What is a ‘martial arts master’?

Posted in martial arts, philosophy with tags , , , on November 1, 2009 by serpentstaff

While I’ve been too busy to write these past several weeks, a certain news story has been preying on my mind. Many of you probably read it: “Judo champ jailed in train station beating.” The Striking Thoughts blog made mention of it, if you didn’t catch it in your local paper. Here’s the opening sentence from the article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Horseplay between a martial arts master and a Menlo Park amateur at a Peninsula Caltrain station turned into a full-blown assault and put a national judo competitor behind bars, authorities said Friday.

This ticked me off so severely that I almost… wrote a letter to the editor. What got me was not the thuggish behavior of the judoka; no, such assaults by young men on one another are so run-of-the-mill in our society, it’s hardly worth a letter to the paper, I’m sorry to say. What angered me was the journalist’s use of the term “martial arts master” to describe this 23-year-old judo-competitor-slash-thug. It struck me as emblematic of the kind of ignorance about martial arts that characterizes so much of what we see in the media, and gives us all a bad name.

Then I began reflecting on the term ‘master’ and what it does or doesn’t mean. It’s not so clear. There are two senses of the term in common understanding, and its usage in martial arts has elements of both. This is probably the cause of some problems.

First, there’s the sense of ‘mastery’ of a set of skills or area of knowledge. In that sense, it’s not unreasonable for a layperson to believe a champion competitor must be a ‘master’ of a sort. Surely they’ve mastered some martial arts skills in order to win those judo tournaments; ergo, ‘martial arts master.’ This might be analogous to ‘chess master,’ where the title is determined by ratings earned over time through winning matches. But we martial artists, besides knowing how transient tournament wins are, believe the title means something broader and deeper than that, so much so that we actually find it offensive if some twenty-something gets called ‘master’—no matter how many tournaments he might win.

Then there’s the sense of ‘master’ that’s associated with ‘underlings’ or ‘followers’ (not to say ‘slaves’). Here in the egalitarian West we are uncomfortable with this title—as well we should be. Besides underlings, it brings up the notion of cults and abuse. Yet in martial arts we do use the term in a related sense: The master is indeed someone whom we are meant to “follow,” at least to the extent of trusting his or her teaching and obeying instructions in class—and obeying with a greater depth of intention than we have when following instructions, say, in shop class, or from the boss at the office.

Put the two meanings together, and you can see where we get the romanticized, Yoda-like concept of a Master: someone whose skill and understanding are so great, and wisdom so deep, he (or she) is worthy of being followed and emulated like a guru. We have to mention wisdom and understanding here, because they are what raise the concept above plain technical skill. That’s important to us traditional martial artists, because we like to believe we are pursuing something greater—polishing our character.

Now, when I began training, I started with a simple, unromantic understanding of the term ‘master’ as a bit of jargon not unlike other foreign terms encountered in the dojo. It was simply a title applied to people who had reached a certain rank. I remember being told by a fellow student that anyone who reached (believe it or not) the rank of third degree was called ‘master.’ (Back then, in the school/system I was in, there weren’t many who reached third degree. Nowadays they are everywhere.)

If we accept it as jargon, we can avoid ‘master/guru’ concerns, and leave it up to styles and organizations to decide what requirements must be met. It becomes more like ‘chess master’ again—but not entirely. That’s because traditional martial arts are about more than technical skill, and do bring in hard-to-measure concepts like depth of understanding, wisdom, compassion for others, ‘mastery over oneself.’

In this picture, there are no 23-year-old masters; such a notion would be ridiculous, because those intangibles are reached only through maturity and reflection on many years of study and teaching. And in this picture, an individual who uses his skills to assault people in train stations is self-evidently not a master; he’s instead an offense to masters everywhere.

But that’s just one point of view. What do you think, readers? What is a martial arts master?


Women, Men, How Different?

