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Monday, 24 December 2012

Natural Movement

Wouldn't it be great if we were all 6' 5",  220lbs, absolutely lean, super-fit,  in full physical and mental good health, in our absolute prime all the time, 24-7, 365 days a year ready to operate at 100% efficiency.

This is the fantasy of the  martial arts, the allure of the hero who has spent hours, months, years honing his skills and physique in order to step in and save the day for the helpless sheeple around him. Ironically they rarely become a professional warrior / defender,  that calls for a little too much reality

Of course all societies have had hero-figures. In the past they stood as role-model, guide, mentor, teacher, warrior. In today's aspirational consumer-driven culture the hero figure has been denigrated to selling after-shave, underwear or a "new" training product

The reality of course is that we are all in different physical and mental states at different times during our lives. Added to that we are all in different physical and mental states under different conditions. What is aesthetically pleasing to the eyes of a generation raised on "health" magazines is not always the most practical under certain circumstances, nor the most healthy way to live.  The most unlikely people reveal hidden strengths under duress and carry out feats deemed almost impossible under normal circumstances. I'm not talking about the apocryphal "woman lifts car to save baby" but actual events such as an elderly lady seeing off armed robbers, "out of shape" people completing gruelling athletic events and various others that fly in the face of consumerist convention

This to me is the root of the concept of "natural movement". If you cling to the previously mentioned model of "martial arts" it is a difficult concept to grasp. Probably it seems a very vague idea, in  fact almost an affront to suggest that a  non-expert out of shape looking guy can function at least as effectively as the finely tuned "martial artist".

But the concept is actually quite simple to grasp if you have an understanding of people and how they work. It means you have to start from where you are. You have to work with what you have and who you are at that precise moment in time.  This is Systema as problem solving - and the common denominator in every single problem or situation that you are involved in is you.

Let's take a very simple example - the problem is you have to get from A to B while another person is trying to stop you. Your solution will depend on many different factors - relative skills of each person, amount of determination, physical conditions, environmental considerations, communication/social skills  and so on. In other words unless they are in some form of denial or delusion the person has to work with what is available. How they do so is "natural" to them.

Of course we can argue that nothing is truly "natural", everything we do is learned. So by natural I mean "everyday", our normal and usual movement pattern, response, SOP. This is what we have to build on because this is where we start from.

The role of a teacher in this approach is threefold:

One is to provide a framework of drills and exercises that help a person achieve good health, strength and fitness, giving them the optimal tools in order to carry out the work

The second is to help the person "smooth out" their natural reactions, strip them back to the basic levels (which operate very well when allowed to), minimise the negative impact of  fear, tension and stress and teach the person to "trust" their own body

The third is to create an environment where each component involved, each of the "systems" within a person,  can be trained, tested, refined in interactions with other people

Where this runs counter to "conventional" martial arts is that there is no set of movements. The aim is not to overlay choreographed patterns of response onto a person but to allow them to discover (re-discover) and refine their own movement pattern, which is as unique to each of us as our own handwriting. This can be as simple as having a person rotate the waist while moving the shoulders up and down, a natural pattern that provides the basis for so many types of movement. I have found that people quickly grasp the concept and discover for themselves that this is "movement for life", it is a liberating experience.

I can fully understand why some instructors are unable to get on with this concept, it calls for a creative and adaptive approach. Usually as an instructor you are "in charge"of the class, you have a syllabus to run through, information to explain, you are the most important person in the room, especially in a formal or institutional setting. I find when teaching Systema almost the complete reverse is true. I never know which direction a class is going to take because it is comprised of 15 or so individuals each with different strengths and weaknesses, each of whom has questions - and also answers.

So learning becomes a group endeavour. I find it a more adult way of teaching  as opposed to feeling  like you are back at school sat listening to a teacher drone on for half an hour and being treated like a child. The "natural" approach is dynamic learning -  if a question is raised we can look at different answers and test them there and then to see which works best for whom.

None of this is to say that relevant technical or medical information cannot be added in - of course it can. But we have to remember the principle of map and territory, the real understanding is in the doing. I can read up on how to fly a plane and "understand" it fairly quickly. But without real air-miles it is not functional knowledge. Another thing to consider is that this type of information can be just applying names to what you are already doing - after all you can't do anything without "doing" bio-mechanics. Revelations such as "your arm bends in the middle and can pivot around the elbow" are hardly news to anyone. Understanding  the role of tendons or the mechanism by which  muscle tension can be overcome when "stretching" are of more use. Even more interesting to me is information on such things as Fixed Action Patterns, OODA loop and the more psychological aspects. Of course physical condition is important, but survival /success  is often determined in the psyche, especially if you are physically impaired in some way

Nor does it mean that it's ok to be lazy about our training. It isn't, but people need to find their own motivations and strengths, not rely on me shouting at them to do another press up. A big part of the training is to take responsibility for yourself and to understand your own strengths and weaknesses. This understanding will feed back into everything you do and empower you to help those around you too

If we return to our fantasy model at the start, we begin to see the limitations of such an approach. A lot of the training I experienced previously was based on everything being perfect. I was well trained, in good shape, on mats, in a nice room with a good idea of what was about to happen.  Real life is cold, dark, hot, drunk, bad leg, sun in eyes, pissed off, half asleep, weaker than the other guy, outnumbered, shit scared......we are going to get hit, we may get damaged and even if we prevail there may be longer term consequences to deal with

This is why our work needs to be behavioural, what we are not what we do. In training get hit, get cold, get wet, get to a point where you think "FFS....."  Put aside any notions of toughness or persona, understand acceptance of what is happening now and how you deal with it....... that is where the learning starts

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

I just wanted to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Healthy and Happy 2013!

Thanks to everyone who has attended classes and workshops this year as well as bought the DVDs / digital downloads. Your support and hard work is much appreciated!

It's been a great year for training, personally I've got to train with Martin once and Vladimir twice this year, in Hamburg (thanks Jorg!)  and at the great weekend in London organised by Systema GB - thanks guys!

There's been some great progress in training this year, reflected in the fact that a number of the lads are now Instructors  / Instructors-in-training - well done chaps!

It's also been great to see the new level of Instructors coming through, guys such as Jamie, Garreth and Mark, the Celtic Contingent as well as hook up again with "old faces" such as Sam and Dima :-)

If there has been one over-riding theme in the training this year it has been "natural movement". So it is only fitting that the last blog of 2012 should be on my views / understanding of what that phrase means

Next year looks equally exciting - Valentin Talanov in London, Martin Wheeler in Dublin and all the usual fun and games in-between. We also have a very interesting and different Summer Camp in the pipeline, so watch this space.

