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.

Mark Zamarin 7/11/15

Mark Zamarin, certified Systema instructor from Park City, will join us on July 11 for class. Mark is a skilled instructor and we are blessed that he is willing to come down to work with our students. You can read about him in his bio here.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The best place to begin exploring movement and body mechanics is the ground. On the ground, your body is open to new possibilities and you will discover things about yourself that you were not aware of. With practice, what you learn on the ground will open up new possibilities in standing positions as well. There is a degree of flexibility and strength conditioning involved, but for the most part, you are expected to explore your personal range and movement. In this set you will learn the principles of ground movement, to relax underneath an opponent, methods to stay on top of an opponent, and moving with a partner. You will learn how to transition from ground to standing positions, to fall from Standing and sitting positions, to take down standing opponents from the floor, and how to deal with grabs, holds, and strikes from the ground. Continue reading

Internal Work Intensive

It is often said that without internal awareness and control one cannot learn Systema. Konstantin Komarov goes so far to say “There are practically no techniques in Systema; rather only the state and potential of the psyche and the body. If you are learning techniques you are likely not learning Systema” (Komarov, 15). For the sake of understanding Komarov’s position on martial arts methodology, consider the first passage in Morihei Ueshiba’s book, The Art of Peace, which reads “The Art of Peace begins with you. Work on yourself and your appointed task in the Art of Peace…you are here for no other purpose than to realize your inner divinity and manifest your inner enlightenment” (Stevens, 3). Great masters have often taught that success in martial arts comes from within; not from wrote technique. Continue reading