Posted in martial arts, training with tags , , , , on September 17, 2009 by serpentstaff

Someone sent me this link. I think the column is hilarious, and telling, and among other things it caused me to wonder whether you, readers, think a woman’s experience is really completely different from a man’s. Or, how different you think it is. Experience diverges in some areas, certainly, … but I’d like to hear what people think. The article is entertaining in any case. Here’s the link:

Bitchslap: A Column about Women and Fighting, by Susan Schorn.

Come back and leave a comment after reading.

(Not) How to Choose a Dojo

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching with tags , on September 1, 2009 by serpentstaff

Someone once asked me whether I’d write a guide to choosing a dojo, to go along with a training manual I was working on. I thought about it, but decided the answer was “no.”

It’s not that I don’t have ideas and opinions on the subject; I have those on all subjects, and generally am more than happy to express them and try to persuade people to my point of view. At the same time, I want to leave plenty of room for others to have their differing points of view. This particular subject is one that has a strong element of personal preference embedded in it, which (I believe) needs to be respected.

I’ve read quite a few such guides, some written as chapters in longer books or training manuals, others presented on dojo websites. They are always colored by author bias. (I suppose everything is—but this subject more so than average.) Either they’re biased toward particular martial arts styles and approaches, or they succumb to stereotypes. The ones on dojo sites often list a lot of detailed questions to ask and requirements to meet—plainly tailored to match what you’d find at their school. Click to another site, and you’ll get a different and equally persuasive list of specs.

Some of them include questions to ask a prospective instructor, interview-style. These smack of someone having been asked to come up with a list of questions, for the sake of having a list of questions. I’ve been “interviewed” in this fashion a few times by prospective students or their parents. I am of course happy to answer whatever they’d like to ask, and I’ll do so thoroughly and with good humor—but sometimes it feels odd, contrived. As though they are challenging me to come up with the “right” answers—the ones prescribed by whomever wrote their list. I often think how easily they could answer their own questions by observing or participating in a class or two and listening to what I say to my students, instead of by testing my verbal facility one-on-one.

Indeed the people who will do best in these “interviews” will be the silver-tongued among us, and those who have studied what the marketing consultants say. And I wouldn’t say that makes them the best instructors. There are excellent instructors who are not silver-tongued, and who don’t subscribe to marketing consultants. They just believe in what they’re doing, and act on good instincts—which they might or might not be able to articulate.

I once read a parents’ guide in which the author suggested short, stocky kids should be directed to judo, while thin kids with long legs should be encouraged to try taekwondo. Okay, there’s some stereotyping for you. I know plenty of tall, skinny folks who excel at judo, as well as chunky people who can kick you in the side of the head without blinking. Whatever basis there may be for stereotypes, they should not be used as directives. Kids should get to find out what their passion is, regardless of body type. So should adults.

Martial arts devotees can have strong opinions about how a dojo should be run (and I notice the strongest opinions often come from people with little or no experience running their own schools). Their advice of course bends to their pre-formed opinions. Some hate the idea that money should be charged for classes at all; they’ll lump all commercial schools together as questionable. People who adhere to strict, traditional “white gi” backgrounds will sometimes suggest that any school wearing any colors or patches must be full of phonies. But these stereotypes don’t hold up, either. Just apply a little vigilance about money, and pay some attention to what’s actually being taught and learned at the school. That should tell you what you need to know.

Some assert that a head instructor should be at least a 3rd degree black belt, and perhaps over a certain age. Now, I was just a shodan in what became my primary art when I started my own school. And while I certainly know a lot more now than I did then—about teaching, running a school and everything else—if I had to choose between younger me and present-day me as an instructor, the choice would not be clear at all. Younger me was energetic, creative and not so set in my ways. Either choice could be a good choice.

The question of “McDojos” gets a lot of attention. I admit, the first time I heard the term it cracked me up; I loved it. Likewise the term “bullshido.” For “McDojo” especially, I think there’s a colloquial understanding: It will be a school using inferior ingredients to turn out large quantities of mediocre product for profit. But when it comes to specifics—describing to a non-martial artist what exactly that would mean in a specific case—stereotypes and author bias come pouring back in. It’s just not that clear. Things quickly get snarky, to use another popular term. One particularly snarky piece I just read asserts that any school not basing its training mainly on hard-contact sparring is probably a McDojo. Any school that uses one-steps or board breaking is probably a McDojo. Any school with lots of students is probably one. And so on. Ridiculous.

