Lessons from sport training

Perhaps the most important thing learned from sports, and certainly my own experience in individual combat sports, is the importance of the mind. One must have the physical prowess to compete successfully at more advanced levels of any sport, but, given similar physical abilities, most accomplished athletes will tell you that the mind is the single most critical factor in determining success. Yogi Berra summed it up nicely:

Ninety percent of baseball is mental. The other half is physical.

Ask anyone experienced and successful in any kind of competition, and most will say the same thing. Perhaps not as eloquently as Yogi, but the message is the same.

The mental attitude and aptitude of long-term, successful competitors is no secret. They are confident (a product of training and experience), and because of that they are able to maintain relaxedness in execution and are not overly anxious or tense.

Long-term successful competitors have a will to compete (I would hazard a guess that the number of competitors who perform much better in the training room than “live on stage” is exponentially greater than the other way around), maintain a positive attitude, love what they do, have a high degree of focus, and are not easily distracted or discouraged. They react positively to, and perhaps are even elevated by, adversity or difficult situations. It’s easy to be a monk on a mountain, but we are all measured by our reaction to adversity.

In Part I of this article I mentioned my friend who was a 21 year veteran of the Navy SEALs. During that time he also served as a Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal Training (BUDS) instructor. Any physical body can be pushed to its limits through constant exertion, exposure to the elements, and deprivation of food and/or sleep. My understanding through discussion with him is that what they are looking for is the mental fortitude of trainees in the face of adversity – those that will never quit on themselves or their teammates and that can remain level-headed under pressure. There are lots of tough guys, but relatively few with the mental attitude and aptitude necessary to make it through SEAL training.

Long-term successful competitors are also knowledgeable in their game – both in the chess match of actual competition and in how to train for that competition. Seriousness and dedication in training are essential to highly developing skill, endurance, and habitual reaction – the ability to recognize a situation and to move quickly and instinctively without thought. On the other hand, overtraining will always result in injury and depleted mental preparedness, and if continued over time will significantly degrade physical and mental abilities. Last, long-term successful competitors also know their own, and if at all possible their opponent’s, strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies.

Before moving on to discussing mental training in taiji and its crucial role in self-defense, here is one brief example of the difference mental attitude makes in combat sport. The Penn State wrestling team, coached by the undefeated four-time NCAA national champion and Olympic champion Cael Sanderson, has won the national team title seven of the last eight years. I watched the 2017 finals, and Penn State had five wrestlers win a national title – an amazing achievement at that level. What caught my eye was the mentality of the Penn State wrestlers. Many wrestlers expend quite a bit of energy through nervousness before a match. While waiting for their championship match, however, the Penn State wrestlers were loose, smiling, and joking around. There is little difference in the physical abilities of wrestlers competing at that level – they are all elite athletes. I later saw coach Sanderson in an interview, where he was asked what he looks for when recruiting. His answer was brief: he wanted kids who had fun, and who really wanted to be there. It was purely about attitude. You may think that “well of course everybody at that level wants to be there,” but wrestling is so demanding, physically and mentally, that even the top wrestler’s motivation may wane, or their performance be hindered by nerves. Coach Sanderson also listed focus, mental toughness, humility, respect, and discipline – all purely mental faculties – as reasons in a short essay titled “Why my Kids will Wrestle.” (We are in Champaign Urbana, IL, home to the University of Illinois, and would be remiss without giving props to the many All-American U of I wrestlers and recent 2x national champions Jesse Delgado and Isaiah Martinez.)

Thus a brief reminder on the importance of mental attitude in sport or, really, any endeavor. I would expect that this is common knowledge to most, intellectually if not experientially, and intend this to serve as a common-sense introduction to the crucial role of mental/spiritual training and application in self-defense. Of course, given the seriousness of a self-defense situation, there are also some differences in ideals and purpose from sport psychology. No healthy person would want to be in a self-defense situation, and the taiji attitude is not a desire to compete with and defeat others but to improve oneself physically, mentally, and spiritually and, in a nutshell, to be happy. If your happiness depends on defeating others, one day you are sure to be unhappy.

