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I just came upon an interesting article from the BBC about how men and women respond differently to danger. Nothing new here, women are more emotional than men, and that’s fine. Like we say in France, “vive la diffĂ©rence.” Our physical differences are obvious, and most martial arts consider them in training, more as precautions to be taken for either gender than anything else. Styles too rigid in their form unfortunately most likely cater to men. As a rule, women are not as physically strong as men. Training that relies on force only serves a small group of people, excluding women, children and elders. I can only think of Aikido and Systema as not relying on force but momentum and body mechanics. Force helps, but you can’t count on it. The strongest fighter can be injured or sick, thus losing most of his abilities if trained to win by force only.

The emotional response difference is what in my opinion constitutes a good argument in favor of a slightly different training approach, which actually can also benefit men. The Polish study I mention above found that a different area of the brain is triggered for men and women when they encounter danger; the left thalamus for women, the left insula for men.

Researcher Dr Andrzej Urbanik said: “This might signal that when confronted with dangerous situations, men are more likely than women to take action.”

The Biography channel has a great show called “I survived,” where people tell their stories of survival. The accounts are incredible. The men and women who make it through those horrendous life-and-death situations have a strong will to survive. You can however see a different pattern between sexes. A woman’s first response is more emotional while a men’s is immediate action. A man will not wonder why something is happening to him or if he is somewhat to blame. After a few seconds or minutes, it all comes down to survival and fighting. This emotional delay however can cost women precious seconds that might make a difference. Note that this can happen to men too, and that women do not ponder and waste time when it comes to defending their children. Training should take this difference into account. I have been a “bad guy” in a couple of women’s self-defense seminars, and we had to charge them yelling obscenities, which was hard enough for me to do! None of them could at first handle the pressure. They could take a man down if he just attacked them, but start yelling and be aggressive, and they could not. The motion was the same, but the emotional assault was too much. Eventually, they all got over it and performed well. This is where I believe training for the physical part of the assault is as important as getting used to the emotional one. This can be important for men too, as the “fight or flight” symptoms can be quite overwhelming. Rapid heart rate, shaking knees, tension, tunnel vision, the effects of adrenalin might be good in general for the survival of a specie, but not for the individual in our modern settings.

Another thing to consider is women’s reticence to hurt people. In training, I always have a hard time getting women to hit me hard enough. It takes a good amount of coaching to convince them that, no, it doesn’t hurt that bad, if at all. Most men without training can not strike hard enough to cause any significant injury, practically no women can do so. No offense intended here, it is simply a fact. It takes a lot to injure someone if you don’t know how. I heard so many times things like “Oh, I would just hit him in the nuts.” Sorry to disappoint, but first, what makes you think you will be able to strike that area? Assaults are not agreed-upon events. Most often than not, they will happen from the back. Kicking a man in the groin is certainly extremely painful, but it will not cause injury that can physically stop someone, like a broken knee. And boy, will that guy be pissed-off. Moreover, alcohol and drugs can dull the pain quite a bit. Real self-defense training should get women used to the idea of causing injury to their attackers, not only “hurt them.”

Men, while they have no problem hitting each-other, have a hard time hitting women. That is, the men I know anyway. Domestic abuse statistics prove that there are too many exceptions. I have a very hard time doing so myself in training. It is kind of going against a hard-wired directive. I have heard a few women complain about not getting a good enough training because the men in their classes barely hit them. I am not suggesting men to hit the women in their class as hard as their 200Lbs male buddies.. However, one has to be realistic to make training effective. The Yale University School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs Connecticut Health Care System have a study reported in the New York Times suggesting that women can take pain better than men. I am not surprised, as I can’t imagine going through the pain of giving birth, and wanting to do it a second time!

I will conclude by saying that the specific areas that women should assess in training would probably benefit men as well. I believe that it is important to consider the emotional part of violence when preparing for it, not only the mechanical aspects. Any real-life combat system should.

Having a good opinion of yourself is great. An inflated ego in martial arts however will hamper your training. Sport-based martial arts (I just called them sports), do use ego as a driving force, pushing competitors to train harder and perform better. In that sense, it works, as long as nobody’s life is in the balance. I am not an instructor, but I have taught a few Systema classes while my instructor was away, and of course, we get the occasional new student. I can classify students in two groups: Those who want to learn and are willing to let you show them, and those who, although they also want to learn, are very reticent to let you take them down or strike them, even just as a drill or to show them a move. They usually are very tense, which in itself slows their progress. It is the job of the instructor to make them realize that it isn’t about who can kick who’s ass.

