Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Gift of a Weapon: Thanks, Trust, Lesson, Hope, and Responsibility

     In my years as a martial artist, I have come to understand that the giving and receiving of gifts is an important tradition.  There are many reasons why gifts are given between martial artists, and that idea could be an entire post unto itself, but there is one type of gift between two martial artists that stands out among the others. This is the gift of a weapon.  As I was training tonight, I began going through the various weapons I had on hand, using each one, and I realized that many of them had been gifts. Of the weapons pictured below, I only "paid" for one of them, and that was such a paltry sum in comparison to its actual value that I still consider it to be a gift. 

     In addition to them being gifts, it should also be noted that each was a gift from one of my seniors. This is important.  A gift from a junior is important as well, and should be equally cherished, but a gift you receive from your senior can often hold more meaning than you may initially realize. If I went through additional weapons I do not currently have at the dojang, I could include several more not pictured above, and I appreciate and value each and every one. Why? Because each has meaning, and honestly, I can only touch upon the very surface of that meaning here.
     The first meaning of this gift is often thanks. Thank yous come in as many varieties as weapons, but generally a junior is the one giving thanks to his or her senior for the lessons provided. Often juniors may even feel that they never receive thanks from their seniors for what they do, but they are almost universally incorrect in this belief. Seniors genuinely do appreciate what their juniors do, and often even appreciate their appreciation. In other words, seniors appreciate it when their juniors ask them to come to an event in order to teach or share their knowledge. Often this is a situation in which the junior gives a gift to the senior, but at times, the reverse can be true as well.  The gift from the senior or mentor could be simply a thank you for the junior's (student's) dedication and willingness to learn as well.  It could also be a thank you for being a friend.  There are, as I have said, many reasons why a senior may want to thank his or her junior, and giving a gift is one way of doing so.  The gift of a weapon, though, conveys more than just simple thanks.
    The gift of a weapon signifies trust as well.  On one level, it is acknowledgement that the junior has actually made progress and has learned something.  In this respect, the gift of the weapon is saying, "Here, I acknowledge your ability. I trust you not to hurt yourself with this."  This is a mere acknowledgement of physical ability, though. The senior is also trusting the junior to use the weapon wisely, and to hurt no one else as well. This is recognition of the junior's mental, philosophical, and spiritual development, in addition to the development of physical skills.  Finally, it is symbolic of the senior trusting his or her junior to remain loyal to the relationship existing between the two. The gift of a weapon is a direct physical representation of saying "I trust that you will never stab me in the back." In the case of an edged weapon, this is both symbolic and quite literal. Beyond even thanks and trust, the giving a weapon means still more.
     Almost any significant interaction between a junior and a senior in the martial arts, including the giving of a gift, should be viewed by the junior as a lesson.  The lesson may even be directly apparent in the type of weapon that is given.  The senior recognizes that the junior has enough knowledge to not get hurt, and to not hurt others, but this certainly is not necessarily an acknowledgement of any level of mastery with the weapon in question.  After all, Ben Kenobi may have trusted that Luke Skywalker wouldn't cut off his own hand with his father's lightsaber...

...but that doesn't mean he was ready to confront Darth Vader with it, now does it?

Okay, geek references aside, there is a point to be made here.  By giving a junior a weapon, the senior is often saying, "I've shown you how to use this without hurting yourself, but you still have a lot to learn.  I think you can learn something from using this particular weapon. Now, go and learn, but don't get cocky, or you might get hurt." Some of you caught the Star Wars reference there, too.  I know, I couldn't resist. Beyond even the lesson, though, there is more meaning to be found in the gift of a weapon.
     More than the thanks, trust, or even the inherent lesson in this gift, there is hope.  The senior giving the weapon truly hopes that the junior receiving it will take it and learn, in order to develop something new to share with others. It could be called A New Hope, I guess, but that might be pushing it.  Okay, I promise, that's the last one... I think.  All joking aside, this hope genuinely exists in many seniors' minds when handing a weapon to a junior, and that hope often blossoms into new knowledge, new instructional methods, and a new curriculum being developed. Granted, these "new" discoveries are often just re-discoveries of something old, but as long as it is new and valuable to the students who are learning from it, the gift has more than served its purpose, and the cycle can start anew.
     The gift of a weapon may signify any one of the ideas above, or it may include all of them at once. There may be deep personal connections as well, depending upon the weapon itself, who has owned and trained with it, and the exact circumstances under which it is given.  As I said, I can only scratch the surface of its true meaning here.  However, I can share one more meaning to this gift. Although it may be in back of our minds, we often do not wish to acknowledge it.  
     To share this final meaning, I will discuss the gift of the weapon that often holds more symbolic meaning than any other, that of the sword:

In this case, it is the master's sword, given to each master in the World Tang Soo Do Association as a gift from the Grandmaster.  This gift contains all of the meanings listed above.  It says, "Thank you for your service, loyalty, dedication, and sacrifice."  It says, "I trust you, not to hurt yourself, your students, the general public, your peers, your seniors, the Grandmaster, or the Association."  It says, "Teach with this, yes, but never stop learning.  You may be a master, but you will always be a student as well. Be careful with this, and with all the knowledge you have received, or you will get hurt."  It says," I have great hope for you, that you will go forth and develop new ideas to enhance our art and our Association."  All of these meanings and more are contained in the seemingly simple act of giving and receiving this blade.  I did say there was more, though.
     Some of you may notice that this gift says something else as well.  Quite literally, on the sheathe, it says, "Death Before Dishonor to World Tang Soo Do Association."  The gift at this stage is expected to go both ways.  By accepting the sword, the master accepts his or her responsibility to give something back, and to remain honorable throughout life.  Symbolically, the master swears an oath upon the sword while the blade is bared, and it is returned to the sheathe before being accepted. The oath always remains, though, as does the blade, even when it cannot be seen. This then is the final meaning.  This gift says, "I thank you, I trust you, I promise to teach you, and I have great hope that you will learn and teach as well, but if you turn your back on all of this, I have given you the instrument with which to take responsibility for your dishonor."  
     In a literal sense, soldiers and warriors of ancient times were expected to take their lives with their own swords when they committed an act of dishonor. Many people believe this to be derived from the practice of hara-kiri, or seppuku, by the samurai of feudal Japan, but the practice can be found in Ancient Rome, various European cultures, is referenced in the Bible, Torah, and Qu'ran, and the concept is probably as old as swords themselves.  Today, thankfully, we may not be literally expected to fall on our swords in times of dishonor, but we ARE expected to take personal responsibility for our actions, and to do what is right.  The gift of the sword is a reminder that this must ALWAYS be foremost in our minds, and that sometimes, there are no second chances.
     So, if a senior ever gives you a weapon, remember to think beyond the simple surface meaning of this action. I thank Masters Vaughn, Kaye, Homschek, and DiMarco, as well as Grandmasters Shin and Beadoin for the gifts they have given, and I promise to do my best to accept their thanks, to be worthy of their trust, to heed their lessons, to fulfill their hopes for me, and to accept the responsibilty these gifts place upon me.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff. 


