Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Why We Stick Spar

At our school - Mid-Cities Arnis - Friday night are when we review what we learned in the week, and then we stick spar.

We use Actionflex sticks - we have "escrima" sticks as well as a couple of short ones that are stand-ins for knives - and we require that the kids wear helmets.  Our adults students are offered eye protection if they wish to use it (most of us don't).

Our rule set, for new students, is to aim for the hands.  We then ease them into giving and receiving head shots a little later, but our thinking is that the hands are the harder target - smaller and moving - and if they can get good at hitting those, the rest is a little easier.  Eventually they must move on to delivering head shots, because hand shots only lead them to a dangerous strategy of keeping their hands back and leaving their heads wide open, and we certainly don't want them to develop that habit.

We start off with "free sparring", reminding our students to use techniques they've learned in class.  If they get hit on the weapon hand, they have to switch hands - if they get hit on the other hand, the match is over. We'll sometimes put constraints on them - such as using a specific grip or a specific angle of attack only.  We'll have them use two sticks.  We'll have several students vs. one student.  We have adults vs. kids (one of our best sparrers is actually one of our kid students - we call her "the Headhunter").

The "Headhunter" comes for me.

Sometimes we'll apply additional constraints to make it harder or to spur creative thinking.  We'll start in the middle of the room, and we have to run to get a weapon along the wall.  Or we can only use a specific technique.  Or we have to go down to the floor and back up again.  Or we can only use our weak hand.

In our school, a stick is a stick, not an edged weapon.  We will have some drills later on where it's an edged weapon, but for now, it's a stick (because we live in suburbia in Texas - unlikely to face a machete or sword here).  My only big complaint with Actionflex is that it makes some forms of stick exchange impossible (because they have a "handle").  Not sure how to solve that one, but the other kind of padded stick that would work for that is inferior in every way to the Actionflex (and I own a pair of those - the black foam padded ones that get bent with a few good hits).

Working a "Dos Manos" block vs. a #3 strike strike -forehand to the ribs

Our school is not a stick sparring or tournament school - our primary focus is on self defense, just like our teacher's school is.  I wrote about that a while ago here.  But stick sparring is a staple of our Friday nights.

If we're not a tournament school, and if we don't expect our students to get in stick fights, why do we bother to stick spar?

First, working against a resisting opponent helps our students get a more realistic idea of what an attack might look like.  While we have put some constraints on them in how they attack and what the targets are (for now), having an opponent actively trying to hit you (and moving around in space) is a very different experience than a static drill in class.

Me working with a new student, coaching her in ways to hit me.

Second, we are helping them develop good habits in an (artificially) stressful situation.  These include things like not turning your back, keeping your weapon between you and the bad guy, and keep moving.  Attacks also get a lot simpler in stick sparring than we can get in static drills.

Third, there is no better way to illustrate that a purely defensive strategy is a losing one in a stick sparring match.  This is why we teach block+check+counter vs. just a block, because just blocking and not countering allows the bad guy to attack repeatedly until he or she wins (and they will eventually unless you counter attack).
Me in two vs. one.  I'm the one.  You can't survive this if you don't counter attack.

Fourth, over time, our stick sparring nights will give our students a chance to apply what they've learned in flow vs. a resisting opponent.  This is exactly why empty hand schools spar, even if sparring is not actually what self-defense really looks like.  So over time, they'll find the opportunities to grab the stick, to apply a disarm, to set up a trap, to apply a throw, and so on.

Fifth, we use stick sparring as a way to illustrate the use of improvised weapons for self defense.  For example, we'll sometimes tell a student to defend themselves with something else - here, we used my empty stick bag.  Our short sticks are great stand-ins for things like pocket umbrellas. Using Actionflex and a resisting opponent helps our students take what they know and apply it to the new item.

Using "Dos Manos" techniques with my empty stick bag - which is really a softball bag.
Sixth, it's just plain fun.  Sometimes I think we discount the value of fun in the martial arts, but to me, it's essential business.  If you aren't having fun, you won't do whatever you're doing very long, will you?  Nobody misses stick sparring night if they can help it!

I'm smiling because it's fun.  And because I'm gonna get him!

Do you spar in your school, even if it's more self-defense oriented?  What do you learn there?  Do you have any drills that aren't tournament-oriented?  I'd like to hear about it!