Self Defense, Women and Systema

August 30, 2011 by Milos Malic  

Since I started teaching, I get repeatedly asked questions about two subjects, self defense and self defense for women. It usually goes like this:

Is Systema the best self defense solution?
Self defense for women, is Systema the best choice of martial arts?
Is Systema most applicable, realistic and useful of them all?
For those who wondered at least a bit what the answers might be, I recommend to learn more about self defense, self defense for women and what Systema has to offer.

Self defense

We witness people joining martial art schools every day with the single motive, to become more capable to defend themselves. What is self defense? For start, it is one of the most basic human rights. The question whether some martial art is good for self defense or not must contain another part too. Is it good for that specific person (and self defense)? Is that person a soldier about to be deployed, policeman working on the streets every day, 185cm/85kg young civilian boy, or a small girl returning from late shift down the dark street?

People seek defense for a solution because they are scared. Actually, fear is the root of the whole problem. Usually, we have only the perspective of the potential victim’s fear. But fear is on the other side too, the attacker is scared as well. Now, you probably shake your head, and I will proceed with three example scenarios.

A robber wants your gold watch:  

1. If you are asleep, he will sneak up, take it off and leave. You won’t even feel it happen.

2. If you are sick or drunk, he might pretend to help you and take the watch off your wrist. Or take it away and push you down.

3. If you walk down the street straight and healthy it’s almost certain that he will hurt you. He may jump out aggressively, flash a weapon and if you do not surrender the watch, you will end up injured or dead.

Where did the aggressive act in the last scenario come from? From fear that he is not going to make it, that you might hurt him, restrain him until police arrive or even kill him. Aggression is the derivative of fear. From the psychotherapy standpoint, it is the state of constant neurosis - permanent need to hurt. The background of this destructive need can be the attacker’s fear too.

In a fight, the victim can turn his/her fear of danger into aggressiveness and use it as a platform for counter-attacking (defense). It is the easiest and fastest thing to do. But is it the best thing to do – is the big question. I don’t think so! Especially for the people who train “just in case”. Programming them for aggressive behavior usually means triggering the same internal mechanisms as when they are scared to death. Stress is re-created in the organism and that can lead to sickness.

Violence brings more violence and by responding to danger with aggression it will lead to conflict helix, or escalation. That does not mean that the response shouldn’t be adequate, powerful and terminal. Just the opposite! The action should be there but different in form, or if I may, it must come from different philosophical, ethical and spiritual base.

In my opinion, aggressiveness as a driver is as harmful as the paralyzing fear. Russian Martial Art treats both the same way.

Self defense for women

When we read through modern violence statistics, it is stunning how many girls get sexually assaulted before they turn 18. The numbers vary, but it is close to 25%! Considering that in some societies such incidents remain not reported that number might be even higher.

Subject of women self defense is more complex. It includes all said earlier but has specifics.

Any ordinary criminal has problems on his mind. Rapists can be a lot worse psychologically. Their goals are different; they are usually mentally and emotionally disturbed and react unlike other people. Women have different musculature and bone structure than man, so in most cases they are destined to face heavier and stronger attacker. Experience from previous situations can additionally disturb the emotions causing panic or freezing.

What can Systema offer as a solution?

MOST IMPORTANT: In our classes we don’t drill people to develop some above average athletic abilities in order to defend themselves. We teach you how to save yourself using capabilities you already have, learning to work with fear, evaluate situation, overcome shock, develop mobility and free movement, and develop the feeling of distance and timing.

Movement is defense. It is that simple. But not any kind of movement. Nervous, angry, aggressive or broken movement will give out your tension. That will either provoke the attack or raise attacker’s awareness and make him more dangerous. Natural movement which is fluid and inconspicuous is the best ally. To quote Vladimir Vasiliev: “You should be able to fight as long as you can walk.” and Mikhail Ryabko: “Good movement brings joy”.

Systema is unique for one more thing. People usually forget that from the perspective of law, it is very important how you defend yourself. A confrontation can easily gets to the point where the boundary between the attacker and the victim doesn’t exist anymore. The saying “It's better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6” is well known, but is it always applicable? Do we destroy-to-death a thief that is working his way to our car stereo? Should a girl poke a drunken boy’s eye out because she
didn’t want that kiss? Skill and calmness we gain from Systema training are excellent, if not the best option for confrontations. 

If we want to be both smart and effective in self defense, the priorities of training should be set like this:

1. Gaining the skill - developing the abilities to defend

2. Non-destructiveness of training - without negative impact on the physical or psychological composition of the person, training without stress or physical damage

3. Necessity for defense - not becoming an aggressor

Systema fits perfectly, doesn’t it?

IMPORTANT: Do not be mistaken. Such an approach in Russian Martial Art doesn’t mean that work is not sharp, in full speed, with full power. The point is that we can deal with fear in better and healthier way, without turning it into aggression that will damage all involved parties - and that lightning reaction, strength, devastating strikes and precision come from calmness, proper breathing, good form and free, biomechanically correct movement.

In what way can Systema training help ladies to be safer?

Russian Martial Art should be ladies’ choice for several reasons:

- Systema’s unique features, such as natural movements and clearly seeing one’s own strengths and weaknesses, allow women to fit in quickly even if they are completely unfamiliar with fighting.

- Women can progress same as men. They often progress faster than most men.

- Being built smaller and usually physically weaker than men, women find principles of non-resisting and blending into the movement very natural, while men may have more trouble with that.

- Using inertia to manipulate the opponent’s body is not difficult for women. That’s the only way they can work with a large attacker.

- Naturally higher joint mobility, flexibility and graceful movement is an advantage in Systema.

In return, Systema offers the freedom to discover best answers for different attacks, to learn how to deal with panic, how to fall and roll injury free, compensate lack of brute force with good movement and insight, raise awareness of surrounding situation, avoid dangerous areas...

However, there are a couple of deterrents that might drive ladies away from our classes:

- Military image. Many of civilians training today wear army pants to class for practical reasons because they are durable and tear-proof. No worries, you won’t be joining paramilitary, these pants are optional.

- Then, there is that renowned striking. An important part of Systema is powerful, heavy and devastating strikes. They are not only “a weapon”. They are a tool too. The tool we use to work on our partner, help him discover where fear resides in his body. We use punches as an echo locator to deep scan the tissue for tensions. In my group, this part of class is modified for ladies. There is no heavy striking. They are free to do striking as much as they feel it’s good for them, or can do pushes instead or something else entirely.

- Men. Yes, this problem can be described with this one word. Men sometimes find it hard to accept women as equal training partners. They take too much care of them; treat women as something that can be broken. That can lead to alienation, and we can often see girls partnering up with girls in class. For ladies, especially in terms of self defense, it is a must to train with guys who are heavier, taller, stronger! Men should train with women, because there is a lot to learn from their agility, lexibility, joint mobility and attacks to sensitive areas.

- Not too much women in Systema. Russian Martial Art is growing fast and as it does, there will be more ladies proportionally.

As a conclusion, I can point out that learning Systema can only benefit one’s health, psychic stability and self defense capabilities. Systema is good for people of all ages and both genders. Honestly, I am not focused on self defense for women, and discussed this just to address a common question. What I know for sure is that many arts, styles or sports claim to offer the ultimate self defense solution, and yet they don’t have one third of what Systema has to offer. You have to give it a try.


Milos Malic Milos Malic is a Systema instructor, certified by Vladimir Vasiliev.
Milos has been practicing Systema since it was available in Serbia in 2001.
Along with his extensive experience in martial arts; he has been training and teaching exclusively Systema since 2007 at Systema Oslo, in Norway.