I first learned staff in the late eighties, and although I was not that interested in the provenance, as I recall my master learned it in Scouts as a child. I never had any documentation for it, but it was a simple system consistent with what I have subsequently seen of the Boy Scout staff and manuals such as the McCarthy staff.
It is more or less what naturally happens if you pick up a longish stick and use to defend yourself in children’s games, and, I suspect, that many of the actual staff fighting techniques that we have, assumed that something like this was just understood from playing as children. On the other hand that could just be because I twist what the body knows into the practice of other staff techniques.
The techniques themselves are simple, and what makes them interesting is more what you can do with them as a training tool, to learn about power and relaxation, rhythm and tempo, pattern and timing, fear and control. Arguably the pattern drills are a form of transition between movement drills and actual combat, not unlike some of the sticky hands concepts in some eastern arts.
The system is simple, with six to eight strikes with corresponding blocks, two thrusts, a change grip (or moulinet or compass) and a slide.
The staff should be a little taller than the person, around a fist to hand-span, or up to a loose reach to the top. Short staves can also work, but height plus a bit is easiest to learn from.
The grip is fluid and moves upon the staff as required, but is mostly around a centre grip. The hands are placed evenly either side of the centre of gravity, perhaps a shoulder width or so apart, with one hand slightly forward and up, palm up, (hand 1) and the other slightly backwards and down (hand 2). This is the default position, but the hand will move according to the strike or block, either to keep them safe or to extend range. At rest hand 1 will be at a level between shoulder and elbow, and hand 2 around the height of the hip. The stance should be relaxed and comfortable. Usually the first hand will be the left and the second the right for right handed people, but both sides should be practiced. If an evenly balanced staff is used the grip will be in the centre, and if a tapered staff, such as a tree branch, it will be a little towards the heavy end. If there is a heavier end it should be the lower end in the basic stance (closer to hand 2), because it will be a touch slower in protecting the head.
The strikes are simple, and are essentially punch out with one hand and snap back with the other.
Strike to same side temple with upper end (punch with hand 1, pull back with hand 2).
Strike to opposite temple with lower end (punch with hand 2).
Strike to same side knee with upper end.
Strike to opposite knee with lower end.
Strike to same side ribs.
Strike to opposite side rib.
Vertical strike with upper end to head, this is more pulled with the lower hand and the thumb and first two fingers may relax a little to reduce strain on the wrist.
Rising vertical strike with lower end to groin.
1. Upper end thrust forward with the first hand and snap the second up by the armpit.
2. Lower end thrust forward usually after an even numbered strike or feint.
These are slightly more complicated, because you have to move your hands on the staff, if you don’t move the hands then you may end up hurting them when they get hit. Moving the hands on the staff also helps in the strikes but unless the staff is very short is not so necessary.
Parrying the blow to the off side temple.
Bring the hand 1 to the opposite shoulder, sliding it down the staff so that it is well below the impact area. It is common at first to attempt to parry with the hand, but this should be avoided. The forearm should be more or less horizontal to improve the structure of the defence.
Parrying the blow to the near side temple.
The second parry is the reverse of the first. Rotate the staff by bringing the second hand up to the opposite shoulder, and sliding it down the staff so that it is well below the impact area. The forearm should be more or less horizontal to improve the structure of the defence. The end that was the upper will now point to the ground. Do not parry this strike with the upper end of the staff, because you will have to twist your shoulders out of alignment to get behind the staff so that you don’t break your wrists.
Parrying the blow to the knee.
Parries 3 & 4. Move the low end of the staff to the block the incoming blow. Keeping the hand 2 high to avoid being hit particularly if the blow is coming in more to thigh or hip height. If you use the upper end of the staff to protect the knee it lacks strength and you can damage the wrist again. Keep the staff more or less vertical.
Parrying the blow to the ribs.
Parries 5 & 6. Keeping the staff vertical move it to the appropriate side to parry the blow. Ensure that the hands slide out so that the space between them is wider and they are less likely to be hit.
Parrying the vertical blows
Rotate the staff into the horizontal position from the ready stance. To protect the head (parry 7), extend the arms forward and above the head. The arms should be around 45 degrees up, but a taller opponent may require a higher angle. When making this block it is better to push out from the chest, rather than attempt to move straight arms vertically into position.
To protect the groin from the rising vertical (parry 8), push the horizontal staff down and out again to around 45 or a little less degrees, but adjust to preference and attack angle. The staff will usually be around hip height.
When changing between the 7th and 8th parry it is important to bend the elbows and pull the staff in before changing the angle of the arms and pushing the staff out. This is both quicker and safer. If you simply lower or raise the staff with the arms extended and do not quite get to the position before contact, the parry will be ineffective and the staff knocked out of the way.
Parrying the thrusts
Use the appropriate parry 1 – 6 for the height of the thrust, moving it to the side.
