A typical student practices until they get it right. A master practices until they never get it wrong.
When practicing with any of these methods, it’s important to be honest with yourself. Whether performing a single technique, or finishing a form or a session of forms, accept the reality of your performance, and honestly evaluate what worked and what didn’t. Hold yourself to a high standard, but accept each repetition or each workout for what it is at that moment.
Here are suggestions for a checklist of standards and ideas for pattern training. They’re arranged roughly in order of difficulty, from foundational concepts to advanced ways to test your depth of knowledge. Be guided by the old saying: A typical student practices until they get it right. A master practices until they never get it wrong.*
Knowing the techniques
- can you get through the form without mistakes? you might realize that you’ve made an error “in the moment” while you’re actually performing the technique, or it could be later after you’ve finished the form. include techniques, stances, and footwork (of course) but also kihaps, tempo changes, and other structural/interpretive elements that aren’t necessarily techniques.
- can you finish without a single moment of hesitation while you stop to think?
- can you finish without preparing/starting a technique, then realizing it’s wrong and fixing it before you execute the motion? in other words, you get the broad strokes of the technique right in your mind, but nuances in the physical preparation may have mistakes or wrong impulses.
- all techniques are correct from start to finish, but with imperfect execution. imperfections may include: imprecise execution between preparation and endpoint, imprecise targeting, lack of connection/flow between techniques, slow pace, lack of speed/power, lack of depth in stances or certainty in footwork, lack of breath support, lack of intention or projection of ki. in other words, you’re basically correct, and it might be hard to see or feel the error, but you know something isn’t quite right.
Executing a competent performance
- while performing a form correctly, as described above, can you maintain your mental focus? staying absolutely in the moment, no wandering mind, in a state of “no mind?”
- can you perform with a group without making any mistakes? are you aware of everyone else’s movements, and in perfect sync with them, while maintaining your own resolute mental and physical discipline?
- think of the person you most respect in the martial arts world. this may well be your teacher, or the founder of your lineage—but it could also be a historical martial arts legend, Jet Li or Michelle Yeoh, or whatever works for you. imagine if this individual were to suddenly materialize in front of you and say “I’d like you to perform [random pattern from your repertoire]. Now. . . BEGIN!” are you confident that you can do that form to your satisfaction right now?
Making the form your own
- can you be sharp and authoritative while practicing with distractions like music or busy environment where people are doing other things **
- practice the form at a fast pace, perhaps without the usual “snap” at the end of each technique, but practice many repetitions and not one second of recovery between: 10, 25, or whatever it takes to become exhausted. (it might take fewer repetitions than you expect!)
- practice in an unfamiliar environment: outdoors, on an uneven surface with poor footing, in boots, or some other variable that makes the familiar form uncomfortable or strange.
- practice with an unfamiliar orientation in a familiar environment. for example, you might train in your dojang but facing a corner of the space instead of one of the walls. each turn will make you face diagonals, so the visual cues around you (that you may not even be consciously aware of) are misleading and confusing.
- close your eyes so you have to make 45, 90, 180, 270 degree turns by feel instead of by referring to the background. when you open your eyes, are you back where you started and still facing the front? if practicing with eyes closed, make sure you give yourself *lots* of space so you don’t crash into walls, trees, lamps, or whatever objects may be near you.
- invert the form so you’re doing a mirror-image version. for instance, if the form starts with a ninety degree turn to the left in front stance, executing a down block with the left hand, start by turning to the right and doing the down block with your right hand. execute every technique as if you’re through the looking glass. this can be especially tricky with asymmetrical forms!
A shift in personal priorities
Over the past several months, I’ve increased my focus on mastering a large body of poomsae, the patterns of traditional and modern Taekwondo. Everyone has their own standard for what constitutes proper pattern training,1 and until recently, my approach was to strive for total mastery of the core poomsae of my discipline2 and fluency in a few dozen additional forms from various Korean sources.
To be precise, my goal for the latter was fluency, not mastery. In other words, my personal standard was to know the forms that interested me but were peripheral to our dojang’s core curriculum. By “know” I mean that I wanted to be able to perform every pattern—possibly with a minor error or two, but essentially correct—but not necessarily to make them part of my bones.3 Toward the end of 2019, I decided that if I were to bother practicing these forms at all, I would strive for mastery of all of them, not just a few.
This approach is probably not right for most people, but with more than thirty years of Taekwondo under my belt, and because I’m more interested in patterns than most aspects of training, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to see if I could achieve this level of expertise in an especially large number of forms. It’s up to everyone to decide whether this kind of challenge is right for them, and it’s very hard to do it justice, but I can imagine many variations on the theme that could easily be rewarding without making such a time-consuming commitment.
Pattern training across martial arts traditions
Most traditional arts schools include pre-arranged patterns of techniques and footwork that serve as repositories of knowledge. This reflects roots in oral transmission and demonstration, i.e. communicating the core of technical knowledge without textbooks or, heaven forbid, YouTube tutorials. Poomsae, hyung, tul, kata—the name varies by country of origin and school tradition—all serve as the vehicle for sharing knowledge and a challenge for students to memorize, perfect, and gain deeper understanding of function and meaning over time.
