The White Belt in us all

Belts are amazing things.  They provide a grip point for tobi otoshi, or belt chokes. They hold our gi tops closed so we aren’t showing off our pale flabby stomachs (what just me?), they let us know our place in line, and give us a very very rough guestimate at the skill of the training partner we face, they also tell us our duty to protect and teach or to observe and seek knowledge.

However belts are so much more, they are Rope Makiwara, they are tension ropes for throw drills and for solo drills, they are stretching aids for a variety of stretches turning partnered stretches into solo stretches, they are guide ropes, drill lines, impromptu agility ladders, games markers and restricted.

I use a spare belt for all of these tasks, a white belt I keep in my training bag. It’s been in there for a long time, and has seen service as all of the above, and as a spare belt to tie closed a students top when they forget their own.

However most of these uses for my trusty white are new, in fact some of them I only learnt about 2 weeks ago. Some I admit such as markers for games have been about since my first few times carrying it, but most are new.

So the question becomes why is the belt there. The truth is it is there for a very personal reason. As I have spoken about before in this blog. Being a black belt can be a wonderful thing, it can also lead us to be perhaps a little bit forgetful about the fact that we are the perpetual student, the perpetuallearner. Without the urge to learn, whether it is new martial skills, new training skills, new teaching methods, new psycgology then we fail as a teacher. My white belt found its way into my bag originally as a physical manifestation of this. I may wear black, but if you look in my bag you will see white. Why because I am forever a student.

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The Learning Clock, ticking down.

The issue I wanted to write about today is alternatively called a couple of things by myself, but I think probably the most expressive is the teaching clock. And in this matter I don’t really mean the clock on your wall, but I am talking about the amount of time you have a student for.

And in reality this doesn’t just apply to martial arts but to all teaching. The teaching clock could be said to have three hands. The Absolute hand, this hand counts down the amount of time you’re going to have that student, whether this is defined by the course or you or merely by your students interest; The focus hand, this hand is determined mostly by your student, but as a teacher you have a massive role to play in determining this hand, this hand circles the clock with each new thing you try to teach or new lesson you begin and it shows how long your student will focus for; the last hand is the hardest for us to influence, this is the Dedication hand, how much of “their” time the student will give to practising, thinking about, or looking at what you have shown them.

Why is it important for a teacher to know this clock, to learn to read it better than the clock on their wall?  because we can do more harm than good by making assumptions about this clock.

A good example and one I used in a conversation recently was self defence classes verses traditional art classes. A self defence class is often a time limited thing, they are set up as courses, 6 weeks, 2 months, or as terms. This means we are likely to have far less time with our students, a far faster absolute hand counting down to when the student leaves, this means that going through the slow but ultimately very effective and rewarding process of teaching traditional basics is often the wrong route. To do this we must first dismantle our students instincts and techniques and build them back in a different way, we must tell them how to move, which muscle and when, where they strike, and at first this makes them weaker, so with a short absolute hand this is often a bad idea. Instead with a short absolute hand we must instead think about giving something that can be learned quickly and will improve our students.

The next difference is the focus hand, a self defence class, ironically has a much longer focus hand in general, this is because people sign up for these classes with a very good knowledge of what is coming, they are prepared and ready to focus and often sign up entirely by their own choice. They also tend to be older than the average starting traditional student, so while we might spend time working to extend the focus hand on our traditional students often this time is wasted time on a self defence class.

The dedication hand is an odd one and it varies wildly, this can depend in a major way on the students choices, their lifestyle and history. Some people will take what you teach them refine and perfect it, others will rely upon you to refined and perfect it. We should always do our best to improve our students dedication, to length this hand and make them spend more of their own time practising, but sometimes in this we are left to fickle fate. However all my teaching friends, whether martial artists or not, remember, you are not to blame if your student does not practise or dedicate their time to what you teach, do your best to encourage them to, but if they don’t and they fail then it is not you, it is your student, do not become upset by the failures of students who do not desire to learn.

The Implicit Unconcious Osmotic Dojo‏

Very few people will know what I mean when I say Osmotic learning, but hopefully more will be familiar with the terms unconscious or Implicit learning. A thing that is implicit just is, and something learned implicitly just is learnt.

Despite what the modern world seems to believe; with schools, colleges, universities. E-learning, short courses, night class, classroom based career development courses, and many more things besides; a majority of human knowledge is still learned implicitly it is still absorbed almost accidentally like fluids passing from one place to another through osmosis. One reason the modern world struggles to accept that unconscious learning is one of the major sources of our knowledge about the world around us is that allot of this knowledge is so implicit as to not be thought of as knowledge, after all the sky is blue, water is wet, and things fall down when you drop them, we don’t consider these things to be knowledge to be things we have learnt, but in fact they are.

