Monday, November 14, 2011

There is no Karate Season (or, My Goal is NOT Black Belt)

On several occasions now, I have had youth students, and even the occasional parent, ask me, "When is karate over?"   With this question they are not asking me when an individual class ends, or even when tuition comes due again, but rather, they are legitimately asking how long they will be with me, and when in fact their training will come to an end.  The answer, of course is a simple one: Never.  Karate does not end, and martial arts training is, or should be, a life long pursuit.  This answer, though, is often met by wide eyes and an uncomprehending look of disbelief.  "How can something never end?" they seem to wonder.  I am no less shocked by their response than they are by mine, but perhaps I shouldn't be.

To most children today, everything has a set beginning and a set ending: their favorite TV shows, the seasons for their other activities and sports, and even the school year.  There seems to be an unhealthy obsession with reaching some arbitrary point and declaring with satisfaction:  "I did it!  I'm done!"  This attitude misses the most important question though: "What's next?"  By constantly reinforcing the idea that reaching a goal equates with something ending, we do a disservice to everyone. 

I often see martial arts studios in which the slogan "My Goal is Black Belt" is prominently displayed.  Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with this.  Black Belt is a worthy goal.  It is not the slogan itself that perpetuates the problem.  It is our students' (and their parents') perceptions of this slogan that causes problems.  The perception is, all too often, that "My ONLY goal is black belt."  Many students who reach this goal fail ask and answer the important question: "What's next?"  In so doing, they have decided that their goals are achieved, that they are done, and they choose to quit, in order to find and conquer another goal or pursue a different activity.

Some of the blame, then, does fall on those of us who are instructors.  At some point, we have failed to instill in our students that the true goal of martial arts is an ongoing perfection of oneself: physically, mentally, and spiritually. As true perfection can never be attained, the goal is unreachable, and therefore must be pursued over an entire lifetime. This is hard concept for many students to grasp, though, so instead we place much focus on the attaining of intermediary belt ranks, and, unintentionally, an over-importance on the far too-coveted rank of black belt.  We inadvertently imply that there is an arbitrary finish line; that there is an end in sight to our students' training. If this were the biggest problem, it might not be so hard to address, but the real problem, as I see it, goes even deeper.

By setting our students' sights on the finish line we have constructed for them, we allow them to decide that they can create their own finish lines when things begin to get "too hard."  Make no mistake, at some point most students will decide in their own minds that their training has reached a point at which it is "too hard."  Some of these students will continue to push themselves, work through their problems, and continue forward on their own martial paths.  Some, however, will decide that if one goal can be set as an ending point, then there is no reason why that ending point can't be adjusted to fit their own needs.  They begin to decide that they will stop after reaching red belt, or after brown belt, or orange belt.  After all, they have achieved their goals, so it is fine.  They "did it."  They're done.

Only by establishing our true expectations up front can we expect students to understand our overall message.  We do have intermediate goals, and each of these goals is marked by an advancement in rank.  These goals are intermediate goals, though, and must be reinforced as such.  None of them represents an ending point.  There is no finish line; not even at black belt.  When our students reach black belt, this should be celebrated.  It is a great accomplishment.  It is not an end, though.  Our black belts need to be reminded to look up from their waists and see that others are still running the race.  Are they?

So, as it often does, our subject returns to the beginning.  My expectations are clear. My answers are simple. There is no Karate Season.  Taking extended breaks from training simply because you feel the need to take a break is not "okay" in my eyes.  My goal is not black belt.  It reaches far beyond that intermediate goal.

When does karate end?   Never.
When will I stop training?  Never.
When will I stop asking "What's next?"  Never.

I will almost certainly experience failures along the way.  I will always attempt to make my successes outweigh these failures though, and I will never give up.

How long will I keep it up?  Always.

Why?  Because there is no Karate Season.  All the seasons, all the days, all the weeks, all the months, and all the years of my life will be in some way affected by my martial arts training.  The least I can to is give some of that time right back to my chosen martial art, on a consistent and ongoing basis.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The hardest questions to answer...

I'll openly admit it: I'm a geek.  In particular, I'm a sci-fi, fantasy, comic-book and cartoon loving geek.  This is one of the reasons I became a martial artist to begin with, as I really wasn't very athletically inclined or coordinated, but that's a different story. So, being a geek, I'm naturally inclined to take in and enjoy a bit of Star Trek now and again.  So instead of starting right into the preachy and pretentious martial arts stuff, I'll start with a quick summary of one of my favorite Stark Trek scenes, from Star Trek IV, or as it is better known, The One With The Whales.

Love it or hate it, this movie has what I consider to be one of the better scenes in the Star Trek franchise.  While you might not be able to top William Shatner screaming KHAAAAAAAANNNN!!!!! in Star Trek II, this one is still pretty good, and it features none other than Leonard Nimoy as the unforgettable Spock.

