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Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Close Quarter Combat Part One

Just finished editing our newest DVD - part one in a series of two, preparation work for close quarter fighting. Exercises, movement drills, developing flow and strike placement - vital knowledge for surviving the January sales!

We are also doing a pre-order deal for Parts 1 and 2!

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

MERRY CHRISTMAS! 2010 and beyond

I'd like to thank everyone whos helped  make 2010 a great year for training! The groups have come on leaps and bounds and we've covered a lot of interesting work this year.

In terms of workshops we've covered form and structure, knife defence, groundfighting, body language and awareness and  stretching. The regular classes have covered all the usual work which in itself is as varied and interesting as ever!

Training highlights for me include Martin Wheeler's visit to London. Martin is a great instructor and you always know it will be a good session! Another highlight was this year's Leicester training camp - some truly unique training, challenging on so many levels and beautifully organised and conducted by Ed, Rory and the rest of the crew

We've had some new faces through the door this year and I'd like to welcome you all! We have had people move away too - Steve "Bulldog" Williams, our very own shin-kicking backsword-wielding granite- jawed man of steel - is now in Somerset, home of cider! For those who are overseas at the moment I hope you are keeping safe and will soon be back with your families.

There has been a lot of interesting feedback from the regulars this year and this really helps in shaping the training sessions. It's been encouraging to see people make a suggestion during a drill which can then lead the group off on a whole new tangent. This is of prime importance to me as it shows that, even beyond any physical skill improvements, people are thinking, analysing and engaging in the process. As an instructor this is so much more rewarding than standing in front of rows of people who copy your moves or teaching through some artificial syllabus. At the same time it's also a challenge to keep the training fresh, relevant and realistic and I look forward to meeting that challenge in 2011

As Ed often says, we don't know what we are training for. By that he means if you are a boxer, you train for a boxing match. A soldier trains for whatever duties he is tasked to carry out. None of us is can see the future so in that respect we are training for the "unknown". This might be seen as a difficulty but in fact I think it is liberating. It means we aren't working under the confines of rulesets or an  SOP but are free to explore any avenue. By the same token I think this approach - which as far as I can see is unique to Systema - totally encourages innovation, creativity and freedom of expression. This is important from a psychological point of view too and of course goes hand-in-hand with the whole "we are all students" ethos. In fact to a large extent I see my role almost entirely as a signpost, either to training methods or to people better qualified to teach than I am. In that sense I owe everything to Mikhail, Vladimir and all the other good people I have trained with over the years.

In the wider "martial arts community"  2010 has been a bit of a non-descript year I think. It is interesting, though, to observe subtle changes over the industry - for example there are a lot more people teaching "defence in cars" or "working in a confined space" and one can only wonder where they draw their inspiration from. It is also interesting to see the numerous questions on forums about fear control, fluid movement, integrating ground work etc etc which often tempt me to write JDS....Just Do Systema! But of course not everything is for everyone and despite the growing evidence to the contrary people do get taken in by some of the "misunderstandings" about what we do
It is disappointing though  to see that even with the huge amount of information now available (not like when I was a boy!) people coming into martial arts still seem to  search for one of three types:

"Qualified Guy" with a string of black belts, hall of fame inductee, 15 times world champion, list of certificates that no normal wall could display and face on every magazine cover

"The Guru" - a zen-like Monk figure with mysterious powers, wrapped in a blend of Eastern philosophies and Western consumerism

"The Tough Guy" - either some kind of street hard-man bouncer or a heavily-muscled steely-eyed ex Spec Forces type, who can teach you to end a fight in 6 seconds or kill a man with a mobile phone

There are plenty who's marketing strategy revolves around  playing  up to such stereotypes and why not - it's a free world (well actually it can work out quite expensive if you don't read the small print). Of course the media - even the mainstream martial arts media - does nothing to dispel the myths.

The reality is that teachers can come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes when you least expect them. There are of course 100s of good instructors out there who are honest about their abilities, don't inflate or invent their CVs and want only the best for their students. Overall I don't feel they are very well served by the "industry" who are more interested in mutual back-slapping and self-promotion than anything else (there goes my invite to next years "big event!)

So what does 2011 hold in store? On the DVD front the first release  will be a (probably) two disk set on close quarter work. Part 1 is being edited now and will hopefully be ready at the start of January.

In terms of regular class training - more of the same, plus! There were a some good suggestions at the last session, so I'll take those on board, plus of course any specific areas that anyone wants to cover. I'm talking to an old pal of mine who currently does a lot of work with behaviourial patterns,  so that may be the subject of a workhsop in the future. Hopefully there will be at least one training weekend this year and I also plan on getting the group out and about to train at a couple of different locations. There may also be the possibility of a training trip to Toronto (if Heathrow ever opens again!)

In closing I'd like to again thank everyone who's attended the classes and workshops this year,  my teachers, friends and colleagues and everyone who has helped make this such an enjoyable year - most of all my wife who let's me out every Saturday morning to play for a couple of hours!

Merry Christmas and a peaceful, healthy and happy New Year to you all

God Bless


Sunday, 5 December 2010

December 2010 Workshop

A big thanks to everyone who made the workshop yesterday - good to see people from all the different groups coming together and training with such good spirit!

For those who couldn't make it - the work centered around close-range fighting, so the drills were based around close contact with other people, developing short range strikes, takedowns, etc. We had fun with some different exercises and though time beat us as always (perhaps we will run through the remaining drills next session) we got plenty of work in. The highlight for me was seeing how intense the guys worked in the three man fight drill  - without protective gear, yet thanks to good control and good self-protections skills there were no injuries. I'll be reviewing the video footage and if it's good will edit up for a DVD release. In the meantime here's a few pics

Thanks again



Monday, 29 November 2010

To Spar on not to Spar

It's a perennial question in the martial arts world and one that continues to ignite debate. In some places it also seems to have become an indicator of whether your art is effective or not, if it is "alive" - ie you work against a "resisting opponent"

Sparring in the generally accepted sense means two people, usually with some form of protective gear, working within a sports-based ruleset over a set period of time or rounds. Adherents to this method point to benefits such as technique development, good stamina and working under pressure as the main benefits to be gained. But are there drawbacks to this kind of sparring as well? I think there are and, depending on your training goals they can have a negative influence on your development

First let me say that I'm not of the "too deadly to spar" school. This is often used as an excuse to never engage in any type of work outside of a fixed response pattern, which even at basic levels of training is of very limited value.  On the other hand there are of course real safety factors to consider and no-one would suggest we regularly break each other in training in the name of "realism"

But if your goal is to study self-protection , sports-based sparring is of limited value. To begin with look at the range and set-up of sparring vs fight. Actual fight range is very close - I'm talking about a person intent on causing serious harm here rather than arguing or a pushing match. When a person is in the mindset of wanting to knock your block off they close in very quick. They want to punch, grab, bite, It's a very different experience from touching gloves then maintaining a safe distance while you feel each other out.

