Author Archives: Mark

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Seeing Systema from within Weightlifting

Category : FC Connect

A few years ago, I recall watching a fellow student attempt to do a diving front roll over a narrow table and smacking their foot on it as they went over. Frustrated, they would try multiple times, but always with the same result. As my friend let out another exasperated sigh and returned to try again, I thought of the many occasions in my own life where I had been stuck in the same pattern – frustrated, angry, and stubborn – endlessly repeating something that would never seem to go my way.

With some movements (e.g., diving rolls, punches) there are moments of commitment where a whole series of muscular actions coalesce into a single unified habit. For my friend, this began the moment they committed to the roll – it became an action which, once started, was like a runaway train that they could not control. It completed itself, whether they wanted it to or not. This is also commonly seen with strikes. If a punch lacks weight, there is then a need to identify which “parts” of the punch were good, and which were bad. A common cue is pointing out unnecessary tension in the shoulder (one of potentially thousands of variables that could be at play). However, what happens when you point this out to someone? It is a rare person who can take a single verbal cue and implement it successfully on the next repetition (unless they have been practicing for some time). The “habit” of the punch tends to persist unless careful interventions are applied to deconstruct and remove the counterproductive components of the image (or neurological engram).

Like my friend with their front rolls, and Systema students learning punches, I have been struggling with the problem of a habitual action of which I have little control. For over a year, I have been trying to learn how to reliably perform the snatch. Gold medalist Aleksey Torokhtiy points out some of the pertinent technical components of the lift in the video below.

One of the first things I was initially frustrated (and amazed) by, when I first started learning this lift, was the remarkable similarity to the feedback I received in Systema. I was told that I:

  • was too tense and needed to relax,
  • was rushing through the movement,
  • needed to feel the rhythm of the lift rather than impose my imagination of what I “should” be doing on the situation.

Additionally, between multiple attempts, coaches would ask me what was different about the first lift versus the second, and I would not be able to tell them the difference. Much like learning Systema style punches for the first time, they all felt the same. Doing the snatch felt like performing a single impenetrable habit – I would start the lift and get a result, but could not report on what happened in between.

With time, I have found that a lot of my problems involve the “second pull” where the bar explodes off your hips, and you attempt to get a complete triple extension of your hips, knees and ankles.

The Second Pull in the Snatch

This is one of the most critical phases of the lift, where the bar gets its final big boost before you pull yourself underneath it to catch it. The second pull has a lot of similarities (for me) to the moment of giving or receiving a strike. It is preceded by a anticipation, anxiety and/or fear prior to the moment of “impact”, it happens very quickly, and can result in a lot of pain if not done correctly (you don’t want to try to get under the barbell if you mess up your second pull). When all three of these variables are present, its common to go into a sort of “autopilot” mode to get through this moment.

Even though the snatch has different biomechanical issues from Systema striking, or rolls, or any other “impact” type movement that we may experience, the internal psychological mechanics are similar. The primary issue that undercuts both Systema and this lift are a calm and steady psyche which should remain flat and uncoupled from the “peak” of barbell speed and muscular effort. As long as the autonomic nervous system gets dragged into a spike of activity alongside the spike in barbell speed, there is minimal chance of 1) improving technique, 2) relaxing unnecessary tension, and 3) feeling the barbell rather than imposing one’s ideas on it. Similarly, giving and receiving strikes while burdened in this way will rob all of us the sensitivity and detail needed to make practical technical improvements (i.e., deconstruct and remove counterproductive habits from the neurological “image” of the punch).

While its not everyone’s cup of tea, weightlifting has turned out to be a useful adjunct to my Systema training. Other precision sports like archery, darts, and golf have similar advantages in that multiple repetitions provide ample trial and error opportunities to study decoupling sympathetic nervous system activity from a critical action. This is, after all, what Systema breathing attempts to access, and for some of us, there is an advantage in using multiple methods, sports and activities to triangulate upon this end.

I hope this serves as an interesting anecdote for you to consider some of the potential avenues you might also be able to explore Systema principles in your own life and hobbies.

