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ralph haenel, wing tsun kung fu instructor, author, publisher, self-defense expert Your Kung Fu Coach Ralph Haenel, learning and teaching Wing Tsun Kung Fu since 1984
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Wing Tsun Kung Fu Vancouver Blog
Monday, 31 October 2011

The best training method in the world; that fails (in martial arts) 99.9% of the time.

Controversy over whether the terms martial art and soft belong in the same sentence?
Plus, a story about storytelling.


An old videoclip by a then wing chun school in Germany sparked once again the conversation about how much of the element of ‘soft’ could be connected to one’s martial art performance. Of course, the very word ‘soft’ might lead you to think something along the lines of a rather cuddly martial arts performance. Well, we wouldn’t want that, right? 

I show, demonstrate and explain the very idea of soft in my classes by comparing it to a steel spring-like performance. Visualize it as seamlessly connected whiplash-like actions. I know, words can sometimes be incredibly inadequate. 

See the term ‘soft’ or better yet ‘smooth’ as a perfect fusion of fluidity + elasticity + mobility + timing. 

I have met self-proclaimed soft, relaxed practitioners who ended up just being plain weak, once the action accelerated and adrenalin came into the game. 

I have met other soft, relaxed practitioners who at the first sign of stress instantly fell into a very tense, resisting performance. 

But the more common occurrence is to talk about being relaxed and yielding to greater force, but not knowing when and how to realize what exactly greater force is and what to do.
Sifu Keith R. Kernspecht with his Si-Fu Leung Ting in front of the Langenzell castle, mid 1980's

Some of my instructors have shown me in the past, how amazingly fast their elastic and powerful actions can be, even or especially under stress. Who? My Si-Fu, Keith R. Kernspecht. My then main instructor at the German Langenzell castle, Sifu Heinrich Pfaff.
Other instructors I learned from, for example Sifu Emin Boztepe and Sifu Salih Avci, are known as extremely strong hardcore Wing Tsun practitioners. Not everyone appreciates, or could see how extremely sensitive their performance can be under stress.
‘Sensitive,’ yet another word, that does not seem to mix well with ‘martial art.’ Really, who wants to be known as a sensitive fighter? Sandor the Sensitive? Not a good ring name. I don’t think so. BTW – Sandor means ‘defender of human kind,’ and is a form of Alexander.
photo: One of the photos Si-Fu Kernspecht mailed me in 1986 or 87 accross the "Iron Curtain" to East Germany.

What does ‘sensitive’ mean for us?  Chi-Sau training in Wing Tsun among many other benefits is designed to train tactile sensitivity to recognise on contact the speed, strength and direction of an attack. The tactile guidance system deriving from one’s WingTsun Chi-Sau training naturally has to be combined with the regular visual guidance system. Meaning, by ‘feeling & seeing’ you use double-sure technology. Attention, slight humour. We are talking about ideal scenarios for regular people here! Not the what-if a Mike Tyson infused 200kg Godzilla size MMA monster is in the process of quartering you. The desired training outcome is that one can even under stress maintain and use a high percentage of this combination of visual AND tactile input. As opposed to what? Instead of freezing up, resisting, “wrestling” against the opponent. On a side note, read Sifu Brian Yam’s related blog post: “Gary Lam Challenge Video - The Takeaway Lesson.” 

It all reminds me of a story as told by my Si-Fu. First of all: What do stories do? They entertain us. Stories carry information, knowledge, even skill. Stories help us remember the contents and context of lessons we received. 

Can’t help it, before I get to it, a quick story about stories ... My Si-Fu often started introducing an exercise, reciting a metaphor, explaining theoretical background by saying: “My Sifu did this, ... taught me that, ... advised me to do ..., had the idea ...”
In one instance, a participant in a WT instructors class responded by saying: “But Si-Fu, I know for sure that you developed this drill. Why don’t you take the credit? Why do you say it was your Sifu’s idea?” The reply? “Very simple. When I say it was my Sifu’s idea, nobody questions it. I can go on and teach. When I say it was my idea, people ask: Why? How? When? Where? ... You get the idea. It cuts down on non-training related explanation time, as it happens right now!!!” 

Back to the story about ‘martial art’ and ‘soft.’ I’ll try to keep it short, so that you have more time to train. 

‘The best training method in the world, that fails (in martial arts) 99.9% of the time.’ 