There is a psychological aspect to consider too. A highly agitated and aggressive person is acting off of primal instinct rather than a carefully though out strategy. That in itself can be overwhelming and needs to be prepared for.

We must also take into account environmental factors. Sparring takes place on mats or in a similar "safe" area. Real life incidents can happen anywhere at any time. As I write this outside it's dark, cold and icy. Not ideal conditions. You may be seated, on a bus, with family or friends.  There is your own condition to consider too - you could be injured, tired, drunk (shurely not!) or feeling on top of the world

In short there are countless variable factors to any situation, and we haven't even mentioned weapons or groups yet. None of these factors are replicated in the conventional "sparring" situation. One more thing to think about is that the sparring experience replicates only a very specific moment of any situation - the actual physical  hitting/grappling part. If we are serious about self-protection we need a wide range of awareness and observation skills, how to read people, good communication skills not to mention a reasonable understanding of legal and associated issues.

I feel that to just train in conventional sparring is not sufficient to develop good self-protection skills. But with a little work we can get the benefits of good sparring while avoiding the pitfalls. An easy way to do this is to run goal-based sparring sessions. These can be as simple or as involved as you like. On a simple level give one person two minutes to get through a door and the other person has to prevent them  doing so. You can add in other conditions as neccesary to simulate different situations

This can develop into very sophisticated drills, such as the ones put together by Ed and Rory at this year's training camp, which put people through a range of physical and emotional challenges. As they ably demonstrated real self-protection work isn't all about being "tough" and charging through everything like a bear with a toothache, it is about having the skills to assess a situation and react accordingly. It's not often how self-defence is "sold" - people like an easy answer or a "no fail technique" that will get them out of trouble. The truth is unfortunately more involved than that, even the simple solution of giving someone a slap can have consequences way beyond the original situation.

So to spar? Yes -  but with conditions. As with all training be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the drill. Having a good ground grappling session helps develop skills and is a good workout (probably the most real you can get without injury).  Gloving up and having a spar is good for hitting and getting hit, movement and developing tenacity. For instructors who run these drills - every now and then throw something different into the mix. Three people boxing instead of two. Chuck a knife to one of the grapplers. At least that will keep your people on their toes and stop them getting too "sparring" fixated. To take it beyond that start working the type of drill mentioned earlier, keep it safe, keep it challenging and keep it grounded in reality and personal experience - then sparring becomes a useful tool

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Man and Superman

Admit it -  I bet when you were a kid you were tempted to send off for a pair of those X-Ray Glasses in the comics. The desire for "super-human" powers is universal, old as time and is still an area ripe for entertainment, trickery, scientific study, pseudo-science, manipulation and marketing.

Sales of comic books and movie spin-offs are at an all time high, we all enjoy Spidermanm, the X-Men and co. Magicians and mentalists such as Derren Brown are doing very well too. Running parallel to that is the NLP / psychology  industry which has made huge inroads into the corporate market.

The martial arts world has always been fertile ground for superhuman feats. Every culture has its myths and legends, from Achilles to Cuchulain to Mu Lan to King Arthur. Many martial art styles have roots in mystic practices - Shaolin temple, ninjitsu, Zen monks. They often talk about developing "superhuman" powers. Traditionally these might inlcude things such as - light body skills (the ability to jump high distances from a standing start), poison hand/ dim mak (the ability to kill with a touch),  telekenesis (the ability to move people or objects with the power of the mind), telepathy (the ability to read others' thoughts) and so on. In  popular culture martial arts masters are able to display any or all of the above thanks to years of rigorous training in their respective disciplines.

Given that it is no suprise to find that the promise of "superhuman powers" is often used to bait a commercial hook. A casual glance around the internet will bring you the secrets of the "no touch kockout", "iron shirt" to make you immune to blades, "short range telepathy" and similar claims

So do these things exist? Are there really people who can read your thoughts and kill you with a mere touch? In recent history both major superpowers obviously thought it was an area worth investigating. The USA set up groups like the Stargate Project, the Soviets had similar programs running  (in fact the book Experiments in Mental Suggestion discusses research as far back as the 1920s). As you might expect from the Cold War era  it is difficult to draw definite conclusion from amongst the fog of secrecy, competition, desire for funding and   mis-information. However I can't help feeling that if anything truly substantial had been achieved we would have had some kind of trickle-down effect by now

On a more personal level over the past 30 years I've experienced a wide range of teachers, some of whom claimed "special powers". In fact some of whom built their whole persona around those powers. So I've seen most of the no-contact people, a few ninjas and various type of chi-power exponents.  In 100% of cases where  their powers were heavily promoted,  I thought their work was totally explainable through mundane psychology. They were very good at leading, establishing rapport, cold reading and so on. In even less savoury cases they were very skilled at manipulating the psyche of their students through what could probably best be described as "grooming". Of course there are a few Youtube clips of what happens when these teachers try and work with someone who hasn't been through the process - with predictable results!

On the other hand I've met a few people who demonstrated interesting skills not so easily explainable. The big difference was these skills manifested in normal situations rather than as a show-piece. No attention was drawn to them, they weren't presented as anything special. No money changed hands either! 

Now when I say not so easily explainable I'm not talking about a supernatural experience here - I've never seen anyone levitate, knock someone out with no contact or explode a chicken from 6 feet! The skills were more in the area of awareness and ability to interact on various levels with other people. This for me, points  to the fact that some of these so-called "superhuman" powers are in fact very "human". They are simply outside the range of what we use everyday.

Let's take a simple example, the hunter who lives and works in the forest, the commuter who works in the city. Switch environments and both will struggle. The commuter in the forest will not be able to predict the coming change in weather, see animal tracks, pick up the distant scent of woodsmoke. To the city dweller these may appear to be "superhuman" abilities (Crocodile Dundee) when in fact they are the result of training, experience and finely honed natural senses.

You can apply the same thing to human interaction. Those of you who trained at our Body Language Workshop recently will now be able to pick out some good indicators of stressful behaviour. When you get good at this you can amaze people by telling them what they are thinking in some circumstances. It isn't telepathy - you aren't literally getting a word flash up in your mind - but you can "read" them through the physical indicators. Refine that skill to a higher level and you can understand how some people disappear from view, confuse you into forgetting your name and all the other things that a skilled operator or  "mentalist" can achieve.  That's not to say there isn't trickery involved in stage mentalism though, as anyone who has seen my "mind reading" routines will know!

So "superhuman" abilities are a fantasy. Either the wishful thinking of someone wanting to be a lot more than they are, or the bait on a hook to reel in the vulnerable and gullible. Developed human potential is something esle altogether - but even then this development takes part alongside regualr training, it grows alongside the "bread and butter" skills. To sell it as some sort of instant "add-on" is also misleading in my view. There is also an issue of potential harm for anyone undergoing some types of training without adequate qualified supervision, that applies equally for physical and psychological work

I guess the old adage applies at the end of the day "if it sounds too good to be true, it is"

I'll leave you with a story I heard about an instructor up in Manchester. There was a local Ninja who was offering to teach the "secrets of invisibility".  Out of interest the instructor  visited the class and the results were less than spectacular. A few weeks later the instructor was in a local pub and saw the nija talking to a girl. He went over to the table, ignored the ninja and started chatting up the girl. The ninja gave an indignant "oi mate!". The instructor turned and said "sorry mate, I didn't see you there!"  Classic....