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Get UNComfortable.

     As an instructor, there are numerous sayings I use in my classes in order to communicate certain concepts to my students, some of which I have no doubt they get tired of hearing. One of these is:

"If you're comfortable, you're probably doing something wrong."

This isn't to say that no technique should ever feel comfortable to the student, or even that a martial artist can't feel comfortable in a certain stance or during a sparring session.  All too often, though, comfort on the part of the student equates to complacency or worse yet, laziness.  When I looked up the word comfort, the words relief, soothe, console, satisfy, solace, and ease appeared in the various definitions. While it is true that as we learn to defend ourselves, these words do convey a state which we hope to attain, they are not often words we associate with the actual training process itself, and, more importantly, they are not states in which we should attempt to stay for too long.
     If we get too comfortable at any point in our training, we become less open to new ideas and concepts, and are likely to have certain negative habits become ingrained.  As both students and instructors, we need to fight this. A little comfort is good, but too much of anything will eventually have a negative effect.  Too much comfort leads ultimately to complacency, and too much complacency leads to stagnation, which in turn leads to self destructive behaviors.   As students, we need to always seek new ideas, new training methods, and new ways of seeing the same "old" techniques.  In so doing, we must never forget the "old" ways either, or we are simply cycling back towards becoming too comfortable with the "new".  Only when we embrace both will we find that we are actually training in the true "old school" way.  As instructors, then, when we find either ourselves or our students becoming too comfortable, we must work to become UNcomfortable instead.  If I went into all the various ways to do this, it would be a REALLY long post, and that isn't my intention, so I will instead focus on one method I have used in my own training.   
     I would be lying if I said I was ever truly comfortable using a staff. It is not my favorite weapon, nor one that I feel I am truly adept at using in comparison to my understanding of various other weapons.  With that said, though, I have recognized this deficiency, and have started to spend some more time working with it.  This isn't a post on staff technique, though, so I digress.  Here are a few of the staves I am currently using in my own training:

It may not be apparent from the photograph, but each of these has very different qualities from the rest. They are made from various different types of wood, including  Pine, Canadian Ash, Waxwood, Oak, and others.  I also have a staff made of Rattan, and one that is a solid piece of steel, which are not pictured above.  Some are tapered, some are not, and one is thicker on one end than it is on the other. All are different thicknesses and weights, and even vary in length. So, including those not pictured, why do I need nine different staves?  I don't...I actually think I need more.  I actually don't own just one of any type of weapon, and neither should you. If you only train with one weapon, you will eventually get overly comfortable with it, and we know where that leads.  Each and every staff moves slightly differently in my hands, and each has different properties that will carry through into a block, strike, parry, or twirl. Some are designed more for speed and others are geared more for brute force.  Some are made to use flexibility as an advantage, and others are designed to be rigid.  Some are meant more for spearing or thrusting with the ends, while others are better for striking with the edge.  Still others attempt to be more balanced in their various properties and characteristics. I won't claim that out of all of these staves I don't have a few favorites, because I do.  Part of training is finding what is best suited for you, and this applies to both weapons and individual techniques.  These become our favorites, and  will inevitably be our "go-to" choices.  However, as soon as I become too comfortable using one weapon, I will try to pick up a different one.  I have recently tried this with swords as well, and found that by simply changing the length and weight of the blade, I definitely needed to refocus myself and my technique as well.
        So, if a student comfortable using a light staff, hand him a heavy one.  If another student always uses a heavy staff, give her a lighter one.  If your students are rigid in their techniques, give them weapons that flex.  Across the board, this idea can be applied: weight, length, shape, thickness, etc.  Remember, too, that the staff is merely a tool I am using to illustrate a concept.  As soon as students are becoming too comfortable, it is the instructor's job to make them uncomfortable.  So, what do we do with the student who seems to be adept with every type of staff?  How do I make this student uncomfortable?  Simple, give him two staves:

Or, if that's still too comfortable, how about three?

Is this practical for application of the weapon?  Probably not.  Will it teach students who have become comfortable with how they move their staves new ideas and insights on hand, wrist, and finger dexterity, alignment of the staff relative to the body, and angles of movement? Absolutely.

So, what are you doing to get uncomfortable?

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Trendy (a parody of Lorde's Royals)

The following is a parody of the song "Royals" by Lorde. If you don't know the song, you can check it out here:

With apologies to my fellow Korean Martial Artists, I have used Japanese terms since they are both more familiar to most and fit the lyrics better.


I’ve never done a 540° spinning kick
I cut my teeth on basic drill in the dojo
And I won’t brag about my skills,
In a simple school, no belt rank envy

But everyone’s like gold trim, grey gi, no sweepin’ in the ring, dear,
No bloodshed, contact, or sparring without full gear,
We don’t care, we’re repeating low blocks in our dreams.
But everybody’s like glow sticks, backflips, diamonds on your nunchucks,
Contracts, Upgrades, Black Belt-in-a-year plans,
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your mass appeal.

And we’ll never be trendy (trendy).
It don’t run in our blood.
That kind of flash just ain’t for us.
We crave a different kind of buzz.
Let me be your teacher (teacher),
You can call me Sensei
And students I’ll teach, I’ll teach. I’ll teach.
Let me live that fantasy.

