I’m fixated on one question: “How do I get better at fighting in the Wing Chun way?” What is the best, quickest, safest, and most effective way to improve and learn the system?
I’ve been collecting my thoughts in the last few months after a stressful period when I didn’t have any time or energy to focus on this question, but now I’m back and going over all I’ve learned in the last 8 years and preparing to make another big effort in training.
I think a lot of people who share my goal of becoming a competent fighter these days get sidetracked by ideas trickling (or gushing) out of the MMA world, ideas that by and large are very critical of quote unquote Traditional Martial Arts. I think Bruce Lee and others like him raised some serious questions about the effectiveness of the Traditional Arts and the training methods used and the way in which many teachers exercise favoritism in who they teach what (often favoring their children or a few students). I don’t believe we should ignore these ideas. When looking for teachers and assessing schools, buyer beware. You really have to be careful and don’t just blindly follow.
But we also have to remember that all the techniques used in MMA originated in the Traditional Systems (even boxing is a traditional martial art). Every single technique and idea, outside of training methods developed in the last 20 years (which are mostly scientifically-based methods to develop more endurance and strength). All the strikes and kicks and grappling methods are either hundreds of years old or based on ideas that are hundreds of years old. MMA has not really invented anything. I think MMA is mostly useful as a testing ground for these ideas. They can be one useful gauge for usefulness, as long as we remember that street fighting is fundamentally different from ring fighting in many important ways (in street fighting there are no rules, no referees, the arrival of violence is a surprise, there is no ability to prepare for specific opponents, and so on). Also, real life violence can happen to anyone at any time, not just to people at the peak of physical capabilities aged between 18 and 30. What works in the MMA ring is not exactly what will be best to integrate into a normal life and to sustain over many decades.
Luckily for me, I’ve found a great teacher, but I can’t just go into his school and blindly do what he says and a few years later I’ll emerge a “kung fu master.” Especially in Wing Chun (but I expect everywhere), it just doesn’t work that way. You have to actively engage with the ideas of the system. The book I’m working on is called Wing Chun Mind because I believe that in order to really “get” the system and put it into your body, you have to engage it both physically and mentally. My Sifu will show me what to do physically, that much is simple. Stand this way, move your arms that way, this is how you do Siu Lum Tao, etcetera.
But you can do this for twenty years and not become a good fighter. I’ve seen it again and again. Students who “know” all the forms and who can do Chi Sao and the dummy form and so on, but they are missing something vital. They are not good fighters. Their reflexes are slow. They lack power. They lack explosiveness. But most of all, they lack that extra something you see in the best Wing Chun people which I can only describe as being “ahead of the timing.” A sort of fighting ESP.
When you are trying to become a capable “street fighter,” there is really no way to say when you are “done” or “good enough.” It’s all relative to your opponent(s) and the situation. All you can do is improve your chances by developing attributes. You can become stronger, faster, more capable of tolerating pain, more aggressive, quicker to recognize and learn how to recognize signs of aggression and respond quickly to a developing confrontation.
But I can tell you, after watching my Sifu and many of the best Wing Chun fighters in the world close up, feeling their capabilities in training, that the difference between effective Wing Chun and the run of the mill Wing Chun is like the difference between “lightening and a lightening bug.” I love that Mark Twain saying and it captures the dramatic gap here. When you roll with a Greg LeBlanc or a Gary Lam, you realize that not only do they have way more power than you (a shocking amount of power, so much so that they are basically trying to not accidentally hurt you), but that they are also ahead of you, as if they know what you are going to do before you do it. You try an attack, and they are already blocking it and hitting in the place you left open. How did they develop these capacities?
I’ve been developing theories on this and I’ll try to explain the gist of them now.