Partner Work - On "Learning" vs "Winning"

Discussion in 'Tai chi' started by Dan Bian, Sep 10, 2018.

  1. Dan Bian

    Dan Bian Neither Dan, nor Brian

    Going through my laptop, I found an old article I wrote on the idea of "Learning" vs "Winning" in partner-work; particularly through the lens of Tui Shou.

    I hope it's ok to share it here :)

    Training with a partner is probably the most important part of any martial art. Practicing forms/kata, or shadow boxing, or bag/pad work is all very well, but once you get a living, breathing, moving human-being in front of you, everything changes.

    The are lots of different kinds of partner work, from set drills, to free drills, all the way up to free sparring.
    But really, at no time should you be thinking about ‘winning’, or ‘beating’ your partner.

    The reason we do partner work is to develop the skills we have been learning in isolation, by working them against another person. The goal is self-improvement – not domination of the partner. We find out how the things we’ve been learning can be applied in actualization.

    When you try to ‘beat’ your partner, or ‘win’ (win what, exactly??) you are no longer developing yourself, but attempting to dominate your partner for the sake of your ego.
    When you are trying to “win”, your mind is looking outwards – it is seeing your partner as an opponent, and by doing this, your mind goes into fight-mode – your training goes out of the window, as you attempt to prove that you are ‘better’, that you can ‘do this’ while they cannot
    Naturally, you can’t learn anything like this, because you’re looking out, rather than in.

    When you are ‘learning’, you are naturally looking inside yourself, at how you do this – how can you improve?

    As an example:
    If I am practicing free-step uprooting (FSU), I am engaged in a training exercise – not a combat bout.
    The idea of FSU is to learn how to interact with a moving parter, how to step, how to absorb force, how to issue force, angles of approach. We learn and practice these qualities by pushing and pulling against our partner, whilst trying to use Tai Chi body principles (softness, turning the waist, relaxed power). Occasionally, we might practice FSU in a restricted area, within a ring for example. The goal here is not to try and push our partner out of the ring, but to make us think about how we are moving within the confined space. We can’t keep moving back, so we have to think about how to move to the sides.
    If my partner starts trying to “win”, IE; they are using hard force to try and force me out of the ring – they aren’t learning. They’re not using the tai chi principles, so how can they be learning anything about how to apply them???

    But, just because he/she may not be using tai chi principles, that doesn’t mean I can’t. My partner may be trying to ‘win’ – but I don’t respond in kind. Instead, I let them use their force, and I learn from it; is my structure strong? Can I absorb and redirect their force? Can I stay soft and relaxed as they are applying force against me?

    Ideally, both partners should be looking at how they can learn and improve, not how they can beat each other. Because, in the end, if your mind is focused on me, and my mind is focused on me, then who is going to get the most benefit??
  2. David Harrison

    David Harrison MAPper without portfolio

    This is a bit of a head scratcher. I'm still trying to work out if you've made an objective distinction or just a linguistic one.

    Why do you associate the desire to win with a lack of technique?

    It seems more like you are saying that allowing emotions to build physical tension is detrimental to technique, that a certain detachment and channelling of intent increases your capacity to learn from an exercise (whether you "win" or "lose"), but it also increases your chance of "winning".

    No matter how gently or thoughtfully you do it, if your intent is made manifest while thwarting the intent of your training partner, you have dominated them.
  3. Dan Bian

    Dan Bian Neither Dan, nor Brian

    The difference being that, if you are focused on "winning" rather than "learning", you aren't necessarily trying to use the skills that are trying to be developed, rather just brute-forcing your way to a perceived "victory".

    This is not to say that when you are actively trying to put your theory into practice, you're not trying to upset your partner - but you are trying to do so using the skills of taijiquan, rather than simply forcing your way through.

    I've practiced tuishou with several people who are so focused on trying to "beat" me, that all skills goes out of the window and they resort to flapping their hands around and trying to shove their way forward. What do they get out of it? They've pushed their partner off balance, but haven't actually developed any skill in the doing of it.
  4. David Harrison

    David Harrison MAPper without portfolio

    Hmmm... I would think that if flapping hands and shoving can be effective, then I'd start to work out how to incorporate that into my practice ;)

    Put into different words, it kind of sounds like you are talking about what the rules of the game are. If you "win" without using taijiquan principles, then it is breaking the rules of the game. Like getting a sneaky elbow KO in boxing.

    I do entirely take your point that one might question why they are doing taijiquan if they aren't going to develop taijiquan techniques though.

    Speaking for myself, I think that a mixture is good. It's good to experiment with different energies, for both people. Anything can be a learning experience if you approach it in the right way, even though you may not be learning taijiquan.
  5. aaradia

    aaradia Choy Li Fut and Yang Tai Chi Chuan Student Moderator Supporter

    Oh yeah, run into this on a fairly regular basis. Usually a new student and usually a big guy. We have one right now. Several random thoughts on this.

    Let me add that I a defining "force" as just ignoring TCC principles and using brute force by any means.

    1. It is a weird concept and counter-intuitive. I think EVERY TCC student to some extent has to learn to say relaxed when faced with force. So, it is important to remember we were all there at some point.

