Injuries & Systema, Part 1

Having taught a brutal martial art like Systema for decades I would expect a fair amount of bumps, bruises and breaks. 

Surprisingly, in spite of the injurious nature of Systema training, serious injuries during training Systema are far less than you might imagine.

I’ve taken a closer look at the students and situations involved in training mishaps and found fairly accurate indicators for who might be hurt and when.

In the movie, Trading Places, comedian Eddie Murphy winds up in jail and hilariously tries to intimidate a large inmate sharing his jail cell by telling him Murphy’s character fought off 10 cops.

The inmate asks him why he doesn’t have any bruises, to which Murphy replies, “I’m a karate man, karate man bruise on the inside.”

When I started Systema, I was black and blue all over from all the heavy contact.

Vladimir looked at my training souvenirs and said that I would bruise less as I become more relaxed; the bruising was from my tension, as my body absorbed strikes and broke under their force.

True to his word, I noticed that as I improved I bruised less and less. I came to understand that the bruising was, in fact, from excess tension and not properly moving. 

Through my experiences with the damage that Systema can inflict, I formulated a simple method of distinguishing between three difference levels of contact: touch, pain and injury.

  1. Being touched is just that, skin-to-skin contact which, while this may be uncomfortable so some, is physically harmless.
  2. Being in pain required a depth of penetration or amplification of force that fires your sympathetic nervous response, causing wincing, freezing, covering up, withdrawing and possibly tearing up.
  3. Being injured refers to a functional breakdown, such as a broken bone. For example, you feel the touch of someone grabbing your finger, the pain as he bends it backward, straining the tendons and, finally, the injury of the dislocation as the pressure he applies exceeds your finger’s range of motion.

While advanced students have learned to operate on the spectrum between touch and pain, much of Systema training by newer students takes place on the spectrum between pain and injury.

Newer students tend to move too late, carry too much tension and make mistakes that lead to taking on more force than they can handle.

I had a student who traveled a long way to class, but could only attend Saturday sessions.

It just so happened that every time he came to class we are doing knife work.

He was big, strong and didn’t like to get out of the way of the knife.

His partners told him to move like the knife was telling to move, instead of being rigid.

He wasn’t getting the point (well he got plenty of points) and I could see the pain on his face.

One day he came in and said that his wife didn’t want him to train any more. When I asked why, he raised his shirt, revealing a purplish, yellow torso dotted with bruises and knife marks.

After this episode, I began to grapple with the questions of: who gets hurt, why, what type of student hurts other students in class, and can I prevent injuries or are they inevitable? 

NEXT: The Personality Types likely to get injured in Systema Class.

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