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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

True Grit

Tenacity and willpower are important attributes to have in any dangerous or survival situation. Not the cartoon toughness of popular culture but something deeper and in many ways less obvious. In fact I've found that obvious signs of toughness are often a  form of armour and an indicator of insecurity. That comes in many forms  - there was a guy turned up at my house once in an expensive, shiny sports car who made a play of revving his engine while parking. My elderly, unassuming lady neighbour was heard to remark "there's someone who's insecure about his manhood"... but I digress!

We should think of toughness as the will to endure, the thing that motivates us to get the job done whatever the circumstances. This can be as mundane as finishing that decorating job despite all the distractions or surviving some major event despite injury and hardship.

So how do we develop these qualities in our Systema training? There are a few ideas in our latest class clip, posted below. Static exercises (ie holding push ups, squats and sit ups) are a very simple way of developing some determination. If alone, you can time yourself and increase the span, with a group there is the element of peer pressure or shared hardship to assist you. For solo training, running is a great way to push yourself alongside the regular exercises.

Another method is to add extra touches into regular exercises. Throw sets of press-ups into pad work for example, with no break.  Increase the speed of the exercise for a set period. In both cases people will have to dig a little deeper to complete the drill.

Taking strikes is a good way to develop some tenacity and also helps us get out of the comfort zone. Instead of starting a drill from a good position, take a couple of strikes and then start to work. There are numerous other handicaps you can incoporate, from blindfolds, to being locked or held, to  restricting movement and restricting breathing. All provide a nice little hump to get over on top of the usual demands of the drill.

With all of these methods it is important to differentiate between toughness and desensitising or over-stimulation.  There are methods of toughening limbs in some arts that carry a potential health risk, or which work by deadening the body. We train to make our bodies more alive, not to kill them.  There is also a toughness that comes with adrenalin. This can easily be stimulated in training with loud music, shouting and competition,  all of which may have a place, but can also have detrimental effects if not carefully monitored. They may also have a downside in that a person learns to function only when in an over-stimulated state, which leads to loss of motor control and negates clear thinking.

Negative effects are overcome by Systema breathing methods and adherence to the  basic tenets of good posture and understanding tension/relaxation. There is always a balance to maintain between non-challenging training and being the toughest guy in casualty. If you are experiencing regular injuries through training I suggest you review your methods -  I can speak from experience when I say that bad habits have a nasty habit of catching up with you!

This work is also wider in scope than our regular, physical training. Life throws all sorts of situations at you where it is easy to give up or give in to despair. Even with normal day-to-day living it is very easy to get stuck in a rut. I remember some years back a Karate school where part of the black belt test was to learn a new language and take up a new hobby, like a musical instrument or similar. I always though it was a nice idea, encouraging people to expand their horizons and move out of their comfort zone. There will always be that little voice saying "why are we doing this, we could be at home on the couch..." I still get it every time I go to an audition... but you learn to ignore it. It's the same voice that tells you "we've done enough press-ups now" or "ouch he hit us, let's just curl into a ball".  Maybe it's also the same voice that says it's ok to have another donut... I'm still working on that one...

True toughness also helps us to recognise and pinpoint our weakness and recognising when it is time to ask for help. We all need help at some time and the sad irony is that those who need it the most are often the most resistant to asking. It is not a sign of weakness to admit you can't cope alone, in fact it is a sign of strength - as much as admitting to being afraid is, but going ahead anyway. Too often in martial arts "toughness" is used to paper over the cracks of fear. This doesn't address the issue, just covers it up so you don't have to think about it. In some ways it's like putting more and more elastoplasts on a broken leg - you can't see the problem any more, but try and run and it soon shows itself.

Konstantin Komarov once explained how people in serious survival situations are usually ok as long as they keep moving. He cited examples of people who had stopped, given up, sat down and died when they were just hours away from rescue. We all hope it will never happen to us, but with the right type of training and a measure of true grit, if it does we will be prepared.

"It is in the midst of difficulties that man develops his intelligence because, in order to overcome them, he must observe, think and become clear-sighted. Nature has put difficulties here and there in life to develop her children's intelligence, but the children do not develop: they waste their time and energy crying, complaining, getting angry and upset, instead of trying to understand and look for solutions. Obviously when they are exhausted they calm down, but the difficulties are still there; their energies are gone but their problems remain. What a weird method!"

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