With the 2010 Summit of Masters approaching and with so many of the senior instructors being hosted at ‘local’ seminars around the world, and with study groups and schools opening all over, I thought that some advice for those attending their first Systema seminar or class might again be helpful. I wrote this originally a couple of years ago for a non-Systema forum. As with all advice and observations your own mileage may and will vary.
Understand that the teaching methods and that the learning methods found in Systema are different than what many are used to experiencing in their martial training. Instructions are not spelled out and explained in minutia, but rather left vague for a valuable practical reason (Although as your understanding and experience deepens the ‘vague’ instructions will now be precisely clear…mostly). To practice Systema you will have to learn to think for yourself as all the drills are purposely designed to help you discover about yourself. The more detail and explanation given before a drill the smaller the box formed for the students training, forcing the students into a trap of limitations. The less detail the greater the freedom the students have to explore for their own discoveries. Two students together working on the very same drill can be working on two entirely different concepts and/or levels, the same of ten students or a hundred. For example if we take the simple slow push-up, one student might be working on tension management (of his fists or any other part of their body) while another might be working on breathing, while yet another might be exploring their capacity to feel sorry for themselves, and another might be working on testing and improving their tendon strength while next to them one is exploring using nerves to stimulate movement. The possibilities are usually left up to the individual students to explore for themselves. If you are a little lost during a drill take comfort, that feeling is also training and valuable. Many times in our life we can find ourselves in others control, or in situations where we do not know all the facts or have all the answers at hand, yet we have need to go on with life and make do and get thru the situation as best we can and being a little lost while during some drills helps us recognize and deal with the emotions that the situation can bring to the surface.
We are adults and need to take responsibility for our own training, meaning that if you are getting water during the demonstration, or horsing around with a buddy do not complain if you do not know the next drill. Learn to pay attention to what is important. During the instructors demonstration the Systema students do not all line up on one side of the mat/floor/training area like they do in some martial studies, nor do they necessarily all sit or kneel, again you are responsible for your training. This includes viewing the demonstrations, if you cannot see the demonstration from where you are, move to a better vantage point. If someone is standing in front of you and is taller you can ask them to sit down or move yourself so that you can see. How do you know where a good vantage point is or will be? This is also part of the training. Learning how to judge and read where a fight is going and being there first or leaving that area is an important real world skill to develop. Listen to what the instructor is saying carefully, they will not use many words and the words that they use will be chosen carefully and precisely.
We are adults but as Vladimir has said “Adults are just children with bigger ears”. While training it is important to pay attention but it is also important to have fun and acknowledge and fill that need with-in our psyches while at the same time taking care not to become childish. Childlike in the openness and willingness to explore is a good thing. Fighting is serious business and so is training, but there is a difference between fighting and training, doing and learning to do. It is OK and expected to talk and laugh while exploring the drills and exercises.
The demonstration may seem a bit confusing if you are used to working on a specific technique. The instructor will demonstrate many things. For example he may be showing kick defence using only his legs, he may do figure eight movements with his legs, he may stretch out his training partners step, he may check/stop kick the leg followed by an ankle step then he might let the kick get in and effect the training partner after the kick has landed, the instructor might end up on the floor defending against kicks and stomps using only his legs, he might be working against multiple people. When finished with all the above will say OK now you try or words to that effect. For those who are used to practicing a specific and given technique confusion and panic are often the first reactions. That old - “Huh? What is it I am supposed to try?” thought gets looped in their heads and freezes them. That fixation on techniques sabotages their freedom. Just shown many possibilities all they need to do is pick a few and work on them. If they and their partner want to work the ground go ahead and both practice kicking and defending from the ground. Rather than focusing on specific kicks and defences just have one throw some kicks and the other defend, find what works for you, explore movements that you might not be comfortable or familiar with, give yourself limitations (such as working blind, no hands, no legs etc) now and learn to succeed not in spite of them but because of them for some day you may have those limitations for real or you may be facing somebody with those perceived limitations.