In the scene in question Spock is undergoing a rigorous series of questions administered by a computer.  The questions span a myriad of subjects, ranging from science and mathematics to general logic, theory, and even philosophy. Spock is able to answer all with ease, increasing the speed of his answers with every question.  It seems that there is no question too difficult for him, and, in fact, it begins to seem that the computer has difficulty keeping up with his ability to answer.  Finally, though, there is one question that gives him pause:

The computer asks this question repeatedly, but Spock is unable to answer.  He explains to his mother that he doesn't understand the question, that the question itself is illogical, and that it has no purpose or importance. 

For the Star Trek uninitiated, Spock is a Vulcan, a race that has chosen to purge all emotion and feeling in the pursuit of pure logic.  However, Spock is half human as well. For him, this question should have some meaning, but in the early stages of the film, it does not.  The movie is as much about Spock discovering his humanity and finding an answer to this question as it is about transporting a bunch of whales to the future to save all humanity.

Okay, so by now you're probably wondering what this has to do with the martial arts, right?  I have found that while my black belt students are quite often able to readily answer questions regarding Korean terminology and history, dojang protocol, or the philosophy of the belt system, when I ask them how they personally feel about Tang Soo Do, they freeze up, much as Spock did.

My goal is not to produce little robots or computers that can spit out whatever information is put in.  My goal is to create leaders; living, feeling people who have a drive and a desire to better themselves and others, and to pass on the art of Tang Soo Do.  This question should not be a hard one, but all too often it is.  This question, and one other, seem to be the hardest to answer.

That second question seems relatively simple at first glance as well.  Although this question only consists of one word, it is that word which both drives and haunts us: Why?  

Ask a student if he or she wants to be a black belt, or a master, and you will usually get an emphatic positive reply.  I almost always get a resounding chorus of "Yes, Sir!" when I ask this to a group of students. If I ask that same group of students why they want to be black belts, I am met by stark silence.  Perhaps this is a failing in me as a teacher, but I don't believe that's so.

If I try to force my own thoughts or beliefs on someone, I stop being a teacher, and instead take the first steps toward becoming a tyrant.  Do I believe that all my students should love Tang Soo Do, want to make themselves better, faster, and stronger, learn to defend themselves, and have a burning desire to pass this knowledge on to others?  Yes, I do, but I also accept the fact that some people won't feel as strongly as I do about the martial arts.  I do think that they should be able to articulate why they are there and how they feel about what they are doing, though.

I promise: I won't hate you if you have different motivations for training than I do.  I'll respect you for being clear about what your motivations are, and for being able to explain them to me, as I would hope that others respect my own motivations and emotions.  There is no one "correct" answer to these hardest of questions, but there is a correct answer for you.  Strive to find your own answers.

How do you feel about your martial arts training: past, present, and future?

Why are you training?  Why do you continue to do so?

Kick.  Punch.  Easy Stuff.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

So, Is This All You Do?

I have to be honest: I really cannot believe how many times this particular question comes up.  While I do realize that the people who ask this question genuinely do not mean any offense by it, I can't help but be a little bit offended nonetheless.  I find myself wondering why it's being asked of me.  Do I somehow not seem competent to do what I do?   Is it, perhaps, that being a martial arts instructor just isn't viewed by the general public as a "real" job?  If that is the case, I have to wonder in this day and age why this bias is perpetuated.

Let's take a look at what, exactly, a martial arts instructor does on a day-to-day basis:

In all seriousness, though, this really isn't that far off.  Some people will say that all a "karate instructor" should do is teach karate.  Well, that is what I do.  In order to accomplish that goal, though, there is so much more that needs to be done.  A certain degree of discipline and order must be maintained in classes, mostly so that no one gets hurt.  The day-to-day dealings of the business side must be dealt with.  Curriculum and various methods of assessment must be developed.  And whether others like it or not, martial arts instructors do get asked for advice by their clientele on a wide range of personal and professional issues.  I always tell people with truly serious problems that there are better qualified people to ask, but I won't hold back my opinion if pressed for it; nor do I think I should have to, if my opinion may be of some help.

At some point or another, I'm fairly certain that I've performed in most of the following capacities:

  • Teacher
  • Personal Trainer
  • Counselor
  • Psychologist
  • Life Coach
  • Administrative Assistant
  • CEO
  • Accountant
  • Drill Sergeant
  • Author
  • Theoretical Physicist
  • Executive VP of Marketing
  • Project Manager
  • Software Developer
  • General "IT Guy"
  • Philosopher
  • General Contractor

I could go on, but you get the point.  I have noticed, though, that most of the above professionals do not get asked on a regular basis if this is all they do in order to make a living.

Nevertheless, I usually just smile and nod.

Yes, this is "all" I do.

