomsae in competition to win, and it did this in great detail. The older books on Taekwondo show applications to allmost all the movements but they are in the good old "block, punch, kick" variant. This comes as no suprise given that the "hard style Taekwondo" of old is a very simplistic and (if applied correctly) very effective striking system with a lot of effective anti grappling techniques to boot. But today even these basic striking applications are viewed in great awe as many people today just never learned them.

This is the motion in Taegeuk 4 Jang
That I am writing about.
I recall going to one poomsae seminar and in the brake time between training I observed a 1st cup (thats just before black belt) going through Taegeuk 4 Jang. The bluebelts she trained with asked her why they had the non fingerstriking hand under their elbow as opposed to their hips as is cusomarily taught in basic technique. I will never forget the answer she gave them: "Because this looks a lot cooler. There is no reason other than that." I still crunge when I think about it. The blue belts just absorbed the answer and accepted it. I wonder if they are continuing the teaching of the cool move or if they have investigated the deeper applications at all? Or if they are even still practising Taekwondo at all.

Gichin Funakoshi demonstrating
a technique we find repeated in
Poomsae Koryo
So we have many young people who practise (some would say to many young people and to little adults) who study Taekwondo for sport and they quit when the sport gets boring, or when they have had enough practise. What if we were to introduce the students to applications of the poomsae they practise sooner? Starting of with the hard style applications and when they have learned them and understand when to apply them start them of again with more sophisticated applications? I think this will help a lot when it comes to retain students and to attract more adults to start Taekwondo.

What is your Taekwondo experience? Is Poomsae practise merely performance art practise or do you learn how to apply the motions in combat?


  1. i think that for the most part the teaching of applications is absent because most instructors don't know any aside from the rudimentary ones. Many old time Korean instructors were never shown any or given any explanations, and questions were actively discouraged. that was before the sport!
    richard conceicao

  2. Hi Richard and thanks for making the time for posting your comment. I do agree for the most part but they did learn the "rudimentary" ones. Today the rudimentary applications are not known to the main stream students... This has been my experience at least.

    The Japanese instructors faced the same problem too, but the post was about the lack of interest in the mainstream Taekwondo comunity.

    If you compare the interest in patterns applications in OMA/JMA/CMA styles you will see that the level of interest is a lot higher than in the KMA circles. Eventhough the JMA instructors had the same problems as the KMA instructors, the JMA students still have an interest in patterns applications mostly absent in KMA circles.

    If you look at older Taekwondo publications you will se almost every move explained one way or another. Compare this to today publications and you will see that applications are removed (or in Kukkiwon Textbooks case greatly downplayed). I think this complete lack of applications rob the KMA students a starting point for finding better ones and develop their own Taekwondo understanding.

    So allthough sophisticated applications has never been openly taught as such they did have "hard style" applications (kick, block punch) that was taught to the students. This kick block punch hard style Taekwondo was more sophisticated than the ones taught now.

    The book "Secrets of Korean Karate" by Henry Cho is all about applied hard style Taekwondo (no link back to the patterns are given but you will recognise many taken from forms if you read the book).

    Personally I think that the race for Olympic acceptance killed the more "traditional" applications as they did not fit in with the sport that was being developed.

  3. I could not agree more with your post. Just about every week I find myself Googling for martial applications of Taekwondo. I am specifically discouraged by the lack of video content on the Net.

    About a year ago I purchased Chang Hon Taekwondo Hae Sul which was indirectly applicable to me as I study WTF. Taegeuk Cipher, on the other hand, was a perfect match as the book's poomsae matched exactly the poomsae we learn in our dojag. Unfortunately, once you get past the poor, greyscale pictures, it is still difficult to understand what happened between the snapshots. I will say that when I emailed Mr. O'neill, he kindly replied in person with much detail. But even then, I could not quite see in my mind what these applications should look like in, say, a demonstration to other students.

    Don't misunderstand me, these books are awesome and I recommend them to anyone, but they really need some kind of video presentation to be clear. I Googled every search phrase I could imagine, and scoured YouTube looking for someone who demonstrated these applications, but no joy. I could not find any applications for any poomsae by anyone. Even a low-quality, basic demonstration I am sure would fill in the spaces left in the book.

    I continue to practice Taekwondo, but have since started to learn Okinawan Karate. It sharply contrasts my Taekwondo training in that for every form we learn, there are exercises that practice the application (or several applications) for each move. There are many blocks and punches which are the same as Taekwondo. I am often excited when in Karate I learn an application of a move I have repeated for 8-years in TKD. It reminds me of the scene in the original Karate Kid when, having grown fed-up with waxing cars, painting fences, and sanding floors, Miagi throws kicks and punches at Danielson who sees the power of all his efforts! Unfortunately - for reasons that I do understand - my TKD master does not approve of these applications because they are not part of his curriculum.

