Fighting vs Self defense

In many traditional self-defense schools, the instructors are against sparring, they put forward that sparring is the sport side of martial arts and has no place in a self-defense situation. Whereas there is a small grain of truth in what they are saying I can’t help think that they are interpreting information for their own purposes. The purposes, as I see it, would be to have an excuse to not have sparring in their gyms so that students feel more comfortable and feel that just learning techniques will be enough.

This of course is not true and maybe a knee jerk reaction (or flinch response) to the amount that sport sparring has been propagated as real martial arts or real self-defense in the past. However, the idea that we should never spar is at least as misguided as the idea that sparring is the same as self defense.

So where do the 2 training systems fit?

If we look at the techniques contained with in the patterns, they all end (or should end) with either you are striking the opponent or putting them in a position where you have an advantage. As an example, we can look at the palm pressing block in Jhoong Gun. As I see it, it is a defense to an untrained tackle, quite a common attack for someone to drop down and charge at mid-level. With the palm pressing block, we take a lower and more stable stance and ‘press’ up and down with our palms on the shoulders of the attacker. The following movement on Moa Sogi, I see as I arm lock and a hair grab. This puts us in a strong position but as yet we haven’t started a counter attack. If we only use the patterns as they are, then at this point we have nothing left. At this point we drop back to our fighting skills and start delivering strikes.

Another example of this is the arm bar in Chon Ji. Generally represented by the low block, we are putting someone one into an arm bar and then step forward and punching them in the head. If we don’t get a good grip on the arm or if the opponent moves awkwardly or effects a release, then we have to fall back on our fighting to find target areas and deliver strikes or kicks and maybe re-establish a dominant position. Even if we do the technique perfectly the final strike in the technique will have to be followed up with more attacks, the attacks that you use will be dependent on the movement or reaction of the opponent.

Now, it is important to say here that when I say fighting skills, I don’t mean gain distance get up on your toes and start scoring points. I mean, getting in close, controlling limbs and then looking for an escape. The fighting skills are also informed by our pattern practice. If the above example from Chon Ji, if the opponent breaks free, they may very well bring their hands up for protection as they restart their attack. So here you switch from Chon Ji, to the knife hand guarding block from Dan Gun to clear the hands and strike the head.

To put it another way, the techniques in the patterns are snapshots of a violent situation, to move from one technique to another we need fighting skills. Through fighting skills we can connect the snapshots and make them a ‘movie’.

There are some ideas on how to work on this with my articles sparring drills, and more sparring drills.

Self defence system

The terms “self defence system” or “martial arts system” got popular years back. It certain sounds good but how accurate is it?

First let’s look at the definition of ‘system’

  1. a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole.
  2. a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method

Certainty both of these would seem to fit many people’s idea of what a martial art should be. A set of principles and techniques that fit together. Sadly, this is not often the case especially when dealing with martial arts that profess to being a self defence style.

All to often when people cross train, they take a technique from a different art and bring to their dojang without really trying to make it fit Taekwondo. A good example of this is wrist locks. I have written a little bit before about ideas on wrist and other joint locks.  However, Taekwondo is primarily a striking art, there is limb control in the patterns, but they are generally there to open up target areas.  It is by no means bad to learn wrist locks but if you do you should learn them on a principle base and then integrate them in to the self defence system of taekwondo, find out where they fit and train them accordingly.

Without this process, you end up with a very messy martial art that is not a system but merely a bunch of techniques that look good stuck together. This is certainly not a system and is also a very good way to forget techniques and not progress in skill.

Through my investigation of the patterns and experience in other martial arts, I have changed my approach to Taekwondo. There are striking techniques which lead on to grabbing, controlling and hitting. There are defensive postures and techniques, which lead into grabbing controlling and hitting. There are stand up grappling techniques which lead into grabbing controlling and hitting.

Around these principles and techniques from the patterns I am free to looker deeper into each one and see what different patterns have to offer. It also gives me a base to work from when I am developing applications.

I would suggest that when you are looking into your own applications, that you try to see where the technique or principles fit with other things that you teach. If they don’t then you may need a little rethink. Either alter what you are teaching, or just accept that the technique is an optional extra

More information on my understanding of some of the things discussed in this article can be found in ‘the pyramid of skills’ and ‘the 3 C’s of tactical taekwondo

What we take with us (repost)

This is a repost of an older article that I wrote when I moved from China to Indonesia. having just moved to Australia many of the thoughts here seem, once again, relevant.

I haven’t posted in a while, my life has been extremely busy. I got married in December and have spent the last few months preparing to leave China and move to Jakarta. Hopefully since Indonesia doesn’t have so many internet restrictions I’ll be able to post more often.

