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Systema, Neurological Reaction Time and Learning

Systema, Neurological Reaction Time and Learning.     

by Dr Andrea Bisaz

A major factor in fighting arts is the speed of response to a
given attack. As we know, this is dependent on many different factors. Timely action is crucial for a positive outcome with an adversary.

Different fighting disciplines have implemented various
strategies in order to gain a time advantage over their opponent.

A common approach by many professionals such as SWAT Teams,
Special Forces etc. is to use just a handful of very generic applicable
techniques based on gross motor skills. The idea behind this approach is:

– One, to decrease decision time of the mind, thus, to shorten your reaction time (response time) to a given

– Two, the gross motor skills allow people to still perform under duress.

Whilst the response in our brain to physical attack is very complex and varied, there is an intriguing aspect, which I would like to discuss. It is important in understanding the response time of the subconscious approach (Systema) as opposed to the conscious choice approach mentioned above.

It is relatively unknown that when our brain prepares for a
movement, for example, in response to an attack on our person, it will always do a dry-run first, without activating our muscle and without our conscious awareness. This means the brain has something like an emulator. Before we become aware of our intended movement, our brain will dry-run the movement through its brain maps. This will include hormonal activation, blood pressure changes and all the usual psycho-physiological adaptations. The only thing, which is missing, is the activation of our muscles (and our awareness). Only following this dry-run will our intended movement become conscious and we will
perform this action with our muscles activated. To our conscious minds this movement appears spontaneous and original, as we are not aware that in actual fact we have already done it in our brains.

Now here is the difference: if movement is directed by our
subconscious mind or as we call it, if the movement happens spontaneously, then our conscious response will be the second run through by the brain. However, in the example of conscious mind control (SWAT team, Special Forces…), if a technique selection is required, then the brain will repeat the dry-run with the chosen technique, before activating the muscles in a third run through. Whilst a small selection number (of technique choices) decreases selection time, it still remains the third fully performed run through by the brain when applying a conscious mind approach. Systema, however, relies on a subconscious
response, meaning that we can act on the second performed run through.

Whilst this advantage represents only a fraction of a second, it is nevertheless very significant.

This yet is not the whole story. Where do the brain’s initial
ideas for the subconscious response originate? Neurologists refer to these sudden reaction movements as Fixed Action Patterns (FAPs). A FAP is a chosen system by natural selection for a reduction of choice and decision time. In other words, through past experiences the body has learned to react in a certain way under certain circumstances (Trigger Event), and in order to reduce reaction time a quick “movement package” is applied in a coordinated fashion whenever needed, without the brain having to repeatedly re-invent the wheel. These patterns are very deeply rooted in our response system. They can range from very simple withdrawal actions to complex movement patterns. That doesn’t however make them the best or most efficient choice under any given circumstance.

Let me give you an example: if you touch a hot object, you will
withdraw your hand immediately in a FAP, nothing wrong with that. On the other hand, if someone grabs your finger in a finger lock, this same FAP will be activated putting you in a much worse situation as you have just increased pressure on your finger lock. How then can we change this situation and how can we change FAPs or any other rapid reaction movement? …The answer is training.

Training has the ability to override current FAPs.

Let’s look at this a bit closer. The brain has many body maps
spread throughout its different areas. The most basic (and famous) are the primary motor and sensory maps also referred to as homunculi. These body maps interact in hierarchical fashion from lower-to-higher-grade maps. Information from the body enters the primary sensory map and then rises through complex processing and constant reassessing procedures up to layers of higher maps. The higher up they travel the more information gets incorporated in the processing of an action such as emotions, memories, body images, beliefs, pain patterns etc, etc. On the way up, information gets constantly fed down the chain again
for reassessment and confirmation with new sensory information just entered. Eventually, appropriate action is decided on and emulated, then fed down through the hierarchy and all the way to the primary motor maps, from which muscles are activated and conscious movement arises. Let’s bear in mind that these complex procedures and interactions take but split seconds to occur. We also can see that no matter how much we try, every action has an emotional association attached. We might not be consciously aware of it but it is unavoidable!

Through regular training we can teach our body to behave with
chosen patterned responses to particular situations. The interesting point here is that we can learn specific patterns (techniques) or we can teach our body principled responses such as relaxed generalized movement patterns.

The difference being is that we allow our bodies to come up with its own solutions to problems as long as it adheres to chosen principles such as relaxed, efficient, natural
movements as in the case of Systema.

