Understanding fighting (2)

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Past the beginning...

When learning a martial art there are essentially 3 stages:

  1. Physical fitness

  2. Technical skill

  3. Combat

Most students want to do stage 3 but flounder before they reach stage 1. They never actually leave the beginners syllabus. The tai chi lower belts aren't even about physical fitness. It isn't even stage 1. It is introductory material. Health material.

1. Physical fitness

In tai chi training, physical fitness involves the typical concerns found in a martial arts class: cardiovascular fitness, strength and flexibility.
Internal martial arts strength training needs to be a little more comprehensive.
It must include extensive practice of alignment, balance, root, stance, connection, peng, 70%... along with sensitivity training teaching the individual how and when to use their strength.

Hard work

Combat is not easy and there is a risk of injury if the student is unfit. This is true of any martial art. To reach a high level of skill, the student needs to take a lesson from sport.
They must become a lot fitter, but not necessarily a martial athlete.

When you fight in the street, there is only one goal in your head and that's to escape. It's not your job to punish them, that's the court's job. If a guy attacks you and you can duck, push him down and run out of the alley or out of the bar, and get in your car and go, you can escape unharmed. They might call you names, but that was smart.

 (Tim Cartmell) 

2. Technical skill

This involves shuai jiao, chin na and form applications, martial forms and combat skills. At this stage, the student is required to explore different fighting methods.
They learn s
trategy & tactics, close-range combat, conservation of energy, optimal use of alignment and structure, how to punch properly, throws, seizing, joint locks, accuracy, stickiness, physical
sensitivity, evasive footwork and grappling whilst standing and on the floor.
But are they a fighter? No, far from it.

Defending yourself

Technical skills enable a keen tai chi student - who trains daily at home - to defend themselves against an attacker. But it still comes down to the individual. To how good they are, how present, focused and adept.
There are guarantees.
We simply offer the material, and a wide variety of opportunities to explore it, and pressure test it. Whether or not you can use it is down to you.


Combat isn't addressed until the later in the syllabus
. Before then, the student simply doesn't know enough material to 'fight' realistically.
Nerve, fear, emotional content, being hit, impact, finishing off,
whole-body strength, whole-body movement, whole-body power, improvised weaponry, holding down the pillow and countering a knife must all be practiced in depth.


Black belt students will learn the difference between defending yourself, and fighting in a bout. There's a world of difference. Our emphasis as a school is upon being able to defend yourself, but we do touch upon sparring, and what more serious fighters need to learn.
Most tai chi people don't want to be become professional fighters, and we certainly don't claim to be training professional fighters.
We teach the traditional approach - individual self defence. The ability to protect yourself and your loved ones from harm.


Tai chi level combat is not fixed. The assailant does not use predetermined attacks and is encouraged to be as awkward and challenging as possible.
Rubber knives are used, along with sticks, chains, baseball bats and other weaponry. The aim for the attacker is to provide a realistic combat experience. Non-cooperative.


Anything goes in combat, so you cannot afford to be cocky or complacent. Spend too long with one person and his mate may jump on you from behind or slip a knife between your ribs.
Your attackers will not cooperate with you or assist you in any way at all. Their single function and purpose is to defeat you.

Cultivate shen

Shen requires a level of focus and sustained concentration that most people do not possess. Self-consciousness must cease and there is only the moment. It is necessary to be entirely present.


Your choice of action needs to be appropriate; it must be the correct response relative to the attack. If you do something impractical or unrealistic, this might mean defeat in the street.
Typically, an uncomplicated response is best. Take the shortest route. Allow for failure.


In tai chi you do not broadcast your intentions. You must move without planning and preparation. Melee (chaos training) trains this skill.
If you think and plan, then it will show in your body language and could be your downfall. The more immediate your behaviour, the less you will advertise your intention.

Not sport

It is important to recognise that the roots of Chinese martial arts lie with the need to defend oneself, not sport. In real life combat there are no rules. Train what is possible, not what is allowed.

Put them out of action

Success at any cost is not advocated by our school. The aim of combat is to avoid injury, not sustain it. 'Incapacitation' means to stop the person from functioning in a normal way.
Finish the assailant quickly and decisively.


Conviction combines:

  1. Faith in the art and in yourself

  2. Confidence in your own ability

  3. Intention 

An exponent with conviction is a formidable adversary; they possess the quiet surety of repeated practice, frequent combat training and an in-depth understanding of the principles.
Their eyes reveal their faith. There is an absence of fear. Instead; a calm, deliberate, patient gaze. Unflustered, they wait for the right moment. They are strong and they are ready.

Your expectations?

Most tai chi people want to be able to protect themselves from assault. They aren't really interested in cage fighting or making a name for themselves as a 'fighter'.
In reality, their intention is simply to evade the attacker. To avoid being injured and nothing more than this.
If they are required to incapacitate the attacker, this is unfortunate. Ideally, they seek to avoid causing any damage at all.

What about MMA?

If you want to become skilled at fighting MMA people, then you need to go and train with them. Don't delude yourself or waste time talking. Find out how they fight and why it works.
Tailor your training to address that sort of combat.

A fighter?

Your tai chi will reflect your own personal attitude, agenda and commitment to practice. It won't make you superhuman. Ultimately, the art is made manifest by your actions.
If it is your ambition to be a fighter, then find out what this means. Train with fighters. Learn from fighters. Theory without experience, proof and skill is worthless. Even dangerous.

Confronted by limitations of effectiveness, the martial arts of the West responded with a continuous crafting of superior equipment. Confronted with similar limitations, the Asian warrior responded by fashioning a better self. The warrior turned not to technology in making his sword a better tool for fighting. Influenced by contemplative aspects of Taoism and Buddhism and by the self-discipline of Confucianism, he turned inward. He fine-tuned his body and mind in order to better manipulate his sword.

(Dave Lowry)

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Page created 21 May 2002
Last updated 16 June 2023