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Coach Sonnon and Softwork™
Interview by Phil Elmore; photographs provided by Scott Sonnon
An internationally recognized authority on physical culture and martial art, Coach Scott Sonnon is well known to the SAMBO and Russian martial arts communities as well as in strength and conditioning circles. His Circular Strength Training™ (CST) program (which uses weighted clubs called Clubbells™) is practiced by many performance athletes (not to mention hundreds of martial artists, bodybuilders, and everyday people seeking better health). He has published numerous books and videos on fitness, conditioning, and the removal of psychological and physiological barriers to one’s performance as a "combat athlete." No longer content simply to pursue "performance enhancement" in his teaching, Coach Sonnon recently announced his latest curriculum: Softwork™ , an internal system of martial art he has pioneered and developed over the course of his career.
The Martialist: For some time now you’ve been positioning your video and text programs as "performance enhancement" – a means of making every athlete better. What has changed?
Scott Sonnon: For years I was describing the movement between techniques. That is what I meant by "performance enhancement" – improving flow from one technique to the next. The word "to" presumes something small and innocuous, but that is the bulk of not just training, but fighting. Everything happens in between.
The problem with pursuing this approach is that an entire field of "performance enhancement" has sprung up. It’s my fault. I was going to people and saying, "I can help you do what you are doing and help you be better at it, here’s how. I can help you seam together the movement in between what you are studying." There’s a specific process for doing that. What they did, however, was kindly agree – then shore up what they were already doing, using my methods but not embracing my methodology. Because I was only teaching them to improve the "to," the bits in between, they were free to claim they hadn’t been studying anything else. That gave them what they saw as license to claim they were not doing anything extra, not doing anything new.
I no longer say that what I’m teaching is the movement in between. I am now at the point where I’m in people’s faces, telling them what I am teaching is something completely and radically new, something confrontational to traditional martial arts. I am teaching the absence of technique, anti-technique. There is no rote technique memorization in Softwork™.
The M: Can you describe how Softwork™ works?
Sonnon: Those operating in Softwork™ are not reproducing their own techniques. It is impossible to do the same maneuver twice within the drills, and in life itself. I provide a formula for students to create their own techniques, spontaneous to the situation. Softwork™ presumes, "You are the master, always and already, of your own style." If one studies someone else’s style, one picks up someone else’s filters, baggage, and impediments. For people to presume that one can even learn the "style" created by another assumes that movement is repeatable, that life is stagnant and transferable. It is that which no one would dare argue. There is no wisdom without personal experience. That is the goal of Softwork™: to provide the experience of discovery.
The M: Isn’t that what learning a martial art is all about – refining the performance of techniques?
Sonnon: Conventional wisdom assures one that there is such a thing as muscle memory, that you repeat a certain maneuver until it becomes ingrained, until it establishes a more thorough neuromuscular path. However such a belief system disintegrates in the face of stress, such as a suddenly violent conflict. The "rote technique" educational approach does not work in martial art because of the presence of arousal – fear and surprise and your reactivity to it. The first premise of Softwork™ is that it is not possible to reproduce the same motion in general and that reproducing even a remote approximation under stress is nearly impossible. This is because the "technique" was captured, not in the "muscle memory" (which does not exist), but rather in fantasies of the cognitive mind. There is no such thing as rote technique outside of that neurotic fantasy, because cognition breaks down under the stress of conflict. If a "technique" depends on cognition, then it’s not accessible, controllable, or proportional in conflict of any kind… and frankly, it's negligent, because it neither addresses the individual’s performance nor the individual's survivability.
The M: How can you teach a style that is improvised? On what do you base what you teach?
Sonnon: How can others teach something which is not? All things are improvised. It is only the belief that a "technique" is "known" that creates the hazardous illusion of confidence. Any educational system that does not set as its presupposition improvisation is problematic, because to assumes "knowns" (especially in the fog and friction of conflict) is to enter a fight wearing "Emperor’s Clothes."
Students of Softwork™ explore drills rather than "rehearse" techniques. For example, consider shock absorption. When you practice shock absorption, you’re learning how to absorb blows with your torso. As you learn to pocket around the incoming force and move askew to avoid most or some of the force of that blow, you’re developing your own personalized response to that particular attack. You’re teaching yourself to move in response to the presence of force, rather than the expectation of deploying some "technique in your repertoire."
