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Competition vs. Practice

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Competition vs. Practice: A Look at Training Wushu Fundamentals

Written March 8th, 2014

“Are there are any left sided empty stances, left leg balances, or significant use of the left hand in weapons forms?  Even the double sword forms make little serious use of the left hand outside of flower or reverse flowers.” — Hao Li, Wushu Practitioner and Master’s Thesis Writer on Wushu (Harvard RSEA 2011)

 When someone says, “I practice(d) Wushu”, it is unclear what “practice” actually means.  But if you are a Wushu practitioner who has competition experience, or are at least aware of Wushu’s competitive circuit, you are more likely wondering, “In what sense?”  This is mainly because there are two types of practicing Wushu; general practice, including studio and club environments, versus the training for competition.

Note that in this write-up, there is a distinction that is made between the terms “practice” and “training.”  The two ideas however, are not mutually exclusive to the general practice of Wushu and competitive Wushu.  In my previous write-up, “Putting the “Shu” Back In Wushu: The Art in the Sport Martial Art” I established my observation that modern Wushu specifically walked a fine line between the definitions of sport and martial art, because of how it was derived from Chinese martial arts for sport and competitive purposes.  Due to its dissemination and introduction into the worldwide public to become popular, Wushu can now be said to have two ways of being practiced—learning and competing.  In a previous discussion about competition Wushu, a senior student of my Wushu school, as well as one of my first coaches, expressed his opinion that he doesn’t “necessarily think that good wushu and good competition wushu are the same,” which brought up this interesting topic.  In this write-up, I will attempt to unpack the differences between practicing for practice’s sake and training for competition, the pitfalls of practicing both ways of Wushu on their own, and how this may be addressed.  Unlike most of my previous write-ups, which addresses Wushu in its more historic and literal meaning as an umbrella term of Chinese martial arts (武; wǔ, martial, military, and 术; shù, art, method), here, I will only be writing about Wushu in terms of its contemporary sport variant, known as contemporary or modern Wushu. 

Modern Wushu is standardized into two disciplines; Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), the practice of choreographed routines and sequences, and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), the practice of freestyle sparring and scientific martial applications.  This write-up will focus on Taolu, which is generally assumed to be the central discipline by people that hear of and practice Wushu, but the ideas presented here may apply to Sanshou as well.  The two different experiences of training Wushu, namely competition Wushu versus general practice (without the specific purpose of competition), are each extremely limited on their own.  But by practicing both generally and competitively, it is possible to overcome these restrictions to become a more complete Wushu practitioner.

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There are those who assume that if you have not competed, you don’t really know Wushu.  However, I argue that this is just as fallacious as saying if you haven’t competed in basketball, you don’t really know basketball.  Practicing does not go hand in hand with competing.  This is because of the differences between learning, experiencing, and enjoying any activity versus the strictures and motivations of competing in that activity.

Let us first consider the perspective of a student who is simply learning Wushu, without a competitive goal, but driven more by pure interest.  What then, are his or her goals?  The initial state of practice would simply be to learn what the coach or instructor has to teach.  In response, the serious student would no doubt spend a good amount of time and effort to achieve some level of skill and improvement, and it is at this point where the consistency of “practice” escalates to the idea of “train.”  He or she is assessed purely on his or her individual progress.  Even if it doesn’t matter to others, it obviously matters to the subjective practitioner.  The progress is internally driven, and the student is content in this pursuit if it is continued.

Is this to say that competition is not internally driven?  Not completely.  Serious competitors push themselves to achieve a higher level of skill each and every time they step onto the carpet, a rate of improvement and ever-increasing standard that a general practitioner may not possess.   But a competitive drive is still based on external factors, such as scores, rankings, and medals.  It is competition, after all—there is a fundamental “win-lose” dynamic at the core of every competition.  And even if you don’t win over others, ideally, you are at least attempting to win over your previous self.  There is an assessment of standard going on during competition training, and I’m not just referring to the standard that you set to push or motivate yourself.  Aside from the standards set by oneself, every competitor shares the uniform standards that are stipulated by the competition itself.

