The Hardest Thing

In all of the martial arts, and especially Kung Fu training, there is one type of practice which only about three per cent of the students and players can “get”: partner combat practices like Push Hands and Sticky Hands. And the trouble all boils down to one word, which if you judge by its incidence is about as rare as an albino black bear, COOPERATION.

There seems to be some kind of mental block that most people have when it comes to cooperation. Andc there’s a little glitch in the brain that makes it EXTRA difficult when it comes to the topic of martial arts.

What do I mean by cooperation? I DON’T mean just being a rag doll. Actually I don’t even mean trying to be nice and polite to your partner. In fact cooperation doesn’t even have to do with your partner. It means to do only  what is expected in the exercise. If you play chess and lose its bad form to throw the table over. If someone in Push Hands gently off balances you don’t grab their arms and pull them into a wrestling match. This is not only bad form but bad technique.

Why is it so hard to cooperate? Partly it is the image people come in with that martial artists are all about winning, which is true but NOT THIS MINUTE, a little patience please. Some people are so disconnected they don’t even know they are tensing all the time. Some people have “cheating brains” that just can’t allow the other guy to start from the even steven position, they are complelled to inch this way or that just to create an edge. (This last one happens a lot between male players.)

Don’t’ get me wrong, I don’t think martial arts is about everyone being nice all the time and completely abandoning martial intent. I remember an article by the impressive Tim Cartmell where he pointed out the advantages of training with uncooperative partners and I completely agree. My point is that if you are doing a cooperative exercise that’s what you should be: cooperative.

There’s a reason for cooperation and it is NOT sunken in Chinese mysticism. The Tai Chi classics advise us to “give up ourselves” and “follow the opponent”. Do you have any idea how much rare skill that takes? I remember the first moment of the first time I ever sparred with Joe Lewis. He outweighed me by sixty or seventy pounds, was a many time world champion, was blinding fast as well as being unbelievably powerful and that’s not to mention multiples past my skill level. So, of course, I decided to attack. I moved forward a half a foot and he disappeared, just disappeared. He moved back out of range so fast it was like he was attached to a giant rubber band. My first thought was, “I just got the world champion to back up.” This was followed instantaneously by, “That might not be such a good thing.” In other words Lewis just accommodated me and, by doing so, neutralized everything I had.

When you push hands, or play sticky hands, or Hung gar rolling arms, you have to let go and imagine you are engaged in something like social dance. You have to drop the ego and do the exercise and the less tension and confrontation the better. There are enough reasons for this strategy that I could write a book on it but here are the headliners…

You have to start from neutral, no pushing, straining, leaning, or grunting; to know what neutral is. If you start from neutral and cooperate you and your partner will move like professionals. In Push Hands, Shuai Jiao and company, you lead one move, you follow one more.  The more neutral you are at first, the more obvious will be your partner’s attacks and change ups.

If everyone cooperates then anyone can play. Kung Fu is a village art. Cheng Man Chin used to say that when he practiced with a child he pretended it was a large man and when he practiced with a big man he pretended it was a child. The first brought attention and sensitivity, the second reduced fear. But, you will note, Cheng had the idea of multi generational practice. Don’t be fooled, everyone has something to share.

I’m going to be severe these last two and speak to the beginning students, please pay attention. When you cooperate in practicing you will not only get rid of your fear but, most importantly, you won’t confuse your tense, amateurish and slightly paranoid concept of fighting with the real thing. Sticky hands, for instance, even under the most intense conditions, is not really fighting, as every Wing Chun teacher will tell you. It’s ineffective to pretend it is what it isn’t and, more to the point, it will give you very pathetic returns on your investment. If you are tensing up in cooperative partner practice you are going to be a basket case if you even need this stuff.

Which feeds directly into the idea that you ALREADY know how to be insensitive, tight, tense and knotted up. Practice fairly and truly with just the minimum of what the Chinese call “dumb strength” and you WON’T CONFUSE YOUR INCORRECT TECHNIQUE WITH GOOD RESULTS.  Sometimes you can force a win if winning is all you care about, but as far as skill You WANT to lose if you tighten, and strain and force the issue. You WANT to learn the difference between knowledgeable technique and wishful grunting.

I recently saw a match between a professional wrestler and Alexander Karelin, whom some people are calling the “greatest wrestler of all time”. I was shocked at this level of skill, strength and size. But what seemed most outstanding was his complete, almost bored, relaxation. Everywhere the match went he was in familiar territory. That’s not just knowing a few tricks, it’s a sure sign that everywhere the match went he had ALREADY BEEN THERE. His training was not limited, as sometimes happens in the UFC, competency in a few techniques and then just pounding the opponent with them; but a total acceptance of wherever the match could go, a knowing look that experts gain after long practice. It is a look that says, “I’m going to cooperate with anything you want to do, but you won’t LIKE it.”

When you are making your New Year’s resolution may I suggest you consider cooperation. It can be a powerful thing.

One Response to “The Hardest Thing”

  1. patrick hodges says:

    Extremely well said. Ego is mostly to blame(however, nothing wrong with a HEALTHY ego).

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