Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The relationship between sparring and forms, a Taekwondo perspective

This article was originally published in Totally Taekwondo Magazine 1st of July 2016. It looks at Taekwondo litterature ranging from 1958 to 2010 and looks into how Taekwondo textbooks have defined sparring and forms individually and then tackles the age old quesiton wether the two have a relationship between them. I hope you will find this interesting, and since this is meant to be a serious article and not "just a blogpost" it contains references to all the books I have used for this article, as well as exactly where each of my quotes has been found. Earlier I have done a lousy job With this, just providing the person behind the quote and maybe a title, but if a reference is to have true value it needs to pinpoint a location so that people can go and check all my claims, and do it easily instead of having to sift through a whole book each time. It is my hope that more will try to write and produce more serious Taekwondo litterature over time so that we can elevate the martial art we all love and respect. I might not be a scholar but I do try, and this is the result of just that.

Back to the sources:

The relationship between sparring and forms,

a Taekwondo perspective

By Ørjan Nilsen

In many Dojang around the world today free sparring is almost if not entirely equal to competition sparring. Typically free sparring in the Dojang today is done to get some excersice and to prepare the student for competition. If you go to a so called «WTF Taekwondo Dojang» you will expect students who free spar to use 99,9% kicks, if they do use hands they will only punch to the body, there will be no grabbing, low kicks or sweeps of any kind. If you go to a so called «ITF Taekwon-Do Dojang» you will see more punching, and a greater variety of techniques, but it will still be kick heavy, and have most of the same constraints as in a WTF Taekwondo Dojang (no low kicks etc). Typically the free sparring done has no apparant overlap between what is drilled in basics, forms or self defense.

In this article I want to look closer on what the «sources» of Taekwondo say about what forms are, as well as the relationship between forms and sparring. Perhaps doing competition sparring for free sparring is not the way the founders of Taekwondo envisioned the art to be practised? Since modern Taekwondo comes from the same organisation namely the Korean Taekwondo Association no matter what lineage you hail from I will look into sources from the Kwan era, as well as more recent sources from both a Kukki Taekwondo view, and a Chang Hon Taekwon-Do view.

Before we start to look at how Taekwondo sources define and view forms and sparring we should establish if there ever was a precedence in Taekwondo in favour of a relationship between sparring and forms. Both Hwang Kee, Choi Hong Hi, Son Duk Sung and others clearly states that there is a relationship between forms and sparring. The degree of direct overlap in this relationship between forms and sparring depends on the author however. Hwang Kee states very clearly that: «DaeRyon (fighting/sparring) is inseperatly connected to Hyung (forms/poomsae)» (Hwang 1958 p 166). We will see that this is a common view when looking at Taekwondo litterature, but we will also look a little deeper on what this relationship is.

Let us look at how Poomsae is described in various Taekwondo books. Choi Hong Hi, founder of the Oh Do Kwan and the Internation Taekwon-Do federation describes forms in the following quote:

«The «pattern» is thus a set sequence of movement of attack and defence in a logical order. Imaginary opponents are dealt with in sequence logically and systematically under the assumption of various situations.» (Choi 1965 p 173).

This definition is very grounded in what I would call «combat reality». We are not talking about moving meditation, or Ki-gung (development of inner strength) here. Choi being a military general, developed his Taekwon-Do in part to be used by the Korean millitary defines forms as a sequence of attack and defense in a logical order. Later many Korean martial arts students adoped the view that was prelavent on the Japanese mainland in Karate that forms were Karate attacks and defenses against karate attacks. Several imaginary opponents would attack from different angles. Choi states that imaginary opponents (as in plural) exists, but they are dealt with logically and sytematically and not only that he adds: «under the assumption of various situations». In other words the definition he makes opens up a very broad view of what kind of «combat» you can envision during the performance of forms. Many are still stuck in the idea that the form is a continoius battle against imaginary opponents who will await their turn and attack with stylized taekwondo techniques. Choi`s definition can be interpreted this way, but it can certainly be interpreted to include self defense and close quarter combat. The latter becomes more interesting when you take into consideration the year this was written in, his millitary position, and the fact that these forms were taught primarely (at the time) in the Korean millitary. Son and Clark gives another definition on forms in their first book:

