CUTTING EDGE SYSTEMA Fitness   -   Health   - Self Defence
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Martial arts consist of core components or principles. For example a good boxer works to integrate the components of footwork, speed, fitness, technique and “spirit” and will train in several ways in order to do this. Oriental martial arts have traditionally used forms or kata as a means to preserve core training principles, alongside practices such as set drills, application work, sparring and so on.

As we know Systema has no set routines or catalogue of techniques and so relies on a different approach to training. It is easy to misinterpret these methods when seeing them for the first time or without any supporting explanation - quite understandable when people are used to seeing things presented in a certain way. For example, if we see a picture of someone in a kata posture, no-one is under any doubt that that is not a representation of a “real” situation. Likewise, if we see two people gloved up and sparring, it is clear that this is a method of training technique in a “live” environment. It is obvious that someone skipping is working cardio. What is not always clear is when we see people working in what might look like sparring or application / technique, but in fact is an exercise with a different purpose.

Recently I was watching Vladimir’s excellent new Hand to Hand dvd which features a bonus section on working with and against the chain. It is clear that flexible weapons require a greater level of skill both to defend against and to use and it is also clear that the chain is a great tool for developing good movement. The idea of the chain got me thinking about links and the old adage that a chain is only as strong as the weakest link. In the meantime I was scheduled to teach a short session at the 2005 Martial Arts Planet Meet (a great day by the way), where I would be attempting to give people who had never seen it before a taste of the System.

The chain analogy stuck in my mind and I came up with the idea of our separate drills being “links in the chain”. I thought this may be a useful analogy in order to help newcomers understand our process of training.

At the MAP Meet I ran through some basic knife work, so I will use that here as my subject - though the principle can apply to any / all areas of training. Please also note I'm only covering the idea of progression here, this is not an article on knife defence. One other thing I should mention - when I use the word "drill" I'm referring to an exercise where one or more people initiates a random attacking move on another. I mention this in as the word "drill" for some means practicing a set attack / defence routine, which is not the case in Systema.

So, back to our chain, as it relates to close in knife work. The foundation work is to see how the body reacts to the touch of the knife. Starting with contact is important - psychologically we are getting used to the feel and proximity of a metal blade; we are training the body movement that is the base of all the knife defence work; the body movement also acts as damage limitation (in the event of the knife not being seen, only felt, we hope that through encouraging the body to move in the right way we can minimise the effect of the stab or slash).

The first link in the chain is simply to have the partner push the knife into the body and allow the body move accordingly. There can already be problems at this stage - some people do not want to let the blade touch them. This can be, perhaps, because they do not understand the basis of the drill and see it instead as some form of sparring, where to let the knife touch you is to “lose”. That is exactly what the drill is not about - it is purely to understand your physical and emotional/psychological reaction to the contact. Not letting the knife touch you invalidates the exercise.

One person said to me “in real life I’ll never let a knife get that close to me”. It’s an interesting idea and of course no-one wants to let a knife get near them in real life. Problem is in real life many times you will not even see the knife - particularly if you are in a crowd. Which makes it even more important to study your reactions to contact with the blade.

The second link in the chain is to see how good your initial movement is. Your partner now follows up their first stab with a second. This is to check that your first movement doesn’t put you in a worse position (for example bending forward or back, or putting yourself off balance)

Link number three is to work against the flat of the blade as well. The knife wielder now not only stabs but also slashes (keeping the body contact). The work now is to try and keep the flat of the blade against the body rather than the point of the edge. This calls for a considerable degree of sensitivity and free movement in the body.

From here, the next link is to explore working against the blade itself, either with the body or with the hand. The aim is to explore methods of controlling or re-directing the blade from direct contact.

Now we can turn our attention to the knife wielder. Link five is to work on controlling the knife hand / arm. Work on pinning it to the body, controlling the elbow and so on. Add the direct blade work from the last step into this and you are now beginning work on disarms or returns.

The next link - once the knife arm is controlled - is to work against the rest of the person .This can take the form of strikes, takedowns, verbal commands, use of clothing, improvised weapons and so on. Each area is worthy of study in its own right.

So far we have worked largely physical factors. For the next few links we need to consider all the other elements that make up a “situation”. Some of these might be:

ENVIROMENTAL - are you outdoors, indoors, sitting down, on the floor? Is it dark? What sort of floor surface are you on?

SITUATIONAL - is this a robbery, an attempt on your life, are you in a crowd, is your family with you, is there more than one attacker?

EMOTIONAL / PSYCHOLGICAL - is either party under the influence of alcohol or drugs, what has lead up to this stage, should you be aggressive or passive?

These are just some examples, I’m sure you can think of many more. Each of these things can be seen as another link in the chain. Once you have a feel for the basics you can start adding more of these links in. Do the same work from a sitting position. Work against two or three people. Work in different environments and under different types of pressure.

You have to understand, though, that whatever type of work you are doing, it will come to nothing without an understanding of the core Systema principles. Likewise training those principles always in the same way and in a comfort zone (not that I have seen that done in any class) will not prepare you for reality.

As I mentioned already, this is different from a technique based approach many people are used to so I can understand where confusion arises. I want to mention again that this is only an illustration of one aspect of Systema training and should only be taken as such. But it will hopefully go some way towards explaining clips where the defender doesn't use his arms for example - it doesn't mean that we advocate never using your arms for knife defence, it is just one link in the training chain.

Anytime you are working and things are not going well, drop back a couple of links down the chain and work on the problem area slowly. Then you can shift back up again. Failure to address fundamental problems due to the allure of doing “full speed full resistance training” will mean considerable slowness in progression and skill acquisition. I’ve seen this on a number of occasions when techniques are practiced in a repetitive, rote manner, then as soon as the pressure rises the techniques disappear or fail to work in the prescribed way. Why? Because there is no recognition of the core principles that make the technique effective. It's like trying learning how to do a card trick without even knowing how to shuffle the deck. Don't look for "tricks" that will address only one particular set of circumstances but work to understand the underlying principles of movement, psychology and technical work.

Remember - a chain as a weapon can be as dangerous to the wielder as to the defender. And in a wider sense we are all just links in a chain......


by Robert Poyton