My Gripes About Push Hands

I remember Adam Hsu telling me that there had recently been a big Push Hands championship in China. Then, shaking his head, he said, “…and all the students beat the instructors.” This was hardly a surprise to me. I have officiated at Push Hands competitions and can see all the problems.

One of the biggest, in my mind, is that Push Hands could be such a great exercise and experience. I’ll tell you the truth: I have had more long time students from other teachers, people with experience AND skill, who hate Push Hands, more than I have had any other single source of complaints. Push Hands just irritates the heck out of people, and no wonder.

The first problem, as has been pointed out by a number of instructors, is the name PUSH hands.What could be more misleading? If you changed the name of Wing Chun’s Sticky Hands to Spitting Contest, guess what would happen? In reality, Push Hands is less about Pushing than positioning. But it’s much worse than that. I don’t care if it looks like Sumo and only the big guys win. Tough, that’s life, and if the philosophy of yielding falls apart in the lab that’s too bad. But the fact is that people aren’t even winning because they are bigger and better, but because they lean forward, break the rules, take postures that would never work and the judges just don’t get it. Push Hands cannot be based on letting people lean forward and charge. Once they do this it implies going to the ground and that’s another game entirely. Leaning forward brings your head into striking range, elbow distance and shoulder butting perimeter. The idea of Push Hands precludes these particular attack. You have to know if you are playing chess or checkers. If you are going to allow leaning, you should just start the pair in opposing starting blocks and shoot off a track gun.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with leaning to enter a fighting move but if the rules of the game allow anything short of striking you cannot stop someone from leaning. And the misguided think they are being effective. They could learn as much push-starting their car in the morning. You have to understand which phase of fighting you are actually training. When I was teaching Matt Furey he told me that his teacher, the formidable Dan Gable, would have his wrestlers practice for the initial grab only, not the follow through. As I understand it, Gable felt that if you could hand wrestle you could get where you want for throws, trips and whatever. The focus here was entering, not diving.

It’s the same here. Imagine the real disadvantage of some beginning Tai Chi fighter against, say, an MMA fighter. You’re going to say they haven’t a chance because one has more strength or they punch hard or they go to the ground. Possibly, but from a Kung Fu standpoint, the problem is that they don’t know how to seal and enter. Watch all the different fighters. The very essence of Chinese martial arts is “hand fighting” that is attacking with a gambit that leads to the opponent’s momentary tie up. You can’t get that in a contest with two crashing elks. But if you weren’t in a contest and still couldn’t get it, then your Kung Fu is useless. You don’t understand its strategy.

Two guys obsessed with Pushing one another are completely missing the point. The simplest solution? We should give points for neutralization, reversals and breakaways. Sound weird? Wrestling gives such points especially for escapes.

Think you are frustrated by this? Listen. I was invited to officiate at a good-sized tournament a few years ago. It was Sunday and we’d been judging for days and just about everyone had left the hall, but there was one last thing to be judged: the Push Hands competition. We began. I was in the company of a number of well-known Kung Fu and Tai Chi instructors. The thing began and it was a purgatory of confusion. No one seemed to know exactly what a point was. You would think it would just be tossing someone out of the ring but there was more to it than that. I finally had it when I noticed a defensive technique that was gong to break someone’s nose and the guy, who had obviously developed it in his school, was a oblivious as could be. I stepped in and disallowed the technique. About then I got tired so I went to the ladies at the counter and told them how I wanted the time kept, and tens second warnings, and all that. Then I started to cut the match when anything looked real. I would point to each instructor and gave them exactly three seconds to decide. Anything that looked sloppy of stiff or jerky, we stopped before it got going. We might not know much in California but we know how to run tournaments.

At the end of the thing I thought, “here we go.” A couple of instructors came over and I apologized, saying that I was anxious to go home, for taking over the matches. They shook their heads and one instructor said, “Well, I learned something about judging.” I did too. If the teachers are not clear the students can’t be.

We have GOT to fix Push Hands.

3 Responses to “My Gripes About Push Hands”

  1. Hal Asbury says:

    I can’t help wanting to say to some of those that treat push hands like its the reason they do Taijiquan that push hands is a drill, and as central a drill as it is-it’s not fighting. Learning the lesson is the reason that push hands is there, and it helps people acquire skills that are supposed to be key words in the art. To the extent that it takes on a life of its own and the very principles to be learned and incorporated are thrown out to “win”- the drill in itself becomes an example of missing the point. Are we to take to having spear sharpening contests?

  2. Jeff says:

    I think this is fairly common to all martial arts tournaments. Taekwondo sparring is about scoring points, and it’s fun when both competitors agree to that premise. But when one of them fancies himself an MMA fighter-in-training, it’s no longer fun. When judges aren’t scoring clear points, then the players start hitting harder and harder to try to get the judges to hear each point, since they can’t seem to see it. When judges give points that have been blocked, then the outcome of the entire contest is arbitrary.

    I enjoy the competition of tournaments. I don’t particularly enjoy some of the competitors. If I were running a tournament, I’d start things off by saying, “This is not The Gathering. Neither are we competing to see who among us is worthy to rule the Shadow World. Nor are we fighting for a million dollar payday. If you win today, you will receive a trophy and the knowledge that on this day, you were a little better and a little luckier than a few other people. If you do not win, it was not your day to win. We train for many reasons. Today is not one of the important reasons. So let’s all have some fun and make some friends.”

  3. Patrick says:

    Your point has great merit. I’ve stressed for years that push-hands should be referred to only as yin-yang hands. I’ve never been in a tournament, yet have done a lot of inter-school push-hands and sparring. Egos can be dangerous and I’ve been attacked a number of times by people frustrated by their inability to PUSH me. As you point out, most have a mistaken concept of the purpose so they cannot conceive of or follow the proper training or application. I gave up open-to-all push-hands and sparring altogether as someone was going to get seriously hurt – possibly me. Yin-yang hands works within a school as everyone follows the same rules. It can easily fall apart with outsiders. The required warning is that schools play by rules, and being a champion in a school with rules does not make you a great fighter. In the isolation of their school many forget that.

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