«Taekwondo forms are stylized sequences of attacks and blocks of varying degrees of difficulty. Forms contain from twenty to nearly fifty positions, each of which involves either an attack or a block or a combination of attacks and blocks. Each position is specific: there is only one right way to do it.» (Son & Clark 1968 p 61)

Do not get too hung up on the «blocks» in the quote above. Son was translating the word «Makki» which can be translated as «block» but it is a much more neuanced term when translated than what the english term «block» means. If he were to write it again I am confident he would substitute «blocks» with «defense». In Son & Clark`s definition we see that they have focused more on the performance part of the form, than that of the combative nature of the form. They still touch on it though, as they do say that the movements include either an attack or a defense or a combination of an attack and a defense. I find it interesting that they include the last sentence that each position is specific and there is only one right way of doing it. Henry Cho also includes a definition that I think is pretty similar to the one provided by Son & Clark:

«Many forms or, in taekwondo terminology, «hyung» are practiced, going from fairly simple ones for beginners like Tae Kuk Hyung to the highly complex ones for advanced practisioners. Basically, they all consist of various offensive and defensive movements performed in a sequence. The forms are intended to help the trainee develop speed, strength, accuracy and balance. To accomplish these objectives, the trainee must practice them constantly.» (Cho 1970 p 52)

Cho does not seem to offer much direct overlap between sparring and forms. In his definition he puts much more weight into the fact that the forms develop attributes which then can be exploited and used in sparring. The attributes being speed, strenght, accuracy and balance. In later years there has been a growing trend in Karate and Taekwondo where the older «textbook applications» also known as the block kick punch paradigm (every move has to be a block, kick or punch) has been rejected and new paradigms has been in development. One school of thought is that forms are movement education, and Cho`s definition certainly fits well within this school of thought. The movement education idea is often presented as something that has come into being in the last decade or so, but here we do see that in Taekwondo litterature this idea can be traced back to the 1970s, and possibly even longer back. The other school of thought regarding forms that have been gaining traction is that the forms demonstrate close quarter combat and self defense techniques against habitual acts of violence rather than the duelling, taekwondo student vs taekwondo taekwondo student we usually see in textbook applications. There are consensus for the forms detailing actual fighting techniques in Taekwondo litterature in newer material (as well as in older material as we saw in Choi`s definition). Kukkiwon Textbook provides a detailed definition of forms.

«From the technical viewpoint, the poomsae itself is Taekwondo, and the basic movements are no more than the preliminary actions to reach the poomsae. The kyorugi is a practical application of the poomsae and the taekwondo spirit is manifested not in an abstract mental philosophy expressed in the documents but in the actions of Poomsae.» (Emphasis by the author. Kukkiwon 2006 p 304).

In Kukkiwons definition of forms we see that there is a much broader view in forms and training of forms, than what the other sources depict. Here you practise basics to train poomsae, and sparring is a practical application of poomsae. I find this view interesting and refreshing. The definition also touches on noncombative aspects of forms by saying that they contain the «taekwondo spirit». In the introduction I stated that Olympic sparring does not really have much in common with the techniques, tactics and strategy that we see in forms. The fact that Kukkiwon states that Kyorugi is the practical application of forms seems to suggest that we should look into the reason why there is not much overlap between forms and sparring when they do say that there should be one. Kukkiwon is not the only one who makes this claim though. Lee Kyu Hyung includes an interesting definition on forms in his book «What is Taekwondo Poomsae».

«Definition of Poomsae by Kim Yong Ok:

Kim Yong Ok who was a former professor of Koryo University and author of «Principles of the philosophy of taekwondo» defines poomsae as «stereotypification of success cases in sparring, and its primary purpose is to make its learners reach the inspiration of successful sparring (1990).»  (Lee 2010 p 66)

Again we see the close link that should be between forms and sparring, but looking at Olympic sparring today this link seems to be lost. Sihak Henry Cho made the case for forms being indirectly applicable in sparring in that it developed usefull attributes, but Kim and Kukkiwon both seems to suggest that forms should have a much more direct relationship than the indirect overlap that Sihak Henry Cho suggested. Choi Hong Hi touched upon the reasons for forms training in his Taekwon-Do:

«Practice in the «pattern» enables the student to go through the fundamental exercise, to develop sparring techniques, to improve the flexibility of movements, to familiarize with the body shifting, to build up the muscles properly, to control the breathing and to acquire certain special techniques which cannot be obtained from the fundamental exercise alone» (Choi 1965 p 173).

