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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Flow Motion

If you can't move you can't fight - I can't imagine anyone would disagree with that. But what about the quality of your movement?  How many people consider this in their training? Sure, you can learn lots of techniques, but without an efficient method of delivering the technique you are stuck. 

The problem is that many people equate fighting with tense, jerky movement, often designed to look good and obvious for the camera. Movements need to look forceful  and difficult to reinforce the fact that people are fighting, perhaps to create an emotional connection with the audience.  However if we look to other physical disciplines, or indeed good fighters, we see a different type of movement - smooth, fluid, dynamic and functional.

This isn't a movement system that needs to be invented, it is pretty much what we are born with - or at least what naturally develops during our early years. In that respect we are the same as animals, they have that innate quality of movement that draws the eye, powerful but understated. It's one of those things, like fitness, that can't be faked. Your mind can instantly distinguish between a live tiger and an animatronics model. Or between a good dancer and the average Saturday night king of the disco.

The problem is that our natural movement system (for want of a better term) gets suppressed as we grow older. All sorts of fears, cultural factors, environmental factors and social demands get placed over and above the need for good movement. It wasn't that long ago even in the UK that left handed children were beaten in order to make them right handed.

One of the cornerstones of Systema is this natural movement - ie allowing the body to move freely and fluidly as the situation dictates. The last part is important - very important. There are martial art styles that seek to overlay natural movement with either stylised moves or with a different movement pattern (usually involving initiating all movement from the dan tien / hara). The problem can be that the needs of the situation are sublimated to the method. While training this can be fine, but in a real life, real speed situation it takes years of hour upon hour of repetitious practice to get anywhere near as good a response as the "natural" one. If you don't believe me have someone throw a tennis ball at your head from 6 feet away and tell me which part of you moves first.

Fluid movement (or "flow motion") is the subject I decided to explore on my latest DVD. It shows some ideas to develop flow in striking and in footwork, starting with one or two movements, then building up. Along the way it also shows the importance of spirals in natural movement, referencing the Fibonacci sequence I mentioned before.  It also mentions how working this way has many positive benefits on the body and the psyche. Personally I believe that is because this is how we are built to operate - and people work best and most efficiently when doing something comfortable and familiar rather than trying to fit into a robotic or "un-natural" movement pattern.

There are lots of other benefits to developing good flow - it leaves less gaps for an opponent to take advantage of and makes your own movement much more unpredictable and difficult to counter.  It also reduces the risk of injury as you are working with your body rather than against it. Conversely you understand how an opponent's body can be manipulated into damaging itself purely by the spirals and torque you  subject it to. It also increases efficiency, meaning that more can be accomplished with less.

Of course fluid movement alone won't get results and it all needs to be pressure tested -  but it is a vital aspect of training. To ignore it in pursuit of something more macho is a bit like putting water in your car because it's cheaper than petrol - you'll only get so far before you break down.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Time Gentlemen Please

I once read a quote that said "Time exists in order that everything doesn't happen all at once…and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you."

It's obvious that we operate in three dimensions and that the primary requirement for any weapon to work is range - whether it's a fist or a missile. It's also apparent that any physical work is enhanced by a knowledge of levers, triangles, circles and spirals as they relate to the human form. But what consideration do you take of time in your training? We are just as bound to it as to the physical dimensions but time often goes unnoticed or unmentioned. In my experience Systema is one of the few arts to address this issue in depth and anyone who has worked with Mikhail or Vladimir will attest that they are masters of timing!

Good timing is crucial in any physical activity. The best punch in the world might as well be the worst if it's thrown too late. What is it that triggers the punch to be thrown? If we study the process can we work to make it more effective and efficient?

Systema has a wealth of drills to help. The most basic is the walking / zombie drill. A walks towards B, who moves aside when he/she feels the need to. Like any drill it can be developed in several ways - increase the speed, have more than one walker, add obstacles, add in kicks and punches, etc

The root of the drill remains the same though - you observe a movement, decide it is a threat and take action as necessary. Timing is integral - without it you will have little sense of when the threat will arrive, at which point to move and so on. You can explain the process involved in simple terms - "I see I move" - you can describe it using a model like the OODA Loop, you can also go into great depth about the inner workings of the brain. All of which is useful only if studied in conjunction with actually doing the drill - the knowledge needs to be "in the body" to be of practical use. Here are some more ideas to help develop this attribute

Stand just outside contact range of your partner. Your partner puts out a hand or foot, when you see them do so you take a step back. This should be easy, so now move into contact range and do the same

At first your partner makes the moves obvious. Don't watch for the move but for what precedes it - this is where the learning takes place! Over time your partner makes their movement less obvious - so it now becomes a two way drill, observation and reaction for one, learning not to telegraph movement for the other

Go faster or slower, change the range, use a weapon or object (stick, training knife etc), try different positions (sitting, on floor, etc). Change your response - instead of moving back, move to the side or forwards into your partner's space.

Once you've had a play around with this, work against two people. Now peripheral vision is even more important - tip, don't look directly at each person, fix a "soft" gaze somewhere over a shoulder. You should also of course add in movement at some point, singly or double.

