Monday 24 February 2014

Should I train weapons?

Weapons - To train or not to train?
In the days of Chen Wangting the answer to this question was a no-brainier. Traditional weapons were still being carried onto the battlefield and used for real. Today, the various weapon forms are often considered within the context of demonstrating or exercising in the park and many modern urban Taiji warriors question their continued relevance. The logic goes - "if you want to use a weapon, why not just carry a gun?"

It's certainly true that now most people train Taijiquan for its health benefits and for personal development rather than for life or death combat. From this perspective it's easy to see why many combat-oriented practitioners have come to view weapons training as an unnecessary anachronism. However, this represents a superficial understanding of the role of weapons training in the traditional training curriculum. 

Each weapon trains and reinforces different aspects of Taijiquan that helps to develop the physique and attributes of the Chen boxer: The sword develops strong and flexible wrists and hands and flexibility throughout the body; The broadsword develops powerful explosive movement - especially when trained with a traditional heavy weapon rather than the flimsy modern wushu version most widely seen today; The spear form helps in the development of fast and accurate footwork as well as improving upper and lower body co-ordination... Heavy weapons have long been used to increase strength.
CTGB  group training spear form 

The question of the continued relevance of weapons training for the modern player was addressed in an article on the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School website recently. The article went as far as to say that the essence of Chen Taijiquan's footwork is in the spear form training and not the hand form. A thing I often notice in push hands training is the reluctance or inability of many students to move backwards. Strong guys are happy forcing their forward, but upon meeting someone of equal or greater strength are not flexible enough to use footwork to neutralise their opponent. 

Lt: Wang Zhanghai v fencer
An interesting programme floating about on YouTube in the last few weeks shows a  friendly challenge between Chen Taijiquan exponent Wang Zhanhai (son of Wang Xian) and a fencing champion. The unarmed Wang uses evasion and rapid agile footwork to prevent the fencer from touching him with his weapon. Only on the fifth attempt did the fencer manage to register a hit against Wang's body. 

Look at some of the leading Chen practitioners: Chen Fake is said to have great issuing power and reputed to train with the long pole daily; his grandson Chen Xiaowang is known for his great explosive power and fajin skill and in a widely seen film snaps the head off his guandao during a demonstration of the form; Beijing based Chen Yu is known for his Qinna skills but at the same time can show a wonderfully dextrous performance of the sword... In fact it's difficult to find a leading exponent of the combat capabilities of Chen Taijiquan that is not also an accomplished weapons practitioner.
Qinna training with Chen Yu is a painful experience - his weapons skills happen to be pretty good as well! 

Monday 3 February 2014

The importance of marginal gains...

Taijiquan training develops every aspect - "hands, eyes, body & footwork"
Taijiquan training looks to develop the total capacities of an individual. This is reflected in the saying that one must train " shou yan shenfa bu" (hands, eyes, body and footwork).  There are strict rules for every part of the body and on how to train until the whole body moves as a cohesive unit. These rules can seem impossibly pedantic to many students, who may wander off to do something more immediately gratifying. Or discard aspects of training that they deem unimportant to progress.  But it is important that we don't lose confidence and underestimate the power of small positive changes. 

It is interesting to see some leading modern sports coaches adopting a similar "total" approach in developing their charges to levels of achievement recently thought impossible. For instance, Dave Brailsforth, performance director of British Cycling and mastermind behind Team GB, who took 7 of the 10 gold medals available at the London Olympics. His philosophy has come to be known as "marginal gains theory".  Put simply... Brailsforth showed that small improvements in a number of different aspects of what you do can have a huge impact on the overall performance of an individual. He explained: "The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them together ...there's fitness and conditioning of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position...many tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference".

Small changes give big results - if you persevere!
His concept of marginal gains is strikingly similar to that of England's 2003 Rugby World Cup winning coach Sir Clive Woodward: "Winning the Rugby World Cup was not about doing 1 thing 100 percent better, but about doing 100 things 1 percent better. Woodward famously went as far as employing a visual awareness coach to improve the peripheral vision of his players. 

Just because you cannot see or understand the importance or relevance of some requirement or other, be careful not to discard aspects of a training methodology that have been tried and tested and evolved over nearly four centuries. Tiny incremental changes add up and, given time, can make a large impact.

This slow deep cultivation is what real Taijiquan training is all about.

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