Martin Wheeler Interview with Captain Mark Bollong. U.S. Navy SEAL.

by Maryland Systema

Hello, Commodore Bollong, could we start with a little background about you?

I am just a kid from Key West, Florida, went to school, joined the Navy as an officer in the SEALs, grew old and just retired after 27 years of service.

What is your previous martial arts and/or combatives experience?

When I was a little kid, my dad took me to a martial arts demonstration in my school gymnasium and I remembered some black belt slice a banana off one of his student’s chest…even though I was impressed, I never found a school to join as a kid…it wasn’t until I went to University then joined a Moo Duk Kwan club which was Tae Kwon Do and Aikido, did that for a year or so but got bored with all the forms…did a little Okinawa Karate but got kicked out for not being obedient enough…went to SEAL training and learned a martial art named SCARS that shortly thereafter was booted from the community…then the Gracie’s changed the world and did (and still do) a bunch of sporadic BJJ over the years but never in one place long enough to get beyond a white belt…spent 6 months in the Philippines and learned an art named Arkijitsu and got a blue belt in that…always was on the lookout for military buddies to train with which is mostly BJJ and a little muy thai and regular boxing. Basically a mashup of half assed training that still keeps me interested in martial arts. I guess that is my path. 

What attracted you to Systema? How did you first become involved with it?

In addition to martial arts, I have always been interested in human movement and obscure fitness regimens such as MovNat, kettlebell training, gymnastics, parkour, yoga, physical therapies, core strength…you name it…I guess because of my research with that sort of thing, the youtube algorithm led me to a Systema video and it sparked my interest. I kept watching more Systema videos and I seemed to sense some value there. I could not find any Systema instruction near me so I did not do much about it for several years until I was stationed in Europe and I was watching a Martin Wheeler video and came across an ad for one of his seminars in Hamburg. I figured it was time to satisfy my curiosity so I signed up and once I met Martin, I was immediately impressed with the art and his ability to demonstrate and instruct. This was in 2015. Since then, I truly feel like it is the most complete martial art and movement art I have found.

What is your current training regime? How does Systema fit into your current training regime?

I have developed my own training regimen over the years…I half-jokingly call it the Hobo Ninja program because it is pretty informal and is a compilation of many different things I have picked up over the years and it is always changing depending on my current abilities. For some strange reason, I am fascinated by the thought of some old hobo living on his own but also being a master of all sorts of practical and effective movements that he picked up over the years. So I like to train outdoors usually, in many different terrain and maritime situations, barefoot if possible or at most with minimal shoes, moving in ways that have multiple benefits at the same time, and that train my neurological pathways towards functional movement patterns as well as my cardiovascular, mobility and strength conditioning. I also surf, mountain bike, and have a few other activities I am pursuing.

How, in your view, is Systema similar to other combatives systems? And what sets it apart?

Systems is really unique, it is not sportive, so there are no rules to limit it…it has a restorative aspect, which I find fascinating, where most martial arts are destructive…and yet it is also very brutal when it needs to be, while at the same time, being gentle…it is simple in that there is no need for protective gear, or mats, or gi’s…it doesn’t have a bunch of woo woo aspects to it, but it will blow your mind with new and unique concepts. It tends to attract very unique people to it. It is very complete, incorporating standup, ground, multiple attackers, any sort of weapon, any sort of situations…I have never experienced another art like it. 

What are you looking for in a martial art or combatives architecture? Are they same to you or different?

I guess I am looking for the most effective human movements that I can learn so that I feel competent in my life exploration. I don’t really care about the terms as much as I care about what is the best way to train that will produce the best results, which for me is an effective human body built for action.

Does a commander have different requirements from a martial art than a non commissioned operator?

I don’t really understand the question but I think I can answer it. The only difference in requirements is that a commander and a ‘noncommissioned operator’ is that the commander is probably on average older, so the operator might be able to withstand and recover from harder training. But regardless, both need to be ready to act in any situation so I would not differentiate the type of movements they are learning.

Would a special operator have different requirements from a
martial art than say, a soldier?

One of the things I discovered about military martial arts requirements, is that they are so different from how the movies or media portrays them. Now there are definitely some military guys that are incredible martial artists, but they are pretty rare, and they usually had a deep foundation in their art before they joined the military…usually a wrestling background. The combatives training provided in the military is really not enough to become very proficient unless it is complemented by a lot of outside training that a servicemember does on his or her own. The modern military just has too many training requirements to put on the members, there are only so many hours in the day and there are a ton of requirements vying for those training hours. Combatives is seen as a very niche capability for a military person and so it gets a minimal amount of investment. As a result, any combatives program for the military needs to be very simple, and require the least amount of time to teach and maintain. In my experience, the military only needs a few combatives actions: weapon retention, prisoner handling, and maybe…sentry takedowns. If a servicemember has the skills to do those two and MAYBE three things, then that would be more than sufficient to the needs of the modern military. The difference between a special operator and a soldier should not matter, especially if you are defining a soldier as an infantryman. Of course, there are tons of different ‘soldier’s’ (and airmen, and marines, and sailor…) types out there and very few of them need skills like sentry takedown, but all of them should have weapon retention skills because any of them might have to carry a weapon at some point, and all of them should be able to handle a prisoner because any of them might face that requirement at some point.