My friends and I we still break boards
We count our dollars to pay the rent and keep the door open
And everyone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this,
We’re not just about money.

But everyone’s like gold trim, grey gi, no sweepin’ in the ring, dear,
No bloodshed, contact, or sparring without full gear,
We don’t care, we’re repeating front kicks in our dreams.
But everybody’s like glow sticks, backflips, diamonds on your nunchucks,
Contracts, Upgrades, Black Belt-in-a-year plans,
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your mass appeal.

And we’ll never be trendy (trendy).
It don’t run in our blood.
That kind of flash just ain’t for us.
We crave a different kind of buzz.
Let me be your teacher (teacher),
You can call me Sensei
And students I’ll teach, I’ll teach. I’ll teach.
Let me live that fantasy.

Ooh ooh oh
We're smaller than we might have dreamed,
But I love not being too mainstream.
Ooh ooh oh
Life is great without compromise
We aren't caught up in winning the prize.

And we’ll never be trendy (trendy).
It don’t run in our blood.
That kind of flash just ain’t for us.
We crave a different kind of buzz.
Let me be your teacher (teacher),
You can call me Sensei
And students I’ll teach, I’ll teach. I’ll teach.

Let me live that fantasy.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Don't Blink.

    To me, it is a crime that, until recently, Doctor Who has been a relatively unknown property in the United States.  I remember watching random serials from the fourth and fifth doctors showing up on PBS when I was a kid, mostly leaving only vague memories of Tom Baker's scarf, the oddity of what appeared to be a cave girl (Leela) crawling around in a spaceship, the brilliant absurdity that is a Dalek, or the wonders of a tin dog (K-9). Truthfully, I had even less memories of Peter Davison, and merely recalled his clothing and the fact that he was the same guy as Tom Baker in a new body, or something like that.  It is only with the relaunch of the series with the Ninth Doctor, the availability of BBC America, and the development of internet connections that make streaming video truly viable that The Doctor has finally made a lasting impact on this side of the pond, and that is good thing for scifi fans in the States.  I have made it a personal quest to watch every serial, and while I have seen the entire run from Eighth through Eleventh, I have only thus far made it from the First Doctor to mid-way through the Fourth Doctor in the original series, and am looking forward to more.
     One of the staples of Doctor Who has always been its imaginative, strange, visually striking, and sometimes downright creepy villains and monsters.  The greatest Doctor Who villain will always be the Dalek, despite what any polls might say, but I'll admit that due to being a more modern fan, David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor, will probably always be my favorite doctor (although I do put Baker and Troughton and numbers 2 and 3 on my list) and as such, his run has left me with some of my favorite villains as well.  At the top of the list of "modern" Doctor Who villains has to be the Weeping Angels

For those not in the know, the Weeping Angels are out to get you, and can be any statue that you see. Their only weakness is that they can't move if anyone is watching them.  All you have to do to be safe is simple: don't blink. Any child who ever engaged in a staring contest can tell you exactly how easy that isn't. This concept has made for some really great episodes in the tenures of both the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, but "Blink" is still definitely among the best.
     Okay, those of you who aren't Whovians (shame on you) bear with me, I am going somewhere with this. I have been struggling to convey to my students the best way to develop "snap", "pop", and precision in their technique for quite some time now.  I have also struggled with students who can't seem to sit or stand still, and consistently fidget, and have stressed the importance of stillness over the last several months.  It seems as if "be still" is an alien concept to some of them, but it is slowly sinking in.  We have even worked through some of the less complex equations of elementary physics and learned that accelerating our mass more quickly while decreasing the total distance traveled between our technique and our target has the result of generating more force, more work, and more power.  Somehow the concept of getting from one place to another efficiently was still being lost, though.  I stumbled upon a teaching technique just today that I will be using more often in the future.  I have dubbed it "The Hyung of the Weeping Angel."
     The concept is actually a rather simple one, much as the concept of the Weeping Angel itself is simple.  I expect the students to perform each move with blinding speed, as accurately and as efficiently as possible, but then to stop all movement to the point of becoming a statue.  While this only works after a student has been taught the correct transitions between movements as well as the starting and ending positions, it does work.  Students' focus, timing, snap, and even attitude all got better.  As I continued, I began to tell the students that they had to complete the movement in the space of time it took me to blink.  At first I would kihap to initiate the movement, and blink slowly, expecting them to have transitioned from one movement to another while my eyes were closed, and expecting all movement to stop when my eyes opened.  Later on, the blinks became faster.  Anyone caught moving while my eyes were open was told, and eventually the blinks were too fast for the students to keep up, but it still became a valuable and fun exercise.  When working with smaller groups, I would even forgo the kihaps altogether, and would instead have students focus on me.  They would have to move as soon as they saw my eyes close, and be completely still when they opened.  While this did shift their focus away from themselves, it still conveyed the message of quick movements with snap and power being necessary, and increased the energy and dynamism of their hyung.
     It occurs to me now that I have seen this type of movement expressed before. I clearly remember a speech being given by Grandmaster Shin during one of the many Regional Black Belt Camps I attended over the years.  Actually, that isn't true.  I'm not sure I can remember the content at all, but I can remember what happened during that speech.  Grandmaster Shin went from a casual speaking posture to executing a textbook Tang Soo Do side kick and back to his casual position again with what I could only describe as the speed of thought.  I don't even think I did blink, and to this day I can tell you that my eyes were unable to register the motion between his foot being on the ground and being fully extended, as well as not seeing any motion as the kicking leg returned to the ground. Having seen that one side kick still inspires me today, and remains one of the most memorable experiences in my martial arts career.
     Some of you may not believe that this type of motion is possible without seeing it with your own eyes. Or perhaps I should say not seeing it.  To those people I present one Rika Usami.  She has her critics, as all sport oriented martial artists do, but I maintain that she must be a hybrid of human and Weeping Angel.   Go ahead and watch her, but don't blink.  Don't even blink. Blink, and you're dead. She is fast, faster than you can believe.  Don't turn your back. Don't look away, and don't blink.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Black Belt Equation