A few martial arts schools include a large number of patterns in their curriculum, believing that each contains different knowledge, and that exposure to more ideas means a larger repertoire of skills and concepts that may be interesting or useful. Others practice a small number of patterns, either because they’re very long (Taiji) or because their pedagogy focuses on more repetitions of a smaller body of knowledge. As I understand this approach, the idea is that true understanding comes from prolonged exposure to, and meditation on, core concepts, and that having too many ideas in the mind necessarily precludes understanding of any of them.4 Predictably, most styles fall somewhere in the middle. A common curriculum among Taekwondo schools is one poomsae for each Geup level, and one or two for each Dan level. This means that a typical intermediate TKD student may practice 4-5 forms and a typical black belt may practice 10-15.
Our dojang’s curriculum follows that typical model: generally one poomsae from the Pal Gwe sequence per Geup level, then 2-4 per Dan level. The Dan forms are drawn from the Kukkiwon’s Yudanja sequence and a series of less common traditional forms from our style’s historical roots. Dan level students also practice one weapon form per level.
We also offer an optional “Forms Club” where a subset of dedicated and curious students practices the Kukkiwon’s modern Taegeuk sequence and the International Taekwondo Federation’s Chang Han sequence of Geup level forms. This club is open to brown belts and black belts, since learning a large number of poomsae with less than 3-4 years of experience is, for most people, likely to be more distracting than helpful.
For those who thrive in Forms Club, and who are exceptionally interested in poomsae practice, an even smaller subset of the school has taken on the challenge of learning patterns from other traditions. The excellent poomsae seminars held at Chosun Taekwondo Academy in Warwick, New York are a more or less annual source of inspiration and knowledge for those of us who seek additional historical knowledge.
Striving to master large numbers of forms
Most of the forms in this ever-growing body of “extra” patterns come in groups. These small groups were developed by a particular Master, practiced by a particular style or organization, so they generally contain a concise progression of stylistically related ideas. When my goal was merely know the forms outside my school’s curriculum, I tended to practice one of these sets of forms whenever I had a few minutes to fill in a workout. The set I’d choose on a particular day wasn’t very organized, I just did whichever I felt like I hadn’t done in a while, or maybe I wanted to practice (or make sure I remembered?) a particular form, and I did the rest just to keep them fresh.
When I decided to work toward mastery of every form I know, I realized it was important to regularly practice every single form in a single marathon session, not just a group or two. This would make sure I wasn’t neglecting anything, and it would give me a high level sense of what felt solid and what felt comparatively weak. The ones that felt weak on a given day would go into heavier rotation for intensive focus during other workout sessions.
As I worked my way through several dozen forms on a regular basis, I found myself thinking of ways to evaluate whether I was doing a good job. Was I really making these patterns a part of my very essence, or was I just getting better at rote memorization? It’s possible to learn thousands of vocabulary words in a foreign language without actually understanding the grammar or usage at all, and therefore not really understanding anything beyond individual particles of thought in a vacuum. What would be the point of that?
As I came up with more and more tests for myself, I realized that these tests weren’t just good for mastering a large body of material—most worked equally well for just practicing a single form in isolation. I started taking notes for this blog post because I thought the thought process might be worthwhile for any student, even newer students who just know a poomsae or two. Then, when the world went on lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we decided to close our dojang, I knew the time was right to type it up and share it with all our students.
I hope you’ve found this article useful in your own pattern training, whether working on a single form or attempting to master many. If you’ve developed an interesting way of practicing poomsae, or if you’ve had any unique insights that help you strive toward perfection in forms, please share them in the Comments area below the footnotes.
1 by school and by personal ideology—which are often, but not always, the same
2 Jidokwan Taekwondo in the style of Choi Bong Young
3 I can’t remember where I read this, but I suspect it was either in the writings of Rory Miller or on the Libre Fighting website or social feed. I can’t find it now, but I admired the simple elegance of the writer’s hierarchy of “knowing” martial arts technique: 1) techniques you know, 2) techniques you practice regularly, 3) techniques you’re actually good at, 4) techniques you would trust when fighting for your life
4 I’m interested in the philosophy and pedagogy behind why different martial arts styles choose to practice many or few forms. I’ve given it quite a bit of thought and read some essays by a number of martial arts instructors on the subject, and I plan to address the question in a future post. If you’re reading this essay and are a student from another martial arts tradition, you should certainly follow whatever custom your instructor follows. Choosing to know, and work toward mastery of, a large or small number of forms isn’t necessarily right or wrong, but for my own priorities in following a martial Way, I haven’t heard persuasive arguments for limiting oneself to a small number of forms.
* I tried to find the source of this quotation so I could attribute it properly, but it seems that its origins are murky. Since there are many different versions in print, and since there’s no definitive source, I’ve felt free to modify it for a martial arts context by using the words “student” and “master” where others use “amateur” and “professional” and so forth.
** I’m not a big fan of headphones and music when running, and I’m definitely not in martial arts training, but I’ve actually enjoyed challenging myself with music while doing marathon sets of forms. You might think that abrasive or complex music might be the best for making intentional distractions, but I’ve also found that music I know extremely well, those all-time favorite albums that I’ve had on repeat over and over again at whatever point in my life, can also serve as good distractions. In spite of yourself, you may find your mind singing along to those familiar passages. . . until you catch yourself and snap back on track.