Article on Slow Training Principles

This excerpt is from Spyridon Katsigiannis’ article posted on Systema UK website. Mr. Katsigiannis is in Goteborg, Sweden. 

In Soft Work what we do is simulate combat situations using slow time framing (low speed, that is) while trying to keep the energy of our attacks real. This training method of the RMA has been highly publicised, mainly through videos available all over the Internet and it is because of this training method that Systema has been accused by practitioners of other combat arts as "unrealistic", "flowery", "girly" and various other reeeally cool adjectives!
Before going deeper on the specific reasons of using Soft Work as part of our training, I would like to state something that for Systema practitioner is already well known: we do not ONLY train soft in Systema – on the contrary, we use both soft and hard methods and each of those plays its own distinct role in our fighting preparation.

 ….Be sure and click "more" below to continue reading this article.

Before going deeper on the specific reasons of using Soft Work as part of our training, I would like to state something that for Systema practitioner is already well known: we do not ONLY train soft in Systema – on the contrary, we use both soft and hard methods and each of those plays its own distinct role in our fighting preparation.


Now, in order to analyze the scientific basis behind Soft Work, we must first take a deeper look in the most common emotion we experience during combat, which is fear. Extensive research on the human emotions in general and especially fear has been conducted in the last 30-40 years and one of the most prominent scientists in this field is Joseph LeDoux, Professor of Science in the Center for Neural Science at New York University. Referring to the fear system in the brain, LeDoux writes that "it is a system that detects danger and produces responses that maximize the probability of surviving a dangerous situation in the most beneficial way. It is, in other words, a system of defensive behavior".


Basically, what this means is that we are designed to survive. The millennia of evolution have hard-wired us with a personal protection system, which roughly functions like this: a potential threat is perceived by our senses (sight, hearing, touch taste and smell) and then sent for processing by a structure in the brain which is called the sensory thalamus. Subsequently, the info follows this route:

a) it goes to your "thinking" brain (cortex), which, based on your memories, previous life experiences, skills etc, will assess the situation and prompt you to an appropriate response, and also follows a parallel route to

b) your amygdala, another structure in your brain, which is not wired for thought but for direct action.

c) The info which has been processed by the cortex also goes to the amygdala, but it gets there a few milliseconds later than the info sent directly by the thalamus.


What’s also interesting is that the info that goes into your thinking brain is as accurate as possible, while the info that goes to the amygdala is crude and almost archetypal (something like what you hear when you speak to your mobile phone in an area where the signal is weak). The results of this process are described in this example given by LeDoux: "Imagine walking in the woods. A crackling sound occurs. It goes straight to the amygdala through the thalamus. The sound also goes from the thalamus to the cortex, which recognizes the sound to be either a dry twig that snapped under the weight of our boot, or that of a rattlesnake shaking its tail. But by the time the cortex has figured this out, the amygdala is already starting to defend against the snake. […] Only the cortex distinguishes a coiled up snake from a curved stick. If it is a snake, the [response evoked by] the amygdala is ahead of the game. From the point of view of survival, it is better to respond to potentially dangerous events as if they were the real thing, than to fail to respond. The cost of treating a stick as a snake is less, in the long run, than the cost of treating a snake as a stick".


So, the motto of the fear reaction system for which the amygdala is responsible, is "better safe than sorry" and in the long run of evolution, this has been a successful strategy. But, guess what: the amygdala, in order to initiate emergency reactions, is capable of ignoring a lot of information as irrelevant (under stress, you see less, hear less, miss more cues from the environment) and of course, it is also wrong a lot of the time!!! As Lawrence Gonzales, author of the best selling book Deep Survival puts it, "emotions [like fear] are survival mechanisms, but they don’t always work for the individual. They work across a large number of trials to keep the species alive. The individual may live or die, but over a few million years, more mammals lived than died by letting emotion take over, so emotion was selected".


There exists a number of modern self-defense systems (among them Krav Maga, Rapid Assault Tactics, Tony Blauer’s S.P.E.A.R etc) that are based on this function of the brain. These are known as "adrenaline based" or "reflex based" and the logic behind them is that since most crisis situations will trigger the fear reaction system, the training should take advantage of these fear responses as starting point for a few gross motor skills techniques. Systema instructor Kevin Secours from Montreal, Canada, has an interesting point to make regarding this approach: "If we simply decide that ‘all reflexes are good’, then we will be relegating control to every impulse and nervous twitch that we have and deprive ourselves of the incredible powers of our cognitive brains that have made us the dominant species that we are today".


Now, imagine you’re training in martial arts, Systema, or what have you. You want to work against a front kick and your partner decides to throw it not slow and smooth, but hard and fast. Your eyes see a leg coming towards your mid-section at 60 kph. The visual information goes through the thalamus to your cortex that will decide that this is your training partner who doesn’t really want to hurt you, so you should try to do something technical and martial artsy, right??? Wrong! Because a rough version of the same info will reach your amygdala first and it’ll go all "Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!!!" So your abdominal muscles will tense, you’ll probably bend at the waist and your arms will flail uncontrollably towards your partners leg trying to stop it, resulting in a… well, less than technical move. Let’s presume you survived the attack (although this depends more on your opponents speed, or lack of it) by using this primal instinct, which is triggered without your cognitive brain even knowing what exactly happened. Please keep in mind that, even if your partner"offered" you a chance to counter-attack (like and arm you can manipulate, a slight loss of balance you can capitalize upon, or a vital target which is waiting for you to reach out and touch it), your amygdala has considered this information as irrelevant and ignored it!!! Have you learned something from this exchange? Have you gained some sort of experience that you’ll be able to use against real life danger? I’m afraid not… The only thing you’ve probably "learned" is to be fear conditioned and respond in the same spastic way every time somebody front kicks you.


The most important thing about our training sessions is that they should be educational and productive. There is a time and a place for both soft-smooth and hard-fast training. But training is not survival, and it is definitely not contorting our faces with anger or flushing our systems with poisonous chemicals (like adrenaline) which will do us harm in the long run. Training is about learning skills which some day may aid to our survival, in a sustainable way. So, next time you come to a training session think of this: if you go hard and fast, you use your amygdala which cannot be educated. If you go slow and smooth, you use your cognitive brain, which can be educated. Which one will you choose?

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