Competition in Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan)
Tai Chi Competition: With the ongoing development of taijiquan and internal arts in the west, as well as the east, more and more practitioners are looking for ways to evaluate their skill levels. Tai Chi Competitions create mixed feelings amid the internal arts community and in this article Torben Rif covers the many facets of tournaments from competing to organising.
My first experience as a competitor was at the British Open Tai Chi Chuan Championships in 1992. Being a thoroughly competitive person who has participated in competitions for as long as I can remember, with brothers, friends etc. I’d always been keen to compete with anybody who would take me on.
After five years external martial arts training I started to learn Wudang taijiquan with Dan Docherty in 1990. After two years of training I, and fellow students with the same time span of training, competed in the British Open in 1992. This may appear to be too short a training time to consider competing and, whilst it may be true for most people, it wasn’t the case for us. It isn’t years of training that determines you or how good you are, it’s more to do with quality of your training and how often you practice. Because we trained much harder than the other competitors did, we got better results. The fact that we were so successful after only two years of training didn’t please other taiji practitioners. I have a number of ideas as to why this displeased other competitors but for now I will focus on what made us successful.
To win at internal arts competitions one obviously has to train very hard. You need to be well balanced and in very good physical and mental condition. I’ve always strived to be the best I can and coming second is just not an option. To achieve this I work hard to prepare myself mentally – training and thinking like I’m number one. Before a fight, I’d go through every possible scenario in my mind. I’d visualize that whatever the opponent does I’d have a counter move. In order to make this exercise work well you must practice a lot. Visualizing is very effective, but, of course you need more than that to win. I trained 3 and 5 hours every day. I went running every other day. I swam, lifted weights, and played squash to improve my condition, my dexterity, and my strength in many different ways. My most important basic training definitely was, and still is, the 24 neigong (inner strength) exercises from Wudang taijiquan that Dan Docherty has taught me. They provide a good foundation, to build up exceptionally great strength, and coordination, which are extremely valuable factors in pushing hands, as well as in hand and weapon forms.
Besides the basic training, I did lots of additional pushing hands with anyone I could train with. I trained with a 125 kg bodybuilder, who had also trained in martial arts and, because of his great weight and strength; I had to considerably improve my technique to defeat him. For me it is critical to train self-defence techniques against every possible (and impossible) situation. When a warrior prepares for a fight, he has to be ready for any kind of attack. You never know how your opponent will react in a fight. You need to have a solid foundation that enables you to adapt to any situation. One of the important pushing hands exercises in our system is four directions but I have also spent many hours on exercises like Seven Stars Step, single hand pushing hands, Nine Palaces and four corners (dalu) because they all help to create good foundation.
When you have competed and won at a sports meeting, does it make you the best there is? Well in the technical sense, at that meeting, on that day, at that time, amongst the participants present, according to the opinion of the particular referees, you are the best. An internal arts competition can never be perfect, in respect of truly establishing who is the best but, as with all other elite sports, you compete against the participants present, the referees judge you and that’s all that can really happen.
A couple of times I have heard remarks from the audience like, “I could beat that guy easily!” Perhaps this statement is true, but the fact remains that it comes from the sidelines, from someone watching, not in there competing. We’ve all heard the commentator or the audience’s comments at a football game: They’re so smart they could win the game themselves! Then why are they on the sideline? It is one thing is to train at home, or in your regular class, but it’s something else to stand in front of 2.500 spectators, all examining your performance, and a panel of referees sitting close by with all eyes focused on you. It takes an extraordinary amount of inner calm, and an ability to focus and concentrate on nothing other than your own performance, so that these potentially off-putting influences do not disturb you.
I love the fight – I am the fight. When I fight I exist in the present, I don’t think about anything other than being 100% in the present, since it is the only way you’re able to react instinctively and naturally to what the opponent does.
When I compete in form I love the form and I am the form. I use to think about doing it well, about winning, about the referees and the audience. If your foundation is in order, if you have trained effectively, nothing can go wrong. I tell myself that I always do the best I can at the time I do it, I don’t think about winning but about being 100% in the present. If you want to be number one, you must live and think like a winner. Training is important but what you eat is also at least as important. You are what you eat and if your body is going to train intensely and effectively, it needs something to feed on. Your lifestyle has to suit your goal of becoming number one. Alcohol and tobacco doesn’t fit into the lifestyle of an elite sportsman.
Taijiquan as a competitive sport has evolved much and the quality has heightened greatly the last ten years. Occasionally however, I have seen practitioners win a championship, where their success says more about the standard of the meeting than it does of their ability. Winning a European championship doesn’t necessarily mean you are the best in Europe.
