Monday Musing: The Importance of Form

Forms. Patterns. Hyung, kata, poomsae, teul. Whatever you call it, you’ve probably learned a few. And you’ve probably also learned that nothing frosts your instructor’s cupcakes like when students forget their forms.

Today I’d like to talk about the importance of form.

What I don’t want to do is get into that pesky form vs. sparring discussion, which is a huge and controversy-inducing topic in the martial arts world. Both are valuable in their own right.

A martial art without forms is like a country without a flag or history. Or a religion without a holy text or guiding set of principles. Taking form out of martial arts takes out the “arts” part because anyone can be good at hitting, kicking, and punching.

Form is what separates the undisciplined fighter from the principled martial artist, and I really try to convey its importance to students.

During mat chats, I often use the holy book metaphor with adults and older students. We start by talking about how a person reads the Bible (or any other holy book)  over and over, and studies it, and looks for new meaning each time they read it.

“Form is for study,” I tell them. Just like how you study a holy book, through form, you study basic movement, and at very high levels you perfect your movement until nothing is wasteful, telegraphic, or out of place. Older students generally also relate to the idea that form is useful for increasing memory and mental strength.

Sometimes I also share how, whenever I do a Chulki form (Tekki, Naifanchi, Naihanchin, or alley forms), I think about how old they are and about how they make me a part of a larger, longer history.

With younger kids who are starting to reach the middle belts (green, blue, purple), I like to ask questions so they can own the answers.

“Guiding questions” are the ones that are narrow enough to keep your students on topic, wide enough to elicit answers rather than giving them, and lead them in practicing oh-so-important critical thinking skills.

Me: “Now that we are x belts, are we allowed to forget the forms we already learned?” (I usually get some head shaking). “Why do we do form? Why is it important to remember our white and yellow belt forms?”

I usually get a reply like this, “So we can test for our next belt!” This is a good answer, because we do check off previous forms at each test.

I like to give them credit for that answer, but then I give it a twist: “Okay, what about 200 years ago? They didn’t test for belts back then, but they still did forms.”

This usually elicits some bafflement, or sometimes vague commentary about application or self-defense. I usually let the silence build to an uncomfortable point before I ask them if they want help.

“Well,” I say, “what if you tried to build a house, but made the roof first?”

“It would fall down!”  They giggle at the image.

“Ah,” I say, “so we have to have something to hold the roof up?”

They nod.

“That is the purpose of basic forms. They hold up the roof so you can learn more advanced things.”

(My ITF instructor gets total credit for the house analogy. He liked to use the word “foundation,” which I use or work around depending on students’ maturity and verbal skills).

Like I mentioned earlier, for those who make a lifelong commitment to martial arts, form carries an awesome sense of connection to the past and beginnings of martial arts. Form is our history, those masters’ legacy, and an absolutely fascinating peek into the development and proliferation of martial arts around the world.

So please, don’t neglect your forms OR your sparring. Mastering each skill is part of being a well-rounded martial artist.

About Sensei/YDN Caitlin

Sensei Yudanjanim Caitlin is a 2nd degree black belt, senior instructor, administrative assistant, and student of Tae Kwon Do, Karate, and Arnis at Northwest School of Martial Arts.
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