Another great term is “Faux-Jo,” which I encountered in Matthew Apsokardu’s eBook, The Student’s Guide to Surviving a Traditional Dojo. –And by the way, I think he did a great job on the book, on the whole. It’s well worth a read by people starting out in a traditional art. It’s a good “orientation tour,” and I especially like all the material about mindset and attitude. –But back to our subject: I think the brief Faux-Jo section suffers from the same problems as most McDojo discussions: It relies on the personal opinions of a martial arts insider, and doesn’t bring any clarity to a newcomer or outsider. What does “excessive” mean, when it comes to belt ranks and certificates? (For example, we give out a certificate of rank at each promotion; is that “excessive?”) Does my colleague have a Faux-Jo because he lets the demo team wear colored gis with a special patch? Does my friend who holds hard-earned rank in several styles have to keep those ranks secret so he won’t be seen as having “many belts in different styles and few real credentials?” Are my brown belt assistant instructors to be seen as “teachers from accelerated ‘teacher programs’?”

I suspect Matthew and I would probably be in agreement about which dojos out there are really Faux-Jos. I know exactly what he means by all his bullet points. But that’s because I’m a martial arts veteran with experience of these things. They don’t have that much meaning for someone who doesn’t come to the discussion with a lot of knowledge, and opinions already formed. The best illustration of this is his final bullet point: “no feeling of cheesiness” versus “strong cheese vibe.” I laughed at this one, but think about it: “Cheesy” doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t already have an opinion about what it should mean. It’s mainly just snark, I’m afraid.

Instead of snark, what we need for “how to choose a dojo” is respectful clarity, with room for different points of view. I don’t know that it can be done. There are few clear-cut cases. The quality of a dojo isn’t easily captured by superficial things, and what’s under the surface must be experienced to be known. In the end, the best advice is the least advice, in my opinion. Maybe what we really need is a guide to choosing a guide to how to choose a dojo.

Blogging Lessons for an Old Fogey

Posted in martial arts, philosophy with tags , on August 25, 2009 by serpentstaff

For those of you who haven’t figured it out by reading my posts: I am a bit of an old fogey. I started training over thirty years ago, and I wasn’t a young kid when I started. I got interested in this blogging thing earlier this year – it looked intriguing, but I didn’t know much about it. I still know very little about certain technical aspects of it. Same with social networking, twittering- a lot of things about the online world. I just don’t have the time to spend learning all the details.

The other thing I am – besides an old fogey – is a writer, the kind who tinkers endlessly with my prose. That means I’m always coming back to things I’ve written, finding phrases that could have been better, typos I didn’t notice the first ten times around… you get the idea. Mix this tendency with blogging, and it turns out I have a really annoying habit!

I just learned from a techno-savvy friend that every time I correct or update something, anyone who subscribes to a feed from the blog gets some kind of notice. So if I keep tinkering and updating, tinkering and updating – it must be kind of like ringing their doorbell and running away over and over. She assured me any subscribers I might have had would have unsubscribed after that much annoyance.

Well, I don’t know if I have any subscribers or not (another technical aspect I haven’t bothered to learn). But if any of you experienced my tinkering and got exasperated by it – Sorry ’bout that! I promise to do better. I’ll make better use of the ‘draft’ and ‘preview’ features.

And, as my friend suggested, once I send it out there I’ll practice “Letting it Go” and “Moving On” – my Zen lessons for the day.

Training Ahead of Rank

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , , , on August 10, 2009 by serpentstaff

Traditional martial arts typically follow a curriculum within which students are expected to pass a test on one set of forms and techniques before beginning to learn the next. Instructors can be quite strict about this, with students getting in trouble (whatever that might mean in a particular school) for trying to study ahead of rank, or for teaching techniques to their juniors ahead of rank.