In the 70’s, Wing Tsun teaching and training was surrounded by extreme secrecy. A teacher would hand down knowledge and exercises only in tiny bite-size pieces. So, with whom should my Si-Fu train the techniques he just learned from his master?
As he told the story back then: “The only person I kind of trusted was my wife.” Now if you are tall, very strong and very aggressive ... hmm how do you do that? His only choice was to train very slow, very detailed and very patiently with his wife. He had to yield to the lightest contact, had to pretend that someone with enormous speed and strength attacked. He was forced into moving with his whole body, employing horizontal movement pattern from the Cham-Kiu, vertical movement pattern from the Biu-Tze, and all angles in between. He ‘folded’ around his wife’s attacks, utilizing elasticity from fingertips to toes. Wave-like, springy whole body motions emerged.
My Si-Fu basically had to pretend, that his wife in a martial artistic way was super-woman, who could throw him around at will. Which produced one important aspect of the ‘perfect’ WingTsun training, under the assumption of being attacked by a stronger person.

It’s probably safe to say that nobody talked in the 70’s about fascia and its function. Only one aspect here; directly under the skin is the surface-fascia instantly responding with millions of nerve endings to the slightest touch, directly sending signals to the spinal cord and brain.
How it all works? Come back to my blog, to read soon the next part of this post. These receptors can feel even a light wind gust, an insect crawling over your skin, the light touch of a fingertip. Now, most practitioners respond only to pressure once they are almost thrown out of balance, or once the struggling has already started. Which means that most people, measured in fractions of seconds, respond way too late. Now hectic movements try to save the day, but the damage is already done. The opponent is already imposing his rhythm onto you and destroying yours. You have become the hunted. 

Back to my Sifu’s training with his wife. He talked about the fact that he was often ready to explode. Yet in order to stay married, he needed (in comparison to his exceptional strength) to respond to only a light touch. He needed to train the technical sequences in extended slow motion and so somewhat accidentally, he began to discover nuances in motion. He experienced continuous movement as opposed to a ‘hard’ Bong-Sau that starts at A and ends at B.

Imagine, you are operating a software application via a touch screen. Any touch causes a response. Envision yourself having to hammer against your I-Pad to move a window, open a video. This wouldn’t go over well. 

Now one random training example:

Read the following steps slowly. Visualize that you do some steps at times simultaneous and that for a prolonged period of time. Now you may understand why this training method fails for so many. You really need infinite patience. Many athletes train elements of their performance in slow motion. Go through the steps of feeling, using every muscle, muscle connection, coordination of muscle groups. I have talked for example to ice skaters, gymnasts of a National Olympic team, even boxers, who have been using this training method successfully.

Your arm intercepts a punch, begins to form into a Bong-Sau motion. Now, does our wrist move back (withdraw) or does the punch slide off and your elbow moves forward? Did your shoulder lift? Is your chest ‘open’? Or, is your breathing already strained? Did you involve your upper back muscles or do your arms resist in ‘one piece’? Do you feel that shoulders, lats, chest and upper back, I call it the ‘four hinges’, that all four of them are involved in your arm positioning and movement? Are you aware what your other arm is doing? The other shoulder? What are your fingers doing, forming the dragon claw of death? Is your neck getting tense? Head leaning forward? Did you hips shift? Are your legs responding like steel springs, maintaining contact to the ground or are you jumping? “Reaching” across the distance? Are your toes cramped, “clawing” the floor, or are your feet relaxed, heel to toes? Do your stomach muscles brace for impact or do they form with your lower back muscles a flexible and powerful connection between lower and upper body? Are you yielding away from the attacker, eventually coming out of balance or do you yield/fold by flowing forward into the opponent, taking away his space, opportunity and time to attack you? Can you move on several levels? Your arm is yielding, the body shifting, your feet sliding, all at the same time and to various degrees? And all that over and over!!
Are you prepared to continue moving smooth, relaxed, in slow motion, and that for 20, 40 minutes? For an hour? Feel each motion, in what order should you move? Can you feel tiniest level of resistance, not involved muscles? Can you feel unnatural order of partial elements of your movements? Example: Resistance with your arm, just to maintain balance, then letting go, allowing for a weak gap to form, just to move your foot? 

Attempting to train this slow and detailed, I have seen people jump back from it, almost hyper-ventilating, getting all nervous and fidgety, not being able to resume this relaxed and conscious multilevel motion. 