Thank you all once again and thanks as always to Vladimir and Mikhail for their continued guidance, inspiration and support


Natural Movement Workshop

Here's a clip from the recent workshop on Natural Movement, now available on DVD as Natural Movement Vol 2


Thursday, 6 December 2012

Systema and Tough Mudder

Today's blog is written by one of our Tempsford guys Nick Stafford. Nick recently completed the Tough Mudder 12 mile obstacle race and after hearign him talk about it at the last session I asked him to write up his experiences. Over to Nick.....

I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Systema 2 years ago. The drills, the exercise, the relaxation and the camaraderie had me hooked. It took me a little while for me to realise that Ssystema was more than a martial art and the penny continues to drop on a daily basis why Systema practitioners train how they do.

As some of you guys already know i have recently completed "Tough Mudder" a 12 mile assault course designed by British Special Forces and at the ripe old age of 38 and having one too many bacon sandwiches I never dreamt that this was something I could achieve.It tested me to my limits and I know without Systema I would not have done it.

There were many times throughout the course that my Systema drills came into play, sometime instinctively at other times consciously. I am no  Systema expert and have no other martial art experience but in a relatively short time it has given me the tools I needed in order to accomplish my challenge. It surprised me that when I thought I could give up or go no further the things I have learnt from Systema got me through on such a noticeable scale.

The biggest help was the breathing. I focused on this for pretty much the whole course, especially the burst breathing to aid recovery -  but also the some of the other drills helped me regulate my composure in time of panic and relaxed parts of my body when tension was creeping in.

A lot of my movement was aided also instinctive as I moved over and under obstacles through the swamps and due to the nature of the course I fell over quite a few times, rolled nicely, unaffected and able to continue without breaking my flow. I even used Systema massage techniques on my team-mates when they went down with cramp!

So I am pleased to be studying Systema under the instruction of Rob Poyton at the Cutting Edge group in Tempsford. I know i have only scratched the surface of an endless learning curve but can feel the benefit and the effect it has on my day to day living and on any challenges i come up against in life whether physical or mental.

For those wanting to know more about Tough Mudder follow this link:

Nick (first time blogger)

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Beginners Guide to Systema - and Systema Guide to Beginners

This blog was prompted by a post from Mark Jakabcsin on Facebook concerning some recent experiences he's had with new students in class. So it got me thinking about the two sides of the coin - the new student and the instructor. I've listed out a few ideas and thoughts here, I'm sure it's old news to the experienced but I hope it gives some food for though for new instructors / instructors in training


What should you look for in a Systema class? It's a difficult question in some ways as Systema is a generic term covering a wide range of approaches. Add to this the fact that, in some schools at least, trainers are encouraged to develop their own flavour of Systema , there is  no set syllabus, etc and you can see how a beginner may get confused. So  here's a few of my own thoughts on what to look for:

1. Instructor Credentials
Is the instructor a recognised affiliate to any of the major branches of Systema (Vasiliev, Ryabko, Kadochnikov, etc).  Martial arts is notorious for self-appointed instructors, self-promoted dan grades and self-titled masters and experts. The fact that an instructor is an affiliate improves the chances that you are getting good information and training

2. Marketing Methods
These days it is very easy and cheap to set up an attractive website and promote yourself across the internet.
Bearing this in mind you should not use internet presence as a sole guide to good instruction. There are very good teachers in all styles who maintain a low profile. Of course the martial arts world also has it's share of those inflate their background and skills or who's internet presence belies the size of their school. Having said that a well organized website with lots of video clips and information can be very helpful in giving you an idea of how the school operates and the background of the instructor.

3. Communication
Contact the instructor prior to attending. How do they deal with you - polite, dismissive, helpful? This will give you some indication of what you can expect. However please don't expect a 45 minute conversation over the phone about the history of Systema or "is it like kung fu". Oh and please remember to call at appropriate times. I've had calls at 11.45 at night before - instructor's have lives too!

4. Class
Turn up a few minutes early for class, it will give you a chance to introduce yourself and ask any brief / relevant questions. Let the instructor know any medical problems or concerns you have
Follow the instructions for exercises and drills, bear in mind they may not all be competitive in the usual sense. If in doubt check what the drill boundaries are, what the aims of the drill are and work appropriately

In a good group your training partners will be helpful. Typically as a new person you will be paired up with an experienced student who will guide you through. Ask any relevant questions you have, though also bear in mind the answer is often to be found by doing the drill. Not everything is obvious at first and if you have previous experience in other martial arts some drills may seem odd to start! Be patient and soon enough you will see the relevance and reap the benefit

Systema training is generally conducted in an informal environment.However it should still remain focussed and challenging in the right places. If at any point you feel the training is too uncomfortable, dangerous or innappropriate, then step out of the drill. Beware any instructor who demeans people for not being "tough enough"

I've always found there is a high level of humour in training, though this is of the self deprecating or general kind rather than the sort of locker room / racist humour used to put others down. Any sign of pecking order, bullying, so-called "alpha males" or similar should be taken as warning indicators

5. Content
If you attend a Systema class you should reasonably expect to be taught Systema. If most of the class has you doing something else you may need to question the instructor's  credentials. Having said that one of the strengths of a good class is the different type of people you get to work with. So it may well be the case you find yourself training with a good boxer - in which case there should be no problem in asking him to feed you boxing attacks. As Systema is not defined by forms, kata or techniques there is ample room for your own freedom of expression. The instructor's job in this case is to guide you to efficiency, power development, psychological understanding, etc . The tools to do this vary according to both instructor and student

Teaching styles will also vary - some may offer no explanation, others may offer a lot of technical information. Whatever the approach the majority of class should be about gaining understanding through good practice

6. Post Training
Most Systema classes finish with a circle-up. Everyone in the group gets the chance to express any thoughts or questions about the training, or wider topics. Again keep in mind that everyone should get a chance to speak and don't monopolize! However you should feel free to air any concerns or criticisms. You should always feel able to speak one to one to the instructor about any concerns, or indeed suggestions

7. Overall
You should find a good Systema class enjoyable and a bit challenging. I know that people sometimes look at our clips of taking strikes and  feel nervous about attending. but there is really no need - all drills are voluntary and the work is always progressive, one step at a time. People often surprise themselves as being much more capable than they think!

For more information about our training see What to Expect in a Systema Class


A few thoughts on dealing with new students

1. Be polite and informative when dealing with enquiries. People who want detailed information about history background, methods should be pointed to  relevant resources on the web or elsewhere

2. Allow time before class for new people to introduce themselves. Answer any relevant questions, take note of any medical problems

3. Where possible partner newcomers up with an experience student. Monitor beginners, make sure they are not getting overwhelmed or are going outside the drill. Be ready with a few words of explanation if needed, or to appropriately demonstrate if neccesary

4. Don't overload newcomers with information. This also applies to your other students. I've seen a newcomer be given  highly detailed explanations of a particular drill and stand there looking bewildered. The call then comes to "change" and the person has had no chance to actually do the drill

5. Be aware that different people process new information in different ways, some visual, some by explanation and so on. Systema teaches you to be adaptable, that applies to teaching as well as to "work"!

