I should have known it. I really should have expected what happened.
So it’s about week 7 at kuntao training, the tasty exotic mix of south Chinese kung fu and Philippine weapons techniques my wife and I are now studying, and we’re doing fine. The drills are challenging, but we’re up to the challenge. Our one episode of sparring so far went very well, with Cathy and I both defeating our opponents decisively in knife duels. The other students and the instructors have accepted us and show a gratifying degree of confidence in our abilities. Our first test approaches and we are confident of passing.
The only fly in the ointment, the one silly damn thing I’ve had persistent trouble with, is spinning my escrima sticks. Last night I found out why…
Fast wrist spins are a move in several of the drills. The combat application, of course, is that a wrist spin is a way to put kinetic energy into the stick when you don’t have room or time to swing it. Intermediate-level students are expected to be able to do them casually and so fast that the stick is hard to see moving. Cathy, of course, picked this up like it was nothing – which means everybody in our normal classes can do it except me.
I’ve been working at this diligently, but making only slow progress. This is exceptionally difficult for me, and it’s not the first time I’ve had problems this way, either; there’s a similar technique in Western sword called an “inside return”, which you’re supposed to use to dissipate the reaction energy from a sword strike so it doesn’t injure your tendons, and I’ve never been very good at that one either.
A significant part of the problem is just that I have thick, muscular wrists – they looked like swordsman’s wrists before I was a swordsman. Usually this is a good thing, but the extra power comes bundled with minor range-of-motion issues as an unwelcome extra. Spinning escrima sticks is one of the few contexts where this actually matters.
Last night we’re doing prep for the upcoming test, and I’m working with the pair of escrima sticks they issued me when I joined the school. They’re relatively lightweight rattan, a bit less than an inch in diameter, 26in long. I’m having my usual troubles – I can strike with them, but I have the devil’s own time controlling them when I try to spin them. The move just doesn’t feel right, and it doesn’t work right.
We get to a point in the test prep where the instructor tells us we’re going to need a third stick (not for wielding, to lay on the floor as a marker). I hustle over to the pile of fighting sticks under the target dummy and grab one. It feels…different.
I look at it. It’s thick – easily a half-inch more outside diameter than mine. It’s longer, too, and finished in some kind of glossy lacquer. And it’s heavy, at least half again and maybe twice the weight I’m used to. I heft it experimentally, and think “Hey. This feels pretty good. I wonder if…”
It spins beautifully. All this time, what I’ve needed to make the move work was a heavier weapon.
And I could kick myself. The clues were all there, if I’d put them together. I remember what a miserable time I had trying to control training-weight nanchaku, then what it was like when I picked up a fighting-weight nanchaku and it was easier. I remember that I’ve changed swords twice, each time for a heavier and longer weapon, and my sword-handling improved both times.
Might be the larger diameter is part of it, too. I have to slightly clench my hands to hold the smaller sticks; my grip on the bigger ones is less tense, which makes it easier to move them fluidly.
In a state of happy excitement I went to sifu Yeager and said “Look at this!” and spun the stick. “Can I get two of these? They’re just what I need!”.
He contemplates the thing dubiously and informs me that it’s a master’s stick, far too heavy for a newb student to use in training. Bummer. I see his point – it wouldn’t take a lot of effort to crack someone’s skull with what I’m holding. Well, not a lot of effort for me, anyway, and that’s the problem – he reckons I could easily over-power the thing against a training partner in a moment of inattention. In fact that is highly unlikely – my force control is extremely precise and reliable – but he hasn’t been training me long enough yet that I can reasonably expect him to know that.
But he sees my point, too. The standard training sticks are clearly just too light and skinny for me to handle well. It’s not my technique at fault after all, something about the physics and physiology has been messing me over. He promises me a pair that’s thicker and longer, at least, and then grins and makes a John Holmes joke.
Now I’m looking forward to my new sticks. And wondering how common a problem this is.