It looks awkward. Merely watching it, many guys would instantly label it “wussy”-training. Ego, misunderstood manliness typically gets in the way.
It requires a serious amount of patience, a sound idea why you train that way, and what for you train, and a vision of what you will achieve. 

Train slow to get really fast.

Train completely relaxed to become really powerful. 

Now you may understand, why my Sifu said: “It’s the best training method in the world, that fails 99.9% of the time.” Due to circumstances, he was forced into this training method he otherwise would not have touched with a 10-foot pole, not even with a six-and-a-half point WingTsun long pole (Luk Dim Boon Gwun). 

As it so happened, I read today a quote on Facebook (via Dr. Mark Cheng). I could have slightly changed it, made it mine. No, it wouldn't feel right. If I may borrow the quote, which hits the nail on the head. 

"The definition of functional
exercise is what it produces,
NOT what it looks like."
Gray Cook, MSPT, OCS, CSCS, RKC, stopchasingpain.com

Posted by ralph haenel at 4:22 PM PDT
Updated: Wednesday, 2 November 2011 5:09 PM PDT

Thursday, 3 November 2011 - 2:21 AM PDT

Name: "Michael Fletcher"
Home Page: http://wingtsunkungfu.tumblr.com/

Thank you for this, the transition from absolute beginner where your body and mind resists the "unnatural" movements in WT to more experienced is an extremely difficult one for me. Part of this I feel is that we only began chi sau training after my first year in my current school. The structured and set positions of the sui nim tau form taught me to be relaxed moving to set positions and statically in the form but I am having to work hard now to feel that relaxation throughout my movements during chi sau. Perhaps you're right and I need to slow down to speed up. 

Friday, 4 November 2011 - 7:15 PM PDT

Name: "Jesus Ponce"
Home Page: http://WWW.DRAGONFISTWINGTSUN.COM


I agree with with what you wrote. A couple years back we began to take the slow and steady approach. Which has given us a greater understanding of the forms, body mechanics, relaxation, and motion. Needless to say we have changed many of our drills and introduced new programs. I have set aside many of the ideas that I learned in the LT system, because they do not correspond with our new methods. I have tried to share our ideas with friends (my brothers) in the other systems, but they refuse to take them into consideration. As one of my students replied, after rejoining us, "Then everything else I had learn was a waste of time and money? He had studied under the LT system also. " I replied,"NO, this way is just a lot easier, less complicated." 
I find that many of the old ways went/go against the concepts and principles of Wing Chun. I am no Master, by no means, but this method can really be applied by anyone. We have gone back and chipped away at the first form and we are discovering that all the advanced techniques are in 'Siu nim tau'. I have a long road ahead to Master these new ideas, but we know where we are going. That is why I was so interested in this video we spoke of. What idea did this man discover that lead him on a different path. And why was he able to defeat technicians in the old system that were more advanced than he?
I believe it is the lack of exploration within ourselves that hold us, Wing Chun, back? Many students have left to join other styles, because they believe Wing Chun is lacking in many areas. We believe we have to change and take the next step in order to grow. So we have...Ponce-Campa Wing Tsun System.

I would really appreciate any feedback.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011 - 5:00 PM PST

Name: "Ralph Haenel"
Home Page: http://www.wingtsunkungfu.com

Blog feedback: Go to http://functionalwingtsun.blogspot.com/2011/11/train-slow-grasshopper.html

Saturday, 7 January 2012 - 2:12 PM PST

Name: "Pablo"

I'm posting because I want to thank you for this post. I'm a wing tsun student from Belgium who has only started training since May 2011. I've read all your posts, and I feel they've given me real insight on how to train, what to take away from my training and how to improve. After you posted this particular blog, it stuck in my head. A few days afterwards, I made the effort to start training really slowly like you recommend, doing my forms with as much focus as possible at a snails pace, and I've been noticing real improvement in my smoothness, my movements and my sensitivity. Just wanted to let you know that your posts make a real contribution, and that I'm looking forward to new posts. Thank you!

Sunday, 4 August 2013 - 7:56 PM PDT

Name: "Alex Phan"
Home Page: http://howtolearnkungfu.org

I remember when I first started training Kung Fu, my movements were super stiff.  It took me a while until I was able to excecute the movements in a relaxed and fluid manner.  As with any martial art, if you want to do the movements correctly, you must first do it slow.  I agree with what you said, "train slow to get really fast."  This is really is key to developing good solid technique. 

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