Positive and Negative Aspects
There are both positive and negative aspects to practicing taijiquan as competitive sport. I have often heard it said that the competitions are destroying taijiquan, and that those who compete aren´t doing real taijiquan. Having actively participated in taiji competitions from 1992 to 2000, as a competitor, a referee and as an organiser I can confirm that it has certainly helped to improve my taijiquan. In every competition I’ve entered I have trained much harder than I would normally train and I’ve also had more correction and feedback for my performance, than ever before, being constantly supervised by my trainer. Some people may call me a perfectionist, and in some cases this may be true, but if you want to be number one you have to be a perfectionist, since it’s often only a very small margin that separates the second best from the very best.
I’ve had students who have participated, and won, at the British, Dutch, Danish and Scandinavian Opens plus the European Championships 2000 and 2002. It is obvious that those who participate in competition have a much higher standard than those who do not participate. They’ve obviously spent a lot of time training hard for the event. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will gain additional benefits from their hard training, other than that which is trained for competition.
One downside of competitions could be that the specialised training required can be much more, and greatly outweigh, that which one would regularly practice for good health. It’s a question of balance. If you apply extra focus on training for competition, which of course is different kind from your regular practice, you will undoubtedly experience a decline in your training immediately afterwards, because you’ve given everything you can up to that point. However, if you continue your usual everyday training, and then train the extra, specialised training, which is required for competition, you will be able to continue your daily training as normal when the competition is over.
Competition between two individuals has existed for several hundred years and will always continue to exist. This is also the case with taiji competitions, which are also here to stay. Today there are many taiji and internal arts competitions and, as more and more people want to test their skills in this way, many more competitions will surely follow.
Since 1999, we´ve staged an annual competition in Denmark and much has changed over the past 10 years with respect to organisation. In the early days, it was normal practice for competitors to simply arrive at the venue, register their name, and enter in whatever category they wanted.
Today with so many participants, and so many categories, it takes a great deal of forward-planning to get everything working smoothly on the day of the event. With the increasing number of competitors, competing in many different categories, one has to plan the timing of each event very carefully, to enable everyone to be ready for their performance, and not delay any of the heats. When preparing competitions in Denmark, I required as much focus for organising the event as I did to be a serious competitor.
Running a competition
The biggest undertaking I had in the past 15 years was the organisation of the 2nd European Taijiquan & Internal Arts Championships & Festival 2002 in Vejle/Denmark. When I agreed to run the event, I knew it would take a lot from me, but I was prepared to pay whatever price it took to make it the most successful tournament ever. This might sound dramatic and over the top but, at the end event, my wish came true. My goal has always been to be number one, in whatever task I undertake, and, in staging a European Competition, it was important for me to ensure it would be the very best I could offer. The overall standard of competitions has certainly been raised, both on the organisational side, and in the standard of entries, in all categories; hand/weapon forms and pushing hands. Before preparing my proposal to present the 2002 TCFE Competition in Denmark I carefully considered what I had to do to stage a successful bid.
I never say no to a good “fight” and organizing such an event could probably be one of my biggest and most important challenges. Before I went to Holland in 2000, I made a folder with all the practical information about the next meeting in 2002 in Denmark. I had found the right days and ordered two great halls with about 1200 seats – a very professional place. It was obvious that the members of TCFE were very surprised Denmark’s proposal to play host to the 2nd competition in 2002. However, after my presentation there was no doubt about where it would be in 2002.
Preparations to the host European Competition in 2002 started more than two years before involving many meetings with my students whose help was invaluable. I worked on this project for more than two years and for the last six months it became a part time job and in the final three months more than a fulltime job.
When a warrior is preparing to fight, he trains for every possible and impossible attack. I did the same in this competition. I analysed all the competitions I had been at through the years, I considered the good and bad points, I saw it from the participants´ point of view, and from the organiser’s point of view. I spent a lot of time going over what happened in Holland in 2000. One the biggest problem for competitors was getting clear information on the timings of the events. One of the worst things at a competition is the waiting, especially if you don’t know when you get to be in combat. You don’t have a chance to prepare yourself mentally, which some may regard as an extra challenge.
For the 2nd European Competition I ensured that the participants and the officials always knew exactly when and where they had a fight. To facilitate this we had to create a dedicated computer programme. I was fortunate that one of my students and best friends Aksel Mortensen is an expert in that field. Since our first Danish Open in 1999 we developed a programme together that met the demands I had and always make high demands of in everything I do.
Several people were surprised at the things I demanded at the 2002 competition. I insisted that people sign up six weeks beforehand, which many couldn’t understand and some even yelled at me, saying I wasn’t flexible enough. I am very flexible but if you want to run a top professional competition there are limits to how flexible you can be if you want to make it on time. With the computer system and the sign-up deadline I managed to create a tournament programme where everybody knew exactly when and where they had a fight. People were clearly surprised when they arrived and were issued with an ID card containing their name, photo, and schedule for their fights. With this card, they were able to plan their day and prepare without worries.
