I realize that this topic will probably step on some toes, but it was actually inspired by a discussion I have recently had with Mr Gibbs (who is training in Tai Chi Chuan) where he suggested writing an article around such a question. The title is a little misleading, in that the question is a bit larger than that. Every martial art style can reasonably be asked this very question. Unless we are stepping up onto a platform, without pads, authorities or rules, how can we possibly say that our training or sparring is teaching us to deal with real world scenarios? Even the platform pulls us out of the ‘real world’. Of course it’s not like we can simply go out and pick fights with people in bars, clubs, on the street etc, and call it training. In light of this, none of our styles truly train us in real world situations. So in using the wordmartial in martial arts has a slightly different meaning. Here I am referring to techniques that can feasibly used to subdue or injure an opponent. An example of what I DON’T mean here are some of the moves in styles like modern Wushu that are so showy, were a person to attempt to apply them, they would be countered well before they are done executing the technique.
Perhaps more specifically, can training martial arts moves without ever sparring, without ever performing the moves ‘at speed’ produce in the practitioner the ability to use said techniques in an actual fight scenario? I have heard stories of the amazing power that long time Tai Chi masters can generate, and I do not doubt these stories. But if these masters were jumped on the street, would their training be a noticeable asset to them? This is a good question for students like me, who are inspired by forms / katas and are far more skilled at these than sparring or other ‘applied’ training. Can forms work develop skills that will help in fighting? Before answering, we need to remember that there have been studies that show a perceived activity offers huge benefits, like the actual activity itself. I will cover this information in future articles, but it seems that science would argue for at least the possibility that forms or katas could instill skills that would aid in an actual sparring match.
The Benefits of Slow Movement
While I do not know any measurable amount of Tai Chi, I do often work through my forms at a ‘Tai Chi’ speed and I have seen beneficial results from it. As I move slowly through my forms, I am able to see what stances I am doing and how well I am doing them. At such speeds you cannot get away with simply fudging over a move you aren’t entirely certain about. It forces you to learn and remember every move in the form. But as far as a direct correlation between this and my sparring abilities, I haven’t seen anything noticeable. Then again, progress in kung fu is usually something that can only be seen when looking back through months and years of hard training, so it’s difficult to tell. I do know that working my self defense combinations in a ’shadow boxing’ style (out of necessity, as I don’t have a training partner in my home) has improved my confidence when sparring other students. I no longer feel entirely awkward when I step out onto the floor.
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I know about a quarter of a Tai Chi form, this is the most we have learned in the Tai Chi style in my kwoon. It is a Chin Na form, and when we learned the martial application for each move, I realized just how vicious every step was. But each move is executed slow and smooth, and the moves are hidden behind abstract versions of the moves. But the knowledgeable student can easily visualize what he or she is doing to his or her opponent, and therefore reap the benefits of mentally running through the martial application of the form.
Unfortunately I am not knowledgeable enough to comment on the applicative efficiency of Tai Chi. I would be very interested in hearing from the Tai Chi practitioners out there. I Tai Chi a training in martial arts, or is it more of a health, centeredness, personal strength exercise? I know that it builds a centered foundation, and teaches its students to gather and utilize qi, but are these skills that can, via Tai Chi training, be transferred over to a fighting situation?
In time, when Mr Gibbs is at a level of mastery that he can teach his skills to others, perhaps he would be willing to teach me more of this fascinating style.