Friday, 6 January 2012

The role of kicks in Poomsae

Writing the post about the evolution of Koryo Poomsae focusing on the height of the double sidekicks in the beginning of the form got me thinking of writing about kicks in Poomsae in general. You see kicking in Taekwondo serves very different roles in Olympic sparring, Poomsae and self defense. This has lead to a great number of misconceptions about the role of kicks in Poomsae and this is a great hinderance for finding out the combative value of Poomsae movements.



Kicks in an Olympic sparring setting is all about height, speed and points (rarely do you see anyone kick to hurt these days). Height because the ruleset outlaws any kick delivered lower than belt height. The lowest kick in olympic sparring is therefore around waist height. Speed is important as the objective is to kick so fast that the oponent does not see it comming so you can score a point (or two if you kick in the head). In the older style of Taekwondo wich I often just refer to as the "hard style" the kicks also had to be executed with power as the combatans were going for a knock out or to kick the oponent so he fell down. Since these days most people settle for points many of our kicks have been slightly altered so that it is a little faster delivery, but some power is lost (little less hip investment in the kicks, straighter deliveries etc). I find this "evolution" interesting as it is darwinism in real life. People experiment with kicks, combos and footwork, and only the things that makes people winners are accepted and the rest is put to rest. In Olympic sparring the only objective is to win. What is a little sad though is that most of our techniques were not developed for sport, and these techniques worked really well in combative settings against untrained assailants or even on the battlefield (Taekwondo is one of the few martial arts that actually fit the "martial" term), but now they are being tampered with so it is easier to score points in a rule bound sport. Do not get me wrong, Taekwondo is getting better by this evolution, but it is only getting better at the goal and test area of evolution and that is the sportive context of Olympic sparring.

In a self defense setting kicks have an entire different role than in Olympic sparring. In Olympic sparring the goal is to score points to win a match. The handstrikes of Taekwondo does not get you any points and so it is not unusual to see "Taekwondo players" duking it out with their arms hanging down to their sides as over coocked spagetti. I respect that they are highly trained athletes and I enjoy watching a good match, but this article is not about Olympic sparring but the role of kicks in Poomsae. In self defense the role of hands and feet are reversed from the Olympic sparring. Here the hands are put to most use and the legs are used sparringly. The kicks in a self defense setting are basic and the kicks making the most use of "natural motion" are given the highest priority. They are simple fast and easy, not to forget powerfull as well. But the key thing to remember in this article is that kicks in a self defense context are to be delivered low. Waist height is the absolutly highest height a kick would/should be delivered in a self defense setting. Once you lift yout leg off the ground your mobility is decreased and your stability is also very decreased. Both are important as the last thing you want is to end up on the ground. This is the reason why the kicks are delivered to low height.

Originaly Poomsae or Martial Forms were made to transfer combative principles from one generation to the next. So first you have a principle the maker of the form would like to teach the next generations, so he chooses one technique or string of techniques to show the principle. He repeats this over again with each principle he wants to preserve. Then he strings the whole thing together into one mnemonic in this case a Poomsae. So first you have the self defense techniques (applications) and then the Poomsae were made to preserve these applications. This explain why in Kukkiwon Poomsae the kicks most often used are front kick and side kick, almost no jumping kicks (only two jumping kicks untill 7th Dan pattern), no spinning kicks what so ever etc. The kicks in Poomsae are there to help the application but softening the oponent up, or unbalancing him. They are to be delivered low in application, as the hand techniques of Taekwondo are for close combat and not for long distance combat. Take for instance the side kick in Taegeuk Oh jang


Look closely at 00:36 to 00:43 mark. Here you have eulgul makki (face block) followed by a side kick with a simultanious hammer fist strike, and then a elbow strike in mid section height into the other hand. Untill about 2009 you would see most people doing this sequence with the side kick in midsection height. Arguing that the oponent would bend forward because of the kick in the stomach and then be hit by the hammer fist as well. But the problem is distance as well as the hammerfist and side kick are delivered at the same time and with the aforementioned application the hammerfist strike would miss its because it was thrown to early.  The distance is as earlier mentioned also a problem. The eulgul makki is a close range technique, following this with an extreme long range technique (as the mid section side kick is) followed again with a close range techniqe makes little sense. In this movie the side kick is delivered to the face and it makes the simultanious hammer fist strike even more reduntant. What is she striking above her head anyway? Air?

Move the oponent closer and do the kick to low section and see what happens. The oponent has you in a lapel grab and is about to punch your lights out. You strike his arm with your arm (preperation for high block), secure his hand and strike the side of the neck with a forearm strike (the actual high block with the hand at your hip).. You then grab the oponent with both arms, knee him in the stomach or groin (preperation for side kick is lifting your knee up). Directly from the knee you do not put your foot down, you kick instead to the oponents knee (inside or outside or front does not matter), this is the actual side kick. Simultaniously you strike his head with a hammer fist strike (now as the distance is correct he is struck by both strikes). He gets down to one knee as one foot is now broken and his head is now in mid section height. As you put your foot down you deliver an elbow strike to his head that you secured by grabbing his ear or hair with your hammerfist striking hand.

This is a self defense kick
used in a sportive setting.
I am sure the red "player"
was penalised for is actions.
Now the application makes total sense for each complete move in the sequence. But to get better training from the Poomsae many people started lifting their kicks to greater heights. There is nothing wrong with that in my opinion. Yes you do loose the benifit with continous drilling of self defense moves when you are by your self, but as long as the applications are drilled with a partner there there is nothing wrong by getting the most out of your poomsae training by lifting the kicks a little. But how much should we lift our kicks? That is entirely up to you. The rule of thumb however is that the further up you kick the further removed from reality your Poomsae gets. It is that easy. But as I have said Poomsae are performed alone, in training you should drill the applications with a partner and the pattern is there for you to remember the applications (mnemonic) and for self training. The mnemonic part of having Poomsae does not diminish even though you alter the height of the kicks as long as you are aware of why you kick to the midsection or face (or straight up), instead of lowsection.

When searching for the practical intrepretations for your Poomsae always remember that in a self defense context the kicks are to be delivered low, and that the oponent is very close. Many seemingly strange sequences in Poomsae suddenly makes a lot more sense when viewed this way.

All the best.

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