From the combative rooted definition of forms that we saw earlier it seems that Choi too saw forms as more than just training for sparring or fighting. He highlights helpful attributes that will help people in sparring, but at the same time he is very clear that training in forms develop sparring techniques. Eventhough he highlights helpful attributes that gives us an indirect relationship between forms and sparring, he still maintains the notion of a direct relationship between the two. Son & Clark provides us with their answer on «why practise forms» in their book:

«Forms, being combinations of attacks and blocks, teach the student to put together into combinations the basic attacks and blocks he has learned. These combinations become so habitual to him that he can use them in fighting without having to stop and figure out what comes next. Also, the process of putting together attacks and blocks itself becomes familiar to him, so he is able to execute combinations of movements necessary to meet a given situation without having to think out each step in the process. Learning the process of combining attacks and blocks is more important than learning the individual combinations because the process once learned offers an infinity of attacks and blocks.» (Son & Clark 1968 p 61-62)

In the quote above we see that the key point on the relationship between forms and sparring is to learn how to intuitivly link techniques together in an infinite noumber of ways, so we can adapt to any situation without thinking. Eliminating concous thought is a great asset to learn in any combative setting, not matter if you are in a millitary close quarter combat situation, or if you are defending your self or a loved one. Likewise in a sport setting, being able to move without thinking is a great asset. While other authors focuses on the physical attributes learned from forms, Son & Clark gives us a look into an interesting and helpful mental attribute from training forms. Lee Kyun Hyung lists reasons for training forms as well. He lists health benifits, and other non combative benifits for forms training in his book, but the first two reasons for training forms in his book is as follows:

«Poomsae training purpose:

1: Poomsae training primarily aims to learn the face-to-face fighting arts for an actual field to protect oneself in an emergency

2: Poomsae training is one way to learn face-to-face fighting arts for an actial field. It primarily aims to apply one`s learned techniques immediately to the actual field by repeating in advance countless attack and block techniques.

3: It is very improtant to understand exactly technical contents about how to make a defense and try attack back against opponents and characteristics, functions, and methods of each movement.

4: Apart from face-to-face fighting in Poomsae training, it has been considered as physical training for good health in recent years.

5: As Poomsae has no opponents, there is no risk at all. You can learn some movements of face-to-face fighting. It has been recognized that it has physiological effects as you can move freely your whole body and four limbs.

6: In addition to the rules restricted in competition sparring, you can learn a variety of techniques to be used in the actual field. It is a safe physical activity and more people continue to focus on health improveent and mind and body training.» (Lee 2010 p 42)

Lee`s purpose for forms training is the first one that gives us a look into why there is not that much overlap between competition sparring as most Dojang today consider free sparring and forms. He makes it abundantly clear since his top two purposes to forms training is to prepare yourself for self defense in an emergency in a setting outside of the Dojang (he says «in the actual field»). We talked about the movement education paradigm for forms training that has become increasingly popular, but here we see a pretty recent publication stating that the top two purposes or reasons for forms training is to prepare yourself for an emergency. Kukkiwon Textbook also mentions this view when looking at forms training:

«Training of Poomsae

1) Pattern. The first step of training Poomsae is to learn the pattern. Concentration of spirit, eyes, angles of movement must be emphasized in addition to the accuracy of actions.

2) Significance. In the next step, the emphasis must be laid on the balance, strength and weakness, low or high speed, respiration and Poomsae line. The significance of movements, connection of pooms and the complete Poomsae must be learned correctly.

3) Practical use. One must adapt what he has learned to his practical use, finding out the practicability.

4) Self style. One must evaluate his findings about the effectiveness of what he has learned, comparing with his or her bodily structure, speed, strength, impulsive power, point of emphasis in training etc., and modorate the techniques into his own style.