Now let’s look at how the general practitioner trains.  While I am by no means an expert in how Wushu is taught everywhere, I can assume from personal experience that the general classroom environment of a professional Wushu school would start out with the standard basics or fundamentals (基本功; jīběngōng).  The idea of building one’s fundamentals is simple by its nature, and not an unfamiliar concept to anyone; basics are basic because of how they build the foundation to higher level of training, not because they are simple things that can easily be mastered; and by the way, they’re not easily mastered.  The most commonly taught Wushu basics include kicks, stances, and empty hand techniques.  When climbing the learning curve, every Wushu exponent must understand some semblance of these when practicing routines.  Depending on what curriculum or set of forms are being taught, the practice of certain and more specific basics will vary from group to group, but they all require diligent repetition on a regular basis, especially when these movements are first being absorbed both mentally and physically.  Good coaches will the take the time to share the details of executing specific techniques.  Also, because a general practitioner is not subject to the constraints of a competitive focus, martial applications and fighting ideas behind movements from the form can be shared.  In another previous write-up, “Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu Training”, I established that while forms and fighting are two different skill sets, this does not mean there is no connection between them.  Even though the attack and defense aspects of modern Wushu Taolu are not the main focus of practice, learning the specific martial applications can aid in improving the coordination and execution of techniques.

One of modern Wushu’s main criticisms is that it has no real martial intent or fighting application; this criticism is aimed specifically at the Taolu discipline of Wushu, which people may mistakenly perceive as the only side of Wushu that exists, and thus do not equate it to a “real” martial art.  Another more internalized criticism by traditional martial artists is the fact that modern Wushu has separated the skill sets of forms work and sparring in its standardization for the sake of sport and competition.  The unfortunate truth to this observation is that when competitive athletes enter the modern Wushu umbrella, they will naturally choose either Taolu or Sanshou to compete and train in exclusively.  By choosing to specialize in one discipline, and almost completely ignoring the other in training, modern Wushu athletes are typically seen as incomplete martial artists.  However, there are many exceptions to both of these observations, especially outside of the competition venue. 

Given the fact that modern Wushu was derived from traditional Chinese martial arts, the knowledge of specific fighting applications and techniques can be seen in Taolu at the basic level, and of course Sanshou’s own basic techniques.  Zhao Changjun, who was featured in the Kung Fu Magazine’s “Where Wushu Went Wrong”, states that in order to become “a real Wushu expert”, one must study both Taolu and Sanshou, in order to have a more complete knowledge of Wushu’s skill sets.  Further, many professional Wushu schools also offer classes in both Taolu and Sanshou, and even traditional Chinese martial arts, which promotes all-around understanding and practice of Chinese martial arts, something that a specialized competitive athlete may lack.  The opportunity to learn and share this knowledge is something that can and should be valued to the serious Wushu student and martial artist.  Such opportunities are not necessarily open to say a competitive athlete, who will most likely focus his or her time solely on what is needed for standardized competition, and these do not include the additional skill sets of martial applications or any particular philosophical mindset.

By contrast, the scope of training for the competitive athlete is much more specific.  Taolu competition is graded based upon specific performance, and the judges don’t care whether or not “this movement is a grab”, or “that technique is a block.”  For Wushu, competition training has always adhered to rules of requirements.  Most recently, in national and international level competition, these requirements include nandu (难度; nándù, difficulty movements), and compulsory movements.  In general, all athletes that compete in these circuits, specifically in optional (自选; zìxuǎn, individual) events, spend their time prioritizing nandu, and the respective basic movements that are minimally required by competition rules, to the exclusion of all others; for the truly ambitious, any additional energies are spent on whatever creativity the athlete may have for the remainder of their performance.  For example, the current rules established by the IWuF (International Wushu Federation) stipulate that the optional Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist) event requires the inclusion of compulsory movements of tantui (弹腿; tántuǐ, snap kick), cechuaitui (侧揣腿; cèchuāituǐ, sidekick), dingzhou (顶肘; dǐngzhǒu, horizontal elbow strike), housaotui (后扫腿; hòusǎotuǐ , backsweep), koutuipingheng (扣腿平衡; kòutuǐpínghéng, cross-leg balance), stances of gongbu (弓步; gōngbù, bow/front stance), pubu (仆步; pūbù, drop/crouching stance), and xubu (虚步; xūbù, empty/cat stance), along with the three basic hand postures quan (拳; quán, fist), zhang (掌; zhǎng, palm), and gou (勾; gōu, hook).  More recently, the CWA (Chinese Wushu Association) has incorporated the requirement of two event-specific compulsory movement combinations (规定动作组合; guīdìngdòngzuòzǔhé) in each solo optional event of their national competitions.  Given that the execution of these requirements, not the least of which is the completion of nandu, are held to a very specific and objective standard, where do you think the emphasis of actual forms practice will go to?  Naturally, if athletes want to do well, they will spend the majority of their time satisfying base level requirements.  It is difficult to quantify exactly how every athlete spends their time drilling and practicing these movements, but it is nevertheless a valid observation that the meeting of competition rules and standard is a priori, making up the “main entre” of any competitive routine.

