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Why study patterns?


Many color belts, and even some black belts, think that pattern training is a waste of time because it is not practical in sparring. Since sparring is exciting to perform and watch, it has become a major part of today's martial arts training. Because of this concentration on sparring, many students look at sparring as a method of self-defense. Since sparring is a long-range method of fighting to win, many students forget that self-defense is usually a close-range, hand-to-hand situation where you are fighting to escape or survive.

Patterns keep you based on fundamentals

Are you locked into the belief that pattern practice is useless in modern martial arts training? If so, you need a key to free you from this prison of thought that restricts your growth in the martial arts. However, to quote Eric Hoffer, "When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate one another."

Some think patterns are restrictive; that they inhibit free expression. However, rather than being restrictive, they are actually liberating. Patterns keep your basics honed as you sharpen your other skills. Patterns keep you practicing your basics, while you seek your personal style of sparring or self-defense.

Some people are not creative and are happy with repeating what works. I once had an in-law who could duplicate famous oil paintings so well that they looked like the originals. Although she was a talented painter, she was not an artist. She could duplicate, but not create. However, she was happy, and so were her customers. She would be happy with repeating traditional patterns. Other people get bored with repetition and want to experiment. For them, patterns keep them based on the fundamentals while they try new things.

Patterns are ritual movements

Ritual movements in animals and in humans are redundant, repetitive, and exaggerated. Ritualistic movements depict violence and responses to violence in an effort to avoid or defuse violence. Watch two dogs as they perform the instinctive ritual movements that allow them to establish which dog is dominant without having to resort to a physical confrontation.

Ritual movements depict violence, but they are used to purify violence rather than to elicit it. In rituals, the behaviors that may lead to violence and the actions that may be used in response to violence are acted out. The ritual movements send the message, “I am able to defeat you, so leave me alone!” The ritualistic movements in patterns help students learn to deal with the concept of violence, to defuse violence, and to act against violence when all else fails.

Patterns build strength

A primary reason patterns were developed was to increase the ability to inflict pain upon aggressors in response to unprovoked acts of violence. Some think the performance of a perfect pattern is an end in itself. A sports car that does not start may look beautiful, but it cannot be viewed as perfect since it cannot perform the task it was designed for. A beautiful, entertaining pattern that uses techniques that are useless in combat is not a pattern, it is a merely a choreographed dance performance. Gichin Funakoshi in his book "Karate-Do Kyohan" states, “Once a form has been learned, it must be practiced repeatedly until it can be applied in an emergency, for knowledge of just the sequence of a form in karate is useless.”

Patterns train you in self-defense

The movements in patterns were designed to be used against an untrained attacker. They were not intended to be used against a trained fighter, in or out of the ring, so when trained fighters say the techniques used in patterns are useless in a fight situation, they are probably correct as long as the opponent is a trained fighter. However, if the opponent is untrained, as most are, the techniques are very useful. Untrained attackers of today are not much different from untrained of feudal times. Weapon technology has increased over the centuries, but the basic fighting methods of untrained humans have remained the same for centuries.

Patterns help build a combat mentality

Pattern training stresses perfect stances, arm position, foot placement, power, etc. However, this is only half of the performance of a pattern; there is the mental aspect of pattern performance. A pattern depicts imaginary combat; therefore, the combat mentality of the performer is also being developed.

Patterns train you for close-range self-defense

When patterns were first devised, sparring was not a major aspect of the martial arts. Their emphasis was on close-range self-defense. Therefore, patterns, at least the traditional ones, tend to contain practical, close-range self-defense techniques.

Patterns were not developed to support sparring or to be used against a warrior on a battlefield; they were developed as defensive techniques to use against violent, untrained attackers, not trained soldiers or other martial artists. Real world attackers do not use powerful kicks or intricate combinations. Real world attacks are wild "hay-maker" punches, head butts, kicks to the knees, body hugs, biting, and tackling, therefore, patterns were developed to defend against these types of attacks. Patterns use such techniques as close-range strikes, throws, takedowns, chokes, strangles, arm bars, leg locks, finger locks, wrist locks, neck cranks, ground fighting etc.

Pattern popularity

If we wish to practice taekwondo, or any other martial art, as the complete art that its founders intended it to be, then we must study its patterns in depth and include aspects of them in our regular training. If this statement is true, then why did these methods of pattern training fall from grace?

Patterns are a repository of a martial art’s history that transmit the techniques and principles of the art from one generation to the next. They ensure the core principles and techniques of the art are not lost. Since the martial arts are physical arts, physical actions were incorporated into their patterns to transmit this information.

The first patterns were closely guarded secrets that were only passed down to worthy students. They were deliberately constructed to conceal the techniques within them. This was done to prevent a spectator from learning the techniques of a specific master and passing the information to others who might use the information to dishonor the master.

Like many other aspects of taekwondo, the use of patterns was influenced by karate, which began in Okinawa. In the early 1900s, the teaching of karate patterns in Okinawa underwent a metamorphosis.

