Partner work mistakes

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Have perspective

Partner work is not combat. In fact, it is the opposite of combat. It is a means of safely practicing fundamental skills in a safe, predictable, controlled manner.
Partner work is an opportunity to carefully refine basic skills. To train positioning, leverage, balance, centre without worrying about fighting.

Learning difficulties

A lot of the learning difficulties encountered by students are of their own making. The most obvious being the lack of home practice.
The less obvious is confusion concerning the nature of what you are doing in class e.g. applications...
In the lower grades the student is learning how to combine a variety of principles in order to learn how to apply a given application/movement.
This is not combat. Actual combat is not addressed until the higher grades.

The movements are difficult and often performed in opposition to a fellow trainee. Because of this, students quickly become disciplined and aware of the need not to be hurt or to hurt others. The aggressive urges that brought the student to the training hall are soon controlled, and guided into constructive activity by the instructor. Under this guidance, the student's confidence grows and fear recedes. At the same time an awareness of physical being, of the body's shape, size and potential ability, is born.

(Howard Reid)

Time wasting

If your partner is being awkward then not only do you have to think about the principles, range, positioning, peng etc... You also have to deal with your partner's attitude.
This wastes time and hinders learning.


Why is application training not combat? Easy. In combat you never tell your attacker what you are going to do. If they tense up and fight you, you do something else.
Fighting during partner practice is pointless and retards progress. It is not realistic.

Martial arts are dangerous

The British Medical Association Guide To Sports Injuries states:

Combat sports such as boxing, judo, karate or kung fu make tough demands on the body; training is intense, and participation requires all-round fitness. Regardless of the fitness of the participants, however, the aggressive blows traded between opponents means that these sports always carry a serious risk of injury.

Common mistakes

Avoid these errors:

  1. Pushing/pulling a rooted person

  2. Partner work is not fighting

  3. Locks & holds

  4. Full contact

  5. Use of tension

  6. Use of speed

  7. Combat skill

  8. Knowledge

  9. Techniques

  10. Tutoring other students

  11. Reading

  12. Using your hands

  13. Learn the basics

  14. Bad habits

  15. Purpose

  16. Pushing legs

  17. Eyes closed sensitivity/yielding

  18. Pushing hands

Pushing/pulling a rooted person

(i) Defender

You must never force a rooted person to move. This is just strength against strength and is not tai chi.
If your partner does not move you must change your relationship relative to them by stepping or turning. Make it difficult for the person to balance.
Stay slightly out of range, so that your attacker must step to reach you. Stepping involves commitment. Timing is essential.
If your partner is awkward and resistant, strike them, but do not push into them. Make the strike percussive.
Feel the physics: when you exert force, much of it comes back into you. What is the sense in that?

(ii) Attacker

If you are playing the attacker, do not be too awkward. Ask yourself: are you being realistic?  An awkward attacker is still vulnerable to striking, no matter how strong they think they are.
The human body has areas of fundamental weakness. When you are struck, your body will weaken. Being awkward may prove difficult if you are in pain or otherwise compromised.
Exuberant play is the key. Have fun. Do not turn a training exercise into a contest.

(iii) Peng development drills

Certain exercises require you to test a person's peng by pushing against a connected student:

  1. 4 directions (with a partner)

  2. Palm at 3 distances

  3. Posture testing

  4. Solo qigong exercises that need to be tested for structural stability i.e. plate exercise

The connected student must not tense-up or push back. They should maintain the posture without collapsing. Ideally, you should feel soft and springy, with a notable 'give'. 
You yield, but maintain connection.
Do not mistake these exercises for application. In all other exercises, drills and partnered sets, you must yield when force is exerted upon you.
The connection should be internally maintained but you follow the line of force in order to borrow its energy.

Partner work is not fighting

Many beginners like to 'try it on' during a training exercise. They apply throat holds and techniques, and refuse to let go when their partner has performed a restrained counter. Drills are not fighting. 
They serve a simple purpose: to teach a principle, skill or sensibility. If you make every game into 'life or death', then what are you learning? What are others learning when they train with you?
When training a
drill, do not ask about the combat component or what you would do next in a 'real life' situation.

Locks & holds

Tai chi avoids locks and holds. What is your partner doing with their other arm, or their legs? Restraining the attacker is risky. You are also holding yourself... are you not?

Full contact

The striking methods of tai chi are not suitable for full power training. We are learning combat, which means that restraint is your primary concern.
If you cannot regulate how much power you are using, then you are clumsy and will not advance very far through the syllabus.
People who are desperate to practice full contact work are naive about consequence. There is no honour in injuring somebody or beating them down with your bare hands.
Students learn to always make contact and never pull their punches short of the target. Every blow must touch the opponent and have power. The degree of power is carefully controlled. 
It is important to respect your practice partner and avoid harming them. Full contact work tends to be upon target pads, not other people. Although learning to hit and take a hit is important.

