Pushing Hands Competitions & the Art of Tai Chi Chuan

Carl Burgess

For many years I have attempted to seek the answer to the question of whether the good little guy can beat the good big guy. The big guy has the advantage of weight and power whereas the little guy has the advan- tages of speed and agility. As skill levels increase the big guys get more agile and flexible and the little guys acquire more power and accuracy.

The advantage remains with the large person as their ability to absorb the strongest attacks of the smaller person is much greater and the weight of their attacks is much heavier and correspondingly much harder to divert. It has not been a problem to beat larger people whose experience and technique are very inferior but it becomes a much bigger problem when the opponent is not only much bigger but also has a lot of experience and ability.

I recently put this to the test at the British Festival of Chinese Martial Arts where I entered both the U84Kg and the 84Kg+ (Open) Fixed step pushing hands competitions. Weighing in at 79Kg I was by far the small- est competitor in both, with some competitors in the Open Weight Category weighing in at over 100Kgs.

The competition format is very difficult to manage as there is very little time to learn to read the opponent. In order to be able to withstand the weight and strength of my larger opponents I knew that I would have to rely heavily on rooting and sinking, the key Tai Chi stability skills devel- oped in the Nei Kung training. Of course this alone would be insufficient I also had to be able to detect all threats and neutralise them and also be able to attack my opponents weak points with sufficient force to desta- bilise them.

The competition format can be quite intimidating and can lead to com- petitors becoming tense and nervous, I certainly feel unsettled before the first bout mainly due to the long wait and build up. It is important at these times to attempt to calm the mind and relax the body. Practising movements of the hand form are ideal for this purpose as they not only relax the body but gently stretch and warm up the muscles. The mind becomes calm as you no longer are thinking about the forthcoming struggle but on practising your form.

The first bout is the most daunting experience as the opponent is unknown and you have had no chance to learn anything about them from watching their style and technique from bouts with others. It is here more important than ever that you don’t panic but attempt to find out about your opponent from the initial touch. Your stance must be good, you must concentrate on rooting . It is best to fix your stance before mak- ing the initial contact.

Due to the shortness of time available many competitors attempt to score quick points from the off by the immediate thrust or pull. This will only work if the opponent is not ready for this. I have found that if you root and sink at the off then the immediate attack by the opponent can be eas- ily absorbed and countered leading to a very quick loss by the aggressor.

I have found that the best approach is to adopt the same methods that are suc-cessful in classes, bide your time, feel out your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and then and only attack when you feel the opening is there.

It is important to remember the basics of pushing hands and use them. Be soft, move with the force , stick , don’t lose contact , reject brute force , be spontaneous. Use the Eight Powers (Ba Keng)

When you push use the whole body, don’t just use the arms, remain cen- tred and do not overextend.

In defence be agile and ready to use the attack against itself. Use Cai (ts’ai) uprooting techniques to break the opponents root.

Breaking the root can be upwards or downwards

Although winning is enjoyable and gives you a short term high, the most important thing is to view it as a learning experience.

It is often said that you learn more from losing than you do from win- ning. After all when you win using a tried and tested technique you have learned nothing whereas if you attempt to understand how you have lost then you will gain a greater understanding of the art.

I find that competition is useful if approached in the right way. It is important to learn how to remain calm in a stress situation and competi- tions are a safe way to learn how to do this.

I have seen many highly skilled people who lose all their ability once confronted with a stress situation. You never know how you will react in a stress situation until you actually face it. The more you practise the eas- ier it becomes.

When I enter competitions my aim is to only win using Tai Chi princi- ples with smoothness and style. If I lose then all it means is that I have to improve my style, preparation, stamina and technique or the other per- son is simply better than I am. If I do not attempt to use minimum force and get into a battle of strength then I have forgotten my art under the stress of competition/combat and so I would rather lose and work out what my opponent has done that I couldn’t handle.

In this competition the results are fairly conclusive. I won the Open weight class but came runner up in the Under 84Kg class.

This demonstrates that it is possible to overcome weight and height dis- advantages with superior skill but if the bigger person has skill, has trained hard and has prepared sufficiently then they can also win.

Carl Burgess