Things nobody tells you about Soft vs. Hard

“Soft can beat hard” is a saying in martial arts. It is hard to understand that one can be soft in martial arts and still win, isn’t it?
Let me explain a bit further. When talking about martial arts people mostly split them into two main categories:  Yin styles and Yang styles, named by China Yin and Yang concept (see: Dualism vs. Yin-Yang). If we transform this naming to western concepts then Yin styles could be referred to as soft or internal, while Yang as hard or external. Behind this naming and division is basically the way how we perform them. Like in Tai Chi which is predominantly practiced with slow nature and gracious movements and consequently labeled as Soft - Internal. In contrast, Yang as hard and external refers to the development of combative skill, brute strength, power and stimulating workout. For the latter Karate or Wing Chun could be examples.

But, if we, over the years, observe how one practices martial arts we note how everything changes due to experiences. Most Shaolin animal styles like White Crane for example, many Tibetan styles and/or Okinawan Karate are trained especially ‘hard’ early in one's life. Later on those styles soften as the master grows old and at the time knows the ‘ideas’ behind. Finally, at the top level the knowledge of any martial artist starts to resemble more to Tai Chi than e.g. stereotypical Karate. Majority of my older teachers converted their style to softer variation.

Is aging the only reason behind softening of martial arts’ styles? Normally the masters are still very vital, full of power and speed that dominates any novice with even higher speed and more force?

There definitely has to be another reason.

Traditional martial art system is perceived to bring longevity. With advanced age come different fighting needs. Beside it, all maters gain and accumulate enormous knowledge and experience. Some, less lucky, gain injuries of joints – mostly hips. All of it (necessarily) brings softness to most top level martial artists in their advanced stages. It is a natural process to accommodate the naturally less muscular physique of octogenarians with smaller but more precise and detailed structure, posture, reflex and mostly with careful observing the opponent and his behavior.

So, with many years of dedicated practice, physical strength may decline but correct timing and positioning keep improving. Greater timing and positioning allows masters for efficacy with less force employed. This is also the path to so called ‘formlessness’ where a novice cannot understand from where his defeat has come. Master, being well experienced to observe small details of opponent’s reactions and postures, uses those advantages and sends a novice to a path of ‘no return’. And it is not the last error (which is the only one perceived by a novice when loosing) that defines the end but the accumulations of them.

The most important issue is that a master is relaxed and has no fear or ego impending his winning. When relaxed we are ‘soft’ thusly being much faster than the opponent regardless him having greater strength and power. The fact is that if the opponent wishes to hit he has to relax one muscle and then strain the opposite muscle to prepare e.g. the punch. This way, he loses time: without relaxing the ‘unneeded’ muscle it slows down the punch or even blocks it. Consequently the resulted hit is not what is expected. It may seem strong but in reality it is not: the hitter bounces himself from the person he is hitting. Why? Because, soft and relaxed hits penetrate into one body while hard hits are rigidly connected to the body. So, in fact ‘half’ of the hit goes into the opponent and the other ‘half’ returns to the one hitting.

Back to hard and soft issue.

Does it really prove that soft prevail the hard?

I believe it is hard to claim one or the other. In China they would confirm it and point to how a grass can find the path through concrete or how ‘soft’ water can cut Grand Canyon. Visually it seems to be correct. In reality, if we measure the effect, it is just the opposite. It is not soft but relaxed that wins. If relaxed, we have all body potential behind. And now imagine hitting hard with a hand or hitting relaxed with whole body. The difference is immense.
Grand Canyon
So, next time when you hear soft versus hard discussion think twice what to back up. Ask what is understood under ‘soft’ – really soft or relaxed?

Let’s turn to leadership approach now. Think of a leader that commands (hard) and a leader that leads mildly (soft). Which one will you follow and why? Which one is relaxed?


  1. You have described the very valuable differences between the hard and soft. Usually we consider that only hard can beat the soft but, I am amazed to read that the soft can beat the hard also in martial arts.


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