Welcome back to this series on improving your Wing Chun Kung Fu. I have the luxury of training with quite a few different Wing Chun practitioners, in several different lineages and I have come across a few general groups of errors and failings in training that I think can be easily corrected with just a prod in the right direction (sometimes this prod comes in the form of a vicious burn from Dr Zoidberg of Futurama fame).
Jokes aside each article in this series aims to do the following:
1) Diagnose a particular common issue in Wing Chun practice or programming
2) Suggest helpful training or mindset tips that can help fix this specific issue
Problem 2: No footwork
So I have seem many Wing Chun practitioners with very limited footwork, there are also those that have some (mostly from the wooden man and knives form) but do not apply it in their free fighting and chi sau. This is a serious flaw, ask most martial artists involved in striking based combat sports what is vital for a fighter and they will probably say either cardio or footwork. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves.
So what is footwork?
Footwork involves keeping balance, controlling ie closing or furthering distance from your opponent, controlling spatial positioning, and/or creating additional momentum for strikes. That is a lot of stuff! It sets you up to strike, takes you out of harms way and empowers your own strikes. When done correctly the skilled martial artist appears ghost-like, you cant hit them but they always seem to have a clean line on you. In Wing Chun it is even more important as footwork is also essential for skilful control of the centre line. Yes you need good gates and structure, but your opponent moves in real life so you must be able to move with them and track their centre in real time, whilst they try to hit you back.
So we know that footwork is important but why is there such a problem in Wing Chun in particular? I see two key reasons:
1) Footwork is often deliberately kept back in some Wing Chun lineages
2) Wing Chun practitioners spend a lot of time training their hands in chi sau
What can be done?
This is a difficult issue to address if footwork is not a core part of your training. If you just practice the basic arrow stepping in your forms and drills you are missing a huge piece of the Wing Chun puzzle. I recommend you find a teacher who is willing to work on your footwork and teach you the wooden man form. However, there are several simple programming approaches that can be very successful.
The Basic approach
Even if you school has a very limited footwork focus there are several steps you can take to up your movement game:
1) Spend time drilling your footwork
2) Practice chi sau drills with footwork as the key focus
3) Observe students and teachers with better footwork than yours and try to copy their approach
Now those are fairly simple tips, but if you put the time and effort in to your own training this method you will see rapid improvement in your feet. Just your focused attention will be enough to improve, the mind leads and the body follows.
Now I do have a few more tricks up my sleeve for you! There are several key approaches I have picked up from different lineages.
1) Learn to dance with your shadow
Basically shadowbox with your wing chun. This is something I have practised for a long time. It grew out of a footwork drill that I practised with Master Andrew Sofos. In this drill the instructor would call you footwork moves, arrow step forward, back, pivot, shift etc and the class would do them together. When I was unable to train with Master Andrew I missed this drill sorely and I simply started freestyling the drill. Over time it became more and more free, I added more moves, parts from the wooden man, more variety of gates with the steps, until I was shadow boxing like a western boxer except using wing chun. It is an excellent drill. My key points are start simple with a few steps, always step/turn with a gate or a punch, start slow but move up to real fighting pace, be creative and have fun.
2) Do your free fighting practice in a confined space like a table or a card disk
Again another drill taken from Master Sofos (whose Wing Chun students have excellent footwork). For advanced practitioners that are freely applying their applications in chi sau or sparring. Instead of always having lots of space to move in, confine yourself to a limited space. Limitation breeds creativity and in this case staying close to your opponent will force you to use move footwork.