5) Completion. One achieves a synthetic accomplishment of Poomsae training by mastering the art of taekwondo techniques including taekwondo spirit.» (Kukkiwon Textbook 2006 p 306)

As you can see the movement education paradigm largely stops at step 2, bypasses step 3 and 4 completly, before giving us step 5, but this would in my mind be a false step 5. Look at step 3 above and see how they highlight that you should find out the practicality of the forms. To met his implies very much the same as Lee states in his book, that there are supposed to be more to the forms than only performance art, and or simplified block kick punch applications. Kukkiwon does not talk much more about Kyorugi or sparring, but as we have allready seen they think that sparring should be a practical application of the forms. If Lee is correct in his top two reasons for training forms, and kukkiwon is correct that sparring is supposed to be a practical application of poomsae then perhpas the way we do sparring today does not fit in with this view? I doubt anyone today would make a case for how Olympic sparring or competition sparring is great for self defense, and that the techniqal overlap between forms and sparring is great in the way sparring is done these days. But what if we were to include a more non restrictive way of sparring? This would certainly both prepare yourself for an emergency (as Lee says forms training should) and be a practical application of forms (as Kukkiwon says it should be) at the same time.

How does Taekwondo litterature look at free sparring? Have we lost something along the way? Choi has an interesting view on sparring:

«Sparring is the physical application of attack and defence techniques gained from the patterns and fundamental exercise against the actual moving opponent or opponents under various situations; therefore it is not only inseperable from the patterns but also indispensable to promoting the fighting spirit and courage, to training the eyes, to reading the opponents tactics and manoeuvres, to forging the striking or blocking points, to testing his or her own skill and ability, to learning other movements hardly to be acquired from the patterns or fundamental exercise.» (Choi 1965 p 240)

This view of sparring is interesting as it in my eyes at least looks to promote a much more open free sparring than what you see today. He also clearly highlights that there should be a huge overlap between forms and free sparring in that they are unseperable, just as Hwang Kee did in 1958. This open view is also made even more clear when we look to Son & Clark`s book:

«One of the ultimate objectives of Taekwondo training is free style fighting. Of course, free style fighting is a substitute for the real ultimate of Taekwondo, self-protection against any attack at any time under any conditions» (Son & Clark 1968 p 267)

This is perhaps the definition of free sparring that is the least restrictive I have seen in all the books I have read. Son & Clark`s view of sparring makes perfect sense when you compare it to the others definition of both forms and sparring. If you make sparring less restrictive and more self defense oriented you will apply more of your forms in sparring. This is exactly what those who believe forms contain practical applications are saying we should do too. The aim of Taekwondo is self defense in any situation, forms are there to help us prepare for this situation, and free sparring is what we can do to train for it and still have safety in mind so we do not end up with a lot of injured students.


I think we can safely say that the way we practise free sparring in most Dojang around the world today is heavily influenced on the specific environment of competition sparring against a similary trained student. We can also say based on taekwondo litterature that sparring should be much more open and varied than what we usually see today. While competition sparring is here to stay, it has gone from drilling a specific combative range, into a goal in and of itself. Sparring in the past was seen to test the student in varying situations, and to prepare the student to defend himself in an emergency. Forms has both an indirect and direct overlap to sparring depending on how you view and define sparring. They have an indirect relationship in that forms help develop mental as well as physical attributes that are helpful for both sparring (of any kind) and self defense. For self defense and more open and varied sparring forms also has a direct overlap in that the movements, tactics and strategy of forms can be utilized and experimented in free sparring against an uncooperative opponent. The thread that keeps everything together into a coherent system from basics, to forms to sparring is the goal of being able to defend yourself or a loved one. If this goal is in the instructor and students mind while training, then we keep forms and sparring in accordance with how it has been traditionally taught and done in Taekwondo.  


Hwang Kee 1958 Tang Su Do Textbook

Choi Hong Hi 1965 Tae Kwon Do

Son Duk Sung & Robert J. Clark 1968 Korean Karate; The art of Tae Kwon Do

Sihak Henry Cho 1970 Better Karate for boys

Kukkiwon Textbook 2006 edition

Lee Kyu Hyung 2010 What is Taekwondo Poomsae?

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