Let’s all admit that a graduated curriculum makes a lot of sense. It’s as obvious as “crawl before you walk; walk before you run.” In some cases, it just comes down to the fact that you can’t learn everything at once, so some things need to wait. Your instructors, or their instructors before them, have made decisions about what to practice and when, based on reasonable principles. Different instructors might apply different principles, but when you sign on with one, you should expect to go along with their decisions.

Still, questions come up. Westerners want to learn cool stuff, and they want to do it now. They often feel they’re capable of taking on more, or at least trying to do more, than they’re offered in a traditional class. They see others practicing interesting things; they feel they can just copy them, or try to join in. They tire of repeating what they feel they’ve already mastered. This can be magnified by the fact that traditional schools often have time-in-rank requirements. A student may feel they’ve got something down by the end of the first month, but they’re looking at two more months minimum of repetitive practice before they’ll start on a new set of techniques.

There are many ways to look at this problem; I’ll mention three. Number Three is the one that interests me right now, so let me get One and Two out of the way:

First (and most obviously to a traditional instructor), students are not the best judges of what they have and haven’t mastered. Whether they feel it or not, they truly need all that repetition before moving up. And good students need to accept outside guidance on their readiness to approach new material. If they cannot respect their instructor’s judgment on that basic decision, they should either look for a new instructor—which they’re always free to do—or engage in some self-examination on their need to rebel.

Secondly, traditional training is not primarily about collecting cool techniques. And it’s not about superficial competence. It’s about physical practice as a path toward true mastery—deep mastery—which happens to require endless patience and humility to achieve. Beginners understandably use a superficial yardstick to measure themselves; they don’t know any better. Traditional training asks them to take a deeper approach, meet higher standards. That is what will enable students, ultimately, to master all those cool techniques—if they choose to stick it out. So the enforced waiting, the required patience, the endless repetition of basics—these are not incidental to training, they’re central to it. In fact they’re the heart of the program.

Now let’s try a third way of looking at it. Often, students really can take on more than the strict curriculum offers. True, they haven’t yet mastered their basics—but they won’t master anything for years! Meanwhile, their enthusiasm compels them to watch advanced class, then go off trying things with each other behind the gym. As bad as this may be for safety and good technique, it keeps up spirits and shows dedication. Most of all, it’s human nature—unavoidable. The real enthusiasts will be out there no matter what, and they are the future of our schools and styles. As instructors, we must warn sternly against it, pound home our lessons about patience and humility, and then perhaps turn a blind eye. After all, as I’ve said before, we all did it; we’ve all been there. And haven’t we turned out just fine?

Keep in mind I’m not talking about children, but capable adults. Nor am I suggesting we should turn a blind eye if people are doing things that are unsafe or causing injury. But a bit of “training ahead of rank” can be a very healthy thing among good students who are keeping up their traditional basics in class.

I suspect most styles nowadays build some of this in—for example, through camps and seminars where advanced topics are open to all. My style does this. And now we come to what prompted me to write this piece. Not long ago I had occasion to watch two different students practicing kata they learned ahead of rank. Both cases made me wonder whether this is such a good idea. One student was struggling to remember the sequence, but he couldn’t even perform the basic movements adequately (an advanced weapons kata). The other remembered the complex sequence admirably well—but performed the movements very, very awkwardly (in this case, empty hand). Each of them asked for my help, and I just wanted to say “Go back and work on the kata for your rank.”

I have taught some of these special seminars. Should I have barred such students from the class? I did impose a minimum limit on rank, but rank was not the best predictor of how a person did. The best predictor, interestingly enough, was how dedicated the student was to mastering the building blocks, as opposed to memorizing the whole kata. The best students set about drilling the basic movements, and put a low value on trying to learn the whole sequence by seminar’s end. The worst students set their sights on memorizing the sequence, figuring (I suppose) to get better at the movements by practicing the kata over time. They did badly, and, ironically, the others were more likely to get the sequence down by the end—all the while vowing to drill the component basics and not the kata for the upcoming year, before trying to learn it again.

