Follow by Email

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Preparing for the worst

In one of those odd little examples of coincidence (synchronicity?) both the Tempsford and Leicester groups have recently been exploring the area of pressure testing / psychological work. Also this week, a poster on one of the (few!) forums I regularly read posed the question "I am interested to hear how people approach preparing for real life conflict in terms of drills and scenarios whist maintaining a safe learning environment"

So it seemed an opportune time to clarify and explain some of the work we do in this area, especially as, in my experience, much of it seems to be unique to the System

First off, let us split our training into three areas

1. Physical - developing functional strength, flexibility / freedom of movement, good posture, sound bio-mechanics, functional fitness, health

2. Technical -  technique or principle based, developing skills of practical application, be it for general  work or more specific areas, academic study

3. Psyche - understanding the mental and biological processes that underpin our physical actions, understanding interactions with other people, including cultural and other aspects, how to monitor and regulate our responses to various stimuli

Of course there is over-lap in these areas, any division is inherently false and made only for convenience. Having said that it can be interesting to isolate one particular area of training, in much the same way that we  occasionally isolate a particular movement, or part of the body. This can be likened to strengthening the links of the chain, something I have written about previously

Every martial art / training method copes with the first two areas, indeed the sight of a person performing martial art movements (physical / technical) is the uppermost public perception of "martial arts". In combat sports the two are slightly more separated -vis the stereotypical training montage of bag work, running, pads, etc before the big fight. The third area is less clearly defined. There is certainly some overlap, as I mentioned, physical practice can sharpen mental focus, competing means you have to deal with pre-fight nerves and so on. Yet there seems to be little in the way of an in-depth approach to what, after all, is one of the most fundamental aspects of "self defence" - dealing with fear.

I would bet the the very first thing almost everyone does in their first Systema class is...breathe. I can't remember any Systema session where breathing wasn't mentioned at least once. If you think about it, we swim in air, yet most of the time that - and the fact that we breathe at all - is taken totally for granted. Already a fundamental aspect of our ability to operate is overlooked. There are numerous articles on Systema breathing, plus of course the excellent book and DVDs so I won't go any further into breathing here, suffice it to say that a decent understanding of breath work is the base for any further training.

The simple holding your breath exercise is also the first level of psychological work - I say simple not because it is easy, but because it is straightforward to practice and direct. You get cause, effect and result very quickly. Hold your breath for a minute or so and you soon discover your first "panic level". Until you experience it, you can't be aware of it. Once you are aware of it, you can do something about it. Incidentally, this exercise also illustrates the difference between knowledge and awareness. We all know the effect of holding the breath intellectually, but until you do it and actually have the experience, you don't have the awareness. This is a simple but profound truth that you should apply universally.

Breathwork becomes ingrained into the physical and technical aspects of training. After all, it is the same person doing them! By that I mean that whatever endeavour you are undertaking, be it high speed driving or painting a watercolour, you are the same person with the same psyche - in other words, you are the constant. It makes sense, then, to understand the constant, the one thing (maybe the only thing!) we have some measure of control over

So, already we are working on the psyche in our everyday practice and you can begin working directly on fear control with drills like those we show in the Fear Inoculation Training DVD

 Steve wrote in his blog recently about control and this is a good place to start. We feel comfortable when in control - so take the control away and already we have scope for testing the psyche. A quick and easy way to accomplish this is blindfold work. It doesn't have to be full-on sparring, just wear the blindfold and walk or run around the training room. Like the breath holding, it gives you direct access to the fear centre of the brain and forces you to deal with it.

A simple method when training in a group is to  lay down and have four people twist your arms and legs. This quickly teaches you to relax into the movements as attempting to fight them results only in more pain. Drills were we have no control also teach us something about acceptance. Not that we have to accept every bad thing that happens to us - but that we have to accept that it is happening. Denial is not an option, dealing with the here and now is!

