Monday, December 03, 2007

Flyswatters and Plyometric Escrima

Recently some flies showed up at my house and I didn’t have a flyswatter. I had a plastic one for awhile which was ok until it came apart in chunks. Still, it was better than the old wire mesh swatters that bent at every opportunity.

I’d eyeballed the Wimbledon-sized electronic zappers at Harbor Freight but couldn’t really envision myself swinging like Igor Ledochowski in my kitchen. Bang goes the coffee maker; crack goes the microwave! Besides, it’s really too decadent and takes the sporting aspect out of it. At least a tennis raquet has legitimate other uses. Or so they say.

Besides, I’m an escrimador, for goodness sake; I should be able to take out a few flies, right? Flying critters are a challenge, that’s for sure. I’ve heard old-time boxers used to practice catching flies in garbage cans. Ick. The problem is if you succeed! I prefer the finger-flick line drive myself.

These, however, were small flies, hard to see with my middle-aged eyes, and I didn’t really have time to play with them. I looked around for an improvised implement. Towel? T-shirt? I knew from experience that neither was a proven fly-killer. Pushing too much air simply buffets the flies away.

Then my eyes alit on the perfect implement. Hanging on my wall was an African flywhisk! Make that a pair, actually. Now at the upper end, these can have ceremonial value. One of mine is older and has that air of authority. The other is one you might find at a flea market or some place like Cost Plus Imports. It’s sturdier and more functional, basically a decorative stick with a horsehair whisk on the end.

The figurine-carved l6-inch handle and skinny shaft together are 22 inches long, about as thin and rigid as holding a golf club. The lower part of the shaft is wire wrapped but the last 12 inches are wrapped tightly in horsehair, which then extends another 12 inches as a horse-like tail.

Now here’s a paradox. This whisk is indeed a great flyswatter. It’s fast, sturdy and the end is sufficiently large to get the flies yet not so aerodynamically resistant as to brush them aside. This combination makes it very accurate, and a few sweeps cleared my room of the unwanted visitors.

What really caught my attention though was the way in which the air resistance of the whisk slowed down the movement of the stick. While it is sufficiently quick for fly swatting, particularly with the whipping of the tail hairs, it doesn’t move anywhere as quickly as an escrima stick. It feels like the difference between running on dry land and running in waist-deep water.

That’s when inspiration hit me. What if someone could come up with a safe way to make an escrima stick that moved like this? It’s a challenge I’m throwing out there because I see benefits to both training and competition.

The qualifications would be rigid, light, comfortable grip and balance, with enough air resistance to significantly slow movement of the striking end of the stick.

So far I’ve seen few sticks that really satisfy the first four requirements well, let alone the fifth of resistance. There are some that do the latter at the expense of weight, balance or grip.

Imagine being able to spar with the intensity of competition, yet the speed of a controlled moderate flow! Spectators and judges would be able to see techniques more clearly, as would competitors, who would have more incentive to use defense. Surviving combat is a traditional value of the art, something represented poorly in no-defense slugfests.

In training students would be able to practice with as much speed as possible, with the form of their techniques more easily seen, felt and corrected. Ultimately one needs to develop the timing for full-speed, but there are differences between training for speed or for flow. The former implies beating the opponent; the latter is practice at reading intention. They are certainly not mutually exclusive, of course, but when people forget about flow for the sake of speed, most lose touch with the sensitivity that allows responsiveness to the opponent, important attributes for combative reflexes.

It takes little skill to whack someone on the head three times in a row. I’m sure many murders have been accomplished that way, but what if you are the one getting whacked, or if the other guy is simultaneously gutting you with a knife as you’re trying to render him unconscious?

Escrima is built on natural reflexes, but training them to an effective autonomous level of response takes time and effort. I tell my students to notice what works best for them and to get comfortable with those things first. When they have the security of a bread-and-butter core of material, then they can begin working other options into their repertoire.

That is the value of flow training; the constant repetitive cycle creates a hypnotic state of trance that programs the bodymind to respond automatically. Like rocks being polished in a tumbler, rough edges get smoothed away. Finer movement evolves from less resistance. As less effort is expended in reaction, more time is available for response. We see more clearly and move without thinking, moving directly through awareness.

With experience we grow in skill. Fewer things surprise us, and we can even come to appreciate those that do because they help further push our boundaries. Awareness, as I stress over and over, is a key to making things work. That is why so many teachers tell their students to slow down, so things are not happening too fast for the conscious mind to keep up. Eventually the student becomes aware of patterns and can digest bigger “chunks” at a time. Getting there takes patience.

This is where something like a good air resistance trainer would make sense. Like a limiter on a car engine, it could slow down the consequences of our need for speed. I recall a review of an early Toyota Corolla SR-5 that called it a “secret racer”. You could put your foot to the floor and shift furiously, emulating and honing all the skills of a real sports car driver, but you weren’t going fast enough to threaten other drivers or collect tickets. Best of all, according to the article, was no one else would suspect you were having so much fun!

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