Tai Chi San Shou, also known as push hands, join hands, or sensing hands, is a training device in the study of Tai Chi Chuan. It contributes to the understanding of applications, energy generation and movement, sensitivity, awareness, relaxation, and mastery of the solo form. It can be fun, informative, and contribute to one’s understanding of relating to others on all levels – physical, mental, and spiritual. Most Tai Chi schools have some push hands classes or training for these reasons.

Push hands is also a growing sporting activity, with workshops and tournaments held worldwide. It will become much more popular after the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, as push hands will be on the list of competitions.

I love Push Hands. I have been a grand champion competitor, tournament judge and referee, as well as the organizer for The Northwest Push Hands Championships. It has mostly been fun, informative, and well worth the time I have put in. Pushing in a school with one’s fellow students has some limitations, as students of a school tend to do things in the same way. Tournaments allow students of one style or school to experience the techniques of other schools, which is very good for Tai Chi skill. However, there are short comings to this system. Some of the problems that are apparent to me are:
1) Competition leads to winners and losers with one group feeling good and the other not so good.
2) In a tournament, if you face the strongest competitor in the first round and lose, that is all the pushing you’ll probably get to do.
3) Men and women are separated into their own class. They don’t get to push against each other as much as they might like to, and lose an opportunity to learn from the experience.
4) Different weight classes don’t get to push against other weight classes unless you are going for the grand championship.
5) Most importantly, people don’t get a chance to push very much, even if they win.
6) The promoter might not make expenses so most people are not willing to take a risk and put on a tournament. Tournaments are few and far between.

I decided to change the rules some to make it more fun, give people the opportunity to gain experience, and feel like they are contributing to the financial health of their school. I want to share with you what and how I went about accomplishing my goals.

I live in a small town that uses benefit events as a way to support organizations which would otherwise struggle financially. People donate fine art, craft items, gift certificates, or services. The organization then puts on an auction to raise money. I decided to incorporate this idea into my event.

The name tournament scares many people who might like to gain the experience of pushing. Tournaments tend to make people lose track of the fundamentals of Tai Chi in order to win. So I named my event “Benefit Play Day”. It was a huge success and I feel the idea could work for other schools. What follows are the essential details.

Getting Started

The rules were designed to give everybody a chance to push against everybody else and still have a chance to accumulate points and win prizes. The goal was to keep it simple, gain valuable Tai Chi experience, and have fun.

Everybody who signed up started with 30 points representing $30 entrance fee. If someone wanted to pay more money (don’t forget this was a benefit for the studio) they could, and would start with more points. A point for a dollar. If someone didn’t have any money, he or she could participate, but started with no points. Points were awarded by beating others, and at the end of the event, we had an auction of donated items where people could bid for items using their accumulated points.
Each person chose a weight class. We had a scale but trusted people to pick one that they felt comfortable in. There were five classes spaced about 15 pounds apart – fly , light, middle, heavy, and super heavy. The names in the classes were then put up on a large sheet of paper and taped to the wall so all could easily see who was in each class. It was decided that experience not be taken into consideration which proved to be a good decision.

Rules

With the idea of having as many opportunities to push as possible, each contest was decided by the best two out of three. The matches were judged by the contestants themselves. I correctly figured that the nature of the event lent itself to trusting that the participants could decide themselves who won or lost, and it proved true. People appreciated that the power to judge lay with them.

The event started by me choosing two participants, and having them push, while I explained the fine points. We followed tournament rules. The plan was to start with fixed step, and after a period of time, we would move to restricted step. For those of you not familiar with push hands play, fixed step means that neither foot can move at any time. If one moves a foot, the contest is over. In restricted step, players can move forward and backward in a controlled manner along a straight line, as long as the starting foot forward remains forward while stepping forward or backward. Since each contest was two out of three, the first was left foot forward, the next right, and if needed, the last was left forward again. No pushing above the shoulders, below the hips, no double grabbing, no rough play, etc. I felt the participants could make their own decisions. In the event of any disagreements, I made the final decision. In the all day event, I had to intervene only once or twice.