Systema is a body learning art meaning that you have to feel what is going on; watching from the sidelines no matter your other experiences will deceive you. You have to get wet to learn how to swim; you have to feel Systema to begin to understand what is going on. Many times I have thought that I had a drill dialed in, doing something familiar to me, something I have done over and over. And taking comfort in that familiarization only to have that illusion crumble when asking the instructor or a senior instructor if I could “feel it” and coming to the realization that what I am doing at that moment is different than what they are doing.
This brings me to perhaps the most important point in this whole post, Get greedy with your training. EVERY time the instructor (or a senior) walks near you ask to feel it, ask them questions, no matter how simple the drill or movement, no matter how simple the concept, get as much time with the instructors that you can, and yes it will often be painful. If that bothers you I suggest taking up a different Russian art….maybe chess. After the demonstration the instructor will say to partner up or get in groups of (insert however many) people and to try. This is another opportunity to get greedy with your training. While gathering around to observe the demonstration of the next drill, keep an eye out for one of the seniors or one of the other participants that has understanding and when they say to partner up grab them and work with them. Systema has no belts or other means of showing who the seniors are, and again this forces us to train another handy skill, learning to recognize those that are proficient at this stuff that we do (whether armed combatives or unarmed). A few hints for you. The demonstrator picks out people to work with based on survivability, meaning that they (the victim for lack of a better term) can survive what the instructor is going to demonstrate. It is usually safe to assume that this person would make a good training partner. It is not foolproof as often one that asks a question often finds them at the center learning the answer firsthand. Often the people that have been around for awhile will greet each other and if paying attention this can also be used as a guide on who to approach for training. People that are effective, that have been tested and tempered often just have something about them that can also be read if you are paying attention. LOL then of course there is also the simple way of asking the host or somebody else who is who, but that of course robs you of a training opportunity. Someone having and wearing a Systema club t-shirt does not make a good identifier of skill or understanding.
Another way of being greedy with your training is to make the most of the drills. Many arts have you practice a technique two to four times (one for each side) then switching so that your partner can then practice the technique. Systema does not train that way. Both partners during partnered drills should be training all of the time. Sure usually one is attacking and one is defending but both should be working so that the line between who is attacking and who is defending get very blurred. Even if doing a drill where you find yourself limited to what you can physically do, that does not mean that your brain and powers of observation (both inside and outside, observing what is going on in your body and around your area) should also shut down. There IS always an opportunity to train if you open up your mind to find them and to take advantage of them.
Most Systema practitioners do not help each other to get back on their feet after a takedown or the end of a drill. Again doing so robs you both of a training opportunity. One needs to learn how to get up off the ground (usually without pushing off the ground with their hands as those wrists, fingers and elbows provide just too tempting of targets either for your opponent or Murphy who always seems to be around the corner, not to mention that your hands might be busy and loaded with firing or slashing weapon) and the other needs to observe how their training partner gets up off the ground. Observe who the movement starts, where they place their arms and legs (and ankles) do they face you when getting up, are they aware of their surroundings etc. Lend a hand to help up a fallen training partner be not surprised to find yourself taken down as well.
In Systema just because one person went to the ground that does not mean the drill is necessarily over, you should protect yourself at all times. Cherish your training partner but do not trust them too much.
There is a seemingly chaotic feel to Systema training. There isn’t a lining up of people and everyone work in the same direction or at the same time type of training going on. People will be falling in every direction. A group of people slugging each other might go right thru another group of people grappling on the ground. Get used to it, nobody ever said conflict was pretty or orderly. If you are falling protect your head, if you are outside there could be a rock or tree in your path, if inside a knee or chair or wall. Be willing to change direction before during and after your fall, that cliff, window or child will not be understanding and forgiving of you going over, into or thru them. Try to be aware of your surroundings for both you and your training partner’s safety. Dependence and interdependence are principles of Systema work, usually in the context of one body part protecting both itself and also protecting the body and visa versa, or in the context of our bodies systems (physical, mental and spiritual) being independent of each other while at the same time dependent on each other. In this paragraph I bring it up to point out both the person falling and the people around them have responsibilities for their own and for the others safety.
