Archive for dojo

A Question of Respect

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , on September 27, 2010 by serpentstaff

I’ve decided to post a question, because I’ve been too busy to write a good post in quite some time, and this trend might continue. It’s on one of my favorite subjects: Respect- what it is, what it means. Here’s the question:

Who shows greater respect for a superior–
1) a person who keeps quiet when he disagrees with important statements or decisions; or,
2) one who speaks up for what he believes is right?

[Note: I originally said “speaks up to defend an opposing view” — see comments.]

By ‘important,’ I mean to suggest issues or matters of principle that most people would consider worth speaking up about under ordinary circumstances. But in an authoritarian, hierarchical organization like a dojo or martial arts association, circumstances aren’t always ordinary.

Context matters, of course. I’m not talking about disagreeing with a superior when they are teaching class, because I think it’s clear in that context: Respect always requires keeping quiet unless called upon, and approaching the disagreement, if it’s really necessary, by asking polite questions, perhaps after class.

Let’s limit it to things like policy decisions or personnel matters, at the dojo or larger organizational level. If the boss makes an official statement or decides to implement a policy you believe is badly mistaken, is it respectful to speak up or to keep quiet? What if the boss has made it clear they don’t really care for advice?

I look forward to your thoughts.

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I Lost a Student With “Too Much Philosophy”

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , on April 9, 2010 by serpentstaff

This was quite a few years ago already. And while the student in question did not use that exact phrase, I don’t think he’d disagree. But let me give the background.

As you’ll know if you have read other parts of this blog, I do have a strong sense of a philosophy underlying traditional training, and I try to teach in accordance with it. I am also respectful of the style/organization of which I’m a member, and I ask my students to meet that organization’s requirements in terms of learning a code of ethics and certain other tenets.

Yet I almost never talk about philosophy during class, and I don’t think it’s necessary. I believe the important philosophy is embedded in the practice. Further, I don’t think a student needs to know or embrace any particular philosophy, so long as they meet the practical requirements of working out in my dojo. If they can do that, I believe, the philosophy will seep in through their pores. If it doesn’t — their loss.

Those requirements include such basics as showing courtesy and respect to instructor and students, following the rules and rituals handed down by the tradition of our style (they’re not excessive), doing what you’re asked to do during the workout to the best of your ability, keeping talk and questions to an absolute minimum during the workout (but questioning as much as you like outside class), cultivating focus and concentration… Really, that’s about it. Train with intensity if not reverence; develop a respect for what you’re doing and the people you’re doing it with.

Sometimes I wonder whether I should talk more often and more clearly about philosophy to my students — usually when I see people “not getting it” — and I’ll resolve to do so. But it tends to go by the wayside because, frankly, we’re too busy training.

The exception happens when there are students in class who aren’t working hard, who are disrupting training or in other ways going against dojo practice. Sometimes I will bring the class around while they’re catching their breath, and talk about philosophy a bit, directing it toward whatever the problem may be. Even then, it’s only after trying a simple, direct approach with the students, such as asking them to “train, don’t talk,” or reminding them about etiquette — or having an assistant instructor remind them.

Now, back to that lost student. He had some experience in another art before he joined my school, and like many people who join a new school or style, he had trouble letting go of old ways. This is understandable. However, this fellow — give him credit — was enthusiastic, wanted to earn rank, and even — after a year or so — announced his plan to get a black belt and teach within our style. So after a good long year, I pressed him harder to begin using our terminology, bring his techniques to our standards as best he could, and make an effort to perform drills as I asked for them instead of as he might have done them at his old school. And I pressed him, as I pressed everyone, to work out with his partners instead of talking and instructing his way through class.

One evening when far too much talk was going on, when this fellow in particular was resisting corrections on a drill and instructing his partner in how he would have done it at his old school, I called the class around and asked whether everyone knew the story of the empty cup (that old standby for traditional martial artists). Many did not know it, so I told the story. When I reached the punch line, “If you want to learn anything new you must empty your cup,” there was a loud, derisive snort from the fellow in question.

I admit I was surprised. I’d expect polite disinterest, polite interest, puzzlement or understanding, nodding or furrowing of brow, perhaps a question — but derision? The story is about having an open mind, about not drowning out new input with your own noise. One can read it as shallowly or deeply as one likes, but it hardly seems controversial.

