The importance of structure

Structure. It’s important. Very important. But – in my experience at least – there’s not enough thought given to it in the martial world, including systema.

I’ve been meaning to post something about this for a while, but I’ve been spurred to do it today by seeing things written by Paul Genge and Kevin Secours.

Paul posted today in his Combat Lab on Facebook, commenting “People in systema circles talk about relaxation obsessively yet it is one side of the coin and cannot produce anything with out tension”.

Meanwhile, while searching for something else, I came across a page containing a couple of blog posts from Kevin on technique vs principle in systema.

There is a problem here, I think. It’s not the people going on and on about relaxation (of whom I am one). It’s not the lack of balance between principle and technique (where it exists, this not a problem; it’s a visible symptom of the actual underlying problem).

So, what is the problem?

It’s a widespread lack of knowledge about, or attention to: structure.

Now, if you’re reading this you’re probably a martial artist, and you have probably assumed I mean physical structure. Nope.

What I mean is learning structure.

So, although I’m not an instructor in systema or any other martial art (yet), I am a trained and experienced trainer and educator. It’s noteworthy that in all the years I’ve trained in martial arts, I’ve only very rarely encountered a properly structured training schedule – twice, in fact, both from teachers of Chinese martial arts (update: oh, and Pramek).

All of this bickering, all of this debating, all of this badmouthing is a waste of time, it’s harmful to the image of the martial arts everyone is committed to, and it’s confusing and discouraging for potential students.

So, let me tell you what I want, as a student of systema (or any martial art).

Firstly, I want to go to each and every lesson knowing that my instructor has a lesson plan. More than that: I should know before I walk through the door what the content of any given lesson is. This shouldn’t be too much to ask but, sadly, it usually is.

Here’s an example, which is fairly typical of what is prepared by every university lecturer, school teacher, TESOL teacher, etc; as it happens, this one is designed for classes in high performance sports.

The structure is quite straightforward, and reasonably typical:


Different teachers will use different terms and structures, but you can see the point. Each class, the teacher will know what he or she is go ing to teach, and will have be prepared for it. Improvisation (aka making up on the spur   of the moment) is kept to a minimum. Each class, every student knows in advance what they’re going to be doing, how they’ll be evaluated, how they can follow up with solo work, and so on. Terminology will be defined, so everyone is clear what is being discussed.

This, however, is not enough because, obviously, classes rarely exist in isolation. That means that both instructors  and students need to be quite clear in their minds about how one class connects to the last, and the next.

In other words, we need a  curriculum.

Here’s an example, again pretty typical of ones that most trained teachers will be using.

We see more structure:


You may be thinking that, as a martial arts instructor, you don’t need some, even many, of these structural elements. Believe me, you almost certainly do.

Note that just as lesson plans interconnect to form a course curriculum, so curricula interconnect to form a clear, rational pathway allowing students to progress from beginner to apprentice to journeyman (mastery will be up to them!).

I said earlier on that I’m not a systema instructor. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I have to teach myself. When, if, I find anybody else in Beijing who’s trying to learn systema, I’ll have a role in helping them to train as well – as they will with me.  Truth be told, I did meet someone else in passing the year before last. Between us, we had vast amounts of video material, books, articles, and so on. It was overwhelming. We just couldn’t decide where to begin, and got discouraged.

Now that I’ve applied a bit of structure, as I was trained to do as a teacher and trainer in other fields, though, the way forward is much clearer – almost obvious, in fact. I made passing reference to this in my last post, and I’ll be adding more as I go along.

So, to wrap this up:

  • I’ve directly asked people in previous debates on Combat Lab why they are training in systema – that is, for what contexts and eventualities. I’ve never been given a proper answer – but that’s the sort of thing that should be in a curriculum document, clearly explained.
  • In terms of relaxation, I was shocked that Paul even questioned it. To my mind, relaxation is the foundation of systema and the RMA. Without relaxation, nothing else in systema/RMA could even exist. Other people, apparently, don’t see it that way.
    To keep it clear in my head, and to make it clear to other people, that’s the sort of thing I would include at curriculum level: what do we mean by relaxation? Why is it included, how will it be taught, how will we as a teacher measure student progress, how would a student use it? Where does it fit in with the broader skill-set covered by a given curriculum? This broad definition would be fleshed out in individual lesson plans, so that specific drills and exercises are given clear aims, outcomes, practice techniques, and evaluation methods.
  • Different curricula at different levels, or for different target groups, will emphasize different topics and/or the same topics to different degrees. If this was done more often, Kevin’s comments would simply have been unnecessary.
    To me, teaching techniques before principles is putting the cart before the horse. I, like most people I know, most people I have trained with or am likely to train with, or (perhaps) one day teach would need to train extensively in fundamentals before studying techniques. Similarly, of course, most people I know would benefit far, far more from working on conflict avoidance and de-escalation than from training in super-secret spetsnaz techniques which would get us arrested if we ever used them. Of course, to use Kevin’s example, if you’re a tutor dealing with “a law enforcement officer or security agent or simply a civilian concerned with less lethal control options”, well…. just use a different curriculum, one appropriately designed for the target audience and desired learning outcomes.

Why am I even writing this? This shouldn’t even be an issue. Every instructor should sit down and do the work to prepare curricula and lesson plans. It would make life easier for them, it would help them to find their own weak spots and learning needs, it would really help their students, and it would end almost all of this pointless, destructive bickering, because instead of instructors making stuff up as they go along, everyone would be clear about what they and others would be trying to achieve.

Please, let’s see more structure!

OK, rant over.






Image credits: Blueprint by user AlyZen Moonshadow. Used under a Creative Commons license.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.