Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"Staff" Versus "Stick"

Important: I apologize in advance, because this is going to be one of those topics that you will feel very strongly about in one direction or another. My intent is not to offend, but to generate thought. Please read the entire rant before judging one way or another.

Staff, bong, bo... whatever you wish to call it (unless you insist on calling it a "bo staff" in which case I send you to the corner to think about what you just said 1) is my favorite weapon. It is known in Kung Fu as the great teacher, and I stand firmly behind that. Bong teaches you lanes of motion and how to connect those lanes. It exaggerates your empty handed errors. It allows you to learn from your mistakes in a semi-safe manner while giving an instructor the opportunity to test their students. I have taken a staff away from a student who uses it recklessly or obliviously. If a student can't twirl a staff without hurting someone, they aren't getting near a sword or knife anytime soon.

Having said this, I have a beef with what passes for a staff these days. At the risk of sounding like Mick Dundee:

That's not a staff. This is a staff. The former is better referred to as a stick. I don't care how much it costs; I don't care if it has fancy reflective decoration. It is a stick, albeit, a very expensive stick. I'm sorry, but you have a $100 piece of kindling in your hands.

All staves are sticks, but not all sticks are staves. To me, a staff is a weapon. A staff is designed to make contact and receive contact. True, a stick will do this as well, but here is the main difference: a staff will do it more than once. I have taught staff contact drills before and people have brought a stick to my class and insisted on using it. They are often a sad panda when their pretty stick is dinged up, cracked, splintered, broken.

There is one other subset of bong that I should address: the stick in staff clothing. It looks like a hardcore, old school staff, but a lack of quality resources and pressure to shave pennies off the bottom line mean that a lot of "traditional-looking" bong aren't worth a lick either. I have stopped purchasing "red oak" bong altogether because the quality has dropped far too much in recent years. Rattan, waxwood, or getting a custom hickory bo for a few extra bucks from a quality supplier is worth it in the long run.

I once used a slightly more crass description to describe one of these sticks. "It looks like a unicorn farted rainbow glitter all over your stick." One of my younger students heard this, laughed, and then at the next tournament proceeded to scold another child in his ring for his "unicorn fart stick." We then had to explain the concept of "inside joke." Kids say the funniest things!

Yes, they are light and fast. Yes, they are shiny, eye-catching and make a very neat whoosh as they cut through the air. These are shortcuts to the true goal of mastering the staff. It will fool you into thinking you've absorbed all you can from the bong, and then you will rush to a shinier, lighter fake sword that is even whoosh-ier and even more useless as an actual weapon. But, that's a rant for a different time.

I'm not saying this to tear down your ability or skill level, nor am I attempting to proclaim my superiority with the staff. Humor is being used to make a point in this case.

The Chinese arts have a saying: Hua quan xiu tui (花拳,繡腿). Flowery Hands, Silken Legs. Here in 'Merica, we've got another way to say it: "all flash, no substance."

Think about it. Would you rather have mastery of the weapon or settle for looking like you know what you're doing? Yes, you may be able to fool any non practicing martial artist, and maybe even a lot of martial artists but is that why you're training? To fool people, while knowing deep down that you don't know the first thing about how you'd use this thing in a fight? Of course not! There are entire schools of bojutsu which study the subtle and intricate art of the staff. Most of us only scratch the surface of what is being taught. To illustrate this point, let me compare what most of us do with the bong to something we study a little more in-depth: empty handed arts.

I teach dexterity. I like to twirl the staff, take it behind my back, under my legs, around my neck, throw it in the air and catch it. It's martial juggling, and it's a lot of fun and a great stress relief. It is also educational and builds confidence in using the weapon and maintaining focus while flying sticks whizz by your head. I also think of this as parallel to warming up a regular empty hand class. We would never give someone a black belt based on their ability to do warmups, right?

From there, we have kicho sul. Basic techniques. Low block, block, thrust, strike, etc. Just like block, punch kick. Usually striking the air vigorously. OK, this is helpful for isolating technical points and improving the foundation, but are we ready to fight yet?

Targeting. Now we're focusing the power of our strikes, improving accuracy and highlighting technical problems that are interfering with transfer of power. How often do you strike things with your staff? If you have a stick, I wager it's not that often. Heck, I have a super heavy old school staff that is dented from hundreds of repetition, but it's nothing compared to this sort of training:

Next, we have hyung. We have 3 bong hyung that are practiced. If you're like me, you probably like one, REALLY like another, and are lukewarm towards the remainder. Now we're getting closer, training our fighting spirit and combining techniques in a way that are designed for fighting. Are you working on bong applications, or are you more like this guy?

Dae Ryun. Sparring. One-Step, Three-Step, Free Sparring.

Pretty awesome stuff, amirite? I'm not even close to sharing the floor with these guys, but I strongly aspire to. And here is the problem as I see it. Many of us are content with the wrappings and presentation of staff. We are OK with the flowery hands and silken legs and perhaps we fool ourselves into thinking that this gives us competence with the staff as a fighting weapon. And maybe against a completely untrained individual it would. But against a really angry, armed indivdual determined to harm us? I feel as though I still have quite a bit of training to go and I have neglected several of these categories.

I've been spending a lot of my spare time trying to approach this problem, and my hope is that I will soon have some material worth sharing with everyone. Ways to develop these skills in a way that we will grow and strengthen not only our staff skills, but our empty handed skills and our overall knowledge of the martial arts. Please bear with me as I perform my education in public.

In closing, the staff is a bad-ass weapon. The only person to defeat Musashi did so with a staff. Let's give it the respect it deserves. (Note to self: when I officially submit my thoughts in thesis format, I need to find a classier way to end.)

So easy, even a baby can use it!

Say it with me now: awwwwwwwwwwwww!

1 Still don't get it? What does "bo" mean? Staff. You are saying "staff staff." You sound like a goober. Quit it.