PS  if anyone out there feels they can demonstrate powers of telepathy, non-contact work or the like please do get in touch -  as long as I can film whatever goes on I'm happy to give it a try.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


To develop skills in martial arts or any sport you need a good understanding of your body's form and structure. Without this you will never develop true strength or efficient power and may even run the risk of short or long term injury
This DVD shows the importance of posture, how to develop good spinal alignment, the use of the hips for low impact running, how to maintain good form under pressure and more. There is also a bonus section from the 2010 Training Camp on the use of circles and lines in hand-to-hand work and how joint rotation assists in both absorbing and developing power

Running time 1 hour 45 min, available at our store

Friday, 22 October 2010

It's All in the Game

It's not uncommon to hear martial artists talking about a "game plan". Most times this concept relates to combat sports - where, of course, it makes perfect sense. You study your opponent, figure out his strengths and weaknesses, compare them to your own and work out a strategy accordingly. The strategy will also take into account the ruleset - is striking allowed, kicks or not, gi or no gi and so on

However it is also a concept your hear in relation to fighting or self-defence in general. It tends to take a slighty different form in different cases. Sometimes it is a general style strategy - so styles will specialize in high kicks, or close-in striking, or throws, for example

In other cases it relates to technique and mindset. In the RBSD styles it might be that palm heel strikes and axe hands delivered with plenty of aggression and "forward drive" are the preferred strategy

There may be something to be said for such an approach. Perhaps all your work is very specific - you only ever fight on a narrow boat, or you are primarily concerned only with the specific 10 seconds of a particular kind of street encounter. But I also feel there is a concomitant drawback, along the lines of the old saying "if all you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail". so why not look at the broader picture? Everyone says "how you train is how you fight" so what happens when the circumstances aren't suited to your strategy?

One of the great strengths of Systema is that from day one the situation dictates the tactics. A new guy in class commented the other week how in a previous school he was constantly "corrected" when deflecting a punch (his hand was not quite in the right place apparently), despite the fact he was succeeding at not getting hit.

It's when you get the approach of form over function that problems begin. Not that form is unimportant - sound body mechanics can only improve efficiency and power. But if these principles of movement become frozen into some kind of ideal they become not just useless but potentially dangerous.

Another guy said to me this week that when he studied a previous art he was more concerned about getting all the postures and moves correct than anything else. So straight away you are introducing tension into the training - but not in a good way. It is tension purely related to how well you are "performing".

Systema is liberating - you learn to move and exist in the moment, not in someone else's idea of "perfection", not in an urban commando fantasy and certainly not by shoe-horning your favourite "skillz" into the situation. This manifests in training by all the work we do in different circumstances - restricted space, seated, in cars, outdoors etc. I've noticed an interesting recent trend of other styles starting to do this now. Once you understand the physical and psychological principles of any type of conflict you can learn to apply them to suit the current situation.

There is an important psychological aspect to this approach too. First, you have to stop worrying about what to do and just do it. Working slowly helps you to sort this out. It also gives you an opportunity to refine your work and make it "cleaner". For more on this please see Steve Wildash's excellent blog

Working under increasing levels of stress and pressure will help you understand your true reactions and how you operate from that point. You have to start from where you are! Again, with time, understanding and a bit of guidance you will refine your work.

You also have to understand the concept of acceptance. It sounds glaringly obvious, but you have to accept whatever is happening to you and be comfortable with it. I don't mean that you have to like it or that you do nothing to prevent it, but you have to accept the realities of the situation you are in.

It's not uncommon for people to mentally freeze in the face of danger - they simply can't process the information, or can't accept that it is happening to them. More than once I've heard someone say "Why did he hit me?" when it was quite apparent that the hit was coming to everyone watching.

So you have to learn to park your ego, this is what being comfortable means. It's all very well and quite natural to get angry and upset about what is happening, but unless you learn to channel that emotional response in a useful way it will do you no good. In fact a skilled manipulator can use emotional responses as a handle in all sorts of ways.

This is why it is important in training to undergo all the unpleasantness of being hit, locked, thrown, squashed, rolling through mud and all the rest of it. After the event you get up, brush yourself down and carry on. Some people see this type of training as brutalising - and done in a certain way it certainly can be. But the Systema approach is about understanding sensations, not deadening them. It is important to maintain awareness to truly learn.

As a side note, I mentioned in class last week that this concept applies both ways in training. In other words, in a drill you feed in the movement to your partner but not your response. In martial arts it's not uncommon to see "tori" feed in the punch a foot away from the head and then fall or stay perfectly still because he is "supposed to". We don't really have that notion of tori and uke in Systema, your reaction should be natural and appropriate to the drill. Once you get into free play you are responsible for your own safety - your partner should never feel the need to pull a strike. If it hits you then you need to move better! If your structure is severely compromised you can try and fight it (which may mean injury if working at speed) or you can roll or fall out. It's not "right or wrong" it's purely self protection.

Awareness also brings questioning - of ourselves and others - and again this is a very important aspect of Systema training. Some of the best sessions have come about as a result of people asking questions and sharing experiences in class. Nothing or no-one is beyond question and I've yet to meet anyone with all the answers (though I know a couple of guys with more than most!)

If you maintain this attitude you will find you can learn from anyone and everything. Some people feel they are victims and go through life suffering and struggling. In fact this became one of my biggest beefs with my previous training - it seemed to me to be all about suffering and bitterness. Systema is about problem solving and seeing the opportunities in hardships.

Of course it's all easy to write and talk about, much harder to constantly acheive. But that is why we practice! Not to be the "best", or the toughest, not to impress or dazzle people with our little tricks, but simply to make life's road a little easier to travel.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

I Have a Theory....

In class recently and on the Summer Camp I have referenced the idea of three brains, or Triune Brain Theory (TBT). Before we get into that, just a quick word on theories in general.
I've observed that a theory is like getting new a coat. You buy a new coat and you want to wear it around town, show it off, let everyone see your nice new coat. A year later you are walking the dog in it. Two years later you are doing the gardening in it.  So when we hear of a new theory we find ways to drop it into conversation, put it into training, it becomes a prism through which we view our activities. Over time the idea either fades or becomes so ingrained in our work we don't really notice it any more

Theories help us to understand intellectually how things work (for example the role of the amygdala in fear control). But it is even more important to have a physical understanding and then feed that into the survival response. A balance must be struck  between the emotional / logical/ instinctive - that way a good theory will soak into our practice and become a natural part of our work. 