6. Be aware of anyone in the class stepping out of drill boundaries. Always be clear about what the boundaries are and what the purpose of the drill is. Stepping out of the drill can take a few forms -

Levels of contact  too much or not enough

Speed / intensity  the same

Experience levels - the more experienced should give the less experienced the opportunity to work and not overwhelm them

Talking - may be about the drill or it may be something else entirely, the most common being "when I did -x- we did it like this". Again this is cheating  the other person out of the experience of the drill

Inappropriate behaviour (outside of drills that call for them!)  - loss of temper, insults, bullying, sexual innuendo or behaviour, emotional distress

How you resolve these issues varies according to context but in most cases a quiet word will suffice. In some cases more direct intervention may be required. I've only seen it happen two or three times over the years and in itself it can prove an interesting learning / teaching tool. Also don't underestimate the power of the group, if you have good students they will monitor / mentor newcomers too

7. Be open to a person's previous experience and bring it into the group. Not neccessarily martial art experience, it can be anything. Where appropriate allow students to share experience in class and incorporate into the training

8.. Class size - in the past I've taught groups of up to around 60 people at workshops. That's do-able for me with an assistant or two, but for regular class I prefer around 10-20. That gives you a chance to work multiple drills and gives a good variety of bodies for everyone to work with but still allows you to work one-to-one where needed. I also prefer running an open group. It is good in some ways to train only with a small regular crowd - it builds trust levels which allows you to explore deeper areas of training. but there is also a danger of stagnation. New people bring new challenges, new ideas and new skills to the group. I also have issues with those who deem others as being "not worthy" to train. We are all works in progress

9. Keep training - it's important for instructors to be students too! There is always more to learn, not in terms of "technique" but in how to refine your own work and how to communicate that to fellow students. Above all remember that as an instructor you are a sign-post, not the destination!

Friday, 9 November 2012


A wise man once said "as soon as you get three people together, you have politics" . In modern society almost every issue has a political implication, from views on health care through to where you go shopping

Martial arts is no exception - in fact when it comes to politics it's a towering inferno! I don't know how things were back in the old "traditional" days of the Asian styles (much the same I reckon) but I do remember the   80's  Wing Chun wars, the Preying Mantis feuds, the Tai Chi challenges..not to mention the machinations of varying governing bodies, inter-club rivalries and tournament fun and games. All in all it made  Machiavelli look like an amateur.

Interestingly enough the most incendiary disagreements were not between different styles, as you might expect, but amongst practitioners of the same style. Endless battles raged about lineage, the "true" transmission, who was on the inside track and so on. Huge importance was given to obscure matters of form and training that were completely irrelevant to anyone outside of the training hall (who mostly viewed it all as "guys wearing pyjamas")

The  internet has made the situation both better and worse. Better because it is now a lot easier to share and see information, you can find out about even the most obscure style. Worse because these arguments now spread online where, of course, you have the option to remain both anonymous and safely out of reach. I guess one positive point of those old arguments was that at some point there would be an actual physical interaction to sort things out (or at least give something else to argue about, eg "my shoes were slippery on the floor")

Anyway, enough of ancient history, what has all  this got to do with Systema? Just that there seems to be a lot of  politics flying around at the moment. We have had anonymous bad-mouthing for a while of course, but now it seems that who you train with is the subject of nudges and winks, rumour and gossip are doing the rounds and I saw recently it has even come to attempted hacking of websites.

Let me make clear my own personal position - and this is personal, my thoughts alone, I don't represent anyone else except myself. I don't mean to cause offence, this is purely how I see things, just my opinion.

I've always tried to avoid politics. Over the last 30 years I've trained with a wide range of people. What prompts my decision to train with someone is a mixture of  the information they have to offer, how they put it across and how they conduct themselves and their business. I've encountered  people with  little information and even less ethics, they generally fade out of the scene pretty quickly. I've encountered people with good ethics and information who I enjoyed training with and got something from.  There are people it would be interesting to meet / train with in the future, time and funds allowing

Then there are people  I have the opportunity to train with that I choose not to. Not out of any political motive or because I've been told not to. Simply because I don't think I would gain anything from it and/or because the way that person conducts themselves doesn't resonate with me. In a similar way I'd go pay top dollar to see Tom Waits any night of the week but wouldn't watch Coldplay if they were doing a free gig in the field at the back of my house. Your tastes may vary of course and you are as free as I am to make choices

So I hope that clears things up for anyone thinking that I make "political" decisions about where I train. Of course it's not the first thing I've been accused off on the internet and by no means the worst! That list includes:  being a cult member, running a "whites only" neo-Nazi training group, giving up boxing because it was "too hard", not being a "good martial artist" because I didn't demolish a beginner in sparring, having spent time in prison, claiming that I was "stab proof",  not teaching properly, being a weekend commando and being "good little doggy" in order to protect my position (I run a class in a village hall once a week!). No doubt there are many others!  All the claims have a couple of things in common - one, they make me laugh and two none has never been made directly to my face.

Of course you expect all this in the professional martial arts world, it's simply business. In a free market we all have to protect our "rice bowl" as the Chinese put it. Some choose to do that by putting down the "opposition" , directly or indirectly. To me it speaks volumes about a person's ethics and also reveals something else about them. For example someone who's attacks centre around  credibility or status is likely a person desperate for credibility and status

But this is by no means the only way to do business.  I've met  plenty of people across the styles who run their school / business in a spirit of co-operation and mutual respect. Some of them have talents way beyond their "status" in the martial arts world. They are all busy just getting on with things, they have the maturity to understand that grown adults make their own choices, based on a wide range of factors, probably the least of which is the certificate you have hanging on your wall or how big your pecs are

So having been around all these different teachers and styles, why settle where I am now? Simple answer - it has everything I'm looking for. In terms of information I'm barely scratching the surface, in terms of results the training and teaching methods have proven themselves over time and in terms of ethics I've encountered nothing but  generosity. A world away from  the expensive pyramid / franchise model, just a simple "turn up and train"

Am I bound by some rigid code or etiqutte? No, other than simple everyday good manners. Am I ever discouraged from trying different things or asking questions? No, in fact the opposite. Granted this approach doesn't suit everyone - it certainly doesn't suit the person looking to feel "special" or to be part of some elite training group, but each to their own.

People make different choices in life and I have respect for people who are honest about the reasons for those choices. People who can't make the grade or who feel let down in some way often feel they have an axe to grind. I can understand that,  I was in that position myself some years back, but learnt after a while to move on and find my own path, rather than keep trying to recycle old ground.