Kick. Punch.  Easy Stuff.

Monday, May 23, 2011

An observation about sparring... and those who would spar.

In the classic The Art of War (or Sun Tzu Bing Fa) the military strategist Sun Tzu says, and I paraphrase for simplicity:

Know yourself and you will win half your battles.
Know your enemy and you will win half your battles.
Know both yourself and your enemy and you will win all of your battles.

It strikes me that there is a problem with the current state of our students and their ability to become truly great at dae ryun.  I use the term dae ryun, because, in all honesty, "sparring" is really a completely inadequate translation for what it is we should be doing, but I digress. The problem I have seen is directly related to the passage above from Sun Tzu.  Serious students today do study fighting (an attempt to know their chosen art), and they study ways in which they feel they can make themselves better fighters (an attempt to know themselves), but it is a rare sight today to find someone who actually studies other fighters. Somewhere along the line, the attempt to "know one's enemy" has been diminished significantly, almost to the point of being lost altogether.

Tournaments are one place where it is easy to see this. The next time you attend a tournament, instead of watching the fighters in the ring, watch the contestants who have not yet fought, and those who have won a match, but still will need to get back in the ring again.  What are they doing?  All too often I see contestants who don't even have their eyes on the match in progress. I see those who immediately start listening to their iPods between matches in order get "psyched up."  I see those that are just sitting idly by, chatting it up with other contestants. I see those that are halfheartedly watching the match in progress, but they most definitely aren't studying it.

To a lesser degree, I see the same thing happening in classes.  Individuals stick to their favorite techniques and combinations, but do not take the time to analyze the reactions to those techniques by their opponents.  Nor do they make the attempt to analyze and identify the favorite techniques and combinations of their opponents.

Once, this level of analysis was common practice, and if someone didn't do it, other fighters looked down on that person as someone who was likely to lose (or at best only win half his fights).  Chuck Norris, who was one of the best tournament fighters of his time, says the following in his book, Against All Odds: My Story:

      "I settled down on the sidelines to watch the other black belts compete. Now that I had become tournament wise, it was a matter of routine for me to study the other competitors. I knew that I might have to confront some of them later on. I watched the way the fighters walked for signs of injury. I observed the way they stretched and warmed up: a kicker warms up with kicks and combinations of kicks, usually working on the one he will use most when under pressure. A fighter with good hand techniques warms up with repetitions and the combinations he favors.
        I studied the losers as well as the winners. The winners were the ones I would probably have to fight. The losers were men I might have to fight in the future. The techniques that fighters implemented, especially the ones with which they scored most often, were my immediate concerns.
       I didn't simply observe the winners and losers. I visualized myself in the ring with whichever man I was watching. I studied his strengths and his weaknesses; I inventoried my own techniques and matched them to his defenses. I visualized myself taking his strengths from him while maintaining my own. If, for example, I could see myself blocking an opponent's powerful side kick and then scoring with my own technique, I knew I would be able to do it when the real match began." 

This kind of in-depth analysis of other fighters, and other students in our own classes, is sorely lacking today, and that is unfortunate, to say the least.

So the next time you engage in the art of dae ryun, don't "just do it".  Don't just act or react.  Try to study.  See if you can create reactions in others. Can you anticipate where they are going to go?  Do you know what techniques they are going to favor?  Are they kickers? Do they prefer to use hands?  Do they like to use the lead hand/leg, or the back?  Are they right or left side dominant?  Do they attack first, or wait for the opportunity to counter?  Do they attack to your strong side or your weak side? Do they attack in straight lines, or attempt to move to the side and attack from an angle? Do they spin often or not?

All of the above attributes, plus others, must be studied and catalogued in our minds, and we must do so for every fighter we encounter, for fighting many different people in exactly the same way is a surefire formula for eventual defeat.  We must go beyond the physical, though, and learn how our opponents react psychologically as well.  Are they easily intimidated, or are they very confident?  Are they, perhaps, overconfident?  How do they react when an opponent shows strength?   How do they react when an opponent shows weakness? Do they always fight the same way, or do they show changes in attitude and personality depending on who they fight?  How should you approach them?  Should you fake a show of weakness and attack when it is unexpected, or simply try to overpower them?   Are they too tricky for your own mental games or are they easily manipulated?

These are the factors that will help you become great at dae ryun.  

Keep in mind, though -

Someone is studying how well do really know yourself?

All things along the martial way come full circle eventually.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

My Turn.

Recently I read a fairly intuitive piece written by a friend of mine that states:

"In training, we often practice a form of 'my turn - your turn'."

