Before I begin, I have a follow-up to the centipede poem from last time:
A one- legged dragon meets the centipede (after his run-in with the toad).
He asks the centipede,Â “How do you manage all those legs, I can’t even manage one.”
Centipede wisely answers,Â “I don’t manage them.”
When I studied technique-based martial arts, it was much easier to rely on praise as an accurate measure ofÂ skill developmentÂ Â becauseÂ progressÂ was linear.
It was a simple matter to memorize a specific sequence of moves correctly and execute them. Â Praise meant I had performed the technique in the proper order, hitting the proper targets.
It was unlikely that after being praised I would completely forget a technique sequence I had memorized. Â After successfully memorizing a technique,Â I just had to perform harder and faster and I knew I was on my way. Â So praise meant progress.
The spontaneous nature of Systema makes a simple praise=progress evaluation elusive.
There are many more factors that comprise successful Systema execution than just memorization of a technique sequence. Â All of these factors — breathing, moving, relaxing and structure — must work together, and while one may improve another may degenerate on each go around. Â You may improve your movement, but then your breathing stops and vice versa.
All of these critical success factors in performing Systema are always in flux.
That no two attacks are ever the same also makes consistent praise near-impossbile to rely on.
In a technique-based art, if you make a mistake you do the exact same thing again; Â the attacker attacks in the same manner and the defender is ready to execute the same sequence, hopefully better this time.
Praise, at times, loses all meaning in Systema.
This is why one of my initial response to when a student asks me,Â “Was that right?” is this,Â “Is the attacker on the ground (or subdued)?” If so, then that was good. Â Now, we can work on being more relaxed or breathing better next time.
The trap is becoming addicted to praise.
Any student may develop such a sense of hero-worship for his teacher that skill development takes a back seat to teacherÂ approval. Â Praise morphs into a sign of personal acceptance and dictates your sense of self-worth.Â “I’m a good little boy because teacher said I did really well. Â Teacher likes me.”
WhatÂ happens when the teacherÂ hasÂ to correct you? Â When your work needs fixing?Â “I’m a bad little boy because teacher said I did poorly. Teacher doesn’t like me.” This is a prison that extends its walls well beyond Systema class.
Once I was working and Vladimir said I was doing a particular drill very well. Â I said thank you, and kind of blew it off to prevent myself from tripping over my feet the next rep. Â He looked at me and said,Â “it’s not praise, it’s the truth.” To which I said thank you again and continued to work.
What Vladimir gave me was an accurate assessment of the situation, fact not opinion. Â It was my job to ascribe meaning to his statement. Â I chose to see his assessment as a signpost, not a value judgment.
So don’t become addicted to praise.
A common spiritual ideal is toÂ “be independent of the good opinions of others,” (don’t get addicted to praise).
Praise can become a drug, and like any drug, the withdrawal symptoms can be excruciating, especially when it comes to corrective feedback.
Corrective feedback, pointing out your mistakes so you can fix them, is essential to skill-development. Â If you are addicted to praise you will do everything in your power to avoid this anti-praise.
I know because I was like this for years. Â Sure, fear of criticism can make you try harder and improve, but you are still an addict.
The beauty of keeping praise in its proper place is that you become free to accept wherever you are at the moment and get on with your training.