Archive for rank

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.


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.

On the difference between a “hard workout” and “hard work”

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

It took me a long time as a teacher to figure out that instructor and student can have vastly different conceptions of how hard a student is working. For example, it seemed obvious to me that a student who was missing a lot of workouts, and not finding ways to make up for lost time and missed material, should not expect to advance in rank—not, at least, at the same rate as their harder-working classmates. Yet I was confounded time and again by dojo members who became resentful when they were not invited to test for rank alongside people who had put in easily twice the hours and effort, and had plainly achieved superior technique.

Now, I’ve worked with children, and there is a strong fantasy component to children’s self-conceptions as martial artists. They think they “know” a technique after having been shown it once. They think putting in an hour’s workout makes them an expert. They mimic moves they’ve seen on TV, and feel themselves performing with the grace and power of Bruce Lee. Teachers know better, and try to harness that enthusiasm while gently guiding kids toward more realistic notions.

Somehow I always assumed adults would have accurate self-conceptions—but it turns out adults have fantasies too. And of course we do; we all do; it’s part of what makes us human. (Don’t forget, though, that telling fantasy from reality is part of what makes us sane—at least, for those of us who are sane.)

I got a big clue some years back, when I began putting attendance requirements on paper, and asking members to mark their own attendance. A certain fellow who hoped to earn high kyu rank approached me one day, wondering what he needed to work on to be eligible for the next test. We opened up the attendance notebook and looked at all the blank spaces next to his name. He was genuinely shocked. “But wait, I was here last week, wasn’t I?” Well, no. “I was sure I came more often in November…” Nope.

I believe this man felt sincerely that he was attending class and working hard—because it was his sincere desire and intention to do so. (It was his fantasy to do so—and his fantasy that he was doing so.) His reasons for missing class were for the most part genuine, job-related. He really meant to make up the time, as soon as he could. But he wasn’t making it up, and he was far from ready to stand up for a test—facts that were rather obvious from my (the teacher’s) perspective.

Another student once asked for a conference after class. He was upset that he was not advancing more quickly. He had learned some other students were testing for the rank he felt he deserved. He watched them perform, and didn’t think they looked that good. I listened as he told me how much effort he felt he was putting in, coming to class every time he could, training really hard.

To me, things looked quite different. His attendance was at the minimum: he committed to train twice and only twice per week—and he often missed one of those two. His reasons for missing were legitimate and usually unavoidable, but if you miss, you miss out, whatever the reason. When in class, he sweated hard, but didn’t pay attention to the details of technique I wanted to see improved. So he didn’t improve. From my perspective, he was not moving forward as a martial artist.

It dawned on me after this conversation that he truly believed he was working his hardest—because he was trying his hardest to get to class, and because he was working out hard when he was in class. He didn’t see why this wasn’t enough.

It highlights an important distinction, between a hard workout, and hard work.

A hard workout is something anyone can do, simply through physical effort. Come to class, give it all your energy, sweat and go home exhausted. It’s a great feeling, and for some—for example, students in “cardio kickboxing” exercise classes—it’s all they came for.

Hard work is something else entirely in the martial arts. It’s working out hard with a mind toward self-improvement. A hundred kicks might be part of a hard workout, but if you’re working hard, it’s a hundred kicks while trying to make each one better than the last. And the work goes beyond the workout. It means asking questions, seeking advice, working at the mirrors, putting in extra bagwork, reading, setting goals, cross-training—anything you can do to learn more, understand better, sharpen technique, polish the rough spots.

Martial exercise is one thing, but the path of martial arts takes hard work. There’s no way around it; there are no genuine shortcuts.

Now the trick is to make this clear to students, and help them find the way to get it done. Any thoughts?

“Your superiors are beyond praise”

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , on April 19, 2009 by serpentstaff

No one ever had to tell me it would be inappropriate to praise my instructors. I knew instinctively—or maybe I’d been raised to understand—such praise would be presumptuous. As if I were in a position to evaluate the expert, and pat him or her on the head! I would no more have done that, than I would have presumed, as a beginner, to criticize the instructor’s lesson plan. Praise and criticism are two sides of the same coin. If you wouldn’t use one side, don’t use the other.

Yet I saw many classmates having to be taught that bit of etiquette, and I see it to this day. In America, this particular take on good manners is a minority position—indigenous, but rare; whereas in Japan and perhaps much of Asia, it is the default position, understood by everyone.

Consider a parallel discussion on workplace etiquette. American “how to” guides on workplace success often suggest praising one’s superiors as a way to give them recognition and at the same time become better liked. Contrast that with this succinct paragraph from the book Japan: Doing Business in a Unique Culture, by Kevin B. Bucknall:

Your superiors are beyond praise

Do not praise your superior for something he did […], it will not please him. In your culture it might be considered polite to do this; in Japan, it implies that you have raised yourself on a pedestal above him or her and are actually daring to offer a view about his or her behaviour. This actually seems quite a shocking thing to do in Japan.

As I said, a similar perspective does occur in the West, and I want to draw it out a little bit. I think everyone gets it in cases like this, which are extreme for comical effect:

“That’s a very good poem, Mr. Frost. You should try to get published!”

“That’s a really neat equation, Mr. Einstein. Is science a special interest of yours?”

“Ms. King, you look like you’re pretty good at tennis. We should play sometime!”

The speaker in all three cases will be embarrassed when they realize what they’ve done. They’ve condescended, or set themselves up as equals, when addressing someone they should have recognized as a superior. And we westerners do understand it; that’s why the jokes are funny. It shouldn’t be so hard to transfer that understanding to the dojo.

Still, it requires education and reinforcement, because it goes against our western natures in more than one way. We are egalitarian, and so resist putting anyone on a pedestal for any reason (an instinct that is at war with our simultaneous genuine desire to show respect for individuals and their expertise). Furthermore, westerners are an enthusiastic bunch who seemingly can’t resist blurting out praise whenever they feel it. And they see it as a nice thing to do.

Even so, the lessons about respecting one’s superiors, and about speaking to people respectfully, are absolutely worth learning. We shouldn’t drop those lessons just because our culture sometimes appears to lean the other way.

Now, does this point of etiquette mean we must never evaluate teachers and classes? Not at all. Human minds are in a constant process of evaluating things, praising and critiquing as they go. One can hardly put a stop to it, and it’s part of learning.

Etiquette is about time, place and manner. In this case, it means keeping your comments to yourself long enough to learn what you need to know (unlike the people in the jokes). It might mean asking questions instead of commenting, to avoid being presumptuous. But most of all it means taking your comments outside the dojo, where you can hash through all your thoughts, theories and evaluations with fellow enthusiasts on your own time, without speaking foolishly to your teachers. That give and take with your peers is, in fact, a time-honored part of training—and much of the fun of it as you come up through the ranks.

That brings me to one final point—about blogging. As an instructor who cringes when students praise (or criticize) inappropriately, I wondered for a brief moment whether I should feel similarly about comments from beginners on my blog. Others have wondered whether it’s appropriate for students to blog about their training at all, since it will inevitably involve the kind of praise and critique of one’s superiors that we’ve been discussing.

I think it’s obvious the world wide web is not the dojo, and we are willingly engaging in open discourse. One must absolutely use good manners, and choose respectful words—but isn’t that always true? To try to apply dojo rules to the blogosphere would be to misunderstand the nature of the pursuit. Martial arts bloggers are like students getting together after class to argue their passion over beer, or meeting behind the gym on their days off to practice and try things out. These activities are important in the development of any martial artist. We all did it; we still do it; and a good instructor knows to let it be.

That, at least, is my thinking. But let me know yours.