Open Criticism and Why I Embrace a Variety of Drills

I often ask my students what the pros and cons are for a given drill, usually after performing the drill for at least five minutes. It may seem intimidating at first, but open criticism is mutually beneficial. It fosters deliberate practice, teaches the correct relationship between the student and the drill, replaces disillusionment with transparency, and finally, actually discourages unwanted criticism.

What kind of criticism is unwanted? The kind that comes out of negativity, left alone to fester in a student unexpressed and unresolved. At its worst, unwanted criticism may come in the form of class disruption, or simply negative discussions during or after class, an individual or individuals might leave or seek to draw others away. Unwanted criticism is also harmful to students because it will most definitely distract them from getting down to buisness. As a Systema instructor, my goal is to decrease tensions and  reduce anxieties or irrational fears. I want to produce healthy students. Healthy students may seek to promote class and help those that are struggling with classwork. I believe healthy students trust the instructor and the classwork.

The real key to open criticism is transparency. If your drills are adequately transparent, then perhaps students will not become disillusioned or obsess over a single drill. Students should know the differences between reality and training, they should understand that there are aspects that, irregardless of whether or not they should be crossed, cannot be crossed in a controlled environment. We can reduce error by committing to many different drills with different attributes that help complete the picture. Think of classwork like putting together a puzzle, it cannot be done all at once, but we can explore it piece by piece until we have a complete picture.

There are no perfect drills, no go-to techniques, no single drill that completes the picture. Teachers should be clear about the purpose of a drill, is it a strength or flexibility drill? Attribute drill? Role-play? Or simply exploration without jugement? Don’t let students become confused about what their relationship with a drill should be. More often than not, confusion sets in because they do not understand the function of the drill, therefore they do not focus on the principles that drill is trying to bring out.

Students tend to focus on “effectiveness in real life situations” during most classwork. As I listen to students explore drills with their partners they are mostly interested in “if this, then that” scenerios. This kind of exploration is good if you are opening new possibilities, exploring different angles, “tasting the soup” as it were, to see what is needed. This is the wrong if you are giving the drill more power than it deserves, or treating an attribute drill like it must replicate reality. Often people who criticize a single drill give it more power than it deserves, but they forget, every drill has pros and cons, one is too slow, one puts you into vulnerable or strategically poor positions, one lacks fear or pain. Remind students to accept a drill for what it is and nothing more. Take what you need and leave the rest behind. Move on to the next drill.

Diliberate practice is a much better option than “if this, then that” scenerios.  If students feel thay are lacking in certain areas or that they could use practice with additional complications, break down the drill to isolate areas that need work. Additionally, encourage students to evaluate their performance based on feelings or “taste,” they will find it much easier to perform a drill in the present moment, focusing on feelings rather than on technique and strategy. There is a place for technical evaluation, but mich less frequently.

Be careful not to spend more time talking about a drill or principle than practicing it. Discussion is important, but students may quickly become enchanted by philosophical or poetic rehtoric so much that the actual goal becomes unclear. You won’t reach your destination blindfolded; navigating drills and concepts without a goal is like setting off on a hunt without knowing what to look for. Take a little time as a group to answer questions honestly and allow students to talk, but only spend as much time as is reasonable. Every now and then a student will ask questions too early or want everything too fast, or heaven forbid, talk more than work. For these students, you should employ strategies to move away from “discussion” to “buisness”, which you may develop yourself through experimentation and research. 

In conclusion, encourage students to seek to understand your drills, identify a short term goal and purpose, and finally, determine whether or not their performance leads them closer to their long term goals or further from them. These questions should be answered through deliberate practice that focuses on feelings rather than technique. Pros and Cons may be discussed before or after a drill as a class or individually during the drill. I also encourage teachers to give students time to reflect on their goals. When students habitually self-evaluate they will constantly ask themselves whether or not their internal feelings are consistent with their goals.

Discovering Your Own Path, Trusting the Journey

I once heard a story, although I am not sure where it came from, about a piano student who asked a master the likes of Beethoven or Mozart to teach him to write a symphony. The master began writing symphonies from an early age, but straight away he understood the student was not ready for symphonies. He gave his new student basic scales.