In 1901, Master Yasutsune Itsou taught karate as a part of the physical education program at the Shuri Jinjo elementary school. He thought karate was too dangerous to be taught to children, so he taught patterns that were mostly blocking and punching techniques and disguised the dangerous aspects of the patterns. The children gained improved health and discipline from their pattern practice without recognizing the dangerous fighting techniques contained in the patterns. When teaching the patterns to adults, Itsou would give full instruction in all the deadly techniques in the patterns. Thus, patterns may be performed either for better health or for increasing fighting skills. The patterns were the same, the difference was in the way they were taught and the intent of the performer.

Another reason the techniques in patterns of today are not taught as they were originally conceived is because of the changes patterns underwent when karate was introduced into Japan. For karate to be accepted by the Japanese people, it had to adapt to the Japanese way of training.

Judo was taught in Japanese schools and had a lot of public support. Judo used a uniform specifically designed for judo training that was accepted by the public, so karate adopted a lightweight version of the judogi as its standard training uniform. A method of competition and a standardized ranking system had to be devised that was comparable to that used in judo, so judo’s system was adopted and adapted. The Japanese felt karate was too violent so eye gouging, throat crushing, testicle seizing, and other such techniques were hidden away within the patterns and no longer taught openly.

The changes that patterns underwent did not diminish the effectiveness of their techniques, but the changes did create misunderstanding about patterns. Today, most students simply practice patterns to gain rank or win trophies and thus they are only concerned with a pattern's appearance. They tend to forget, or never learn, that the purpose of patterns is to train to block an attack and inflict pain upon the attacker. Some think that the performance of a perfect pattern is more important than any meaning that may be gained from it. Gichin Funakoshi, in his book Karate-Do Kyohan states, "Once a form has been learned, it must be practiced repeatedly until it can be applied in an emergency, for knowledge of just the sequence of a form in karate is useless."

Patterns are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. Hironori Otsuka's (founder of wado-ryu) book, Wado-Ryu Karate, stated that "Martial arts progress from kata to kumite, kumite to combat, and so on. Kata is a fundamental aspect of martial arts and hence is unyieldingly important."

Patterns techniques should be an integral part of sparring and self-defense training. By eliminating techniques learned in patterns from sparring, such as throws, chokes, locks, etc., we do not develop the skills and attitudes needed to execute these techniques in self-defense situations.

Not only do the patterns provide techniques, they also include the principles upon which the techniques were developed. It is important to understand why techniques work and their underlying principles, we must get beyond the mere memorization of movements. Principles are far more important than techniques. Principles may be applied in many ways, while techniques are very specific and limited. By concentrating on the principles and the various ways in which they may be applied, a single pattern may become an inexhaustible repository of martial knowledge. Understand the principles and you will be able to adapt any technique to be of use in any situation. In his eighteenth principle of karate, Gichin Funakoshi wrote, "No two fights will ever be the same, but the principles upon which the kata rests never vary." Choki Motobu (one of Okinawa's most feared fighters) once said, "One must learn how to apply the principles of the kata and how to bend with the winds of adversity."

If you only practice patterns for rank advancement or to compete, you are missing the wealth of knowledge they can provide. Through the practice of patterns, we learn from past masters and perhaps gain a little of their understanding of their martial arts.

Patterns teach you how to deal with violence

Patterns are a way for students to perfect the physical movements required for the application of their martial art in response to violence. Students learn the precise muscular movements, timing, rhythm, and breathing required to perform techniques properly in accordance with traditional teachings. This exact transfer of data from the teacher to the student allows a martial art to pass from generation to generation with little deviation from the original teachings.

Through the practice of patterns, students learn to perform techniques precisely within their own physical dimensions. Then, through performing one-step sparring sequences, they learn to extend those techniques beyond their own dimensions, toward an opponent. Finally, through free-sparring, students learn to apply the techniques in actual combat with an opponent.

Patterns help develop power techniques

Beginning students may quickly learn to perform certain movements and feel confident while performing them. However, most of the time, these beginning movements lack stability, speed, and power and thus are ineffective and inefficient in their application. By practicing patterns, students learn the intricacies of their movements and learn to fine-tune their movements to gain more stability, speed, and power.

When firing a handgun, the slightest imperfection in technique may result in the bullet missing the target by inches. Likewise, the slightest imperfection in technique when executing a kick may result in the kick missing its intended target or striking the target with insufficient power. Through constant practice, precise movements become instinctive and techniques consistently strike their intended targets with sufficient speed, power, and accuracy.

The ultimate goal is to become “one with the pattern”

To become instinctive, movements must “flow.” Actors also must develop flow so their actions on stage appear instinctive and natural. Without flow, actions appear awkward and unnatural. Victor Turner, in his book From Ritual to Theater, describes how flow is developed in actors:
  • Action and awareness merge.
  • Attention becomes centered.
  • Ego is lost.
  • One is in control of one’s environment and actions.
  • There are no-contradictory demands for actions.
  • Actions become autonomic, they need no goals or rewards outside themselves.
When a martial arts student becomes proficient at performing a pattern, the pattern performance flows; the student and the pattern fuse into one entity. It becomes difficult to separate the student from the pattern performance. All the movements seem natural and easy to perform.

The goal is to perform a pattern and have spectators not just see a person performing a pattern, but see an exhibition of power and beauty. It will seem to them that the pattern was designed specifically for you and that your purpose in life is to be the one to perform the pattern.

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