This is the basic template of the drill, you can add in whatever
situational factors you wish. For example we sometimes run this as an "escape" drill. Person A is confronted by two or three others. As one of the gang moves Person A has to hit and escape, or at least put themselves in a stronger position.

Person A stands with back to a wall, person B throws tennis balls at them. All you have to do is dodge. TB's are best as you can throw them hard and fast with no threat of injury, but are heavy enough to sting a bit if they hit (motivation).

Have a group of people dodging and a group of people throwing, again a good workout for peripheral vision. Have one or both groups moving for added chaos

So, two simple drills that can easily develop into more involved work. Awareness is key to each one, not only of what is going on around you but also the internal dialogue that determines when and how you react to a stimulus. Information about this is widely available and of course it's also covered on a number of our DVDs. When working try and pay attention to the internal dialogue and see what sort of things affect it (stress, tension, emotional factors) and also how it can be regulated (breathing, awareness, focus). Experiment with working the same drills with different mindsets - run the dial from 0-10 and see where you settle in most comfortably and efficiently.

Another aspect of studying time in training is to "slice" movements down in order to study them. It's not a novel concept - in most types of work people taking on something new will break it down into digestible chunks rather than try and take it on whole. Why should fighting be any different? You can go about it a couple of ways - work slow and study how you and your partner move. The difficulty here is in keeping everything slow and also keeping the same intensity as if you were moving fast. It has to be the same intensity as it is the fast movement you need to work against, so you need to recreate every aspect of that movement except the speed.

The second method is to freeze the action at given moments - either to give yourself time to decide what to do, or do examine the posture and position of your partner. We discuss this in details on the latest Self Defence Workshop DVD, applying the OODA Loop model to the decision making process.

It seems very slow and cumbersome at first (because it is!), but it's really no different from learning to drive or learning to play the guitar. With practice and mindfulness you'll be working at speed in no time. If once you speed up you find yourself getting caught or your work degenerating, then slow it down again to fix the problems. Once they are fixed, take the speed up again to test yourself.

Another aspect of time is how best to organise your training time, whether for solo training or running a group.

One method for solo training is to to set aside a fixed period each day. This may be especially useful if you have a lot of demands on your time or have to operate in a strict routine. On the plus side you can easily organise your areas of training to fit into the schedule. So if you have a half hour to train you might spend five minutes warming up, do rolls and ground movements for 10 minutes, spend 10 minutes on core exercises and five minutes stretching. On the downside it can become a bit routine and more about ticking boxes than training - just something you do for an hour a day

Another method is to train whenever possible. This can be as simple as doing some sit-ups in a spare moment (don't do it at the train station though, it worries other passengers), or monitoring breathing while walking or running. The plus side is that you can train throughout the day in a varied way. The downside is you might not be able to train as much as you like or need.

My preferred method is to see the training opportunity in everything. Many daily activities can become training with a little imagination. Breathing can be worked on almost constantly. Observation can be worked in all sorts of ways - whether externally or observing emotional reactions in stressful situations. Available time can be put to good use for longer or more focused sessions , but always with an eye to functionality and to being carried over into class work. In this way training becomes behaviourial and an integral part of us rather than a set of moves to be carried out under prescribed circumstances.

When it comes to teaching, methods again depend largely on aims and circumstances. However one thing that is vital is the need for strong basics. How you organise training for those is straightforward enough - if people need to learn rolling, then spend more time rolling! In general people need a reasonable understanding of how to fall, ground movement, wave movement, impact management,breathing and structure in order to develop. I find the best approach with beginners is to break everything down into those "slices" and work through step by step. It can also be useful to apply some of the work into basic drills so that beginning students get a chance to understand the applied function of the particular exercise.

Assuming everyone has a level of basic understanding you can broaden the work out. One method is to plan the training session minute by minute - so spend 10 minutes on running and breathing, 10 minutes hitting each other, apply and escape from locks for 30 minutes, etc. In this way classes can be planned out in advance. This can be useful for the person who is new to teaching.

You can alter this "structured" method in this way - think of a specific topic for the class, say striking. The warm up exercises relate to striking - shoulder rotations, press ups, arm tension. Then run some preliminary drills, for example moving away from strikes. Add in more detail - move and return strikes. Look at the strike itself in more detail - placement of fist, etc. Re-run the striking and moving drills, perhaps with groups of three or more. Add in a couple of more challenging exercises. Then finish the session with a period of freeplay drawing on all the work covered. This is quite a useful template that allows a little more freedom than the "clock watching" method

For more experienced students and instructors though I feel there should be a spontaneous element in class. In this way as questions arise during training (which they always should) you can take things off on a different tangent and explore things that you hadn't thought of before and which are more relevant to the group. Of course as an instructor that sometimes means saying "I don't know", or "let's try a few different things" but that is certainly no bad thing. It calls for extra observation and flexibility in class, not only from the instructor but also from the students. Having taught martial arts for 20 years now I personally find this approach (as exemplified by Mikhail and Vladimir) makes for a dynamic and fluid learning situation and allows more scope for development of the individual - which is then reflected throughout the group as a whole.