OK, having got that out of the way, let's look at Triune Brain theory. It was developed by  leading neuroscientist Dr Paul Maclean in the 1960s.  According to TBT three distinct brains emerged successively in the course of evolution and now co-inhabit the human skull. These three parts of the brain have  numerous neuro pathways through which they influence one another. This interplay of memory and emotion, thought and action is the foundation of a person’s individuality. Dr Maclean detailed the three brains as follows:

Reptilian Brain
The oldest of the three,  comprising the brainstem and the cerebellum. It controls the body's vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. It is the repetitive, mechanical part of the brain, operating on instinct
There is nothing wrong with enthusiasm for something new - an enquiring mind is a healthy thing. But we should be aware of grabbing every new idea that comes along as the latest "big thing" then, in a few months time, gravitating to the next shiny idea.

Limbic System or Mammalian Brain
Emerged in the first mammals, comprising the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. It records memories of behaviours and is the primary seat of emotion, attention, and affective (emotion-charged) memories.  The limbic brain is the seat of value judgments

First assumed importance in primates and culminated in the human brain with its two large cerebral hemispheres. MacLean refers to the cortex as "the mother of invention and father of abstract thought". In Man the neocortex takes up two thirds of the total brain mass. The cortex is divided into left and right hemispheres. The left half controls the right side of the body and the right side of the brain the left side of the body. Also, the right brain is more spatial, abstract, musical and artistic, the left  more linear, rational, and verbal. The neocortex is flexible and has almost infinite learning capabilities

That, in a nutshell is Triune Brain Theory. Using it we can broadly think of three areas of the brain - the instinctive, the emotional and the logical. There is communication beween the three, but at any one time one mind can "take over" and submerge the other two.

Now the Bad News
TBT gained widespread acceptance amongst psychologists, psychiatrists and various other students of human behaviour. Neuro-biologists, however, have been less enamoured of the theory and there are various debates and discussions for, against,  or somewhere in-between. Current theories still support the basic separation, however the models have come a long way since MacLean's time - an internet search will show the latest thoughts and research

For me the value of the theory is as a systemic way of thinking about the cause of behaviour. It may be a simplification of the mechanical processes going on in the brain (of which we still know so little), but  TBT is very usable as a "map" for our purposes

Training and Reality
TBT fits nicely onto how we train, how we react to things in everyday life and our actions in a threatening situation. If, for the moment, we stick with the simplification of logic, emotion and instinct:

When learning something we are engaging our logical facilities. We are finding out what fits where, how does this move,  what happens if I do that. The ideal conditions for this type of learning are to be comfortable, not rushed, low pressure. It's basic common sense and generally how we are taught any new skill, be it physical or mental

In everday life we tend to live in our emotional brain. We smile when we see friends, swear at the driver who overtakes us, think about what's for dinner, buy your wife some flowers (actually that's a survival tip...). In terms of training we become emotional when things aren't going our way (we get upset or give up), we want to show off,  or we step outside the drill in order to "win"
Our instinct level is running under the surface all the time and gives you the occasional nudge (feel hungry, need to pee, feel tired). Under real pressure it can override the other two - usually in the guise of fight or flight. In severe cases it triggers survival instinct which can  lead to people acheiving feats they would never normally consider possible. For example  the trapped climber who amputated his own arm to escape certain death - a perfect fusion of survival and logic.

In our training  each "mind" has a role to play,  but the two that we should focus on the most are the logical and the survival. The first for learning, the second for testing. When engaged in testing work we should neither be too focussed on the "hows and whys" nor should we be working with anger or pride, but just letting the work develop.  Just like touching the hot kettle  - no thought, no emotion, just pure instinct to protect

There has to be balance though.  I first became aware of TBT around 15 years ago during my researches into the Chinese  Internal styles of fighting. Teachers like Erle Montaigue tied TBT in with the shamanistic aspects of those styles. In other cases it was there but couched in traditional / cultural terms. There are several intense practices that teach you to quickly access the so-called  "killer" mindset. They mostly involve  people putting  themselves into  trance-like states in order activate the "reptilian"  predatory aspect of the brain (hence the preponderance of tigers, snakes, dragons etc in some martial arts ).  There are many risks attached to this type of training and you have to wonder if it is really suitable or desirable for modern everyday life. Even in modern battle, harking back to tales of Viking "berserkers" Dr Jonathan Shay wrote

"If a soldier survives the berserk state, it imparts emotional deadness and vulnerability to explosive rage to his psychology and permanent hyperarousal to his physiology — hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. My clinical experience with Vietnam combat veterans prompts me to place the berserk state at the heart of their most severe psychological and psychophysiological injuries."    
Achilles in Vietnam

In order to maintain balance  the mammalian brain should still  be present in training -  in terms of compassion (not breaking our training partners), the social aspect (having a good laugh, being supportive of our colleagues) and in learning from each other - everyone is a teacher and a learner in class. Where it has no place is in terms of ego, pride and status, these are all counter-productive to training.

Training drills should be designed to stimulate one or more of the three minds. Something as simple as a slap in the face can be used to elicit an understanding of emotional response. Drills should be carefully organised to provide a comprehensive and progressive path from logical step-by-step gathering of knowledge through to adding in emotional and social/psychological factors through to various forms of  pressure testing to stimulate instinctive response.

 Activating the survival instinct is a challenging area of training, both for the instructor and those taking part. It is very easy for people under pressure to "stick" in the emotional mind - especially when you begin non-goal orientated sparring. It is important that the people taking part understand this. Of course an instructor is there to supervise the session but remember one of the key principles of Systema - know yourself.  Every drill is an opportunity to observe yourself in laboratory conditions and understand how you react to different stimuli. That self-knoweldge gives you the power to ensure your response is relevant and applicable to the situation. In short, you learn that you are responsible for your own behaviour.

Emotional Intelligence

There is another theory that states when we are put under  pressure we revert emotionally to a point at which we suffered extreme stress in the past. For most of us that is an incident in childhood. So people who get very emotional can return to a much younger level of emotional intelligence. You might expect a child of two to cry if he drops his ice cream. If a man of 35 did the same you would think something was wrong. Yet people behave in this way more than you might think - keep an eye out and you will see what a mean. Emotional intelligence is just another term for "know yourself". Once you become  self-aware you will become more aware of others and, as we covered in our recent body language workshop,  your communication skills will improve drastically.  For professional people this is extremely imnportant - there are a few Youtube clips showing examples of emotional brain taking over from the logical /professional  which of course leads to problems for all those involved

Don't think that "pressure" means a mugging or ninja attack. It can be as mundane as reading something on a forum - take a look around at the countless heated  arguments on every type of forum that degenerate into insult or "challenges".  If you can be that upset by somethng so inconsequential, what does that say for your self defence capabilities? Be aware of how your mindstate can be influenced. Advertising is the prime everday  example of stimulating an emotional response in order to sell (aspirational, status, conforming to the crowd, sad piano music, fancy terminology,  highlighting a fear, etc). Skilled people (or sometimes just annoying ones!) can do the same thing - be aware of it
This is a  simple view of a deep subject, but then again it doens't have to be overly complicated for our purposes. Just be aware in training which "brain" you are in. Over a period of time that awareness will extend out to rest of your activities, in the same way that the physical aspects also do. In a short space of time you will become much more aware and tolerant of the people around you - and more tolerance can only be a good thing.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Leicester Camp 2010

