This last Saturday we pulled out the thick Judo mats stowed away in the storeroom of our gym. One of our students had recently started asking for more focused sessions on massage so that we can develop greater relaxation and sensitivity and since everyone agreed, I had the pleasure of devoting the entire Saturday’s back to back sessions to massage work. We specifically tackled the issue of developing the right stepping posture and relaxation in our bodies so as to deliver the right weight and relaxation to our partners. It was a great class! The difficulty came when I had to decide how to add in another request to cover some knife work. I eventually decided to split the class up into two groups – one group could continue to work on the massage while the other group worked on some knife control drills. As I walked around the room to observe what everyone was doing, one of my students was gesturing to me for help from the mats and I instinctively thought he wanted a massage. I was wrong.

I hope never to forget the expression he had on his face – beaming with the contentment of a child who received a new toy, he said that it was the first time we had mats and he wanted to take the chance to explore rolling. I was very intrigued by this and since I sensed his excitement, took the time to explain carefully the hand placement and body mechanics of the roll so that he could better understand it. In hardly any time at all, he was able to perform the roll – tipping to the side a little, but still very much in the right way. In fact, after just a couple of minutes, he didn’t really need my help any more.

That incident became imprinted in my mind. The issue of using training mats while not at the forefront of our discussions, has always been a lingering conversation. Back in the earlier days of Systema Singapore when we used to train at Selegie, we had mats which were definitely too soft for our liking. When we moved to this new venue, we decided not to use the mats as we wanted to keep our training realistic “for the street” and the subtleties of training on the hard wooden floor vs training on mats would mean that we all would be fundamentally familiar with working on hard surfaces. Either the floor has to be soft, or we would have to be soft – or as we always quote Vladimir saying: “mats are not your friend because it lies to you”. I fully believe those things.

But yet, I noticed that each time we train with softer surfaces, it would be something that gets brought up in the training circles or over lunch – whether it is the slight give the grass has at our outdoor sessions or the sand at the beach, everyone would notice the change and appreciate the space the softer floor would give them to explore movements they couldn’t on the hard floor. I notice for myself that when I get to use mats over a period of time – the softer surface allows me to explore new movements which I would avoid on the hard floor and give me a safe space to perform them softer. Consequently, I am able to perform those movements on the hard floor because my body has learned to be softer.

I think the question of mats or no mats is irrelevant without a context. Every person trains for very different reasons and we all come from very different starting points. It is true that we all come to Systema class to learn self defence and it is also true that we do not always get to choose the situations that we might find ourselves in – yet this does not mean that the training environment for every student has to be the same. The range of people who attend Systema classes is incredulous. Some of our students find what we do useful in the military or police context and apply it in those settings. Some come because they appreciate the exploratory nature of the martial art. Some come because they find Systema helpful in their daily lives and gives them a way to deal with it. I find it hard to believe that I should, given the choice, force a Chinese man nearing his 60s who wants to learn a Russian martial art to begin his rolling practice starting on the hard floor. His motivation for training is different from that of an active policeman and his starting point is different from that of a teenager who practices parkour. The beauty of Systema, of course, is that they can train together and study the same principles together in a safe space and environment despite applying the same thing in a different setting.

There are certain setting in which it is perhaps important to provide as realistic training environment as possible to minimize the gaps between training and reality but outside of those extreme settings, it remains a decision of the instructors according to the purposes of the school (are we here to train super soldiers or are we also here to develop healthy individuals) and whether the mats help the students to work towards that goal or not. At the end of the day, we want to make sure we are providing the best environment for our students to grow, whatever that environment might be. Mats or no mats, I think we can be flexible about it – after all, as Vladimir also advices: “don’t be a fanatic”.