Give it some stick;Mind and body;Interview;Matthew Twigg

12th June 1998 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh has found a sport at which Britain excels - and one of the leading exponents is a teacher. Meet Matthew Twigg, world stick-fighting champion.

At what international sport is Britain so successful that it makes most other countries look like novices? A sport in which during the world championships in Los Angeles in 1996, a team of 17 came home with 21 medals, six of them gold.

The answer is eskrima, the Filipino martial art of stick-fighting, which has become enormously popular in recent years. There are stick-fighters in most European countries, in the Arab world, in the US and of course in the Philippines.

One of the British stars of eskrima is Matthew Twigg, a young art and design teacher at Latimer Comprehensive in Kettering, Northamptonshire. At those world championships he became superheavyweight champion, just one year after taking up the sport.

As a schoolboy in Spalding, Lincolnshire (home of Geoff Capes, who coached him for a while), Matthew was a discus thrower, reaching the finals of the English Schools Championships four years running, and his enthusiasm for athletics led him to the PGCE course at Loughborough University.

Like most throwers he is big, although, he points out, 17 stone does not put you among the real giants. "My training companions thought I was small and called me 'Swee'pea'," he says.

Matthew began his teaching career five years ago in his present school, and it was there that his interest moved from field athletics to eskrima. He had reached a frustrating plateau in his progress at the discus (the same impasse that can cause lesser personalities to reach for the steroid bottle) when, in 1995, concern about security prompted Latimer School to start self-defence classes.

"I really enjoyed throwing my head of department on the floor," Matthew says. He realised, though, that in martial arts a little knowledge is, literally, a dangerous thing. "So I decided to join a club, and it was there that I saw eskrima for the first time."

Strong and fast, he found that he had a natural aptitude for the sport. Within a short time he had fought world-class competitors and had his sights set on the Los Angeles championships.

Matthew prepared for those championships by drawing on his knowledge of athletics training. Breaking the sport down into its components of movement, speed and strength, he prepared detailed diaries, charts and graphs for running and weight training.

He also drew on his knowledge of the theory of learning in order to make the best use of his time, for training had to be done after school and at weekends - running on Monday, Wednesday and Friday; weights on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Sundays were reserved for sparring with other members of the British team. "I had to be hideously well organised in training and school work," he says.

In addition to this, Matthew was studying other sports - judo, Thai boxing, sabre fencing - which taught him unorthodox moves that took eskrima opponents by surprise.

Mental preparation included reading Frank Dick's Sports Training Principles and classic Chinese texts on war, and "making sure I'd seen Braveheart shortly before I got on the plane".

Much, was riding on his success in Los Angeles: his personal investment of time and money, the backing of his wife and parents, and, perhaps most importantly, the support of his school which granted him leave of absence.

"I didn't allow for the scenario of losing," Matthew says. "I had no negative thoughts. I was going to clap the others louder than anyone else; I was going to shake hands with my opponents better than anyone else; be more polite, helpful and friendly than anyone else. I was even going to snore more loudly than the person in the next room."

And that, roughly, is what happened, so much so that at the end there was a sense of anti-climax. "When it was over I didn't feel elated, just relieved." Not, he hastens to add, that he is arrogant or over-confident. "I'm not like that at all really. It's just that there was so much invested in what I was doing."

When he returned, there was a surprise welcome. "My form had been in the workshop, and had made themselves sticks, and chased me down the corridor cheering."

In common with others who do well at sport, Matthew finds that it gives him confidence and relieves stress. "We have this training thing where we hit a tyre nailed to a post - that gets rid of quite a lot of frustration."

He is, though, careful about how he presents the sport in school, not wanting it to be misunderstood as violent. (Unlike some martial arts, eskrima is a sport in which aggressive shouting is not just discouraged but penalised.) "You have to be careful what kind of role model you present in school, where there is a stance against fighting," he says. "I'm very sensitive about that, though I think my pupils know what I'm really like." Violent or aggressive people do not last in the sport, he insists. "They soon find they can't handle it. As a result we have a good family atmosphere." Coaches in the UK are aware of the dangers, and rarely take on under-16s.

Matthew's mother, head of a Catholic primary, also has her reservations. "She says she's proud of me, but she keeps coming up with lists of alternative sports." And his father "just thinks he's bred a monster!" In fact his parents were very supportive of his world championship bid.

This year Matthew would have been due to defend his title in the Philippines (the championships are biennial), but he feels unable to take time off school again. And, anyway, he's got weightier matters to deal with. "It's just a game isn't it? I've got a lot out of it, and I feel fitter. This September I'm going to be a dad, and that's more important."

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