In order to allow for this wide range of body applications, we
have to understand that the nervous system works via what we call facilitation. In simple terms, this means the more we use an action the more likely the same action will be chosen the next time. Now, if we use a mirror action over and over again we will eventually reinforce this action in a specific way as a FAP to be used by what’s deemed as relevant situations (Trigger Event). However, if we continually vary the specific movements, whilst keeping the modus operandi more constant, this being a calm, relaxed way of movement, then the quality of this habit will start to instill itself as a FAP response without a specific hyper-facilitated movement pattern attached. The brain will then pair up its own choice of movement pattern, which it regards as most appropriate. It will draw from familiar movement patterns that have been trained, however, more
‘freedom’ exists, which will be advantageous in adapting precisely to
individual situations.

Once the initial subconscious response has taken place, we can
include a consciously directed action if necessary, as we can perform it
concurrently with the already happening responses, thus, we do not suffer an apparent time delay. In simple terms, the brain is multitasking (although strictly speaking due to the on/off nature of the nervous system it is actually an alternating action).

A subconscious approach requires a certain level of faith, as we
teach ourselves principles, hoping that the best response will be chosen
subconsciously at a time of need. It is a very different approach to training specific names and techniques for specific situations.

An advantage of the ‘principle approach’ versus the ‘technique approach’ is that the brain does not get bored through endless repetitions of the same movements, as every movement is slightly different and somehow novel. Once the principles have established themselves, a marvelous thing occurs: Instead of a limited set of technique responses, we now have an unlimited array of ‘principle responses’ available (often referred to as body memory). We have trained our bodies to come up with its own creative solutions to a given situation. Of course the body will always develop its favorite idiosyncrasies, largely due to neurological facilitation, individual body parameters and individual abilities.

It is also very important to mention that RELAXATION is
absolutely imperative in order to work subconsciously. When afflicted by
tension (fear, aggression etc) our brains will lose their ability to be creative, to multitask and eventually to function efficiently altogether. Much has been written about the debilitating effects of tension on our performance, especially in the flight-fight situation. It is not the purpose of this article to discuss this, but I simply would like to stress that it is crucial to instill a relaxed manner of working, if we want work efficiently subconsciously.

It is also important when training for conflict situations to
incorporate regular human-to-human interaction with significant contact such as strikes, aggressive behavior and the like. This will assist in providing proper trigger events and help in reconditioning specific ‘approach and avoidance behaviors’ already present in FAPs. If done properly, it will also assist in reducing fear and pain-based tension.

An additional interesting point is that research has shown slow training of complex movements to significantly shorten the learning time required for those movements… sounds familiar?

Now the more we train the lower down on the brain-map-hierarchy
we move the processing. This means that after many years of training our principled responses can be processed mostly in our primary motor maps. At this point, we have made the system our own and we will instinctively and spontaneously respond with FAPs according to our training. In other words, our subconscious mind will now start to
respond spontaneously
to an attack in a smooth, creative and intelligent
way just like in training, instead of in a rushed, abrupt and tense fashion. With appropriate training, we will also be able to work with much less emotional involvement and less disruptive fear-based tension.

Obviously, technique-based training can override the spontaneous
FAP response too, however, if we continue to involve our conscious mind for technique choices, we will still react with the third brain run through only. Alternatively, if Systema practitioners miss this point of subconscious action either through faulty training or lack of faith/trust, then they too will respond to the third run through only. This is particularly apparent in new students and will only change after considerable training.

As mentioned, it is very acceptable, even advisable to use
conscious decisions during a physical conflict but the trick is not to initiate with a conscious action if spontaneously challenged. Rather intermingle it sparingly amongst plenty of subconscious work. This will minimize interference and allow your work to be fast fluid and natural, whilst still maintaining some conscious strategic control.

As simple as this all may sound, and as easy and natural as a
competent Systema practitioner can look in motion, this is actually very
difficult to achieve. Difficult inasmuch, as it takes dedication and years of
mindful training in order to acquire this natural and efficient
subconscious/conscious response process when under attack or duress. A good dose of playfulness, dedication and faith can make this journey spectacularly joyful and satisfying. Not to mention the insight into our persona and our emotions, which we can gain through introspection and through feeling during training.

About the Author: Dr. Andres Bisaz is a Systema
Instructor at rmaSystema-Australia
in Melbourne, training and teaching Systema since 2005. Dr. Bisaz also works at the Melbourne Sports Clinic and can be contacted at +61411745746 or at:

Fighting, Faith and Modern Combat

An interview with Vladimir Vasiliev and Konstantin Komarov

A few months ago at a Systema seminar in Phoenix, Arizona, ICSA Founder Brandon Sommerfeld and his senior combatives Instructor Kwan Lee seized a rare opportunity to quiz two masters of Russian Martial Art SYSTEMA – Vladimir Vasiliev and Konstantin Komarov.
Brandon and Kwan caught up with these fascinating masters of combat during some seminar downtime and they generously agreed to wax lyrical on everything from faith and fighting spirit to the changing face of modern military combat. Enjoy.