Let’s look at this latest statement. We are dealing here with survival, not a competition or simple bar-fight where one opponent has to achieve control of the other, thus increasing his social position, to the detriment of the other. A simple premise like “I can beat that guy” makes no sense. You can beat him when? When you had a good night of sleep and he didn’t? When he had a nice breakfast and your stomach is bothering you? Or simply when it’s your lucky day and not his? There is no point in wondering about anything like that, because you can’t know the answer all the time, and really, it doesn’t matter. When a beginner slugs me in the face nicely because I failed to move, I laugh and congratulate him/her. I can hit my instructor too, he finds it funny as well. We do have a lot of fun in class, because we don’t care. We have no belts or ranks, and that makes training much more relaxed. Being worried about your group social standing puts too much pressure on you. In many martial arts, high-ranking students do not even practice with beginners. Would a white-belt take-down a black belt, oh my God, how could he dare do such a thing! Ranks give a false sense of superiority and breed contempt for lower-ranking students. It is often all about testing fees, selling ego-boosts for money. That’s how you get ten-year-old black belts anyone can beat-up.

What matters most is increasing your odds of survival.

Ego or should I say insecurities, can get you in trouble faster than a chameleon gobbles a fly, and you can end-up just as dead. You must recognize what’s important to you, physical integrity or perceived social standing. You can insult me as much as you want, I don’t care. As long as you are not threatening me physically, there is no need for me to “teach you a lesson.” My social standing might go down in the minds of whomever witnesses the incident, but the victory is mine, having shown self-control and avoiding possible injury, or worse. It might be more difficult when someone insults your wife, girlfriend or other family members, but the problem is the same. You need to be ready to defend their lives, not their ego or yours. I am not talking about a simple argument here, but an escalating situation when violence becomes likely. After all, that is why we train, so that we can go back home with our families after a violent encounter. Get used to defend your ego in training, and you might be inclined to do as well in real life, at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons!

Insecure, competitive, or ego-centered students usually realize early that their weaknesses will be exposed in training (nothing wrong with that, that’s the goal of training), and will soon leave. I can spot them immediately. I had new students try to teach me on their first class, when I have been training for years. I always welcome feedback and suggestions, but the intention here is misplaced. Those who stay will be a challenge for the instructor. They will try to teach other students their “own things,” or simply do what they want and miss the fine points of learning that the instructor might pass down to them. They’ll say things like “Yeah, yeah, I know,” or always try to have the last word. They’ll try to fight you when you show them something, resist take-downs, put a lot of tension in their work. I am not saying that they are bad people. I have seem very motivated students, great individuals, missing the point, so to speak. It is often the result of many years of competitive mindset beset upon them, or insecurities that have not been dealt with. A good martial arts training is probably the best thing for them, but they will have to check and change their premises to get the most out of training.

Creative Loafing, the Sarasota edition just came out, with an article about our Systema class. My friends Kolyma and Fox ended-up on the cover, with a big title: “The Russians are Coming to Kick your Ass!” I was directing the class that day, my instructor, Marc, being out of town. It is an interesting read, from the perspective of someone who never saw a class before; well worth reading.

Today I had an interesting short conversation with a guy who asked me if I was still practicing martial arts. I replied I did, and invited him to check-out the class. He told me he would, but a car accident injury was limiting his movements.. It didn’t came to mind then, but i should have said “so what? If you get assaulted, the criminal won’t care about your injury.” Actually, a criminal would rather seek an injured prey. People with disabilities should be the first ones to learn self-defense. The problem is that most martial art styles are not good for self-defense, even though they vehemently pretend to be. They may also refuse a disabled student because of liability. Another problem is that those styles often have a rigid teaching method developed in medieval Japan, where disabilities were, to say the least, frowned upon. A visible disability has the advantage of surprise, if nothing else.
I started Systema after a bad motorcycle accident during which I broke my femur, and dislocated my shoulder. I couldn’t afford reeducation, and decided to go to the “Russian Combat Academy” in Sarasota.. I had no idea what to expect, but let me tell you, the name tells it all. I barely made it up the stairs. I asked the instructor, an ex Spetsnaz operator, if I could practice, because I was injured. He replied something to the effect that he couldn’ t care less about my injuries (in a more flowery language I can’ t quite recall). There wasn’t much I could do for the first few weeks.. But then I got better.. My leg doesn’t bother me much anymore, except when I try to run. One more reason to learn self-defense, because I can’t run away!
The most difficult thing for a disabled student is to find the right instructor, and to some extent, the right style and school. If the atmosphere of the school is competitive, forget it, you wouldn’t have fun. Having fun training is what keeps you going, at least for me it is. Some schools will be glad to take you in, and promise you a black belt in under two years, just pay the fee, you’ll get it soon or later, and will be able to practice with all the other black belts, including twelve year olds.. Run away! As we say in Systema, a black belt covers only three inches of your ass.
So, if you have injuries or disabilities, you have more reasons to train than anyone else. I am sure you could find creative ways to use those crutches or that wheel-chair..

For more than three years now I have been training in the Russian martial art of Systema, and has affected my life in many unexpected, but beneficial ways. This art, or combat system originated in Russia about one thousand years ago to defend the country against many invaders. It was later adopted by Stalin’s bodyguards and the Russian military, but only for selected elite units of Spetsnaz, the Russian special forces. Systema is very efficient as a self-defense system. There are no rules, no ranks or belts, no uniform, no competitions, no nonsense. Movements are fluid and natural. Training is not based on techniques or form that keep you in a box, but intuitive, made-up on the fly to accomodate the situation. The only goal of Systema is survival.

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