We do this in one steps, exchanging techniques with one another, back and forth.  We do it with our Ho Sin Sul (grappling/releasing self-defense) as well.  To a lesser degree, we even do this in free sparring, often allowing each other a free exchange of various techniques.  My author friend tells us that the one place we really don't see this is in the authentic practice of hyung (forms). He says:

"In hyung training, the objective is 'my turn - my turn - my turn again.' "

I honestly believe that we need to, as serious martial artists, begin to cultivate this attitude more in our training.  This isn't to say that there is no validity in our traditional practice of taking turns.  Obviously, both partners need to be given equal time to train and work on developing their skills.  However, it does seem that this form of training can, all too often, foster a sense of complacency and overconfidence.  This, in turn, leads to ineffective practice at best, and dangerous practice at worst.

I was once part of a weapons self-defense class in which a senior master informed us that we really shouldn't be handing the weapon back to our partner immediately after practicing disarms.  Traditionally, we do this simply because it is now our partner's "turn" to have the weapon.  This creates a serious problem, though, when we apply this practice to real self-defense against a weapon.  For one, it fosters the wrong attitude.  In self-defense against a weapon, the attitude of "MY TURN"  must equate to "MY WEAPON".  By passively handing the weapon back to our partner, we are once again allowing complacency to take hold.  Secondly, we will, when confronted with the need to use our skills, do as we train.  Successfully disarming a knife or gun-wielding attacker is difficult at best.  If you actually suceeded in doing so, would you want to hand that weapon right back to your attacker?  Of course not.  Yet there are abundant tales of trained martial artists and law enforcement professionals doing exactly that in real confrontations.  We definitely need to encourage the "my turn" mentality more in our self-defense training.

There are plenty of great reasons to give another person their chance, their "turn", if you will.  None of these reasons apply in physical altercations, though.  If you have made the choice to attack me, or someone I care about, and I am unable to avoid the physical confrontation, then you don't get a turn.  It's my turn now.  And still my turn.  And my turn again, until you stop or I stop you.  It's really that simple.  Or is it?

Let's say it's a good first step.  In the end, though, if we really want to practice effective self-defense, then we need to instill this same "my turn" attitude in the student playing the part of the attacker.  A real assailant doesn't wait to give you your turn.  If I attack you, and your attempted defense doesn't work, guess what?  It's my turn, and I'll attack you again.  You will have to show the attacker it's your turn, or he'll take it from you.

All of this can be done in a training environment, and it can be done safely.  It's up to us as instructors to determine the best methods for doing so in our own individual studios.  Think about it.  If we never cultivate this attitude in our students, we are actually doing them a disservice, by making them overconfident in a skill set that will not be effective without the right attitude to go with it.

So, in the end, yes, I encourage you to take your turn.  Then take it again.  And maybe one more time.

Kick. Punch.  Easy Stuff.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Step Up...or Step Aside.

Put a group of black belts together and then tell them to work on whatever they want to work on.  9 times out of 10, something like the following ensues:

Black Belt 1:  So, what do you guys want to work on?
Black Belt 2:  I don't know. What do you want to work on?
Black Belt 3:  It really doesn't matter to me.
Black Belt 4:  I'm up for anything.
Black Belt 1:  So, what do you guys want to work on?

Me: Let's spar.  (just kidding...sort of.)

The point is, I don't care what we work on either, but come on, let's do SOMETHING.  If you can't come up with something to share, feel free to get out of the way and let someone else teach, but please don't WASTE MY TIME talking about what we're NOT going to do.  That's not to say that talking is a waste of time.  Want to share something you do in your class?  Great.  Want to discuss teaching methodologies?  How to handle "problem" students?  I'm down with that, too.  But let's not all stand around staring at each other, each one waiting for the other to step up.

Okay, let me be fair for a minute.  This whole situation usually happens for one of three reasons:

1.  Junior rank is waiting for senior rank to take charge.

Okay, this is appropriate: to a degree.  It shows the correct respect to the senior instructor, but at some point, even this can be taken too far.  If the senior instructor is the one asking what you want to work on, you better be prepared to give an answer.  Not having an answer to the question can be just as disrespectful as assuming that you have the right to speak up first. You might even be being tested.

2.   The black belts in question really don't have any idea what they want to work on, or what to offer the group.

There's really no excuse for this one.  As I said before...step aside. There's really nothing else to say about this.

3. The black belts in question feel that they don't have have anything to offer, or that what they do have to offer is somehow insignificant or inferior.

I find that this attitude is far too prevalent.  If you are a black belt, and particularly if you are an instructor, and this is your attitude, change it now.  Good instructors are always looking for new ways to approach things, and new lessons to teach.  They're also looking for opportunities to share with others, and see what kind of reactions and feedback they get to their lessons.