Long before the competition, we went over the worst possible scenarios and took all necessary precautions. This meant we minimised the potential problems.
One of the biggest worries was the computers would break down. As a backup, we created 80 folders with complete lists of all participants, their fight schedules, and timings for each discipline. Because of this careful pre-planning, we only had a five-minute delay in two days of continually running six simultaneous events. I didn’t have any particular task to do during the competition, which allowed me to oversee everything, checking from time to time that all was going according to plan. I printed lists detailing exactly where each referee, judge, and competitor should be. This enabled me to keep track of everything so that I could step in and solve problems before they really occurred. If everybody knows what to do and when to do it, no gets stressed out and participants get the feeling that everything functions on its own, which it thankfully did due to our thorough preparations and a great team.
Since The European Competition in Denmark 2002, many people have expressed interested in our computer programme. The programme is a great help to us but it is something we developed from our own experiences and ideas. In order to use the programme you have to know the ideas and the background to the different things, so the programme won’t really help others. However, I’d be happy to help anyone who really wants to organize a professional competition and can supply the experience and ideas, which you can develop to adapt to your needs.
Finding good referees for Tai Chi Competition
One of the biggest challenges for competition organisers in Europe is to find qualified referees. There are several qualified referees in Europe but it isn’t that attractive to them to spend a lot of time and money judging at competitions, which is understandable.
In the future we must be prepared for bigger and bigger demands on participants and referees and because of this I would like to encourage the chief instructors around Europe to spend some time on teaching their students to be referees. That will also enhance their understanding of the form and pushing hands. I have made this subject a part of the instructor education in Denmark. To reach level 4 (out of 9) as instructor you have to be able to referee in hand form, weapon form, and pushing hands.
Normally three referees judge hand and weapon forms. Each referee gives a grade between zero and ten. When the referees have given their grades, the time-keeper collects them, adds them, and shows the scores to both the participant and the audience. If there is a difference of two points or more between two of the three referees, a meeting is called to discuss the reasons for awarding the respective votes. Hopefully the discussion will allow the judges to come to a compromise, and allow the point differential to get below two points. If it is not possible, then the grades are given as before. Competitors have the right to protest, after which the Technical Committee discusses the situation and make their final decision.
Because there are many different styles and many different opinions regarding how internal arts should be performed, disagreements occur. A competition will never be perfect for everybody, but with three different referees and the above-mentioned precautions, I think we are moving in the right direction.
Rules of Tai Chi Competition
Rules can always be discussed, and I have heard some people say that the rules I use give my students the greatest advantage, and that they are biased towards my style. Those same people have never participated in competition, and have never suggested any alterations to the rules, which I am very open to. The rules I use are the same as those used at British and Swedish Opens and in the European Competitions with a few minor adjustments. I am interested in having as many different styles as possible participate in the meetings in Denmark, so if anybody wants to come but thinks that the rules don’t fit them, I’m open to suggestions. In my opinion the rules should be available at least a year before the competition. On several occasions we never got the rules until 2 – 3 months before the competition, which is totally unacceptable.
There a many things that can’t be ready a year in advance but there is no excuse for the rules. If you want to organize a professional competition and you want relatively professional participants, then you have to show them respect. They train seriously every day for many months and spend time and money to go to the competitions.
We as organizers have to appreciate the effort the participants put into it and show them respect by giving them the information as early as possible since the rules are one of the most important things to them. It would be nice if we could agree on a common set of rules in Europe but unfortunately this is very unlikely. The rules we agreed on for The European Competition in 2002 are a good starting point. They are simple and clear.
Xingyiquan and baguazhang are now included in the meetings we stage in Denmark, as is the case in the UK and in the European Competitions. This article is written from the perspective of staging taiji competitions, since that is where I am personally experienced but xingyi and bagua practitioners are also increasingly competing. Competitions could be one of the ways to get the other internal arts more widely spread in Europe and the rest of the world.
A good level of judges are available in Europe to deal with these other internal arts, but the organizers always run into the same problem. There isn’t money enough to pay the referees for the time they spend and for their expenses during the competition. We can only hope that more will participate in these disciplines and that they will bring their teachers who can then function as referees. We actually had several in Denmark who could judge in these disciplines.
Physical and mental well-being
Pushing hands or tuishou is a partner exercise that has many advantages for both your physical and mental well-being. The practice develops a large range of skills that are applicable in combination with self-defence techniques. Practicing these exercises on a weekly basis will increase your skill level, but the level of improvement can only be as good as the quality of opponents that are available to you for training. You will, in time, get to know and understand the techniques that your fellow students apply well, so you become very familiar with their strengths and weaknesses. If you really want to test your skills, you have to find a partner/opponent you don’t know.