The subject of me moving country is connected to the theme of this posting. In moving country I have had to say goodbye to my students and teacher. It is never an easy thing to do, but sometimes life pushes you in a certain way. However, it did prompt me to thinking about what a person can take from training. I have moved around a lot and have always had to take as much from training as I can and make it my own.

Often I have had teachers move in and out of my life, if I don’t try to assimilate what they teach in to what I do then why bother training with them. I think that this is something people should ask themselves; what do you take from training?

I have known many good practitioners and Dan grades that have moved away from their dojang and as a result stopped practicing. Without the group or their teacher they maybe find out that their art is meaningless, and belong only in the gym. These are maybe the same people that would tell students that martial arts was part of their life.

I don’t think that someone has to leave their club or even travel to another country to find this out but just ask yourself, if you took away the dojang, your teacher, and dobok, what have you got?

In other words, does the art you practice belong to you or does it still belong to your teacher, do you still need a teacher to continue to develop. Of course we all need one in the beginning but there comes a time when you should be able to break free and start altering the art to fit your needs. It may seem strange for some especially in a system that encourages copying a form as closely as we can.

I think we all have to spend time actually studying the art that we practice so that when life does make staying at your current place of training impossible you don’t lose the art

Only once or All the time

The movements in the patterns have gone through changes over the years. Going way back, there was no sine wave, then sine wave was altered after its introduction, the way some movements are performed was changed and even a whole pattern was replaced. This all happened after the patterns were formed by changing Shotokan Kata.

The applications have also changed, as the people that have looked into the history of the kata and pattern have written a lot about. With all these changes and different ideas on application is can be very difficult to sort thought the applications and decide which are for you.

In this article, in will be looking at 2 principles which can help with digging though the applications.

All the time

As I mentioned in the Yul Gok article, if something happens consistently through all the patterns then you can assume that it is maybe something practiced for aesthetic or technical reasons rather than application. A good example of this is the cross hands position before most blocks and strikes. I have written before how the cross hands can be taken as a flinch that puts us in a good position for grabbing limbs and counter attacking. However, when we do it all the time there are techniques that just don’t fit that principle. So we have to be somewhat flexible in our thinking and if the small detail of a technique don’t fit then try without them.

Another example of a principle being present all the time is the ending of the patterns. Almost all end in a left and right repeated movement and almost all of them are blocks. These can largely be disregarded largely because it does really make sense from a practical sense. We can come up with all sorts of ideas for how a knife hand guarding block can be changed into a throw or lock when done to the left and the right, I’d rather just accept that that part of the pattern is there for a technical, artistic, or even philosophical reason.

Only once

Opposite to ‘all the time’ we have only once. This is when a movement has been given an application that is completely disconnected to anything else.

A good example of this is the U-shaped block in Jhoon Gun. It is often presented as defending and grabbing a stick. Now, apart from the obvious issues with trying to grab a weapon that is being used against you, the stick angle is not one that you would often see. There are also no movements in other patterns that are specialised to other stick attacks, a swing from the side, an attack down the way, or thing else that you would naturally do with a stick is represented. Therefore, we can largely disregard this application as an attack being made for the defence rather than the other way round.

What are we looking for?

If we remove the ‘all the time’ and ‘only one’ what do we have left? Hopefully, what we have are group of techniques that fit together in a system and represent common principles. The principles of one the techniques should be present in other patterns, we should be able to see the links between the different movements whether they be defensive, offensive or for grappling. In the next article I will be looking at what makes up a martial art system.

More Stances

A while ago I wrote about stances and how stances can drive the applications. Time time I’d like continue the investigation into stances, and look into 2 heavily criticized stances.

Moa Sogi (close stance)

Her I will be looking at moa sogi that is seen in Jhoong Gun and Toi Gye, not the range of Moa junbi sogi that are seen at the beginning of patterns. This is one stance that people watching the patterns will often pick up on and use a proof that the patterns are ineffective. The close position of the feet certainly would make it seem like not a stance you would want to adopt in any violent encounter.

As with most things in the patterns we have to look a little deeper and past just the stance as an isolated technique. in both of the aforementioned patterns and even in Hwa Rang we move into the stance in the same way. We turn and adopt a position facing 90 degrees to the previous stance. in this we are using moa sogi to out from directly in front of (or behind) our opponent  but remain very close.

If you take Jhoong Gun for example, the front foot of the low stance would be out near the opponent, we use that as a guide as to where the opponent would be. If we turn and adopt a walking stance our body would be further away that we want for the next technique, also the turn would be slower. Moa sogi allows us to turn quickly and remain very close to our opponent which is important if we want to keep control. Of course, it is not a stance to stay in for any length of time but merely to gain a better position and to then flow into the next stance.

