In the previous post, we looked at the importance of motivation in training - how it forms the foundational layer upon which all other aspects of training are built. I said there was more to say on this, and there certainly is. Greater men than I have written on this subject before - including my own teacher Vladimir Vasiliev in his original Russian System Guidebook (now, sadly, out of print) and more recently, Major Konstantin Komarov in his excellent Systema Manual. But for what it’s worth, here is my own view on the subject.
It’s clear that without clarity of motivation, your efforts in learning to breathe, move, grapple, and strike will be haphazard at best - causing frustrating plateaus in training. At worst, you could stall, backslide, and find yourself doubting whether you’ll ever attain real skill. Or question whether your system works at all.
I’ve seen many devoted trainees drop out or switch systems at this point, unaware that the fault usually lies in themselves, rather than their training method. This may happen after a few weeks, a few months, or after years of dedicated training. In the martial arts world, disillusioned black-belts abound. Some find solace in other styles and systems. Others take to the Internet and spread their bitterness through comment threads. Many give up martial arts altogether, and look for less frustrating pastimes.
This is a great pity. It’s not that cross-training in different martial arts isn’t valuable. Nor that other, non-martial pastimes are not useful. Clearly, they are. But often, this “jumping ship” through confusion and self-doubt results in a lost opportunity - a chance to stay the course, figure it out, and gain maximum benefit from your art of choice: be it Systema, Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, or otherwise.
So how can this be avoided?
The first step, as we described in the previous post, is to establish absolute clarity of purpose. You must ask yourself: Why am I doing this? What is this for? What am I attempting to gain?
These questions may not be so simple to answer. People begin studying martial arts for a host of different reasons. Systema, in particular, seems to attract people from a wide range of backgrounds, with varying motivations for training. In my own classes, we have students from all walks of life - personal trainers; physiotherapists; neuroscientists; biochemists; bankers; lawyers; journalists; playwrights; carpenters; military, law enforcement and corrections officers…the list goes on and on. What single purpose could possibly unite this diverse group?
In his 1952 book Higher Judo, physicist, judoka and somatic education pioneer Moshe Feldenkrais observed that broadly speaking, people take up martial arts for one of five reasons:
1) a desire to equip themselves with skill in self-defense
2) an awareness of insufficient physical strength
3) an awareness of insufficient physical coordination
4) a fascination with the spectacular prowess of martial arts masters
5) a need for an interesting pastime, or physical recreation
As Feldenkrais points out, the common factor here is the desire - be it conscious or unconscious - for “further self-development, or to harmonize relations with your environment.”
This holds true, I think, across all martial styles of any real worth. Martial arts are about more than winning contests, kicking ass, or gaining confidence. They are a path to maturity and self-development. Obvious? Clichéd? Perhaps. Why, then, do so many students (and instructors) seem to talk, act, and train as if this were not the case?
The answer, I believe, is mission creep, plain and simple.
In military speak (long-since adopted by gurus of project management), this phrase describes a mission that begins with one aim, and ends with another - often failing in the process.
One less-than-hypothetical example might be...say...invading a foreign country with the aim of deposing a fascist dictator, but then staying for decades to assist with defense and non-specific “nation-building”. Here, the original aim is forgotten as new issues present themselves, and new conflicts arise as the scope of the mission becomes broadened or diverted.
In a similar way, students may take up a martial art for any of the five reasons given above - perhaps all of them. But somewhere along the line, their motivation becomes muddied or tainted. Often, this happens through fear, insecurity, and a desire to hide weakness.
Thus, a student may begin training with the aim of learning practical self-defense. But in training, his weak grapples and strikes seem to have no effect on larger opponents. He becomes acutely aware of his insufficient strength. Building physical strength now becomes his mission, and he fills his training time with hours in the gym, kettlebell classes, or whatever makes him feel more powerful. Returning to class, he uses his newfound strength to muscle opponents to the ground, with some degree of success. But when paired with opponents of similar or greater strength, he finds himself powerless and unable to work.
At heart, the problem has not changed. Despite his efforts, he still feels that faced with a strong opponent, he has no self-defense ability. Now, he feels neither strong enough, nor skilled enough to face the world. Both missions have failed.
Another student might begin training with the explicit aim of becoming stronger and more coordinated. At first, she makes great progress. With regular and consistent practice, her balance, coordination and strength are greatly improved. She begins to feel powerful, agile, capable, alive in her body.
But in free-wrestling or sparring drills, she feels vulnerable, weak, easily dominated. Fueled by fear, the mission shifts, Now, her main goal is to attain the skill necessary to dominate and win. She spends most of her training time studying complex techniques. She watches DVDs and YouTube clips with a view to absorbing new movements. She cross-trains in other martial arts to gain a competitive edge. In class, she dissects and analyzes everything in her efforts to do it right, and do it right now. Again, her efforts yield some success. In free sparring, her knowledge allows her to control less skilled opponents - even opponents a little stronger than herself.
But in almost every class, she meets a partner with greater skill, and is controlled and dominated in turn. Crestfallen, she decides that her efforts have been wasted. If she’s still vulnerable to defeat, still unable to prevail against a skilled attacker, then what is she training for? Once again, both missions - the original and the acquired - have failed.
We can say, then, that long-term progress in martial arts training requires three things:
1) being clear about why you train, and
2) staying clear on your reasons as you progress
3) embodying these reasons in your actions
This is not to say that your reasons for training cannot change over time. They can, and they do.
For my part, I started martial arts training (aged 8) because I was impressed by the awesomeness of Hollywood karate and kung fu masters, and wanted to be similarly cool and exotic.
Later, I trained harder styles with the aim of defending myself against thugs and bullies.
Next, I sought philosophy and peace of mind through martial training, and gravitated toward traditional arts where I thought this might be found - Kendo, Iaido, Aikido - traveling to Japan to study with great masters to that end.
Later still, I was introduced to Systema, met Vladimir Vasiliev, and became aware of entirely new levels of skill, strength, and serenity - still far out of reach, but achievable through the right kind of training.
The point is, whatever your reasons for training, you must stay true to them in the moment.
If you’re studying martial arts to win competitions, then winning should be all you think about when you train. Ask yourself: Where am I weak? Where am I strong? What are the rules? What ensures victory within that framework? Do I need more strength, more speed, more skill, more unorthodox techniques?
If you’re studying martial arts for self defense, then everything you do should bear that in mind. Where am I still vulnerable? Would this work at full speed and resistance? Would this work on a less forgiving surface? Would this work if he was armed? Would this work against multiple attackers?
If you’re studying martial arts for self-development, the focus changes again. What am I feeling right now? Why am I scared, angry, aggressive? What is prompting this reaction? How can I gain independence from my fears, on a deep and permanent level? How can I expand the limits of my physical endurance, psychological resilience, freedom of movement, freedom of thought? Am I really exploring this, or am I cheating, making excuses, avoiding the issue, covering it up with feeble bravado?
For sure, you can focus on all of these things in isolation, over the long term. But try to do them all at once, and you will fail. Multitasking is a myth, and it has no place in martial arts practice. Things go wrong when goals and motivations are mixed.
So know your reasons, and stay true to them as you train. If the art (or instructor) you are practicing with doesn’t provide what you seek, you will naturally part ways and find another.
But chances are, once you commit to your one, true purpose, you’ll find exactly what you need - through your practice, through your training partners, and through yourself.