Last weekend saw the first weekend camp organised by the Leicester Systema group. For me it was a nice change - in the past I've organised camps myself  whereas this time I was guesting, which meant I was also able to observe the drills and participants a lot of the time.  I'll run through the format of the camp first then offer some thoughts and observations

Friday afternoon saw everyone arriving and pitching camp. We had use of a farm on the outskirts of Leicester, far enough out of town to be rural but close enough to be accesible. Most the of the participants were local, but some came from as far afield as Kent, Herts and Notts. First job was to get tents pitched (these ranged from a simple tarp against a fence to large efforts complete with double bed and shower!)
Then fire pits were dug and wood gathered. While everyone enojyed a brew (why does it always taste better from a camp fire?) Rory and Ed took everyone through the plan for the weekend and orientation of the site. The main theme for the training was to be psychological work. Participants were told they would be put through various types of pressure over the camp and the ground rules were laid out to ensure productive and safe training for all

It was just starting top get dark so we began the first session. As the emphasis was on the psyche after a warm-up I took the group through the basics of using the breath to help control fear and tension. I then explained how the brain operates under stress and  how we can move between three states - the logical, the emotional and the survival. The role of each in training and in real life was explored through some further drills before taking the group into some deep striking methods in order to prepare them for the work ahead.

Time for another brew and a quick bite to eat and we were off for the first major exercise. This was to be in an urban setting, so it was a quick drive into town. The group was split into two teams and the role and aims of each explained. One group was basic operating as surveillance on the other, each with specific tasks to accomplish. The exercise took place in and around a large park and adjacent industrial area, which led to some interesting interactions! Myself, Ed and  acted as observers and it was interesting to see the two groups at work sometimes unaware of the other (and us!). On conclusion of the exercise a few hours later it was back to camp for a nightcap and beans before bed

Saturday morning - glorious weather and after breakfast and a warm-up it was time for my next session. This time I took the group through body structure, in particular the use of the straight line and circle / sphere in hand-to-hand work.  Also, keeping with the psychological theme I emphasised once again the "three brain" theory and how it relates to practice and real-life application

Following lunch break the group was divided into four teams for the next exercise. Three of the groups were to work on the "firing range"  - with air rifle, bows, etc - while the other group were takne up to the deserted farmhouse for the main exercise. This took the form of an intense psychological test - I won't reveal any more details as some of you may wish to try it in the future and in any event the test is about the experience rather than reading about it. Each of the groups was rotated up to the old farm in turn and also got the chance to experience the exercise from different angles

By now it was late afternoon so while the food was prepared the group was prepped for the night exercises ahead. This involved another short drive to a different site and a cross country trek to an old abandoned railway line deep in the woods. Ed took the group through a PT session, making full use of the surroundings, and then teams were again formed for the next set of drills. These again were mostly psychological-based, though with a healthy dose of physical interaction! Again I won't go into full detail for the benefit of those who wish to try them in the future. We finished up after mindnight, then it was back to camp to feast on the chicken, lamb and beef that had been roasting in the embers!

Sunday morning - time to clear the site and also, as a favour to the farm owners who so kindly allowed us use of their land, to help with some ragweed clearing and general tidying-up. Following this the group was driven to a local sports centre for the last session and a post-camp "de-brief".  Each of the participants was also presented with a certificate and so the weekend ended!

It was interesting for me this time to be more "in the shadows" this time rather than teaching and organising all the sessions. First off I was extremely impressed with how the camp was run and structured. Ed and Rory had obviously put a huge amount of work into creating  the various drills together and were ably assisted by their team - including Ash, Gaz, the two army lads Chris and Mike, Michelle and Leanne the farm owner. This meant participants were given some unique experiences outside of the normal realm of what we can practice in class.

In most cases the drills were unknown to me too and were in turn funny, exciting and interesting to watch. The different strategies employed by the participants, their inventiveness in dealing with or creating situations and their determination to keep on going (particularly Tracy) were inspiring to watch and a tribute to their training. The one unplanned incident in itself revealed the participants at their best - how people can pull together as a team, help someone out and then carry on with things as normal. That was very interesting for me as all of a sudden it wasn't training any more, it was real life - and everyone shone.

I hope to get some footage up on Youtube in the next day or so, though as most of the exercises were at night there is not a lot of footage to choose from! Some people also asked for more info on the "brain work" we were discussing, so I will get some relevant links posted up too

Overall - an outstanding camp. As everything went well I'm sure we will have use of the site in future which gives us scope for so many different types of training in the future - so watch this space. Thanks again to Rory and Ed and to everyone who took part, it was a great experience all round!

Thursday, 2 September 2010


Now on release - shot at our recent workshop, how to read body language, including observation skills, eye access cues, spotting "tells" and how to spot a liar! Plus pre-emptive work for when communication breaks down!


When you’ve been training in martial arts for a long time it’s easy to forget what it is that makes people first start training. It’s also easy to take certain things as read or that certain things seem perhaps obvious, either in terms of undertstanding or of avoiding like the plague
I’ve not carried out a survey but would hazard a guesS that one of the top reasons for people starting to train is how to handle yourself - whether in the “street” or the sporting sense. It may be they have had a bad experience in the past or live in fear of something bad happening. The Martial Arts would seem to offer all the answers - but do they in fact offer a false sense of security?

The answer is undoubtedly yes - at least in the case of the numerous “experts” selling fast-track systems of "ultimate" street defence, or offering black-belts within a year if you sign the contract. Anyone looking at one of these websites with highlighted words and a carefully structured sales pitche would do well to imagine they were buying a car instead. Would you go to a forecourt that promised you a Porsche for the price of a Robin Reliant and could teach you to be an expert driver in one easy lesson? Apply the same logic to the E-bay ad that promises to you the secrets of the fighting arts in one cheap DVD and you won’t go far wrong.

However the problem can go beyond the obvious shifty sales-types and into any style or school. There are three types of false security that we need to guard against

So we can run 12 miles in four minutes, do 500 press-ups, take a punch from King Kong and look great in a tight T-shirt. It’s good for marketing and  good for the ego. Of course being functionally fit is good for our training and general health - when kept in balance. The danger is when it becomes an end in itself and you become tougher-than-tough. Nothing or no-one can touch you, out run you, be stronger than you. It’s an illusion that can soon be shattered by an out-of-shape brawler with a severe attitude and a beer bottle. Or a group of teenagers who don’t give a toss. On a couple of occasions I’ve seen big men taken down after getting themselves in situations they could and should have backed away from - one was left with a severe injury, a result of scaring the guy he was picking on so much he was driven to desparate measures.
CURE - work outside your comfort zone. Take on new things that you have to learn from scratch. In training simulate injury or work from a vulnerable position. Don't assume you will be on tip-top form when attacked, you may be sick, tired, drunk - or all three!

