One of the primary traits of shaolin’s fighting philosophy is to not get hit. It is often taught in sparring that there is a no “exchange program” in fighting basically saying you do not accept any type of damage in order to get in on your opponent. To avoid being hit, there are a number of things that need to happen including maintaining a proper distance from your opponent, moving your body away from an oncoming blow, and, of course, blocking.
In the beginning, blocking is simplistic. Students are introduced to basic blocking skills: proper distancing, blocking mechanics, and timing/reflexes. At this stage, successful blocking means not getting hit… the intricacies of blocking come later. Given all the different forms of attack from punches, elbows, kicks, etc. and all the various types of blocks against such attacks, it can take some time to learn and develop basic blocking skills. At this stage, getting hit can often be the best training as it alerts the student to the inadequacies of their defense, but it’s a start to being able to defending yourself.
As blocking skill develops, less strength and movement is needed to make blocks effective. Blocks are now more often glancing deflections than they are “bone on bone”, substantial blocks. In fact, you learn to block just enough to avoid getting hit. The circles in blocking are there, but are becoming smaller and smaller – almost to the point of being imperceivable. At this point, you might realize that certain attacks can be blocked in a way that can be to your advantage. You deflect in order to lead the attacker into a vulnerable position for counter attack. Blocking can also go the other way in that you can employ the “breaking weapons” theory and literally attack the opponent’s extremity that is attacking you.
After years of consistent training, as skills progress, blocking and avoiding attacks becomes second nature and doesn’t require a great deal of thought as you have done it time and again in san shou and sparring. What becomes more important now is the ability to sense your opponents energy, balance, ability, and intentions through touching their attacks. There is a great deal to this that won’t be explained here, but one example of a more advanced blocking technique is nullifying your opponent’s attack and sticking with it during its retreat or secondary movement. By doing this, you are able to “keep tabs” on him and learn what his next movement would be before you would have if you weren’t touching him. This “sticking” ability is one of tai chi chuan’s major fighting skills.
Again, it is crucial to avoid getting damaged. Timing, reflexes, distancing, technique are all necessary to preventing getting hit and preparing you for whatever counter fits the situation. Make efforts to stay loose and soft when blocking attacks (all the while being sure the attack doesn’t get thru) so counter attacks can be sharp and crisp. If you are diligent to avoid being hit in the training hall, you have a great chance of not getting hit outside of it when it can mean a black eye, a broken tooth, or even the difference between life and death.