Kyocha sogi (X-stance)

This is another stance that is often used to demonstrate how impractical the movements in patterns are. Again, the critics are quite correct that you don’t really want to stand with your legs crossed while fighting. However, what they miss is that kyocha sogi is for moving in while maintain control of an opponent.

In this article I am not going to look into the patterns where we jump in to X-stance as this requires further exploration. I will be using Po Eun as an example pattern

If we look at Po Eun for example, if we use what is often seen as a double punch to the side, to grasp an opponent, the next move we need to keep control of the opponent while moving in. If we take the weight off our front foot we rick losing strength and therefore control. We also can’t simply step forward as the control that we have on the opponent prevents that. So instead, we perform an x stance, keeping weight and control on the front leg and driving down with both hands as we close distance. This is sometimes seen as an entry into judo techniques

So again we see here that 2 stances when taken completely out of context are completely useless. However, when we apply then to the close in and grappling nature of violent confrontation their purpose becomes clear. Once we understand these applications we can be free to explore other application with the same principles.

Pattern practice (repost)

This is a repost of an article that I wrote a few years ago. With many Dojang closed and people finding training difficult I thought it was worth making these points again.

Most schools practice the patterns in the same way. That is putting focus and power into each individual movement. This is an excellent practice in many ways, it builds control of the body, builds technical proficiency, and power. However, the way that we practice patterns also hides a lot of the applications, movements that should flow together or movements that are throws, locks or redirects/parries are obscured by the ‘tick- tock’ way that we move during our practice.  

Of course all of the applications can be practiced with a partner once we have found the meaning for the movements, but then that causes a disconnect between pattern practice and application. i.e. the way we move in each are unrelated. I think it is this disconnect why a lot of people see patterns as just an exercise for creating power rather than a practice of fighting techniques, and even look to other styles for self-defence techniques.

Pattern practice doesn’t have to be like that. If you move away from the competition or grading requirements and practice them as at real training tool and more importantly personalise your pattern practice

Firstly, we should all have a good knowledge of the pattern, the usual way of practicing gives us great muscle memory, power and balance, once you have got to the point that you can practice those patterns almost automatically, by that I mean without thinking about the next movement, you can start making the practice more challenging by increasing the tempo. At this point it is important that you take all the knowledge gained from learning the patterns and apply it at a higher speed. This involves finishing each movement; keeping the same concentration of power, and keeping you balance as well as still being technical in stances and target areas. This shouldn’t be used as an excuse just to blast through the patterns without thinking.

Through this practice you will hopefully notice that some parts of the patterns flow together easier than others. Also moving fast will give you a better idea of how the movements look like when used. We then should try to move them forward one more step to expressive practice.

During this practice the only thing we are thinking about is the application of the forms. The practitioner can ‘play’ with the tempo of the movements. Practicing the pattern in short bursts of speed according to the application that, that individual prefers. For example in the pattern Won Hyo, the practitioner may do the first three movements as a quick blast, then the next three,  the bending ready stance and side kick could be done individually followed by the knife hand guarding blocks all being one ‘group’

Through this practice the student is gaining an understanding of which movements flow in to each other and which are isolated or beginning of a new group. It doesn’t matter if your interpretation is the same as other students’ but for many forms there is a more logical way of dividing them up.

Following this it is up to the student to go and take that information and practice applying it for this a practice partner is needed, however, by the time we get to the partner stage we should be more used to moving faster and in a more natural way with in the form of the patterns so the application of the pattern should be getting clearer.

There are of course many other ways that patterns could be practiced. If we break away from the competition/ grading idea of trying to do them in a set way without considering what the movements are for. Also this helps us get away from dealing with the movements like each of them are meant to be applied in an isolated fashion. Patterns can also be done slow with maximum concentration and intensity or in a very loose way to practice developing power from your body rather than your arms.

These are just a few ideas. Have fun playing with you patterns

Kettlebell practice

as mentioned in the ‘3 things to help your practice‘ article, I have practiced kettlebells for quite a while. During the lockdown having my kettlebell was invaluable.

Below is one of my workouts, 3 rounds of each superset shown in the video before moving on to the next pairing of exercises.

If you have read my article on breathing, you may notice the different breathing patterns used for the different movements.


One of the most important but often overlooked parts of training in the martial arts is breathing. Learning different breathing techniques and rhythms can really change the way you practice. 

I have been lucky enough to study under a few teachers who focused a lot on how to breath during techniques. I brought these breathing techniques into other areas of my practice.

