Patterns serve several purposes
Patterns force students to practice techniques that are not normally 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 even though they are not pertinent to modern competition sparring.
Patterns are a history 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 a way to compete for students who do not compete in sparring. Some people do not enjoy sparring. some consider it too violent, and others, due to injury, physical disabilities, or advanced age find it difficult to compete in sparring. Patterns competition provides them with a way to display their skills.
Patterns allow students to express their artistic abilities. Although patterns have many rules and set movements, their is still room for the martial artist to insert some personal artistic expression.
Patterns may be effectively performed either individually or in a group. Patterns allow for individual or team competition.
Patterns promote serious study of the martial arts. They help enforce the values of discipline, patience, and self-control. It offers a means of self-measurement. In assition, they sustain many of the ancient techniques of empty-hand combat. Along the way, the study of forms also offers students stability and gives them a lifelong challenge to improve themselves. It is in things that last for a lifetime that you can find the most meaning.
Pattern training is good exercise. It allows students to practice fighting techniques without an opponent, similar to shadow boxing. Students can personalize the intensity of their workout by performing the patterns with varying degrees of power and speed. One of the great things about patterns training is that it can be conducted anywhere—indoors, outdoors, and on a variety of surfaces.
Students tend to practice what is easy for them to do. Patterns force students to learn and practice difficult techniques they probably never would have even tried otherwise and to use them in combinations they probably would never have imagined. Patterns depict self-defense situations rather than sparring techniques and show how Taekwondo may be a useful and practical fighting system.
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 certain stances and related techniques. Some are so intricate that studying them can require the same effort as any other art or science.
Do not think of patterns as the imaginary fighting of one or more opponents, think of them as a set of individual techniques performed in a specific order in a manner that is artistically pleasing. In square dancing, students learn a few basic movements. Then, instead of the instructor quickly calling out a series of basic movements for the students to perform, which would cause everyone to perform in jerky motions, the movements are put together in different sequences named "calls." 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" are able to perform all the movements smoothly and in a artistic manner. Patterns are performed in much the same way. Students are taught individual techniques, and then they learn to perform a sequence of the techniques, which is called a pattern. When the instructor calls for that pattern, all students may perform the sequence of techniques in an orderly and artistic manner.
The first step in learning a pattern is to understand its moves. When they become automatic, the real learning begins. Remember, the techniques were preserved from actual combat techniques. Study the moves by visualizing a real opponent in actual combat. Many karate stylists have done the same move in the same way for years, and then suddenly, while doing a technique, they discover a new meaning for it. This is why one instructor in a system can show you a technique exactly the same way that another instructor does it, but the interpretation is different. The move stays the same, but a visualized change in the opponent causes the application of the move to change.
Each element in a pattern can be studied as though it was a separate martial art. Such elements include punching, grabbing, kicking, blocking, and throwing. Some techniques that first appear as blocks can later be interpreted as grabs and throws. This switching of elements makes the study of patterns an intriguing art and science. However, it can also make pattern more confusing. You understand moves through the practice of patterns as a whole, and through the practice and perfection of each separate element. The separate elements combine to make one pattern.
If patterns are intensively studied instead of merely practiced, they become the catalyst that keeps people in Taekwondo. 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 must be able 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."
Learning patterns helps helps you determine whether your moves are offensive or defensive. For instance, blocks can be very aggressive, and in some patterns, blocks are used to break bones. Most pattern techniques are understood by logical analysis. Remember, fighting concepts can be hidden, but most are simple.
Sport Taekwondo fighters use patterns to sharpen their skills for competition. However, practitioners committed to learning the art of Taekwondo rather than the sport can learn much by analyzing patterns. True, there are no trophies or competitions for analyzing patterns, because they are done strictly for self-improvement. In addition, tournament competition cannot determine how much a pattern teaches you. Patterns designed for competition are not necessarily the patterns academically studied. At tournaments, not even traditional patterns are done for intrinsic qualities. There is not anything wrong with studying Taekwondo for competition. Sport Taekwondo has many good qualities. However, there is a lot to be said for being a part of the history given to us from fighting legends of the past. They send us many messages in patterns, which provide Taekwondo with the quality of being a pathway, 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 Taekwondo, 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—the winning of trophies at tournaments, for example—the majority of students are, in effect, being left out of the loop. Patterns give them a way back into the loop.
Patterns offer students a standard—anywhere and at any time—in a way that encourages them to contemplate the beauty, and not just the practical application, of the techniques they practice. After all, Taekwondo 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 type of 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 challenge and is culturally enlightening, since many Taekwondo 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 Taekwondo 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. People need some understanding of the past if they are to develop a healthy attitude toward 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 honorably themselves. A sense of belonging grows within students and helps them keep their interest in Taekwondo. It also helps prevent them from abusing their skills. On the other hand, psychologists say, a lack of respect for tradition is one of the factors that contributes to aggressive behavior.
In the article "That mild-mannered Bruce Lee," published in the January 1985 issue of Psychology Today, university researchers in Texas re-ported that they had administered 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 claimed 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 through 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 Taekwondo. 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 fighting 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. The side kick, for example, is now seldom seen in Taekwondo competition, Park notes. Knife-hand techniques, illegal in tournament sparring, are also rare in competition. In fact, 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 techniques can still be found in the Taekwondo patterns.
Criticisms of patterns
On the negative side, not everyone is enamored with patterns. Some think 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. Some think 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, sometimes you must strike 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. Some think repeating the some 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. Although patterns require perfect technique and, if done properly, physical endurance, they are not primarily a physical exercise, they are a mental exercise. Just as in putting in golf, the balance beam in gymnastics, strikes in bowling, using English in billiards, and many other sporting endeavors, they show if the mind can maintain full, precise control of all body actions, while in a stressful situation.
Pattern movements have little to do with sparring or self-defense. No one in Taekwondo believes that it is possible to practice techniques in patterns that would cover the huge number of attacks available to opponents or assailants. The first patterns that were developed 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. Combat strategy is not to have a vast repertoire of techniques, but to perfect a few effective techniques. This is the same strategy used by good tournament fighters. Masters of old practiced one or two patterns until the techniques become instinctive. Now we have so many patterns to practice that their usefulness is diluted.
Many movements used against multiple attacks by one attacker or against simultaneous attacks by multiple attackers. The chances of an attacker attacking with more than one technique at the same locations required in a pattern movement are slim. The same holds true for multiple attackers simultaneously attacking the required locations.
To be useful, the movements in patterns should not be reliant upon the opponent performing a sequence of actions. They should only deal with the first attack or be preemptive. From then on, the movements should give the opponent no opportunity for any choice of action. While it is true that some techniques flow naturally from one to another so that, 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. When making movements to defend against another opponent to the rear, think of the movement as a reaction to a single opponent who move around to that side.
Too many movements are against long range attacks. While it is true that practically all sparring occurs at medium or long range, most real fights are at close range. Since close range fighting is often neglected in Taekwondo training, many students look to other arts for grappling experience.
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 toward you, it may be thought of as a close range block.
Some movements may work, but only after years of practice. Concentrate your training on perfecting useful techniques instead of spending time on perfecting flashy, useless techniques.
Use movements that defend specifically against Taekwondo techniques as opposed to "street" techniques. It is unlikely that you would face another martial artist in a self-defense situation. Consider the probability of a particular attack actually happening. If a movement relies on two or three people attacking, each with specific attacks, this will probably never happen in real life. However, if a movement is in response to a wrist grab or a punch, then it will be more likely to occur.