Presentation vs. Practicality in Martial Arts

by Rob Wulforst

This past week, I’ve participated in several discussions about Tai Chi and the inability of martial arts practicioners to hold their own in a fight.  Recently, a Tai Chi “master” and an MMA "promoter" from China had a match which led to the Tai Chi “master” taking an embrassing loss.  It's reverberated throughout the community and created a lot of drama.  Another person commented how martial arts presentations are “too” safe and never really expresses how the techniques are supposed to look or be applied.  Lastly, I expressed my concern that beginning martial artists should learn how to spar and how they can to start without fear of being hurt.

From these discussions, I make reference to these examples as Presentation Vs. Practicality.  This means that there is a duality, Yin and Yang, to the way you learn martial arts.  What you learn in class and what you study is the foundation.  It is the presentation of how a technique is supposed to work.  As such, that is the Yin.  Practicing the technique in a controlled, but unpredictable environment, such as sparring, rolling hands, push hands, and/or ground work is the practicality part.  It is the Yang.

Without a strong practice in both, your martial art will fail.  It doesn’t matter what style you do and it doesn’t matter what style you face against.  Knowing a move is not enough. You need to apply it against people of varying experience.  Just doing a move is also not enough. You need to build the muscle memory to perform it without thinking in a stressful situation.  Strangely enough, Tai Chi stresses these points, it’s just commonly overlooked.

I wrote the article “Confidence through Push Hands” last week on to show there’s an easier way to begin learning how to spar.  As I’ve mentioned several times, push hands is not a fighting technique, it’s a way of learning sensitivity on how your opponent moves and how to counter.  It’s a controlled, yet unpredictable, environment where you can test angles, blocks, and strikes.  In its more advanced stages, you can even test throws.  After a certain amount of time, you “learn” to have more courage in certain situations. This leads to being less “spooked” or “twitching” in a fight.  It becomes more of the same routine, just like doing the same job over and over again.  Once you feel comfortable enough with practice, you change how you spar and start learning again.  It's a never ending process.

I admire the many teachers that introduce and encourage sparring in their schools.  Not to just beat on their students, which most teachers like to do, but to have an environment where the students (and the teacher alike) get to “play” with what they learn.  You don’t need to fight at 100% or even 50%, just get in and practice. That leads to one of the most important points to sparring, that it’s NOT a competition.  It doesn’t matter who got the best of who or who hit who the most.  You spar to learn.  The more time you spar and the more people you spar with benefits you more than just your pride.

I love push hands and I love practicing with other people that follow the same mentality.  We laugh and joke through some bouts or we’re in intense concentration in others.  What makes it special is we can share our experiences afterward.  I would have never reached the level I have if I couldn’t practice like this.  Does this make me a good fighter?  No.  Does it make me a better fighter than I was? Yes.