Rather than using block A in response to Attack X, rather than getting caught in that decision tree of, "If this, then that," you learn to absorb force to allow your body to respond creatively in a way that’s appropriate. This is why one ought not teach some pedantic codification of rote "joint locks," but rather discuss the potential of the joint, demonstrate a few examples of how to act on that knowledge, and then systematically immerse oneself within incrementally progressive resistance drills to inculcate that kinesthetic awareness. When you understand how to improvise solutions, you’re not relying on rote memory and you reclaim your natural adaptability to stress, to arousal.
The conventional martial art approach is that your body is a dumb machine that has to be directed by your cognitive mind. It defies the notion of our nervous system and biochemistry. The higher the stress, the less likely we’re consciously involved in the situation. So, if we need to consciously select "techniques" (and, moreover, think about how to create a "variation" of the technique to "apply" it to the reality of the situation), we are not only at a loss in a crisis, but suffer perhaps even a mortal blow because of the bulky, ineffective educational process ("rote technique") we've been taught.
However, if we’re trained to respond at an intuitive level, we have a faster route to efficacy. As a matter of fact, it’s the only route. Anyone familiar with my instructional programs knows that we perform a lot of drills – drills that increase in complexity and sophistication, that then introduce combat multipliers that move from static to fluid to dynamic. It is through such practice that you develop intuitive response, rather than inculcate a predesignated technical plan.
The M: So there can be no "wrong" way to do a Softwork™ technique, as long as it works?
Sonnon: A technique can be a good habit or a bad habit, but it is always only a habit. It erupts without discrimination, without proportionality, and – most often – free of appropriate context to reality. We must have NO habits. To do this we need experience, not memorization. For example, how do you learn that you need a "counter" technique? You learn it through experience. You don’t learn that you have to stop doing something until you have the experience for it, until you see the necessity. The whole purpose of drills is to make mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes, if you’re constantly able to avoid confronting mistakes, you’re defeating the purpose of the drill. That spells disaster for the person because conflict isn’t about succeeding, but rather recovering more quickly than the other person from perceived errors, surprise, and shock. Who cycles faster wins. The whole purpose of a Softwork™ drill is the physical expression of critical thinking. If the drill's parameters say that you are not permitted to do the same things twice, you cannot develop a bad habit because you are not repeating the same maneuvers.
Scott Sonnon (right) works with students.
The M: What is Softwork™, then? Do you consider it a new martial art style? Is it based on your SAMBO and Russian martial art experience?
Sonnon: Whatever I create is going to be partially an amalgam of everything I’ve experienced. It’s impossible for me to say, "No, SAMBO had nothing to do with this." My experience in SAMBO did. That’s not to say the systems have, because the systems have not. I’ve learned from my mistakes. That evolution is the creation of Softwork™.
Last year, I resigned from my position as Director of the American Annex to the Russian Federation of Russian Martial Art (ROSS). Political reorganizing in Russia required recertification for all ROSS instructors. I did not agree with the direction in which it was headed, including but not limited to codification of technical content into a ranking structure. The spirit of this did not coincide with my personal philosophy; espoused by the materials I have published, the seminars I teach, and the "tribal" concept I foster. I do not fault my coach for the direction those in ROSS have chosen to go, but I cannot go with them.
Furthermore, the veil of mysticism and cult-like tendencies of cultural martial traditions engenders problematic political obstacles. I stepped out and away from that nonsense, because it impedes the clarity of the message and competes with the practitioner's ability to transcend his or her current condition. Half of what one must address at the beginning is holding a mirror to the perverse preconceptions generated from mystical propaganda in cultural martial traditions. Stepping away to forge a "universal’ system, devoid of cultural attaché, allows us the luxury of speaking directly to the human experience, rather than needing to sift through the vagaries of a particular culture and religion.
The M: So you’ve cut your ties to ROSS, to SAMBO, and to Russian Martial Art in general?
Sonnon: Yes. An ancillary issue to this regards the consistent piracy of my work by practitioners of "Russian Martial Art." For some reason, there is this phenomenon in the martial art "industry." People assume that because I was the Director of the American Annex to the Russian Federation of Russian Martial Art, that means if they practice any type of Russian Martial Art, my proprietary systems, in part and in some morally repugnant cases in whole, are theirs for the taking, with no credit or source citation. In some cases, before legal action ceased their infringements, they even made commercial gain from my proprietary work.
