A central learning tool in Ryabko Systema is the use of slow training. As we have discussed previously, since adaptability remains one of the primary goals of Systema training, slowness is favored in the majority of training, to allow students to explore options in a more organic manner. Repetition of specific moves is never encouraged, nor is the emulation of the instructor or other advanced practitioners. Rather, students are encouraged to genuinely experience the threat as a stimuli, to see what reactions, tensions, reflexes the stimuli triggers and to see not only how to resolve the threat but also how to resolve said reactions in the body. It's understandable that the outsider misunderstands this approach to training, but my goal today is to clarify some suggested guidelines for its proponents to help optimize the tool and ensure fellow practitioners don't go astray.
First off, slowness is nothing new. In most other training domains, we accepted crawling before we toddle, toddling before we walk and walking before we run. I've yet to meet anyone who was lacing up their Nikes in utero, We learned to drive in all likelihood in parking lots and quiet streets first, then earned our way to the highway. The examples are plentiful and obvious. The notion of slow training in Systema is exactly that. Whereas most martial arts encourage slowness at first, they do so through the slow repetition of specific set patterns or movements. Even individual strikes are drilled identically, whereas in Systema, the slow repetition is of constantly changing and adaptive responses.
Second, slow training is not an island. As I have also outlined previously, training should consist of three portions. 1-Education. We must understand why we are doing what we are doing. Without cognitive clarity and agreement, there will always be a lack of conviction or certainty in our responses and conviction and certainty are essential in life-and-death situations. 2-Rehearsal. We must be allowed to explore and investigate the principles in application. This is the domain of slow training and where we spend the bulk of our time. 3-Pressure Test. We must bring the water to a boil and steam out the excess movements. Only by pressure testing, can we gain understanding with the reality of resistant, dynamic combat and go back to the drawing board of the Education phase with newfound intelligence and understanding, thus rebeginning the circuit of growth with ever-increasing clarity and conviction.
Next, we get into the mechanics of slow training. As I have also said elsewhere, a key component of effective and successful slow work is to ensure that both you and your attacker(s) are moving at congruent speeds. Too often, practitioners get into the rut of moving much faster than their attacker. It's easy to overlook this reality if you are only moving at 1/4 speed since it feels like you are moving so slowly, but if your partner is moving at 1/8 speed, you are moving twice as fast as them and training for a reality that is unlikely. The fastest among us are unlikely to be that much faster than an average escalated attacker. Constantly monitor your work. I tell my students to scan youtube and watch Systema demos. We tend to watch them, and study the work of the defender. After you've watched it once, go back and watch it again, focusing on the mock attacker. Are they moving at a congruent speed? Are they slowing down because of fear or respect? Often they are virtually entranced by the anticipated consequence of their attack. While, granted, this is also a component of combat psychology worthy of study, it's important to keep the majority of your slow training honest, particularly as a teacher. Choose new students regularly. They are less likely to be compliant or understand the drill. You work should function on all skill levels and body types equally well. Where things begin to erode, you are likely indulging in fancy over function.
One good training tool is to delay your response. While some degree of slow training can be used to reinforce pre-emptive action, be cautious of falling into that rut permanently. Allow yourself to be surprised, delay your response, see, even at slow speeds how things change when the distance is decreased.
Directly connected to speed is the matter of trajectories. In a real fight, muscles are likely to be tense, and bodies racing with hormones and natural stimulants. Attackers are more likely to move short and twitchy or else large and gorilla like. This notion of complex weaving angles and meandering strikes that waver like slow heat-seeking missiles is highly unlikely. Likewise, the likelihood of fully elongated robotic attacks with outstretched overhand stabs and clean, stiff angles is almost nil. Keep it real even though you are slow. Practice slow jabs in your boxing, slow, short slices in your knife work and slow feints and reaches in your grappling. Minimize the simplistic single reach, solitary punch and isolated kick. This isn't how people attack.
Special mention should be made here of eliptical attacks, since Systema advocates and employs weaving strikes that often use a wave-like figure 8 pattern. Take a minute to trace a sideways figure-8 or infinity symbol in front of you with your fist. Feel and see how that infinity is composed of 2 "s-"-like shapes. Imagine each of those halves, in turn is composed of 2 antagonistic curves (each composing 1 quarter of the 8). Each quarter can be either a loading phase of the strike, or the impacting phase. I can load my hand, arcing it up and then strike as I drop it, or strike on the first rising arc and recover on the drop. That recovery in turn sets me up for the subsequent strike of my next curve. Each quarter can be weaponized as a strike, used to set up for a subsequent strike, or to recover from a preceding strike. This can be most clearly seen if we swing a chain or flexible weapon in the same pattern. If you employ figure 8 patterns in training, remember this idea of loading and unloading the motion. Too often, practitioners get into the habit of simply waving the arms without being in range to impact or releasing the energy. They simply swim through the air like a child waving a sparkler rather than prepare, deliver and recover from the force of strike (muted and fictional in this case as it may be). At full speed, you will not be able to strike continuously through every quadrant of your infinity motion. You will always need a quarter to load and unload. Keep this in mind.
Also, remember to keep the intensity realistic. Slowness does not mean lack of pressure. Attackers will generally jab and retreat or else pressure forward. They will rarely stand at mid range, single strike outstretched, as you run around them like a small monkey hopped up on RedBull. Be careful of this pitfall. The best analogy I can give is to box and wrestle slowly. A boxer will never leave a limb hanging out there. Neither should you. A wrestler will never grab and freeze. Neither should you, not even as a mock attacker. Be a good friend. Give a taste of reality and help prepare your partner rather than insulate his ego. Under conditions of actual combat, attackers will flinch and freeze, grab and wrestle. Integrate grappling with your striking and vice versa. Particuarly be certain you retract your strikes. Blocking, deflecting or evading a punch or stab is essential, but thwarting it's retraction and continued delivery is equally vital. If we fail to include strikes that retract and pump like pistons in our slow work, we will be overwhelmed by this reality in the street. Relying on one touch or one hit finishes is statistical suicide. Attackers will keep on keeping on, loading and striking with improved intel against your defenses, against ever-weaking and wounded limbs and torsos in all likelihood. Integrate this in your slow work.
Pulse rate is another keep factor. Systema seeks to prioritize relaxation in its training. The notion is that stress erodes performance and like a sniper, surgeon or pilot, we seek to replace fear with familiarity and learn to keep our cool and optimal performance in the worst cases. Relaxation is a relative term in my opinion however. We are all prone to flinch, freeze and panic and likewise we are all entitled to recover our wits, but to what degree we will be able to recover those senses while under attack can run a massive gamut. Many Systema proponents feel that employing sparring where pulse rates rocket or resistance becomes too elevated "deteriorate" the essential pillars of form, breathing, relaxation and movement. I am of a different opinion, though I respect and understand the concern. Therefore, even if you are not of the camp that wishes to integrate occassional simulation training, I strongly encourage the next best thing. Throughout your slow work, consider occassionally integrating breath exercises that tax the body and elevate the pulse rate. Controlled breath holds or respiratory restrictions are excellent. This can be from simple breath holds, restraints, gags, bags, etc. There is slew to choose from in Systema's combat psychology library. Exercises using selected contractions can likewise tax the body quickly and safely and lead to more realistic slow work immediately after. Even if you intend to employ simulation training, this type of step is an essential bridge towards it as I discussed in my DVD Warhead.