For the most part though, this osmotic knowledge is more to do with society, social norms, body language and hand gestures, we learn these things not by being taught them but by seeing them over and over again and by living them.

So why is this important for the dojo? I hear you cry out in frustration as I ramble on. For several reasons this is perhaps the most important thing to remember when teaching in a dojo.

The first reason is because your students are absorbing everything, even if it doesn’t seem like it, and this unconscious undirected absorption of knowledge can be a blessing or a curse. Students will pick up bad habits from each other and importantly from you by accident, without ever being taught them. Students will learn behaviour, what is and isn’t acceptable. Students will learn forms of address, use of language, and where to stand. In the dojo where this isn’t considered and where the instructor ignores this accidental learning the result is random, so it is important.

The second reason is what your student brings with them. Every student has a life time of knowledge, whether it’s a 6 year life time, or a 60 year life time. The ‘classroom’ knowledge they bring with them isn’t really a big concern, this knowledge was learnt in the classroom so it’s there as an education to be used and taken up when needed but it lies passive, dormant, for the most part. The osmotic knowledge they bring with them however is never quite so willing to stay quiet, instead it leaps out of them in every word and gesture, every thought and feeling. Ask a student new through your dojo doors with no training at all to punch a punch bag. 80% of students will throw a right handed hook. Why? Because this is how you throw a punch, this is what a punch looks like. Who taught your student that? books, radio, but mostly TV. However if you look at a baby, or toddler hit something they don’t throw a hook, they hit hammer fist from above the head downward… why? Because we are descended from apes and this motion is how our muscles are designed to exert force from birth; though mainly for climbing and clinging. But this isn’t the only osmotic knowledge, the thought most fights start with a right hook leads our students astray, the idea that certain ‘truths’ exist means there is allot of falsehood we should be aware of and looking to adjust.

The third reason is yourself, you have learnt all these things by osmosis too, all these implicit and unconscious things through your life, you bring them with you into the dojo, and you give them to your students by the spade load. You might tell your students that fighting almost always ends in a grab, but when they watch you fight you never grab. So you are teaching them that fights don’t always end in a grab and also that you lie. Contradicting yourself with unconscious learning even as you push forward conscious knowledge. Your expectations and beliefs about fighting, your martial art, even the world around you are implicit in your actions and absorbed by your students.

We all have things we have learnt by osmosis that affect our beliefs of competition, sport, training, fighting, self defence, by looking at what osmotic knowledge we are bringing to these things, and what osmotic knowledge we are developing in the dojo we can enhance our training and the training around us.

We can however can start to guide osmotic learning, and we already do without thinking about it, by bringing skilled students and respectful students into being senpai and by praising students for doing things well.

And as a final note, if you want a book that is about something entirely different but still has some interesting points about osmotic absorbed knowledge and ideas, try Try Gift of Fear by Gavin Debecker.

Tournaments Are Bad

Everyone loves a winner, it’s an old adage that is held to be very true today. A gold medal is an important part of progression for allot of people in sport. Often times parents of children in a dojo will complain if their child never places in a tournament. Children will feel pressured to win and become stressed and upset if they don’t. Instructors will feel pushed to specialise in competitive skills.

Now in reality I don’t mind competition, it can be a great test of skills within any sport or hobby. Whether it’s an art competition or a martial arts tournament, or merely a writing contest. The issue I have with martial arts tournaments is however two fold. It is a matter of priorities.

Let us look at one of the issues I have with the martial arts tournament world. Parents. God bless the beings that produce offspring, for they care about them, they want them to excel, and they want to see it. Unfortunately they also demand things, they ask instructors to forsake the base skills in exchange for specialising in tournament, for getting their children to win competition when that specialist training isn’t necessarily what the child needs to possess as a martial artist in the long term.

In the name of competition I have seen students progression damaged, I have seen belts withheld so students can compete at a lower level (so called sandbagging). I have seen instructors take students through dangerous types of exercise (weighted plyometrics) at far to young an age, when it could impact their long term health in the name of standing on a stage with a gold medal round their necks.

I have also seen the tournaments themselves diluted with more and more “championships” more and more “national champions” and more and more divisions, to give more and more people the chance to hold “the” championship medal.

But in reality my greatest hate of tournament is how they affect knowledge of the art.

A strong example from my own art is the slow erosion of other blocking types beyond the pushing or deflective block, because these blocks are getting less and less popular because of how point scoring tournaments have become and how they are judged, to the point that I have met many a black-belt that doesn’t understand the stopping or wall style of blocking, that barely understands dodging, and his little experience in jamming.

