When I trained in Toronto, for many years I used to leave class wondering if my skills were sufficient. I often felt that If I were to get into a violent situation I wouldn’t actually know how to handle myself, despite the training. Some days, maybe because of it, overthinking would occur, I’d lose initiative. Being of smaller frame I always simply assumed a stronger angrier opponent would mow me down just by force of intention if nothing else.
I’ve lived abroad for several years now and haven’t had the occasion to train regularly with other Systema practitioners, so I’ve made do with MMA gyms instead. Mixed martial Arts and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu have a particular reputation for being supremely functional and practical in a way that many of the traditional martial arts are not. I’ve always been curious as to how their training methods stacked up against ours. I finally have some feedback.
Now I’m generally not a big fan of comparing styles as it often misses the point, a good teacher is a good teacher, and everyone internalizes different skills in different ways so I think these kinds of comparisons are usually pretty one dimensional. But I’m very curious about teaching concepts and how this prepares us for the world’s diversity. In the past year, I’ve gotten a real sense of the contrast between our training and other forms of martial arts.
In MMA gyms, I met a lot of very fit, very skillful practitioners. There is certainly a beauty and power in the efficiency of a well executed system of techniques. And it is certainly a practical skillset that are taught here. But as soon as we would start sparring or doing more free form training, a certain lack of sensitivity and became apparent across the board, and this was true in several gyms I trained at. The overall mentality was that of trying to execute techniques properly within a competitive framework. I’m by no means a masterful martial artist, but this mentality has a tunnel vision to it that I was able to exploit time and time again against otherwise superior opponents.
Take for example a simple grappling exercise. Each partner has one hand on the back of their partner’s neck, and the other hand rests on the partner’s bicep. From this starting point we try to jocky for position and throw the partner if the right leverage is found. There are a number of moves and responses to those moves that can get the job done, typically we’ve spent the last 20 minutes learning them. Now we’re trying them out in a free form situation.
As we sparred, while I was sometimes outpowered, or simply ran out of stamina before a fitter opponent, but overall I was surprised at how well I held my own against some much larger, stronger, or fitter opponents. I credit that success to the most fundamental aspects of our training. While I was not great at memorizing complex sets of movement, and was often a hapless Newb during the technique drills. But none of this mattered in sparring scenarios. very simple footwork and knowing my distance and posture often was enough to cancel my partner’s initiatives.
We train from feeling. I understood how to constantly shift my position in subtle ways to maintain my sense of freedom or comfort. It’s become instinctual. I understood how to fit into spaces. I knew my distance. If I lost ground and had to take to the mat, I did it comfortably.
But the holes were more apparent in open ended sparring sessions (which I really had to talk coaches into letting me try, they were often very hesitant to do so). My experience of sparring with MMA types, is that of an exchange of a shared set of memorized techniques, so whoever is stronger or more technical takes the exchange. In the right hands, this approach has a deadly efficiency, there is no doubt at all in this regard. But in the meantime, there is a total loss of creativity, unseen opportunities everywhere. If I was sparring with a partner and we ended up in the above mentioned grappling situation, they would go straight to the various arm techniques to try and get leverage at the chest and shoulder level, because that’s how you’re taught to do grappling. Instantly I had some advantage if focused on my legs instead.
I think the takeaway for me is to appreciate just how in Systema, we’ve developed a deep understanding of movement as communication, not simply self defense, or combat sport. We’ve been taught this from the first class, we did not have to wait ten years to begin to appreciate this fact. I always thought this was a beautiful aspect of the training, but since my exposure to other clubs and different schools of martial arts, I’m beginning to realize that it’s not just pretty philosophy, it’s supremely practical.