Wing chun is well known for its unique structures, simultaneous blocking and striking, trapping, rapid vertical punches, a focus on using the shortest distance between two points, and a strategy that includes controlling the center with constant forward pressure. Many of the concepts and techniques work very well in self defense, but unfortunately the way they're most commonly taught and trained makes wing chun ineffective for both sport fighting and self defense. On this site however, I'll show you how to remedy that.
The root of most problems with wing chun today is primarily related to training. Many schools focus heavily on solo drills or forms, and when practitioners do train with a partner they begin in positions that no one fights or attacks in, and attack and defend in a way that no one attacks or defends. In addition to unrealistic training methods and a lack of realistic training methods, techniques are added on top of techniques (usually in the form of complex trapping and blocking combinations) that would only work in a class of cooperative or wing chun conditioned students. When martial art training is done in a cooperative or heavily conditioned/stylized environment, amazingly inefficient and ineffective techniques, combinations, and training methods can result. This is the unfortunate case with wing chun today, and it hides the excellent techniques and principles from those less inclined to look to the root of the style.
Aside from the training and technical issues, additions and adaptations need to be made for wing chun to be part of a complete self defense system. But the same can be said of every style. Closed fist punches should be converted to palms, a reliance on stances needs to switch to a reliance on footwork (dynamic vs. static), and clinch, ground, and weapons training must be added.
The techniques of wing chun, including "defensive" blocking and trapping, have a solid, forward focus. They serve to trap or jam an opponent's limbs in order to maintain or create an opening for attack. The physical structures of these techniques are unique, and rely on proper bone alignment rather than muscular strength alone. These techniques, combined with constant forward motion, can be extremely effective in self defense.
Wing chun emphasizes simultaneous offense and defense, or interceptions, so with every block there is a simultaneous strike. Even at mid levels of training, strikes can be used to deflect an incoming attack by cutting the line it's coming in on. While this is common in combat sports like boxing and Thai boxing it's far less common in other traditional martial arts. Solid technical structures, forward pressure, and constant offense combine to create a formidable base.
Over the years, especially since MMA went mainstream in the early 1990's, there's been serious debate over the effectiveness of wing chun style trapping. This kind of trapping is very seldom seen in sport fighting, and most sport fighters regard it as entirely ineffective. There are three reasons for this. First, because most wing chun training is unrealistic, practitioners are unable to apply anything against a skilled fighter, much less the complex trapping that has evolved in cooperative training. Therefore, it doesn't appear to work. Second, because it doesn't appear to work, very few sport fighters take it seriously enough to train it effectively. Fighters don't think it works, so they don't learn to use it in the first place. And third, trapping is better suited for self defense than fighting. In a fight, both participants know what's up, start at a distance, and are less committed. It's harder to apply trapping on someone who is moving in and out of range. In a self defense scenario on the other hand, trapping is an excellent way to assist in taking out an immediate threat, where the trap serves to prevent the opponent from defending against the attack.
Trapping can also be used effectively in sparring. But it's the simple traps that work, not the complex combinations practiced in many wing chun schools. A quick smack (pak sao) or pull/jerk (lop sao) and simultaneous strike works very well, and techniques like the bong sao can be used to crash a strike leading to a double lop sao (two-on-one) which sets up countless opportunities for knees, elbows, chokes, or clinch entries.
Some wing chun schools push this more than others. The idea is to maintain a superior (outside) position where you can use two hands against your opponent's one hand, rather than standing "chest to chest" and fighting two against two. In boxing this is accomplished by circling to the outside while striking. But in wing chun, because trapping, jamming, and grabbing plays a big part, moving to the outside with a strike that makes contact with your opponent's outer arm, and then pulling or jamming it in while blasting him with an attack can work extremely well.
My preference is to use English terminology wherever possible, for clarity. But on the techniques listed below, I'll also include commonly used Chinese terminology.
Most wing chun styles use solo forms (prearranged patterns) as a primary method of practice. Unbeknownst to many however, all wing chun styles/lineages do not include forms. The most well known lineages, the Yip Man line for example, do, thus the common thinking that they are a necessary part of wing chun. Although there are some benefits to performing solo, prearranged forms, those benefits and more can be attained through partner training. Therefore, I only recommend doing solo forms when a partner is not available.
The wing chun forms in particular are fairly illogical. Each of them has 108 movements, not because the ideal combination of techniques ended up being 108 in all three cases, but because this number is based on Chinese superstitions. The forms were created to satisfy these superstitions rather than as the most ideal sequence of movements for training. If a wing chun student would like to practice techniques alone, in the air, it would be more efficient and effective to create a sequence of techniques they'd like to practice, and simply do them in a way that makes sense, instead of doing a prearranged 108 movement sequence that does not mirror the actual application of techniques in fighting or self defense.
There's nothing wrong with solo practice. It can be done on punching bags, a wooden dummy, or even in the air if no targets are available. Solo practice can be used to work on structural/technical improvements, speed, power, to improve conditioning, and for exercise. If a practitioner would like to create a sequence of techniques for the sake of easy repetition or as a catalog of movements to train, that's ok. But it's important to break out of the pattern and train "live". Imagine there is an opponent in front of you, and practice using techniques and combinations in a way that makes sense in reality.
All wing chun blocks are "traps" in a sense. They're all done with forward energy, with the purpose of jamming your opponent and shutting down his ability to block or counter your attack. Practicing trapping as an attack, against a threatening opponent, is both useful on its own and as an intermediate step toward using trapping against incoming strikes.
Beginning with reference points, where practitioners stand each with an arm forward and crossed, as is typically done in wing chun, does have some benefits. It trains practitioners to seek an advantageous outside position against a threat, in order to use "two hands against one". But it's equally if not more important to train trapping beginning from an unattached position. There's a saying in wing chun: "If there's a bridge, cross it. If there's no bridge, build one." It's NOT necessary to have bridge contact or arm-to-arm contact to trap. However, this can make trapping easier to accomplish. Simply circling to the outside of your opponent with an eye jab or a punch can create that contact reference point, and is a good way to train "building a bridge and crossing it".
Keep in mind however that in a dynamic fight (vs. a threat where you're able to attack first), you will not have this bridge contact or reference point for more than a fraction of a second, and even if you do, it will be in a very fast moving, dynamic situation. Trapping from reference points, and even from unattached positions, is meant to be applied to a threat...not a striking attack. The interception drills below will teach you how to apply trapping against strikes or in a "fight".
A simultaneous block (or trap in the case of wing chun) and strike is an interception. Interception drills are where you practice using your trapping and attacking against an incoming attack. Below is a list including various interception drills:
These drills can be done with various levels of isolation. To start, a practitioner may work on a left press and right punch against a right straight punch. Then, a right press and left punch against a left punch. Next, instead of a single punch the defender can blast (any combination of techniques) after doing the press/trap. As this becomes easy, the attacker can then vary the attack and either come with a straight left or straight right, and the defender responds with the correct trap and blast. Eventually, all attacks and defenses are allowed, but still with a designated attacker and defender. Then, all techniques should be integrated as in the section below.
Once a student is comfortable training the traps and attacks of wing chun, they must be integrated into live sparring, where both practitioners are 100% unpredictable and uncooperative. Most sparring can be done at a low to moderate intensity, with or without gear. Ideally, practitioners should have a solid ability to box, and one can take the role of a boxer while the other attempts to use wing chun defenses. This will help ensure students are able to defend against the most common attacks, and not only wing chun style fighters.
For more information on sparring with wing chun, see this page and video: Wing Chun Sparring.