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.