So please don't feel I'm being political if I make choices based on someone's actions or their attempts to undermine my friends and my business. It's not politics, it's  just plain old fashioned manners

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Age, Injury and Training

I got rather an odd e-mail  this morning, it was only short so i'll quote it here in full:

"Systema is great  if your 30ish but over 50? Tai chi has the advantage  of training til your 80 but takes years to learn if you can find a  good teacher. What does a 60ish person do in systema?"

My reply was equally short, pointing out I'd just been on a full-on training weekend, over six hours a day training. I'm just touching 50, I wasn't the oldest person there and in fact the teacher was older than me (he moves better and hits harder than me though!)

There is an interesting association in our culture between age and capability. For the first time this year I started getting Saga brochures through the post and catalogues for elastic-waisted slacks (powder blue sta-press), stair lifts and assisted-rise armchairs. The message is clearly that I'm getting on a bit and so need help with even basic tasks.

The fact is that at a few months off of 50 I'm more active than ever, both in training and in life. A typical weekend will be two gigs (often a fair distance away), two teaching sessions and (when my wife collars me!) a day working in the garden. I'm by no means special or super fit, I just made a decision not to live a life that cycles between armchair and work

So as far as Systema goes - "what does a 60ish person do in Systema?"   Answer - same as everyone else!


Part of the assumption about age is that you will be more prone to injury. I've not found that the case. However there are two important factors to bear in mind. The first is existing injuries and the second is how you train

Over the years, especially when I was teaching "soft" styles, I had people coming to me who's previous training had busted them up. Most common were knee, hip and back problems. I used to hear two things, one was "I'll do all that soft stuff when I get too old for the "real" stuff" and  "I can't do that any more, so now I want to learn this"

The problem was that by the time the person got "too old", they were in such poor condition because of their "real" training that they couldn't effectively do the soft work either. Previous injury had caused postural problems,  tension, lack of mobility and in some cases a psychological "hardening" that proved difficult to overcome

There is also sometimes a perception that "soft" work is somehow easy and perhaps a bit useful but it's still not the "real" stuff....the advanced work is all tough, full-on training, the sort of thing you see in the "training montage" in movies.

In my former Chinese martial arts studies the expression was "eat bitter". You weren't learning unless you were suffering. Now granted there was a lot of health work built into to that, but nonetheless it was gruelling physical and psychological work - and the "soft" side was the most gruelling of all. I can easily demonstrate this any time, any place, it normally takes less than five minutes.

There is a similar line of thought in some schools -  that training is a form of punishment. There should be nothing enjoyable about it, the body and mind are to be forged into steel, injury is a form of weakness, never surrender!  The problem is that this approach can destroy the person over time rather than make them stronger. Sure it can make people tough, but tough can also be brittle.

Does this mean training should all be soft and easy?  No - but it should build you up not tear you down. It can be intense but good for you.  I saw a video clip recently that to me shows the difference in approach, see what you think, who's your money on?

Injury can come in three ways - 

Existing injury - sports or martial arts related because of previous training, or could be a disability or long-term condition

Accident - RTA or similar or perhaps something that happens in training

Illness - can be anything from cold / flu to a more serious condition

How can we work around these in Systema training? The first thing I would like to say is that  - given the way we train in terms of contact levels, no mats, etc - it is very rare to see injuries in training. I put this down to the the way the training is structured - when people understand the role of tension in their own bodies they are much better equipped to protect themselves in training. The clearest example is in falling - if you are adept at falling and rolling you can be thrown vigorously but without injury. That approach carries across into all types of work

Alongside that is the concept of drills and training being co-operative. Not in the sense of making things easy for our partner or that everything they do works, but understanding that we are not there to destroy each other. It's akin, I guess to the concept of good sportsmanship in combat sports styles. 

It is of course, entirely possible to give your partner a lot of agression and tension when appropriate in order to mimic some aspects of  real life. But even then you have to be aware of protecting your own body. It can be a subtle thing but some of the higher work in Systema is allowing the attacker to destroy himself. You put some pressure in and watch it "leak out" through the weak points of the structure. If the person is unable to deal with this, their own tension works against them

When it comes to condition, injury , fitness, I can safely say I have seen and heard of almost everything and everyone in training . This includes people with a missing limb, a broken leg (in plaster), a range of conditions such as diabetes, heart problems, bad backs, bad knees, emotional / psychological injuries, overweight, underweight, bodybuilders, MS sufferers, the list goes on.  On a personal level, following advice from Vladimir and Mikahil my knee problems disappeared after about a few months of specific exercises. 

The point is, whatever the injury or condition, if you are able to get to class,  you are able to train. You may have to be mindful of your condition but there are many ways to work around it.  No-one is deducting points for "lack of effort" or not being tough enough, because at the end of the day we are all tough enough in some circumstances and weak as a child in others

Even if you can't get to class you can train - breathing exercises, tension relaxation and so on. We come back again to the point of how you perceive training. Is it a once a week punishment, a chance to blow off some steam, a social event -  these may all be valid. Or is it something that you carry with you at all times and are immersed in. For me this is where the true benefit of Systema  training lies, not in having imaginary fights with someone who might be hiding round the next corner, but in ensuring you have a fit, balanced, healthy and self-aware  lifestyle - now that's true self defence

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Video Blog Number Five

At the Summer Camp Ed Phillips showed us all a drill involving throwing and catching sticks. This is one of those "straightforward" Systema drills that with practice reveals hidden depths! We hope you give it a try and use it as a springboard to develop your own variations

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Summer Training 2012

Some of our regular class training from the last couple of months

John Cleese on Systema!

Found this courtesy of Systema Belgium, John Cleese giving a very informative talk on the role of  creativity / play in problem solving. Relates to Systema training on many levels!


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Natural Movement DVD

Our latest DVDis now available for pre-order at the shop site

Just like Training

Without fail every martial art class I ever attended over the past 30 years or so had one thing in common - I was put into a particular stance or set of stances and instructed to move around in a certain way. For the most part these movements were quite new and alien to me, so progression in the art meant hours of daily practice in order to make these movements “natural”. Current research states that to some extent natural movement can be overlayed with stylised or “learned” movement patterns following thousand upon thousand of repetitions. When you consider the amount of time this takes for one particular movement response, then multiply that by the number of desired responses to an attack you begin to see why you get “ten year” figures for proficiency in many martial art styles.

No-one ever really offered an alternative to this method, except perhaps Western sports fighting arts which to some extent worked from a much more straight-forward movement base.  This, it seemed, was the only and accepted way to learn “martial arts”

On first seeing Vladimir and his people what struck me most was the fluidity and “naturalness” of the movement, surely they must have spent years perfecting complicated routines to develop such skill? As we all know, this is far from the case.  Systema is one of the few arts with no formalised movement. Instead Ryabko / Vasiliev Systema people cite the Four Pillars (FP)  in training - breathing, movement, relaxation, form.

