Patterns are a major part of Taekwondo training. We learn new one at each belt level, practice then daily, perform them at tests, compete with them at tournaments, and for some hate every minute of it; considering it a required waste of time. The problem is that those who dislike patterns, and also most other students, only practice the elementary stage of pattern learning and never experience the true purpose of pattern training.
Patterns are a constant in Taekwondo. By being constant, they transmit the history of Taekwondo through the decades without changing. However, to apply the techniques used in patterns to our daily lives, we must also practice them in relation to the threats we face in today's society. Patterns have much to offer Taekwondo students if they understand and train at the other stages of pattern training.
There are four stages of pattern training:
Stage One: Elementary
The first stage is learning the elementary movements of the pattern. In this stage, students practice by themselves of in a group to learn the basic movements, techniques, stances, timing, etc. of the pattern. This prepares students for later stages. Use get care for if you develop bad habits at this stage, they will be difficult to correct in later stages. In this stage, students practice the pattern over and over, in class and at home, trying to perfect the movements and techniques. When pattern performance begins to improve, students begin using it in competition. When students just start to become proficient in a pattern, they usually get promoted to the next rank and start learning a new pattern.
At this stage students are only concerned with making the pattern technically and aesthetically perfect, with little regard to the purpose of the pattern or the effectiveness of its movements. Gichin Funakoshi, father of Shotokan karate (which greatly influenced early Taekwondo masters), in his book Karate-Do Kyohan stated, “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.” Working toward perfection of pattern movements has many benefits, but it is of little benefit when faced with a real self-defense situation.
Stage Two: Functional
The second stage is the study the functional application of the movements. You need to practice applying the techniques of the pattern against attacks by other students, as in one-step sparring. Patterns were not designed for fighting other Taekwondo artists in long-range, choreographed matches; they were designed for self-defense against real attackers. Real fights are not fought from long-range with each person taking turns attacking. Real fights are close-range, unpredictable, and quick, with no regard to proper stances or techniques. Practice pattern techniques against another student's attack so you see the purpose of the technique and learn to use it against the resistance of an attacker's body.
Stage Three: Variation
The third stage is to vary the application of the pattern's techniques. We will react to a sudden attack as we have trained. By practicing patterns movements with no regard to their application, we train ourselves to react in a certain manner that may not be the correct reaction for a certain situation. Hironori Otsuka, founder of wado-ryu karate) wrote; “It is obvious that these kata must be trained and practiced sufficiently, but one must not be ‘stuck’ in them. One must withdraw from the kata to produce forms with no limits or else it becomes useless. It is important to alter the form of the trained kata without hesitation to produce countless other forms of training. Essentially, it is a habit – created over long periods of training. Because it is a habit, it comes to life with no hesitation – by the subconscious mind.” Therefore, to make the technique in pattern more useful, students need to practice varying the techniques of the pattern while staying true to the principles that the techniques represent.
Stage Four: Realistic Sparring
The fourth stage is applying the elementary techniques and their variations in realistic sparring practice. Try to spar realistically, letting your instincts take control. Attack suddenly from close-range, kick toward shins, grab and hold, tackle, clinch, attack with common objects, bite, etc. Of course attacks and defenses are simulated so that no one is injured but make the sparring as realistic as safely possible.
These four stages are by no means unique to Taekwondo; other martial arts also use them, such as boxing. In boxing, a student first learns the basics, then uses the punches against compliant partners wearing protective equipment, Then students practice using basic punches in varying combinations. Finally, they enter the ring for full-contact free sparring.
Moving to a higher stage of pattern practice does not mean you abandon the earlier stages. Each stage has a specific purpose and still needs to be practiced. Even though you learn variations of a technique, you still need to practice it as used in the traditional pattern so you may maintain Taekwondo's history. A traditional stick block against an attacker using a bo (long pole) may seem primitive in today's environment but it is effective against a stick attack. We may make changes to Taekwondo to make it more applicable to today's society, but you never know when you will have to resort to primitive means to protect yourself.