What Are You Trying to Achieve?

All too many times I have been on the floor with a high-level Systema instructor (Mikhail, Vladimir, Martin Wheeler), watched them demonstrate beautiful movement and then stood there scratching my head as I observed students not only using far too much tension, but deliberately doing so.  Were they seeing the same thing I was?  Where they even listening to the explanation?  Either way, they just weren’t getting it, which brings me to my initial question, “what are you trying to achieve?”
There are a few reasons people are so tense and aggressive.  Here are a few.  One is that most people are overly tense and it just comes out in training.  They don’t realize how tense they are.  Two is that they are trying to fight in what their minds is  “realistically.”  Three is they don’t believe that you can get more results with less effort.  They make up with strength what they lack in skill.  Four is they like to bully and overpower people with their strength.
Mikhail was asked once what is the first thing he would teach a new person and his answer was to teach him how to relax.  Most people come in to class tense, inflexible and not very mobile.  There is also an element of fear new students have which adds to their tension.  My long-time students always comment on how much easier it is to work against people with so much tension.  This typical new-student tension is forgivable.  With practice they work it out.
I had a student named Ralph who was very tense when he attacked and was having a hard time relaxing when he defended.  I finally asked him what was going on and replied that he was trying to give a realistic attack.  While that made sense in his mind I told him that he couldn’t simultaneously train to be tense and relaxed (it is possible but he couldn’t do it and it was hindering his progress).  In the end he wasn’t really giving realistic attacks because no one throws a punch as tense as he was trying to do.  Again, this type of tension is forgivable and we straightened him out.
A common situation I see in students is the “Aha Moment.”  This occurs when a student begins to move smoothly and escapes an attack.  He then sees an opening, a chance to knock down his attacker.  At this “Aha Moment” he suddenly tenses.  The realization and the thought of doing a technique makes him over-eager and use far too much muscle.  This is a common mistake and can be corrected with practice.
I had a student who was fairly skilled at Systema, enough to be better than beginners.  He would toss them around but never let them work on him or improve.  He always wanted to prove how good he was and would fight them all the way. I experienced this type of student myself in Toronto about 5 years back.
I paired up with a rather large Russian student who spoke very little English.  I was doing some disarms that under normal circumstances would have worked, however, he just kept using all of his strength to hold on to the knife.  As we were alternating being the attacker I just refused to let him do anything to me.  I just kept moving, kept Form and frustrated his every effort to put me down.  He finally got the point and changed his tune when he realized I knew what I was doing.  We did some nice work after that.
This type of tension is not excusable as it comes from ego and pride.  I am blessed with very nice students, really, they are nice people.  It is hard to get them to hit people who need it as they don’t want to hurt anyone.  They get frustrated when they work with someone with this type of tension.  Sometimes even striking to relax the person just makes them more aggressive and tense.  It is an unfortunate scenario as this type of person usually winds up getting hurt working with more advanced students due to his own tension.
I tell my students that they can learn to be tense, fight and struggle in most other martial arts schools.  “You can learn that anywhere.”  Why would you even try to learn Systema and deliberately try to be tense and muscle everything.
If you are trying to improve at Systema you should be training to be more relaxed, more fluid and use tension judiciously.  I tell my students (and myself) if you find yourself getting tense unconsciously then back off because you are not learning anything.  When you are training just ask yourself, “is this getting me closer to moving like Mikhail or Vladimir?”  If so, then great, you are on the right track.  If not, why are you doing it that way.

So, what are you trying to achieve in your training?

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