As Stanley Israel Used to Say... Just PUSH!
In most sports, there are standardized rules and methods of officiating that athletes can count on. They train in specialized ways that prepare them to compete under these conditions. Although subjectivity in officiating is always a variable, well trained athletes expect it and are prepared for it. Part of what separates champions from every-day competitors is the ability to "push" the limits of the rules while still pleasing the officials.
A lack of this standardization has caused problems for Tai Chi Push Hands competitions for years. If you've ever observed or participated in a push hands competition, you know what I mean. There is a major lack of consistency in terms of the rules and judging from:
1. Tournament to tournament,
2. Year to year at the same tournament, and
3. Ring to ring at the same tournament on the same day!
Not only that, but the competitors and crowd are often subjected to lengthy pauses in the action so that the head ring judge can throw out condescending remarks like "No… no, no… you're using too much force" or "let's see some actual Tai Chi" or (my personal favorite) "this isn't Sumo". The truth is... it's not Sumo. Sumo has a set of standardized rules, players are permitted to use any kind of force they want, and as a result the techniques, players and competition are better.
The judges who make these remarks and openly display their lack of respect for the competitors are shooting themselves in the foot. They are so concerned with having the competitors show off "real Tai Chi skills" to the crowd, that they lose sight of the fact that it is the competitors who are playing, and not the judges demonstrating their own ability to use Tai Chi principles. The crowd wants to see action. The crowd intuitively understands the difficulty of using four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds. Somehow, the judges seem to believe that if they repeat their harsh remarks frequently enough and loud enough, that competitors will have a "satori" experience and suddenly possess the skills of a grand master. It's not going to happen.
If someone grabbed me under the arm pits and drove me backwards using all of their strength out on the street, I would strike that person as hard and fast as I could and as many times as I could in the groin, throat and eyes. But in a push hands competition, strikes are not allowed. I am unable to defend myself using those techniques. So what I'm left with is my ability to neutralize, root, and push. If I can push better than my opponent can neutralize, I can push my opponent. If my opponent can neutralize better than I can push, I cannot push my opponent. It's pretty simple. It's just not pretty.
If the rules of the competition simply stated that you have to drive the other person out of the circle without kicking, striking, grabbing clothing, twisting the joints or using any other dangerous techniques, you would see a good competition. What you would see is the gradual unfolding of the best combination of rooting, neutralizing and pushing to get the job done. Lighter, quicker people would naturally gravitate towards those techniques that favor their constitution and temperament. Heavier, stronger people would gravitate toward methods that favor their natural make up. And all of the variations in between would provide everyone with a wonderfully interesting spectator event. All competitors would be forced to develop at least a minimum amount of skill in all of these skills in order to be able to compete successfully.
Tai Chi is not about being pretty in application. It is about being effective. Effectiveness in a real fight is not the same as effectiveness in push hands. Push hands is a drill. When you turn it into a competitive event, expect people to really compete. Instead of trying to force people to "pretty up" their push hands at the expense of winning, let go a bit. Let the people use whatever they've got as long as nobody gets hurt. In the end, the people who can balance Yin and Yang most effectively will emerge. And it won't always be the big guy… it will be the best guy. In Boston, Sifu Avi Schneier, a lightweight push hands player, beat the heavyweight winner in the Grand Championship. The heavyweight outweighed Sifu Schneier by over 100 pounds, and was least 6 inches taller.
I can hear my friend Mario Napoli, Chen Village Push Hands Grand Champion, telling the old story about his first push hands lessons with the late, great Stanley Israel… a top disciple of Professor Cheng Man Ch'ing. Mario would say "When I first studied with Stan, I would ask him "Should I push like this... or like that... or use this type of energy..." to which Stanley would simply reply "JUST PUSH!!!!" "But what if he does this, or he uses this type of force… or he turns that way..." "JUST PUSH." "Okay… but… what about when..." "JUST PUSH!!!!!"