Use of tension

There is no use of muscular tension in tai chi. Until you understand this, you will never make real progress in the syllabus. Bow tension, inherent peng and groundpath involve no tensing whatsoever.
Only the least experienced student continues to use muscular tension as they progress through the syllabus. But you cannot go very far until you have shed this misconception.
Tai chi uses jing, not li. Do not perform it like an external art. Your touch must be feather-light. Imperceptible.
The art is predicated by yielding. Yielding is everything. Without it, you are not even doing tai chi.
If you are found to be using tension at any point in the syllabus you will be placed in a revision group in order to get rid of this bad habit.

Use of speed

Tai chi speed is not accomplished by being fast. It is about relaxing the nervous system and being smooth. Seeing opportunities and doing only what you need to do.
This requires sensitivity and awareness. Subtle. Try never to alert you attackers nervous system by using jerky movement.

Combat skill

The lower grade training lays the foundation for combat. Experienced takes it further. A beginner should not be 'sparring' with people outside of class (friends/family) or otherwise fighting. 
You are simply not ready for this. You are only studying a limited percentage of the overall syllabus. There is plenty of vigorous combat work ahead of you. So be patient and learn the basics


Remember that a beginner is only exposed to a fraction of the overall syllabus. What assumptions can you make based on a fragment of the whole?
Can you earnestly claim to have mastered any of the drills you are learning?
Mastery means that you can perform it effortlessly; without thought, without trying.
It does not mean that you have finished learning. There is always more to learn. Some beginners make the mistake of thinking that they have 'got it'. All knowledge is provisional and subject to change.

One is taught in accordance with ones fitness to learn.

(The Silent Flute)

As you change, your insights change. What you know now will seem naive in 5 years time.


There are no techniques in our tai chi. External techniques and applications have no place with Sifu Waller. Please leave your past at the door and open your mind to the new.
We are teaching options, variables, possibilities, openings, opportunities and physics. A technique is a fixed response. It involves deliberate planning and conscious thought. 
Can you commit to a technique when the attacker has friends?

Tutoring other students

(i) Teaching

Do not ask other students to show you material unless they are a recognised teaching assistant. If somebody asks you to do this, decline. Leave the teaching to Sifu Waller. 
If he wants you to show something to your partner, he will ask you to do it directly. Only the most naive person asks another novice to teach them. The blind leading the blind?

(ii) Advice

You are quite welcome to give the following advice to your practice partner:

  1. You are tense

  2. You are using force against me

  3. You are banging against me

  4. You are just using your arms

  5. You are being clumsy/rough/brutal/holding my throat

  6. You are trying it on

  7. You have lost your composure

  8. You are leaning

  9. You are off-balance

  10. You are not making contact when you strike 

These are easily observable faults and you do not need to be an instructor to see them. If you choose to ignore somebody who wants to help you, then that is your choice and also your shortcoming.

(iii) Teaching assistant

If a teaching assistant offers to show you something, that is alright providing Sifu Waller has expressly directed them to do so. Remember: there are no tai chi teaching assistants.


A student cannot get very far without working on their brain. There is a reading list that you might consider studying.

Using your hands

If your first instinct is to use your hands, you are already failing. Move the body first. Place your hands by all means, but do not use them. Use the body and let the hands connect as part of the whole.
High-level material looks more hands-oriented, but this is an illusion. The internal is simply less apparent.

Learn the basics

Be patient with yourself. Ploughing through the syllabus will not work. Take your time. Understand the aim of the drill. Learn the skill being taught by the drill. What’s the rush?
Without the basics, your progress will be slow. You will only comprehend tai chi if you understand the basic skills. The ongoing syllabus will elude the impatient student.

Bad habits

It is quite easy to fall into bad habits during partner work. The training needs to remain crisp and purposeful. Each exercise is designed to train particular skills.
Sloppy practice reduces the effect of the exercise.


Consider the purpose of any given exercise: what skill are you training? If in doubt, ask - there is no point fumbling with the drill.
With the purpose clear in mind, it is possible to consider the way in which you are addressing the partnered exercise.
Are you practicing the fundamentals? Is your positioning good? 
Do your muscles contract at any point? Have you come to rely upon speed and strength?

Pushing legs

During pushing legs practice you should be practicing yielding and neutralising. Often, people simply neutralise. It is important to let your partner yield to your leg and in turn, yield to theirs.
Build-up from the initial skill and then make it more complicated.

Eyes closed sensitivity/yielding

People usually rush this exercise and the redundancy is very high. Most of the opportunities are lost by not taking the time to work around your partners limb and experience their tension and balance.
Yield. With practice, this drill will enable you to see without your eyes once contact is established. Do not waste the exercise by being careless.

Pushing hands

Do not push against a stationary opponent and do not allow them to exert force upon you. 4 ounces of pressure must be maintained at all times during every partner drill hands and tai chi application.
If the exercise feels difficult or your partner is stiff, then yield. Be very careful to connect through your body and aim at your partners centre. Do not get caught in a 'circling hands' game.

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Page created 2 March 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023