The FP  are usually described as  guidelines, but some people have interpreted them as strict rules  and get disappointed when they “don’t work”. In my view this approach represent a fundamental misunderstanding of Systema training. My feeling is that the FP are not rules to be followed, they are “you”. People who approach the FP in a “martial arts” way look to map the FP onto their movement in a “technique” fashion. The spine becomes a rigid pole, they move constantly (and uneccesarily), they make a loud panting noise (to show they are breathing) and are either like rag dolls or excessively tense. The latter is more likely because as we know  tension is usually the result when we  try too hard to do something.  With so many things to think about it’s no wonder that adding in a partner brings the whole thing to a confusing halt.

So let’s think about putting the cart back behind the horse and approach training from where we are rather than where we think we should be. This way we can work on being free and responsive in the moment and refining our work rather than trying to  be perfect all the time. This allows for more freedom in “play” and, in my experience, leads to quicker skill development. It also subtly changes the atmosphere in training and empowers students to virtually teach themselves rather than just following instructions. New people to class often comment on  the amount of laughter in training (even in serious work) something I still find an interesting contrast to all my previous work

So while it’s possible to  think of the FP as some type of Systema kata, much more productive perhaps to put yourself in the work and go from there. This gives you a tremendous amount of freedom in training to explore virtually any type of situation at any level of intensity. That brings its own challenges, particularly to the Instructor who needs to maintain a fine balance between focus and encouraging creativity, letting people discover things for themselves and spoon-feeding information

I have found that this approach  encourages students to ask (and answer!) questions,  present different points of view, share personal experiences  and also share skills sets for the benefit of the group as a whole. This way students  discover how the FP gives them an  operating system rather than a program.   Technical knowledge (program) from a reliable source  can easily be laid on top of the FP operating system to round out skills, be they specific combat skills (restraint, ground work, etc), technical (woodcraft, driving, etc), activity (climbing, etc) or social (body language, communication, etc). This takes away the bother of trying to tie  different styles and methods together as the underlying principles of whatever you do remain constant.

At the heart of this “operating system” is the fact that Systema encourages natural movement.  This is something Ed Phillips and I go into greater detail in on our latest DVD release, but in brief this is what we mean by natural movement

1. Movement free of excess tension or stress
2. Movements that is everday, ordinary, unexceptional
3. Movement that corresponds to the natural range of motion and movement patterns of the human body
4. Movement that does not create undue psychological or emotional strain

The strength of this approach is that our work adapts to the world around us rather than the other way round. It means we work from our natural response to a stimulus rather than from a contrived position.

A comment on one of our clips showing guys moving around an urban environment asked “what has this got to do with martial arts?” My answer would be  - precisely nothing, if by “martial arts” you mean learning a set of stylised movements in a training hall type environment. It has a whole lot more to do with real  life, as this is the environment 99% of us operate in on a daily basis. Why would you expect movement patterns formulated in another time, another set of circumstances and perhaps for very specific reasons to serve you in your current situation? There may be some things that are universal but doesn’t it make more sense to put your everyday movements and environment into training use rather than try and force a round peg into a square hole?

The truth of this was reinforced last month  when two of our regular guys recounted recent events -  one was  involved in a nasty  confrontation with a group of thugs  while out with his family, the other just finished  a summer stint working the doors of  local pubs. Both independently said the same thing - when things kicked off “it was just like training”. When I mentioned this to Gareth he laughed and told me of another five or six incidents some of his guys had been involved in, ranging from an attempted mugging to the usual Saturday night town centre gauntlet. The most serious damage received was a large bump on the head and everyone got home safely and in one piece.

Anecdotal evidence I’m sure some will say,  but real life  experiences, all of which will be fed back into the training - it’s a two way flow life - training - life. So far I’ve found Systema’s natural training method to be nothing but positive, not only in dealing with violence and its aftermath but in so many other situations. It is all “just like training”

Monday, 17 September 2012

Summer Camp 2012 Clips

Two clips from our recent camp - thanks to everyone who took part and made it such a great weekend! Planning is already underway for the next one!

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Summer Training 2012

Some exercises ideas from Tempsford class

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Summer Camp 2012

Not long to go until this year's Summer Camp! If you have never been to one of our camps before and wonder what to expect, here's a quick guide!

 Start time - people will be arriving from 4pm on the Friday. You will have some time to set up camp, get settled in and have a cup of tea! The weekend will start Friday evening with an introductory talk followed by preparation work for the weekend and the first set of training drills

 Saturday starts with health and fitness training followed by a session on movement at our unique urban assault course... You will then be taught various skill sets that will be put to use in the Saturday night team game. That will be followed by a chance to relax round the fire with a BBQ

 Sunday starts with some more training drills and chance to run through any work you would like help with or have questions about. The training will finish with a cool down massage session, de-brief and handing out of certificates

All training will be held outdoors, so please bring appropiate clothing. Terrain is a mixture of field, woodland and urban

 There are toilet facilities on site. Accomodation is camping - so please bring a tent / sleeping bag. There will be a 10-person tent available on a first come first served basis, so if you need a space, let us know!

 Food and drink - please bring water and snacks and drinks for the BBQ. All other food will be provided

Gear - please being a torch, wash kit, gloves, eating utensils. Still cameras are allowed but no videoing without prior permission

 People are sometimes worried by how tough the training may be or whether they can handle the weekend.

 Firstly, we run different camps at different levels of intensity - this camp is for people with prior Systema experience and is "mid-level" in terms of intensity

 Secondly, in line with all our training all activities are strictly voluntary and no-one is denigrated on ability and performance

 Thirdly the aim of our camps is to provide an environment in which you can learn new skills and test existing skills.

We stress that the camp is much more than doing a regular class while stood in a field, it is an opportunity to immerse yourself in the training for a couple of days

 Fourthly - we want you to enjoy yourself! Again, just like our regular classes our aim is not to churn out blank-faced super-serious martial-art commandos but to teach you real skills and have fun while doing it! The Saturday night BBQ is a chance to relax with some drink and food round the fire, swap stories and jokes and get a break from the everday routine

 If you have any questions get in touch - Ed, Rory and myself look forward to seeing you in a couple of weeks time!

Booking details

Video Blog Number Four

Some footage from class on using the body in striking

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Integration Part Three

Video post on  foundation level work to integrate footwork and striking

Friday, 25 May 2012

Intergration Part Two

Vlog talking some  more about integration, figure 8 work and natural movement

Friday, 11 May 2012



I've noticed an interesting trend over the past couple of years from two quite different sectors of the martial art / self defence world. Each is looking outside to bring in additional aspects to their syllabus. For some martial art schools this involves incorporating kettlebells, sports science and combat sports into their curriculum. In the case of some self defence schools it involves looking into things like Yoga, Alexander Technique and meditation practices.