When a match was over, the loser would go to paper on the wall and mark a point or points after the name of the winner. This worked out well. Players chose partners, judged the match, and scored the winners on the board. They felt empowered.

Handicap

This is an important aspect to make the benefit fair and fun for all. Participants gained points by winning matches. If one beat someone in his or her own class, they received one point. If they beat someone in a class below theirs, they received one point. But if they beat someone in a class higher, they received more points. One point for each class above theirs. If a fly beat a light, two points. If a fly beat a middle- three, heavy-four, and super heavy -five. If a heavy beat a super – two. This gave lighter players more incentive to play with bigger people as well as a chance to gain points. The biggest people could win more matches, but not extra points. This aspect made the event more fun for all.

 

The event

I was very happy about the turn out. One small problem was that there was an odd number of people, which turned out to be OK once we started, as people could sit out if they were tired or just wanted to watch. We also had a few spectators from time to time who could donate money if they wanted.

People paired up, and we all started together. Some matches were quite quick, while others took a bit longer, but never so long as to be a problem. Those that were over quickly got to watch the others as they finished. It was educational as well as fun. Participants would then find another partner, and we would all start together again. These best two out of three matches tended to last less then a minute.

After the first few matches, the mood lightened and people felt freer to push with anybody. If anything came up that was particularly interesting or useful, I would stop the action and we would discuss it and possibly work on some principle. It turned from a contest into a learning experience.

After about an hour or so, we called a break. Some people had pushed the entire time, while others had sat out a match or two. Sweat had started and smiles were abundant. We shared homemade cookies, juice, and discussed how things were going and if anything needed to be added or subtracted. Some went outside for fresh air, others continued to push. We looked at the score board and everybody had added points, some quite a bit more than others.

The next section was two minute rounds, still fixed step. I called a start and stop and the person with least off balances won points in the same way as before. Everybody started with right foot forward, then at one minute I called out to change feet for the next minute. People agreed that this was more interesting then two out of three.

We pushed in this way for another hour and then took another break. I continued to stop and discuss interesting or unusual techniques that worked or didn’t work. More people were sitting out, especially beginners. At this point, people had been pushing for two solid hours.

We switched into restricted stepping. That took a bit of relearning for some people, and took more awareness on the players part since our space was limited and restricted step takes more room. After trying this for a short while, we gave up on the idea, mainly because of lack of space. If I had a larger space available, it might have proved informative and fun. So we went back to the two minute rounds and continued for about one half hour more, and called the end to the pushing phase. It was now time for the auction.

Auction.

The donations varied greatly. They included fine art, antiques, certificates for massage, dinners at local restaurants, stays at bed and breakfasts, day outings on a sailboat, and more. These items were donated by students of the Studio, people who had done classes or workshops in the past, and friends. For a bigger event, one could go out into the community and solicit goods and services, but I chose not to do that. We actually ended up with more prizes then participants, so people could bid on more than one item.

Rather then try to direct the order of bidding, we started with all the donations displayed and described. Someone then bid on an item of his or her choice, using some or all of his prize points. Other people could then raise the bid until the bidding finished on that item.

One of the students of the studio acted as the accountant, keeping track of the amount of points each person stated with, the bids, who won each item, the amount of extra money that bidders used, and finally collected this extra amount either at the time of the winning bid or at the end of the event.

Some of the items went for just a few points, while others inspired fierce contests of will. People were allowed to add their own money (each dollar being one point), and felt free to do so because it was a benefit for the Studio. The auction lasted about a half an hour and all agreed it was fun.

Conclusions

The benefit play day was a big success. It brought in some extra needed cash, provided almost unlimited opportunities for people to push with people they wouldn’t usually play with, was a solid educational push hands experience, gave participants an opportunity to donate to the Studio as well as win valuable and fun prizes, and was fun and rewarding to all.

The next time I would rent a larger space so we could explore restricted step which I feel is more realistic, challenging, and interesting. I also think I might let non participants who are members or friends of the Studio and can’t push hands or don’t feel comfortable doing so, take part in the auction. That way they can support the studio also and feel a part of the event.

I hope this helps other schools pick up on this idea. I saw no negatives at all. Get organized, plan ahead, and have fun.