Once you are experienced at this level you can begin to work at deeper levels of fear control. Once again these drills can take many forms, but often involve taking away a measure of control and/or putting the person into an unfamiliar situation. The key is introducing an element of real fear into the drill (whether the danger is real or imagined) but at the same time keeping things safe. It's very rare that I film such drills and you won't see them on our Youtube clips, this is for a few reasons -

Firstly as the drills become more involved, the work is very personal to the person concerned. It touches on fears and phobias and puts the person in a vulnerable state so to me it is  off-limits to the public eye

Secondly  such drills if not viewed in context can easily be misconstrued, misinterpreted or even misrepresented. Another aside - I heard recently of an instructor of another style who told a new student that  he watched what I presume was our class as we "ran around a field with sticks pretending to dig trenches".  The misrepresentation may be intentional or not, in either case it is interesting, let's hope it had the desired effect for him and he has a new student

Thirdly this type of work should only be carried out under supervision of suitably experienced people. We are putting people into a vulnerable position. Similar methods can be used to influence people in a very negative way and to exert forms of control over them - the absolute opposite of what we are looking to achieve in our work. So I wouldn't want anyone taking the outer form of a drill without understanding the underlying and often subtle aspects of it.

It is also important to stress this type of work is not about "toughing it out". Sure you need determination and fortitude but that aggressive type of macho external toughness is one of the things that needs to be cracked (Vladimir calls it "cracking the shell without damaging the egg inside"). External toughness is limited in scope and can be counter-productive a lot of the time. We are looking for something deeper and more practical.

It is interesting and rewarding to see how this training influences people and carries over to their daily life. Forget deadly hand-to-hand combat, with these methods we have had people overcome fear of flying, become much more assertive and confident in bullying situations at work, de-escalate situations that they previously would have flown headlong into and deal successfully both with a nasty situation and the aftermath. As I mentioned before it is you that is the constant in any situation, yet so much work in martial arts is about fitting you into a style or set of techniques with no thought as to how you operate under pressure. Endless repetition is not the answer, nor is mindless beasting. It is not uncommon to see people with years of training in stylised movement revert to scrappy boxing when under pressure. Why is that? Because they haven't addressed the underlying issue, in fact training can sometimes be used to cover it up and paper over the cracks.

Having undergone psychological training it is of course then important to feed it back in to your regular work. Drills can address any or all of the three areas of training. For example the humble press-up obviously falls into the category of physical work,  but hold the static press-up for five, six, seven, eight minutes and we are firmly into psychological territory too. This is then fed into the technique area by realising how the structure and movement of the arm in the press-up relates to striking work. Start exchanging heavy hits and we are once again into breathing and fear control. It's a simple process  when you look at it, but then the best things are. There is no confusing jargon, no terms to argue over or cultural niceties to consider - it's just fist meeting body and how you deal with it.

To take  the work further into preparation for nastiness it is easy to set up scenarios to play through.  I like to keep these simple as I feel anything too elaborate begins to become an acting class rather than self defence (though a measure of acting can be a useful skill!).  The method I use the most is task-based sparring drills. For example one person has 60 seconds to get from A to B, the other person has to stop him. Or one person is told to walk through a doorway where another person is primed to do something to him (which might range from asking the time to pulling a knife). Putting a time limit on these drills helps give a sense of urgency and stops the degenerating into "bouncy bouncy" territory

This work can be further heightened by moving it into different environments. One of the lads commented on Saturday that even training outside onto fairly level grass changed the quality of his movement. So we will work inside in large rooms, small rooms, around furniture, outside in the open, in and around cars, in undergrowth, in an urban setting and so on. Training is really only restricted by your imagination and any constraints of your environment (don't practice gun disarming in the park!). It's also important to say that these drills don't always have to be about punching each other - that really is only one small (but important!) part of self defence. Drills can be based around observation, awareness, escape and evasion (instead of running on a treadmill get out and run around town or through the woods) and may involve climbing, hiding, problem solving, communication or anything else that is a factor in real life situations.

I'm not surprised that people who only ever work in a highly structured, hierarchical, clean and matted  training room sometimes look at what we do and pronounce it "weird". But  weirdness is in the eye of the beholder - and when you think about how things are in real life and how they can be in the martial arts dojo you have to wonder what environment people are truly being prepared for.


  1. Nice post. I would also add that when you feel you are getting to comfortable in your own training practice or a drill, than you should change a variable, as you indicate as well, e.g. giving yourself a handicap (blindfold, using certain limbs only, closing one eye, getting another partner involved, etc.) or introducing a new aspect, so as to continue to evolve. Once you get comfortable again, change something again (environment, etc.). I find that it keeps my own training fresh and it opens my awareness a bit more each time to what is going on inside me (physical, psychological/emotional) and outside me, and the interaction between both, and learning how to deal with it in a non- (or less!) panicky way.

  2. Thanks Ron - yes, it's important to keep training fresh and challenging and not always in obvious ways