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Stillness and Speed. How Does T’ai Chi Work in a Fight?

This sounds a straightforward question; but it is a difficult one even for a T’ai chi master to answer. Why is that? If a skilled T’ai chi practitioner has to use it in a real attack, they probably have little idea of what they did. They would simply respond appropriately to what was happening, with no time to analyse what they were doing. One of my teachers told me that if you use T’ai chi in a real fight, your response would look like an accident. When Master Cheng was about to be struck by bicycle that came speeding out of a side street, he simply responded with a ward off and turn, and so dissipated the incoming force, sending the bike and rider spinning off. It was only because a student was with him and witnessed the incident, that his reaction could be reconstructed at all.

A piece of brilliance by the footballer Dennis Bergkamp illustrates this kind of spontaneous, automatic response, which looks like an accident, albeit drawing on skills of balance and fluid movement, learned through repetition over years of training. In 2002 during a game against Newcastle, Bergkamp received a difficult low bouncing pass from teammate Robert Pirès. Bergkamp had his back to the goal on the edge of the area, but fairly central, with two defenders marking him. He simply flicked the ball up with the side of his left foot, sending the ball to one side of the defender; while Bergkamp turns 180 degrees, going round the other side of defender, and meets the ball that he precisely strokes into the right bottom corner of the goal with his right foot, completely fooling the goalkeeper.

It is one of the best goals ever scored, and was a result of total improvisation, albeit by someone who had honed his skills by endless repetition. Bergkamp always told his teammates to give him passes hit at pace or difficult to control; not only in training but also in competitive matches. Why? Well he liked the challenge of controlling difficult passes, and of course, they are more difficult for defenders to read or control, and they make the follow through unpredictable.

What is often not noticed is that the Newcastle defender does not give up on the challenge as Dennis is alongside him, so the Dutch Master holds him off with his left arm and goes past him. Not a foul because Dennis’ arm is extended for balance after his turn, and it happens to contact the defender’s chest.

The individual elements which made the goal, Bergkamp’s precise touch, his balance and turning skill, his skill in holding off the defender and above all his skill in staying calm enough to give himself time to place the ball with an accurate, low paced shot; these elements were developed through years of repetition in training. The end product on the pitch at Newcastle in 2002 just looks like improvised magic. Ian Wright, his Arsenal teammate, says Dennis knew exactly what he was doing, and even saw him score a similar goal in training, turning the England defender Martin Keown. Martin, who took training games every bit as seriously as a competitive match, was definitely trying to stop him; but the end result was a goal slotted into the bottom corner.

Even the title of Dennis Bergkamp’s brilliant autobiography is a reminder of T’ai chi: “Stillness & Speed. My Story” Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2013.

To see that goal in action, and being analysed, see:

Dennis Bergkamp is now Youth Coach at Ajax, the Club that helped make him the great player he is. As a Liverpool supporter, I saw him play at Anfield a few times. He was a joy to watch. He was rightly respected and appreciated there as the great player he is.

To find out how you can improve your health, fitness and understanding of T’ai Chi in as little as 10 minutes per day, check out “T’ai Chi For Life, Health and Fitness” right now!

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