Within a couple of weeks, his bad back started acting up, and he took time off. Time passed; I received an email explaining that he had decided not to come back, that he felt he was being pressured to live some sort of “martial arts lifestyle” that he didn’t agree with, with this whole “empty cup” thing. He also cited having been asked to memorize the style’s code of conduct (a simple test requirement), which he felt wasn’t very creative, and he should have been asked to write his own code. (Ironically, he could have done just that if he’d stayed till 2nd kyu, when we begin asking students to write papers for rank tests.)

It was hard for me to resist arguing, but I had to let it go. Those of us who believe in the value of what we teach and how we teach it — we “Zen evangelists” — believe everyone would be better off if they learned our favorite lessons. But often we must accept that those who seemingly need the lessons most, may be least likely to stay around and get them. There’s no forcing it; we’re dealing with free North American adults. And after all, perhaps the lesson was for me.

(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.

On the difference between “friends” and “family”

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , on May 9, 2009 by serpentstaff

Members of shared-interest groups and organizations often speak of themselves in terms of family and friendship. You might hear references to “the dojo family,” or “the [style] family” (fill in the name of yours). Attendees at annual trainings or tournaments look forward to seeing old friends (people they might know only through these events), and may describe the event as resembling a family reunion. It’s not uncommon to hear people say their dojo mates and training partners are their best and truest friends.

Shared interest, and especially shared long-term struggle, foster closeness. It’s entirely understandable when people come to speak and feel this way—and not at all wrong. But I want to point out a difference between friends and family; and I want to say that in my view, while family might be an apt metaphor for a dojo or style, no martial arts organization has any business being based on friendship.

Friendship is a fine thing, of course, and my argument is not with friendship, only with its being used as an organizing principle in dojos and other martial arts associations. I’ll admit up front that many if not most of my closest friends, at this stage in my life, are people I’ve come to know through the martial arts, so I could hardly be attacking the idea of dojo friendships.

The problem is, where friends are concerned, we’re selective. We include and exclude based on personal taste and whim. And that’s the difference between friends and family: We choose our friends. We don’t choose our family.

A family reunion is a place where all the kin are welcome—not just your favorite kin, but also the weird uncle, the drunken aunt, her son the parolee, the nieces and nephews screaming and fighting, and your great uncle with the offensive political views. They may sometimes be hard to take, but they’re family, so you listen politely, stick up for them against outsiders, and help them out when you can. And in some crazy way, you love them all.

Among family, you may have some that are also friends. Those are the cousins you see socially all year round—and maybe you speak ill of your less-favored relatives when you’re together. But if the the group of you have a picnic, it’s not a family reunion. That venerable event must be open to everyone in the clan.

If you have a falling out with a friend, you may cease to be friends, but if you fall out with your cousin, you’re still family. You can’t just have him kicked out of the clan. You may both behave badly, but you’re cousins whether you like it or not. That’s a strong motivation, when there’s conflict and disagreement, to find a way to deal with it.

“Blood is thicker than water.”

In a dojo, the “blood” is the desire to train, and everyone who has it is qualified to be family. But they need not be friends. To require them to be so is to depart from the purpose of training.

I knew a dojo where the students were the main source of drinking buddies for the head instructor. It got to be where if a prospective student didn’t fit the mold, they’d be discouraged—one way or another—from joining. If a long-standing member made a change in their social life and no longer played along, they’d be pressured to leave. If two members had a falling out, one would be “favored” and the other would be driven to quit. In my view, this was a social club, not a dojo, and had no business with its pretense to martial arts ideals, which include at a minimum respect for others and a dedication to the resolution of conflict.

I’ve seen cases in perfectly honest dojos where groups of students who enjoy each other turn against individuals they don’t like to train with, and pressure them in ways that make them want to quit. (Does it sound like I’m talking about children? I’m talking about adults.) A good instructor who sees this going on can take measures, but it’s subtle and can go unnoticed until it’s too late.

I’ve seen martial arts associations that have been—for periods of time—not meritocracies, but “amitocracies” (my term), ruled by groups of friends. The result was that favored people rose in stature, the disfavored were disrespected, the ambitious connived to make powerful friends, and the majority simply felt ignored and powerless. Good people left in frustration, and important organizational decisions were made with insufficient input.

The organizations I’ve described were acting on the wrong principle; they were organizing based on friendship. A dojo or style is better thought of as a family, related by the desire and dedication to train. Its members need not like each other, but they must all respect each other, and find ways to work together. They need not resemble each other, but they must find ways to accept and learn from each other. If problems arise, they need to try to solve them with a minimum of damage.

There is so much to be gained from this approach. And isn’t it, on so many levels, a perfectly good metaphor for what we do?