So, seven months after I decided to dive into work, the slow season has returned.
I definitely made the right choice back in February, to take the work while it was available. but, my word, it’s been a full-on time. Constant work, constant travel. Hotels, planes, trains, buses. No exercise, unhealthy food, no rest: the life of the consultant.
There was actually a lot more work to be had than I expected. Contrariwise, for the next few months, it seems there’ll be less than there was last year. Less income, but more free time.
So, time for training? Not in systema. There isn’t anyone teaching here, and to be honest I’ve never found it easy to train from DVDs or downloads – and, believe me, I’ve bought enough of both over the years. Why not? They’re too unstructured. It’s never clear how one thing is connected to another, or how a simple technique leads into a more complex application. Even the best material tends to have bits where I struggle to understand what I’m meant to do, or has moves I can’t do, and there’s no way to get feedback or explanations.
Systema teachers are lagging behind here. Other teachers, in other fields, have solved this problem, and I’d like the same to happen in the world of Russian Martial Arts, please!
Here are the two examples I’d like to use. These are both online course which I have paid my own money to join, and which I’m finding effective. Any systema teacher who has made DVDs or digital downloads, basically has the technical ability to get this done.
Example 1: Tom Bisio’s Intermediate Baguazhang Online Learning Program.
You can read the course details here.
- This is not cheap. Access to the course costs $620. (Fortunately, I joined before the value of the British pound started to collapse). I think it’s good value; it’s the equivalent of a few months’ attendance at a real-life class. Access to the course is life-long. Payment is via Paypal.
- The course material contains several manuals and e-books. Some have been published before; others are exclusive to the online course. The material in the manuals is very, very good.
- The course video material is streaming-only. It can be viewed in a web browser, or via an app, but it can not be downloaded. In several months of working with it, I have had no technical problems.
- There are over 120 video files.
- Structure! Structure! Structure! There are three videos for each movement. The first file shows the move being performed at a fairly slow speed, with no commentary, so that the student can follow along. The second goes through the move in depth, with explanations on the details of the move, and the principles being implemented. The third shows a number of combat applications, with commentary. This. Works. This approach absolutely works for me.
- A curriculum is included, with a suggested sequence through the moves. However, the student has access to all of the material, so can choose his or her own route.
- The weak point: there’s no support. There’s no way to ask questions about details, or to discuss things with teachers or other students. The website does have a separate membership scheme which supposedly has forums, but it’s at a price point where I don’t think I can justify a separate, ongoing, cost.
Example 2: GMB Fitness’s online fitness courses.
Something I watched online a couple of months ago, I think it was something Paul Genge posted, led me to GMB Fitness, who offer a selection of online fitness training packages. After doing a bit of research, I signed up for their Physical Autonomy Curriculum, bundling four separate modules: Elements, Vitamin, Integral Strength, and Focused Flexibility Plus.
- This cost me $275 (again, before the pound started to slide). Like Tom’s course, this is a one-off payment for lifetime access. Payment is by Paypal.
- The material is designed to be viewed streaming in a web browser. The video clips look like Vimeo material, but there’s no Vimeo branding, so I don’t know what’s behind the scenes. There appears to be an option to download the individual clips for offline viewing, but I haven’t tried this. The streaming has generally worked fine, but I have had to interrupt exercise sessions while the files buffer, which isn’t ideal.
- I can’t say yet exactly how much material contains, for two reasons. Firstly… it’s a lot. Too much, by far, for me to work on all four packages concurrently. Instead, I’ll be working through them in sequence, so I’ve only really looked at Elements at this point. Secondly, with this one, you don’t get access all at once: the material is made available one week at a time, with a different daily schedule to be followed each week.
- Once again: structure! Structure! Structure! The student’s progress through the material has been thought through very well indeed. I really like it. The material I’ve used so far generally features one of GMB’s coaches working through the material with an experienced, but not expert, student. The material is delivered to camera, using the student as an example to highlight issues, problems, and principles. This also works very well, and I’ve found it a useful approach. It also gives a certain amount of satisfaction when I can do something better than the student in the clip 😉
- One thing that GMB do is that they promise to keep updating the material, based on student feedback and their own thinking. So, if they think of a way to teach a technique better, they’ll yank the video clip and replace it with a new one.
- Each one of the coaches repeatedly encourages online students to get in touch via email with questions. I haven’t had need to yet, but they give me confidence that I would get a personal reply if I did. Some of the packages also have closed Facebook groups for discussion – but they also encourage you not to join unless you’re going to be active, a little point which I like.
As a third bonus example, a qigong course which I attended recently in real life made supporting material for self-study available as downloads from Vimeo. The material needs to be purchased via a Vimeo account, and can then stream or be downloaded. It’s only as well-structured as the original seminar was, and has no support, but it’s cheap. This is much more similar to what most systema tutors offer.
So, to get to the nitty-gritty, what I would really, really like to see systema teachers provide is:
- Structure! Structure! Structure! A carefully thought-out syllabus, with clear pathways to progress through it, clearly demonstrating principles and applications. Tom Bisio’s three-files per move approach would work very well.
- Streaming is fine. The technology that most of us have access to these days is more than adequate for this. Tom uses Gumroad This allows both streaming and download; however, Tom has opted to disable the download feature, making it more difficult for people to pirate the material. There are bound to be other services available, perhaps including Vimeo.
- Pay once, get lifetime access. Tom’s courses are expensive, but he’s a well-established teacher with a number of published books. Each teacher will have to evaluate what their price point would be per course, and how many separate courses would be required for the material they teach.
- Online support, where questions can be asked.
Most of you teachers have the material to support one or more online courses. The biggest problem I see, from my relatively limited experience, is that very few teachers seem to have properly designed and structured pathways through the material; you need to sit down and work out a syllabus. Most of you have put out digital material; you already know how to script, film, deliver, and edit video material (or you know someone who does). Many of you don’t speak English; this isn’t necessarily a problem, you just need to hire a good interpreter (and, perhaps, a good subtitler). Be prepared to invest, to produce material as professional as Tom and Bisio; good material will last longer, and attract more participants, than material prepared on the cheap. Paypal works in Russia; you just need to get it set up. Choose your price point carefully. How many students will pay for your development costs? After that, it’s pure profit.
Speaking personally, who would I really, really like to do this?
- The Siberian Cossack group. Some of the material I’ve watched on the videos from the 2015 St. Petersburg seminar would fit very, very well into this structure. In particular, the progression from dance step to combat application would be perfect.
Leonid Polozhaev of Sistema Boya. You have great material; I’d love to be able to work through it in an online course.Scratch that. Leonid’s been in touch, and isn’t interested in new students, online or otherwise. Pity.
OK, that’s me done. Over to you….
Here’s Tom Bisio. This clip is for one of his DVDs, but the material is very similar to what’s in the online course. Imagine this as combining clips 2 and 3 for one particular move.
and here’s GMB Fitness. Again, this isn’t material from the online course, but it’s not far off. The online material is better quality, in terms of presentation.
Image credits: online by user Jeff Horsager on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.