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I was watching a clip of Vladimir teaching recently. The drill was one where your partner approaches from the back, brandishing a knife and the idea is to “feel” when they get close. Something Vladimir said struck a chord. He said something along the lines of, “You have to really feel. Don’t guess. Don’t imagine. It has to be real”.
I’m sure I’ve heard Vladimir say this before, particularly when it comes to this kind of work. This time it struck a chord with me, perhaps partly due to talking about the concept of “intention” in class the other day, but also from looking at some of the comments we see now on Youtube channels of the “de-bunking” kind.
Intention is an important concept in some martial arts styles. The saying goes, “when practicing a form / kata, you should imagine there is someone in front of you.” This makes sense in some respects. It gives the movements, which you are performing against empty air, some type of focus and meaning. However, there is a danger too. Our imaginations are powerful things. Without them we would have no music, no art, no literature, no new ways of doing things. Our imaginations can also be fanciful, though. We can imagine, when doing some strong movements, that we are powerful enough to fight a tiger!
Continued exposure to purely imaginary training is likely to lead to problems. One of the biggest is that how we imagine a situation to be is not matched by the reality. This can lead to “freeze” or some kind of cognitive dissonance, which, in the wrong circumstances, that can be very dangerous.
Of course, any type of training must be balanced if it is to be effective. But it strikes me that Systema, in particular, has a distinct lack of “intention” in its training – and that is purposeful.
There are two aspects of Systema that spring from its “lack of intention.” One is that our movements are natural and fluid, not a trained, rote response. The other is that Systema is designed to look unobtrusive. To not be showy, to have no overt display of tension. This is one reason it attracts negativity from some quarters. But feeling is believing.
Very little work, at least in class, is done solo in Systema. That doesn’t mean we all-out spar constantly, but that even our attribute drills or working on the four pillars are usually done in pairs or more and everything has some form of contact – from heavy physical to psychological. This means we are getting instant feedback all the time. There is no need to imagine, the actual information is there. If the drill is throwing and catching the stick, it is a real stick being thrown by a real person. If it is working on strikes, then we hit each other. This, of course, can be another source of confusion for some as they equate these drills with some kind of flight simulation, which they are not. Fight simulation comes in the testing phase. That may be testing in training or testing in real life. Even then, it may not look like what a person’s expectations are. I find when talking to people who have been around serious violence, that they have a very different view of what a real fight looks and feels like from someone used to spectating a particular construct, such as a movie fight.
Is there room for imagination in Systema training? Absolutely. Imagination helps us be creative and adaptable in our thinking. It means we can plan ahead and think about different outcomes. It also helps us to develop or fine tune drills, to see the potential in using various types of equipment, everyday objects, or even the environment as tools for our training. But when we are examining our external or internal attributes, be they posture, breathing, fear, sensitivity, then it is important we keep things real.
At our Summer Workshop we will be exploring the reality of our senses and how they relate to close quarter defence. We will show you how to work your peripheral vision, refine your natural reactions, manage distance and force and, bearing in mind that contact is key, how to combine power and flow to overcome an attacker. Real attackers, not imaginary ones!