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Grasping the Sumbrada drill

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

Most of us can remember, as kids, picking up some semblance of a sword and – standing close enough to do damage – having a go at whacking our best friend or sibling. In my case, it was my brother David. Living in Germany as boys, we did what every boy in our place would naturally do – we nailed cross-guards on sticks and hacked away at one another among the ruins of a 12th Century castle.

While it was easy enough for our youthful imaginations to run amok in such a wondrous place, the impossibly difficult and rather painful reality of what we were doing brought a swift end to our dueling. Years later, I had the great fortune of crossing sticks with a teacher of Filipino martial arts who showed me that the impossible was not only quite possible, but also that it could be explored without significant risk to life and limb.

Standing as an essential pillar of the Filipino martial arts, the Sumbrada exercise, in all its permutations, affords the practitioner the opportunity to enter into a combatively problematic, yet controlled relationship with a thinking opponent-partner to develop problem solving skills that function under stress.

Surviving the practice to reap its benefits is, of course, the first order of business. In the early stages, this is accomplished by establishing a few ground rules that provide a sort of safety net. Creating a framework that will support eventual expansion of the drill to include more advanced problems and "terminations" is the next step.

A common misconception is that the so-called "box pattern" (a cycling pattern of usually six strikes often used to introduce the drill at seminars) forms the nucleus of Sumbrada. However, while patterns will arise and should be meticulously explored, the whole point of the drill is to learn to effectively block any angle thrown and immediately fire back the one shot they don't anticipate. In other words, if you're going to teach each other to problem-solve, you've got to be a troublemaker. Patterns, while loads of fun, are the antithesis of trouble, infecting the drill with the disease of predictability. Resorting to patterns is to run away from a direct relationship with the opponent, yet it is that direct relationship that forms the true nucleus of the drill.

The framework is merely a set of changeable guidelines intended to keep the practitioners present in that relationship and provide useful feedback regarding attacking and countering options. But the glue that holds it all together is "interdependence."

When one partner launches into an attack, the other is immediately limited by distance – which is time – to only a handful of possible responses. For the novice, perhaps the most important consideration is the position of his weapon point in relation to the incoming angle of attack. However, a number of other factors must be taken into consideration.

As in combat, footwork can make or break the drill. Saddled with the task of not only getting your guns to the front line, but also providing a highly mobile power source for blocking and attacking, footwork is, without a doubt, the most misunderstood and poorly developed weapon in the average practitioner's arsenal. Once again, for security, the is a rampant overemphasis on patterns, often leaving misguided martial artists dancing up a storm when there may actually be no reason to move at all. Stick fighters – practitioners of Filipino fencing – can take a lesson from Western fencing and learn to base their footwork on sound tactical principles, rather than Arthur Murray dance steps painted on the floor.

Checking is another misunderstood element of Sumbrada. Anyone who has sparred all-out with a weapon has likely found it nigh on to impossible to check. But in a distortion of Bruce Lee's "Absorb what is useful" philosophy, many have chosen to reject it as useless without really doing the research he so adamantly insisted they do before making such a decision. While I don't discount the experiences of any individual practitioner with regard to the efficacy of checking as they employed it, I contend that it is an area of skill worth exploring fully. Returning to the Western fencing model, it's interesting to note that, what was once a combat-based game dominated by masterful blade play has become an athletic event emphasizing distance and speed. But anyone who truly understands the art knows that if the masks and jackets were removed and the sporting weapons replaced with sharp rapiers, lunging would be suicide and prowess with the blade would make all the difference. So it is with checking. Take off the masks and the armor and replace the sticks with blades and I assure you, checking will make sense. Don't reject it just yet.

Once it's up and running, the core of Sumbrada is the rapid-fire give and take of seemingly random attacks and counterattacks. To the untrained eye, the resulting maelstrom might well be mistaken for actual combat. But amid the seeming chaos is a brilliant thread of simplicity. Offensive and defensive responses can be broken down into primary, secondary and tertiary options, allowing the participants to systematically investigate every interaction – as it happens – even when the drill reaches breakneck speed. Patterns that arise can be exploited as research tools to test various options within the context of the repeating sequence. Moreover, inevitable errors can be readily integrated into the flow to diminish their negative impact of the practitioner's defenses.

Ultimately, Sumbrada expands to encompass disarms and counter-disarms as well as counters to retained checks meant to tie up and nullify one partner's defenses. Multiple strikes with either hand add to the troublemaking, as does the introduction of every other weapon in the participants' arsenals. Covering all the ranges and going at it with or without weapons, the goal can be exploration or "checkmate," the choice is yours. Dissolving the framework and any comfort-based adherence to symmetrical interaction, practitioners can just fight it out with all guns firing, keeping just enough of the safety net intact to survive the practice.

As a final point in this brief essay, it's important to remember that, like every other drill – including any and all forms of sparring – Sumbrada is unfortunately fraught with diseases and, unless you are hyper-vigilant, you are far more likely to become infected by those diseases that to extract any benefit from the drill.

The following admonitions touch on a few of the most common disease symptoms that immediately come to mind:

• Aim your attacks directly at your partner. Aiming at his stick or some arbitrary place in the air you think is safer only sabotages the development of trustworthy defenses on his part and not only limits both your options beyond that point but also sets the stage for disaster in the long run.

• Research, for yourself, the primary, secondary and tertiary options on both the offensive and defensive sides of every interaction. Categorized by their escalating complexity, understanding the differences eliminates the guessing that often masquerades as purposeful training.

• At the speed where the weapons start to sound like they're ripping the air, there won't be time to do only the things you've decided that you like. Disliking a particular skill is the mark of a rank amateur and has nothing to do with Bruce Lee's suggestion to "reject what is useless." Murphy's Law states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. I would add that you are bound to become a victim of anything you omit. When the sticks are flying, you'll need every battle-proven option at your disposal, as well as the creative fire to improvise new ones should the need arise, and it will, so omit nothing.

• Complacency is terminal. Question everything. Dismantle everything you "believe" about what you've been taught and reteach it to yourself through critical, scientific inquiry. Great teachers will encourage this. Imposters will demand blind obedience. There's no better way to find out which is which, for if your goal is to become a master problem-solver, you've got to be a troublemaker.

Burton Richardson & Mark Mikita doing Sumbrada.

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