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Compulsory requirements in Taolu events, including the weapons events, are very limited in nature, especially in terms of stances.  What about other the inclusion of other stances, such as xiebu (歇步; xiēbù, resting stance)?  In recent years, Taolu requirements have been overlooking the more completeness of the inclusion of basic Wushu techniques.  The compulsory (规定; guīdìng) routines, while not sharing this flaw on the same magnitude, also have their own problems; preset combinations tend to set a trend of how movements should be connected and practiced.  For example, it is interesting to notice that almost all basics practiced are dominantly focused on the right side of the body.  Virtually all jumps, slaps, kicks, strikes, and flower movements with an apparatus are almost always done, or at least led with the right side.  One could argue that this trend of practice discriminates against those that are coordinately dominant on their left side, or even the ability to become ambidextrous.  Personally, I have yet to see an athlete in person dominantly use a weapon in their left hand in competition, with the exception of “open weapon” events that employ the use of double apparatus.  This creates the perception that Wushu stylists are naturally imbalanced towards one side, specifically the right, which is an observation that has unfortunately become truer as years have gone by.  Segregated coordination like this negates all-around skill and body control, something that the spectator would ideally extol Wushu artists for having.

What about the other events of taolu, such as duilian (对练; duìliàn, choreographed fight sets)?  Another fact of Wushu specialization nowadays is that athletes in Taolu further specialize in only one category of events, either in certain solo optional or group events.  The “old school” Wushu athletes of Taolu were more all-around athletes in competition, because they were required in their day to not only compete in optional events of bare hand, long weapon and short weapon, but also in compulsory, duilian, and sometimes even jiti (集体; jítǐ , group sets) events.  Sadly, even this abundance of well-rounded skill disappeared in the later 2000s; this may be due to the fact that such requirements are no longer in place today, and as such athletes don’t see any need to at least compete in them.  Again, there are also exceptions to this, albeit not many.  Unfortunately, the flaws of competition and its requirements cannot easily be fixed.  Athletes or judges don’t have the power to change such shortcomings, as much as we’d like them to; they are only capable of playing their respective parts in the competition arena.  However, if we are truly dedicated in mastering our art, we should at least be willing to explore other skill sets of Wushu, even if means going outside of our specialization on the carpet.

So which method of practice is better?  The answer is: that depends.  Specifically, it depends on what you are looking for in Wushu.  Do you want to be able to have a competitive career as a Wushu athlete?  Or do you simply want to take your time and learn something in-depth, and reap the full benefits of diligent practice?  These are not questions I can answer for you, it all depend on the individual.  And if you don’t know, then I recommend trying both experiences.  By experiencing both perspectives, you are capable of observing the best of both worlds, while simultaneously being able to overcome the aforementioned limits of training in only one method.  Practicing simply for the sake of practicing and learning is great, but with no specific goal in mind, progress in skill can plateau.  Pursuing something because it is “fun” is fine, but a more serious mentality is needed to achieve a greater level of practice—in other words, training for competition.  Not being restricted by a specialized competitive focus allows opportunities to learn more as a student than you could as an athlete.  And while you don’t have to compete to seriously train per se, competition is still a great opportunity to be able to push and improve yourself farther than you ever would with a steady, timely rate of practice.  However, being solely concerned with competition can severely limit your skill sets and capabilities as a martial artist, which in turn is also stifling in nature.  As in most cases, the best way is the find some kind of middle ground to make both ways work for you.  In competitive training, you can push yourself and discipline yourself to achieve a high level of skill, and in your off-season, you can open yourself up to exploring other skill sets you do not normally train in to better your martial arts foundation, if you are willing to do so.

In closing, modern Wushu’s flaws do not lie inherently in the system and theory of Wushu, but rather in how it is practiced and interpreted.  To change this and not only better the practice of Wushu, but ourselves in the process, we need to be able to overcome the limitations of how we train, be it for general practice or competition.  We should be willing to step out of our comfort zone and address our individual inabilities and shortcomings in order to attain progress.  By opening ourselves up to both learning and competitive experiences, we are able to become not only better Wushu stylists, but better martial artists.

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