There we have it: Humility and patience, and dedication to drilling the basics— The virtues we teach when we bar students from training ahead of rank are what make students better at training ahead of rank. More evidence in favor of the traditional approach to training, and a free lesson in making all-ranks seminars more effective.

How does your school handle training ahead of rank?

Does an 8-year-old’s black belt reflect on mine?

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , on June 21, 2009 by serpentstaff

It’s a much-discussed topic on forums, blogs, and in pubs after workout, whether the widespread awarding of black belts to children in some styles—and for that matter, the churning out of black belts of all ages by “black belt mill”-type schools—dilutes or cheapens the value of the black belts the rest of us feel we’ve legitimately earned.

I’ve always been of the “lighten up, don’t worry about it so much” school. Yes, of course we have our private opinions about the value or meaning of other people’s belts, our private opinions of how their training and skills compare to ours or our students’.

I certainly have those opinions, but I try to keep them in perspective. For one thing, no one else’s belt—not even one within my own school or style—can diminish the meaning or value of mine. Nor can it diminish the meaning or value of yours. The meaning of the belt lies in a combination of what it took to earn it, and what the wearer continues to do to live up to it. The value of a rank, if we have to assign a value, should have to do with how the wearer is looked up to within their own martial arts community, and the contributions they continue to make to that community.

Furthermore, my opinions of other people’s belts and skills—just like their opinions of mine—might well be based on imperfect, incomplete or biased information. There is a lot of chauvinism in the martial arts world (as in all human endeavors); we’ve all felt a bit of chauvinism about our chosen styles, at some time, to some degree. There are people who sneer at any rank earned in a style that doesn’t share whatever emphasis their own style happens to favor. But that sneering means nothing about the value of my rank or yours; it only reflects something about the sneerer’s attitude.

I also try to remember that innocent participants in “black belt mills” and children’s classes have, after all, worked hard at a set of skills for a sustained period of time, and their accomplishments surely deserve some respect. Okay, maybe the skill set was limited, and the period of time was brief by the standards of my own style—but the student didn’t know that at the time, and they were giving their best effort. I would prefer to judge them by their commitment and their willingness to continue learning, and not by comparing their skills and ranks to those of my own students.

But what about the opinions of the general public? Do child black belts and “black belt mills” reflect badly on the martial arts as a whole? Do they create suspicion and cynicism in the public toward the rest of us? To this I have to say that the general public is quite ignorant about martial arts, and although these types of schools may reinforce that ignorance in some cases, they aren’t the cause of it.

Something we sometimes forget—those of us who are so dedicated to martial arts—is that the vast majority of people just aren’t into martial arts; they don’t know or care much about it, outside what they encounter casually or in the media. So of course their views are distorted and their information is slightly off. Then, in some cases, it’s time to sign their kids up for sports, and they see it on the list of possible activities—in their minds, on a par with tee-ball. Or adults see all the kids in gis and doboks on their way to after-school programs, and assume martial arts is mainly for children. Or they’re a schoolteacher, and they see kids on the playground kicking at each other acting out movie scenes, and conclude martial arts teaches violence and should be discouraged.

The point here is that people need to be educated about the meaning of what we do—and the meaning of our ranks—before it makes sense to ask whether something reflects badly on us.

And it’s up to us to educate them.

Still, let’s take one more look at the 8-year-old black belt. I’ve been professing an attitude of laid-back tolerance toward other people’s standards—that they don’t reflect on us in any meaningful way, and we shouldn’t worry about it, but should do our part to educate people. But a part of me really isn’t that laid back. I know this because of a rise in blood pressure I experience sometimes.

I do teach children at my dojo, and I believe there’s much one can impart to children about traditional martial arts without compromising (I may blog about this subject in the future). But our curriculum is broad and complex, our attitude is serious, and bottom line: no child—not the most brilliant, not the most dedicated—can earn black belt before their mid-teens at best. For the younger kids, that means seven or eight years of devoted training and increasing maturity.

