Double Dragon Pole Sets
Make your staff techniques second nature through two-man drills
By Stefan Verstappen, Originally published in Inside Kung Fu Magazine June 2000
It has been said that on a naval cruiser the most unenviable position was that of the anti-aircraft gunner. Even during training exercises, the sight and sound of an F16 fighter diving straight at you at over 300 mph was so terrifying that all trainees had to be chained into their seats so they could not run away. These trainees weren’t cowards, they were just following their instinct. While some instincts are good, not all are appropriate for every situation and some will even get you killed. In a true engagement if the gunner follows his survival instinct and abandons his position he will insure that he and many others will be killed.
To break anti-aircraft gunners of this instinct the military chained them into place and had them experience simulated attacks until they became acclimatized to the sights and sounds of it.
A similar situation occurs with martial arts weapons training. In the beginning, training is done solo in order to learn the techniques and get a feel for the weapon. But even a year of forms practice is not enough to prepare one to use the weapon in real combat.
To demonstrate this point if you take a student and explain that you will attack him with an overhead strike and he is to use a high block, even knowing the attack in advance, most students will initially drop their guard and flinch. Martial artists and the military know that most of a warrior’s training is aimed at developing newer and better instincts. A safe way to break a martial artist’s instinct to flinch from weapons strikes is to practice two-man drills.
Learning weapons follows the same progression as learning empty hand techniques. Students first learn basic movements by practicing them in the air through drills and forms. Next, applications and distancing are learned through blocking and sparring drills, then finally these skills are refined through free form sparring. In Chinese kung fu two-man forms and drills are a safe way to learn a weapon’s effective range, strengths and weaknesses, and to acclimatize students to the sight, sound, and impact of a real weapon.
The following two man drill is the first of four such routines taught in the 18 Lohan style. It consists of eighteen movements, nine attacking and nine defending. Both players start out facing each other. One becomes the attacker and moves forward attacking nine times. The defender moves backwards blocking or evading nine times. Then the roles are reversed until both players come back to the spot they started from. In the beginning go slowly and concentrate on the amount of distance covered each time you step.
For example if one player takes longer steps than his partner he will be on top of the other in three moves. All that attention initially spent on stance and footwork really pays off in two-man drills. When learning this drill at slow speeds the attacks and defenses will seem pretty basic, but it is after you get comfortable and start to speed it up, that things get interesting.
If you keep increasing the pace you will soon find yourself at a point where you and your partner will be moving too fast to have time to think about what you’re doing. A part of your mind will become concerned about being hit since it can’t keep track of the action, but you must just observe and simply allow your body to block, dodge, and attack as required. The instinct to quit and run will be replaced by the better instinct to block and evade. That is the true purpose of this drill, but be warned, if you make a mistake, you’ll have a good lump on your head to remind you of it in the future.
Before taking this drill to maximum speed make sure you and your partner have worked together, can co-ordinate your footwork, and are at the same skill level. Always start out at a slower pace and then increase speed incrementally until you’re both comfortable going full pace. Remember on an off day you’ll be slower than on a good day.
Finally this drill makes a good demonstration piece for school presentations since even at medium speed the dangerous looking attacks, and loud clacks of the staff against staff blocks, will grab the audience’s attention.
When practicing the two man staff drills, even at medium speed, there is enough energy generated at the point where both staffs contact to snap a hardwood staff. This could lead to unnecessary injuries. Once when two of my students were going through the drill at a fast pace, the attacker’s staff had a sliver of wood break off near the end. This left his staff with a tip that was sharp and pointy. The problem was no one noticed until after the drill was over. Had the defender made a mistake he could have been gored. For any two man drills you should use either rattan, or Chinese white wax wood (the kind most Chinese spears use.) Make sure you oil these twice a year since they tend to dry out when stored in centrally heated spaces. A dried out rattan or wax wood staff will break just as easily as any other wood.
For this drill you need to learn an important grip change sequence I call the slide and switch. This is done by slightly loosening your grip and sliding the staff through your hands so that you end up with the opposite end of the staff projecting outwards.
Unlike the Japanese grip, where there is an equal amount of staff extending from both hands, the Chinese grip is closer to one end of the staff allowing the longer section to extend from the lead hand. In the drill’s first strike the right hand section is used but for the second strike the left hand is used. To strike with the left hand section you must first allow your right hand to slide forwards and then your left hand to slide up and past the center of the staff so that more of the staff extends from the left hand than the right. All this must be done quickly which will require some practice. In the following photos be sure to check the grips and note where the slide and switch occurs.
Attacking takes a little longer to execute then the counters so the drill can only go as fast as the attacker is capable of. Insure that you’re close enough and that you attack real targets. Beginners will often miss on purpose hoping to save the defender’s face or in fear that the defender can’t block fast enough. But if you miss, you teach your partner to defend against techniques what would never hit him in the first place and you undermine his ability to block well aimed attacks. For overhead attacks aim for the center of the forehead, horizontal attacks are to the temples, slashing strikes aimed at the collar bones, and so on.. If you need to slow down so your partner can block then do so, but once the block is there, follow through with the attack. It is important for everyone to experience the shock of a solid hit. The humiliation if having your staff knocked out of your hands a few times provides motivation to improve the most important element of weapons use – your grip.
The defense sequence will teach very quickly how to perform proper blocks. Beginners tend not to block far enough away from their bodies nor put enough weight behind the block. This is especially true with the vertical side block, which, unless the staff is held further away then necessary to merely intercept the incoming strike, will usually be knocked up the side of the defender’s own head. The key points are, good grip, solid stances, and keep those blocks well away from you.