    At the very least, I am pleased to have found your post and will continue to follow your thread. I have put so much time into Taekwondo, and become discouraged by its lack of martial applications.

    Steve B.

    1. Unfortunatly you are not alone, but now that you are cross-training in Taekwondo`s roots I think you could help remedy the situation? Share your knowledge. Martial applications are there in Taekwondo also, but very few are researching them in detail, and even fewer teach them as part of their syllabus.

      Its sad that your Taekwondo instructor do not recognize the applications as Taekwondo just because they are not in his curriculum. I teach alongside two other instructors at this time, and I am the only one teaching applications to the forms. None of the other instructors has approached me with anything but positive feedback on this as they feel it enrichens the Taekwondo that we teach. The kick block punch system is great for beginners to give them simple applications while figuring out wich hand goes here and were to put their body weight, but sooner or later people wishes more depth in their study and the ones who are not willing to give them that are the ones who will eventually find themselves without students one day...

      I hope you will contribute with your knowledge both here in the blog through comments and through other venues Steve and I am happy that you took your time to comment:-)

    2. Hello Steve B. Blimey. My story is the opposite as yours. It was karma/life which brought me to taekwondo, before that I was doing Karate Shotokan. Since my childhood I have met lots of karate practitioners and found 95% of them were crazy or just looking for trouble or just were into it under the "I don't want to be beaten" excuse. Years later I got into karate as I said and had two teachers, one good and the other bad. The former taught you the kata and their applications, he was open to comments. The latter was the owner of the gymnasium and a former sport karate champion -or whatever- who taught you practical or competition karate but almost never showed up. I found myself punching the bag many nights. I didn't go home like others and wanted to take advantage of my time -and my money goddamit-. I asked once my good teacher why many poeple I met were wannabe bullies and he said that karate, as many others, are a creation of men, and although its intention may be good practitioner's may be not.

      I think it applies to everything, not only to kata or poomsaes. It is our responsibility. I think Mr Nilsen's theory about youngsters quitting TKD is quite right. What kind of essay can a youngster write? They lack practice, experience, theory, history (TKD may be fairly new but its mother is a lot older), etc.

      I don't look down to any martial art or even fighting technique, most of them were created for a certain purpose. It would be squared minded to think that some of them are useless nowadays as some "gurus" intend to demonstrate. To me they are simply charlatans.

      Thank you and regards.

  4. I have never had a Taekwondo instructor show me poomsae applications besides the punch block variations. I had to look at Japanese Karate to figure the ideas out. I still dont know some of the pplications for certain movements.

    Do you know what the simultaneous down block and outside block behind you standing in a sideways front stance is for? Is it a grion attack or a neck twisting break? or is it just blocking over your leg and then blocking behind your head at the same time?

    What about the Sipjin poomsae witjh the double punch long stance and the double punch back stance? One arm is longer than the other. Do you know?

    I have found other applications for TKD poomsae on youtube watching random TKD Kukkiwon masters show techniques and I had to add them all up together over time to figure them out. So watching videos like Taekwondo Step by Step you see random moves that you know are in some poomsae and they show the application. Also KKW videos have applications at the end of their poomsae but then only 1 or 2 and its not the application of the move you actually want.

  5. I have always been shown the simplistic hard style Applications for each and every poomsae move (Block kick punch) while Learning the different Poomsae. I do not agree that those are the best or correct Applications but they do provide someplace to start. To many students today only learn the movements period. Robbed for the starting point they must either do everything on their own to understand the movements or they can do what has become more and more popular the last few decades and use the forms only as movement education.

    As for more sophisticated Applications I have learned some from Kukki Taekwondo masters, some from other MAs and some on my own. Karate and related MAs have been valuable to my own Research into Applications. I believe it was Iain Abernethy who really opened my eyes at first and made me Connect the dots in a for me anyway New way.

    You ask for a specific Application for We/Oe Santeul Makki in Pal Jang I have several but the most simplistic is a choke and armbar to one oponent if I have positioned myself behind him, or you could look at this one: where it is demonstrated as a defense against most kinds of kicks.

    You also ask about Chetdari Jireugi from Sipjin (I had to go outside my Taekwondo Teachers on this one as the only Taekwondo Application that I got was the punch at the same time one. You can look here for some of my alternative findings: . I am not sure if this is inline With what you are seeking but both posts will at least show the techniques in a New light (good ot bad).

