The Tao of T'ai Chi Tournament Competition
Over the years I've been able to accumulate some small insights that I think will help you get the most out of your tournament experience.
1. Physical Conditioning
a) Starting Months in Advance: The first thing to know is that there are people who are training all year round to compete against you in the tournament. They are doing form every day, pushing hands, running, lifting weights, stretching, eating right, and doing whatever else they can think of to prepare to win the gold medal. If you want to compete, start training months in advance so that by the time the day of the tournament arrives, you are at your personal best. Here are some aspects of the physical conditioning that you will need in order to be successful.
b) Endurance: If you are going to compete in push hands, you may have to play several matches in a row against difficult opponents. If your lungs, heart or muscles are not already accustomed to working overtime, you may not be able to endure physically. Once your body begins to become fatigued, your technique and concentration deteriorate at a rapid pace. Nothing is more frustrating that losing to someone who may not be as skilled as you are but has better fitness (or simply hasn't played as many matches that day). What you need to do is train your body and mind to be able to play vigorous push hands for extended periods of time against various, resistant opponents. The reason I suggest resistant opponents is because you never know how permissive the judges will be in regards to "using force". If the judges allow the players to "rough it up", you had better be used to that style of play. All of the soft, relaxed push hands in the world won't prepare you for a tournament match that happens to allow rough play.
c) Strength: Because the T'ai Chi ideal is to "use four ounces to deflect one thousand pounds" people make the mistake of allowing their bodies to become weak. They somehow believe that because they have good technique, it doesn't matter what condition their body is in. Nothing could be further from the truth. The top tennis players (not to mention chess masters) have impeccable technique, but still put a tremendous amount of strength training into their training. Your body may very well take a beating at a push hands tournament. None of us are masters (well, not me anyway!!!). None of us are immune to clashing with our opponents at times. Your joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles and heart must be strong enough to withstand large amounts of force without failing. Weight training is an excellent way to ensure that your physical body is able to handle the rigors of push hands competition. As for the specifics of weight training, I would suggest you do the research on your own. Leave it at this for now... all other things being equal, the bigger, stronger person has the advantage. Another way to improve total body strength is through holding individual postures in deep stances with extended, stretched postures.
d) Flexibility: Although we would all like to believe that our T'ai Chi training provides us with all the flexibility that we need, incorporating stretching into your training can greatly improve your chances of achieving tournament success. Because at times you will be experiencing intense stress being put on your body, every part needs to be flexible and pliable like bamboo. If you are stiff or tight in any area, I can assure you that it will become a problem under the pressure of competition. Once you sustain an injury during competition, your likelihood of winning greatly decreases.
e) Timing: You need to approach physical conditioning with a sense of timing. How many months do you have? What is it that you can achieve within that time? The idea is to make sure that no matter what you incorporate into your training regimen, you leave enough time at the end to arrive at the tournament fresh. The second biggest mistake that you can make is to over train and arrive at the tournament fatigued, weak or injured. The first biggest mistake is to under prepare or not prepare at all.
f) Intensity: Your physical conditioning must include training that is at least as intense as the actual competition. Since we cannot truly know how intense a match may become, it is best to include high intensity training along the way. Playing with as many different opponents as possible with varying degrees of resistance is an essential ingredient in the recipe for tournament success.
2. Specificity of Training
Your preparation must include training that is highly specific to the events that you will be participating in.
Form (empty hand or with a weapon): If you are competing in form, you must find out the rules that you will be expected to comply with and train under those conditions for months before the tournament. If you have three minutes to do your form at the tournament, you had better practice a three minute routine that works for you. If you will be facing a panel of judges with clip boards, you must create this situation in your school and get used to performing under that pressure. If you are going to be expected to sit for a period of time while the people in your division go before you, you need to get used to sitting for a while, then getting up and doing form. The idea is to simulate the actual conditions of the tournament setting as accurately and as often as possible before the day of the event.
Push Hands: You must be prepared to play within the most permissive or the most conservative rules. You need to know what is allowed and what isn't, how the scoring works, and what the weight classes are. Contact the school or organization sponsoring the tournament and get a copy of the rules as early on as possible. As far as what is allowed and what isn't, it's probably safe to say that the use of joint locking, striking, kicking, grabbing with two hands at a time, grabbing clothing, pushing from a disconnected position and using the head or elbows as weapons are all forbidden. You need to find out whether or not you are allowed to move your feet at all, just a little bit or freely. What's good for health, meditation, fighting or spiritual development may not be what's best for the rules of a given competition. For example, in real combat it wouldn't be a good idea to restrict your footwork in any particular way. You need to be able to move your feet freely in order to protect yourself in the face of danger. However, in a restricted step push hands match you need to restrict your footwork. You can argue all day long that moving your feet is important in real fighting and you would be correct. But if you move your feet too freely in the restricted step match, guess what? You go home a loser that day. The point is that whatever the rules happen to be, those are your training guidelines. You need to be used to using everything that is allowed, and totally eliminating everything that isn't allowed if tournament success is your goal. You may be one hundred percent correct in your view that the rules of a particular tournament promote training that is counterproductive to other goals of training like preparing for actual combat effectiveness or improving health. In the end, you need to play by the rules.
