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Pattern usefulness

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Many martial artists love patterns and think they are integral to the study of the martial arts. Some martial artists hate patterns and think they are useless, old-fashioned, and a waste of time. Most martial artists just see them as a part of martial arts training and learn them because they are required for tank promotion.

Benefits of practicing patterns

  • Patterns force students to practice techniques normally not used. Some techniques are obscure and not normally used in sparring or self-defense, but they help students understand body movement and add to the repertoire of techniques. Some techniques are still effective for self-defense even though they are not pertinent to sparring.
  • Patterns are a historical storehouse. They provide a history lesson of the development of a martial art and are a storehouse of decades of the martial art's knowledge. 
  • Patterns provide students who do not compete in sparring another way to compete. Some people do not enjoy sparring, some consider it too violent, and others, due to injury, physical disabilities, or age find it difficult to compete in sparring. Patterns competition provides them with a way to compete and display their skills.
  • Patterns allow students to express their artistic abilities. Although patterns have many rules and set movements, there is still room for the performer to insert some personal artistic expression.
  • Patterns can be performed individually or in a group. Patterns allow for both individual or team competition.
  • Patterns promote serious study of the martial arts. Patterns help enforce the values of discipline, patience, and self-control and offer a means of self-measurement. In addition, they preserve many of the ancient techniques of empty-hand combat. The study of patterns offers students stability and gives them a lifelong challenge to improve themselves. It is in things that last a lifetime that you can find the most meaning
  • Pattern training is a developmental tool. Each pattern has unique characteristics that make it a developmental tool for students. The required movements and their order of performance serve as an incremental process that imprints upon students correct form, timing, breath control, etc.
  • Pattern training is good exercise. Pattern training allows students to practice fighting techniques without an opponent, similar to shadow boxing that is used in boxing. Students can personalize the intensity of their workout by performing the patterns with varying degrees of power and speed. One of the important things about patterns training is that it can be conducted anywhere; indoors, outdoors, and on a variety of surfaces.
  • Pattern training forces students to practice techniques in which they are not skilled. Students tend to practice what is easy for them to do. Pattern training forces students to learn and practice difficult techniques they would not have tried otherwise and to use the techniques in combinations they would never have imagined. Patterns depict self-defense situations rather than sparring techniques and show students how to react to self-defense situations.
  • Learning a pattern is a process. Information in some patterns is voluminous and diverse. There are no solid rules for interpreting patterns. Some are based on common stances and techniques while other are so intricate that studying them can require the same amount of effort as studying any other art or science. Learn to perform the movements is just the beginning. Reaching performance perfection is a lifetime endeavor.
  • Patterns teach order in the midst of chaos. In square dancing, students learn the different movements. Then, instead of the instructor quickly calling out a series of movements for the students to perform, which would cause everyone to perform in jerky motions, the movements are choreographed into different sequences named "calls." When a dance begins, four “dance” couples stand in a “square” facing each other; this is the position they end up back at after a call. The may be several squares on the dance floor at the same time. A caller starts the music and begins calling the dance. Each call may consist of 10 or more movements performed in a certain order. When the "caller" calls out a certain pattern, the four couples in a square perform all the movements of the call smoothly and in an artistic manner.

