When the idea of using chi sao in a fight comes to mind, some may think of seeing the rolling drill pattern or trapping techniques in action. However, using chi sao in a fight isn’t about a pattern or a technique. Instead, it’s about using the unique skills developed through chi sao which make you a better fighter.
Most people understand that chi sao is a drill which develops automatic reflexes upon contact. But it can also refer to an action of “sticking” to your opponent. Although it’s often translated as ‘sticky hands’, it’s important to note that our effort in sticking to our opponent must never be an attempt to stick to their arms. Our goal must be to stick to and through their center. Our opponent’s arms are simply in between us and our goal. Chi sao is called a sensitivity exercise because it develops your awareness to opportunities which you never knew existed. Chi Sao opens doors you could have never seen.
Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about chi sao and how it’s applied to fighting. Some have discounted chi sao completely while others have centered everything they do around it! But in the end, misconceptions create these extreme opinions. And what all of these misconceptions have in common is an honest lack of experience in some area.
One of the most common misconceptions is that chi sao is inessential because the rolling action of chi sao isn’t seen in a fight. However, the distinct feeling developed from chi sao when practiced with the correct priorities in mind are essential to your development of consistent forward energy. What’s more, proper chi sao training gives the ability to transition smoothly from one position to the next as well as the development of immediate and automatic responses to pressure.
Another misconception about applying chi sao in a fight lies with a lack of experience of fighting. Many Wing Chun practitioners and teachers lack substantial contact-based fighting or sparring experience. “90% of Wing Chun schools in the UK don’t spar!” This is a quote I heard a few years ago that has stuck with me and unfortunately seems to ring true. How can anyone expect to apply chi sao in a fight or get over the realities of hitting and getting hit without substantial contact-based sparring? Without a strong understanding and comfort level with the big picture of fighting, their view of chi sao is simply too narrow to be useful.
The next major misconception is that chi sao can be a way to test your skills. However, chi sao was never meant to be a competition. If you’re practicing chi sao to test your skills against another Wing Chun practitioner, you’re missing the entire point of chi sao! If you want to test your skills, you should fight or spar instead.
Did you know that sticky hands isn’t really sticky hands?
And still, the one misconception that I find most bothersome, is the idea that chi sao can be used as a friendly exchange between you and a Wing Chun practitioner from another school. The notion of sharing and learning from one another in hopes of developing faster is a nice idea on the surface. If you’re new or have no sifu to guide you, this could be OK. But otherwise, the specifics of what others are trying to develop are simply not the same. The Wing Chun path of one school is almost always very different from the Wing Chun path of another school. As one school looks for precision, other school looks for power. As one school looks to push their way through with hard energy, another believes pushing is using brute force rather than technique. As one school looks to create openings, another Wing Chun school looks only to respond to weaknesses. They simply don’t travel the same paths.
Chi sao’s purpose is the development of a very specific positional and energetic feeling from your sifu. It is meant to be precise and takes time and effort to develop. Not too much, not too little. Too much pressure will misdirect the flow of force and you won’t go to their center. Too little pressure disconnects from your opponent’s center and creates a gap in your forward energy.
This specific energy or “feel”, when maturely developed, is the reason that when you touch hands with your Sifu, he feels a certain way and others feel so different. The differences are in no way arbitrary. They are deliberate and have been meticulously developed over time. As a student of your sifu, you must understand that differences between what you feel from him versus others are very much about correct and incorrect.
After you develop that feeling, you learn that anything different is a distinct violation of what is correct. This enables you to learn to respond without delay to these violations. Violations are grouped based on position and direction of energy. Either their elbow is too far in or too far out. Maybe their energy is going down, up or to a side. There really aren’t that many different groupings of positional or energetic violations.
However, the longer you wait to respond, the more you are participating in “dow lik”, struggling force. In other words, if you don’t act upon these violations as soon as you feel them, you are not only dulling your reflexive responses and creating a habit of struggling… the exact opposite of chi sao’s purpose.
Unless they are earnestly learning from you with the best of intentions, participating in a chi sao exchange with someone who disagrees with you on what is correct and incorrect should, if practicing chi sao correctly, immediately turn into gow sao (fighting or sparring).
So how do you use chi sao in a fight? With time, automatically!