The Guys in the Back of the Room


Special Guest Writer: Joe Mayberry

Instructor, Systema St. Louis


20+ years ago, I had the honor to serve in the United States Marine Corps. During my enlisted tenure with the Corps, I attended many mission briefings. These types of affairs frequently consisted of a commander and/or a civilian specialist briefing us on the upcoming operation. The attendance of these meetings ranged from 10 to 100 individuals of all ranks. As with most of these types of briefings, there were always the “gung ho” types. They would sit with big anxious smiles on their faces and nervous energy twitching in their limbs. To many of them, this was likened to a high school pep rally.

Then there were the guys in the back of the room.

Almost unnoticeable to everyone else present in the room, these men showed little emotion or enthusiasm for the mission. They almost looked bored. Their appearance was one of casual calm. They whispered to each other, sometimes seemingly without moving their lips. They leaned against wall or stretched their legs out in the chairs. To those not in “The Know”, they gave every outward appearance as slackers and non-conformist. To those who realized who they were, these guys were not to be messed with. They were the specialists, professionals or as they are now commonly referred to as The Operators.

If you look at the wide litany of different martial arts and their respective practitioners, you will see many enthusiastic individuals. They wear t-shirts representing their respective arts, get tattoos showing their “badassery” or speak about their black belt to anyone who listens. When they walk into a room, they WANT you to know they have arrived.

Systema practitioners and instructors for the most part are a little different. We have a different take on who we are and our place in this world. Perhaps it is from what we have learned from the likes of Vladimir Vasiliev, Mikhail Ryabko and Konstantin Komarov and their individual respective backgrounds. It is not important to show your skills. In fact, your skills should not be apparent even when you are using them.

If someone were to walk into a Systema seminar before the event began, most would have no clue that it had anything to do with a martial art. Systema practitioners are not the typical martial artist. We speak a little softer and our manners are a little calmer. We move with a little less effort than others. Our smiles are more relaxed and less antagonistic. If we were to walk into a room, most should not even notice us or gather any impression from our presence.

So what sets those in Systema apart from others? Perhaps it is not because we know all the answers, but we are aware of the questions.

For example, if we use the analogy of a final exam in school. Students pull all-nighters, cramming to get every bit of information in our heads. They stress that they will not retain every bit of information that could possibly be on the test. They stress that their level of retention will hold up for those few precious hours of sleep they get prior to the exam. Then when the test finally arrives, they usually have a slight panic, looking for the questions that we know they have the answers to.

If you compare that analogy to a confrontation, then what you have is an aggressor (the teacher), who is attacking (the questions) and you, trying to figure out the answers before you fail. This would cause panic and stress in either situation. The more important aspect of this scenario is that sometimes you have no idea that there will be a test until it is presented to you.

In Systema, we do not deal in “finding the answers”. We strive to know the questions, thereby not worrying about the answers. Knowing the questions in a confrontation encompasses taking care of ourselves, physically, mentally and spiritually, knowing the psyche of our opponents and noticing the subtlety of movements and tension in others.

By using and mastering these qualities in us, we understand the subject matter of the confrontation. We are not reactionary, grasping for the answers. We give the answers before the questions are asked. By doing so, we give the outward appearance of calm, perhaps even bored.

We become the guy’s in the back of the room.


Joe Mayberrry is the Founder and Chief Instructor of the only Officially Certified Systema School by Vladimir Vasiliev in the St. Louis Metropolitan area. Offering Systema classes 6 days a week, Systema St. Louis is centrally located in mid-town St. Louis. For more information, please go to:


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