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Laid-back, colorful, modernist 60 sq.m. flat downtown. Feels as if you're staying at an absent friend's place. A variety of day- and night-life options accessible even on foot. Easy to commute, dir...

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Systematizing My Systema, Part 3a: What did Hercules train in? Self-defense or combat sports?

Before I try to describe the specific training methods and progressions we use at the Göteborg Dynamo Club of Russian Martial Art, it is of utmost importance to explain the context under which those methods and progressions are used, the "why" that leads to the various "whats" and "hows". The "Systematizing My Systema" series of articles serves this purpose exactly - the first part of the series was a comparison between conventional martial arts training and what we do at the Dynamo, while in the second part, I wanted to make clear where we stand in relation to military systems of hand-to-hand combat. In this third part, I will try to address similarities and differences between our training approach and the one used in combat sports.

Before we go any further, I would like to say that I hold all athletes, and especially combat athletes, in the highest regard for a number of reasons. The first of those is because they bring a whole different level of physical intensity to fight training. During my years as a martial arts practitioner, I have had the opportunity to spar or roll with an Olympian and amateur world silver medalist boxer, a professional kick boxer, judokas who were members of their country's Olympic team, a pan-american medalist in BJJ and a SAMBO Master of Sport. What I noticed in their work, is that they maintain sensitivity and control over their movement at levels of intensity that make "normal" people's skills rapidly deteriorate - their soft work is as intense as what your average martial arts practitioner considers as hard work. This is not because they rely exclusively on strength and speed, as we often hear said from people with little knowledge - athletes might indeed possess above average strength and speed, but they have also tempered their technique repeatedly under pressure, resulting in skills of extremely high level that cannot be acquired through always training within one's comfort zone. Could this intensity come handy in a self defense situation? Well, what do you think?

The second reason I admire athletes is because of their work ethic. They understand very well that you can't get something for nothing, that there is no magic pill. The relationship between time spent training and level of performance is obvious to them, so they make time to train instead of complaining that they do not have the time to train. It seems though that this mentality is pretty hard to come by, and that is why if I had a dime for every person I've met who "tried kick boxing (or Judo, or BJJ, or MMA, or wrestling or...) for a few months and was very good at it, but could not stick to training because of other obligations", I'd be a very rich man... And now that I think about it, I would probably be a much richer man if I took money from all these people who have contacted our club over the past years, asking to learn self defense skills but with as little training as possible, because they were "way too busy"...

Do you want another reason to hold athletes in high esteem? Well, they train to be resistant to failure. They know how to bounce back from making mistakes that bring them in positions of disadvantage. I see a lot of martial artists out there training in "total agreement" with their partners, being unfailingly successful: they fake strikes and their partners fake the reactions they expect, so they all look good and feel good about themselves. That's all fine, if all you're opting for is flow and beauty of movement  - but what if one is actually preparring for combat? I remember more than ten years ago, on a LeiTai in Hong Kong, when I hit my opponent with a solid (and beautiful) jab-cross-spinning backfist combination that made the crowd in the stands cheer - he barely shook his head and kept on going after me until he knocked me out in the next round. He could recover from getting hit hard, while I could not mentally recover from failing to stop him with my heaviest strikes. Do you believe this mental resilience is cultivated by training with cooperating partners? Well, allow me to respectfully disagree...

I won't deny it: at the Dynamo, we are firm believers in athletic training. Does this mean that we only train for sport and not for self-defense?
Well, let me put it this way: English speakers like to talk about "sports", but I (being Greek and all) prefer to use the word "athlimata", from the ancient Greek word "athlos" (άθλος), meaning "task", "feat", or "contest". Here's an example, in order to better understand the way the word is used: the twelve labours of the mythic hero Heracles (or Hercules, in the romanized version of the name) [1] are known in Greek as dodecathlon (δωδέκαθλον), which means "twelve athloi", twelve of those feats or tasks, if you will. In a few words, athlos is a feat requiring that you use both your physical and mental resources to a great extent, in order to successfully complete it. OK, now I want you to think about yourself being in a self-defense situation: don't you need to exert control over your mental state, so that your physical skills do not deteriorate, so that you can exert some type of control or another over your opponent or maybe de-escalate? If that doesn't qualify as an "athlos", I don't know what does! And if you want to train in order to become better at completing an athlos or two, well... you are an athlete, whether you want to or not. 

Then is training for a combat sport all one needs for self defense purposes?
No, absolutely not: the strategies and tactics that might lead an athlete to victory in the ring, might get him killed in a self defense setting. But the physical skills needed are pretty much the same, whether you're fighting in the street or in a ring. In the Göteborgs Dynamo, we do train like athletes because we need to enhance our performance potential in order to cultivate those physical skills needed for self defense. We do not just focus our training on the needs of a single combat sport - we train at quite a few of them, at the same time: fist fighting, kick boxing, wrestling, stick fighting and a few more, slightly more "exotic"! You might think this is not possible, but it is and we'll have the opportunity to discuss why and how in a future blog post. For the moment, what I want you to keep in mind is that every person involved in any athletic activity (including self-defense), in order to perform at a high level, needs three things: attributes, skills and mental toughness. Coming right up, we're going to discuss each one of those in detail, so just keep reading...

[1] Just in case you skipped the class on Greek mythology, check out this article on the labours of Heracles from Wikipedia.

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