Newbies. The first kind of students who risk injury are Newbies.
Newbies are suseptible to injury simply because they do not yet know how to move to prevent injury.
They might fall awkwardly rather than smoothly rolling away, snapping a wrist, breaking a collar bone or suffering a hard, jarring impact with with the floor.
A prevailing Systema teaching mindset is that if something hurts enough, a newbie will learn to move correctly, however, pain doesn’t necessarily teach them correct movement, as I’ve seen time and again.
Sometimes new students, rather than continuing to try, instead give up and stop trying due to the intense pain.
The positive psychology term, Learned Helplessness, explains that some people may resign themselves to their fate, to shut down and do nothing if they believe that they cannot find a solution their problem; if nothing they do matters, why bother?
Because Systema is learned by trial and error, training sessions can inadvertently create a feeling of helplessness.
One method of teaching students how to escape holds is to slowly bend their joints in un-natural, painful positions and allow them to find a way out by moving in various directions, and it usually works famously.
However, I have seen students melt down, stop moving and complain that nothing they do works.
These instances have been quite dramatic as well as traumatic, with some students bordering on a psychological breakdown as their partner continues to apply pressure, hoping the student finds a way to relieve their pain.
Doubting Thomas. One specific personality type is particularly prone to getting injured in training, the Doubting Thomas.
The Doubting Thomas has to feel a move applied to him or he cannot accept that it works.
To be fair, Systema is a visceral art and you really do have to feel it to get it, so being a Doubting Thomas, or a Curious Thomas, is a good thing.
The danger is that the Doubting Thomas might not be ready to deal with something like a nasty arm-break.
I have had many students who wanted to feel an advanced move in real time only get angrily step back into the group, licking their wounds and upset with me for doing what they asked me to do.
I have a fondness for Doubting Thomas’ because they force us to perform honestly and they push others to advance their skills in response to the incessant questioning.
Systema has garnered a large swath of critics, so when someone wants to feel that it works, I oblige. I’d rather have a student leave class saying, “Ouch, that’s brutal,” than saying, “Man, that was fake.”
Even if they think ALL Systema isn’t effective, they will leave knowing that MY Systema is. The integrity of my school is at stake, so I act accordingly.
The Alpha Male. Another personality type likely to get injured is one step beyond the Doubting Thomas, the Alpha Male, commonly known as the A-hole.
The A-hole goes beyond simply wanting to feel how something works, he wants you to try a specific move on him, so he knows exactly what’s coming.
What you don’t know is that he fully intends to try to stop you from demonstrating successfully on him.
I used to hate dealing with this type of student before I learned Systema because I was always worried that maybe a technique might not work and I’d look bad.
Now I welcome it, because I have the skills to take whatever the A-hole gives me and use it against him.
I have come to sense and expect such intentions from a-holes, so it’s fun answering such questions physically.
The A-hole tends to get injured due to his own intentions. Funny how his attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — he wants to feel it work against his counter, then it works and he is badly hurt in the exchange.
This type is disingenuous because he fully expects to counter your move however he wants to prove his superiority.
Yet, when your moves work (because you are not relying on one specific technique) as they are supposed to and he is hurt, he can protect his ego by blaming you,”why did you have to hurt me, I was just asking a question?”
It’s always, just, with these guys, as in, “I was just trying to make you look bad in front of everyone, including your students.”
The A-hole calls you an A-hole for not allowing him to be an A-hole on your mat. You’re better off without these guys in your group.
Winners/Heroes. These students must win every encounter and, as such, resist every movement, only stopping when something snaps.
I recently saw grizzly footage of a guy caught in a reverse heel hook. He refused to tap out and the pistol-shot sound of his knee ligaments popping was stomach-turning. A gruesome injury and months of painful rehab all because his ego couldn’t just say, “ok, you got me, let’s go again.”
In Systema, these winners resort to tension and strength when they find their skill lacking, again, leading to some body part failing.
Mikhail refer to these types as, Heroes. He once wisely said, referring to weapon disarms, “heroes want to die holding their weapon, so help them.”
He meant that this type will cling to their weapon like a drowning man to a life-preserver; he will single-mindedly clutch his power source, his weapon, with all his might.
While you might not be able to disarm him, you can easily control and attack him by working away from his weapon arm to defeat him.
Then you can take the weapon from his cold, dead hand, a la Charlton Heston.
Sadists & Psychopaths. The final personality type is the most dangerous to his partners, the type who has no regard for his partners’ safety and who may enjoy inflicting pain on less-skilled partners, who cannot stop him.
No student is safe from this type. He will not learn if you put him in his place, he will only take it out on weaker students.
These types don’t learn from pain, will not change their behavior accordingly, and will blame you for hurting them.
Unfortunately, the only way to recognize this type is when you notice the pattern of their name popping up in association with each new injury in class — he (not) coincidently turns out to be the partner of each injured student.
You might brush off the first few occurances as training accidents, but as they say, three times is a pattern. Your best bet is to cut ties with this type of student and wish him well, somewhere else.
I speak from experience.
Touch and pain are inevitable parts of Systema training, but injury is not.
Every martial art is potentially injurious because that’s the nature of the training, to inflict enough pain or injury on the bad guy to make him relent.
These risks can be minimized by proper guidance, a safe training progression and most of all, a healthy psyche.