On then to the principal subject of this article – the mental and spiritual training unique to, or at least fundamentally emphasized in, taiji training, and its role in self-defense.

Mental and spiritual training in taiji and its role in self-defense

Of Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang’s 12 principles of taiji (tai chi) practice, the first is

Heart and spirit empty and tranquil from beginning to end.

The word translated as “empty and tranquil” is xujing, and as quoted in Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power, Grandmaster Feng said:

Taiji is the gongfu of xujing. This is the most important principle of all.

To repeat, that the heart and spirit be “empty and tranquil” is the most important principle of all. Why would this be a goal of a self-defense art? And how is it trained?

Training of the mind and spirit

It must be understood that taiji emphasizes training along the entire body/mind/spirit continuum – the gong of xujing is not realized only by slow choreographed form practice. The efficiency, and ultimately depth, of all gong acquired is not a question of style (or, perhaps more accurately in today’s commercial world, brand), but of how deeply you understand the methods and purpose of all of the different components of training, and your effort in pondering and practicing the art. From the beginning of taiji practice, mental training is emphasized in all practices but, as explained in a previous article, the goal of quiescence and tranquility is especially the purpose of sitting meditation, an essential foundational component of training.

From tranquility, but also from meditative movement practices, one realizes a heightened awareness – awareness of oneself, emotionally and physically, and awareness of others. Every conscious action taken is dependent on awareness of the situation. If you are upset or off-balance emotionally, you must first be aware of that to restore balance. To be unaware is to be sleepwalking through life; to be aware is to be perceptive and awake to life. The more aware one becomes, of oneself and of others, the wiser one will act in every moment of life. Anthony DeMello, a priest and spiritual writer and teacher, even equated spirituality with awareness, and resolutely stated “the unaware life is not worth living.” I would also say that meditation is awareness. A tranquil mind is not at all empty – it is fully aware, without judgement, attraction, or aversion.

Also, with regards to mental attitude in training, the taiji principle is to nurture oneself, and one’s brothers and sisters. The last of Grandmaster Feng’s 12 principles is

You will be successful if you know both how to practice and how to nurture yourself.

The body and mind are inextricably connected. If you routinely practice with fear, anger, brutality or aggressiveness (the last 3 all, really, a product of the first) in your heart, you are only harming yourself and you will eventually and inevitably injure yourself and degrade your ability to defend yourself. Unless you are looking for trouble or are simply unaware of your or other’s emotions and actions, what are the chances of encountering an unavoidable physical confrontation in today’s world? Why would you harm yourself, mentally and physically, training for such a low probability occurrence? Training smart is not the sole purview of taiji, of course, but it is a central tenet. One needn’t look hard to find examples of those that trained without consideration of moderation and nurturing and have seriously degraded their physical and/or mental abilities by doing so.

Conversely, if you do know how to practice and focus on nurturing, you can increase power and skill much longer and later in life. This is all mental attitude and understanding – the wisdom of centuries of experience and trial and error. In taiji tradition, peak ability is realized in the 50s or even 60s, and taiji players often remain strong and vital well into their 80s and beyond. Which, by the way, is why taiji became popular – people observed the vitality of older taiji practitioners and wanted that. A famous saying in the internal martial arts tradition is

The older, the stronger, the wiser, and the happier.

Taking a page from my teacher’s pedagogy, I once told my class to think that they were 20 years younger when practicing an agility drill. One long-time student responded, quite sincerely, “I’m way more agile now than I was 20 years ago.”

Martial arts (and wellness) is a long-term endeavor – a marathon, not a sprint. To risk overdosing on metaphors, be the tortoise, not the hare. Time, patience, and knowledge are needed to make a fine wine. Taiji skill is learned, it is not natural ability, and the longer you practice correctly, the more you improve. If you have no experience in fighting but for some reason plan to take it up soon, take a boxing class and learn to wrestle a bit. If you want to continually improve agility, power, flexibility, balance, coordination, reaction, confidence and tranquility well into your senior years, take up taiji with the best teacher you can find.

