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Footwork and Figure Eights with a Staff

by Joe Varady, January 18, 2017

Footwork is essential to hitting your opponent without getting hit yourself, which is really the whole point of staff fighting. The general rule on footwork is to keep your body weight balanced over a stable, but fluidly mobile base, staying light on the balls of your feet at all times

Shuffling: Basic footwork with the staff comes in two types: the shuffle and the step. Shuffling is performed much like boxing footwork, with your lead foot taking a small step in the direction you want to go, quickly followed by the trailing foot. To move forward, move your front foot followed by your rear foot. To move backwards, take a small step back with your rear foot, followed by your front foot.  In the same way, step with your left foot to move left and right foot to move right. 

Stepping: You can also do a full step forward or backwards, which not only covers more ground, but allows you to switch your stance. Miyamoto Musa states in his classic treatise A Book of Five Rings that the most devastating strikes are performed with this type of footwork.  Although he was speaking mainly of the sword, the same holds true for the staff, because the stepping motion puts more of your mass and momentum into the strike.  Although there are footwork patterns that step left and right, I do not recommend them because they involve crossing the feet, which puts you in a vulnerable position, albeit momentarily.

Figure Eights (downward/upward)

While at first twirling may seem like just a flashy exercise, becoming familiar with and learning how to manipulate the staff is an important part of combat training. A quick twirl, called a flurry, can be used to confuse an opponent while disguising your intentions, setting you up for unexpected angles of attack.  A figure eight can be used to parry an opponent's weapon before quickly striking with the other end. It can also be used in performing a hooking disarm. Defensively, a twirl can be used to escape from a tie-tip or evade a disarm attempt.

The simple figure eight consists of four consecutive strikes with the staff. Begin from a standard ready position, with your right hand palm up and your left hand palm down, holding the staff diagonally from your left hip to your right shoulder. Drop the tip of your staff back and to the right (1). Bring your left arm across your body (2) and begin sweeping the tip up and forward (3) into a right to left downward diagonal strike with the tip of the staff (4), immediately followed by another right to left downward diagonal strike using the heel (5). These strikes are followed by a left to right downward diagonal strike with the tip (6) followed by a left to right downward diagonal strike with the heel (back to 1). Repeat the motions, practicing them until you can perform all the strikes smoothly, flowing them seamlessly into one fluid motion.

ootwork and Figure Eights with a Staff

Upward figure eights can be a little more difficult at first, but with practice they can be just as smooth and fast as your downward figure eights. When first learning this twirl, begin doing downward figure eights, then slow and finally stop your motion. Reverse the direction of your staff, backtracking along the same path, only now, in an upward direction, alternating striking diagonally upward from left to right and from right to left.

As you move your hands closer together you can twirl faster, but your strikes will lack the leverage and therefore the power of a wider grip.

Objectives: To work the basic strikes with the staff, both solo and with a partner, until you have developed sufficient muscle memory that they become fluid and natural. This means working past the point of fatigue so that your body is forced to find the most efficient method to perform each technique. To that end, the same strikes are repeated again and again but with the different footwork patterns that must also be mastered. You must work until your body and weapon become one.

Workout Schedule

Perform: 5 to 10 minutes of downward figure eights, first slowly and gradually getting faster, followed by upward figure eights, both stationary and moving.

Complete this workout several times a week for a few weeks, both solo and with a partner. At first you may find this repetitious and boring. However, by sticking with it, you will prove your commitment and personal discipline to yourself. Training seriously and being consistent will increase your skills with the staff dramatically.

I recommend keeping a training log to record each time you work out with the staff, including a short synopsis of the material you covered in each workout. Set a goal for yourself, such as training a minimum number of days or hours each week or performing the above workout a set number of times (I suggest at least ten times). Setting attainable short-term goals is a good way to stay motivated and achieve your larger goal of becoming technically proficient at staff fighting.

The above is an excerpt from The Art and Science of Staff Fighting by Joe Varady.

Joe Varady is a fifth-degree black belt with over thirty years of experience in martial arts. He has trained in numerous Eastern and Western disciplines, including karate, judo, eskrima, boxing, fencing, and long sword.


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