There is a popular descriptive used to distinguish Russian Systema from other martial arts, that goes like this:
"We're principle-based. We don't believe in technique."
This is a classic example of something getting lost along the way in translation. Granted, this notion varies a bit from camp to camp. Kadochnikov and Retuinskih for example are scientifically precise and extremely technical in everything that they teach. How they interpret those principles varies significantly, with Retuinskih exhibiting far more pressure testing through jacketed wrestling, modified boxing and generally more contact and Kadochikov floundering in my opinion somewhat in the excesses of soft and slow exploration. Ryabko Systema by comparison has migrated increasingly away from any structured specifics, committing more fully to an intuitive path of self-exploration. Verily, the distinguishing factors between Ryabko Systema and Kadochnikov are the difference between faith and science. But does this need to be the case? Does creating a matrix for learning based on sound principles necessarily mean that technique must be shunned like a leper at a game of twister?
Why does a style stray from teaching technique? Is it a question of instructors teaching at their current level and forgetting the steps they took to get there? Is it a question of laziness? Is it a question of intentionally burning bridges to prevent students from understanding how to acquire the fullest possible ability--the ancient habit of hiding secret knowledge? Perhaps it's a combination of many motives. Even if it were nothing more than the pure belief that technique in any form were some form of distraction from true adaptability and learning, we are left with Infinite Monkey Theory--eventually a room full of monkeys, typing on an infinite number of typewriters, should logically create a work of literature equivalent to that of Shakespeare.
The problem with this approach is that we do not have infinite amounts of time or resources. If I need to teach someone how to use a gun and I put 5 people in one room and let them play and 5 in another room and teach them basic safety procedures, handling skills and the finer points of shooting, I am likely to not only have a faster learning curve in the instructed room, I am also far more likely to have 5 people come out alive. The fact is, some degree of technique is necessary. So often, I encounter Systema people who don't know the first thing about applying a lock who in return spout: "If you lock another, you lock yourself". That's true. There is a risk in locking that you become static and prone to multiple attackers, but if you are a law enforcement officer or security agent or simply a civilian concerned with less than lethal control options, you need to know how to put on a few basic locks, a basic choke etc. Once you have the foundation, then you can focus on continuous movement, when to abandon it, how to intensify it, etc. I see Systema practitioners practicing ground defence against people who couldn't earn a white belt in BJJ, practicing kick defence against people who have trouble standing on one leg and working against "boxers" who are simply their chums wearing boxing gloves. There needs to be a little more concrete in the foundation in my opinion otherwise we'll soon find ourselves posting fights with our drunken uncles on Youtube.
Technique is not a bad word. There are best ways to throw a punch, specific nuances that should be known about locks and holds, tactics that work best against specific situations. To simply float on the current of "principality" is to hide from the need for specificity and certainty. I have seen across the world what only investing in flow at the expense of core technique can do--it can create a mass of delusional individuals who think that wiggling and breathing is enough. You wouldn't trust a surgeon to just follow their intuition. You would expect that they had learned specific techniques and approaches but then transcended to the point where they can adapt. You would expect a musician to know how to play basic notes and riffs, perhaps cover other songs, before they could jam. You would expect a pilot to understand basic operating procedures before you would expect them to be able to handle a crisis. Why should we expect anything different from something as essential as the skills needed to protect our own lives.
Some degree of technique will always be necessary. Principles are the glue that holds them all together in one coherent direction, that explains how they work and deepens our understanding of them. Technique is the bridge to transcendence and the path to intuition. Balancing both the intuitive with the specific, faith with fact, technique with principle, is the key to excellence.
My last blog entry has stirred up a lot of interest--and passion--both ways. Many proponents of technique have come forward insisting that technique is far more necessary that I alluded to--that principle is only an explanation of technique which could never make sense without the technique to manifest it. Proponents of principle-based education insist that what I call technique is actually personal interpretation - that there is never just one "best" way to do something, including something as mechanical as shooting or loading a gun.
Good points on both sides. As for technique being a manifestation of principle, absolutely. This is entirely the point I was making in the first instalment. Without concrete examples, students are left in a void. Without principle however, you simply have a mishmash of rote memorization. Too many styles flounder in the void of endless arbitrary forms and combos. Instead, transcend at some point. To use Ed Parker's example: first you learn to read music, then to play riffs, then other people's compositions, but ultimately, the goal should be able to compose your own, to jam, to just play.
As for there being no one best way, I appreciate the sentiment, but disagree. Force can be measured. Resistance can be measured. If 3 people espouse a certain breathing technique for controlling pulse rates under conditions of stress and in application one measures consistently better than the rest, than that technique works better. The whole notion that everything is equally valid that is so couched in faith-based instruction allows people to hide from empirical evidence and measurement. It doesn't make sense to me that in our search for combat truth, in our efforts to erode fear and face our challenges, we should hide from our objective. It's tantamount to ignoring financial debt in the hopes it will go away. Somewhat like a 3-year old closing their eyes to turn invisible. Again, this logic may work well for you and make sense for you, but in my universe, it does not. The next time I find myself caught in a unicorn traffic jam and I find myself out of leprechauns, maybe I'll consider it, but until such time, I will stick with evidence and fact.
The reality is that good training should have some degree of both principle and technique. The real difference shows up best during pressure testing--again, measurement and proof. Sometimes people see Combat Systema clips and say: "it's messy. Your "technique" isn't good. The gun is moving across the center line during your defence. The knife is stabbing you during the fight. etc. etc." I always find these comments interesting.
Consider boxing or grappling. In these sports, techniques rarely go off as planned. One thing flows into another. A boxer may train for years to have a perfect jab, but he will rarely end a fight with one. People move. You get hit, injured, tired, etc. Yet, no one would say that Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard were bad boxers because they keep getting hit. The moment we come to "martial arts" however, fantasy media has conditioned people to expect one fancy technique against one punch that ends the fight. The attacker swings and it's done.
Granted, MMA is doing a lot to educate those who see the truth, but still others persist that in the street it's different. In the street, it's not about combat, it's about ambush. You don't have time to fight, you have to survive. Semantics. Yes, there is a difference between sport and street. Yes, there is a difference between ritualized combat and getting sucker-punched, but if you can't handle the ritualized stuff, if you can't take the challenge of a preset, prepared, safe environment, what makes you think that you will suddenly fare so much better on the street? Are you hiding behind that old nugget--that your arsenal is too deadly. That on the street you would bite and headbutt and gouge? I would rather bet that a world class grappler who can move like an octopus on the ground, would have a better chance of escaping those feral attacks than someone who simply trains gouging without movement.
The difficulty is that any system that becomes inundated by the tools they advocate, whether they be gouges or loopy punches, rather than cultivating a pressure-tested delivery mechanism, is all warhead without missile. If you can't move well, you can't move well. If a padded fist rocks your world, a real one will be exponentially more shocking. If push-ups and basic fitness cause you to quit and if sparring scares you from the building, a street fight isn't going to suddenly bring out your inner Ares. The fact is, if you aren’t training messy, fluid, continuous, non-stop resistance at some point, you are ultimately training technique and not principle; you are ultimately cognitively adhering to art and aesthetic, and creating something far more ritualized than any sport rather than building true adaptability and fighting skill.