What has been published and copyrighted by RMAX.tv Productions is the sole property of RMAX.tv Productions. The intellectual property it protects is not written or seen anywhere else but within its materials.
The same happens with the Circular Strength Training™ System, which is the foundation of all martial art development through RMAX. People believe that because "Indian clubs" have existed for centuries, my work and Clubbells® must be "public domain." No, actually, it's my research, development, system, and property because I created and systematized it. People have such lunatic irrationality. Their argument is akin to this: Henry Ford did not invent the combustible engine; therefore we can copy the 2005 Ford Mustang. People need to sign up for a logic course at their nearby community college.
I never claimed to invent Russian Martial Art and I never claimed to invent Indian clubs. I have indeed invented the patented Clubbell® and have indeed trademark protected my proprietary systems. Any thieves who wish to challenge my trademarks and patents and prove (beyond "keyboard jockeying") that my work is unoriginal are welcome to speak to my staff of attorneys. Those who attempted to create knock-offs discovered very quickly the recourse my company will go to in order to protect such infringements.
The M: Let’s be clear on that, then. RMAX is not "Russian Martial Art?"
Sonnon: No. RMAX is not "Russian Martial Art" and its materials are unique and my own creation, as are its trademarks uniquely owned and protected by RMAX.tv Productions.
This was a very frustrating issue at the time. The only way I saw to rectify it on both accounts was to resign from the organization and continue to go my own way, as I always have and always will. I will no longer be teaching at ROSS camps, nor promoting their events. Now, it’s out of my hands. RMAX.tv Productions’ legal department handles these issues. Now I’m completely free to concentrate on research and development, training operations, and, frankly, spending the rest of my time playing with my children.
The M: What does that mean regarding your relationship with the American Annex?
Sonnon: I had spoken with the directors of the American Annex, asking them if they wished to continue to use RMAX proprietary systems to augment their education within ROSS Training System. They may, as many martial art styles do, with proper citing, credit given. I have no other relationship to the American Annex, nor to RMA in general.
The M: Your resignation hasn’t ended the issue, however. Softwork™ is being embraced by at least a portion of the Russian Martial Art community, in whatever form.
Sonnon: True. We've attracted a great deal of attention from enthusiasts of a Russian Martial Art called "Systema" since the release of the Softwork™ DVD. A number of issues have arisen as a result of this: Negative issues including anonymous cowards on the Internet issuing death threats and hate mail directed at our members, and supposedly "positive" individuals claiming that they consider Softwork™ to be a better way of 'explaining' and 'tweaking' Systema. This is another way of saying, "we’re taking Softwork and teaching it but calling it Systema."
Coach Sonnon and his seminar attendees...
Let me be perfectly clear: Softwork™ is not "Systema." I'm flattered that some people resonate with my work to the extent that they immediately want to incorporate it into what they do (although this indicates that they completely miss the POINT about our community). It’s great that they feel transformed by their RMAX experience. However, there are several errors in logic here that are leading to confusion and friction.
...working with knives...
I believe the first problem stems from my extensive background in Russian SAMBO (in the English language this acronym translates to "Unarmed Self-Defense") and R.O.S.S. (in the English language this acronym translates to "Russian Native Self-Defense System").
...in the context of Softwork™.
The fact that a person who is teaching a different system of Russian Martial Art and I may have had similar training experiences does not lead to the conclusion that we are doing the "same thing." Despite the fact that "Systema" and "Russian Martial Art" are registered trademarks, in Russia there are as many "Systema" as there are "Russian Martial Art" systems: Kadochnikov, Belov, Spas, Skobar, Sobor, Buza, Golitsin, ROSS, RRB, Kolo, Rukopashni Boi, Ryabko, Sidorov, Slavyano Goretskaya Bor'ba, et cetera. In recent years this list has grown beyond what I experienced.
This is analogous to me traveling to the country of "Khmer" and starting to teach the "American martial art" called "Style." Style would be very inclusive and eclectic. If one ever encountered any endemic research which would help one teach Style to the indigenous people, one could incorporate it. If another "American" immigrated to "Khmer" who taught a different flavor of "Style," the first "Style" could just explain that it’s "all just Style" and then assimilate any unique research of the second "Style." It’s a very perverse cult branding technique.
