Sparring: The Essence of Authentic Wing Chun
So many people want to find the origins of Wing Chun. They look far and wide to find the authentic Wing Chun. Some even consider themselves Wing Chun historians and researchers who attempt to open unlocked doors to share ancient secrets buried in history.
Its hard to tell if these people are deceiving themselves or others. My guess is both.
I’m different from many Wing Chun sifus. Unlike them, I’ve always sparred with my Wing Chun. It was just a regular part of our classes. In fact, I had no idea that most other Wing Chun schools didn’t spar…. until I met them.
This is when I realized, first hand, how awful at fighting most Wing Chun sifus are. Some with years and years of experience, others with famous Sifus and fancy accolades. It didn’t matter who they were, what lineage they came from or anything else.
What mattered was that sparring wasn’t part of their regular Wing Chun training.
This is why over my many years of teaching Wing Chun, I’ve consistently emphasized the importance of sparring in Wing Chun.
Because sparring is the essence of authentic Wing Chun training.
Authentic Wing Chun doesn’t come from a quest for purity or research into its origins. Authentic Wing Chun comes from honest experience through sparring.
If someone enjoys meditative exercise… great, But saying your Wing Chun is a martial art and is good for self-defense when you don’t regularly spar is deceiving both yourself and those around you.
Wing Chun, like any martial art, must invite sparring into its practice. If you are a new student looking for a Wing Chun school. Make sure to ask if the school spars and how often. And no, I’m not talking about chi sao alone. I’m talking about sparring where you learn to hit and get hit.
For instance, some say that they can’t spar because what they do is too dangerous and that what they are doing will hurt their partners.
Such claims might be laughable, but the amount of people in Wing Chun who say this is no joke.
In essence, the main ingredient for authentic Wing Chun training is sparring. When sparring becomes an afterthought, authenticity fades, leading to potential harm. When sparring is then mixed together with proper solo training and partner drilling, everything else seems to fall into place.
When it comes to sparring in Wing Chun, different schools will have different views.
Sparring is a bit of a controversial subject in Wing Chun, mainly because everyone thinks their way of sparring is the correct way. Some people will even say that you shouldn’t spar in Wing Chun.
We believe that there is no better way of practicing a fighting art than actually fighting. Although sparring is not exactly fighting, it is however the closest thing to an actual fight.
Whether you are a new Wing Chun student or a longer term Wing Chun practitioner looking to bring sparring into your training, in this article we will discuss the importance of sparring, how to spar in Wing Chun, and important concepts to remember while sparring.
The concepts and terms we use below are specific to The Dragon Institute and Dragon Family Wing Chun, however we hope you will use this information to enhance your own training, regardless of your Wing Chun school. It is our sincere hope that all Wing Chun schools integrate sparring into their training.
Is there sparring in Wing Chun?
Yes. There absolutely is sparring in Wing Chun. However not all Wing Chun schools spar. But make no mistake, sparring in Wing Chun is a necessity! So much so that we believe that if your Wing Chun school doesn’t spar, and spar often, you should seriously consider leaving to find a Wing Chun school that spars.
With that said, how you spar matters. Just like a musician must practice with the goal of performance in mind, since Wing Chun is an art of self-defense, sparring must be trained with the goal of self-defense in mind.
Schools will often show sparring out of chi sao (sticky hands) or poon sao (rolling hands), but these drills are merely exercises designed to foster sensitivity. In practical use, stickiness will surely be applied, but very few people will start rolling their hands prior to a fight. Wing Chun students must learn how to spar apart of chi sao. Otherwise, they will rely on linking to a person’s arms while fighting instead of learning how to dominate the opponent’s centerline.
Why Wing Chun Students Must Spar
Wing Chun students must spar because sparring is how a student learns to put together all the concepts and exercises learned into practical use. This means taking your drills and forms into alive, dynamic practice. It means dealing with punches, kicks, pushes and pulls from an uncooperative opponent. Its how a student learns distance and timing, how to integrate footwork and how to deal with the stress of someone trying to punch you. Sparring is the closest we get to real-life application in Wing Chun. Fighting in real life is unpredictable, messy, and often favors the strongest and most aggressive. To make matters worse, you will likely be full of adrenaline, your thoughts racing, your movements erratic.