     Over my years as a martial arts instructor the question "what is a black belt?" is one that is asked as often as any other in my experience.  Of course, we have stock answers: "A black belt is someone who is good at the basics", "a black belt is someone who has shown readiness to truly start training", "a black belt is the real beginning", etc.  In truth though, many of these answers are just as ambiguous as the question posed in the first place.  This is, of course, by design, since a black belt is someone who must derive his or her own meaning from the journey, but none of that really helps in this particular post, and it is decidedly unhelpful when trying to establish a curriculum or a set of criteria for advancement to this coveted rank.  I have pondered this question for quite some time, but it was my recent opportunity to sit on testing panels for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th degree black belt candidates that drove me to put it down in a more permanent fashion.  As I had to make a determination for each of these candidates regarding whether I thought they were ready for advancement, I had to ask myself: "What is it that I really think a black belt is?", ""Are these candidates displaying the qualities of a black belt at the appropriate rank or level?", and "What are those qualities to begin with?"
     In order to answer any of these questions, we do have to return somewhat to the ambiguous, and remember that our training is a journey, and not one with any fixed destination.  In order to evaluate a black belt candidate, then, I must view the journey as a whole, but also as a synthesis of its component pieces.  I must ask both where the candidates have been, and also where they are going.  If we view the journey as a whole, we should be able to look back and see the journey (in the World Tang Soo Do Association) from white belt on through the ranks of orange, green, brown, red, blue, and finally to black, but we must also be able to see the desire for this person to forge ahead to the higher ranks of black belt as well, or what is the point?  If we break down the journey to its component pieces, though, we must of course begin at the beginning: white belt.

     When I ask myself what, in one word, I want a white belt to gain from his or her training, it is, quite simply, coordination. I hardly expect that a white belt  will understand the intricacies of how the body mechanics of the technique make it work, or  to be able to apply each technique in a "realistic" scenario.  I do expect white belts to learn and duplicate the basic movements of required techniques, and expect that they will work towards making these movements more natural to them.  I expect them to begin to learn how to move the various parts of their bodies together in a way that makes sense within the context of a given technique.  In essence, I expect them to be trying to move their bodies correctly, and that is all.  Anything else at this point is extra.  Please let me be clear:  it is not that I do not expect certain white belts to pick up more than this, and it is not that I expect every white belt who walks through the door to suddenly be coordinated in all of their movements.  I do expect that the main focus to the white belt is to work on and develop basic coordination, both in terms of physical technique and in terms of coordinating their personal schedules in order to get to classes.

     In the standard WTSDA curriculum, orange belt is the first step forward in terms of a belt color change for our students.   Once again, if I distill an orange belt's development down to one word, it would be balance. In a very real sense, this is what I want my orange belts to be developing.  I would like to have orange belts who can kick above their waists without falling over, certainly, but this balance extends to other areas as well.  Students at this stage will begin to work more on multi-technique combinations, and in so doing, will begin to balance both left and right sides of their bodies in one step. Stances will gain additional importance and emphasis, and in so doing, the instructor will begin to stress specific footwork and posture in a more in-depth manner.  Techniques will begin to become more fluid and less staccato in nature. In addition, the student must begin to balance their personal lives with their martial arts lives as the required curriculum begins to require additional time and effort.  It is not only balance that is being developed, though.  Balance is being developed by putting previously developed coordination into practice, which in turn develops coordination further as well.  We begin to see that the journey is cumulative, and that we cannot simply discard the lessons learned at one step in order to move forward to another, as this would be akin to trying to climb a ladder while someone removes the bottom rung.

     If we look forward towards green belt, then, the defining area in need of development, to me, is focus.  In a practical sense, green belts must learn that no matter how good a technique looks (ie, how coordinated and balanced a technique is), it matters very little if one cannot hit his or her target.  In this sense, focus is defined through aim and accuracy.  The importance of vital points begins to become more emphasized by the instructor, and the students' development is measured by how well they can land their techniques on a given point.  The importance of Shi Sun, or focus of eyes, is stressed further at this point as well. The student is tested on how well he or she can ignore distractions, and is expected to learn the value of stillness in addition to the value of motion. Additionally, it is at this stage at which many students are truly challenged for the first time.  They must make a critical decision whether to let increasing difficulty overwhelm them or to focus on their goals and press forward.  By developing this focus and stillness, students will find that control (coordination) and proficiency of technique (balance) improve as well.

     At brown belt I expect that the synthesis of previously developed coordination, balance, and focus is power. In general terms, power is the ability to do something, the degree of control over something one possesses,  or the amount of strength one has.  Each of these is being developed at brown belt.  Brown belts begin to find that their techniques are landing with additional force or strength due to the proper coordination and balance of their muscle groups combined with the ability to focus the technique on a given point. They begin to understand that they are in control of how much strength or force is being generated by a specific technique.  They begin to understand that they can, and in this realization comes confidence and personal power as well. While greatly simplifying matters, science (physics) generally views power as the rate at which work is performed upon an object.  In order to really understand this, we must know what "work" is in a scientific sense, but in a more general sense can comprehend that in order to develop power, one must be willing to perform work. In a very basic sense, work is determined by multiplying the amount of force generated on an object by the overall displacement of said object, or how much an object is moved from its original position. Thus, power is a measurement of force, speed, and movement. Force and movement we now have developed, so it is relatively obvious what must come next.

       To me the WTSDA red belt is all about learning how to perform the required techniques and movements correctly, but with greatly increased speed. Scientifically, speed is usually expressed as distance traveled divided by time: 55 miles per hour, for example.  In order to increase our speed, then, we either need to decrease distance traveled in a given amount of time, decrease the amount of time it takes to travel a given distance, or decrease both the distance traveled and the amount of time it takes to travel that distance. Given that acceleration is a function of the change in speed (or velocity) over time, and that acceleration is also a component of force, we know that in order to accelerate a given technique to a certain speed, we can apply additional force as well (Acceleration= Force / Mass).  This is the mistake many new red belts make.  They try to apply more force to a technique  in order to make it go faster; to take less time to perform. What they should actually be doing is attempting to decrease the total distance traveled by the mass of their bodies. This is done by making one's techniques more efficient, and by cutting out all unneeded and extraneous motion. Thus speed is again a product of coordination, balance, and focus, and by increasing speed, we automatically increase power as well.  Red belt is the synthesis of correct movement, but something is still missing. 