I think there are two reasons for this. In the case of martial art schools it is difficult to ignore the huge rise in popularity of MMA, particularly amongst the young. Combat sports have always been around - in my day it was boxing - but nothing like to the extent which MMA now permeates popular culture. This has several effects, some good some bad. One of the main ones is that to many young people an art is deemed ineffective if it has not proven itself in the MMA arena. So from a commercial perspective it might be that schools add  an MMA component  in order to attract new students. Of course it might also be that MMA training is added in to fill  gaps -  groundwork for example if a style doesn't address it. The MMA method  also makes for a good means of pressure testing in certain situations.

When it comes to self defence schools there perhaps comes a realisation that while short-term / gross motor training is useful and yields quick results it is also exactly that - short term. How much depth of training can be put into basic technique - does it become a case of diminshing returns?
If you train beyond a certain point you begin to understand that while technique is a useful, quick easy thing to learn, there is much more to be gained by understanding the underlying principles. There is also a lot to be said for your training being healthy rather than damaging - aside from any general considerations of overall health, an unfit or unhealthy person will have a much tougher time in any self defence situation,

 So we have martial art schools looking to combat sports and sports science and self defence schools looking to bodywork and breathing methods. This can only be a healthy thing, at least when people are upfront about where their knowledge is coming from. But there is a down side - how many hours a day do you have for training? How many evenings a week to go to classes?

Is there an approach that integrates all these elements of training into one? Yes - it’s exactly the approach used in Systema. Of course there are aspects of Systema that can be broken off from the whole and studied indepedently - in fact you could make a new school or style out of these individual components. This approach makes sense if you have specific task-based training to undertake, or if perhaps you prefer only to focus on certain aspects of training. However I think this dilutes the training experience and doesn’t deliver the full range of benefits on offer.

 If we look at the development of Systema we see it is a synthesis of methods derived from a wide range of sources. Some are traditional (old sword, fist-fighting, wrestling methods), some are modern (Soviet sports science research) , some relate to health and well being (massage, bodywork, breathing). Regardless, all have been filtered and refined through extensive research, testing and, most important of all, direct application under extreme conditions. This makes Systema a “work in progress”constantly shaped by the experiences of its users.

 The other important point to make is that unlike a syllabus shaped around the requirements of a style or the requirements of a task-based environment, the emphasis in Systema rests firmly on the individual practitioner. The person is the System. The person is comprised of several systems - cardio-vascular, nervous, skeletal, psychological, etc. The sum total of all these parts is the person and it is through the person that the System comes into being - in much the same way that music only comes into being through being played, not as a collection of dots on a sheet of paper.

In that sense Systema training is already integrated - for convenience we separate out breathing, posture, movement, form, tension/relaxation. The truth is they co-exist in a constant dynamic interplay. You can’t breath without moving. You don’t exist without form. Posture and movement require tension / relaxation. If you are aware of this interplay then even a simple walking drill becomes an exercise in integration. This personal integration is very important. Whatever variables are present in any situation, there is always one constant - you. An understanding of your own “systems” already gives you a big advantage. Understanding interaction with other “systems” is the other half of the coin.

This work is fundamentalas it impacts all other areas of training. We often talk about natural movement, or finding our natural state - what does that mean? You can say that any movement a human can do is “natural” - because if it is impossible to do it is “un-natural”. To me, though , natural movement means that carried out by a balanced, fully functional body. If you look at toddlers you see perfect posture when squatting, a lack of fear when moving and a level of fluidity beyond most of us. Over the years we become polluted, physically and emotionally, with tension, injuries, illness, bad habits, irrational fears, stress. We need to cleanse ourself of all this in order to find our natural balance again.

This can be challenging work and a lengthy process. In one sense it should be done before any other work is even approached, but not many of us have the patience or fortitude for that! So we integrate this cleansing work in with the other training. People may watch a simple stick drill and think it is a self defence exercise in working against the stick - it may be, but it is also a lesson in maintaning posture and free movement under pressure. Not everything is always what it seems on the surface and it often pays to look a little deeper at what is going on.

This can be a little confusing for new people coming into training, at least until the concept is grasped. It’s not “sexy” work, it’s not crowd pleasing and it doesn’t play to the Youtube generation, but it is vital and brings rich rewards in so many areas of life.

I'll be putting up a video post shortly covering these ideas and  looking  at some drills and exercises to assist with  integration - but to get you into the swing  of things, just check your posture right now! Is your back straight or are you slumped? Straighten up, take a deep breath, smile and enjoy life!

Friday, 27 April 2012

Video Blog Number One

Here's the first in a series of random thoughts from class - this time round some ideas on taking strikes

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Control & Restraint Workshop

Sat 26th May  10am - 3pm
Stuart Memorial Hall  Tempsford Beds

As any security professional will tell you, Control & Restraint is a challenging area of work. Complicated locks and holds are not always practical in a real life scramble and without an understanding of body structure and underlying principles you will always be forced to rely purely on strength or technique

Instructors Danny Lines and Rob Poyton will teach you practical and effective control and restraint - these are tried and tested methods used by professional security staff, LEOs and bodyguards
They include limb control, take downs, pressure point work, short range strikes, immobilisation methods and more

Open to adults of all styles / levels, booking details here

Spring 2012 Class Training Clip

Friday, 23 March 2012

Tactical Training Day clip

Shows some of the work from recent training day organised by Britannia Security Services and Cutting Edge Systema. The work covered included close protection drills, restraint methods, work in and around a car, defence against weapons, dog handler training and professional security work

Friday, 9 March 2012

Tactical Training Day

Sunday 18th March 2012

Hosted by
Danny Lines, Rob Poyton & Sujay Bhola

09:30am Registration, Start Training 10:00
Lunch at 12:00, Finish at 15:00

£30 Per Person

474 Rush Green Road, Romford, Essex, RM7 0LU 

This Event will consist of:-

Urban Area
Rob Poyton - Head of Systema UK teaching basic bodyguarding drills, diversionary tactics, weapons defence, striking, close quarter combat inside vehicles & Russian Systema

Danny Lines - Self Defence Federation Examiner & Celebrity BodyGuard teaching Bodyguarding footwork drills & formations, locks, holds, striking, pressure points, disarming tactics, close quarter handgun techniques & modern street combat.

Security K9 Area
Sujay Bhola – A Grade Helper, South of England training helper, K9 Protection specialist

K9 workshop for Security Protection – reality based training, switching on and off civil for high aggression visual deterrent, muzzle work and bite suit, this workshop will be geared for operational dogs and based alongside reality scenarios. Dogs with correct foundation will benefit here but dogs with incorrect foundational training will show cracks under this type of training – here we can help by developmental work. 

