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From ATA World Volume 19, Number 3 Fall 2012

Think about it: In a real-world self-defense situation, you won’t have a ring judge or a chest protector or even comfortable clothes to help you.

What you might have, though, is the ability to quickly pick up a stick.

And that’s exactly why training with a combat weapon is so integral to excelling as a martial artist. “In the real world, there are no rules,” says Chief Master G. K. Lee, director of the international Protech weapons division of ATA and a founding member of Songahm Taekwondo. “Real world self-defense requires that you have perfect timing and focus. By training with weapons in addition to empty-hand training, this focus and timing is instilled in a student.”

ATA has more than two decades of weapons experience, and was the first martial arts organization to integrate weapons into daily training. It developed the heavily padded bahng mahng ee specifically so students of all ages could train safely in stick fighting. Then ATA took the idea of a stick fight, contained it in a ring, assigned point values to techniques, and put the bahng mahng ee into competitors’ hands.

Combat Weapon Sparring as an event, then, simulates real stick combat while remaining relatively safe for everyone—even for the tiniest of Tiny Tigers.

How It Started

In ancient times in Korea, farmers in their fields had little with which to defend themselves from attackers. They had to be able to stand up and fight with what they could find nearby, or with what they had in their hands. And they had to be able to disarm an aggressor before they themselves were hurt. Often, all that was available to them was a stick or farming tool of some kind. A farmer’s skill defending himself or herself with it could save the farmer’s life.

“The stick” has been around for a long time in ATA as well. “The bahng mahng ee was our very first Protech weapon—it was introduced into the dojahng more than two decades ago,” says
Chief Master Steve Westbrook, a member of the international Protech weapons staff. “Now it is the first weapon we’ve introduced into combat.”

But a lot of time and care was taken for cautious testing, as ATA is devoted to the safety of kids and families. “We watched a lot of different styles in stick fighting and lots of different situations. We wanted to make sure the weapon was safe in combat, and to create a weapon that was safe to teach with,” says Westbrook, who also owns Empower Martial Arts in Overland Park, Kan., and schools in Wichita, Kan. It took about four years before combat with the bahng mahng ee was introduced fully because, Westbrook says, “We wanted to make sure it was safe, designed with a structured curriculum for both adults and children.”

Plus, it wasn’t just new to ATA—combat weapon training for all ages was new to the world. No other martial arts organization has stick fighting as a regular part of its training, with a developed curriculum specifically for teaching combat with a weapon. It made ATA unique in the competitive sports marketplace, on the cutting edge of all martial arts. ATA wanted to do it right.

“We’ve always been first in creativity,” says Westbrook. “We were the first of the Taekwondo schools in the world to incorporate the weapons as part of our regular training curriculum. We were the first to incorporate the weapon with a competitive mindset.” And ATA is the first Taekwondo organization to have Top 10 competitors and World Champs in Combat Weapon Sparring.

Why It’s So Great

Simply put: It’s challenging, fun, and safe.

Because the weapon is padded and light, the chances of being hurt by the weapon are slim. (Plus, you’re covered in sparring gear.) This degree of safety is attractive to all martial artists, and of particular comfort to parents.

As for challenge, combat weapon sparring “gives you a wider range of the discipline required in the martial arts,” says Westbrook. “It’s another way in which you can be more powerful as a martial artist and as a person.”

For one, it’s faster than regular hand-foot sparring—so you have to learn to be quick and develop your footwork, not just stand your ground with strong, well-placed kicks. Also, the dimensions are different, as the weapon is a two-foot extension from your arm. You learn how to get in and get out, and move at different angles. And because combat weapon sparring doesn’t focus on kicking, you learn to use your upper body and evasive tactics more.

“Regular Taekwondo sparring highly emphasizes the legs,” says Mark Beddow, the No. 2 weapon sparring competitor in the world in his division, and a Chief Instructor for Vision Martial Arts in Cary, N.C. “With combat weapons, it’s primarily the upper body. It becomes about the speed of your strikes and your handeye coordination.”

In this way, combat weapon training is a great equalizer for those who feel they aren’t great at kicking or power. In fact, says Chief Master G. K. Lee, since combat weapons have been introduced, “it has attracted more women than men, and more women are becoming certified instructors in it.” The weapon, says Westbrook, “creates a level playing field among all our students.”

