04 April 2012

The Sine Wave Motion Is Not Ever Present / The Patterns Are Not Fighting Templates

There is a mistaken notion that the sine wave motion (i.e. the iconic relax-up-down movement) is the only way of stepping in ITF Taekwon-Do and ever present; i.e. it is always applied. This idea is held especially by people that have not emerged themselves properly in ITF Taekwon-Do to know how this martial art is put together, but also by some ITF practitioners with a superficial understanding of the art. The iconic sine wave motion is most prominently seen in ITF Taekwon-Do’s fundamental movements as expressed in the patterns (“teul”). This may be one cause for this erroneous notion that the sine wave motion is a universal feature in ITF Taekwon-Do, based on the assumption that the patterns in ITF Taekwon-Do function exactly the same way, and is practised for exactly the same purposes as in, for instance, kata in Karate.

The expression “Kata is Karate” is one, I’m sure, most Karateka have come across and probably a number of times during the Karate careers. “Teul is Taekwon-Do,” on the other hand, is not a common expression at all. The idea that one ought to fight in the same fashion as one performs a pattern is not a strongly held belief in Taekwon-Do (in WTF even less so than in ITF). ITF Taekwon-Do’s patterns are not shadow boxing, nor a fully developed mock case study for a fight. Karate on the other hand, sees Kata as exactly this—a model for fighting. (See Dr. Bruce Clayton's Shotokan's Secret: The Hidden Truth Behind Karate's Fighting Origins.)

While ITF Taekwon-Do does look at patterns for some fighting instruction, it is not the ultimate exercise in this regard. Our mock demonstration of a fight are to be found in other exercises such as one step sparring, model sparring, self-defence technique practise and self-defence demonstrations—not primarily in the patterns. The patterns have other purposes: “pattern practise enables the student to go through many fundamental movements in series, to develop sparring techniques, improve flexibility of movements, master body shifting, build muscles and breath control, develop fluid and smooth motions, and gain rhythmical movements . . .” (ITF Encyclopaedia, Vol. 8, p. 13).

The Encyclopaedia continues to say that “a pattern can be compared with a unit tactic or word” (Vol. 8, p. 13). That a pattern be compared to a single word is proof enough that the patterns are not a full expression of ITF Taekwon-Do, for that would mean that Taekwon-Do proposes only and exactly 24 (the number of patterns) “words”—scarcely the vocabulary of a two year old!

Yes, patterns have some value for “develop[ing] sparring techniques,” but this is not the only, and hardly the most important purpose of patterns.* (See what I consider the value and purpose of the patterns are here.) It is also obvious to anyone looking at the fundamental movements in the patterns that they are performed much too slow for real fight application. The preparatory motions for the movements have an almost slow-motion quality to them. As Mr. Manuel E. Adrogué, a 6th Dan Taekwon-Do practitioner, articulated on behalf of the non-ITF proponents: “Why would ITF proponents take so long to perform only one technique, bouncing around, while the ‘Korean traditionalists’ [and may I add, Japanese traditionalists] would swiftly link an efficient combination of several consecutive blocks or strikes taking the same time?” (Adrogué, p. 4). ITF has been dismissed as “simplified martial arts not including combinations in their patterns” and where combinations do exist “their slow rhythm deprives them from [being] ‘combinations’ from a fighting perspective” (Adrogué, p. 6).

Adrogué also provides the answer: “ITF stylists consider their basics simply as a training tool that is much adapted and toned down in actual application in violent scenarios—while in contrast Shotokan stylists aim to apply their motions exactly as practiced in their basics…” (p. 6). The approach to patterns/kata in ITF Taekwon-Do and Karate is obviously different. “Shotokan Karate-type sparring actually works within the same logic of its basics and forms,” while “Taekwon-Do sparring and patterns function as complementary opposites” (13), which function within a “composition cycle” that outlines ITF Taekwon-Do's pedagogy.

I don’t know if other martial artists, for whom their patterns (kata, forms, etc.) are indeed contextualised fights and a form of combat training realise, that this is not how patterns have been seen in ITF Taekwon-Do for over half if its existence. It would be more accurate (although not completely) to understand the ITF patterns from a Chinese martial arts perspective (think of a Tai Chi Chuan form), rather than from a Karate paradigm.** I feel it necessary to emphasize it here that although ITF Taekwon-Do has roots in Shotokan Karate, it has evolved from its ancestor and is now, at its core, quite different in application and practise; it is different pedagogically and philosophically.

Looking at the basic movements as manifested in ITF Taekwon-Do patterns and from this inferring a proper understanding of how the sine wave motion functions within ITF Taekwon-Do is a gross error.