With Assistance from John Monaghan – B Grade helper

Please note: NO Banned breeds, no dogs with questionable temperaments (assessments available) strong and safe leads and collars mandatory – will be available to buy on the day. We recommend your dogs are used to walking in muzzles prior to this event and if so please bring muzzles with you.

For full details contact Danny

Friday, 24 February 2012

Taking a Hit

I was listening to the Jeremy Vine show today (Friday  24th Feb) on Radio 2 and the discussion was about what to do in a bar room brawl. There was a "self defence expert" in the studio and in response to his advice  Jeremy Vine  said something along the lines of "it's all very well but no-one ever trains to take a hit. And when you get hit the shock of it freezes you up". The reply of the "expert" was that training to take hits is dangerous - because one hit can kill you, so if you train to take hits you will let people hit you in a fight and one hit could kill you.

Now reading between the lines - and I may be being unfair here as I don't know the guy personally - what I took from that was  "no we don't have people getting hit in class because they don't like it" and/or  "we don't have a mechanism in place for training either impact management or fear control". Because these are the two major things you get from taking hits in training - when carried out properly. I felt obliged (Outraged of Bedford) to e-mail in a response, which Jeremy read out (fame at last!) along the lines of "in our training we place emphasis on learning to take hits because in the chaotic situation of a bar room brawl, you are likely to get hit. If you have never experienced this before you might freeze. If you experience this under the right conditions you will learn how to cope with the impact and shock of taking a hit".

Seeing people take hits is very common in Systema - there are a lot of Youtube clips of Mikhail, Vladimir and other instructor hitting people, with a range of effects and for a range of reasons. The purpose of this work is not always obvious so here are a few of my own thoughts on different types of taking hit training and the reasons for doing it

Iron Shirt
No, I've not gone all domestic, Iron Shirt (or Golden Bell) is a term used in Chinese martial arts to denote external or internal conditioning of the body to withstand strikes. The particular method I went through prior to Systema training involved progressive levels of limb knocking, striking the body and limbs with bamboo rods, complex qigong methods, the use of herbal linaments and other types of "toughening". It was effective to a point - in demos I used to have wood broken over my arms and legs (cost a fortune at B&Q), audience members punch me in the stomach and so on. My colleague Dave Nicholson was particularly good at this, he's not a big lad but I've seen him take hits from boxers twice his size with no effect.

This type of work has developed into a mainstay of martial art demonstrations - I'm sure you've seen Shaolin monks having iron bars broken over their heads and similar. How much of this is down to "internal power" and how much to body mechanics and showmanship is open to debate.

Tough Guys
 Shaolin monks aren't the only ones breaking things. There have been numerous circus performers, strongmen, wrestlers, boxers or just out and out tough guys who have demonstrated similar skills - Houdini is probably the most famous example. Their methods included muscle control, conditioning, showmanship or just being able to deal with pain.

Why Learn to Take Strikes?
To me the question is more "why would you not?". If we narrow our outlook to just purely fighting - can you name one boxer, MMA champion or bare-knuckle fighter who has never been hit in their career? Even one? And these are guys who are fighting in a controlled environment (albeit a tough one) against one other person. Take that out to a tear up, ruck, bar fight - and what do you think the chances are of never being hit? Virtually non-existent I'd say. So it seems eminently sensible fight preparation to learn how to deal with a punch.

The question then is how to go about this - methods can range from crude to the refined. Whichever method you choose needs to fulfill three criteria:

1. it should not cause long term physical or psychological damage
2. it should be practical
3. it should be properly structured and progressive

 Point one is the first major problem. Taking hits is often associated with being tough, macho grimaces, braced posture. Systema confounds and confuses by encouraging people to relax. Through understanding the fear process, through understanding selective tension, through understanding the power of breathing, we take hits with none of the the associated "toughness". This method teaches the body to deal with stress rather than just getting used to it and ignoring the pain. Pain is there for a reason - you can de-sensitize parts of the body with stick, bottles and iron bars, but is that a healthy thing to do? Same goes for the mind, people can put themselves into trance-states and put skewers through their skin, but is this a good thing?

Learning to absorb impact means lessening damage, not ignoring it. The associated understanding that comes from dealing with fear and impact has, in my experience, a much more beneficial effect on a person than shutting themselves off from the experience and retreating to a mental fortress.
The second point relates to the first, in that to brace yourself or "prepare your energy" to take a strike takes time. If you need a special posture or the correct conditions for your method to work it is of limited practical use. Systema work is initially in a set, steady position, but as it progress it crosses over into regular training - so you learn to cope with hits on the move and from all angles.

Point three is important. There is a fine line between getting someone to confront their fears and reinforcing them. Sometimes being pushed into the deep end a bit can be beneficial, other times a steadier approach is called for - that is for the instructor to determine according to the experience of the people involved. Having said that, because the Systema method relies largely on simple breathing and a bit of movement, it only takes a couple of minutes to teach the basic outline of the practice. There is no need for prolonged meditation practices or complicated,  expensive routines - it is actually very simple (but not neccesarily easy!)

Training to get Hit?
I sometimes see comments on forums along the lines of "I'd rather spend my time training not to get hit". Or the view that if you learn to take hits you will let anyone hit you in a fight. This ignores the fact that good Systema training is balanced out. I wouldn't expect someone to practice only taking hits for a year anymore than I would expect them to do only slow press ups for a year. It's common sense that all these things are part of a whole and all drills and exercises should be integrated. The aim is not to just get good at just taking hits anymore than it is to get good at just doing press ups or being about to roll beautifully. So good movement and avoidance skills are still a major part of the fight training, but if and when you do take a hit you will have a good method of limiting its effect.

Other Benefits
 Taking strikes is just one aspect of impact control - we also learn how to deal with the impact of falling, being thrown, being hit with sticks, hitting a wall and virtually anything else you can think of. Of course there will come a point where only so much impact can be dealt with. However I find that this type of work brings a very real sense of what you can cope with, so no-one goes out thinking they are super-tough or invincible. And of course the better people can cope with impact the more intense the work can be, with less fear of damage or injury.

Aside from damage limitation the biggest effect of this method is the ability to cope with fear. Not to ignore it, but not to be controlled by it - the mind allows the body the freedom to do what it needs to do rather than over-riding it with a "freeze" response. That is something that applies to any situation you might be in, from physical violence to dealing with phobias or nerves.