The Change Grip and the Slide
With hand 1(upper hand, say the left) push the staff away, rotating it around hand 2 (the one that is palm down), and catching the other end of the staff with hand 1. Continue on to a strike by pulling the end of staff with hand 1 and punching with hand 2 towards the target. To get back to the centre grip either reverse the movement, pushing away with the hand towards the end and catching it just about the centre, or slide it through the hands until back in a centre position. The slide reverses the orientation of the staff in the hands, so that if the left was the upper hand before, now the right will be, and vice versa.
The change grip has two aspects. First it extends that range, so that you can now hit a target further away. This is likely to be accompanied by a step backwards. Second it gives a convenient way to attack the same side twice in a row whilst preserving momentum in the staff and offering the defence of distance.
Staff should be practiced in both orientations (i.e. with either hand in first or second position), but the feel for the reponse is easier to develop when both players are in the same orientation.
Power and Control
The first issue that needs to be dealt with is power in the strike. With two hands on the centre of the staff there is a lot of control, and a strike can be made with a lot of power or only a little. It is easy to hit really hard with long strikes from the alternate ends, but this has little advantage. It is better to keep the body relaxed throughout the strike and only apply the power at the end, if it is required. By keeping the body relaxed throughout the strike and only apply power as required the movement is both faster and less tiring, both useful to train the body for. It also gives better opportunity in drills to recover from a partner’s failure to block, without hurting them.
When playing with a partner it is important to understand how much power to deliver and when. Staves are quite lethal, and a blow to the temple with any actual force could be fatal. It is important to develop discipline and control. Heavy protective equipment gives an illusion of safety, and reduces the feedback from the staff. A blow to the head will still cause damage if not properly controlled, and any glove that will protect the fingers will prevent the grip from moving properly on the staff.
One person holds the staff vertically about shoulder height away from their body and with both hands and one end on the ground. The other practices horizontal strikes against it at hip level, making solid but relaxed contact with the held staff. The focus here is on relaxing the body but also making contact to get the body used to the strike. The strikes are made mostly with the arms. The defender should not have to grip the staff hard to keep it in place.
Once this has been practiced then attacker holds the staff around 5 cm (or less if able) from the vertical staff, and performs a strong blow into it generating the power from the hip. For the purpose of the exercise this should have intention to hit, but not hit completely through, so as not to hit the held staff across the field or break either one. Working up to higher levels of power and penetration is a useful exercise as the hands become conditioned to the impact. This is also useful as a demonstration to how much power can be generated in a short distance, so that group members may take the dangers of the staff a little more seriously. A strong strike through the staff can knock it from the hands of the holder, and so there should be a clear path behind the angle of attack.
Once there is an understanding of what it takes to relax and control the strength of the strikes there are pattern drills to play with partners. The drills themselves are quite simple. The purpose is to get used to the feel of the weapon and to develop the sensitivity to know where it will go and how to block. If you parry badly you can guide the incoming staff into your hand, but as you get the feel for the weapon you also find the small movements to correct the angle and prevent these problems. Again, for this reason it is also a good idea to avoid heavy gloves, and to maintain safety through starting slowly. Light gloves to reduce blisters and avoid splinters may be used, but bare hands are preferable.
The hands need to move on the staff. The change grip and the slide are the gross movements, and sliding the hands out of the way when parrying is critical, particularly when changing from a parry with the centre to one with an end. There are also finer movements and as you play with the staff you learn to slide it to extend the reach just enough to reach the target, or to move the hand to align the body correctly behind it. It is also the slide the makes it possible to use a much shorter staff, although it is best to learn with a longer one.
The patterns are ways of getting used to the movement of the weapon, and essentially just build up from the simple strikes. They can also be used to build up and manage fear and adrenaline in a safe environment.
Pattern Drill 1
The first drill is the first two strikes and parries, striking to the temple and blocking. It is important that the attacker is in the correct distance so that the tip of the staff is past the temple, so that if the defender does not block they will be hit. The strikes should be made with sufficient force that the defender needs to put some effort into the block, and with sufficient control that the attacker can stop the blow if the defender misses. This can be done just as a physical exercise, training blows and muscle memory for the feel of the staff in the hand, or as a more psychological partner exercise.
The attack should always be in distance, such that it would actually hit the target if not blocked as at A below. Note that the hand at B is well out of the way.
As a partner exercise the attacker should increase the pressure on the defender slowly, until the defender starts to feel it. Having a staff come in at speed to the temple, is disturbing, both because of the apparent danger, and the noise of the staves in the block, right by the ear. The attacker should watch the defender for any sign of panic or loss of balance. The attacker’s role is, in part, to look for that moment of panic, both to recognise it in an opponent and to help the defender understand the panic and learn to deal with it. Once the balance is broken, the attacker should vary the pressure a little to see how the defender reacts. If their weight has shift back, ask them to bring it forward again. If they tense up remind them to keep relaxed, which is more difficult that it sounds. The goal is to get used to the danger of the situation and to understand at a visceral level that, as a defender, you know what to do under pressure.