The down-up-down motion is not universal in ITF Taekwon-Do application and practise—not even in the patterns themselves! There are numerous ways of stepping and moving in Taekwon-Do. The basic sine wave motion (i.e. relax-up-down) is indeed one way, and obviously a prominent way, but definitely not the only way. Even in patterns the sine wave motion itself is often altered into “connecting motion”, “continuous motion”, “slow motion” and “fast motion”. The latter is a form of motion with almost no discernible sine wave motion at all. Then there are the (foot-) shifting motions, which is a very important and highly valued type of moving in ITF Taekwon-Do, where no sine wave motion is present. There is also side-stepping and dodging motions that does not usually involve the sine wave motion either.

The sine wave motion, although a conspicuous part of fundamental movements as expressed in patterns, is not the only way of moving in ITF Taekwon-Do and is in fact not even the most often used way of moving in a combat scenario; i.e. in fighting and self-defence. The most common motions for these scenarios are “fast motion” and “foot-shifting,” not the sine wave motion. For actual fighting the sine wave motion is delegated only to those moments where body dropping or body raising will contribute substantially to the technique's force.

It is important to realise that the patterns are not the exclusive foundation for ITF Taekwon-Do or the only way we move in ITF Taekwon-Do. The patterns are one element in a “composition cycle” of elements that all teach different principles, different skills, different ways of moving. Likewise, the iconic sine wave motion is one of many ways of moving in ITF Taekwon-Do.

Although I believe that the sine wave motion may not be an ever present feature; I do, however, think that the principles (Wave Principle / Circle Principle / Taegeuk) are ever present to all authentic Taekwon-Do techniques.

* Note, that I'm not saying that we cannot and do not learn fighting skill or strategies from patterns. We can, and we do, as seen in, for example, in Stuart Anslow's Ch'ang Hon Taekwon-Do Hae Sul: Real Applications to the ITF Patterns: Volume 1. However, there are other emphases in the ITF approach to patterns.

** Admittedly, I make some broad statements about Chinese martial arts (Tai Chi Chuan in particular) and Karate, as if Tai Chi Chuan and Karate are respectively practised and understood the same. This is, of course, not the case. There are different Tai Chi Chuan lineages and training purposes for Tai Chi Chuan, and there are many different styles of Karate. 


  • Adrogué, M. E. "ITF Taekwon-Do and Sine Wave as 'Sequential motion': More Power Than What Meets the Eye." [PDF]
  • Choi, Hong-Hi. ITF Encyclopaedia. Volume 8.


Dan Djurdjevic said...

Hi Sanko - another very well constructed article. I commend you.

How do you feel about this Youtube video: would you say the practitioner is doing sine wave so that it is "ever present" (and hence overdoing it)? Or would you say it is correct, because the pattern does not have to be a template for fighting?

I'd be interested in your assessment.

SooShimKwan said...

Dear Dan,

Thank you for the compliment. Coming from one of my favourite martial art bloggers, and an astute writer as yourself, it is much appreciated.

First, to have full sine wave motion throughout a pattern is quite possible and there are many such examples, for instance the first pattern "Chon-Ji". (The higher up the patterns go, the more variation in the motions one finds--but the normal sine wave motion is still the most general type of moving.)

What you are seeing in this pattern, "Po-Eun" is not normal sine wave motion. "Po-Eun" has two series of movements (#3-11 & #21-29) connected together in a special way--called continuous motion, where the basic relax-up-down sine wave motion is merged into a continues down-up-down-up-down-up-etc.

This is quite peculiar, but not completely as silly as it looks, once you realise that those techniques are almost all "downward" techniques.

1. The knife-hand strike is not a pure horizontal strike. It ends horizontally, but it actually reaches the target (neck) diagonally. Dropping the body weight here is therefore appropriate.

2. What looks like two blocks, with one arm doing a middle outward block and the other arm a low outward block (I think in the first set, movements #6 & #7), this is not actually so. The arm that goes down is not blocking outward, but actually punching downward--called a "pressing block". It is one of the offensive blocks of Taekwon-Do where the opponent's attacking tool is actually punched. In this case, if my memory serves me correctly, it is a punch to the opponent's instep. With the downward punch body dropping would apply.

3. The wedging block (two arms simultaneously blocking outward) are not merely blocking horizontally outward, but are actually going outward and downward.

4. The front punch is a middle punch. In ITF middle punches are typically not parallel with the floor, but somewhat angled downwards, in which case dropping the body weight is applicable.

5. The rear elbow thrusts, used presumably for someone that sneaked up behind you, would normally source hip rotation for power, but in this case with the more threatening opponent in front of you, you would not want to turn your posture away. So instead of the more logical hip rotation, the body dropping is also used here.

Note, of course, that sine wave motion, including continuous motion, as performed in the patterns is seldom in a hurry. The same series of techniques (#3-11 & #21-29) are performed in fast motion within some of the other Taekwon-Do styles; in fact, this was how I originally learned doing it myself, with all seven techniques completed within maybe two seconds! Of course as an ITF convert I now do it with the same relaxed gallop.