Application of the mind in fighting

Winning the war without fighting

As noted above, heightened awareness is a fundamental purpose of the mental and physical training of taiji and is a significant component of self-defense. To be aware of one’s emotions and desires, and, importantly, of one’s surrounding and of the emotional states of others, is the key to making good decisions and avoiding unnecessary confrontation – to not allowing the energy of others to control the situation and dictate your actions. Do not think that your thoughts are known only to you and that others do not sense your emotions. Though the intellect is more dominant in human consciousness, people do sense and react to the emotional state of others, if sometimes only subconsciously.[1] If you are filled with negative energy, if you are disgusted, upset, angry, afraid, or mentally aggressive, others will sense that and will react according to their character. Only if you are aware of your emotions can you control yourself, and the situation, before the beginning of any altercation.

And should an altercation suddenly begin to emerge, simply to remain calm and exude confidence – to not be afraid to engage while remaining tranquil and avoiding unnecessary emotional escalation, is enough to dissuade many attackers and/or dissolve the situation. Conversely, to be excited, show fear, and/or to allow the ego to control one’s emotions, will only fan the flames of the situation and make a confrontation more likely to happen. It takes two hands to clap.

To let go of the ego and to possess the awareness, wisdom, tranquility, and confidence necessary to avoid a physical confrontation is the highest level of self-defense. At camp last year my teacher told of a recent encounter with a suspicious-acting intruder, whom he found hiding behind a staircase in his apartment building in New York. Dr. Yang engaged the person and asked him what he was doing. The person was young and quite large and threatened violence. It was Dr. Yang’s attitude – his confidence and calm demeanor, that convinced the intruder to drop it and leave. As Dr. Yang explains, self-defense application is all about energy – a word that encompasses both physical power and mental attitude. No conflict – to win the war without a battle – is the only self-defense application guaranteed to work. And winning a self-defense situation simply means being able to walk away and continue on with life. As Sun Tzu said:

For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.


I don’t know much, but I do know it is a less than perfect world, and as best I can tell life wasn’t meant to be easy. Violence comes in many forms, emotional and physical, overt and surreptitious, and we all experience it. As Woodie Guthrie sang: “some will rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen,” which, as with the Mike Tyson quote in Part I of this article, is equal parts literal and metaphorical. Personally, I’ve a bit more respect for the person that at least has the honesty to tell you that they intend you harm.

While it takes two hands to clap, it only takes one hand to attack you. Should the improbable happen and fate place you in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you conclude that a physical fight is the only option to protect yourself or others, know that it will likely be fast, violent, and probably sloppy and short lived – it won’t look at all like the choreographed scenes in the movies, and will not last as long as the multiple round fights you see on TV.

The end mental product of training is not a will to fight, but a calm acceptance of the inevitable if it happens. In part this calmness comes from the confidence of the internal power built through practice, and the experience of using and increasing that power in neutralizing attacks and maintaining balance in correctly understood and practiced push-hands training. The taiji attitude, given an attack, is to think and believe “go ahead, do what you are going to do – whatever you do or say does not bother me.”

Wu-wei is a taiji philosophical concept which describes the optimal mental attitude toward any action. Literally translated as “no action,” it does not at all mean doing nothing. Rather, it means less is more, doing what is natural, spontaneously, and with the minimal required energy or effort, acting without artificiality and not attempting to force any specific outcome. Going with the flow, as it were, without seeking to control through forceful, unnatural or egotistical desire or stubbornly adhering to fixed rules or preconceptions. The attitude of wu wei is expressed in the martial advice “don’t enter the fight,” which, just like wu wei, does not mean what it says literally. (It’s quite easy to see how opaque or enigmatic sayings in martial tradition can easily be misinterpreted or misunderstood.) “Don’t enter the fight” does not mean don’t defend yourself; it means don’t struggle against the opponent’s strength, but rather neutralize it without surrendering your balance and attack the vulnerable or unguarded areas. It is human nature to respond to a push with a push, to “enter the fight.” It takes a lot of practice not to do this and to maintain optimal balance and position for counter-attack.