Brandon (B): Thanks for agreeing to the interview – I’ve been looking forward to it.

Vladimir (VV), Konstantin (KK): Our pleasure.

We have ten or so questions for you. The one I’d like to start with is: what would you consider to be the most important virtue of a warrior?

VV: Calmness and faith, connected together. If you believe, then you are calm. If you don’t then you are full of haste.

B: Okay. Now what would you consider to be the most important skill or attribute of a warrior?

VV: If you have spirit, then skill will come. You cannot focus on skill alone – if you do, it will be empty, incomplete, and not productive or practical in reality. But if you have real substance and spirit, then skill will just be built naturally upon it.

KK: I would add the skill of knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing – what it is for. You have to understand the underlying principles. The real skill is in understanding yourself – then things become clear.

VV: It is very difficult, because soldiers should not think too much, they just need to do.

KK: But thinking is one thing, and understanding yourself is quite different.

VV: This is true. A soldier needs enough skill and understanding to carry through his mission and come out alive. That’s it – just protect the country and stay alive.

B: What are some of the changes you have noticed, if any, in comparing modern-day military combatives with those of the past?

KK: Before, it was more shoulder-to-shoulder, fighting together. Now people are further apart, it becomes more difficult. People used to love their motherland more in the old days. You cannot fight for money, only for an idea. If it’s for money, you’re not willing to go to the end, you’re not willing to die. (or, who’s going to enjoy the money that you earned..?)

KK: Now it’s different also because of the development of technology. It used to be more face-to-face; now it’s ever more distant. You shoot, and you don’t really see the person. Before, in the old days, if there was something rotten inside your fellow soldier, it would show immediately during battle. Now, with technology, he can live with this rotten approach for a much longer time.

B: Were you initially attracted to the combative arts, or was it something you were simply assigned to?

KK: I liked them from childhood.

VV: I always liked it, my whole life. It was a true calling!

B: What do you consider to be the major difference between military combative arts and civilian martial arts?

VV: You can’t even compare – they’re not even standing next to each other.

KK: In military arts, you have to achieve your goal in the shortest amount of time, with the smallest amount of means, whereas with civilian arts it’s a whole process… it’s very long.

VV: In the military, you learn to kill. The whole idea is to kill. Not to “fight” – that’s different. Special Operations Units, they study more. Even within these Special Ops Units, people usually come with some sort of background in boxing, grappling, ground fighting, and they use this. But to give the solider the idea to “fight” is wrong. It’s completely wrong. He cannot fight. It’s impossible. If he’s “fighting”, it means he’s not ready. If he’s not ready, it means he will not survive.

KK: Sometimes Spetsnaz has both. It has the ability to perform a variety of work.

For example, when the special units have to capture the opponents alive and do specific work with them.

Kwan Lee (KL): Specifically for hand-to-hand combat, at what point is the soldier or operative expected to come up with his own way of fighting?

KK: If there’s a need for it. First, you need to look at the question of why do you need an army? It’s not to defend the motherland. The army is needed so that a young person matures. So that he stops being infantile and grows up. And you have to understand this; otherwise you get a weird view of the purpose of military training. Hand-to-hand combat is needed not to solve problems, but to make a person into a person, in the full sense of the word. So that a man becomes a man. That’s a more global and complete challenge, compared with just beating someone up.

KL: So ideally, they should be working to better themselves and to develop themselves from the very beginning… But I was thinking more of the military combatives that we’re trying to drill into the lower-level soldiers. There’s a certain point, you have said before, when there’s a need to transcend the basics and move to more advanced work.

KK: In Russia, the way the military structure was built, it was not important to have these things – it was more for bringing people up. The army is just an excuse to make men go through this “manly” training. Of course, you also learn things, and become more capable to defend the motherland. But that was secondary. Only when a man matures can he develop his own style and techniques.

B: How important is faith for the warrior?

VV: It’s the foundation.

KK: In challenging times, you must have faith. And there are different levels of faith. There is faith in God – that’s the highest one. Then faith in your country, then maybe faith in your commander would come next… it’s different for every person, but you must have it.

VV: It is the fundamental point of origin, this faith. Sometimes you will lose it. You know, in Russia, during communism, people lost it. But there was a point that connected even people who didn’t formally accept faith. They still had that connection, because they were ready to die for their motherland, or for their loved ones. And that’s close – it connects to God.