The M: What is RMAX, then?
Sonnon: RMAX is an acronym for "Reaching OuR MAXimum Potential Together." No one has previously published anything that I have: Shock Absorption, Inoculation and Engineering, Arthrokinetics™, Joint Mass Center, Leg Fencing, Jacket Fencing, Myofascial Tensegrity applications to Fear-Reactivity, Tension Chains and Density, Flow-State Performance-Spiral™ for Emotional Control, Flow Fighting for Mental Toughness, Body-Flow™, Performance Breathing™ "Be Breathed™", Warrior Wellness™ Sophisticated Dynamic Joint Mobility… it’s a long list of proprietary systems. There are individuals who claim that others were doing what I am doing, and were explaining it the way that I explain it, before I published it. In the erudite imperative of the academic Ivory Tower, I say: put up or shut up. Whoever publishes first is recognized as the originator of that work because of this nonsense of arbitrary claims of "doing it prior" without proof.
Unlike certain other "professionals" who claim that what they do is an "eclectic’ combination of various undisclosed influences, I exhaustively cite my sources and my specific, verifiable history.
The M: Is there some sort of animosity among you, Softwork™, and Systema, then?
Sonnon: None that is my doing. For some perverse reason, people who have become disgruntled, ejected, or self-deselected from the "official Systema" are coming to RMAX in droves for asylum. It seems that they consider me some sort of de facto anti-Systema leader. That’s wrong. I was even offered a t-shirt once. At first I misunderstood. I thought they were offering me an "RMAX" shirt that they’d made until they explained, "no, it’s XRMA, as in ex-RMA." Perhaps this was merely an attempt at joking, but let's be serious for a moment and set the record straight. I have no interest in "Systema," either in the positive or in the negative. Whatever severe internecine conflict that organization endures has absolutely no bearing or reflection on me.
For that matter, I have no idea what any "Systema’ teaches and, frankly, I don't care. I indict any cultural martial tradition as problematic. So, although those bombarding RMAX with controversy are generating massive volumes of business sales, please stop trying to educate me on why you think that what I teach is just a 'better way of explaining' how your 'teachers' move. I was not put on this planet to help you figure out why you are told that you will never be able to do anything but approximate the "master’s" mysterious abilities. RMAX and Softwork™ are not about someone else's mastery. They are about cultivating one’s own mastery.
The M: Let’s get back to Softwork™ as a system. You say you train to make mistakes?
Sonnon: Softwork™ is a system of deliberately making mistakes so you can experience them and learn to adapt to them. It is putting yourself in disadvantageous positions so you can discover solutions. The faster you can recover from your perceived errors and from the unexpected, the better you will flow – and the more effective a fighter you will be. This is the key to improvising your own techniques based on the situation.
The M: What’s a Softwork™ class like?
Sonnon: When a person gets into one of my seminars, the first thing they need to learn is to integrate their breathing, structure, and alignment. I have two processes. The first is Body-Flow™, the solo work. Then the soft and hard work comes, in which you’re learning to capitalize on the disintegration of an opponent or partner’s breathing, structure, and alignment.
The M: But isn’t what you do in a drill a technique?
Sonnon: Yes, of course. The key is that you are learning to spontaneously create a technique, which is the complete polar opposite to "memorizing a rote technique." In order to do anything, you use technique, but you can never repeat that technique – physics says so. It is rote technique that is the flaw in martial art education.
The M: Can you describe what this is like?
Sonnon: We do a drill in which partners balance on one leg. Walking is itself an act of weight transfer and balance. The same is true of any strike, any kick, any takedown – it’s all grounded from one leg. There’s a support or drive leg and a mobile or free leg. Any force transfer comes from that supporting or driving leg. If that is true, in the drill we first learn how to absorb strikes. We’re not very intensive on the proper manner of hitting so much as we say, "Okay, heavy and deep. Relax into the strike, work on exhalation, work on keeping your structure intact."
When they are absorbing blows, the person applying the blows is instructed in the way the body works. You know, if you hit the person here, the hip collapses and folds, the pelvis tilts, it changes the high tension support system that keeps the person from falling over, et cetera.
The M: Many traditional arts are based on an understanding of how the body works, though.