On the other hand, there are several taekwondo schools in the area that are filled with 8-year-old black belts. Many of my students have young friends who are black belts, and many parents are aware of this and expect it for their own child. Every time a youngster in one of my classes announces how their friend has a black belt, or a parent says little Johnny’s friend just got a black belt, so Johnny is excited about getting one too—my stomach churns and the edges of my vision start to go black.

I take a few breaths, because I don’t want to disrespect the friend or the friend’s dojang. I just have to educate this parent (and child) about what it is we offer at this dojo, and explain how it differs from what their friend does. But I also at times feel pressured to give a sales pitch about why what we offer is better—why they should look forward to investing four times as many years to get that belt. It walks the line of chauvinism—which I tried to disavow earlier—and it lures me toward speaking ill of other schools’ practices. I’ve slipped up a few times.

I guess my heart is not yet in harmony with my mind on this whole issue.

Hurt, Pain, Agony

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , on June 12, 2009 by serpentstaff

My older brother and I were on a swim team when we were kids. One year, someone gave him a book for his birthday: The Science of Swimming, by James Counsilman, the renowned college and Olympic swimming coach. Never wanting to be left out, I read over my big brother’s shoulder, long enough to see the famous “hurt, pain, agony” scale. scienceofswimming What I got from it was that top-level competitive swimmers— and maybe we could generalize to other athletes— were those who were willing, under the guidance of a good coach, to endure increasing levels of hurt, pain, and finally agony, in order to complete their training exercises in the desired time or at the desired level of intensity.

Turns out I wasn’t willing to endure the agony of jumping into the 60-degree Fahrenheit spring-fed municipal pool at 7 a.m., for a coach who took no notice of the younger kids. But years later when I discovered martial arts, I loved working out so much, I would have endured just about anything.

I was scrawny and out of shape when I started, so I was in for some serious pain. After hundreds of kicking reps— especially side thrust kicks, which I really wanted to master— I developed an intense aching in my hip joints. One morning I woke up barely able to walk. I hobbled around a bit, and as the joints warmed up I felt better, so I got on my bike for an easy ride. Riding took the pain away completely. I enjoyed a good cruise, but when I slowed down and came to a stop in front of my dorm, my joints seized up and I was unable to get off my bike. Literally: I could not move. I could not lift one leg. All I could do was balance there stiffly with one foot on the ground, hoping not to wobble and be zapped by severe pain.

Inwardly, I was near panic, fearing I’d have to be hauled away in an ambulance and be unable to work out again. Outwardly, not wanting to let on, I nodded at passers-by and hoped they assumed I was waiting for someone. And I was— hoping against hope one of my close buddies would come by so I could ask for a bit of help. Thankfully this did finally happen. I took a delivery of aspirin, chatted a few minutes, and eventually was able to get off the bike and hobble back to bed. The pain decreased over the next week, and I came through the experience with the conviction (perhaps an unwise one) that no amount of pain should ever stop me.

Over the years I endured all manner of pain and injury, as I believe all serious martial artists of my generation have done. But that brings me to the point of this post, which is to ask, What is required of the modern-day amateur martial artist?

People join nowadays for a variety of reasons, and come in at all ages. I run a community dojo, not a college club; I welcome anyone who comes with a sincere desire to try. I know that few of them will be willing to endure the kind of abuse my buddies and I took. (In retrospect, I don’t think everything we did was altogether wise.) The majority, I suspect, are people who would not return to class if they suffered the kind of hip pain I initially endured.

On the other hand, it’s a rough activity, and it’s meant to push one’s limits. So…

How do we push people without requiring that they be maniacs like ourselves? How do we convey the difference between necessary discomfort and needless injury? How do we manage classes that may include both young, athletic types ready to go hard, and older bodies whose maximum capacity might not match up? How do we deal with students who back off at the first sign of any pain; or, on the other hand, with students who try to continue no matter the injury?

We instructors deal with these questions, one way or another, as we must; but we’re sometimes ambivalent, and not always happy with the results. Any thoughts?