In Wing Chun, we practice concepts of timing, precision, and relaxation. How do you learn to apply these concepts when faced with a flurry of fists? In other words, how do you bridge the gap between theory and application in Wing Chun? Simple. You spar!
How To Spar in Wing Chun
Many Wing Chun schools don’t spar because they just don’t know how. They were never taught and their sifu never sparred. This includes both famous sifus as well as so called grandmasters and direct students of Yip Man. And because of that lack of experience/know-how, they’ve concluded that sparring is either too dangerous for Wing Chun training or not useful for learning self-defense.
Here’s a few things you should know about sparring for Wing Chun…
Sparring in Wing Chun is not simply a “I’m going to hit you as hard as I can while you try to hit me as hard as you can” melee. As with everything in Wing Chun, fighting must be a mindful endeavor! So in order to learn how to spar in Wing Chun, first lets define some things in order to spar both safely and with practicality.
The definition of a hit. The simplest way to dominate someone else’s center is through a strike. But a hit is not simply contact made. That’s why in learning “how to hit” we must first “define a hit”.
In Dragon Family Wing Chun, a hit or strike has a two-part definition. It must:
- A. Move a body that is NOT in motion
- B. Stop a body that is in FORWARD motion.
This definition also provides you with instant feedback. If you could not move or stop a body, the hit was – by definition – ineffective.
Where you hit will be a deciding factor, as well. A hit anywhere off the opponent’s center of mass will not yield the desired effect. All attacks must be directed at the center!
Who has the right of way?
In Dragon Family Wing Chun sparring, “right of way” is the concept that, when one person is dominating the centerline it must be acknowledged. This helps students spar in a controlled manner where learning remains the top priority.
The concept of right of way sets the tone for productive sparring. It sounds simple, but it happens too often that a student does not realize he is being hit by a partner and continues to attack. Depending on the type of sparring you are doing, this will not be favorable. For instance, low-pressure is sparring is meant to keep movements controlled.
Alas, sometimes pain is the only good teacher, but if the goal is to keep the pressure low, hitting with our definition of a hit will change pressure immediately!
Acknowledging that you are being hit by your training partner will prevent you from reaching an intensity higher than agreed upon and will instill trust in your partner.
Wing Chun Sparring Gear?
In many other martial arts, you will see training partners wearing gloves, helmets, padding for their shins, mouthguards, etc.
Safety is important in all martial arts, and we do not want to hurt our training partners. Nevertheless, Wing Chun sparring gear is minimal, but for a good reason.
A self-defense situation will NEVER afford you any protection. The probability of you losing teeth, getting concussed, bleeding, bruising and hurting increase exponentially the longer the fight continues.
The best way to avoid this is to practice with this in mind.
There is a hard truth to learn in fighting: you WILL get hit. Coming to terms with this inevitability and dealing with the pain will train you to not fall apart when you are hit. You become more resilient and resistant to pain. We do not do ourselves any favors by coddling ourselves and avoiding pain.
So what constitutes Wing Chun sparring gear?
A mouthpiece and a cup. Cups are optional.
If you have ever watched a UFC or boxing match, you will see there is no head gear. In truth head gear does offer much protection except from cuts. Blunt force trauma is still possible and much more likely since your head is now a bigger target. In a situation where head shots are likely to cause permanent damage, true head protection should mean keeping your hands up and your head back!
What about gloves?
Gloves are only meant to protect your own knuckles and hands. This is also not ideal, since in a self-defense situation, our knuckles will need to deal with hitting a hard target, such as jaw and skull. While we generally hit hard targets with soft tissue (such as the edge of our hand or palm), we must also be able to hit a hard target without wincing in pain.
Types of Wing Chun Sparring
No one is born knowing how to apply Wing Chun. Sparring will put you in a situation where hits become possible and likely. For those new to this pressure, your fight-or-flight response will kick in and your movements, once controlled and graceful while doing drills, will turn rigid and uncontrolled.
For this reason, there exists a number of ways of sparring in Wing Chun meant to isolate and enhance our responses. These include:
- One handed
- Same side
- Cross arm
- Feet only
- Sparring limited to a small space (we use a 4×4 board to spar on top of)
- Sparring in different ranges
- Sparring out of Seong Chi Sao (double hands bridging)
- Sparring out of Kiu Sao – One arm cross-handed bridge)
- Sparring from no bridge
For the sake of clarity, we will discuss three main types of Wing Chun sparring: Luk Sao, Nuk Sao, and Gor Sao.