     Up to this point, students have been primarily working on the how, and, more specifically, how to move.  It may seem shocking to some, contrived to others, and cliche to the rest, but it nonetheless remains true that until this point, we have merely been learning to crawl, then walk, and have just begun to comfortably run. The journey has barely even begun.  In the World Tang Soo Do Association, blue belt is a stage between the Gup and Dan ranks, known as Cho Dan Bo, or black belt candidate.  If we accept that white through red belt represent childhood, the blue belt is adolescence.  We have learned how to move, and now must begin to learn why.  It is here that application becomes paramount.  When we learn how to move correctly and combine this knowledge with knowing why, we can actually begin putting our techniques to good use, and can begin to develop an arsenal of useful tools for both self-defense and self-improvement.  This is not to say that students are not taught applications for specific techniques up to this point, nor that students are not capable of putting their knowledge into action prior to this stage.  I do however believe that application of techniques up to this point has been, for most students, more through rote memorization of movement than by intuitive action, even when our goal as instructors is to teach and develop the latter. It is this intuitive action, or unconscious competence for those familiar with the term, that we strive to develop at this stage. Being able to apply a technique means being able to effectively use it without conscious thought, and while I do not believe that most blue belts can do this every time with every technique, I absolutely do believe that it should be happening sometimes. If it is, the challenge becomes finding a way to reproduce this, and the blue belt is on the right track. Doing something instinctively and without thought is a great achievement for the blue belt, but it is not, and should not be, the end.

     Wait, there's more?  Those familiar with the Four Stages of Competence know that "unconscious competence" is the final stage, right?  Perhaps not.  I would argue that if one is truly completely competent with something, one must be able to teach and develop that competence in another.  In order to do that, we must be able to do more than simply perform a certain technique or skill without thinking about it.  We must actually know how we perform the skill without thinking about it. This leads to what some claim (and I agree) is a fifth stage: conscious competence of unconscious competence.  For the sake of simplicity, we will call this understanding.  It is at black belt that we should begin to see how all the pieces we have been given fit together, and it is here that we begin to see the "bigger picture".  No, I am not saying that I expect a black belt to show a complete understanding of his or her chosen art.  That would imply and end where there is no ending. Instead I am saying that I expect to see at least a spark of understanding in candidates who are testing for black belt.  I expect that they are just beginning to see how it all fits together, that it is in fact " all the same", and that the destination is not remotely important to the journey itself.  I expect to see the potential for further understanding to be developed, and to see the desire to pass on what they have learned to others.  I expect to see a synthesis and synergy of coordination, balance, focus, power, speed, and application.  I expect to see this understanding grow and change as the student moves through the higher degrees of black belt.  Finally, at some point, I expect to see black belts realize that they have in fact been unconsciously incompetent, and don't actually know what they think they know.  It is then that they can begin their training and learn to become coordinated in a whole new way.

Kick.  Punch. Easy Stuff.  

Thursday, January 9, 2014


First! may very well be the most annoying internet meme of all time, but let's be perfectly honest: we all want to be first at SOMETHING.  Unfortunately for us as a society, so many of us underachieve and fail to reach our potential so often that being the first to post a comment on the web has actually become a goal and an accomplishment to some people. By the way, to those of you thinking that typing "First" into the comments section of this blog post would be funny or inventive: no, it's just sad. For those of you who are blessed enough to have no idea what I'm talking about, you can learn more by clicking here.  Warning: there may be some strong language in linked videos.  Overall, though, I think the Venn Diagram below illustrates it best:

Okay, now that I got that out of my system, I actually do want do discuss how this relates to martial arts. The simple truth is that most of our efforts and goals to be first at something in the martial arts world are both fleeting and futile. Did you come in first at a tournament?  Are you the World Champion?  These are great accomplishments for you, yes, and I don't want to try to take that from anyone, but in 20 years, will anyone really care?  Will you?  Did you make to black belt faster than anyone in the history of your school?  Can you jump the highest, kick the hardest, or yell the loudest?  Someone will always be better, and physical skills will always diminish in some way over time.  As martial artists, it is important for us to be proud of our accomplishments and inspect our achievements, but it is also important for us to set ego aside and realize that First!  does not always equate to best. Striving to be our best should always take priority over striving to be first.  
There is, however, always an exception to the general rule, and I do believe that there is a special case in which being first in the martial arts world truly does matter.  It is a situation over which we appear to have little control, but is one that nonetheless can create an exceptional martial arts experience.  I speak of the experience created when one becomes an instructor's first student.  There is no doubt in my mind that being a first student allows for a journey in the martial arts unlike any other, and I do not say this simply because I am one (more on that later) but instead because I have had a first student of my own.  Truthfully I have had more than one first student, but I'll explain how that is possible later.
In my own martial arts career, I have been often asked who my first student was, or who was the first student of another instructor or master.  I think that people do not fully understand why they ask this question, and I believe that many instructors do not comprehend why certain names pop into their heads when the question is asked.  I believe that the question is asked often to determine whether this fact is actually important, and that it is answered readily because the answer is, unequivocally, important to the instructor.  
Before I move on further in this direction, though, I think it is important for my readers to understand what I think a first student is.  A first student is not merely the first person who walks through the door to take a class, you see, although I am surprised how often that scenario proves to be true.  A student isn't someone who merely shows up.  A student is someone who studies.  If we look at the definition and origin of the word, we find the following:

If we look merely at the definitions, we find that a student is "a person who is studying", but what does that really mean? By looking further at the origin of the word, we find that a student actually is a person who "applies oneself to" something with "painstaking application". If we look at traditional Chinese characters, from which most Asian languages developed, we see a similar concept. The Chinese word for "student" is xuésheng, which is depicted as follows:


The first character, xué, meaning study, can be broken up into its components in order to better understand its meaning. The 'x' shapes denote mathematics, or knowledge. The strokes surrounding and under the 'x' shapes depict hands grasping or acquiring knowledge that is taught or passed on. Finally, the strokes below depict a child or person. The second character, sheng, is often translated as life, but also depicts growth, development, bringing forth, and other similar ideas. Thus, we can see that a "student" in Asian culture is someone who has dedicated his or her life to grasping or acquiring knowledge, or one who creates growth through the acquiring and development of knowledge.
Why is all of that important? Simply put, it illustrates the point that one can not truly be an instructor's first student unless one is fully committed to the idea of being a student. An instructor's first student is the first one who "gets it."  A first student is the first one who commits to learning the martial arts with his or her whole being.  First students are the first to throw themselves into their training with "painstaking application". The first student is the student who is first to realize and accept that martial arts have truly impacted his or her life for the better. Finally, first students are those who cannot stay away from martial arts, even if they try. First students may not be the first student to set foot on the training floor, but I have seen that they often are. The first person to enroll in a given martial arts school often develops a strong instructor-student bond, and often receives in-depth training at a personal level that is not as often possible as classes grow and increase in size. As those classes do grow, though, it is the first student who shows the way for those who follow.  The first student lets others know what behaviors are expected, acceptable, and unacceptable.  The first student picks up on the instructors nonverbal communication, and often sees that things are done before the instructor needs to ask.  The first student helps to create the school's identity, and is the first to truly become a part of and contribute to the greater whole that is the dojang.   
  I have said already that I personally am a first student. As I cannot say with any certainty that my instructor would agree, I should more accurately say that I believe myself to be my instructor's first student, or that I consider myself to be my instructor's first student. I am not the first person to whom my instructor ever taught martial arts.  I am not even my instructor's first student to reach black belt or master rank, depending on how you look at it. I am, however, the first person to register for classes at my instructor's studio, on the first day he offered classes as a studio owner in the WTSDA, and I am still here, running a studio of my own, so I hope that in some way I "get it" and that this qualifies my belief. 
It could actually be argued that I am a first student of a first student.  My instructor's instructor was Master Michael White, who in the history of his own studio wrote: "Classes were taught throughout the year, in all weather conditions. At this point, the studio had some off/on students. The lone survivor throughout the long succession of students was a student named Charles Vaughn. Charles became Appalachia’s first Black Belt and later on, a Master Instructor himself." As "lone survivor" it could be argued that Master Vaughn was Master White's first student, though again, I do not presume to put words in Master White's mouth.  I merely hope to demonstrate that it could be argued that I am a first student of a first student, as well as illustrate that the concept of the "first student" may in fact mean different things to different people.  If we have learned anything from the Star Wars saga, it is that "many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view."  
  So, while I do not mean to create any controversy by writing this, it can also be argued, from a certain point of view, that Master Michael White was a "first student" of Grandmaster Shin after he came to the United States.  Though I am not saying Master White was Grandmaster Shin's first student ever, from a certain point of view it nonetheless could make me a first student of a first student of a first student.  I say this not to be boastful or to brag of my strong lineage, but instead because it helps me understand the strong responsibility I have to pass on what I have learned. I am proud to say, then, that my own first student is now running a dojang of his own, and again, from a certain point of view, is a first student of a first student of a first student of a first student.  I can only hope that he has found a first student of his own.
  I was, at first, very hesitant to write on this topic because I was afraid that the audience to whom it would be relatable was confined to only instructors and first students.  I have come to realize though, that it is possible to have more than one first student.  How is this possible?  While I will only ever have one first "first student", my wife and I now teach multiple classes in multiple locations.  I therefore have a first student at my new location.  There is the first youth student, and the first little dragon to really become a student in the sense defined above. There is the first student to reach black belt and hopefully one day the first to reach master.  There is the first tournament champion and the first youth student to become an instructor.  There is the first student to arrive for class each day, and the first student to realize that sometimes the best lessons are learned by being the last one to leave. Let me clarify:  I absolutely do not care who is the first person from my dojang to do any of the preceding things.  I absolutely do care who is the first student to do so. In some way, we can all find a way to be first students, and we should all strive to do so. In achieving this, I believe it is okay to proclaim that you were "First!"

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The McDojo: It may not be what you think.

     This particular post may not be popular with my normal audience of traditional martial artists, but I have come to believe it is needed.  Traditional martial arts businesses are under assault today by other martial arts businesses, instructors, and schools in what started out as a genuine movement to educate the public, but has instead become a popularity contest of sorts in which one group can puff up their chests and feel superior to the other based on subjective criteria that often have more to do with generalized opinions than actual observed or measurable fact. This movement centers around one of the most common and pervasive pejorative terms in the martial arts world today: "McDojo".
     Although I have used this term in the past myself, I have grown to hate it.  It seems that in today's world, martial artists believe that anything they do at their own schools is wonderful and awesome, and that anything done at other schools that they don't do themselves automatically makes those other schools McDojos, when this simply isn't the case at all, based on my own personal observation.  Please don't misunderstand me.  "McDojos" certainly do exist.  They may even outnumber quality schools that teach "real" martial arts, though personally I haven't found this to be true.  My attempt with this post is to clarify what I believe a McDojo is, and also what I believe a McDojo isn't. Undoubtedly, there will be readers who disagree with my conclusions.  That is fine.  These are only my opinions based on my own experiences over the last twenty or so years of teaching martial arts.  There may even be some who will believe I can't see the qualities of the McDojo because I am running one myself.  If that's what you believe, I'll be happy to allow you to do so, because my arguments won't change your mind anyway.  All I ask is that you read with an open mind, and if you disagree, feel free to state your case with comments on this page or on our facebook page.  If there's anything I support, it is rational, open discussion, while argument for the sake of argument alone will not be accepted. To the point, then:

A McDojo is: A Belt Factory

     "Belt Factory" is another widely used pejorative term, but one that I believe holds up under scrutiny, although "Belt Dispensary" may be more accurate.  At a McDojo, belts are given rather than earned.  If belts are awarded solely because a student shows up to class and pays the testing fee, this is a good sign that you have entered a McDojo.  If no student is ever held back from testing "on time", and no student ever fails a test, or if no real test for advancement is given at all, there is a good chance that this location is a McDojo. (Please note that a "test" can come in a number of ways, and while I prefer a formal test day, the lack of one does not automatically mean that students have not been tested.) If there is no established curriculum outlining what each rank should know and should be able to do, you may have a McDojo on your hands. If older curriculum material  is dismissed entirely and never practiced again simply to introduce new material for another rank, you may be in a McDojo.  If belt ranks seem to exist solely so that the instructor can charge fees without actually increasing knowledge or skill, there is a good possibility that you are visiting a McDojo. 