The same has occur’d with break falls, with point scoring tournaments blaming the thrower exclusively for injuring the thrown dojo’s have spent less and less time practising and perfecting break falls, this puts students at risk because they could be hurt when thrown, but the instructor faces the choice; do I spend time on break falls and in reality reduce my competitors chances of winning because if my competitor is injured in a fall his opponent is penalised, or do I spend time perfecting my students reverse round head kick to score my competitor 3 points.

But don’t get me wrong, point scoring tournaments are good in many ways. And I don’t just have complaints about point scoring tournaments. If you look at heavy contact tournaments they also erode the art they are used by if they are the only thing that art looks at. Instead I feel that all types of tournament, all types of competition, all types of training have their benefits and down sides, the key is balance, moderation and understanding.

If only parents would understand that I don’t care if their child wins a gold at next weeks tournament, if in the long run they go on to be a confident, skilled and positive person.

Language in the Dojo

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Whether your art is Karate, Taekwondo, Brazilion Jiujutsu or Fencing, most arts in the martial world have their own language, in often two different ways. Arts have a language that is linked to them intrinsically because of where they have come from, their country of origin often forms and shapes this linked language and is the home of it; Japanese, Korean, Brazilian or French in the examples above.

Rare is it though someone or somewhere that insists you speak this home language, instead parts of the home language bleed into the art; the names of techniques, formal forms of address, question and answer routines, and ways of giving orders or commands.

The other language of arts is the language of that specific instructor, some instructors might say ‘relax’ to signal the end of an exercise, or to tell you to un-tense your muscles, or to tell you to lower your shoulders, or use less force or all of the above.

For these reasons any student coming into a martial arts environment can find it intimidating to suddenly have all this new language and wording to deal with; for this reason many instructors in my experience have started to put aside the words of the art, substituting their own words or just plain translations. So Uke becomes block, and Tsuki becomes punch, and Dachi becomes stance; the question is, why and why not?

Well this substitution this removal of the arts mother language is done for many good reasons, instructors don’t want to confuse students, or intimidate students; instructors might struggle to pronounce words in a foreign language especially if it has a significantly different sound to it, instructors might struggle to flow cleanly from one language to another, students might not be able to learn the words, and indeed as I have found instructors might simply not know the words.

One the other side of the coin are many strong arguments, by knowing these core words students can study the art in many different countries, they learn more of the arts background and it emphasises interest in the arts origin. Students exposed to the language from the start of their training will be more comfortable with it when they are higher levels and instructors themselves. Students might find situations where they are expect to know the words. Often literature will use the home language of an art especially older literature.

My experiences where I have found instructors and high level belts in arts that simply do not know the home language of their art has been one of mixed feelings. On one side of the coin I fully understand that without their instructors pushing them to learn it, without it being used every day in classes, and without an interest in it then the language wont be there. They often wont have the free time to learn the language themselves or the inclination.  However myself I feel that even if in the end the choice is made not to use an arts home language in the dojo and instructor should at least know it. Once you become an instructor you should put in the effort and learn the language of your art, at least those parts common to your training environment that way if students need or want it then you have it.

Another rampant issue is miss pronunciation, many languages will use different ways of saying the same letters and some wont even share letters. Its understandable and to be honest I don’t blame anyone for this, in fact if you’re trying to speak the language to the best of your ability then that’s great, however if you’re unsure of how to pronounce something don’t get too locked into your pronunciation.

Myself I like using the japanese names of techniques, and kata, positions, forms, stances, hand shapes, stroke points, directions and parts of the dojo, orders and commands and many other things. But thats just me, cause I’m insane.

The Ninjin and the Jo

In this post I want to talk about discipline in the dojo, about behaviour and about teaching these things.

This is always a hard subject to get into because it seems so simple, students come to a dojo, behave and learn, and if they don’t they get punished. As simple as black and white, as ABC. Unfortunately as with modern teaching in any area from martial arts to mathematics things are never as simple as they seem.

I have seen many classes run and heard of others, I will share with you a story from a fellow martial artist. He knows a child involved in a taekwondo club, at this club the students are extremely well behaved and extremely attentive, the only problem is they are well behaved because they fear the consequences of not behaving. When the higher up instructor comes to the club for a grading some students are so afraid of making a mistake that they can’t answer simple questions like ‘give me a number between 1 and 10” and their brains freeze. Is this the fault of the instructors or the environment, I can’t know I have never visited the club, but it is easy to see that a state of tension, anxiety or fear of mistakes is not a good environment to learn and develop, just ask any student coming up to an exam they feel unprepared for, none of them will tell you about how easy it is to remember things when you’re anxious.