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Containing Overwhelm

Category : FC Connect

As martial artists, we would be remiss not to consider some of the broader considerations around “self defence”. Often unspoken, the fear and pain many of us feel have little to do with physical confrontation and harm, but a disorganization of the self. A fraction of these potential dangers include:

  • losing friends and family to age, sickness or seemingly irreparable disagreements;
  • financial stress;
  • being rejected or judged by peers (particularly when it is for choices close to our heart that we believe in, but others cannot support, or a sense of personal failure); and
  • the merciless march of time which eats away our opportunity to pursue our dreams.

The hours I have spent training far exceeds the moments of real physical danger in my life; most of the physical harm I have experienced have been accidents and miscalculations in training itself. The dangers above however, are more frequent and familiar to almost all of us, or we are well aware they will be coming… eventually. They also hit much deeper. How odd would it be to study martial arts without thoroughly considering these penetrating strikes into our identity – delivered not through fists or feet, but by words or by circumstance? An insightful student can intuit and draw parallels between a physical strike and a verbal one, but the visceral collapse of being betrayed by someone you love can be more devastating and long lasting than broken bones.

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”
C.G. Jung

My recent explorations on this topic lead me to believe that there are two primary mechanisms of training on this topic. A metaphor may be useful.

Imagine your nervous system is a cup of water in a hot day. The cup itself can grow in size, or shrink; it is your capacity. The circumstances of life are like periodic rainstorms, that fill the cup. The rains come, your cup fills, the rain passes, the water evaporates and you have more room for the next storm. The rains can be heavy or light. The longer the water stays, the more sludgy and hard it becomes, and more difficult to remove. The more full your cup, the more likely it will crack; the rebuilding process will be long and often imperfect.

It is a rare person that has a completely empty cup. As a result, when the rains come, we already have a diminished capacity to hold an additional amount.

The metaphor has a number limitations, but it provides a starting point for discussion. We have two potential responses:

  1. Do our best to completely empty the cup to maximize our capacity for the next storm (remove held stresses/tensions).
  2. Grow the cup into a bucket (expand our capacity). This one is debatable – it may only appear to be true because emptying the cup gives an illusion of this (to be discussed another day).

The Systema approach is fundamentally a familiarization with our experience of ourselves in a variety of exercises and conditions. Wrestling, stretching, breathing, striking – these all provide a mechanism to jostle the cup, and get a sense of what is inside. Done improperly, you end up either damaging the cup, or mimicking a storm that leaves you with more water than when you started. Done properly, some of the water splashes out and you feel the space of being cleaned. Sludgy residue acts unpredictably – it can be difficult to dislodge, and once loose, has a tendency to do more damage to the cup than when it was stuck to the sides/bottom.

While watching myself and other students, my sense is that we have a tendency to frequently overlook the meaningful signs and signals from within ourselves in the course of our training. The cup is jostling, but we have a poor sense of which side of the cup the water is tending towards. We do have some slower exercises (e.g., slow push-ups make it possible to seek out sticking points, drawing out and extending some of the issues which require attention); which are more akin to gently tipping the cup rather than jostling it. Yet even in these slow calisthenics, the nervous system is under stress and somewhat defensive.

The slow tipping of the cup is a special approach. When it is being done, the work happens inside each person, and is difficult to accurately intuit except for the keenest of training partners. When our drills require rapid changes in direction, speed or a focus on biomechanical results rather than self observation, our habitual responses draw our attention elsewhere, making the water difficult to sense.

As the quote from Jung suggests, we need to devote some special training and attention to the darkness within. The movements of the water and its older sludgy companions are often very personal and difficult to approach largely because we have been ignoring them for as long as we have had them; that is why they are still there.

Critically, if you fail to address your own darkness, you will not have enough capacity to share the load of the water in your partner’s cup. Their residue will resonate with yours, and you will blame each other, instead of recognizing what you have hidden from yourself. However, when you pair your cup with your partner’s and you both have the capacity to gently jostle/tip the cups, more water will leave your cups than if you were to attempt to do so alone. In this way, our training partners are our greatest allies, but only if we have the intelligence, trust and understanding to offer this service to each other.

By healing each other, we will win learn more about self defence than we could by any other way.  We will empty our cups, and our capacity to contain the sometimes shocking and difficult realities of this world will be enhanced.

See you on the mat.

– Mark

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