Dave, the instructor (or sifu, if you want to be traditional), said that we should all partner with someone we do not usually train with; it isn't a problem for me, because I don't have a regular training partner. Some people in the class were affected by this, because they seem to have a preference for training with the same person every Thursday. The problem with learning a martial art using the same training partner regularly is that you learn that person's responses and mould your own accordingly - it's not a good idea, unless there is no one else to train with.
I was placed with a young South African man. I have trained with him before, but that was Chi Sau, and I'm pretty rubbish at Chi Sau (actually, I attended a seminar on Chi Sau at the weekend, so I should be a bit better now). Tonight, we had a drill where I threw a punch, which he deflected with a pak sau (slapping hand, of which there are a few variations), throwing a punch back at me, which I deflected with my own pak sau, and it would go back and forth.
I've spoken to this guy at the end of a class, and it seems he studied Wing Chun in South Africa, though he did not specify a lineage (it's debatable whether it really matters, especially after a number of years practising), and he is now studying Aikido in North Wales. I remembered the Chi Sau session with him, because he pretty much dominated that exchange. I have no problem with admitting my Chi Sau is not the best, but it was still pretty embarrassing for me. I'm guessing that he studied for many years in South Africa.
The Chi Sau seminar at the weekend was hosted by Billy Davidson - the head of Ching Mo, our organisation. I learned a few things at the seminar; one of them was that Chi Sau is a skill which develops over time and with many years of practice. It took away my shame at being relatively poor at Chi Sau, because I have been a member of the class for less than two years and I don't get to practise Chi Sau outside of the class or seminars, because I have no one to train with.
Now, I was faced with the South African again, but it was not Chi Sau this time. I still expected his obvious experience in Wing Chun to mean I would find myself in trouble as the drill became more complicated, as I knew it would. Sure enough, we had to change the punch and pak sau hands without warning each other, so that we could learn to react to the change, and then we had to change our stance, also without warning. The end result is more like free fighting than Chi Sau, though free fighting limited to one specific attack and one specific defence.
Dave, the instructor, came to me twice, asking me to slow down the changes. I kept speeding up, quite unintentionally. My training partner had originally insisted that we train at a range where it was possible that we might hit each other in a real fight, because it would be training more realistic responses. I had no problem with his suggestion, but was surprised to find him gradually opening the distance up. I was also catching him very early - his punch was barely able to move out from his chest. I had dreaded the prospect of training with him again, if I am honest, and I actually found myself outclassing him. He looked as puzzled as I felt.
I'm pretty sure that Chi Sau improves fighting skill. I'm also sure, however, that fighting improves fighting skill. I have experience of free fighting within Judo, Karate and Jujitsu classes. I also have, I am sorry to say, experience of street fights. When I am shown a Wing Chun deflection, attack or counter attack, I can tell you that my immediate thought is not how to apply it in Chi Sau; my mind is focused on how it would be used in combat.
One thing I had noticed during the seminar was a tendency to use techniques I picked up from other arts I had studied, regardless of how little time I spent studying them. It was quite clear that I was compensating for my weaknesses in Chi Sau by automatically playing to my strengths.
It will be interesting to see what happens when we eventually move on to free sparring with the pads and gloves. So far, my theories regarding how to develop fighting skill have been correct. Bruce Lee, developing Jeet Kune Do, said that we should not learn forms (kata, taolu, hyung, jurus, anyo or whatever your style calls them), and equated them to learning to swim on dry land. Some classical arts put an emphasis on forms and maybe don't train fighting skill so much. Personally, I think both approaches are necessary.
I practise the first two forms of Wing Chun on an almost daily basis. The forms train the neuromuscular system to develop certain responses through repetition. If you want to know how your trained responses are actually implemented during a fight, however, you can only do it through fighting, whether that is free sparring or out of necessity. I would stop short of advising people on how to train for optimum performance in a situation where they need to defend themselves, but my own method is to go through the forms again and again until the movements become instinctual. If I have to fight to save myself from injury or death, I will forget that I even learned a martial art.
Sticking to predefined techniques is lunacy on the street. If you have to remember a specific sequence, you will be slowed down by it. It is better to train responses until they become programmed into you, and then forget they are there - just let them operate by themselves and allow for other responses to make themselves useful to you. I'm not a purist. I don't care if I stop someone plunging a knife between my ribs using a technique from Arnis or Wing Chun, for example - only that the knife was made to miss its intended target.
I have picked up many automated responses to various attacks over the years.
When training, respond in the way your training specifies; when fighting, respond in the way that comes to you without conscious thought. It's that simple.