If you've achieved this rank, you should be able to come up with something.  Quite frankly, you should be able to either make something up on the spot, or at least draw on your past experiences as a student and as an instructor in order to put something out there for the rest of the group. Nothing you share is insignificant.  Even if all you do is provide me with several great examples of exactly what you should never do when teaching, you've provided me with something valuable, and I'll respect you for having tried.  Usually, this isn't going to happen, though.  Most of the time, you will come up with something that gets people to think in a new way.  Why? Because no two people will ever think the same way, no matter how much alike they may seem.  Therefore, no two people will present the same material in exactly the same way.

If you are teaching me, I'm trying to analyze everything I can about the lesson. Am I getting a physical challenge?  A mental challenge?  What kind of vocal and physical cues are you using that I may be able to incorporate into my own teaching?  What is the overall driving principle behind the lesson?  I could go on, but you probably get the idea.  I'm just as excited when a junior ranking instructor steps in front of the group to teach as I am when a senior instructor does so.  Sometimes the junior instructor brings a new or fresh perspective to things.  At the very least, I can get a peek into someone's thought processes and see where they are in their personal training, and then can make some comparisons to see if my own students are moving in the right direction as instructors.

In the end, one or more of your seniors may disagree with your conclusions, or even your premise.  That doesn't mean you should give up.  It means you should step up even more.  Defend your premise and your conclusions if you can, or admit that you might need to go back and research things some more if you can't.  Either way, we all will have learned something, and no one is standing around wasting time.

So, the next time you are in this situation, speak up.  Share a lesson, a drill, or even just a point of view.  Or you can wait for me to speak up.  I'm always more than happy to spar with indecisive people.

Kick. Punch.  Easy Stuff.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Have some free time? Read my old stuff, too.

There will be more updates to come on the blog, no worries there.

However, if you're really bored, or just craving more of Master Jorgensen's immense wisdom (kidding, folks!) you can always read some of my older stuff here:

Keystone Martial Arts Instructors' Message Page

Kick. Punch.  Easy Stuff.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Black Belts: The Best And The Worst

 This is Master Kevin Robinson of the World Tang Soo Do Association.

This is a Snickers bar.

So, what do they have in common?  Almost nothing, actually.  But more on that in a bit.  Master Robinson is one of the senior masters in the WTSDA, and one of my personal heroes.  Despite that, he honors me be calling me "brother" almost every time I see him.  If you aren't familiar with Master Robinson's personal story, I suggest you talk with him if you are able, talk to somone who knows him, or at the very least, read a copy of his book.

The point is, after getting to know him better, I can honestly say that Master Robinson is one of the very few people I know personally who has the right to complain about how unfair life can be.  He doesn't, though.  Instead, he remains consistently positive, and he openly shares his experiences, both positive and negative, in the hope that by doing so it might help others.  He consistently strives for self-improvement, and defines the word ATTITUDE.  He is also one of the finest martial artists I have ever seen in terms of pure physical skill.

A number of years ago, while speaking at a WTSDA Region 8 Black Belt Camp, Master Robinson coined a phrase that stuck with those of us who heard him speak: the "Snickers Bar Black Belt" 

The catch phrase for Snickers at the time was that it "satisifies".  To the Snickers Bar Black Belts, the belt itself is much like that candy bar. The act of getting the belt itself has satisfied them.  They feel that they've reached their goals, that there is no more to accomplish.  This makes them hard to teach, and even harder for them to be effective teachers.  Master Robinson is by no means satisfied.  He is an example of what a black belt should be.

I, on the other hand, do not pretend to be the best of examples in all aspects.  My life has actually been pretty easy in most respects.  Perhaps I could argue that without having suffered too many hardships to forge my spirit, that spirit has become somewhat weaker, but that's just a cop-out.  I'm currently about 25 pounds overweight, and I've done little to nothing about it.  I eat too much and train too little, and while I've recently made an attempt to turn that around, I can't say it's been easy.

I have one nemesis in particular:

He looks so friendly, doesn't he?  Don't that that fool you.  He's evil.  Actually, I know it isn't his fault that I'm overweight.  It's my own fault.  At least I'm not satisfied, though.  Maybe I should start drinking this, instead:

I don't think so, though.  What's the point of this stuff, anyway?  It really doesn't have any business calling itself Mountain Dew.  It's really kind of like that Snickers Bar Black Belt, in a way...

Meet the Caffeine Free Diet Mountain Dew Black Belt.  He really doesn't have any business calling himself a real black belt, though.  He's bitter.  He's terribly unsatisfied, and completely unsatisfying.  Really, what's the point of having this guy around?  Shake him up a bit, and you'll find out he's full of one thing above all others: Resentment.

As a student, he has resentment for his instructors:

They make me work too hard.
They ask too much of me.
They don't show me anything new.
They're holding me back.

