The first thing I wanted to do when I began my journey searching for true Tang Soo Do Korean karate, was to explore the roots of the system. I found that they go back to the Karate masters of Japan and Okinawa and even to China. This is covered in a previous article Tang Soo Do History; Rising Sun to Morning Calm. The second thing I did was to look for similarities and differences between the Tang Soo Do I was taught, the Karate styles that it was born out of and their forms or kata/hyungs.
I chose to examine the forms as they are made up of all the basic techniques and are critical part of karate systems and solo training. Thanks to the internet and YouTube, I had hundreds, if not thousands of videos of forms performances to study. I was able to study forms done by a great masters, black belts and colored belts, in schools and in competition. Right off the bat there were glaring differences between the Tang Soo Do and Karate styles.
When watching the Tang Soo Do versions of the forms, I noticed that most of them were done very robotically. It seemed as if the practitioner had memorized the pattern and movements and did not explore the form any deeper. Each form is done at a steady and often hurried pace, as if they are hurrying to just get it done. Another thing is that while moving and stepping, the practitioner rises and falls with each step, creating the appearance of bouncing as they move. This causes the center of gravity to rise and fall, which affects power and causes a lack of balance.
Watch this video. The form is technically correct, but it lacks intent and fighting spirit. It could be nerves, but it is as if he is just going through the form, step after step to get it done. This is nothing against him as a practitioner, because this was how he was taught and is probably the way he is teaching others. It is how so many Tang Soo Do schools teach the forms and even how I used to perform them. You will see a huge difference in the video of Rika Usami further down.
By just going through the motions there will always be a lack of intent and fighting spirit. Forms are to be a fight against a real opponent and should be treated as one. Each technique should be thrown as if you were on the street fighting for real. There should be speed, power and snap. The intent should show through your eyes and be felt by those watching.
Somewhere along the way, Tang Soo Do lost the true focus or meaning of forms training. I know this does not apply to every school or every practitioner, but a majority of the videos I see online show this very thing. They became a belt testing requirement with the only criteria being remembering which technique to do at which step. There seems to be no deep learning or training of the hyungs. This shows when compared to the Japanese karate versions of the same forms.
I myself was taught these forms in a robotic manner with very basic applications. It was not until several years ago that I started to seek a deeper knowledge of how these forms should be done and the actual applications hidden within them. This is where my journey into true Tang Soo Do started. Let’s take a look at the karate versions of the Tang Soo DO hyungs and the differences in how they are performed.
I watch videos from schools as well as world championships in both times ago at Karate and saw the same differences in both. You can watch and see for yourself in the upcoming videos. the first glaring difference I saw between the two systems was the razor sharp focus and intent of the karate styles. Each technique is strong with the intent and you can tell the practitioner is focused on the opponent in their mind. It shows through their eyes.
The second thing that stands out is the tempo. The Karate practitioners do not just flying to the form or go through the movements at a mindless, steady pace. The forms are done with varying speeds, accentuating power or speed techniques. There are sections that are fast and others done slowly to demonstrate power, balance or focus. They command a deeper understanding of the forms and the techniques they are performing.
The movement of the Karateka is smooth and precise. They maintain proper posture throughout their technique stepping precisely and keeping the flight of their body and center of gravity constant. They pay very close attention to how they step, turn, and their balance. I did not see one Karate video where the Karateka bounced up and down while stepping or just rushed through the movements, whether they were a colored belt or a black belt.
Of all the videos I watched (and it’s been 100 and counting) one Karateka stood out over the rest (male or female) in my opinion. Rika Usami, the 2012 world Karate female champion. She retired from competition that year, but she did so at the top of her game. While many of the competitors are sharp, quick and powerful, her technique, precision and snap are unparalleled. This video is her world championship winning performance.
Do you see the differences I am speaking of compared to the Tang Soo Do form earlier? You can’t even say it is due to being nervous, because Rika Usami is competing for the world championship against other countries compared to a regional Tang Soo Do tournament. The focus, intent, fighting spirit, power, speed, sharpness, posture should all be represented in Tang Soo Do forms as well. This is the technique I strive for in my hyungs and the understanding of forms that I seek.
Below are two videos of the same form. One is the Tang Soo Do form Jin Do performed by a black belt at the 2012 World Championships and the other is the Shotokan form Gankaku performed by black belt Luca Valdesi at the WKF World Championships. The Tang Soo Do form Jin Do was derived from the Gankaku form of Shotokan Karate, Tang Soo Do’s parent system. Notice the differences in performance at the black belt competition level.
Jin Do, Tang Soo Do
Gankaku, Shotokan Karate
Why is there such a glaring difference? It is as if forms practice is not taken seriously in Tang Soo Do and instructors have been passing this quality of forms for generations.
This article was not meant to knock anyone, the art of Tang Soo Do or any specific school or instructor, but to point out the fact that we are missing something in our hyungs. Forms practice was THE way to train by the founding masters and the secrets of the art and it’s fighting applications are hidden inside of these forms! The karate styles know this and take their training seriously! I urge all Tang Soo Do students, instructors and schools to start training your hyungs with the utmost seriousness.
I too trained and performed my hyungs very robotically with little understanding of the true applications. It is just how I was trained and how I have passed the forms down to others until I studied Shotokan years ago and a light bulb went on! Scratch that, I was struck by a lightning bolt! I realized how important forms training really is and how they should be performed. They are not just some exercises to train basic techniques or some crazy fight against several attackers politely waiting their turn to strike you from every direction!
Study your hyungs! Perfect your posture, technique and tempo. Perform them with deadly intent, speed and power as if your attacker was right in front of you. Seek knowledge in the karate systems and masters of Tang Soo Do’s past lineage and learn! Be thirsty for knowledge and rekindle that desire of a white belt. We owe it to our masters and all of those who came before us to ensure the quality of Tang Soo Do and it’s future as an effective and powerful art.
I will close with this karate performance by a 7 year old girl, because the future of Tang Soo Do is in our youth and how we teach them.
It’s up to each and every one of us………let’s begin with hyungs and LET’S DO THIS!
Hello, I have been a student of the martial arts since 1985 and have studied various styles, always focusing on the self defense aspects of the arts. I have taught in the military, privately and publicly and have been a certified personal trainer. I believe that everyone should know how to defend themselves and that this can be learned from home through videos and written material. I am dedicated to you, the reader, in helping you learn self defense so that you are able to handle an attack on the street.