Another example would be a dojo I have stepped into where the children literally ran roughshod over everything, the instructors were so obsessed with the children enjoying the lesson and having fun that 8 and 9 year olds with mid-level belts couldn’t even do basic stances for more than a few seconds without wandering off. It was Chaos, it was fun for the kids, but Chaos. And when they needed to get into a line it was like watching a group of inexperienced sheep dogs trying to gather a flock.  This could maybe charitably be called a playschool but not a well-run one.

And a good example, a club I know well, I step into the club and students nod their heads as I bow. I am a student in this club but they still acknowledge me and I them. The class isn’t starting for 15 minutes, but there are a good 5 groups already together practising this or that as they chat. The instructor steps in and everyone bows and greets him warmly. He laughs and jokes with students as they practise, talks about the football, and everyone is chuckling away. Then he steps up to the front of the room and students move quickly to make a line, no need to yell line up. Everyone warms up together though most are already warm, and the instructor starts teaching, assistant instructors move through the line reinforcing lessons and students work hard, every now and then a joke is made and the atmosphere is light, but the focus is heavy and laughter dies quickly to be replaced with the hissing breaths of effort. This environment welcomes all, and anxiety is nowhere, the instructor is a focus of attention and respect but never fear.

What makes the difference between these three dojos, many things in reality, to say that a poorly run dojo is the fault solely of the instructor is unfair, would you say that a city with crime problems is entirely the fault of the Mayor, no, humanity is too complex for so simple a reason. However we have to say that the instructor has a strong influence on the class, on their behaviour and attitude.

Good behaviour, respect, and good discipline is a downward cast shadow, it starts from the top and the shadow covers those below; but no matter how dark the shadow a light bulb will always shine brightly, and a mirror can always reflect the light from outside the shadow.

First lets look at the mirror though, outside influences affect how we feel and think, the same is true for everyone and so these outside influences no matter how strong we are inside will follow us through the club door and become mirrors reflecting the issues from outside the dojo. As instructors how we deal with this can be a challenge, because we aren’t just trying to deal with our own mirrors but with everyone else’s. This is what Mushin meditation it karate is for, it is to focus and let us have a moment to turn our mirrors around so they don’t disrupt the shade in the dojo. However many things have been shown to help, having a warm up that addresses the mind and body, starting with a ritual beginning such as bowing, having a distinct line between the outside and the inside, all these things help and most clubs employ a strong mix of them whether they  know it or not.

We as instructors must also look to deal with the mirrors from those other than our students, whether it’s the music from the aerobics class down the hall, or the kids on the skate park, and this we deal with mainly through our own shadow.

The light bulb is a different problem, some call these students ‘spirited’ others call them ‘badly behaved’ many simply call them on the phone and tell them they unfortunately can’t continue at the club ((and yes that does actually happen)). Myself, I call them a project, what makes the bulb shine, that is the challenge, is it boredom, is it a desire for attention, is it a lack of understanding, or social anxiety, is it a lack of desire. Each reason for the shiny bulb has its own solution. Whether that is providing a deeper challenge, or more support, or more chance to socialise, or in the case of a lack of desire having that hard talk with the parent where you ask if they have ever forced their child to come to class when the child didn’t want to, and if so, why.

The easiest thing we can affect is our shadow, and the shadow of those around is to some extent. Our own shadow is our own, we affect it with every gesture and every motion. Cesar Millan the world famous ‘dog whisperer’ would call this shadow our energy, our pack leader dominance; and he is as right for humans as he is for dogs. Students as with dogs are creatures of instinct, they respond to the now, if we use aggression we will breed fear and submission through fear, this is not healthy. What Cesar teaches is that pack leaders are calm dominant, and this leads to calm submission. It is as much what we want as the owner of a dog pack as it is what we want as a martial arts teacher, because calm submission is a natural state to learn from and a relaxed and easy state to live in.

Does this mean we never shout, of course not, shouting is useful for being heard, for giving commands, for being a presence; but shouting should never come from aggression or frustration. Jo Frost of “Super Nanny” Fame teaches this with children, children know when a shout is coming from anger or frustration and this results in fear and misbehaviour. Super nanny prefers a quiet calm voice when talking to a child who has been bad in the same way that Cesar Millan prefers the calm dominance in the dog world of demanding space.

But it’s not just our voice, everything we do from how we stand to how we act sets a tone, and an example, by using that we can start to set the atmosphere of the dojo and that influences the behaviour of everyone else.