The defender should stand in the zone where they feel the danger in order to feel the benefit of the exercise. When they feel their weight shift back, bring it forward again so that it is under their control, standing into the attack. The object of this exercise is to stay in that zone, so that when the defender chooses to move, it is through choice and not because of a panic reaction. Focus on staying in, relax, and smile.
Pattern Drill 2
The second drill is using the attacks to the knee (strikes 3 and 4). Additionally in attacking the knee the attacker may have to slide the staff out a little to reach to and past the knee. In defending the knee the low end of the staff must be kept down for both sides because bringing the upper end down to defend the opposite knee is not structurally strong enough to withstand a reasonable blow.
Pattern Drill 3
The third drill is the attacks to the ribs (strikes 5 and 6) , and blocks. With the attacks continue to ensure that the strike is in measure and would connect if the block was not made.
Attacks to the knee and ribs are not as disturbing as the ones to the head, but still provide opportunities for conditioning and developing muscle memory, and should be practiced individually before moving on to the combinations
Pattern Drill 4
This drill is the vertical attacks, strikes seven and eight. Again it is vital that the staff be pulled in towards the chest and pushed out to the defence in transitioning between the two blocks moving in a sideways v shape, and not just vertically up and down. This is both quicker and presents a surer defence.
During this drill it should become obvious that there is an opportunity to counter-attack between the strikes with a horizontal blow. This is true of all the drills, but their purpose is not to form actual attacks, but to condition the body to giving and receiving blows to the weapon that would otherwise damage, to train the muscles to move correctly under simple opposition, and to gain feeling for the myriad of ways that the weapon moves under the opposing force. Using both ends of the staff also develops a feel for the use of momentum in an obvious way.
Each of the simple attacks also leaves a hole in the defense in the perpendicular plane, so that a horizontal strike can be blocked and left open to a vertical one. These first drills are only to get the movement and feeling of the attack and defence correct.
Pattern Drill 5
The fifth pattern is the first of the compound attacks and is used to force the hands to move on the staff, interspersing attacks to the ribs attacks to the temple. Strike to the temple then the rib in a repeated pattern of strikes 1-2-5-6. This requires the hand to slip down when defending the head and slip up to defend the ribs.
Once all the component drills are beginning to feel comfortable, patterns can be created using all the strikes. At first the patterns should be constrained to a particular order say 1-2-3-4-5-6 or 1-2-3-4-7-8, in order to build up recognition in the body of what is happening with the weapon. There should also be a focus on either maintaining a specific attacker and defender, in order to get the benefits of the adrenaline management in defence, or on the fluidity with which the defender can become the attacker and vice versa.
As the participants become more familiar with the drills there is a tendency to make the first four strikes and defences blur and strikes become blocks and blocks become strikes. This still helps maintain an understanding of the feeling for the staff, and also tends to lead to greater distance between the combatants. Care should be taken to ensure, in as far as possible that blows are on target. At this stage movement is also becoming a part of the attack and defence.
The use of the change grip to extend the reach of the blow combined with a step out becomes useful, and continues the development of moving the hand upon the staff. The change grip also conserves momentum whilst allowing two attacks in a row against the same side. A strike with hand 2 (the lower hand, usually the right) to the opponents off side, then a change grip, rotating the staff around that hand and catching the end would also strike to the off side, and with a greater range. At first it is better to reverse the change grip to get back to centre, but later a slide also works.
The slide also allows that same extension of reach and opportunity to slip back and still attack, with conservation of momentum giving an attack on the opposite side of the normal one. These can be mixed and matched as desired. For example with centre grip left hand up and right down, slip back and slide out the staff to attack opponents knee then follow up with a change grip back to strike with the tip of the staff to the head as you step back in. The simplicity of the technique lends itself to fluidly changing combinations.
The change grip also brings the staff into an extended position from which techniques from other sources can be used. Whilst the centre grip is comparatively safe for partner drills, it also helps build up the musculature required to move the staff under control at extension. Moving the staff to the extended positions helps to build that control further.
When allowed to play freely, people still tend to fall into patterns in their play. Practice here is an opportunity to understand the patterns that both you and your partner generate, and to find ways to break them safely. The drills themselves are all very simple and their value is in how they are used and the particular focus that the session is looking at, whether that is power and control, adrenaline management, distance judgement, muscle memory and conditioning, or any other aspect training that seems reasonable.
Staff, even in this form, is a genuinely dangerous weapon. The key to remaining safe, is to ensure that partners in the drills are paying attention and keeping each other safe. At each stage of the process you must ensure that you remain in communication with your training partner, especially when either of you are relatively new to the drills or the particular drill that you are practicing. As you become more proficient, more and more of that communication will be through the staff itself, but with each new player it is safer to ensure that you watch and communicate and start out slowly, until you can build up the understanding between you to play safely at speed. Mistakes and errors can happen at anytime, and ensuring partner safety is a matter of mutual responsibility, observation and control.
Thanks Fran Terminello and Jo Thomas for appearing in the photos and for proofreading the article. Any errors and omissions are mine, but you do play at your own risk.