    Patterns are performed in much the same way. Students are taught individual techniques, then they learn to perform a technique in a certain way (a movement), and then they learn a choreographed sequence of the movements, which is called a pattern. When the instructor calls for that pattern, a student or group of students perform the called pattern in an orderly and artistic manner.
  • Each technique in a pattern can be performed with a different intent. The intent of most pattern techniques can be understood by logical analysis but this intent can be changed. For example, some techniques that first appear to be blocks in a pattern can be performed as attacks. They can be performed very aggressively so as to injure, in some patterns, blocks are intended to break bones. This switching of intent makes the study of patterns an intriguing art and science. However, for some, it can also make patterns more confusing. 
  • If patterns are intensively studied instead of merely practiced, they become the catalyst that keeps people training in the martial arts. Certain lines from the "Karate Code," an ancient poem, apply to patterns: "If the eye is to see all directions, in kata, look at all aspects. If the ear is to listen in all directions, listen to what others say as well as what a kata is saying. If the body is to change directions at all times, the elements within kata must apply to this principle. When you apply these principles in learning, you keep finding more to learn."
  • Patterns sharpen the fighting skills of sparring competitors. Practicing a technique in using precise motions, control, and focus makes their more powerful when used in sparring.
  • Pattern teach the art part of a martial art. The art part of the martial arts is what makes them unique and different from just being a system of fighting. There are no competitions for knowing the art; although this learning can be applied to completion, it is primarily done for self-improvement. Pattern competition cannot determine how much you know about the art of the pattern, even if the pattern is a traditional pattern, and some patterns were created primarily for competition and displaying physical skills. There is not anything wrong with studying a martial art for competition if you realize competition is a sport. Martial arts legends of the past have sent us messages in patterns, which provide a martial art with the quality of being a pathway through life, not just a pastime.
  • Pattern training offers a link to tradition and helps practitioners bring a sense of dignity and honor back into their lives. The main problem that arises when instructors teach only fighting techniques is that students forget the basic spirit of a martial art, which is to seek peace first, and use force only as a last resort. By stressing defensive techniques, patterns help promote the proper attitude in martial artists. The study of patterns also helps students realize a sense of inner achievement, instead of outer victory. Since only a few students ever achieve outer victory, such as the winning of trophies at tournaments, most students are being left out of the loop. Patterns give them a way back into the loop.
  • Patterns provide students with a standard in a way that encourages them to contemplate the beauty, and not just the practical application, of the techniques they practice. The martial arts should have something to offer everyone, not just the exceptional few who want to compete in tournaments. If patterns are not emphasized sufficiently by the instructor or are neglected altogether, students are encouraged to think that only by winning fights can they progress. This is not the message instructors should be sending to their students. Indeed, it can be disheartening to students, and it gives credence to those who would try to ban the martial arts on the grounds that they encourage violence.
  • Pattern training is a lifelong endeavor and is culturally enlightening. Patterns are passed on from generation to generation, thus preserving ancient empty-hand techniques. Some instructors tend to emphasize tournament fighting techniques over pattern practice, which gives students an unbalanced sense of training. Patterns add further to a deeper understanding of a martial art by offering students a connection to the past, a link with tradition that many people have lost elsewhere in their lives as society quickly changes around them. Students need some understanding of the past if they are to develop a healthy attitude in the present.

    The study of patterns encourages students to see themselves as part of a long and honored tradition. This feeling helps give them a sense of respect, and it challenges them to enter that tradition themselves. A sense of belonging grows within students and helps them keep their interest in the martial arts. It also helps prevent them from abusing their skills.

    Psychologists say a lack of respect for tradition is one of the factors that contribute to aggressive behavior. In the article "That mild-mannered Bruce Lee," published in the January 1985 issue of Psychology Today, university researchers in Texas reported administering personality tests to taekwondo students in three American states. The researchers found that students who had been practicing taekwondo for one year or longer were more "socially intelligent" than people in the general population. The researchers found that the taekwondo students were likely to have "a lower level of anxiety, an increased sense of responsibility, a decrease in the willingness to take risks," and they were less likely to be "radical." This latter characteristic was especially true of students who had reached black belt level.

    Another study, conducted at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, confirmed that there was "an inverse relationship between aggressiveness and length of martial arts training." These researchers cautioned, however, that the benefits brought on by martial arts training "derive from the practice of traditional martial arts (as practiced for centuries in the Orient), as opposed to many modern versions of the sport, in which the instructors teach only fighting techniques."

    Studies such as these help martial artists understand what 1970 Black Belt Instructor of the Year, Ki Whang Kim, meant when he said, "Forms are the very soul of karate. They are what make karate an art.'"
  • Patterns provide stability and constancy to a martial art. All martial arts are faced with the challenge of adapting to changing times and circumstances, yet they must keep something within them constant if they are not to be overcome by this challenge. In the case of taekwondo—a martial art trying to retain its traditional principles while being popularized as an Olympic sport, patterns help salvage self-defense techniques, and the philosophy behind them, that are essential if taekwondo is to remain, in any real sense, a martial art, or even an "art" at all. Taekwondo instructor Park Ji Yeun of Edmonton, Canada, claims that many of the style's traditional self-defense techniques, which helped Park survive in the devastated streets of Seoul at the end of the Korean War, seem to be dying off. For example, Park notes that the side kick is seldom seen in taekwondo competition and that knife-hand techniques are rarely seen or not allowed. The notes that the concentration of power into a single, lethal blow is seldom found in a sport where the aim is only to move the opponent sufficiently to score a point. Yet, all of these powerful techniques can still be found in taekwondo patterns.
  • Many movements in patterns are used against multiple attacks by one attacker or against simultaneous attacks by multiple attackers. Multiple attacks by one attacker or simultaneous attacks by multiple attackers will usually be to different targets, not to the same target. So double blocks, each protecting a different target, are would be required. 