Maybe it isn't his instructors' fault, though.  Maybe it's his fault.  I tell my black belt students all the time: "If you aren't learning anything new, it's your fault."  Blunt, yes.  But also true.  By the time you reach the rank of black belt in our school, you should have developed at least some skills in analytical thinking.  The curriculum has been established.  The knowledge is being presented.  I know this, because I know where and from whom I learned (and continue to learn) to teach.  I also know that the development of teaching skills is constantly being worked on by our team of instructors. So, if that black belt isn't learning anything new, it's because he won't, and not because nothing is being taught.

The resentment of the Caffeine Free Diet Mountain Dew Black belt isn't limited to students, though.  It's found in many instructors as well.  Instructors often feel resentment for their students:

They're lazy.
They don't listen.
They aren't getting the lesson.
They just won't TRY.
They don't follow protocol.

Maybe it isn't the students' fault, though.  Maybe we need to make an effort to become better instructors.  Are we motivating our students to do their best? Are we really taking the time to plan out each class?  When something isn't working, are we willing to shift gears and go in a different direction?  Are we studying curriculum development, pedagogy, psychology, assessment, and everything else that goes with calling ourselves teachers?

I learned from Master Robinson that the best black belts are not satisfied.  They know that there is more to learn and more to do.  They can't be deeply unsatisfied, either.  Don't fall into either of these traps. Don't be a Snickers Bar Black Belt, or a Ceffeine Free Diet Mountain Dew Black Belt.  You can't afford the price that comes with either one.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

No, you can't wear your black belt here....probably.

As a martial arts school owner, I am periodically faced with the following situation....(oversimplified dialogue follows below...go with it.)

Prospective Student:  "I'm an Nth degree black belt from a different style and/or association, but I'd like to train here."
Me: "That's great.  We'd love to have you train with us.  However, unless you are a member of our Association, I start everyone at white belt."  
Prospective Student: :"I can't wear my black belt? Why not?"

Here's why, and while this may seem unnecessarily harsh, it remains true.
Your black belt, while a great accomplishment that means a great deal to you (and should) doesn't mean anything to me (yet).

The above statement, while greatly oversimplified, is essentially true.  What your black belt, or mine, or anyone else's, really means, is that you've shown some degree of proficiency in one particular school or association's curriculum, and may or may not have some degree of authority to pass that curriculum on to others.  It means something to you, to your instructor, the members of your class, and within your own organization.  It doesn't automatically follow that it means anything outside of that realm.  You haven't yet shown me any proficiency at all in my school's or Association's curriculum, and as such, I really don't care about your preexisting rank.

Let's clarify that last statement somewhat.  A lot of people will tell you they don't care about rank.  And, if you really didn't care, you wouldn't care about wearing your black belt in my class. It has nothing to do with me respecting you as a person or as a martial artist.  Your attitude means something to me.  Your skill level does, too.  I'll even acknowledge your preexisting rank and experience to the other members of the class, most likely repeatedly.  But I'm sorry, none of that makes you any more than a white belt in my dojang, until you have shown me over a given period of time that you have a grasp of at least some portion of our established curriculum.

Some students, and even instructors, will tell you that their studio didn't have a set curriculum.  At the best, that's ignorance.  At the worst, it's an outright lie.  If you don't have a curriculum, there is nothing to teach, and nothing by which you can measure progress.  In that case, your black belt means even less. A curriculum is important if you want to call your studio a school.  Otherwise you are a club, an activity, or a sport.  Those things are all okay if that's what you want, but I teach at a martial arts school.  If you want to train here as a student, you need to first become a student.  This isn't about me.  It isn't an act of subservience. It's about making a choice.  Do you want this class to be your class, or do you want the class to change in order to accommodate you?

There are a number of black belts from other styles and associations training at my studio.  They are currently wearing white, orange, green, and brown belts. They've chosen to do so, and they accept that those are the ranks that mean something within their current school.  I've promoted some of these types of students from white belt directly to brown belt, and in some cases I've seen students promoted from white directly to Cho Dan Bo (black belt candidate).  Usually this is because the student in question WANTED to be formally tested for black belt in order to prove their knowledge of our curriculum, and NOT because they were made to.  It again comes down to your knowledge of the curriculum.  Show me what you know, show it consistently over time, and that's what belt you will wear. The rank you EARN HERE is what means something here.

So, ask yourself again...why do you want to wear that black belt so badly?  It comes down to the fact that rank really does matter to you, and probably a little too much.  Am I testing you?  Absolutely.  Life is about being tested.  In my eyes, true black belts don't care about what belt I ask them to wear.  They show up to class.  They train. Eventually, they earn a belt that means something in their new school. 

I don't ask anything of you that I wouldn't do myself.  Yes, I'm a 4th degree black belt in the World Tang Soo Do Association.  Guess what?  That means nothing if I walk into another association's dojang, and even less if I walk into a school of a completely different style, telling them I want to become a student there.  Not only would I expect to wear a white belt, I'd insist on it.