“The weapon was an equalizer for my lack of height,” says Fairy Degener, a 4th Degree Black Belt and instructor at ATA Martial Arts in Bentonville, Ark., who has competed in Top Ten twice. “It’s not a matter of who has the longer arm. It’s a matter of speed and technique.”

And it’s a matter of having a really fun time with it.

“I was skeptical, because regular sparring was my favorite thing, and combat weapon sparring is so different,” says Beddow. “The first time I actually did combat weapon sparring, it was really fun. The different techniques you can do are really cool.” Those techniques— named after animals (cobra, crocodile)—add to the fun, especially for kids. “Visualizing these motions makes it creative and exciting,” says Westbrook, and makes it easy for kids to relate. Really easy. “The children have soaked this up unbelievably fast,” says Westbrook. “They are doing more of the techniques than adults do. They’re taking it in like sponges.”

And they are lining up for more instruction, too. At the Leadership NOW training seminar for combat weapon sparring held at World Championships, it was expected there’d be 100 kids ages 6 to 16 interested. There were 150, and 100 more had to be turned away at the door because there wasn’t enough room. Which means 2012-2013 will likely be an incredible year for the combat weapon.

At International Protech Leadership Camp this August, ATA’s advanced combat weapon training took one more step and debuted double bahng mahng ee sparring. The weapon remains the same—it’s still the blue padded bahng mahng ee—but now there are two of them, one in each hand. This, of course, doubles the excitement and speed in an already speedy sport.

“It will be very fast and very furious,” says Chief Master Steve Westbrook, who has been helping to develop the double bahng mahng ee competition. “It’s going to bring in another realm of different body motions with different blocks and counters.” It will be so fast and so furious that Protech leaders are considering making a double bahng mahng ee match nonstop; judges would not stop a match to tally points. Instead, the match would continue uninterrupted.

But if you want to double your fun by sparring with two weapons, it’s time to double your endurance training efforts. Says Westbrook, “If your conditioning is not good, your arms will wear out very fast, and the story told in the end will be: Who’s in the best shape?”

Don’t fear the sound.
“It makes a ‘thwapping’ noise, but it sounds worse than it is,” says 4th Degree Fairy Degener, a world-class weapons competitor and instructor at ATA Martial Arts in Bentonville, Ark. “It doesn’t hurt.” The weapon was designed for all ages!

Be willing to get hit.
“It’s really students who are confident and can get in there with the chance of getting hit that do well,” says 5th Degree Mark Beddow, Chief Instructor for Vision Martial Arts in Cary, N.C. “The kids that are willing to let that happen will definitely learn something.”

Don’t assume you’ll be good, or bad.
“There is a difference between the regular sparring and the weapon sparring,” says Beddow. “It doesn’t correlate exactly. Many go in believing they’re going to be good at weapons sparring if they’re good at regular sparring.” But that’s not the case.

Develop a strategy.
“Imagine it’s a real sword,” says Chief Master Steve Westbrook, who helped develop the weapon and techniques on the international Protech weapons staff. “Would you go into combat and risk getting your arm chopped off without some kind of strategy?”

Vary your strikes.
“There are 18 animal strikes right now, but the majority of people I watch use a total of four,” says Degener. Mix it up and surprise your opponent. The sport is new, and your creative contributions to it (as well as your full use of the curriculum) will advance everyone’s understanding.

Use combinations.
Instead of focusing on the first strike, “set up combinations of multiple strikes with different targets, or block and then counter with a different strike,” says Beddow. You’ll have to be quick, but you’ll rack up more points. And increasing complexity will up your skills as a martial artist in general.

No wind-up!
There’s a tendency to hold the stick way up over your head to generate force, but that’s going to make you vulnerable to strikes and also take a long time to bring down for contact. Instead, “Generate power from speed,” says Beddow. “Use your forearm with the weapon in front of you and don’t wind up.”

Aim for the legs.
“Everybody likes to aim for the head,” says Beddow, because it’s an extra point, “but the legs are most vulnerable.” Plus: Going on one knee is still a legal score. “There are a lot of strikes you can do in combat weapons that you can’t in traditional sparring because you can go on one knee.” ATA