Playing the attacker

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The attacker's role is to initiate the assault and give you something to work with. Playing the attacker skilfully is not easy.
Typically it takes many years of experience to become a realistic, challenging attacker. Most students mess it up through non-commitment, cooperation, non-cooperation and thoughtlessness.
Remember: people in class are not your enemy or opponent. They are your practice partners. Avoid 'trying it on' to see if something really works. If you want proof, ask the instructor to show you.

How does a boxer punch?

Try watching a YouTube clip and find out. That is how an attack needs to feel.

Chinese boxing

The popular book Chinese Boxing by Robert Smith refers to kung fu as being 'Chinese boxing' which is what kung fu has historically being called. The word 'boxing' summons images of fists and punching.


Although the attacker needs to emulate a real life assailant, you need to play the part without falling into bad habits yourself.
If you attack using tension and ignore the tai chi principles, then you are training an external art. The key word is 'play'. Make contact when you strike but do not try to inflict injury.

Bad habits

Martial arts people develop some odd habits from various classes. An earnest attacker will not hesitate if they think that you can be struck, grappled, beaten down.
They will not employ a stylised, familiar attack. The attack will be quick, brutal and ruthless. It will be spontaneous, nasty and disconcerting.
A real assailant is more likely to employ a 'blitz attack' mentality than hold back. A person who holds back is unlikely to be an attacker.

The illusion of slowness

We learn to deal with punches without losing composure or becoming flustered.
You may even feel to have plenty of time to deal with the attack and perhaps move more slowly than the attacker is doing...

The equivalent process to seeking the "Holy Grail" in internal arts is the ability to move more slowly than your opponent and consistently win.

Slower speed that wins out requires three types of speed coming together simultaneously:

1. Timing.

2. The signals required to maintain some level of conscious power.

3. The ability to release the internal gears of your body, which, if they freeze up, can create a momentary mental gap that breaks the connection between you and your opponent.

This method is referred to in the tai chi classics in the form of a question:

"How is it possible that an old man can defeat a group of younger men?"

Obviously, elderly men, even the most talented, are not physically capable of moving at the speed of young men. Virtually, by definition, the elderly move with slowness, and yet those old men internal arts masters by slipping in between the gaps, are justifiably well-known for defeating younger and faster men.

(Bruce Frantzis)


Partly it is timing, distance, range/reach etc. But more importantly it is about consciousness.
Simply put - the more present we are, the more readily we can address what is taking place as it is taking place.

Slow down

To gain the ability to punch with accuracy and to evade with skill, we need to slow down. That's all. But, I mean REALLY slow down.
No chattering monkey mind. No fidgeting. No trying to prove something (to yourself or to anybody else).


In class, when playing the attacker we need to punch slowly and accurately. Take your time.
As an attacker, every punch, every kick, every hold must be 100% accurate in execution. No excuses. Just get it right. The attack must be controlled, slow and not using tension or floppiness.

Don't be a tool

You need to strike at a speed that your partner can cope with. In the lower grades, this means slow motion. You're not fighting. You are practicing.
If you can play the attacker well, then your partner can practice their applications safely and actually learn something.
Equally, you will learn something. Because attacking and counter-attacking are the same thing. If you can't attack with control, then you are clumsy.


When attacking, do not anticipate the counter. Just attack. No panic. No stiffness. Do not seek to preserve your sense of security.
Dithering and seeking to spare yourself will only backfire in real life combat. Commit your body weight and intent. Try punches, kicks and grapples with vigour.


The attacker must be earnest enough to trigger your nervous system and make you work, however, they must not be unduly awkward. A student needs time to grasp the basics.
The attacker needs to launch an earnest, accurate attack, with a view to making physical contact. However, the attacker must not tense-up or fight-back/be uncooperative/contentious.
This final point may seem odd, until you consider that inexperienced students are not training realistic combat. They are only studying the foundation material.
They are just practicing the moves. They are not fighting.

Fighting back whilst attacking

There is a difference between fighting back and being cooperative. Neither extreme is useful to the inexperienced student.

Cooperative attacker

Cooperative attackers are time wasters. They attack feebly and give the defender a false sense of their own abilities. The attacker must give the defender something to work with.
If the defender is using strength to counter the attack, or applying more than 4 ounces of pressure, the attacker should not be compliant.

Uncooperative attacker

If the attacker is uncooperative and it becomes a brawl/fight, neither student will learn anything. The defender needs time to deal with an attack without losing composure/becoming tense.
The attacker needs to lose their innate tension, learn to commit a threatening, meaningful attack and they also need to feel the effect of the defender's actions.
If all they are thinking about is thwarting the defender, they are not feeling anything.

Lower grades

The student needs something to work with, so launch an accurate, slow, controlled attack. When the defender counters you, allow them to do so.
If you fight back or act awkwardly:
the defender cannot practice their skills
you (the attacker) cannot feel what is occurring
Recognise that the training methods are intended to teach the building blocks that will eventually lead to the actual fighting skills. They are not combat. They are just practice.


If you become adept at doing things more slowly, your mind will slow down and you will be capable of being here and now much more of the time.
This enables you to deal with attacks in 'real time' rather than after the conscious mind has pondered the event.
Providing your body is relaxed and you don't tense your muscles, it will result in faster reflexes and more intimidating counters.
Your opponent will feel as though they are playing 'catch-up' - always behind, always too slow, always too late. In tai chi, this is seen as being 'previous' (dealing what what was, not what is).


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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023