A McDojo is not: A studio with child black belts, or unconventional colored belts.

     This one may make me unpopular with the "traditional, "old-school", or "hard core" martial arts crowd, but in this case, I can honestly say I don't care, and often find the accusation itself to be loaded with hypocrisy. Let's start with youth black belts.  While it remains unusual, I have allowed students to test for black belt as young as 9 years old.  For me, these students have usually trained for 5 - 6 years, 3 times a week, and have demonstrated a high degree of proficiency in all of our association's basic curriculum for colored belts.  They have each written an acceptable 1,000 word essay on a topic relating to martial arts and their own lives. They have each passed a minimum of two physical pretests, and have each passed a 100 question written test encompassing the subjects of history, terminology, philosophy, etiquette, application, and theory, and have done so at 80% or higher.  They have demonstrated leadership skills in class and the ability to teach basic skills to others.  They have, in short, earned the right to wear a black belt at my school, and in my association.  This means nothing anywhere else, and shouldn't. (See No, you can't wear your black belt here...probably.)
     What insults me is the automatic assumption that a child wearing a black belt is automatically an incompetent martial artist.  The exact same people who tell us that "black belt is only the beginning" and that "black belt only means you are good at the basics" will jump on the bandwagon that youth black belts should never be awarded and that the kids who wear them are not "real" martial artists. This is hypocrisy. Your standard may be greater than mine, and that is fine.  It may be less, and that may be alright, too.  Judge black belts on how they act and what they do, not on how old they are and what they look like. The videos below are just a couple of admittedly unusual examples, but honestly, I'd have a hard time telling these kids that they don't know the basics and aren't ready to "start" their training. Granted, these kids are not American, but they are even younger than the age at which I will begin to award black belts, and do illustrate that one shouldn't make snap judgments regarding ability based on age alone:

     Okay then, what about the "unconventional" belt colors?  There are studios out there that have adopted striped belts, belts that are half one color and half another, and even camouflage belts. CAMOUFLAGE?? That definitely means it's a McDojo, right?  Not necessarily.  Again, it comes down to what the belt means, not what it looks like.  I personally don't like the "unconventional" belts because of how I think they look, but that's an aesthetic choice, and should have no basis in judging the value of a belt to another martial artist.  As long as the belt has meaning and was earned through the demonstration of skills needed to convey that meaning, why should we feel a need to disparage it?  In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't really that long ago that yellow, orange, or green belts would have been considered "unconventional", and now they are so normal that we don't even think of calling a studio a McDojo simply because it awards them.  Hypocrisy again.

A McDojo is:  A place in which money is more important than martial arts.

     To some degree, we have already talked about this, but it bears further discussion, as this is a very fine line, which is at times difficult to see,  making it hard to determine when it has been crossed. Some practices are very questionable, though.  The general rule I give to my students is: If it costs me money, it costs you money.  The question we need to ask is whether we are getting what we pay for.  Does a studio charge you a high rate just to enroll, without ever taking a class?  This may be a warning sign.  Are you encouraged, and even pushed, to join "upgrade programs" like the "Black Belt Club" or "Master's Club"?  If so, be sure that you are actually getting something in return for what you pay.  Are you forced to purchase equipment that you don't actually use?  This one is a dead giveaway.  Do you always test as long as you pay the fee, even if you are not ready, haven't improved your existing techniques, or haven't learned anything new?   This is a problem as well.  Is it expressly forbidden that you buy or use equipment from anywhere outside of the studio? If so, don't you need to ask why? Any time you feel that a charge is unjustified, you should be able to question it, and the instructor should be able to give you a reasonable explanation why the charge in question exists.  If they can't do so, you need to watch out.

A McDojo is not: A place that charges reasonable fees for the goods and services it offers.

   There are still some people (though happily a diminishing number of them) that believe martial arts instructors shouldn't make money from teaching martial arts, and that making a living by teaching martial arts means that the instructor has "sold out."  How ridiculous!  We don't tell doctors, lawyers, accountants, or teachers that they shouldn't be paid for what they do, so why should it be the case for martial arts instructors?  Martial arts studios should charge what the market will bear, and have every right to do so. Let's be fair for a minute.  Let's assume that you have the option of attending 3 classes per week at 1 hour per class, and that you pay $100.00 per month to do so.  This means you are paying your martial arts instructor an average of $8.33 an hour for what they do.  I know babysitters who make more than that! If you are paying less than that, or attend more times per week, you should be happy with the deal you're getting.  "Upgrade Programs" are also not automatically the mark of the devil.  I have no problem with studios charging more for something if they are actually offering something more.  If the upgrade program allows you access to additional training time, curriculum outside of what you would learn in the regular class, or other specific specialized training and benefits, then you can and should pay for it.  If all you get is a flashy new patch and a spiffy colored uniform, though, where's your return on investment?  Finally, you should expect to pay for equipment that you will use in class.  Requiring specific equipment is okay, and should be expected, if you are actually using it.  Optional equipment may be offered as well, and this is okay, as long as you understand that it is optional and you choose to buy it anyway.

A McDojo is: A place in which undisciplined children are allowed to run amok.

     Make no mistake.  In the United States, most children who are allowed to run amok will certainly do so. What happens at the martial arts school when they do?   Are students disciplined, asked to sit down, or even asked to sit out?  Are they told that this kind of behavior is not acceptable?  Every studio will have occasional discipline issues and running children.  It is how this behavior is handled that lets you know whether or not you have entered a McDojo.  At first glance, a studio may seem chaotic, but is this because children are training, or because they are running free, without guidelines or structure?  Is discipline enforced, or is it only mentioned and forgotten?  Do students have clear expectations of what they are to do before a class starts, or is it "free time" in which they have too many choices unrelated to training?