    Your Method of finding Applications is one that I partually do as well. Many of my own Applications has been taught to me by Taekwondo masters it is just not related back to the forms. Especially Ho Sin Sul (self defense) techniques that I have learned seems to pop up between the different Poomsae or a variation of a technique I learned as a part of my Ho Sin Sul study is later found in my Poomsae.

    Hope the links I provided will help:-)

    1. Hello everyone. As my experience is, many people see taekwondo as a sport as you mention Mr Nilsen, whether they are practitioners or not; probably this is the reason why I have found so many ignorants "stating" that TKD sucks. Pity. Poomsaes are not a way to apply techniques. They are THE way. This is like that even in other martial arts such as karate. For those who have read it -I have-, in the "Bubishi", considered the bible of karate, it says not even in the old days people didn't practice fighting, but with kata and object breaking; this is the way the firsts and very old teachers such as Anko Itosu taught. Combat -or kumite- was introduced by Gichin Funakoshi's son, as well as the side kick -yop chagui/yoko geri-. In that "bible" it says that the only kick was the front one -ap chagui/mae geri-, so the conclusion is that whenever we see those "Van Damme kicks" they are taken from TKD, basically because no other martial art has them. And it's not a crime to admit it.

      I do martial research as well and is a delight to find posts like Mr Nilsen's. I am 1st Dan WTF TKD, but I also practice traditional Ju Jutsu, and have praticed Karate Shotokan and Wei Hei Li Shi Quan Fa. So I think I can be more objective than many other people who just do the cheap talk. Going back to the point I think we taekwondists should focus more on the martial art and less -or nothing if it's your choice- on the sport. If the Kukkiwon wants to attract youngsters for the Olimpics they are doing a great job; if they want to attract warriors they are doing a horrible job. Regarding this I think yours is the choice. Mine is clear: I reject sports, I find them useless, and as you get older you get less and less of them; but martial arts is the opposite, as you practice techniques and get older you get better. I don't find compulsory to cut my foot fingernails with the ceiling fan. Sports encourage competition, (good) martial arts encourage friendship (and, oh boy I know the combat origin blah blah, thank God we don't live those times... or do we?).

      You should research and participate in the martial aspect and show the rest TKD is much more than kicking a red/blue protection, you are responsible to encourage hand techniques (et voilá the poomsaes!!) and even hand controls or luxations. I am clear about where I am going. You find the sense of most of it in the poomsaes, boys only used to kick in a sporty way perform really bad poomsaes; do they think they will have enough with it in a real fight? I'm afraid not. With poomsaes our inside and chi grows up, if you lack any of those you get stuck.

      Thank you and regards to all.

  6. I am very much pleased with the contents you have mentioned. I wanted to thank you for this great article.

  7. This book suggests Poomsae Applications from Taegeuk Il-jang to Sipjin. They are mostly of the block/kick/punch variety though, but there are some takedowns and jointlocks mixed in there for good meassure. The book includes videos of everything.

    1. That book and the book on hand techniques are on my "wish list" ;-)

  8. It's frustrating. Even in the ITF world, applications are not widely known or sought after. I'm often told the patterns were not built with applications in mind and were just made to be different than karate. If I state that I know many pattern applications, I usually get an inaccurate lecture on taekwondo history. That's internet forums for you.

    I agree with Richard that within taekwondo asking questions about patterns was actively discouraged. All the interviews I've read state that General Choi did not make the ITF patterns. They were made by a group of 12+ Korean commanders, organized by Choi. But after the move to North Korea Choi took all the credit and promoted impractical block-strike applications. In my experience some ITFers have actually gotten angry when I told them Choi did not make the patterns, and they insist that the block-strike applications he provided are the "true" ones. This attitude of never questioning the grandmaster exists in a lot of traditional martial arts.

    Also, for taekwondoin interested in practical fighting, it is simply easier to study another martial art than to find pattern applications. A lot of ITFers add boxing style punches to their curriculum, like CK Choi: It's a hard sell to get them interested in studying patterns. This is why, ideally, we should have more books and videos to pass down applications, rather than expecting students to figure it out on their own. But compiling everything is a struggle.

    1. Thank you very much for commenting :-) Yes, I share your burdens :-P Most peoples arguments about why there is no applications in taekwondo seems to come down to: I did not learn any so they are not there, coupled with: Choi (or insert Korean master) did not teach them so they are not there. If you have anything that punches a hole in their arguments they keep going straw man :-P My favorite is: "there is no applications in KMA because the KMA pioneers trained under the Japanese". This can be countered easily by explaining that the KMA pioneers learned straight from the source along with the Japanese, not under them etc. I had completly forgotten this post (its 9 years old now) but I still very much feel the same way 9 years later :-P