From a health point of view, striking work ties in closely with Systema massage and manipulation therapy. An experienced teacher can pin-point areas of psycho-physical tension and work on them directly and effectively. This work can unlock areas of emotional tension in a very short space of time. It isn't work that comes over well on Youtube and is perhaps best experienced for yourself, but ironically hitting a person the right why can have dramatic positive effects!
This is where the Systema method rubs up against "conventional" training. To progress you have to "open up" and accept the experience, not hide behind physical / emotional armour. It is not always a pleasant experience, to feel so open and vulnerable, yet the benefits far outweigh any investment we have in our self-image.

When you see a martial arts clip of someone being hit, the exercise is often purely for the benefit of the "hitter". I cringe at clips where the teacher hits a student then smirks as they crumple in agony to the floor, left to their own devices. This is purely a one-way arrangement. I feel that as much as possible training should be two-way, especially when a student is placed in a vulnerable position so you can demonstrate your "liver exploding palm".  Maybe some teachers may be concerned that if they teach students how to take strikes then their hits won't work anymore and they will lose face.

Conversely I saw a thread a while back where a guy argued that if he could ever hit a teacher, then he couldn't learn from that guy. I suspect this has more to do with some Yoda fantasy than anything else. Of course this view can be bolstered in an environment where freeplay with the teacher is severely restricted or missing altogether. But is this healthy for all concerned? I don't think so. Personally I've been hit, kicked and "stabbed" much more when teaching than outside the class - and I wouldn't have it any other way. I have students with whom I now  struggle to make an impact on when hitting - which means not only that I have to up my game but also that the training is working!

I hope this goes some way to explaining those odd Youtube clips and also that training to take hits isn't the same as training to be hit. If your training doesn't include any type of impact-management I'd urge you to adopt some. Keep it practical, keep it healthy, take it steady and I'm sure you will get nothing but benefits from it. Now if someone could just teach me how to cope with the impact of filling my van with petrol.......

Thursday, 26 January 2012

New Mindset DVD

All the technical skill in the world is of no use without the correct mindset. One aspect of Systema training is the use of "survival" mindset - letting the body do what it needs to do in order to survive the situation. This mindset is beyond fear-based agression or pretending to be a predatory animal and taps into the body's primordial response to danger

This DVD shows some basic and practical methods to help you experience survival mindset and also shows how to incorporate it into your strikes, kicks and takedowns

The aim of any real encounter is to finish it as quickly and as safely as possible. Survival mindest, along with the approriate physical skills is the most efficient and healthy way to achieve this result.

We recommend a working knowledge of basic Systema breathing work before attempitng these drills

Now available at special pre-order price. DVD will be shipping early February

Friday, 6 January 2012

How to Create Drills

I spoke about the subject of drills in an earlier post. I've also noticed (perhaps it's a New Year thing?) a lot of posts in forums recently about people's favourite drills. So I thought it might be interesting to look at some principles and guidelines for creating your own drills - after all one of the cornerstones of Systema is creativity and adaptability in training. 

As discussed in the previous article drills are useful to a point, once they become too comfortable they need to be modified in some way, in order to ensure we don't just get good at doing the drill. But how to adapt them? I go into this subject in more details in Systema Basics Vol 12, but there are some simple principles to bear in mind. As Systema is largely principle-based it makes sense that the approach to constructing drills should also be principle based too.


If you want to to modify an existing drill you need look no further than the four pillars - breathing, tension / relaxation, movement, posture. To keep things simple let's take an extremely basic drill

DRILL - partner A moves towards partner B, partner B moves out of the way

That's about as basic as it gets - so let's modify things

Breathing - have one or both partner's work with holding breath; have one or both partners inhale while still then exhale on movement ; add in square breathing

Tension / Relaxation - have one or both partners work from extreme relaxation (fall on floor at the approach) to extreme tension (lock the whole body up) and all shades in-between;  have one or both partners work selective tension - eg just tense the arms or the legs

 Movement - run the drill at different speeds, very slow to as fast as possible

Posture - one or both partners work at three levels - standing, squatting, on the floor

Already, with just the Systema basics, we have a number of variations. Now let's look at more modifiers

Numbers - increase the number of walkers or avoiders

Inhibitors - blindfold, hands-in-pockets, stick down trouser leg

Task - partner B has to add in a take-down while avoiding

Situation - work in a restricted space, around furniture, in a crowd

Time - add in time limits

These are just a few examples, I'm sure you can think of more. I think you can see there are already a large number of variations possible on a very basic drill. You can now apply this principle to any drill or even many of the exercises.

That takes care of existing drills, how do we come up with new ideas? The first thing to consider  is the purpose of the drill. This may be very specific - (eg I want people to explore the amount of rotation in their right shoulder) to something more general  (eg I want people to get warmed up and out of breath)

Quite often there will be more than one benefit from doing the drill - sometimes it may be something you hadn't even thought of!

Once you have the purpose of the drill look at the factors that will shape it.

Effective - is the drill effective in delivering the result?

Practical - is it practical to run the drill in your training environment; do you have the neccesary space, conditions, equipment, knowledge? Do you have sufficient people to run the drill?

Safety - what are the risks of injury and how can they be minimised whilst keeping the drill realistic?

Understandable - how easy is it for students to understand the purpose and boundaries of the drill? While it is good for students to discover some things for yourself it is also good that they at least some notion of why they are doing a particular drill. The only exception may be those drills that have a surprise element....

Adaptability - can the drill be tweaked as it goes along 

Two way learning - is the drill beneficial for everyone involved, not just "attacker vs defender"

Progression  - can the drill be expanded upon

Challenge - what is the level of challenge for students involved? Too much can be as bad as not enough. Can pressure be increased / decreased as necessary during the drill?

Supervision - will you be able to adequately supervise the drill, watch for people going outside of the boundaries, tweak on the fly, or stop it immediately if needed


So - let's invent a drill! 

Purpose - to increase students awareness of how knives are carried / hidden

Basic structure -  group of 12 students. Three are carrying a hidden knife, nine are spotters. The students move normally around the training area, each has to spot / guess who is carrying a knife

Modifications - speed of movement;  amount of space;  low light levels; inhibitors - spotter is hampered by a partner holding arm / distracting (partner also needs to be protected);  increase / decrease the number of knives available

Progression - knife holders draw knife and make a single attack at random which must be avoided or checked

Progression   - as above but continuous attack from knife holder until subdued or target stabbed three or four times

Progression - as above but the spotters can work as a team when a knife come out to subdue the attacker

Hopefully this will serve as an example of how you can create a drill or easily modify existing ones. Freedom from a set syllabus gives you freedom to explore tangents and end up at places you might never have thought of. This approach encourages you to be creative and adaptable in your thinking - with the caveat that things must remain practical and realistic. That doesn't mean every drill has to involve a pseudo life-and-death struggle full of drama and tension, but that each drill must effectively deliver results beyond itself.  We all have favourite drills, but don't hang on to them  like a comfort blanket. Remember they are not the goal of the training, just something to use on the way to wherever you are going.