Criticisms of patterns

On the negative side, not everyone is enamored with patterns.
  • Patterns are a complete waste of time. They think the repetitive movements of patterns do nothing to improve muscle memory, but in fact, repetitiveness is what builds muscle memory. 
  • Patterns do not improve timing since there is no resistance to techniques and there is no impact. However, the crucial hand-foot timing that is required for maximum power is improved. In a fighting situation, control is required. Sometimes you must barely touch to warn and sometimes you must strike with the power to kill. If you strike too hard when the circumstances do not demand it, you may be held criminally or civilly liable. Patterns require precise control and mental discipline. 
  • Repeating the same combinations over and over makes one predictable. However, the combinations used in patterns, especially traditional forms, are not particularly useful in sparring or self-defense. Instead, they require one to use muscles and movements not generally used. This builds overall agility and strength. Patterns require perfect technique and, if done properly, physical endurance; however, they are not primarily a physical exercise, they are a mental exercise. Just as in putting in golf or hitting a baseball, they train the mind to maintain full, precise control of all body actions, while in stressful situations.
  • Movements in patterns rely upon the opponent performing a set sequence of actions. Movements should deal with the first attack or be preemptive. From then on, the movements should give the opponent no opportunity for any choice of action. Some techniques flow naturally from one to another so, if your opponent uses one technique, there is a good chance that the next move will be predictable. However, as the sequence gets longer, the less likely it is that the opponent's movements will flow predictably.
  • Some movements rely on your sixth sense to detect an attack from behind and successfully block it. When concentrating on an attacker in the front, you will not be aware of another attacker to the rear no matter how good you are. But if you already know another attacker is behind you, you can dispatch the current attacker and quickly turn to face the other attacker while preparing for a possible attack as you turn.
  • Too many movements are against long-range attacks. Most pattern movements are against long-range attackers and most real fights are at close-range. Since close range fighting is often neglected in taekwondo training, many students look to other arts for close-range fighting experiences, such as Brazilian jiujutsu and MMA.
  • Some movements use two or more blocks in succession with no counter between them, or use blocks that have no counter, or add a technique after a block or blocks as a finishing technique even though there were no preceding attacks to weaken the opponent. To overcome these limitations, think of the preparatory movement of the block as being the block, and the block itself as being a strike. Since the preparatory movement is usually a movement toward you, it may be thought of as a close-range block
  • Some movements may work, but only after years of practice. While it is true they may not work perfectly they may still work effectively. If you have not perfected a movement don’t use it.
  • Patterns use movements that defend specifically against martial art techniques as opposed to "street" techniques. It used to be unlikely you would face another martial artist in a self-defense situation, but, with so many people having trained in the martial arts, at least while children or teens, there is an increased probability that it might happen
  • Some pattern techniques are useless in self-defense. No martial artists believe that it is possible to practice enough techniques in patterns to protect against the huge number of attacks available to assailants. Traditional patterns were based on actual combat techniques and were used to record them. Many techniques in modern patterns are there just for flash, some may be useful, but most are useless. The best combat strategy is not to know a vast repertoire of techniques, but to perfect a few effective techniques. This is the same strategy used by good tournament fighters. Instead of knowing and using lots of techniques, they become masters of a few techniques that can be used in numerous ways. Masters of old practiced one or two patterns until the techniques become instinctive. Now we have so many patterns to practice that their usefulness has been diluted.

Bottom line

Patterns are imaginary fights against one or more attackers using predetermined attacks. One or even several patterns cannot cover all the possible attacks. When it comes to patterns, you can either accept them and used them for their intended purposes or reject them. If you choose to reject them, then you will need to find a martial art that does not use them.

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