Breathing is a very large topic, so in this article I will be looking at some of the basics

First somethings about breathing:

“Breathing is the most important thing you are going to do in a day” David Whitley ‘the iron tamer’

Anyone who has lifted weights knows the importance of breathing in physical activity, we are told from almost the first session to control our breath. This can either be holding our breath to create abdominal pressure, or squeezing our breath out, as in hardstyle kettlebell. Proper breathing when lifting weights can greatly increase our performance, just as improper breathing, holding breath too long, not syncing the movement with the breath etc. can greatly reduce our performance.

Exactly the same can be said for martial arts practice, if we control our breath well we can perform much better. So what is proper breathing for martial arts?

First let’s looks at the patterns of Taekwondo and how we use breathing. Each movement is as powerful as it can be and therefore each breath is as powerful as it can be. Almost exclusively we exhale all our breath on each movement, expelling all our air and power each time. This can be something akin to throwing an object as far as you can. Similar to sine wave, this type of breathing is really only useful for single movements. As soon as we start throwing combos that breathing method becomes impractical.

We can then look at other breathing techniques within the patterns. In my opinion the most important one is what i learnt as the ‘connecting breath’. Put simply it is one or more movements done in one breath. Examples of this can be seen in Joong Gun, and Po Eun

Due to a smaller exhale the power is not as explosive as the single breath, but it allows us to flow into combos a lot better. Due to the lack of power, we also need to look at our body techniques a lot more, we can’t rely on muscling a punch through.

In self defence the connecting breath is much more important than the single breath. Sure, if you have a clean shot and you’re working on pre-emption, one big powerful shot is best used. However, when you are in fighting you want to be constantly applying power. Long exhales and very quick inhales are needed to achieve this. Even in grappling, being hard and tense is asking to be taken very quickly, being loose and flexible and being able to move with our opponent is what we need to be able to do.

This again is achieved with how we breathe.

All the way through training we should be conscious on how we are breathing and practice breathing in certain ways. Even doing pad drills we should try switching between single breath and continuous breath. Feel how the different breathing methods affect your movements and power and start putting them into your self defence techniques.

Like is said at the beginning this is just a basic look at breathing and the breathing techniques contained within the patterns. In future articles I will be looking at breathing techniques from different styles of martial arts

Good technique, bad habit

As I mentioned in the drilling article, we can very easily get into the habit of always being successful. The flaws of a compliant partner are well documented in forums all over the internet. However, there is one more issue that I would look at in this article.

First think of these examples:

You are sitting at home watching the TV and you decide to change the channel, you fnd the remote control and push the correct button but nothing happens, what do you do? A huge percentage of people would just press the button harder, even though there is no logical reason to do this.

You are waiting for a lift and it is not coming fast enough, what do you do? A great many people would push the button again, maybe many times

You are speaking to someone and find they don’t speak the same language as you, what do you do? Without thinking many people would automatically speak louder, even though the problem is one of different language rather than volume of language.

At least 2 of the above examples should be familiar to everyone reading this. They are everyday examples of human behaviour. Basically, when we do something often and get a specific result, we begin to expect that result. When something else happens or nothing at all happens, the first thing we do is to repat the behaviour in a more intense way i.e. pushing a button harder or speaking louder. We will generally try harder and then give up eventually.

For this mechanism to be present we have to have an expected outcome from a certain behaviour, so it has to be something we have practiced and developed the association of action and result. In everyday life this is merely a nuisance. In self defence practice, it can have much graver consequences

As an example, let’s take a basic technique found in many traditional martial arts. Whether this is a practical technique or not we will not focus on.

An attacker grabs your right lapel with their left hand, you use your right hand to seize the opponents hand pull and twist to your right. This movement bends the attacker’s wrist into an fairly common lock.

So, a person may practice the technique, drill with partners, sometimes the partners let go and sometimes they offer some resistance. However, because they study the same art and are invested in the technique the movement always works. The practioner always gets the desired outcome from his action.

Now, let’s take the practiced technique into a real situation. The attacker grabs and the defender seizes his hand as the technique dictates. Nothing happens, the defender squeezes harder and tries to wrench the attacker’s hand away, but still nothing happens. Maybe at this point the defender uses 2 hands on to the attacker’s one, as his mind pushes to get the response that he is looking for. Now the defender is trying to force the technique when they should be looking for other options, in fact on occasion the defender stops thinking about anything else apart from applying the technique

I believe this is much more common than you may think, because many non-competitive schools don’t train to failure. Every technique eventually works To avoid this, we need to have stages in our training, we must have the initial technique, which of course we start with a compliant partner, but then we need to look at backup techniques and training with less compliant partners. This is something that competitive martial arts do naturally and an idea that we should bring in to practical applications and our self defence pract