“In the struggle between stone and water, in time, the water wins.” - Japanese Proverb
First, let me explain what a form is, for anyone not familiar with the term. They go by many names, also including patterns, hyungs, and kata. A form is a pre-arranged pattern of techniques, that when put together in the proper order, demonstrate the level of technical skill, for the martial artist. So lets take a quick look at what has changed in the martial arts world, and what impact it has had on our sport.
One of the most sought after martial arts today is one called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Jiu-Jitsu is a grappling based martial art that closely resembles wrestling. One of the reasons for it's popularity is that it doesn't focus on testings, rank, or in some cases, even formal discipline. There technically are no forms, and instructors don't force students to memorize hundreds of moves to move forward with training. So, why doesn't everyone do BJJ? It's actually simple to answer. Many students seek out consistency, formal discipline, and rank. Does this make either martial art wrong? Of course not.
Let's look at the forms themselves. The other night, I asked my students to tell me why we do forms? I was given many answers ranging from developing better technique, better kicks, discipline, exercise, and rhythm. My old instructor used to define it as an imaginary fight. All of these answers are correct, although my reply is much different.
“The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat” - Richard Marcinko
Due to also training in Jiu-Jitsu, I look at this question from a much different perspective. It is a very simple, and basic answer. The reason we do forms is to force them to PRACTICE! As I said, it is a very basic answer, but let's go back and look at it in comparison to BJJ. In Jiu-Jitsu, a student learns control positions such as Mount, Guard, and Side Control. These are similar to a stance, in any stand-up art. Students learn submissions such as Arm Bars, Chokes, and Triangles. In a stand-up art, we would call an attack a strike. In BJJ, they also focus heavily on defending themselves against these attacks. In a stand-up art, these are blocks.
So if both arts have stances, blocks, and attacks, why do they both not have forms? Here is where my answer gets interesting. In essence, they both do. But wait, how? In Taekwondo we give a specific series of moves a formal place in the art. We tell the students that someone of your rank should be using these particular moves and setting up combinations of moves similar to these, effectively. To promote in rank, a student must be able to perform those techniques, correctly, and with proper intensity.
“I fear not the man who has done 10,000 kicks once. I fear the man who has done one kick 10,000 times.” – Bruce Lee
In Jiu-Jitsu, this exact same concept is used. The difference is that it is masked a little differently. Students are usually taught combinations of moves from each position so that they have several tools to use depending on where, or what, their opponent moves. These series of moves are drilled until the student can flow from one to another. Put simply, they are learning a short form. Instead of giving it a formal name, they use terms such as flow drill, game plan, tool box, or feed series.
“To achieve success, you must develop self-discipline” - Unknown
Why did this concept change? Why are they different? When I was a child, stepping into the Dojang for the first time, I was heavily influenced by movies and martial artists of that time period. Watching the Karate Kid for the first time, was life changing for me. Names such as Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris were very well known. I would go to my grand parents house and watch Kung Fu Theater on TV. Many kids were influenced by Muhammad Ali and later the fictional Rocky Balboa, which led to popularity in the boxing world. Watching these movies and learning about these artists, both real and fictional, always came down to focusing on tradition, and forms were traditional. I never thought to question this. I understood that by learning to fight, we taught ourselves how to avoid fights. We learned that discipline was developed from within, and peace was developed through focusing a continual calm, inwards.
Since then, many movies and our culture have shifted to fighting. Kids grow up watching the UFC, and even cartoons have gotten away from the importance of training and focused on the fight. Even video games are focused on the end product, and not on how to get there. Many modern day students don't want to learn tradition, and as sad as that fact is, it is the reality that we live in.
So, are forms important? That is a tricky question and needs to be answered based on a point of view. For me personally, I love training with forms. I enjoy the rhythm. I enjoy the ability to critique myself and strive for personal perfection. I enjoy seeing growth as my skills mature at each level. But, not everyone is me. Many people don't care to take on that life style. Many don't have the discipline to set aside time to practice. Many just want to learn a couple of moves and then get on with their lives. Everyone has such short attention spans that very few are willing to invest the time anymore. If your interest lies in learning tradition and the deeper meanings of our arts, I highly encourage spending time learning forms. If the focus is on learning how to kick, punch, throw, choke, etc., then a potential student should look at multiple different arts and figure out what they want to achieve.
“There are two types of students at belt testing, those who practiced, and those who wished they practiced.” - J. S. Doan
In conclusion, I wanted to show that there are many similarities involved in other arts, even those that don't take a traditional viewpoint. The choice of arts is dependent on the student. Taekwondo is a personal journey. A student comes to class, then goes home and practices. In BJJ, it is difficult to practice alone, so it involves more time in class, training with a partner. In both arts, students will be required to learn combinations of moves and be required to put them together in a series of combinations, to be promoted. They have different names, but the concept is the same. The simple question comes down to a students personality.
“The best martial art is the one you are currently learning.” - Unknown