So if as a teacher we find ourselves yelling from frustration we need to step back and deal with ourselves first, because if we are standing at the front of the glass as a lightbulb how can we expect any of our students to find somewhere in the shade.

Respect is not a Colour

There are many colours in the martial arts world, whether it’s the white of a fresh laundered Gi, or in the many and varied colours of belt.

Whether you are BJJ sportsman sporting a blue, purple, brown belt, with black and white trim; A Karate-ka sporting every colour under the rainbow; A Taekwondo practitioner wearing the many varied combinations.

Whether it is white, red, blue, green, yellow, orange, purple, pink, brown, salmon, magenta, cyan, or even black, the belt around the middle of a martial artist is at its very, very best an indicator that the person has been observed and found to have a certain skill, what that skill is, is so varied that even this is unsure. Some karate groups might have a 10 minute exam to get your black, requiring you merely to demonstrate forms; while others might have a gruelling 2 day exhibition of forms, memory, technique, power, determination and fighting prowess, at the end of both exams is the colour black but they mean different things.

Unfortunately many in the martial arts world read much more into belts than there is. The worst crime, in my humble opinion, is to believe that a belt is a badge of honour or a medal, or a certificate reading “this person deserves your respect”.

I have worn black around my waist for several years now, and when I first received my black I was told that it was but the start of my journey, and this was true in several senses, because it was only when I first got my black that I was old enough and interested enough to start actively expanding my horizons both as a martial artist and as a thinker.

I have fallen victim of the inner ego that cries out “I’m a blackbelt, I deserve your respect”, In fact to my shame I think I may even have uttered those words once. Since then I have learnt the truth, and tried my best to live it. My belt is worth nothing, it is cloth that keeps my gi top from flapping open, it is not something that gives me the right to respect and certainly not anything for which I should demand respect.

Respect is developed, and from many things, and in many ways, and in many different types. I gained respect from some as a martial artist by setting foot on the mats time and again, by being honest, open, and eager in my training, and by giving of myself to my training partners. I gained respect from some as a teacher by being patient, confident, calm, by doing my best, by looking at how to teach and what to teach and who to teach, and by being willing to say ‘I don’t know’. I gained respect from some as a person by putting aside my own needs for those of others, by focusing on the needs of others over the needs of myself.

But all this respect that I gained, that I feel I earned is only from some people, not everyone because my actions have only been too, for and in front of some people. Every time a new student stands in front of me, I do not think “this person should respect me, because I am a black belt, because I am their teacher”, every new student causes me to think the same words “How can I earn the respect of this amazing person, who has willingly stepped in front of me and offered me the honour of teaching them”

In my opinion the moment I fail to think this will be the moment I fail as a teacher. It is and always has been an Honour to teach, whether it was a 6 year old wandering into my class with their dad to play karate, or a second dan black belt bowing to me and asking me to show them Jurokyu Kata, or a wrestler wanting to work with me on their Tai-otoshi.

Respect is a complex thing, in many ways it is like gold, to be coveted, but it is also like the currency of many different countries. Just because I have 10,000 respect dollars, doesn’t mean I am rich in respect pound sterling, so each new person, each new thing I do, each no situation requires me to go out and earn my respect. I will never earn respect by standing in the corner stamping my foot and saying “I have a black belt”, and if that’s how respect was gotten I’d not want it.

I travelled recently to visit the amazing Ross Martial Arts in America, I travelled there as a student, eager to learn from people I had grown to respect through our communications. The instructors at Ross and the visiting instructor from Yamasaki earned my respect time and again with every movement and action, from putting aside a busy schedule to pick me up at the airport, to sharing their time, to sharing their knowledge, to asking me to share mine. Even little gestures like providing me with a skin treatment for my eczema in hopes of helping me. I know at times I did annoying things, or odd things, but the understanding and patience shown by the people I met there gained them more respect than I could have expressed. These wonderful people also earned my respect through seeing their students. It was almost relief to throw off my black belt and put on a white belt when I trained with them in an art I had never done. In fact on arriving even though they had asked me to teach a class, I asked if they wanted me to wear black before wearing it.

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It is also worth mentioning that, while there, I met the founders of Vector Jiujitsu, and in the space of a single tournament these two wonderful BJJ practitioners and their whole crew earned respect from me in bucket loads.

Next time I set foot on the mat, what draws the respect of those around me is not the colour of my belt, but the many different things that make up the man inside the belt. I would happily throw my black belt away (except it cost me a pretty penny to buy), my skills, my knowledge, my honour, my patience and my kindness are not in my belt, these things are what make the man, and the martial artist, and it’s these things I hold dear to me.