    2. When I run across this in a match, I look at it as my chance to apply the reality of TCC in a realistic scenario. Can I keep my principles of TCC in a fight when others are coming in at me with force? I mean, as an advanced student, if I can't, this is a flaw in MY training. I should be able to apply it, otherwise it is rather useless. But the match is where we are trying to win, so.................

    3. BUT, when a student does this force thing in drills, vs say a match. I get annoyed. Because in drills we are working on a particular concept, And then I can't focus on that concept if the person is ignoring the specific concept and trying to WIN with force - ignoring the concept we are working on. Then it affects my ability to do the drill and my training. And that ticks me off.

    4. I just get annoyed when it is ego driven, vs a newcomer that doesn't know better. Or when it is a newbie, but they also have an ego thing going on. Because, as a more experienced student, I should be helping new students. But when the new students ego gets in the way, I can't. Then I am forced with either dropping the drill and teaching him a lesson or beating my head against the wall because he won't listen. Well actually, what I do in this situation is get the instructor to come step in and try to get it through the new students skull. The current student I referenced, he was doing the force thing to me in a drill. And I was like, I could defeat him, but I was trying to help him learn from the drill. I didn't want annoyance to turn into an ego thing with me just whupping him. I wanted to be a good advanced student and try to help him learn. So I called the instructor over to help. The instructor tried to explain it to him, but his ego wasn't letting him listen. He was talking back and blaming other students for the force being applied. But it was his limbs that were literally shaking with the force. (I was neutralizing and watching his limbs shake as he kept trying.) This same student argued about the point being trying to win the week before, but not getting that it was a drill to work on developing a skill.

    5. Along the lines of what I just hinted at, these students think others are applying force when they aren't. They don't understand the feel of the difference between force and good structure and intention with TCC principles. It is all the same to them.

    A few years ago, a big new guy kept complaining I was using force to win. So I called Sifu over to see if I was doing this. (Because if I was, I wanted to know to fix it.) Sifu watched and said I was using good principles only.

    When the instructor was trying to teach this guy, he kept arguing that others were using force first. Well, a few were using force in response, because staying calm against force is a skill we are all developing and that was explained to him. But also, he argued the instructor was using force, but he was just using a neutralization- perfectly in line with TCC principles. The instructor tried to explain the difference between structure, and neutralization and redirection vs force against force. But he kept arguing. Later, he was complaining when another more advanced student was trying to get the point across. (We were ALL trying as he was the only new person in the class.) I was watching as it was an odd # of people and I was in the queue section with no partner. And I just flat out told him that - that new students often have trouble feeling the difference between intention, structure and what force feels like. I actually think that got through to him.

    6. Being a good partner, staying patient, feeding just enough for the person to learn without overwhelming them, knowing when to keep trying and when to call in an instructor - well that is a skill in and of itself.

    The student I used as an example here. He might have finally been opening up his mind by the end of the class. When every single student and the instructor was trying to get the same message across, maybe he finally started to listen. We will see how he is next class!

    Finally, on the other side of it, it annoys me when advanced students in actual matches complain or use the opponent using force as a whiny excuse why they lost. To reiterate what I said earlier, an advanced student should be able to apply TCC principles to defeat force.

    Years ago, in a tournament, some much less experienced student came at me with all sorts of bad principles and force. I defended a whole bunch of them successfully, but failed one time. I lost 1 to 0. A fellow student tried to support me and say "but yeah, she only won with force- not TCC." And my response was that I should have bee n able to use TCC against that. I mean that is the whole concept of the art.

    So, what I learned from that match is that I needed to not just defend, but that I needed to learn how to defend and then turn it into an attack. Not just be happy with the defense, but to create openings for my attack.

    Just complaining about "force" in actual matches by advanced students makes TCC look ineffective.

    But again, it is understanding when one is trying to learn vs trying to win. And that goes for other arts as well.
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2018
    axelb and Dan Bian like this.
  6. aaradia

    aaradia Choy Li Fut and Yang Tai Chi Chuan Student Moderator Supporter

    Going to add that the two are not mutually exclusive. Like the example I gave about my tournament loss. I was trying to win, And I learned from it as well.

    With the bit here............

    I can be trying to win AND learn from the endeavor at the same time. Once can have the questions above AND still use that to try to win. If one never tries to win in a fighting art, then it becomes that whole hippy stereotype of the art. It is the whole necessity of times where you do need to test yourself against a resisting opponent. There needs to be a time and place for going against someone not being too compliant.

    My approach is I try to win, but I would rather lose with good principles than win with bad ones. Our advanced TCC Push hands class is right after our CLF sparring class. I am trying right now to calm myself down and switch gears, because I was finding myself still hyped up from sparring and winning matches, but with too much force. It would take me a couple minutes to get into the TCC groove. Which didn't feel like a valid win in my book. (I did better with this last Saturday. :))

    I knew a fellow student who told me at tournament that he tried to win with principles, but if he was losing, he would forgo principles and just use force to win by any means to get a medal. I thought that was a bad attitude.

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