As for the actual performance of this pattern by the practitioner in this particular video, he is of much higher rank and experience than I, so I would respectfully decline commentary. I will say, however, that I don't think this video is the best example of this pattern available online. Neither is it the best example of the normal sine wave motion. However it is quite an interesting pattern and one with many nuances. Although it is only a 1st Dan pattern, I find it to be one of the more challenging ones.

Thanks again for coming by.

Dan Djurdjevic said...

I admire your spirited and cogent defence of the sine wave theory, but I'm afraid I remain as opposed to it as I am to the "hip shaking" theory of many karate styles.

While dropping and pushing off are useful to add force to certain techniques, the idea of harnessing a "sine wave" pattern that arises in ordinary human motion is, in my view, misconceived: any "sine wave" pattern only arises over a series of "natural "steps". It is not discernible (never mind distinctly "wave like") in the melee range where you have to move, at most, one to one and a half metres to your target (and where civilian defence objectives dictate less emphasis on "power" and more emphasis on getting where you want to as quickly as possible - ie. using a straight line!).

As to the performance of Po Eun, to me it really does look like a train wreck!

Nonetheless, I appreciate your skill in argument and the reasoned an researched approach of your comments, so I commend you once again!

SooShimKwan said...

Again, I want to re-emphasize that "The Sine Wave Motion Is Not Ever Present" and few sensible practitioners use the full sine wave motion as the ultimate / only form of moving within the milee range--for the very reason you mention: it is too slow. I have elsewhere also stressed that considering the sine wave motion as a down-up-down template that is to be forced onto every technique is a superficial understanding of the sine wave motion (which, I'm afraid, some ITF practitioners unfortunately do hold). The “wave” can manifest in many different ways and need not be (or rather, should not be) fixed to a mere down-up-down template.

With regard to your concern about it being an actual sine wave, in the scientific sense of the word, I agree, it is not. If we are to use scientific terminology, cosine wave is more appropriate, but again limits the idea to a template, which I do not hold to. Personally I don't think that using either term (sine wave or cosine wave) is ideal, but unfortunately we are stuck with the term.

The value of the sine wave motion (in the TKD use of the term), most would agree, is in the "dropping and [/or] pushing off" for some specific techniques. However, while I agree with this contribution, I believe the most important contribution the iconic sine wave motion brought to ITF Taekwon-Do is relaxation. And the idea that relaxation can actually be the cause of motion, not merely an element to assist with motion. I plan to write about this in a future post.

Your comments, even when in disagreement, are always civil and well thought through, so very much appreciated, Dan! Thank you for taking the time.

As for my “spirited and cogent defence of the sine wave theory” – somebody's got to do it! ;-)

Dan Djurdjevic said...

The fact that sine wave is not "ever present" in your way of thinking means that there is really very little that separates our viewpoints. Thanks again for your well-presented and reasoned essay.

Brett Kraiger said...

Hi there.

I'd like to join the conversation if I may :)

It's so great to see an intelligent conversation about the sine wave. It is a topic that I think is largely misunderstood, even within the ITF community. (or should I say communities ... but that's an issue for another post)

Oops - I should probably introduce myself... My name is Brett Kraiger. And I've been doing ITF for a "little while" now.

That pattern shown in the YouTube clip is taken from the Legacy CD Rom product. All the patterns done in this CD Rom were supervised by Gen Choi Hong Hi, the founder of Taekwon-Do. When I say "supervised" it is my understanding that he was actually in the room at the time.

So you can pretty much guarantee that the pattern as shown here is what General Choi himself wanted to see.

The video is pretty old now, and, at least in the ITF that I am a part of, everything has slowed down a lot to emphasize the movement between the movements as much as the movement itself.

This correlates with what you have said in your comment above about the sine wave being more about relaxation than being about using the downward motion to generate power.

Now, more and more, when I am practicing, or teaching my students, I am really emphasizing the relaxation phase, and utilizing the freedom of movement created from that to develop speed and power in the techniques. The sine wave allows that gap, that "pause" in which you can try to fully relax and explode into the technique.

As far as using the sine wave in a "real fight", there is no way you would utilize the full sine wave slowly and deliberately in a real situation. But it's not intended to be used in that way. However through constant repetition of the movement done with a full sine wave, the relaxation should be present when faced with a real situation.


SooShimKwan said...

Hi Brett,

You are most welcome to join the discussion.

Indeed I think we are in agreement regarding our understanding of the sine wave motion. While I try to make full use of the up and/or down (body raising or dropping) where applicable, the longer I'm studying this topic, the more I realise that the sine wave motion's greatest contribution is its evocation of relaxation -- and all the advantages that grow from this.

