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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

Stick Tricks

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

I have lots of friends who will send me links to various videos of "stick fighting" and asking my opinion.

Often these videos are really good. Sometimes, it's something I wouldn't do personally but I recognize that it's their style's strategy and I can respect what I'm seeing.

And then sometimes, far more often than I'd like, it's terrible. I mean so bad that even my relatively low-ranking self is saying... whaaaaat?

The problem is that the Filipino Martial Arts are still relatively obscure compared to the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese martial arts in most places (and that actually includes the Philippines, by the way).

BUT as a paradox, the FMA's are kind of cool and trendy, too. You can see our stuff in pop culture all the time these days, and it's a fresh alternative to traditional weapons, especially if you like, y'know, hitting stuff versus just doing forms.

This situation creates a lot of people interested in learning what we do but not knowing anybody to learn it from.

The diligent among us will use their Google-Fu, find a teacher they can reach in person somehow, and arrange training, usually via a combination of seminars and private lessons and online training support.

Unfortunately, there are lots of people who want the FMA goods but are not willing to go to those lengths to get it, and they will only end up training if a seminar happens to come to their town and they run across it by accident, or by using free resources they can find online.

Yeah, they'll go to Guro YouTube and say they've "trained escrima" by copying a sinawali pattern or a basic flow drill they find over there.

Half the time, they won't call it by a Filipino word like "sinawali". They'll call it "Ninja stick fighting" or "striking drill" or some such, stripping it of its context and omitting the source of the material completely, pretending that it's some really super-hard secret stick fighting method taught by obscure Japanese or Chinese masters.

We teach sinawali to kids, people. It's not hard. Check out these kids doing sinawali (really well, may I add):

I'm a big fan of sinawali personally - I wrote two posts about it HERE and HERE - but it's not the end-all and be-all of what we do. In fact, there's plenty of FMA styles out there that don't use these drills at all.

And for the love of Mike, IT'S NOT *JUST* "STICK FIGHTING"!

Stick fighting is a fraction of what we do. Some of us do it a lot more than others (and some don't "stick fight" at all).

Even some people who learned it live from a teacher in a seminar might mis-represent their training. It is VERY common for people to attend a one or two-day Dan Inosanto seminar, just as a regular person in the crowd, and then claim they "trained under" Guro Inosanto and try to pass off a seminar attendance certificate as proof.

Going to a single two-day seminar with a hundred other people is not "training under" anybody. If they wouldn't recognize you on the street, they're NOT your teacher.

My style spread in North America mostly by the seminar method (and in modern times we have online training to support us as well), so I understand and sympathize with the problem of having to learn it this way versus day-in, day-out training with a teacher, which is ideal.

I am one of the very lucky few who got to do just that with my teacher, but now I live in a different city than he does, so I'm having to rely on the "traditional" method via every-so-often visits and online instruction like so many other people.

It's tough. It was even harder for the generations before me who trained this way and didn't have the internet to help.

It's one thing to learn things at a seminar and then go home and teach others to get better at it (the best way to learn it to teach, after all), and it's another to learn some stuff, go home, and claim that you're an expert in it and put out instructional or demo videos in it.

And if you don't know what you're looking at, it's hard to tell which is which. So how are non-FMA people supposed to know what's quality, and what isn't?

There are some fine distinctions that I don't want to get into here, but in my opinion, here's some big red flags to look for:

Make sure they aren't teaching you what I've come to call "Pseudo-Sinawali" - a two-man stick drill, often done with two sticks, performed without chambering (leaving their hands out in space), targeting, consideration of range, and without any footwork.  If they emphasize the pattern and hitting each others sticks, and don't go into all the things that make the drill worth practicing... they don't understand what they are actually showing you. It's like a baker trying to sell you the icing as the cake itself, but the bake has no idea that the cake actually exists at all.

Look for basic violations of best practice - I wrote about some of those here.  For example, in that post I linked to, I wrote about how to properly "twirl" a stick. Look at this video, and you can clearly see the guy in the gray shirt doing it incorrectly (I won't get into what else I'm not thrilled with here but that's the big one):

Did they make up their own "stick fighting" system?  If they claim to be teaching "stick fighting", ask where they've done it versus non-compliant, resisting opponents.  If they never have... yeeeeaaahhh. Red flag.

Do they just do their normal martial art with a rattan stick or a knife or kerambit in their hand?   You can do that, of course. But you'll be missing out on all the benefits of the FMA method of training (including the incredible amount of efficiency we have in our drills) and you aren't learning an FMA, even if they do use our terms and they call it "arnis" or whatever.

You can't just do karate with a stick in your hand and call it escrima. You especially can't work with blunt weapons as blunt weapons and then do blade-y stuff with it without edge awareness and a basic understanding of how blades work, which isn't a trivial matter.

Karate with sticks is fine. It just isn't Filipino Martial Arts.

There's plenty of other "stick" systems out there (hanbo, Jogo do Pau, Irish stick fighting, and Nguni stick fighting to name just four) that are interesting and worth your time to study. Heck, FMA's aren't even "stick" oriented - most of us are using sticks as a stand-in for an edged weapon. Using sticks and having a blunt weapon approach is a modern innovation and many styles don't train blunt weapons at all.

Just be aware that if you're looking for actual Filipino Martial Arts - - there's lots of people who are offering training in it who haven't, y'know, trained in it.

They're stick tricking you!

Have you been exposed to the stick trick of not-really Filipino Martial Arts? What was your experience with it? Did you ever find an actual FMA teacher? Let us know in the comments!

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