This is something you can experience really well when competing in a tournament. Not only are you competing against someone who may be unfamiliar to you, you are also under pressure to score points very quickly, while your opponent is obviously doing likewise. Couple these factors with a crowd of people watching your every move; it is an extremely demanding situation, happening so fast, you have little time to think about your composure. Okay, you could go out in the streets to test your skills but the law prohibits it, and it would also involve a very high risk of injury. One should also consider that push hands isn’t fighting and there’s a completely different set of rules being applied in a street brawl, if any at all.
The good thing about push hands competitions is that the organiser creates a clearly defined set of rules that everyone must follow. A referee is there to ensure those rules are obeyed which, of course, substantially decreases the risk of injury. Here you can really be challenged and tested, in a controlled environment to see if you can really apply the skills you have trained and worked with week after week, year after year. In pushing hands you stand opposite a partner who will do anything to win, hopefully within the rules of the competition; he won’t follow your ideas, he has his own plan of how to beat you. In competition, the duration of the fight will usually be about 3 – 4 minutes, depending on the meeting. The goal, of course, is to get as many points as possible within that time.
I think that pushing hands competitions are a very important part of training and also play a great part in your personal development. You put yourself under pressure, and under this pressure, you must react instinctively on what happens and usually there’s no time to think. Sometimes you hear the participants say that they participate “just” for fun and that they are not interested in winning. It may be that some feel that way, but when you watch the fights in pushing hands, it doesn’t look like one of them is letting the other win. You can say that you are in it for fun and that’s okay. Since there are no money prizes for the winners (as yet) it is, in a way, “just” for fun. Today however, several professional instructors, including myself, participate at the different sport meetings and we do not participate “just” for fun. We are there to win – it is our livelihood. How many remember who became second or third in the European competitions in 2000 and 2002? Not many, but most remember who won.
I have certainly attracted more students because of my results. I have often heard people say that since I have won so many competitions I can’t be all that bad. I have had a lot of enquiries from people who have seen my homepage. They tell me that they have seen a lot of homepages but that they chose to call me because I’ve won so many tournaments. One of the most important things for them however, is that my students have won tournaments. It’s one thing to win something yourself, but being able to teach others to be winners is something else entirely. My results have definitely improved my business. I truly believe that pushing hands can be used for personal development. Competing things in this process is analysing what happened in the particular fight at the time and then afterwards, going through what happened when I did the Form.
Pushing hands can be used as a tool in handling conflicts amongst other things. It is said that we have to “listen” to the opponent; we have to get to know him, without letting him get to know us. “No one knows me, I alone know all” the classics say. When we do pushing hands we “listen” for the jin (force) the opponent´s force, so that we can feel what the opponent is going to do and then react in the right way. We use the five close-combat strategies, nian (to stick to), lian (to be continuous) mian, (cotton-softness), sui (to follow) and bu diu ding. (Never to use force against force and never lose contact.)
You can use these five close-combat strategies to handle conflicts with great success, trying to understand the motives of others before you present your own. If we want people to listen, we have to listen to them first. Show them the way! In a fight, we have no control over what the opponent does; you can only react to what he does. In the same way, we don’t decide what others say, but we decide what to think ourselves. Others can affect us in a positive or negative way, but we still decide what to think.
The taiji community consists of practitioners who are a good mix of all social classes but in most unions and clubs the average age is a lot higher than in other competitive practices like taekwondo, karate, football etc. We all know how good it would be for children and young people to practice taijiquan but, on the surface, it seems dull to most young people. Competitions attract the younger people because most young people want to see some action. These same youngsters, however, are also very keen to learn something new too. We have to consider that not many young children will stand around for an hour or two doing hand forms or qigong if it’s only to improve their health. Taiji competitions can help make taijiquan more interesting for children and young people. They will improve their balance, coordination and concentration and at the same time they will learn self-defence, become stronger and more confident and disciplined.
The sooner you start doing taijiquan the better. Why you start doesn’t matter!
Author: Torben Rif
Chief instructor in Practical Tai Chi Chuan Denmark, President of the Danish Tai Chi & Qigong Federation. British Open Champion 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1999. Dutch Open Champion 1995 and 1996. Triple European champion 2000. Author of the book: Tai Chi – the way to success. Organizer of: Danish Open Tai Chi Chuan & Internal Arts Championships 1999. 2000 and 2001, the 2nd European Taijiquan & Internal Arts Championships & Festival 2002 and the 1st Skandinavian Open Tai Chi Chuan & Internal Arts Championships 2003.
Images: Ronnie Robinson