So, what if you don't want to become a student?  You have no real interest in learning our curriculum; you just want to get some physical training in, and maybe share an idea or two.  Great... in that case I have no real vested interest in your overall development in our system, and it would do no harm to let you wear your black belt in my class. In the end, though, I've found that this almost always does damage to the class on the whole.  These black belts almost always assume authority they haven't earned.  They often attempt to "correct" perceived mistakes of others.  They usually tend to be even more overzealous in their desire to prove their ability, and often end up getting someone hurt.  In short, I've found that they are usually a waste of my time, and my time is valuable.

So, is there a correct way for you to be able to wear your black belt in my class?  Yes.  Form a direct relationship with me. This might even become a relationship of mutual respect.  Eventually, it might even become a friendship. Demonstrate that you have something to offer me, and my school, as a teacher.  I'd then be more than happy to have you attend our class as a guest.  Don't just walk in and expect to train at our school wearing a black belt though.  It isn't going to happen.

Kick. Punch.  Easy Stuff.

Monday, February 28, 2011

On Blogging and Pretension...

I resisted creating a blog for awhile.  I actually think that blogging in general is a fairly pretentious thing to do.  Let's be honest. Pretty much anything I'm going to write here has already been said.  Usually it's been said by someone more qualified, or more eloquent, and probably both.   But here I am anyway, blogging away.  There will be more on what kicked this all off in a later post, but for now let me say that yes, this blog makes me pretentious.
At the very least, the blog itself is pretentious.


1. full of pretense  or pretension.
2. characterized by assumption of dignity or importance.
3. making an exaggerated outward show; ostentatious.

This blog is all of the above.  At some point, though, I came to the conclusion that just because something is pretentious doesn't mean it can't also be useful.   

Yes, it's all been said before. Many, many times over in fact.  However, just because somebody said it, it doesn't follow that the message has necessarily been heard.  So, at the risk of repeating myself, let alone the many others who have walked this path before me, I decided it was time to get some of the thoughts that have been buzzing around my head  out into the world.  Who knows?  Maybe somebody out there will hear the message.  Maybe they'll even agree with it.  There's nothing noble about this blog.  It won't go on to be my legacy. (God, at least I hope not!)  It is, however, a way for me look my own ego in the face and see if I'm actually "getting it."  So, I won't pretend this blog is really for you.  It's for me.  Call it cheap therapy. If you do happen to get anything out of it, though, I'll be content in that I can continue to call myself a teacher.

And yes, all of your blogs are pretentious, too.  That doesn't mean I don't think they're awesome.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

A new way to look at that one pesky tournament judging call...

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to be an arbitrator at the WTSDA Region 22 Championship.  While that experience itself may one day become a subject for a blog post, it is today merely the impetus for this one.

Once again, as it so often has in the past, a question arose on that one pesky call...

What do you do, when, as a center judge, you have the following situation:

One judge says Did Not See
One judge says No Point
One judge says Point - Blue
Two judges say Point - Red

The answer, as anyone who has been through the certification process now knows, is that one point is awarded to Red.  The confusion comes when people try to explain it.

Some look at it as different things canceling each other out.  So, if a No Point cancels out a point for Red, then it is down to one point for each color, and they cancel each other out, so there is no point right?  No, wait...the No point actually cancels out the Blue, so there are two points for Red, so it's a point for Red right?  No wait... one point for Red cancels out one point for Blue, then the No Point call cancels out the other point for Red, so there is no point, right?  No, wait, actually the one No Point cancels out one point for both sides, so there is then one point left for Red, so it's a point for Red, right?  And what about that Did Not See?  By today's rules, his vote doesn't count at all in this situation, and that makes it even harder for some people to understand.

We need to stop viewing this situation in terms of what vote cancels out what...instead lets look at each call for point as if it it were a political election.

In each election, we have three candidates running: Mr. Red, Mr. Blue, and Mr. NoPoint.  Mr. DidNotSee isn't a candidate.  He's a voter that didn't show up at the polls that day.   So, if we count the votes, we wind up it the following situation:

Mr. NoPoint received 1 vote.
Mr. Blue received 1 vote.
Mr. Red received 2 votes.

As I said previously, Mr, DidNot See didn't make it to the polls on time.  His vote doesn't count in the final tally.  So, who won the election?  When we look at it this way, it's actually fairly obvious that Mr. Red won.  Red receives the point.

This will actually work for almost every situation in sparring, except ties.  Mr. NoPoint always wins ties, even when no one votes for him ;).

Wait, what about Warnings?  That's a post for another day.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

New Links, and a note about a popular Martial Arts Blog

I've added some links to the right on some blogs I have read and found both interesting and worthwhile. Please check them out and see what you think.

As I get the chance to do some more research, I will be adding even more to the list.  They are in no particular order, so check them out at your leisure.