Frustrated, the student replied, “But sir, I want to learn to compose symphonies! You were composing symphonies from the time you were young.” To which the master replied, “Yes, but I never had to ask how.”

The master clearly displays signs of genius, but that does not undervalue the message:
“Masters don’t follow in the footsteps of great men, they seek mastery and find it through natural progression, creation, and imagination.”


Every person is unique, so they will learn and develop uniquely as well. The attempt to imitate another person 1 to 1 will ultimately fail. Your own self-discovery will open up new possibilities only you could find, you will take advantage of your talents, and reach your goal faster.

In Systema, you will learn to create. Would you rather a teacher gave you fish or taught you to fish? Would you rather learn a technique or learn to develop techniques out of the moment that could never be duplicated?


Every child must drink milk before they eat apples, but they do not need to ask when they may eat apples or how. From the time a child goes from milk to solids the mouth changes, eventually teeth develop, and by the time they eat apples they know they can.

A good teacher will point you in the right direction, that is all they need to do. There is no need to worry about how to take the next step forward, or any subsequent step. When you are ready for the next step, you will already know how to deal with it, and you will take it without a seconds thought. As long as you are constantly moving forward in the right direction, you will reach the end…mastery.

Mikhail Ryabko / ‘Faith is the most important’

One comment that really sticks out in this interview with Founder Mikhail Ryabko is his response to learning difficult concepts. Mikhail states, “You start with the visual, the exterior thing, and then you continue on to the internal work. This is how you start Systema.” This is an intuitive approach. Children also start to learn by imitation, then they internalize the behavior or movements, and only much later do they understand “why”.

stealth photography


What exactly do we mean by ‘the new school’?

It’s inner work, something you cannot see with the eye.  It’s not the shape of the body – its the reason, the process of how muscle works.  To know it, to understand it… this is what we mean by the inner school.

So have these internal aspects always been a part of Systema?

Yes.  Its always been one thing.  For example there is Aikido in Japan.  And it was split into two halves – and they exported it, but only one half of it.  And so, there is something always missing in Aikido.

Does this idea of the ‘new school’ mean a departure from the original form of Systema?

No, Systema is not changing.  Its about reaffirming the fundamentals.

For a lot of beginners, certainly for me, grasping some of these concepts can be very difficult.  Is there a way that…

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Self-Analysis “Hard to see, the Dark Side is”

On behalf of May the 4th, we looked deep into the film “Star Wars” for quotes relevant to today’s topic: recognizing tension.

“Hard to see the Dark Side is.” – Yoda (Replace “Dark Side” with “tension” please)

We don’t notice small differences in relaxation/tension as long as it is within our range of normalcy. This is dangerous because most people are accustomed to high levels of daily tension. Some tension is deeply rooted, associated with past experiences, and have had years of development, other tensions are from lingering injuries. We often see students who suppose they are very relaxed but physically display signs of deeply rooted tension.

We must start the day with a Beginner’s Mind. Avoid the temptation of assuming that we are finished progressing, or that we don’t need to revisit the fundamentals. Before we go to sleep at night we stretch and reach a few inches beyond our toes, when we get out of bed in the morning, we can’t reach much further than our ankles. Take it slow and easy or risk injury. We are all beginners.

“Clear your mind of questions.” – Yoda

While practicing internal work is demanding, slow, and difficult to understand, it can only be understood through patient practice. Questions may get in the way, so just go with it. Understanding is obtained over time, in its own time.

“Control, control, you must learn control.” – Yoda

Besides the typical methods of understanding and controlling tension (see Let Every Breath) We also recommend the following exercise: The Mental Movie Method

Lie down before bed and relax your body. Let every muscle grow heavy and still. Think of nothing but the task at hand. When you are comfortable, picture yourself performing a drill that you are unhappy with. Picture yourself enjoying the drill, picture how it feels to be relaxed, calm, slow, and confident. Do not picture techniques; only feelings and emotion. What does it feel like?

Practice this drill for 5-10 min every night until you see progress in your training. When you perform the drill you imagined, or any other similar drill, your body will remember what it felt like during relaxed meditation and try to duplicate those feelings.

Remember that tension is in the head as much as it is in the body. Judge your progress based on your level of comfort. If you are uncomfortable or agitated, that is a good sign you have work to do.

Finally, May the Fourth Be With You