And so the taiji theory is to “give up yourself and follow the opponent,” which means not to attempt to force any particular action, and to adhere, listen to and follow the opponent’s movement while maintaining your physical and mental balance so that you may fully disable the opponent when they are off-balance or vulnerable to counter-attack. I say counter-attack, as it is self-defense, but perhaps the best defense may be a good offense. No rules or preconceptions. Another taiji classical poem advises “the opponent moves, I move first.” This saying refers to combined mental and physical acuity gained through training and experience – the ability to perceive, either visually or through touch, the opponent’s intention, and to react even before they move. (The traditional term for this heightened mental and physical agility is ling.) Again, heightened awareness. To realize this, you must be mentally focused on the opponent, and not occupied with desire to do what you want.

Much easier said than done, of course. One bit of wisdom from MMA fighters is that, in fighting, “there are many ways to lose.” Nobody, anywhere, is perfect or unbeatable, and “no soldier outlives a thousand chances.” [2] Your intention is to completely disable the attacker to the point you can exit, and not to give them even a thought of a second chance. To be kind to an attacker may be an act of unkindness to yourself or those you seek to protect. Odds are you will both be injured, but that can’t matter in the least to you. There is an old Chinese saying:

The weak are afraid of the strong, the strong are afraid of the crazy, and the crazy are afraid of those that don’t care if they live or die.

It is this attitude of not caring about the result, and confidence, that will allow you to remain relaxed and not anxious, nervous, or tense.

An astute reader might perceive a paradox here. This entire article, you may say, (and I hope you would) is about the priority of mental attitude and aptitude for optimal performance in self-defense, but then I advise not caring about what happens in a fight. Why bother with learning and training if you ultimately don’t care? Not wanting to win? What kind of self-defense theory is that? Think for a moment if you would like, I’ll wait for your response . . .

Did you have an answer? Not caring does not mean not trying. It means not allowing the ego to dictate your emotions or actions, and non-attachment to the results. Commit fully and do your best, your very best, in any endeavor you deem worthy of your energy. But never tie your happiness to any particular outcome, to winning or losing, or to what other people think of you. Be fully present and want to be there – not in a fight, but simply embracing the reality of the moment, whatever it may be. It is non-attachment to the results that will allow you to perform your best – and to be happy, peaceful, and content.

Indeed, don’t “think” about anything – winning, losing, or what you are doing. Be fully aware, fully present. If you think about what you are doing, you will hesitate and be too slow. To return to the lessons of combat sport, I know that, by far, the best I ever performed is when I did not care about the result, had no thought of the prize or glory of winning or shame of losing, and when I did not think about what I was doing or what was happening – when I just embraced the moment and acted spontaneously. Oh, the things one could write in letters to one’s younger self.

Zhuangze’s poem “The Need to Win” has precisely this message about concern for the result:

The Need to Win

When an archer is shooting for nothing,
he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle,
he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold,
he goes blind or sees two targets.
He is out of his mind!

His skill has not changed,
but the prize divides him.

He cares.

He thinks more of winning than of shooting.
And the need to win drains him of power.


I would hope there is one final thing an astute reader will realize. The probability of having to fight a physical fight is minimal, and significantly reduced beyond that through mental and spiritual training. I did the math. Assuming 1 of 100 persons will experience a fight in a year’s time, and that it will last one minute – that’s 52,560,000 minutes of life (52.5 million!), compared to one minute of self-defense. But everything said here applies to every minute of daily life. This is the answer to Bart Simpson, who proclaimed that he “learns Karate so he never has to use it.” The real art is to, as the classics advise,

With your entire being, develop your life.

. . . to “use” your training every day, and to use every moment as training.