A McDojo is not: A place that uses fun and games to teach martial arts concepts and skills.

     I have adopted a new saying in my youth classes that I have recently started to have students repeat: "We have time for fun.  We have no time for nonsense."  Teachers that use fun drills and innovative games to teach martial arts concepts should be praised rather than berated.  Some martial artists believe that there is no place for games in their class, though.  What a shame.  Games that teach essential skills such as targeting, reaction time, complex memory recall, awareness, danger avoidance, basic combative strategies, teamwork, etc., can and should be developed for younger students, and should, at times, be required for adults as well. Often the adult students will find out just how hard these "games" really are, and will come to understand the concepts that they teach.  These games should have specific rules, goals, and measurable outcomes related to martial arts.  They should never completely take the place of traditional techniques and methods, but they do not automatically make a class worthless, either.

A McDojo is: A place that never spars, or never allows students to get hit.

   I have, on occasion, had parents tell me that they want their children to enroll in martial arts, but want me to ensure that their child will never get hit or encounter contact.  I'm sorry, but I can't do that.  Certainly we have graduated levels of contact, and safety remains a priority, but never getting hit in your martial arts journey means you either have absolutely miraculous defensive skills, or you are in a McDojo.  I also believe traditional drills are important stepping stones toward learning how to fight, as well as learning how to control oneself in a fight.  At the darkest and grittiest level, though, what we are doing is learning how to hurt people while trying not to get hurt ourselves.  If we are never exposed to that possibility, our skills are not being developed, and we are doing ourselves a great disservice.

A McDojo is not:  A place that uses protective equipment, practices point sparring, or uses traditional methods to teach martial techniques.

     Most people would not suggest that NFL players stop wearing protective gear, or that college and grade school levels aren't playing "real" football because they wear helmets.  A better analogy might be that no one would expect a SWAT Team or military personnel to infiltrate a hostile area without protective gear. However, there is still a vocal minority that insists one can never learn "real" martial arts without engaging in sparring with no protective equipment.  This is, like so many other statements, a ridiculous one. While I don't deny that there is value in occasionally sparring without gear, I don't recommend it to the beginner or intermediate level student.  Quality protective sparring gear measurably reduces injury, helps boost the confidence of students sparring, and allows greater impacts to be taken without suffering too greatly.  Its benefits far outweigh any perceived liabilities.
     Point sparring is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.  It teaches us how to control techniques to near pinpoint accuracy, develops speed, focus, and coordination, and creates a positive outlet without automatically generating fear of injury.  What it does not do, is reveal who the best "fighter" is, although to me the best fighter is the one who never has to fight.  Philosophy aside, ANY method of sparring, from point sparring, to boxing, to judo, to MMA, that establishes a set of rules, is automatically artificial.  Certainly some of these are closer to "real" than others.  I never said we should only practice point sparring; merely that its presence is not an automatic indicator of a McDojo. Within the confines of the studio, though, we can only ever approach reality.  We cannot actually duplicate it.
     Finally, traditional methods like forms practice, one-steps , and board breaking have come under assault in recent years.  I will simple say this: I believe that those who find these practices "worthless" never understood the reason why we do them to begin with, and probably never will.  Nothing I can say will change that, so I won't even try right now.  I do feel the need to say this, though: anyone who believes "boards don't hit back" has never really trained at breaking boards. They hit back- believe it.

A McDojo is: A place in which the instructor claims very high rank, or multiple ranks, without being able to back up those claims.
     This one is pretty straightforward.  If someone claims to be a 9th Dan black belt in multiple styles and has done this in 5 years (yes, a ridiculous over exaggeration, but it helps make the point) and can't tell you where he got those ranks or how he acquired such great skill, you have a problem.  If someone has "created" the style he or she teaches, at least ask why and how it was created.  Maybe it has real value and maybe it doesn't.  The student should be the judge of that.  Questions that should be readily answered by instructors in order to avoid McDojos include:

"How long have you trained in the martial arts?"
"Where did you start your own training?"
"Who awarded you your rank/ how did you earn your rank?"
"What does your rank mean?  What was required of you to earn it?"
"What are the main characteristics of the style you teach?"
"Where did your style come from? What other style is it similar to?"

There are more, and some of these will only have meaning in the right context, but this is at least a start for the uninitiated.

A McDojo is not: A place in which the instructor has very high rank, or multiple ranks, and can back it up.

     Again, people often make judgments too soon without knowing the whole truth.  I know a number of high-ranking martial artists who hold rank in multiple arts and have legitimately earned those ranks, while still teaching classes every day.  These people can satisfactorily answer all of the questions above and then some, and will gladly share their knowledge and skills with you if you become a student.  As we have said before, it is an understanding of what the rank in question means, and what the instructor can teach and do that is important, not the number of stripes on his or her belt or the number written on his or her business card.

A McDojo is: A place of lowered standards.

     If you can't identify this one for yourself, do yourself a favor and conduct some research.  Compare what you see at different martial arts studios.  Hop on Youtube and compare videos of different styles, organizations, and schools.  Get on the web and google terms like McDojo, martial arts standards, martial arts curriculum, etc, and decide what standards you accept and the level to which you refuse to lower yourself.  Only you can decide.

A McDojo is not: A place that has standards you don't happen to agree with.

     If a studio has defined standards for advancement, you may find them to be below your own personal bar or above it.  This does not make that location a McDojo.  You must be honest with yourself when you choose to use this label, and identify everything that you find "wrong" or "unacceptable." You must then decide whether these things are truly present or merely perceived.  Only then will you know if you are in a "McDojo."

There are any number of categories that could be added to this list, and there are no doubt readers who do not agree with what I have written.  My true aim here is to be honest with myself and realize that I have, at times, felt superior to other martial arts schools, and  have, at other times, felt inferior as well.  As long as I strive to better myself and my students, hold strong to my own ideals, and teach what I believe to be right, effective, and "real", then I am not running a McDojo, whether anyone else thinks so or not.  While no one ever has told me I am running a McDojo, I can feel comfortable defending myself if anyone ever does.

Kick. Punch.  Easy Stuff.