Luk Sao: Analytic Sparring
It’s inevitable. As soon as the new guy hears the word SPARRING, it starts. The cold sweat, the nervous glances, the helpless feeling. It’s enough to turn people off from sparring in general!
Luckily, this type of sparring is meant to give your brain time to think.
Luk sao is a form of sparring that allows you to take your time to process the situation and respond to an attack with Wing Chun concepts in mind. The goal of luk sao is to get you to respond in a mindful manner instead of uncontrolled movements.
In luk sao, there is generally a one-for-one response and attack cycle. The first move is an attack, to which the other fighter will acknowledge the threat and respond to it and finish with an attack of his own. The concept of right of way is important here for students to have clarity of their movements.
Nuk Sao: Free Sparring
Once the fighter has gotten a knack for the movements and can respond to energy with a proper movement, nuk sao is possible.
Here the same response and attack cycle can continue, but there is increased pressure since the attacker will try to make contact and there is no stopping to plan a movement. Sparring will continue until someone is hit.
However, once a hit has taken place, the fighters will restart. This will prevent pressure from escalating, while also allowing for hits to happen in a controlled manner.
Gor Sao: Fighting Practice
Gor sao is called fighting practice because this is when full contact sparring takes place. Ideas like right of way and control don’t necessarily fly out the window, but if one is not applying our definition of a hit (stopping or moving a mass), the fighter’s core has not been affected and he is free to continue.
Naturally, this sparring type is the most high-pressure and requires partners to have enough trust to not injure each other. Gor sao is truly the closest one will get to a fighting situation. As such, it must not be avoided. Fighters will need to deal with their own stress, manage their pain, and apply all the principles learned in class.
Wing Chun Sparring Techniques
Now that you have a general idea of how we go about sparring, you may ask yourself what kind of Wing Chun techniques are we supposed to apply?
Are there Wing Chun sparring techniques that I can add to my style of fighting?
What is the hardest technique?
To quote Bruce Lee in ‘Enter the Dragon’, “the hardest technique we hope to achieve is to have no technique”.
You’ve probably heard it a million times: Wing Chun is a concept-based martial art. This is because we seek to apply certain concepts when faced with pressure.
But isn’t the response a technique?
Yes and no.
We train to respond to different energies. One of the most common is what we call loss or absence of contact. Because loss of contact is a concept, there are an infinite number of ways for it to manifest. It could be a hand dropping, a leg retreating, a shoulder rising, a change in attention. And because there are an innumerable number of ways for loss of contact to happen, there are an equally innumerable number of ways to respond to it.
Which technique should we start with?
Techniques are often a single instance applied at a certain time. We do not seek to create situations to apply specific techniques. This takes too much time and time is precious.
No matter how you respond in that moment, the end result should always be the same. We must hit.
It’s a simple but important goal.
Wing Chun Sparring Tips
If there are no Wing Chun sparring techniques to master, what are some good Wing Chun sparring techniques?
Wing Chun is all about structure, relaxation, position, timing, and accuracy.
This is all about your posture. Your posture must be like bamboo: rigid but flexible. This means having all elements of good form.
It can be a confusing concept, especially when trying to maintain a good structure, but it is important to remember to have relaxed extremities. Relaxation is what allows us to respond to energy in a fluid fashion.
Where you are physically oriented against your opponent will make your responses more effective. Whenever we are maneuvering into a better position, the action is led by the feet. If we are attacking, this movement should also be led by the feet.
Your timing will dictate how effectively you deal with an opponent’s attack. If you respond when an opponent is still preparing his attack, you will only need to attack. Respond too late, and you will be completely on the defensive.
All the other points will mean little if you are not accurate with your movements. Aim too far off the center, and your punch will be ineffective. In order to be accurate, you must be aware of your targets, and you must keep your eyes on your opponent. This is known as mok lik.
Putting It All Together
Sparring is essential to Wing Chun. Without it, we are simply doing pattycake with and rubbing arms for no reason. Sparring will show the gaps in your training. It will show you how good you really are. It must not be neglected.