“What do I do if…” I’m sure we’ve all heard the question or even asked it. The good instructor will explore the possibilities. The less good instructor will give a technique. “You do A, B and C, it’s an ancient technique that never fails”. Or “ you do A, B, C these are commando techniques that never fail”
Simple answers to a complicated question. Of course answers can be simple but should never be simplistic.  In some schools techniques can be linked together in elaborate sets and kata. They feel good to do, they give you a sense of movement, power and control. But we should always be aware that they are just what they are - a choreographed routine that, at their best, teach us body mechanics and possiblities, at worse are a codified set of stylised responses to stylised attacks. There is a dnager of trying to fit your secure technique into each and every situation. Or of adopting a strategy that is fine for your training method but inappropiate for a real situation
CURE - do some freestyle work. Don't have a set attack/ defend response. Work in a group of people, or try blindfold work, each will cut down on "thinking" time and force you to respond naturally. If your techniques aren't coming through, examine the training - is it the techniques or is it you? Either way, make the neccessary changes

Every style is the best. I’ve yet to hear a school say “those guys down the road are better than us”. It might be that the style can trace its roots to ancient warrior monks who fought all-comers, or undefeated samurai who prevailed against the odds. It may be that the founders are special forces operatives, professional, dangerous men. Or they could be world champions in their particular style. Nothing wrong with any of those, if they are true. You can take security in the fact you a re learning from experienced people - but that is all. Because they are not you! Unless you hire them as a 24-7 bodyguard it’s highly unlikely they will be there if you need them either - it’s down to you.
So don’t be too quick to boast about who or what your teacher is or can do. Leave that sort of talk for the playground - or for the sort of internet forums that have “who’s the hardest instructor” polls or “would X beat Y in a fight” threads. Some people phone me and ask "does it work"  - the answer is "no, "it" doesn't work - you do". It's not an answer that the marketeers would approve of, but if people don't realise that basic fact it's unlikely they will get very much from training with me

CURE - train around! If any teacher tells you you can't train anywhere else - leave them. No-one has all the answers. Be open to different attitudes and approaches, try out different styles and instructors.

How can we guard against becoming too secure in our training? It seems and odd thing to new-comers - they come to training to be made to feel secure. Stripping away their securities would seem to be counter-productive. In fact the reverse is true - when done the correct way. Becoming aware of our weaknesses and insecurities is the first step to adressing them. We all have limitations and weakness - we have to learn how to overcome them or to work around them. The Systema method of having no fixed syllabus as such is very helpful in this respect. No-one knows what to expect at class. Things might change at any moment. Rather than being shoe-horned into the requisites of the style, students learn to adapt to the situations presented, discovering strengths and weaknesses along the way. Likewise the training can be instantly adapted to the needs of the student. Some drills specifically put you into very vulnerable situations and invite you to explore your response and learn and grow from the experience
For the instructor it’s doubly challenging - not only do you have to provide the appropriate levels of challenge for your students, you have to ensure that you aren’t just teaching from your own comfort zone as well. This may mean recognising that you have a weakness in some areas and either working on those, or in calling in other instructors who can cover those areas for you. A pyramidal or hierarchical structure is anathema to this approach. Getting in and mixing it with the students will blow any notions of instructor infallibility out of the water too! If you don't mix it up with your students, ask yourself why
Security is good -we nened it in many aspects of our life, emotional, physical, belief. But security founded on the rock of experience, honesty and understanding and is much stronger than that founded on the shifting sand of ego, falsehood and hype.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

New Class Training Clip

Some footage from the last month or so at Tempsford, mostly work around falls, throws and takedowns

When it's Time to Train - then Train!

Just this last week we have been putting finishing touches to this year's Summer Camp. One thing I'm always aware of, whether it's a camp, a workshop or even just a basic training session, is keeping things moving at a good pace and providing a balanced amount of information and activity for the students.
What prompted me to write this post was an e-mail I recieved about a Kung Fu training camp being held over seas. It included a day-to-day itinerary, which was along the lines of 9am - 11am training session  11am-5pm free time  5pm-7pm training session for each day

It struck me as odd to travel all that distance and spend less than half the time training. Over the years I've travelled as far afield as Toronto and Moscow for training - and have to say I would have felt a bit disappointed if I was only getting a couple of hours a day in.  Happily that hasn't been the case - in fact sometimes you wish it would stop ha ha!

Closer to home over the years I've driven consderable distances in the UK to attend classes and workshops. Again, most of the time I have not been disappointed,  the sessions have been well-run and enjoyable. There have been a couple of exceptions -  one workshop for example was around 80% talking (mostly instructor  "war" stories - tales of violence and derring-do) and 20% actual training. Other class sessions became a social event with an ever-extending "tea break" halfway through.

I can accept the fact that things need to be explained on occasion (our recent body language workshop for example was half lecture-half drills) and, of course there is a social aspect to training, after all we are not in the military!

But these things shouldn't  impinge on actual training time. We should be able to manage a two hour session with a quick drink break (though we often don't even have that). When it becomes a coffee and sandwich break then something is wrong! I understand it from a teachers point of view - if, that is,  you have a need to drag out information and drip-feed.  Perhaps then you should ask yourself why exactly you are teaching...

We are all a bit lazy and take any opportunity for a break -  another good reason to keep training sessions brisk and lively. That doens't mean mindless beasting  (neccesarily!) but a structured approach will contain all the elements needed for good training - physical and mental

There is another more important aspect to this question and that is how we organise our own training time. I've already written about my own solo training - in many ways it's harder to push ourselves without the "support" of the group -  but there are so many ways to utilise time. If you can't put a regular schedule together, then use what time you can - exercise while waiting for the kettle to boil. Get up half an hour earlier and go for a run. Take the stairs rather than the lift

But this is all on a basic level. When you internalise the principles of Systema you can be "training" virtually constantly. Breathing, posture, tension and movement are constants, they are part of our natural state 24-7. So we can always be mindful of these things in ou daily life.  Being aware of ourselves will extend out to awareness of others and our surroundings. You'll find you can avoid a lot of situations and get into a lot less arguments and confrontation with even basic awareness.  Once you add in the skills of recognising non-verbal signals you willl find your communication skills improve, hopefully making ife much less stressful in general!

This awareness should also extent to "tactical thinking". The most basic method of this is the "what if" game. "What if someone jumps out from behind that wall, what if  etc etc"   However this method should extend beyond mild paranoia into something much more useful (and healthy!). It's often just a case of noticing where things like fire exits are. Or who is the loudmouth in the pub. Or where your kids are at any given time. It's also about developing and listening to your inner voice. Over time it becomes a natural part of you - much as it was when we were hunter-gatherers and were in an "eat-or-be-eaten" environment. Interestingly all the same instincts and responses are still wired into us, even at the deli counter in Tescos (watch what happens if someone pushes in the queue...)

