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I’ve just been in conversation with an old pal about comments on my latest video clip, highlights from this year’s Play Fight Camp in Tuscany (a remarkable event, by the way!) The meat of the argument was that I was somehow not being a “martial artist” by teaching the way I did at the Camp. There’s two points I made in response and I’d like to share and expand upon them here.
First, what and how I teach depends upon the needs of the group. After returning from PFC (teaching mostly professional dancers and movement enthusiasts) I taught a session with my regular guys (working on internal points of support for heavy strikes); a family of mum, dad and their three young lads (pirate sword fights, dodging the tennis ball, the chair assault course); and then back up to to Leicester to work with PCSOs and Youth Workers on strategies for dealing with teenagers carrying knives. Different groups, different needs, different training. And yet, on another level, it is all the same – breathe, relax, move, right?
Because, here’s the point, I teach Systema (or try to!). What you want to use Systema for is up to you. If you want to put it in a box marked “hand to hand combat” that’s fine. If you want to label it “breathing for when I get stressed at work”, also fine. If you want to call it “movement principles that help in my dancing” then, guess what, that’s fine too! It can be all these things and more, because, moving on to my second point... it isn’t a martial art.
I’ve not felt comfortable with the term “martial art” for several years and, to be honest, always cringe a bit when described as “a martial artist.” I understand the need to call what we do something, and Martial Art may come as close as we can get in terms of advertising to the general public. But, for me, it’d a loaded term with lots of implications. There’s an implication, to me, that I train some kind of stylised movement, in synch with the rest of the group. That I adopt the cultural mannerisms of another time and place. That I am concerned with preserving the tradition of a family or clan. That I stay very much “in lane” and am not allowed to practice other styles. That I bow before an unquestionable Master who is all wise and all knowing. I’ve experienced most of those things previously and they no longer resonate with me.
I make no judgement on those who choose that path, it’s just not for me. It doesn’t mean we have to “water things down” when we teach, just that we are aware of the needs of the group (most of the PFC group underwent strike and whip therapy!). After all, everyone is working on the same things. The PCSOs were a little surprised when I began with breath work. Ten minutes in, light bulbs were flashing all over the place. Afterwards they commented on how interesting and effective the work was compared to “If A does this, then you do that” approach. That’s the power of Systema.
So, to sum up, think about how you train, how you present yourself and how much of what you do really reflects you as a person rather than an image on a poster. Be honest, be aware and above all remember, we don’t teach an art or a style or a system, we teach people.
PS for anyone who thinks Play Fight is easy, I highly recommend you train with Formless Arts founder Bruno Caverna. His work will challenge you in many new and interesting ways!