At a recent Women’s Empowerment Workshop where I had just finished teaching a two-hour session covering Systema for self-defense, one of the participants asked, “What is the main difference between Russian Martial Art and other forms of martial art?”

I responded by saying that in RMA we do not study techniques, per se, but rather we study concepts and principles, and ways to manipulate a human being so that an appropriate response can be improvised on demand for any situation given the unique circumstances of that particular situation.

Well, that’s a mouthful. What does all of that mean?

Earlier in the session I had posed the question to the women present: “If someone throws a right hook ‘sucker punch’ at your head, what should you do?”

After a moment of nervous giggles and puzzled looks, I said, “It’s kind of a trick question…”

Asked in that manner, the question is difficult to answer. Why? Because the question is without any context.

  • Is the person taking the swing your hot-headed cousin at the family reunion who has had a bit too much to drink and feels you have done something to offend her?
  • Is the person taking the swing a drunken patron at a bar who thinks you are trying to pick up her boyfriend and wants to teach you a lesson?
  • Is the person taking the swing a 250 pound man on a dark, deserted city street who wants to knock you out with that punch so that he can get you to the ground and do even worse things to you?
  • Are you a soldier in a war zone, and the person taking the swing an enemy combatant?
  • Are you a law enforcement officer trying to subdue a violent suspect who has taken that swing at you?
  • Is there one answer which is appropriate for every one of these situations?

Of course, one could say evade or block the punch, etc. But then what? Evading or blocking the strike has not neutralized the threat of the person behind that strike. Therefore, further action beyond the evasion or block needs to be taken. But what should that action be?

From the perspective of RMA, all of the parameters of a specific situation will dictate what the appropriate response will be for those particular circumstances. Understanding how context affects what action(s) to take therefore becomes paramount. From this perspective it is quite impossible to have a pre-determined response — what is typically called a “technique” — for any and every particular attack. The response must be relative to the context of the situation.

Later in the session, after I had demonstrated how to compromise a person’s structural stability in order to take them to the ground, one of the participants tried it on me. While she was successful in bringing me to the ground using the concepts and principles I had just discussed, she subsequently fell forward on top of me.

“What do you do when that happens?” she asked.

Aha! What indeed? This is the crux of the argument. Things do go wrong sometimes. Mistakes happen. Unintended consequences will sometimes occur. What then? Will you have a pre-determined response you have already practiced for that eventuality? Can you have one for every possible circumstance? Is it even possible to do so?

The answer is obviously no.

It is, therefore, a primary training goal of the practitioner to develop the ability to create an appropriate response on demand. If the practice of your martial art involves the study and rote rehearsal of techniques or pre-determined responses to a particular attack or circumstance, it behooves you to understand and dissect that technique in terms of how it works, and why it works. To understand the mechanics which make it effective. Knowing how context impacts your response to threats, as well as understanding why and how your techniques can be effective, will truly allow you to own the material you study regardless of what system or style in which you train. You will thus be better prepared to formulate an appropriate response to any situation.