This kind of training will be very self concious at first but if you take it on board you will get some surprising benefits. Training then becomes something else  - to quote Ed Philips "the world is your gym"  - and that applies for both mind and body.  This approach also helps break down the barriers between training and reality. I've known people who couldn't train without their uniform. Or who floundered outside of their usual training environment. Sometimes their training has to be preceded by routines or ritual - in fact the whole training is a  ritual in itself. Fine if that is your thing and you are honest about it, but you have to be aware of just how much of a construct training can become

I'll sign off with a story that I've mentioned before but  illustrates the point beautifully..... a young journalist was sent to interview a venerable jazz guitarist for a music magazine. During the course of the interview the journalist asked "So how many hours a day do you practice?". The musician replied "I never practice!"

The journalist was aghast "but you are one of the top players in the world, how can it be that you never practice!"

The musician replied "I never get time to practice, I'm too busy playing"

Wednesday, 11 August 2010


We always share real-life experiences in class - they either come out during the training or in the circle-up at the end. It's a very important part of the process as it means we can draw on the collective experiences of everyone in the session - not just for "fighting", but so much information also comes back on awareness, fitness and general "life experience".

Normally these experiences stay in the session, but one of the lads had was involved in an incident a couple of weeks back that I thought should be shared with a wider audience. It raises a number of interesting points and, most importanlty, the only person who got hurt, short and long term, was the guy who instigated it.

Our man "X" has been training in the group for around a year and has no previous martial art experience. He is 30-ish in age, just a regular guy. A few weeks ago he was walking through the car park of a large supermarket at 3.30 in the afternoon. He had just finished making a call on his mobile. He heard someone say "give me your f------ phone". He turned to see a young guy approaching. His first reaction was that this was some kind of joke so he aked "What?"

The robber repeated his demand, more aggresively. X laughed and told him to "f----- off". The robber now shouted his demand, put his head down and charged forward. As he did, his right hand dropped to his belt/pocket

X without thinking shot a kick to the knee and as the robber went down, X punched him in the face. The guy was now laying on the some discomfort. Next to him lay an opened knife

People nearby rushed over. X, thinking quickly, loudly said "did you see that, he had a knife! He was going to stab me". He also began acting shaken up and scared. Within seconds all the people were agreeing with him, they all said they saw the knife even though most of them were some distance away

Now the police arrived. X was told off for "talking to witnesses". The robber was claiming he was "just mucking about" . X continued to act scared and unsure of himself and repeatedly pointed out the fact the robber had a knife. The robber was taken to hospital, he had some damage to his kneecap

The police asked X if he wanted to press charges. He said no, as far as he was concerned the thing was over. So the police arrested X. That was the end of the actual incident


A few days later X saw the robber again, this time with a friend. He approached the robber from out of line of sight, then put his arm around him and said "remember me?" The robber was clearly worried and his friend kept saying "we don't want any trouble!". X told him that they shouldn't go out robbing people then and it was left at that
In the meantime X had a two week wait while the CPS decided whether to go ahead with the case against him or not. Eventually it came through that no charges would be pressed

In terms of his actions and re-actions I think X did very well . Perhaps the only thing you could say was he didn't do initially spot the robber - but then again at half three in the afternoon in a busy place you wouldn't expect it (which is perhaps a lesson in itself). His physical response to the threat (and who knows what the guy would have done with the knife) was perfect - delivered naturally, precise, effective and appropriate. It is also worth noting that the knife was unseen until it was dropped onto the floor by the robber

However where I thought X really shone was in his "post-event management". He could have boasted about what he'd done to the witnesses or, even worse mentioned his Systema training! Instead he handled the situation very well, everyone supported him - and rightly so, after all. But I can tell you from my court days how easily events can be twisted in the hands of a good brief. The important thing is what you say - that is what gets noted most. Actions can be interpreted in different ways, if you speak with clear intent it is more difficult to distort

The next interesting thing was the fact that he got arrested, despite all the evidence at the scene. I'm not sure if this is procedure or down to the discretion of the officers on the spot. To be fair they have to make a decision based on only seeing the aftermath of an event.

Finally I thought X handled seeing the robber again very well. He could have gone aggressive on him, or even been scared of him. Instead he gave him some brotherly advice (that will hopefully be heeded). This should curtail any future come-backs or thoughts of revenge on the part of the robber. This is something that's often overlooked in self defence, especially when the emphasis is all on "turning into a wild animal and savaging your opponent". When you come out of that, back into the real world, there can be significant consequences to deal with

Anyway the important things are that no-one was too badly hurt, X kept his phone and is not being charged and a young man has perhaps learnt the error of his ways. Hopefully this will provide some food for thought for all of us and some lessons that can be fed back into our training

Thursday, 5 August 2010

An Apology!

Sorry I haven't posted here for a while - things have been very busy on the music front! I'll be getting some new posts up over the next week or so, there are a few topics that have come up recently plus an interesting incident involving one of the Tempsford guys which I'll be posting details of

A few people have asked about gigs - you can see where and when I'm playing over on my music site at  



Wednesday, 17 February 2010


Thanks to everyone for the positive feedback so far! Brian H got in touch and  suggested I write about my training routines, so here we go!

As you can imagine my training routine has changed a lot over the years. This is very important for a few of reasons. First off, it's important to keep your training fresh and challenging. Secondly as your skills increase and deepen it's good to explore new areas of training. Thirdly your training should reflect your circumstances and aims

As a kid I was never that into playing sports but did a lot of running and a bit of football. I do rememeber being outdoors a lot of the time, climbing trees, throwing stones and generally being active, something that I'm not sure kids today get so much of

My "proper" training began in the Chinese style - which starts with stance training! Early training consisted of learning stances and form movements. This type of training can be very time intensive - and painful! Luckily at the time I was a budding musician so had lots of daytime free -  I can remember regularly spending at least an hour a day in practice, forms and stance mostly

As I progressed in the style that time had to expand to fit everything! For example, in terms of just that one style, I eventually knew something like five versions of the 15-minute long form, three two-person sets that could be practiced solo, weapons forms - sword, staff, sabre, various exercises, various kinds of  Qigong (with 20 minutes to an hour standing post), power/strength training, bag work, fa jing drills....  and this was all solo training before you even got into push hands, sparring, etc   It was quite easy to spend a few hours a day on training (which I eventually ended up doing after going full time).

Outside of that I was getting together with friends regularly - esepcially Rob Murray in his Hackney torture chamber! The routine there was a lot of pad and bag work  - we used to do anything from 30 seconds to three minute rounds , 150 kicks on the bag, etc, followed by sensitivity / push hands type work, then stick and knife, plus whatever application/sparring we were into.

Unfortunately some of that training stopped when I moved out of London - though the upside was I now had a large double garage converted into a training room. About this time I started researching into the more internal aspects of training, upped my conditioning work and also began work on accessing different mental/psychological states. This is a very interesting aspect of training, often over-looked, but it is fraught with difficulties. You need very good guidance to keep you straight and true. At it's most harmless it can engender feelings of false power and at it's worse it can have very negative effects on mental health (there is a term "qigong-psychosis" sometimes bandied around).  I've seen  cases of teachers building up a whole persona around this work and go off into almost cult-like directions. The Chinese Internal Art Festivals hosted by a teacher in Newcastle were probably the "finest" example of this in action and it was a  disturbing experience to see how students could be manipulated - but once you see how it works it's easy to spot and you can warn other people about it too
It was around this time I began hooking up with other people, such as Dave Nicholson and adding different things into my training. I was also training under Vincent Chu  at the time, which brought even more variations of form and exercise. In fact some of Vincent's exercises are among the few remaining taiji things I still train today.