B: I like the saying that “there are no atheists in foxholes”. You know, that’s true. I know I’ve seen it in myself – and in other people – when it’s time to go to war, they all start praying every day. I know I did. Every day, right away…

Okay – next question: what makes Systema unique compared to, maybe, Combat Sambo or to other fighting arts around the world?

KK: All the other martial arts have a specific goal: achieving victory in a certain competition, or achieving a certain technique or level of skill. Systema is very wide – from Systema, you can go into any martial art. It’s like you’re up at the top of the hill, and you can go down in any direction. But notice that it’s a going down process.

VV: It’s hard for people to understand or accept Systema sometimes. Because the primary thing is to work on yourself, and people don’t usually like that. It means facing their laziness, pride, and other things.

KK: First of all, Systema is victory over oneself. When you can overcome yourself, then you can fight other people.

B: Systema places a huge emphasis on proper breathing. Why is this so important?

KK: Because the internal processes of the body cannot be controlled by any other means. We cannot consciously control our internal organs. There is no other key to our subconscious and nervous system, other than through breathing. And if you cannot control your nervous system, you cannot do effective work.

B: My last question – where do you see the future of Systema heading?

VV: Well, we’re building a new, website with enhanced training opportunities and have moved to a new headquarters gym. In a wider sense, strong people should be holding Systema. Unfortunately, there are not too many of them. Weak people take Systema apart, bit-by-bit. If strong people could hold the whole thing – that would be ideal.

KK: We can talk about ideally where we’d like to see Systema, and then realistically where it’s likely to be. Systema carries within it a fundamental background for any athletic preparation, and that’s where we would like to see it. Also, Systema has huge potential for working with youths – especially difficult, challenging youths. I have been working with groups like these for a while. Also, Systema has huge potential for helping ordinary people deal with everyday stress. Really, Systema can answer all of the challenges a person faces in everyday life, because it makes a person calm, able to think clearly, and able to see things clearly. But here is the challenge – and this goes back to what Vladimir said about strong people – not everybody is able to make the sacrifice, accept it, and work on themselves. It’s a big thing to digest. So here we are, working from an ideal situation and facing reality…

B, KL: That’s it from us. Thank you very much. Those were some great answers.

VV, KK: You had some great questions! Thank you.

About the Authors:

Brandon Sommerfeld is a Systema Instructor certified under Vladimir Vasiliev. Since 2002, he has been training with Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Ryabko and teaching Systema at his school, Russian Martial Art West Point located in Virginia.

Kwan Lee is one of the most experienced instructors of Systema trained by Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Ryabko. Kwan is a structural engineer for military aerospace. Currently residing in Seattle, Washington, he teaches classes and seminars for professionals as well as the general public.

Detailed information about these instructors and their contact information is listed on Systema schools page.

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Significance of SYSTEMA

One can observe several closely welded aspects of SYSTEMA that are shared with trainees:

The spiritual aspect – spiritual development of a trainee, building a system of his or her values and goals;

Psychological aspect – development and invigoration of the trainees’ psyche;

Physical aspect – development of physical body and its abilities;

Health aspect – trainees health improvement;

Special-Purpose aspect – achievement of high level results in any kind of activity, including a professional one;

Social aspect – prepare trainees to adapt to different social conditions, including unfavorable;

A person working towards mastery of “SYSTEMA” gradually acquires a great deal of extremely valuable universal knowledge and skills, which he or she extensively uses in everyday life: private life, professional activities, relations with other people, solving problems arising from stressful tight situations, etc. No matter which objectives a person had in mind, when he or she starts doing SYSTEMA, the skills he acquires lead to the same result – growth of his/her personality, physical, psychological and spiritual development and improved health.


Welcome to Wisdom Athletics. Russian Martial Art in Victoria BC.

Through dedicated and inspired training you will come to know the strength, courage and miracles that support life, and help build men and women into true peaceful warriors.

Systema holds no belt titles or tournaments for participants, and emphasizes clarity in psyche over learned movement and strategy. When the psyche is clear and strong, good judgement and efficient movement follows.

We offer you a complete set of principle based physical and mental training exercises designed to help you reach your maximum human potential. Skills learned are assets, like tools to work with, tools for building natural and creative inspiration to solve and endure all challenges of life.

It is our ambition that the “tools” acquired at Wisdom Athletics help people protect their values and families from harm, while being free of emotional and physical burdens.

Our training holds no ethnic, age, or sexual bias’ and is for everyone. It is applicable in life regardless of ones circumstance, health or position.

Systema and the traditions of this fighting style date back hundreds of years with great history. We offer not just this practice to you, but also its livelihood and community, for the process of Self-actualization.