You will hear many people at a Systema seminar saying to one another that they need to loosen up and relax. Do not pay too much attention to these people. Systema is not about relaxation but it is about tension management. There is too loose and there is too tense the idea is to target the correct tension/relaxation needed at that moment.
Some may tell you to slow down so that they can succeed at the drill and that is OK but beware those that ask you to slow down but themselves go at a higher pace. This is often caused by ego or fear or excitement and can be detrimental to your training. If somebody is having a hard time with a drill be a good training partner and help them to better understand what is holding them back, not necessarily by stopping and explaining to them what your opinions are, but by giving the same attack again and letting the person figure it out if able, or finding the instructor and asking to feel it. If you are having trouble with a drill it is OK to ask your partner to slow down a bit as it is new to you, but do not get stuck at working at that pace. Once you begin to understand the drills have your partner pick the pace back up. Both should be pushed. If you are much better than your current training partner a good trick is to then limit your abilities a bit to push your training while allowing your training partner to work up to their limits. For example in the past I have put a small rock in the bottom of one shoe to limit my mobility and to better understand an injury. You might try defending with just one arm instead of both, you might do math problems in your head while defending and attacking, whatever works to even the field a bit. Then on the next drill find somebody that is better than you and work from the other end.
Some drills may seem dangerous to you either from your lack of conditioning, lack of flexibility or injuries or for whatever reason. Again we are adults and not only responsible for our own training we often have to go to work the next day to provide for our families. It is ok to modify a drill to fit your capabilities or to sit one out but do not be too eager to do so. Be willing to at least try the drill and see what you are truly capable of doing if you are not feeling sorry for yourself or locked into a box of limitations.
Do not worry too much on speed but focus more on developing timing. Speed is a tool to make up for lousy timing. No matter how fast we are today, tomorrow or next year or in ten years we will be slower and less capable of outbursts of speed and power and it seems to me that it is wise to develop good and effortless timing.
Flexibility is an issue for many, a perceived or real lack of mental and physical flexibility to be specific. I once heard someone commenting to Vladimir that he was very flexible and his reply has stuck with me. “No” he said, “I am free”. The amount of flexibility we have at a given moment is often limited to our fear and tension (mental, physical and spiritual tension) at that given moment. Learning to recognize and to free up that tension is very liberating.
Be willing to fail - in fact, be eager for it…during training. During a Systema seminar you will fail at something at sometime. It is OK and expected. Learning to accept that failure during a exercise is a way to address weaknesses in the future, a chance to work on ego, a chance to experience and admire your own humanity and that of others. If the failure comes during a drill, excellent, when this happens again we get immediate feedback on weaknesses that need to be addressed in the future, we get a chance to work on a part of the OODA cycle that is often overlooked and under trained. By changing the way that you look at failure you free yourself from the fear of failure. It is just a chance to change the conversation. If you do not fail congratulations on playing it safe, but I wonder if you will have learned anything of value.
It is OK to be a meathead and aggressive, with another meathead. Likes attract likes so it always works out. But if you like training with good hard honest contact and you find yourself with somebody that seems to like talking about the drill more than doing the drill, deal with it by observing the training that the situation provides you, and on the next drill find somebody who has your mindset if that is what you want to do. The same if you find that you like to intellectually process the work before getting physical that is OK and your style but if you find yourself suddenly working with a hard charger, deal with it. Survive and learn what lessons are being offered than when the time comes to switch partners do so.
If you are looking about and thinking that you are good or they are bad then find yourself one of the more skilled Systema people and ask them if they would be willing to work with you, that you want to test it out and ramp things up a bit. Many are willing and eager for the work, just ask.
If you do not understand something it is ok to ask more than one person. You may well get a variety of answers depending of the peoples understanding and the context and what they happen to be focused on in their training at that moment.
If you go to a Systema seminar be prepared to work hard and to laugh at yourself and be surrounded by good honest training as people push their limits and stretch their abilities.