3. Demonstrate the Internal
In form and in push hands it is a basic requirement to be deeply concentrated on the highly dynamic internal state of the body (balance, tension, energy, stiffness, posture, linking, rootedness etc.) You need to have one eye on the inside and one on the outside. To be able to deeply pay attention to what's happening inside your body as you move, while at the same time being keenly aware of what is happening around you is one hallmark of a true T'ai Chi player. The trick is to be able to showcase that ability to the judges, and hope that they are experienced enough to know it when they see it. One way to do this is to slow down... less is more. The judges are not concerned with the quantity of movement that you cram into your three minute routine. They are concerned with quality. Many people make the mistake of thinking that it's all about relaxation. Relaxation is an essential ingredient in form competition, but not the only one. Your form should reflect a mind that is relaxed, aware and DEEPLY CONCENTRATED ON WHAT YOU ARE FEELING INSIDE AS YOU MOVE!!!!
4. Observing, Respecting and Playing to the Judges
Humility and Proper Etiquette: More than any other quality, judges despise nothing more than arrogance from competitors. Be a graceful, sensitive winner and loser. Shake hands with your opponent before and after your match, and always apologize if you make contact to an area of the body that is off limits (throat, groin, head, etc.). If your opponent falls down, quickly reach to offer a helping hand to assist him/her in getting up again and ask if he/she is OK. Remember that many judges are highly accomplished T'ai Chi players themselves, or have at least been exposed to high level players at some point. They are simply not going to react kindly to a display of arrogance or any other form of unsportsmanlike conduct from a competitor (rolling your eyes at a call, sucking your teeth in defiance, mumbling under your breath, glaring at your opponent etc.). No matter how unfair the judging seems to you, no matter how unjustly the calls seem to be going, the best thing you can do is stay humble and respectful of everyone around you. Use it as an opportunity to display your attainment in applying the practice of T'ai Chi to your every day life. Be the calm in the eye of the storm. Be patient, accepting and calm. The judges will probably be there for years to come, so if you plan to compete ever again it's a good idea to stay on good terms with them.
5. Basic Guidelines for Form for Competition
Here I will simply offer a few helpful hints.
a) If you are doing form, try to include some relatively difficult movements in your routine so that the judges can see that you have the courage and skill to pull off a challenging movement under pressure. The trick is to not choose a movement that could turn out to be a disaster for you because you blow it. Don't try to spin on one leg and kick if half the time you do it in practice it fails. Choose movements that are safe, but not too safe.
b) Wear a traditional T'ai Chi uniform and appropriate footwear. It never works in your favor to wear street clothes during a form competition.
c) When you hear the signal to finish up, finish up. Don't extend you performance past the time limit to show your "best moves." The judges have to sit through hours of T'ai Chi. They appreciate your efforts to finish on time. And don't finish before you hear the signal to end! In many tournaments finishing before the signal to end is a point deduction. If you finish your planned routine early, just flow into some additional movements until you hear the bell. Then wrap it up.
d) Be respectful while other competitors are doing their form. Although you may feel you need to warm up and stay loose, it is disrespectful and distracting to the judges and the person doing form to move around while their performance is taking place. Get all your warming up done earlier, or move away to an area that is an acceptable distance from the ring. And of course, stay quiet while others do form.
e) Only include movements from the style of the form division that you entered. For instance, if you are competing in the Cheng Man Ch'ing division, refrain from including movements that are not found in Cheng Man Ch'ing's form.
f) Stay near the competition area even if you think your event isn't going to start for a while. The scheduling of events at tournaments is difficult due to many factors. Number of competitors, number of available judges, how long other events are taking and many other factors often cause events to start earlier than expected or later than expected. To be safe, arrive early and plan to stick around for a long time.
6. Stay Ready
Because the actual starting time and duration of tournament events are hard to predict, you need to be full of energy and ready to compete at any time. Eat light and stay focused and loose.
a) Keep yourself feeling good by drinking lots of fluids and eating things like small energy bars that give you energy but don't weigh you down. Stay away from large meals that draw your blood supply to your internal organs for digestion. You need the blood in your large muscle groups so that you can move effectively and not get cramped up.
b) Stay focused and loose by gently stretching and moving your joints through their full range of motion every now and then as you wait to be called. Stay focused by ignoring things that aren't relevant to your event. You may even want to ask your friends, family, teachers to give you some time and space to be alone before your event so that you can bring your attention inside your body. It can be very distracting and frustrating to have to respond to your supporters just before your event when what you really may want to do is be alone, focusing in on whatever you feel needs your attention. Bringing your awareness inside your body helps you prepare to use your internal state as a guide for how to move as you are competing.
7. Enjoy the experience and make friends
Most importantly, have a good time and don't take winning or losing too seriously. Enjoy the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and some good food with friends after it's all over. Use the competition as a chance to make some new friends, learn more about your art and guide your future training. Just remember that in the end, the wins and losses are not what matter. It's all about becoming a better person from the hard work you put into your training, and the tournaments simply provide you with an added incentive to work hard.
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