Sonnon: Any type of conflict engagement is dynamic. This is also getting to the point that conventional martial arts are based on the beliefs held in Newtonian physics. The issue here is that kicking a soccer ball and a kicking a Rottweiler are not the same thing. In the former, it’s an (apparently) inanimate, simple object, lending the appearance of predictability – that to every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. However, in the latter case, the dog is a sophisticated creature with consciousness that, as we’ve learned in quantum physics, affects everything in the universe, even down to a subatomic level. The interaction with the dog is not predictable and if you try to kick him, you’ll probably get your foot chewed off. The goal of Softwork™ is to help the participants to develop an intuitive blueprint for feeling what to do in a given dynamic situation.
Coach Sonnon hits the mat with seminar attendees.
The M: How else, then, is Softwork™ different from what you call "conventional" martial art?
Sonnon: Softwork™ is derived from an understanding of the human organism, rather than imposed on it. The people who created martial arts styles were just good at teaching. They were good marketers. They had and have no special insight. I have no special insight into the human condition other than what my training offers me. Each and every person is just as capable of reclaiming and refining their self-mastery as any so-called "master." Comments that you won’t understand unless you are of such and such culture, such and such blood, such and such soul/religion, are merely cultish propaganda. The argument, of course, is that one can elect to learn from a cult leader without being involved in the cult. Their logic is analogous to saying that one can learn something "positive for humanity" from the inhumane atrocities performed on Jewish people by Nazi German "scientists" without being a Nazi. It’s lunacy.
The M: Statements like that are bound to upset many martial artists.
Sonnon: I’m not here to make "martial arts" comfortable in their beliefs, especially when those beliefs are not only a danger to others, but to themselves. It’s only "bad news" to those who stand to lose in status, finance or in "ego." For everyone else, this is the best news imaginable.
The M: What is that message? What is that news?
Sonnon: Self-mastery is no longer the domain of special "priests" who alone can show you "The Way." Self-mastery already and always belongs to each and every person awaiting them to reveal it. It is that, not only can people tap their own mastery, but they can tap it in a short amount of time. The rote technique model is inefficient, awkward, and unnecessarily lengthy. Give me two years with someone consistent and diligent, not decades in a cultural martial tradition. Moreover, with such expedience and universality, every individual has access, not just the few who can disregard finance, family, and personal health in order to transcend that ineffective model.
The M: How is that possible?
Sonnon: Traditionally, just before mastery, you abandon technique and transcend it. Why aren’t eighty to ninety percent of martial arts people masterful? Why is it the exception? Why is it that most instructors are not masterful in their motion? There is another model that can be followed. If you look at the evolution of martial arts styles, I believe there is a "conspiracy of technique." That conspiracy, that devotion to rote technique among so many instructors, is a way to appease the masses. If you must abandon and transcend technique in order to "attain" mastery in the traditional model, then take out the problematic step: if you remove rote technique, you won’t need to transcend it!
The M: So cultural martial traditions are not just inadequate – they’re a means of duping students? That’s quite an accusation.
Sonnon: As opposed to what martial arts "masters" claim, I can have someone approximate my movement level in a short amount of time. I empower them to be unlimited. Just listen to the choking conventional wisdom you hear in a martial arts school. "Well, you have to apply the technique to your body, adapt it." Logic says it can’t be both A and not A. It’s this technique or it’s not this technique. Why don’t we start by teaching people to adapt, rather than teaching a technique and learning how to adapt it, causing decades of anguish trying to figure out the right way to do Master’s technique? Removing the problematic step of conventional training eliminates decades of "trying" to sift through the codified dogma and allows one to go directly to "flow."
The M: You are the center of a great deal of controversy, Scott. Based on these statements it’s easy to see why. Why do you think this is so?
Sonnon: I call into question the core values of what it means to be a martial artist in the conventional notion. I didn’t create a new style; in RMAX, I have created a new idea. Everyone could create a new style if they used RMAX as a meta-formula for generating experience. There’s a direct formula for this. And of course that calls into question every individual who holds himself to be an expert, but it also calls into question everyone who’s following an "expert." Stop following and start leading! You are already and always a master if you tap it.
The M: Well, you’ve certainly given us a lot to think about. Thank you. Any parting words?
Sonnon: Every person is my partner, not my student. Be a bad student and a good partner. Don’t be a follower.
Look into a mirror, not an oracle.