In one of those odd little examples of coincidence (synchronicity?) both the Tempsford and Leicester groups have recently been exploring the area of pressure testing / psychological work. Also this week, a poster on one of the (few!) forums I regularly read posed the question "I am interested to hear how people approach preparing for real life conflict in terms of drills and scenarios whist maintaining a safe learning environment"
So it seemed an opportune time to clarify and explain some of the work we do in this area, especially as, in my experience, much of it seems to be unique to the System
First off, let us split our training into three areas
2. Technical - technique or principle based, developing skills of practical application, be it for general work or more specific areas, academic study
3. Psyche - understanding the mental and biological processes that underpin our physical actions, understanding interactions with other people, including cultural and other aspects, how to monitor and regulate our responses to various stimuli
Of course there is over-lap in these areas, any division is inherently false and made only for convenience. Having said that it can be interesting to isolate one particular area of training, in much the same way that we occasionally isolate a particular movement, or part of the body. This can be likened to strengthening the links of the chain, something I have written about previously
I would bet the the very first thing almost everyone does in their first Systema class is...breathe. I can't remember any Systema session where breathing wasn't mentioned at least once. If you think about it, we swim in air, yet most of the time that - and the fact that we breathe at all - is taken totally for granted. Already a fundamental aspect of our ability to operate is overlooked. There are numerous articles on Systema breathing, plus of course the excellent book and DVDs so I won't go any further into breathing here, suffice it to say that a decent understanding of breath work is the base for any further training.
Breathwork becomes ingrained into the physical and technical aspects of training. After all, it is the same person doing them! By that I mean that whatever endeavour you are undertaking, be it high speed driving or painting a watercolour, you are the same person with the same psyche - in other words, you are the constant. It makes sense, then, to understand the constant, the one thing (maybe the only thing!) we have some measure of control over
So, already we are working on the psyche in our everyday practice and you can begin working directly on fear control with drills like those we show in the Fear Inoculation Training DVD
Steve wrote in his blog recently about control and this is a good place to start. We feel comfortable when in control - so take the control away and already we have scope for testing the psyche. A quick and easy way to accomplish this is blindfold work. It doesn't have to be full-on sparring, just wear the blindfold and walk or run around the training room. Like the breath holding, it gives you direct access to the fear centre of the brain and forces you to deal with it.
A simple method when training in a group is to lay down and have four people twist your arms and legs. This quickly teaches you to relax into the movements as attempting to fight them results only in more pain. Drills were we have no control also teach us something about acceptance. Not that we have to accept every bad thing that happens to us - but that we have to accept that it is happening. Denial is not an option, dealing with the here and now is!
Firstly as the drills become more involved, the work is very personal to the person concerned. It touches on fears and phobias and puts the person in a vulnerable state so to me it is off-limits to the public eye
Secondly such drills if not viewed in context can easily be misconstrued, misinterpreted or even misrepresented. Another aside - I heard recently of an instructor of another style who told a new student that he watched what I presume was our class as we "ran around a field with sticks pretending to dig trenches". The misrepresentation may be intentional or not, in either case it is interesting, let's hope it had the desired effect for him and he has a new student
Thirdly this type of work should only be carried out under supervision of suitably experienced people. We are putting people into a vulnerable position. Similar methods can be used to influence people in a very negative way and to exert forms of control over them - the absolute opposite of what we are looking to achieve in our work. So I wouldn't want anyone taking the outer form of a drill without understanding the underlying and often subtle aspects of it.
It is interesting and rewarding to see how this training influences people and carries over to their daily life. Forget deadly hand-to-hand combat, with these methods we have had people overcome fear of flying, become much more assertive and confident in bullying situations at work, de-escalate situations that they previously would have flown headlong into and deal successfully both with a nasty situation and the aftermath. As I mentioned before it is you that is the constant in any situation, yet so much work in martial arts is about fitting you into a style or set of techniques with no thought as to how you operate under pressure. Endless repetition is not the answer, nor is mindless beasting. It is not uncommon to see people with years of training in stylised movement revert to scrappy boxing when under pressure. Why is that? Because they haven't addressed the underlying issue, in fact training can sometimes be used to cover it up and paper over the cracks.
I'm not surprised that people who only ever work in a highly structured, hierarchical, clean and matted training room sometimes look at what we do and pronounce it "weird". But weirdness is in the eye of the beholder - and when you think about how things are in real life and how they can be in the martial arts dojo you have to wonder what environment people are truly being prepared for.