Self defence challenge

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One danger with martial arts training is that it takes place within a safe, controlled environment.
This is good in terms of wellbeing. It is bad in terms of combat.
Being able to defend yourself against friendly, slow, predictable, familiar attacks is fine.
But it will not help you against a real life assailant


Kelly McGonigal wrote a book called The Upside of Stress in which she explored the idea that stress was not actually bad for us.
The harm comes from how we deal with stressful situations.
Our syllabus addresses this concern by creating scenarios that gently challenge the tai chi student to remain composed.
After a while, the student loses it; they can no longer concentrate or they begin fighting back.
This is inevitable, but it can change over time.


Real life combat is not predictable.
An assailant is not your buddy, is unlikely to be using reasonable force or exhibiting compassion and may well be armed or have mates.
The question is: what are you going to do about it?
If you just panic you will probably get beaten up.

A lot of folks say they are relaxed... that they are Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or something that says you know I'm concerned for my fellow man. But when somebody puts their hands on these people you'll see that that priest or that monk or that rabbi becomes just as rigid and as violent as anybody else who would never ever describe themselves as being God fearing. Why? Cos they're not used to the pressure.

You would like to believe you're relaxed and when someone puts their hands on you and pushes all of a sudden you realise just how indignant you are about that whole thing happening.

Some people are very stretched and they have a full split or they are very balanced on their hands and they can do a handstand but when you put your hands on them all that ability goes out the window and they resort to Cro-Magnon behaviour.

(Roberto Sharpe)


Fear needs to be addressed as well as competence under pressure.
You do not have to endure severe combat training in order to see how you cope under duress.
It can be done safely and playfully. If this sounds improbable, look at sport.


What matters are the key requirements:

  1. Keeping a cool head
    - no anger
    - no upset
    - no panic

  2. Decisiveness
    - action
    - no dithering
    - no getting ready/anticipating
    - no worrying


  3. Effectiveness
    - does it work?
    - are you able to follow it up?
    - can you improvise, adapt and change?

You need to know that the material works and have the confidence to use it when the situation is unpredictable and confusing.

The skills

You have been taught how to move your body in a connected manner, employ stickiness, 4 ounces of pressure, natural power, range, footwork, balance and centre.
We have encouraged you to expand your awareness, become sensitive, listen, feel, respond and flow.
But we cannot fight for you.
At some point you must pull the skills together and actually do tai chi chuan (dynamic balancing boxing).
Otherwise, you're just a health student with martial aspirations.

Thorough and convincing?

The self defence challenge is all about pulling it together in combat.
It is not going to happen overnight.
Be patient with yourself. Recognise that skill takes time.
Getting to the stage where you can use the tai chi in a 'thorough and convincing' manner is going to take a while.
But it is worth the wait...


With the aid of daily home training your whole-body strength should continue to increase as your body becomes balanced, more connected and fluid.
You must learn to manage this strength. Your power needs to be controlled.
To do this you must use the least amount of force at all times. Keep it smooth and soft.
Listen to what is happening, be aware of the sensations, interpret the feedback.

One of my friends studied judo for years and years. She was waiting for a chance to use it, but for a long time nobody tried to attack her. Then one day somebody grabbed her in a parking lot - and she slugged him with her purse!

And then she thought, "Oh! What happened to my judo?"

She must have been practicing judo as if it were an isolated thing. We should always practice to let the immediacy of the moment come through. Then you always have a sense of what you are doing now.

(Chungliang Al Huang)

Balanced opponent

Your opponent should be balanced when attacking you.
It is in your interests to interfere with this balance. A balanced person is not as vulnerable as an unbalanced one.
Take the first opportunity to draw them out of their centre - step, uproot the opponent without using force.
If you encounter resistance, then you are forcing and that is not tai chi. Wait for your opponent to give you their balance.


Everyone has their own rhythm.
They move according to it and strike using it.
Your job is to find your own rhythm, and work with it.
If you allow the tai chi to harmonise with how your body and mind want to move, you will be more effective and natural.

Avoid being predictable

If you fall into a predictable rhythm of moving or striking, this is not so good.
You need to be spontaneous and fresh; responding to what is happening rather than to a plan.
Find your own rhythm and use it.
Find your opponent's rhythm and exploit it.
Draw them into a predictable pattern but do not allow complacency to leave you exposed; remember that the appearance of a pattern may only be a ruse.


Timing is a composite skill that requires you to assess a number of variables simultaneously: range (distance), speed, target, positioning, rhythm and balance.
In tai chi, this skill is fundamental.
Rather than rely upon speed and strength, we focus upon the refinement of timing.
A punch or kick is only dangerous if it hits you.
Until then, it simply represents a threat - a potential danger.
If your timing is accurate, the potential never becomes the actual, and the strike does not land.


Timing requires you to wait.
Unless you are patient and allow the situation to unfold, you will not see the appropriate moment for action.
Waiting takes nerve.
You must let your opponent smell their victory and then take it away at the last possible second.
This way, they are fully committed and incapable of changing tactic.
There is a risk.


Your ability to harmonise balance, rhythm and timing is demonstrated through appropriateness; which is the skill of doing the right thing at the right time.
An appropriate response fulfils the needs of the moment.
It is complete and does not need adding to.

Finishing off

In self defence, it is the ending of the threat without recourse to undue violence.
The appropriateness can be determined by your own lack of injury and your opponents unwillingness to continue their assault.
Many martial arts can deal with attacks skilfully and effectively, but the process can often result in subtle damage to the defender's own body.
In tai chi, it is not desirable to damage your own body in pursuit of victory.


A beginner has no martial skill to speak of and will most likely use force and tension in self defence.
A lower grade student trains a wide range of sensitivity exercises but no actual combat.
The only real way to gain some sense of combat is to attend the requisite workshops.

Making it real

In time, your self defence skills start looking pretty much like your form and your applications.
This is crucial.
Applied tai chi must look like tai chi.
Once you can defend yourself comfortably, you can move past 'self defence' and start thinking about martial combat.


The self defence challenge at the end of each grade is an important wake up call.
It stops the student from becoming complacent, macho or cocky.
Faced with your own panic, tension, fighting back and ineffectual use of tai chi... there arises humility.
Unless of course you are an egotist or unbelievably naive.
Only by training more assiduously, reading the books and the website can the exponent hope to attain the sought after skills.

In almost any subject, your passion for the subject will save you. If you care enough for a result, you will most certainly attain it. If you wish to be good, you will be good. If you wish to be learned, you will be learned. You must really wish these things and wish them with exclusiveness and not wish one hundred other incompatible things just as strongly.

(William James)

Empty your cup

A traditional Asian teaching method is to let the student fail repeatedly.
Rather than correct any errors, let them flounder.
This is quite demoralising and is intended to curtail egotism and arrogance.
Only when the student is convinced that they don't know what they are doing will the teacher offer an alternative.

Seeing the truth

The self defence challenge is one of the rare occasions that we employ this teaching method.
We need students to realise the extent of their ignorance and ineptitude before we provide the solution.

Worth reading

Everybody falls
Reasonable force
Relative positioning
Take the space
Understanding softness
Unnatural naturalness

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Page created 10 February 1996
Last updated 16 June 2023