Monday, January 16, 2006

Stick Control / Modulating Power

One of the things I consider to be an important step in the progress of learning a weapon is development of control. By this I mean not only hitting an intended target or generating power, but also the subtle control that allows one to flow responsively and modulate power according to the requirements of the moment.

The great Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi was also a renowned painter and calligrapher, his work hanging in national museums in Japan. He once said (paraphrasing) that the sword gave a bold stroke to his pen, but the pen gave him control of the tip of his sword. I read this nearly 30 years ago, and the comment has resonated with me to this day.

One place I insist on control is in class. My first rule, and a primary rule of my teacher Angel Cabales, was safety in training. If you hurt people unnecessarily, they won’t continue training with you. They lose time to injury, and you lose the benefit of a training partner.

Lack of control is not necessarily a hard hit. People often have no perception of the result of a stick’s impact anyway. Repetitive hits to the same target “hamburgerize” that point, each strike compounding the effect of previous ones. Even light taps can have this effect. Years ago I realized that if I were to teach on a daily basis, I had to take care to preserve myself. Small injuries don’t heal if you continue doing the same things without a break.

In Serrada, we have a standard follow-up pattern to our basic techniques, most commonly used on the inside (between the opponent’s hands) against a right-handed attack. Using a weapon in our own right, we strike under the wrist, then spin and hit to the top of the wrist. Even if this is done without much power, the effect of getting hit to the same spot over and over by students, day after day, gets old.

Back when I taught Kenpo, we would tell the class to spar “half speed, half power.” We could leave to go to the front of the dojo to take care of business and still monitor the class by ear. If we started to hear louder footfalls, we could yell back “HALF speed, HALF power!” It was a simple formula; the harder one goes, the stronger the step, the louder the sound.

The same thing applies with the stick. I learned to gauge the power of movement and of hits by various sounds. Let’s start with the hit. If I can hear the hit, my partner can feel it. If my stick makes a tap sound on his arm, it’s an impact. It might be light, but if in the course of a class the same spot on the bone gets hit a few hundred times, it can be annoying. Pretty soon you can get annoyed guys taking more serious whacks at each other.

There’s a demo I do to get my point across. I will do the under-over hit combination with power, which can be registered by the “whoosh” that the stick makes in motion. Sticks only make this sound when moving fast. I can do this and yet at the point of contact, my stick will only kiss the person’s arm with the lightest touch, barely making a sound. I then ask the person to hold out their stick and I do the same thing. There is a whoosh followed by a light tap. I then (usually) warn them to get a good grip then repeat this, only this time I don’t modulate my power; I let it go. Most often their stick will fly out of their hand, or they will hold on but feel the shock all the way up their arm. I’ll look at them and ask if that would hurt if it were their wrist. The point is made.

When I practice, I want to develop consistent movement. A light strike is not done differently from a powerful one except for my intention at the point of impact. Otherwise the mechanics are the same. This gives me the ability to dial my power up or down the scale as desired in a split second decision. It’s a simple trick which everyone can and should know how to do.

When a light touch is appropriate, I simply relax my grip a few inches before impact. I let my hand soften. I’m not so much putting on the brakes (mechanically holding back the movement) as I am letting the energy bleed off before impact. If I want to hit with power, on the other hand, I just tighten my grip (particularly the ring and little fingers) to focus through the point of impact. In either case, my stick will follow the same arc of motion and will “whoosh” with the same intensity of power. The only difference is how I execute choice.

Back to Musashi: During my first year of serious Escrima training I recalled his comment about the sword and brush, so I began doing a simple exercise. This was to walk around my house with a stick and simply touch things: doorknobs, dishes, light switches, windows (save that for last!) My idea was to develop control, building spatial awareness of my stick and sensitivity to the sense of touch coming through it.

Another exercise I did was florettas (little flowers), circling a doorknob as closely as possible with the tip of my stick, without touching it.

There is great benefit to learning this kind of control. Effective martial arts require many skills, and some of those found in stick fighting include quickness, responsiveness, sticking ability (including sticky stick), accuracy and power, to name a few. If one only has off and on, the range of control is very limited.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine if you have a powerful car that can do 175 miles per hour. You still have to park it in the garage or drive through traffic without hitting anything. Using your weapon is the same. You have to guide it with accuracy, adjusting speed, power and direction with as much experience as you can command, so don’t overlook subtlety in your repertoire of training skills.

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