Dave and I began exploring a lot more knife and stick work, getting into some silat and the work of people like Rick Hernandez. This all fed back into my solo training routines

However it's here that you run up against one of the problems (for me) of the CMA apporach. The Chinese arts have a concept of "eating bitter". The notion is that training is no good unless you are intensely suffering in someway. There's very little joy in it.  In principle it's not a bad approach - no pain no gain and all that. But I found that some people do like to wear their suffering on their sleeve, plus it all gets very serious and insular and perhaps a touch self-indlugent. This is perhaps a cultural aspect of those arts - which of course every art has and you have to be aware of what they are and how they affect the training.

There was also plenty of "tell but don't/can't show". I remember at one competition Dave was doing a little impromptu push hands. A Chinese "sifu" stood off to the side watching and made a loud comment. He didn't know one of Dave's guys was a Mandarin speaker and he translated  -  "that's rubbish, that's not how it should be done!" Red rag to a bull for Dave - he invited the guy into the circle and promptly pushed him ragged for five minutes. The look on the guys face as he tried to get away, only to be pulled back in for more "treatment" was a picture.  We did find that quite prevalent.We always wanted to feel first hand from the instructors we encountered but very few would give you any direct hands-on. This may have been a cultural thing again  but it was frustrating none the less, especially given the stories of "miraculous powers" these masters were supposed to have.

So my solo training routine at that time would be anything from one to four hours a day, incorporating all the kung-fu methods I'd learnt up til then, plus the general bag work, sledgehammer training, plus a bit of fitness - running and horse riding. On top of that I was teaching a few times a week, plus had the lads over regularly for sparring work

When I got into Systema and met Vladimir that all started changing - slowly at first, but eventually I'd drop virtually all the previous solo training.  The thing I trained most at first was the falling and rolling. Largely absent from before apart from a few breakfalls and just hoping for the best! I found the ground movement in particular opening up new areas - and new muscles! My emphasis became less on root and more on three dimensional mobility

Cutting out form work began to leave me a lot more time. I found I could get the results I wanted much quicker with the Russian approach. The exercises click exactly into place as applications, so I wasn't speding time working out possible applications for form postures. Instead the emphasis was on adapting to what was going on rather than trying a "technique. To be fair this concept is also present in the Chinese styles, but not to the same extent (perhaps again a cultural aspect of copying what has gone before rather than innovating?)

One of our guys asked Sergei Ozhereliev when he was over about how long he trained each day. He said something like if you are training on your own for more than an hour you aren't doing it right! You shouldn't be able to go beyond that point if you are really pushing yourself.  Again it flies in the face of "conventional" martial arts training, which is almost seen as a "polishing" process, of struggling hours and hours every day to perfect something (cue "training montage" from the movies!). Of course it depends on your training motivations but there can be perhaps too much emphasis on perfecting a syllabus as opposed to developing yourself
There is another inportant aspect I should metnion, which is health. I spoke about mental / psychological health already. Is four hours a day solo training really psychologically healthy for the average person? I used to know a concert pianist who played eight hours a day most days to maintain the standard required for a professional classical musician. However the difference is that he was actually playing concerts, whereas most martial arts people are involved as a hobby and never have the opportunity or need to actually use the skills they spend so long developing.

On the physical health side,  I feel the Chinese styles had some good benefits - general good health, posture, balance, strength. However I did start getting bad knee problems through the low stance work (the standard reply is "you were doing it wrong" but knee problems are not uncommon amongst top masters.).  Since I stopped forms  and worked more on my hips and legs the problem has gone. That's been one of the revelations of Systema work, along with the breathing.  I now find the same benefits from the breathing work as from the previous Qigong work - with a lot less time and none (so far!) of the possible problems. Things like cold water dousing also offer a quick and "easy" way to health!

So my solo training routine now is very different. For one thing I don't really have a routine. I tend to train in bursts throughout the day  - sets of press ups, squats, etc. some rolling, working with the sledgehammer (I've still not got round to kettlebells!), I run most days, do quite a bit of work with the stick, occasionaly re-visit some sword or staff work and now and then run through some qigong and Vincent's Three Circle Exercise. Of course the breathing work links it all together and can be practiced almost constantly, particularly in conjunction with the Jesus Prayer if you are so inclined

I like to join in as much as I can when teaching, though I'm always aware that I'm there to teach not to train.
Still it's good to work with the guys, there are plenty of them capable of making me sweat now!  It's always fun going up to see the  Leicester crew, getting back on a horse has provided new challenges! If there's one thing I've learnt from Systema it is that you have freedom to do and try whatever you like. You don't need a gym, don't need equipment, don't have to worry about getting something perfect, "the world is your gym", just get on with it.

It can be easy to get a bit lazy, but that's one reason it's important to get together with other people as often as you can. Even then it's important to have all those exercises in class, they really are the foundation of the work, not just something to get you "warmed-up" at the start of a session. There is a danger they can be dismissed as "just some exercises" but look beyond the surface. The group also provides a supportive / challenging environment - how many of us would try the "fall flat on your front" drill on our own?

I just want to add in something about developing "skills" here too. Solo you can develop some attributes - cardio, strength, flexibility. To develop real skills you need other people. That can be acheived in various ways, limited only by your ingenuity in devising drills. I think it is important to always be developing a new skill or improving exisiting ones. I never got this "lowest common denominator" approach to training - the one that goes in an emergency you lose all fine motor co-ordination and become a lumbering cavemen. With such an approach you learn some very basic techniques - chop this bash that - and that's it.  All well and good - but then what? Do you just practice that for the rest of your life?  In context it's useful - eg quick training for people going into a specific place. Outside of that is seems a bit limited. To my mind the greater your depth of skill and understanding the better you will work. It's a principle that works for jet pilots, racing car drivers and concert pianists....

For me it's the skill development that maintains my interest - I mean,  I do it but I don't much enjoy running round the field in the rain.....  Also skill stays with you, whereas as we know fitness goes so quickly! So as far as advice goes for your solo training (apart from "buy my Solo Training DVD" hahaha) - work all the things you can on your own, once you get comfortable with an exercise, change it some way to increase the challenge. Always be mindful of how your exercise can be applied - functional fitness! Take advantage of every opportunity you can and treat life as a learning experience. Alway always always treat your health as number one priority in training and balance your training with the rest of your life. It should enhance your life not detract from it.

Most of all - the biggest secret off all - find a way to enjoy everything you do.... Or to quote the legendaray Viv Savage of Spinal Tap - "have a good time all of the time"