Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Relationship Between Sparring and Poomsae

Have you ever seen this technique
being used in sparring?
The relationship between sparring and poomase is something many Taekwondo practisioners ask themselves and their instructors when they have been training for some time. It is not only Taekwondo practisioners who asks this but also many other diciplines where Poomsae, Kata or something simular is used in training. The notion of a relationship between sparring and Poomsae or forms is often encouraged in the writings of past masters and newer textbooks. Most people training in a martial art "based" on forms will hear that if you are good in forms you will be good in sparring and vice versa.

I will respectfully disagree. Well first I will say that yes it is possible to find a great number of practisioners who are good at forms and sparring but that does not prove anything. It is also possible to find practisioners who are good at sparring, forms and soccer. That will not prove that there is a relationship between soccer and forms and or sparring..

My proof on why it is not a given to be good at sparring you will also be good at forms or vice versa is the insane(!) number of practisioners who excell in one of the activities and not the other. When I studied and trained in Korea I was greatly suprised that some of my fellow native students that were sparring champions never practised Poomsae if they had anything to say about it. In fact I had to teach 4th Dan students Taegeuk Il (1) Jang once before a mandatory Poomsae class. They had not trained it for many years and forgotten all of the Poomsae. They only practised Olympic sparring (and soccer:p ) but boy where they good at what they trained in. Yes they could not punch their way out of a wet paper bag, they did not have any notion of grappling skills, they did not know self defense, forms, formal sparring or any theory. They practised for sparring and they excelled at a level in sparring that I can only dream about.

Then you had "the demonstration team" at the university. They never sparred at all. They simple never did it if they could help it. They excelled like the sparring team in the activity that they practised for, but all other activities were not so good. They did not know how to do "real" Kyopka (breaking) nor could they any self defense skills outside of the movie self defense that they demonstrated and sparring the few times I saw that they were made to do it was at a very low level. Their techniques were great and they to had reached a level of performance in their forms and techniques that I can only dream about, but sparring also demands other skills than technique, such as agressiveness, timing, distance, footwork that is radically different from forms etc.

Will you be able to land a kick like this
only by practising forms?
So being good at one does not atomaticly make you good in the other when it comes to sparring and forms. It is simply not the case. If it were, then the sparring team would be great at Poomsae because they were good in sparring and the demonstration team would be good at sparring because they were good in forms. That being said being good at one activity might have some carry over skills, but as I wrote before in the case of the demonstration team they did have great technical ability but they lacked other key skills for sparring. Likewise the sparring team had great kicks in their forms, but the rest did not carry over so well.

The be good at sparring and also be good at forms and vice versa seems to be a myth and not anything rooted in real life. You can be good at both, but you can also be great at one and suck in the other.

The forms in Taekwondo were made a relativly short time ago (Chang Hon Ryu forms practised by ITF today were made in the 1950s-80s, Palgwe forms were made in the first half of the 60s, Taegeuk forms were made in the early 70s), but the technical base of those forms were the older imported forms from Karate (and to a lesser degree Quan Fa). On top of that they sprinkled some Taek Kyon influences into the mix so you have some kicking techniques that does not make sense in a realistic combative setting depending on the forms set studied. In Kukkiwon Taekwondo the double side kicks of Koryo Poomsae is a good example of this. The imported forms were made to reccord and transmit key tactics wich together demonstrates a strategy for real life violence. Most of the base arts of Taekwondo were made for civilian self defense without any rules nor legal ramifications and so the tactics presented within the forms were brutal, highly effective for taking out the attacker in the fastest way possible. The newer forms are as I wrote newer, but the basic techniques of the forms were largely copied and kept as is into the newer forms. Sometimes a technique might be alltered a little but overall the basic techniques of Taekwondo is not so far apart from say Shito Ryu Karate (or any style of Karate for that matter). The enviroment that the forms were made for were a self defense situation without rules and that is the main reason why being good at forms are not a sure way of being good at sparring because sparring is simply a completly new beast all together.

Sparring and now I am thinking about competition sparring (Olympic or point sparring it does not matter), consists of clearly defined rules and regulations, protective gear and the consent from both participants. The objective of this kind of training is simply to win either by knock out or points. It typically starts at an unrealistic distance, there is a referee (or instructor) to ensure that the rules are followed and the safety of both participants is enforced. Not to forget that there is likely a simular weight and height of both participants because of weightclasses etc. The altercation starts at a agreed upon signal and off they go. The footwork, timing and just about all the dynamics associated with this activity is completly different than the dynamics of a "real" self defense situation. The agressor is usually bigger as they have no intention of a fair fight, it happens suddenly and there is certainly no agreed upon signal to start. It is not known beforehand by the defender that this is going to happen today, there are no rules (at least the agressors normally do not think about legal ramifications), there is no referee or instructor, no equipment, no timelimits or rounds and anything goes.

As you can see by now the enviroment that the techniques the forms are based upon was radically different than the activity we associate with sparring. No wonder then that the technical base of a Poomsae performance practisioner is wastly different than the sparring competitor with only a small carryover in skills that overlap. The footwork of forms were made to ensure stability as well as powergeneration in grappling skills, while the footwork of sparring have been developed to ensure mobility for setting up a skilled opponent for attacks. The sparring footwork completly ignores the grappling element as there is no grappling in modern Taekwondo sparring. Likewise the technical base of sparring completly ignores anything that is outside of the rules, while the forms are based on techniques that were made without any rules and integrates striking and grappling all of the time.

Will practising "applications" like
these make your sparring better??
So the dynamics of sparring are wastly different than the dynamics of forms, there is also another great reason that the relationship between forms and sparring is (almost) non existant and that lies in our modern view of forms. In the old days the forms were seen as a mnemonic and a way to practise when you did not have a partner to practise with. Live practise as well as impact training, and physical training (strenght, endurance etc) were what made up most of the training of old. Forms transmitted the key principles of the system but you did not "fight with your forms" as we think today. Today the forms are viewed as a performance art not to much different than a dance routine. The sparring today requires a great amount of live practise with a partner, while Poomsae or forms are a set pattern that has to be the same everytime (or better for each time). No one in their right mind would insist that you have to be a great dancer in a set dance routine to be a great fighter, or insist that you are automaticly a great dancer because you are a great fighter, but if we are honest about how forms today are practised and that the applications are either usually unusable or non existant then we do see that that is what we are really saying when we make the claim that you automaticly become good at sparring because you are good in forms or vice versa. It is absurd when you think about it is it not?

Are there benifits for practising forms? Yes yes yes. Are there some carry over in skill from forms to sparring: again the answer is yes but only a small fraction. The forms serve their purpose but their purpose is not to make us good in sparring. The forms are there to transmit the key principles of the system. You can take knowledge from them and apply it in many ways, but the activity of performing forms and the activity of sparring is completly different. Also the enviroments of these two activities demands completly different tactics (techniques) to attain their goals. For some forms are there only to drill people in basic techniques, and this is certainly the way forms historicly has been used in Taekwondo, BUT that is not the original intent and the basic techniques being forms based will like the forms themselves not be ideal in a sparring enviroment. The carryover skill set is very little no matter how you look at it.

So I beg of all of you, please let us look forms for what they are, and sparring for what it is. Do not confuse the two activities, and above all lets not propogate this myth anymore.

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