"The first and most important consideration for training should be to understand why you are doing it. You must ask yourself, constantly: why am I doing this? What is this for? What am I attempting to gain from this drill, or this manner of training?"
This, I heard a few years ago now, at the Systema Immersion Camp 2010. This event - for those of you not familiar with it - is held every couple of years in Ontario, Canada, organized and led by RMA Headquarters in Toronto. That particular year, Russian masters Mikhail Ryabko, Vladimir Vasiliev, and Konstantin Komarov were all on hand to impart deep and transformative lessons in Systema practice. And though I learned much from all three, it was this simple lesson from the legendary Konstantin that stood out for me at that stage in my training.
The reason was simple. I possessed all the enthusiasm necessary for training, but at that time, felt overwhelmed by the sheer scope of Systema. There was (and still is) so much to learn - everything from breathwork and body conditioning to grappling, strikes and defense against weapons. How, then, to focus my efforts? Which elements should take priority in my own training? Should I focus on shoring up my (many) weaknesses, or cementing my existing strengths? Should I study more movement skills , or focus on my stability and structure? Though I had undoubtedly made great progress up to that point, it all seemed a little random and scattershot. A truth that was revealed every time I tussled with Vlad's strongest students at Toronto HQ.
Then with this simple, half-hour lesson, Konstantin threw me the rope I was grasping for. He explained that all these elements must be training simultaneously in order to understand and appreciate the greater whole, which at that time I could not even begin to see. At the same time, he laid out a kind of pyramid, or hierarchy, of elements - explaining that areas of study higher up in this pyramid could not realistically be mastered without a solid foundation beneath. I have not heard this explanation phrased quite the same way since - not even in Konstantin's own training Manual, penned some years later. So I apologize in advance for any misinterpretation on my part. But I'm reasonably sure my notes of the day were accurate, and this approach has served me well in the years since. So here goes:
The most foundational layer of training, he explained, was motivation. If you don't really know why you're doing something, or what you hope to achieve, then you're destined to veer off-course and miss your mark. I've heard this phrased elsewhere, in business-speak, as "you can't hit a target you can't see". But it goes far beyond that. More on this later.
The next layer up - built on a foundation of clear, correct motivation - is the study of breath. Without a solid foundation in breathwork, any higher focus (on say, movement, tactics, or technique) is largely wasted. You'll use too much effort, try too hard, and allow your psyche to become too excited, failing often in all kinds of drills. Worse yet, you'll fail to perceive where you've gone wrong, and perhaps commit to years of error-filled training.
Beyond this lies the study of the body - building what Vlad calls a "warrior body". Through this, you gain the strong, supple, powerful body needed for Systema practice, and are able to proceed to more intense, challenging work without fear of injury, or needless flinching reactions.
Beyond this lies the study of the psyche - including all aspects of your fear, anger, and other emotions, how they hinder or control your movement, and how that applies to relations with others. Without a strong body, Konstantin explained, serious study of the psyche under pressure is impossible, because your body fears excessively for itself. With a strong body, you can move beyond basic flinch/response training, and study more and more challenging themes, such as absorbing hard strikes, working in confined spaces, and perceiving / manipulating the psychological state of others.
Beyond this lies the study of movement - including movement on the ground, standing footwork, complex evasions, and everything in between. Again, without a strong, fearless body and a balanced, stable psyche, serious study of movement becomes tainted with fear, and your movements are still controlled - to a greater or lesser extent - by your own environment, or by the movements of others.
Beyond movement lies the rest of Systema - ascending through grappling, striking, and working with weapons and multiple attackers. Grappling should come first, because the direct contact makes pressures, angles and emotions easier to understand. Striking, while on the surface far simpler, involves more instantaneous making and breaking of contact, and therefore is far more subtle and difficult to master. And only when you can apply direct grapples and strikes to one opponent should you really consider attempting to apply the same to an armed opponent, to work against several opponents, or try to incorporate weapons and other objects into your own movement.
This is not to say you should never try to strike before mastering grappling, or avoid knife work altogether until your psyche is completely stable. For one thing, it would make for very tedious training. And besides this, you never really master anything, anyway. Thishierarchy, as I understand it, is far from set in stone. It's a fluid template, which allows movement back and forth between areas of study, whilst also recognizing the relative importance of each layer within the whole. It allows you to cross-train in physical, mental, and martial skills without getting caught up in just one area, and losing your focus on what is important - your own development as a person.
And that, shall be the subject of my next post...