Thinking Fast and Slow for Combat

March 26, 2017 by Martin Wheeler  
Think fast, think on your feet, move your head, duck, punch - these are the words you will hear in most arenas of full-contact fighting. And if you want to win, it is excellent advice. Most martial arts require your brain to make snap decisions and act reflexively for the combatant to survive. But Systema is not most martial arts.

Tension makes you think fast. Or should I say, lack of recognition of your own tension makes you have to think fast. ‘Boxing’ is often thought of as striking, with pure striking skill as the key to victory. But this is only half the story. Good boxing is first and foremost about not being hit, and then using effective, reflex-based counter-striking. The boxer has to see the opponent’s action then reflexively act upon the information to fire back accurate strikes.

This generally requires fast thinking. Not necessarily because of the speed of the fight - although that is a major factor - but because tension in the neck and body makes the boxer move his head (and body) to avoid strikes, and forces quick ‘snapshots’ of information through the eyes. These snapshots need rapid processing to be translated into effective counter striking or attacks.

Increase the amount of opponents and/or weapons, and the amount of information in these ‘snapshots’ decreases. This is because the observable time on any one action, before having to move on to the next, also decreases. In effect, the mind has to deal with more information in less time - which in turn leads to some level of forced action and/or desperation by the boxer. Desperation, in any form, rarely leads to creativity. The less creative your defense, the more obvious and tension-based it becomes. Which in turn makes it easier for your opponents to read, block, and counter with their own attacks.

Systema is an incredibly creative martial art - maybe the most creative. Systema exponents have no techniques to fall back on, and instead rely on principles to guide them moment-by-moment in the fight, literally creating the art as they interact with their opponents.

As such, masters of this art are “artists” in the truest sense of the word. Anyone who works in a creative field knows that if you need to be creative, you don’t put a timer on the desk, hit the starter, shout GO, then try to be creative. Creativity is a slow process. You have to relax, go for a walk in the park, allow your thoughts to wander; examine different avenues, give your unconscious state unfettered access to this evolution, and then finally arrive at the creative solution.

So how do you do this in the heat of battle? How can you slow down the flow of information, and stop taking in mere snapshots of information, so you can be creative at real fighting speeds?

Correct breathing and movement are both keys to this process. But for the moment, let us consider only relaxation and structure.
If your neck, spine, shoulders, arms, hips, and legs are tied by unconscious tension, then the head (or ‘camera’) will be whipped quickly from position to position with every movement, forcing it to take mere snapshots of information, which require quick thinking to act upon.
Now imagine your body and eyes are a movie steady-cam unit. Your eyes are the free-floating camera, perched on a moveable, steadying apparatus. Here, the head is steady and free-floating on top of a relaxed body that can react instinctively, unhindered by unconscious tension.
Now the eyes, brain and body can take in the big picture - a steady, undisturbed flow of useful information. This slows down the information flow without having to slow down the fight - or the actions of the fighter.

The slow, steady flow of information allows the mind to be calm and spontaneous. The body can then be inventive in its defense, as the anxiety of the situation decreases and clean steady lines of information are fed to a calm psyche. Instinctive, unconscious information is no longer overridden by ‘desperate’, reactive thoughts.

Continuously working this way trains your mind to slow down, so that even when snapshots of information are taken, the process slows down for the individual’s consciousness, giving it more time to be creative.
Thinking fast can be a definite advantage for survival. But learning how to think slowly in a fight is the key to living.

Martin Wheeler Martin Wheeler is a Systema Instructor, certified under Vladimir Vasiliev.
He is teaching regular Systema classes at 21st Century Combat and Conditioning in Beverly Hills, California. He has over 35 years of various martial arts practice, teaching and training in Systema since 1998. Martin is contracted to teach SWAT teams and Special Operations Units and is also a produced Hollywood screen writer.