Taiji is a little dao, from which one can glimpse the Big Dao.

zhenwu picture


[1] Watch “The Dog Whisperer” sometime. Seriously. There is a lot of wisdom conveyed there. As Mr. Millan says, he “rehabilitates dogs, but trains people” – to be calm, confident, and aware of the effect of their emotions on other beings. Bet you didn’t expect that suggestion in a blog about taiji training.

[2] Erich Maria Remarque, “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Highly recommended for a dose of the reality of violence and wisdom of those who experience it – the book or the original 1930 film. The book was banned in pre-WWII Germany. I figure any book that has been banned by the powers that be is probably worth reading.

Self-defense theory and practices of taiji – Part II: mental attitude and aptitude
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4 thoughts on “Self-defense theory and practices of taiji – Part II: mental attitude and aptitude

  • Giving up yourself and following the opponent” highlights the importance of adaptability and responsiveness in Taiji. Additionally, the connection between meditation and martial arts practice, particularly the concept of achieving “wuji,” underscores the integral role of mental clarity and focus. It’s a reminder that true mastery in martial arts involves both physical skills and a cultivated mental state. This holistic perspective is crucial for effective self-defense and personal growth.

  • Oh dang, reading this made me feel clearer and braver…..and more settled and peaceful! Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Excllent and deep. Thank you Sir.

    I first stepped into martial art’s training 01/10/2013 at age sixty-seven. I was in fairly good shape for an older guy having kept trim, hiked and biked round town for years, and exercised around the house. At 5’5″ and 135 lbs I was light, flexible, and nimble.

    For much of my life I had read and studied Eastern ideas such as Zen and Daoism. Also for about ten years leading up to 2013 I was reading books and watching youtube videos about the hard and soft marial arts – forms and philosophies – yoga, and such practices as bagua and aikido. In front of the computer screen I’d follow the movements and attempt to do them correctly.

    My emphasis was balance, strength, and flexibility.

    So all of that was with me the first night my grand daughter invited me to her taekwondo class and I was ready to learn and impress the class with what I could do. I was also a little nervous.

    From the beginning of class going from warm up exercises to horse back stance, foot and hand strikes, basic kicks and postures, and the first few white belt moves all I heard was “Not that right foot, the other right foot” as I continually turned in the wrong direction, couldn’t visualize what my teacher was doing right in front of me, and by the end of class was aching and frustrated and confused and not a happy grandpa.

    Walking out into the parking lot I said to my teacher, “I’m very frustrated. I can’t believe how bad I did turning in the wrong direction all the time and confusing my right with my left. He laughed and said, “It’s like anything new. What have you ever done that took time to learn that you got perfect the first time? Taekwondo is a process a little at a time and it’s good for your health. Think of it that way. I hope you come back but it’s up to you.”

    Repeatedly the first few years I thought about not coming back. But I was improving a little and passing color belt tests. I was never satisfied with my performance at tests – I’m still not 100% satisfied – but know that’s a good thing.

    And correction is a big part of learning – a little praise and a lot of correction – which I’ve come to embrace. I’ve grown in humility and patience.

    When I passed 1st dan black belt along with a teen age student who began a year before I started, we both cane to class proud of ourselves. We were presented with our black belts and some words of encouragement for our accomplishments and “Now you have become advanced beginners cause of all your king fu – your hard work. White belts get dirty and turn black because of hard work. That’s how you become a black belt. Continue to come to class with a white belt attitude that everything is fresh and new and you will continue to learn and maybe one days teach othes.”

    Today I help teach. What I need to improve is more clear than ever and not frustrating as it was that first night. By January of 2019 I will have been a student of TKD six years. I’m learning two forms for my 2nd dan test and doing my best to relearn and improve all the color belt forms so I can teach them and do them more artfully myself.

    Sparring is one thing I love to do though my matches have yet to meet my expectations. Top Masters say for my age I do very well. I want to do better.

    Thank you for this blog post – it inspired me to tell you my martial art’s story. I greatly appreciate your insights.

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