Now that you have been training for a number of years in Systema, do you have a specific goal for your training, are you just enjoying the day-to-day exploration, or is it both?

That is a tough question. I would love to say I have a goal to move like Martin Wheeler, but Martin has been a life long martial artist and instructor…it would be like me saying I want to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix. I don’t think I have the hours, the youthful hours, the talent to achieve that level. Which is very hard for me to admit. I don’t like to be negative though, and I know that anyone can achieve their dream if they try hard enough. But I am also a practical person. I think a realistic goal for me is to get to a level where I feel like I am ‘proficient’ in Systema. Where I am not trying to just ‘muscle’ a partner, but I am rather ‘flowing’ and using the right balance of tension and no more than required. I feel like if I can achieve that, then I could feel confident enough to teach. I am not sure if I would be a good teacher, but I think it would be fulfilling to offer instruction and be able to spread this art and meet the type of people who are interested in this sort of thing and would appreciate the chance to learn it. Something about it feels worthwhile in ways that few other activities feel worthwhile.

What is your ultimate goal as a student/teacher/innovator?

I learned from Ayn Rand that one of the most important pursuits we can have is to ‘create value’. The Japanese have a concept, I think it is called Ikigai, where they categorize a person’s life’s purpose in four areas that have overlap: what you love, what you are good at, what you can do that the world needs, and what you can do that people will pay you for. At this point in my life, I have a comfortable retirement, I still have some youthful energy left, I am hungry to create, and I think I have some things that I am good at. I love Systema, I want to feel that I am good at it so that I can be share it more widely with a world that I think could use more of it. 

What would you change about Systema training? Where do you struggle the most?

First thing I would change is I would do it more often. I think martial arts needs to be practiced at least 4 times a week. Next, I would try to incorporate more sparring at resistance levels, but this is tough with Systema because without protective gear, you can easily get to the point of hurting each other. If you place rules on it, then you are making it more sportive. I would like to add some rolling sparring, such as BJJ uses, but with a Systema focus. 
My toughest struggles are trying to learn new movement flows that don’t become patterns or fall back on past habits of tension.

Where are your biggest gains and improvements from training?

This is tough to answer because I don’t think I have trained with enough consistency to have improved, and yet I know I have improved since I began. It is hard to identify changes when you are re-educating your nervous system. My biggest improvements are probably more mental, in how I approach potential conflict incidents. In the past, I would have tensed up and been more obvious in my fight posture towards a potential threat, or I would have immediately gone offensive (Leeerooyyy Jeeennnkinnnss!)…now I breathe and focus on being in the moment.

What misconceptions do civilians have about combat or combat environments and martial arts training? Do you think Systema can address these issues?

I don’t think the average civilian understands the stress levels that a person might have to experience nor that you can train to prepare yourself for those stress levels. They also might think that the preparation is easier than they imagine it and that once you are prepared a little bit, then it is a permanent fix. The truth is that the training is rarely hard enough to prepare one for the real stress, and that the training never ends, it is a path, a discipline that must become a habit. Systema definitely helps address these issues, it is all about balancing tension and relaxation in as many stressful and different situations as possible. 

What do you find in your day to day life outside training that you feel the most benefits?

Systema showed me that too much tension is never the most effective option. It might work in a situation but it has a lot of downsides. This concept applies to life in general, so it has made me much more appreciative of controlling my temper (tension) and finding the best balance in every situation. 

What would you say to detractors of the Systema training
methodology after your experiences with it?

I have a really simple answer to this: Go find out for yourself about Systema if you have questions about it. That is what I did. I don’t understand people who think they know everything. I have been in SOF for 27 years, I have been around the world, I have met people from so many different cultures and places, I am very curious, I read a lot, I would say that I probably have a much greater experience base than the average person…and yet, the more I learn the LESS certain I feel about things. It is the ultimate hubris to make comments about things one has not experienced for oneself. If you think Martin’s Systema does not work and you feel the need to have an opinion about it, come to his class, or to a seminar and experience it for yourself. Then you can comment all you like. Simple as that.

How can people contact you for training?

I am in the middle of settling down in the Camp Pendleton area. I am thinking of starting a group on base and seeing where that goes. Email me at mark.bollong@gmail.com if you are interested in meeting up.

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