BTW, I was not aware of your website thevirtualdojang.com before, and will definitely visit it more often, as well as list it under the bloglist on my "Links" page.

Brett Kraiger said...

Thanks for the link to The Virtual Dojang. I must admit that it's a little neglected at the moment. I see that the last post I made was in February.

Actually we have been busy behind the scenes, and the site will be getting a bit of a revamp very soon. But I need to get back on there and begin posting again. I've also been busy on my other martial arts site (for over-40s).

I would have to say after reading just a few of your posts, I am a little intimidated now! You put so much effort and thought into your work, that my meager efforts feel somewhat lacking now!

You really are a gifted writer and I love your outlook on ITF Taekwon-Do. It's nice to see someone posting really intelligent and well thought out material. You set a very high standard.

I will be making a post on The Virtual Dojang soon to bring my readers attention to your blog and your interesting interpretations of patterns and sinewave.

SooShimKwan said...

Thank you, Brett, for the compliments.

Actually, the original purpose of this blog was merely as a simple announcement portal for the Soo Shim Kwan students. That is what its purpose was for the first two and half years of this blog.

However, as I started searching for good information on ITF Taekwon-Do I discovered that most sources provide only superficial information. I read on your website that you discoered the same problem.

A need for deeper techno-philosophical (ITF) Taekwon-Do discussions was part of the reason the blog evolved into what it is now. If it can inspire other (ITF) bloggers to higher standards -- as I was inspired by the blogs of some other styles -- then I'd be quite happy.

Your own website is set out to be a great ITF information agrigator -- I look forward to visiting it more often!

SooShimKwan said...

Great! I'll spread the word.

Narda said...

Belated bump to this post.

I am curious and would appreciate it if you could elaborate how you see the practice of ITF forms as consistent with Tai Chi. My VERY limited understanding of Tai chi practice is that the form teaches one how to move AND it's linked to application. Whereas, I think you are saying that ITF forms are not viewed that way.

Thank you in advance for any reply.

SooShimKwan said...

Dear Narda,

Thank you for stopping by and your your question.

I agree with you that the Tai-Chi forms teach both movement *and* application. This is true, I think, for all form practise in martial arts. There is, however, a shift in emphasis in some martial arts as to what the forms are focused on teaching. As I wrote: "While ITF Taekwon-Do does look at patterns for some fighting instruction, it is not the ultimate exercise in this regard." In other words, ITF Taekwon-Do also uses the patterns for fighting skill and strategies, but I don't think that the patterns is the primary place for learning fighting skill. The patterns have another primary function.

I explained for instance that: "It is also obvious to anyone looking at the fundamental movements in the patterns that they are performed much too slow for real fight application. The preparatory motions for the movements have an almost slow-motion quality to them."

And here is where we see our first similarity between ITF and Tai-Chi, the slow-motion quality in the movements. Nobody would perform their techniques in "slow-motion" in actual combat. So then why do Tai-Chi practitioners do their forms in slow motion (and why is much of the ITF patterns done with an initial "slow-motion quality")?

The reason is that both ITF and Tai-Chi uses their patterns/forms to teach principles of moving, such as a heavy emphasis on relaxation and an emphasized awareness of center-of-gravity and body weight shifting. It is in this that the ITF patterns and the Tai-Chi forms function similarly. Yes, both the ITF patterns and the Tai-Chi forms can be used for teaching applications, but if the focus was just or even primarily on applications then the patterns / forms could have been done much much faster (i.e. realistically), like in Shotokan Karate kata.

The reason the ITF patterns and the Tai-Chi forms are done so slowly is because it allows you the time to become aware of your body and its place in the environment. If the pattern / form / kata is rushed, there is very little time to become aware of the subtleties of shifts in the center-of-gravity, the weight distribution and changes of the feet, how the balance is adjusted, the effect of your breathing, whether you are properly relaxed or if their are unnecessary tension in your muscles, the state of your mind, and so on.

It would be far fetched for me to assert that the ITF patterns and the Tai-Chi forms are exactly the same (they are obviously not) and that they are used for exactly the same purposes (they are not). However, they do share much overlap and in this regard helps to explain what the purpose is for the change in the ITF patterns which were originally done very much like Shotokan Kata, but now done at a much slower tempo with a great emphasis on relaxation.

Anonymous said...

The Sine Wave is the reason why I've never studied ITF TaeKwonDo.
If there's ever a Dojang in my area that's removed it I would practice TaeKwonDo.

SooShimKwan said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for the visit. Actually, there are quite a few Chang-Hon style (like ITF) Taekwon-Do systems that do not employ the sine wave motion. The first couple of years that I did Taekwon-Do was in fact in just such a system. I only "converted" to ITF Taekwon-Do just before testing for my 2nd Dan.

I hope you find a martial arts system that fulfills your personal requirements.