A quick note about 24 Fighting Chickens: While I admit that I tend to disagree with many of the conclusions he makes, I must acknowledge that Rob Redmond is an intelligent and insightful individual with a unique perspective on martial arts. I suggest that any serious martial artist read his work, and form your own opinions on whether the conclusions he presents ring true to you or not.  I only point this out because undoubtedly there will be some of you that are surprised by what he has to say, and there may even be some of you who want to argue with him. Don't.  You only diminish yourself in doing so, and you aren't going to change his mind, anymore than you'll change mine. I didn't say don't disagree, mind you.  Feel free to disagree with him , with me, or with anyone, and don't feel bad about telling someone that you disagree, including me. I did say don't argue.  One is constructive, the other destructive.  Don't be destructive.  Instead open your mind to a different perspective, and let it renew your own faith in whatever Path you choose to follow.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

Grandmaster Jae C. Shin of the the World Tang Soo Do Association has a gift for making the simplest of statements have profound impact.  Perhaps that is because the statements themselves aren't really all that simple, but are in fact actually layered in nuance, for those who know how to listen, much as our techniques are layered in application for those who know how to interpret them.

Let's take the title of this blog, and its first post, as an example.

"Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff."

Grandmaster Shin once said this to another instructor I know in response to that instructor sharing some of his trials in running a school.  At first glance it might seem a sarcastic reply, if one didn't know better. Grandmaster Shin is, first and foremost, a teacher.  Even in this terse reply, there is a lesson.  I'm not sure I've picked up on all the meanings of this phrase yet myself, but let me share just a few of them.

1) Go Back to the Basics.

Inevitably, after we've trained for a number of years, at some point we become overly impressed with ourselves and our abilities, physical or otherwise.   As martial artists, a certain amount of ego is important.  I can't deny that I have one, and neither should any of us.  We do, however, need to keep it in check.  Ego, Grandmaster Shin has told us (on more than one occasion, so pay attention!) is the number one killer of good black belts.

Despite what we might think, we are NOT a super-secret clan of invincible warriors, however much we might prefer it to be so.  When we get to a point where we think we've learned it all (or more realistically, that point when we feel we're not learning anything NEW, or COOL) - it's time to go back to the kicking and punching we learned as a white belt; the "easy stuff."  We may find that it really isn't all that easy to fully comprehend. When we can realize this, we put our ego in check, and get back on the right path as students and teachers.

I've gotten to a point in my own training where I would rather spend several hours working on the subtleties of the low block than spend 10 minutes working on jump spinning kicks.  Is that wrong?  If I allow my own obsession with low block to stop me from teaching jump spinning kicks to my students who need to learn them for their own development, yes.  But for my own personal training?  I'll stick to the "easy stuff" for now, thanks.  I don't think I've got it down quite yet.

2)  Teaching: You thought it was going to be easy, didn't you?

Becoming a good teacher of anything is infinitely more difficult than those teachers make it seem.  You know the techniques, understand application, philosophy, and theory, right?  So getting others to learn from you should be a relatively simple task, huh?  Not so much.  When we become teachers, we learn that there is an entirely new skillset to develop, while trying to pass on the one we have already learned.  The kicking and punching really is the easy part. The mental and emotional component of teaching others is just a bit harder.

When you accept the responsibility of teaching your own art to others, you accept that you have become a leader.  When others view you as a leader. you now hold a certain responsibility to them, as well. Are you holding up your end of the bargain?  As teachers of the martial arts, we have to develop not only the physical skills of our students, but their attitudes and behaviors as well.

As instructors, we will always have to deal with the students who just aren't "getting it", those who are constantly argumentative, the ones who just won't TRY, and those who, with the best of intentions, will seemingly question everything we say and do. We will have to listen to and try to help the ones who come to us with problems, and differentiate between those that really need help, and those who simply want us to solve the problem for them. Ultimately, we will have to deal with those who leave us, as well. This puts an incredible emotional  and mental strain on an instructor.  Every time someone isn't getting the lesson; every time a student we thought was committed walks away, we question our own abilities as teachers. It is, however, how we deal with our failures, more so than our successes, that truly shows us what kind of leaders we are.

3) A subtle reminder

No matter how hard your job is, his is harder.  Even if my school grows to hundreds or even thousands of students, my job is still easier than Grandmaster Shin's.   Compared to him, I am still a white belt, and for all my complaints when it gets hard to manage two dojangs, I am in fact, just doing the "easy stuff."  Even if I expand my duties to helping at the Regional and Association levels, it is still nothing compared to what he does every single day to keep our Association together, to grow it, and to hold up its ideals of Traditionalism, Professionalism, and Brotherhood.  Despite the heavy burden of managing literally hundreds of studios and clubs around the world, he still makes each individual instructor and each student feel important, as if their problems are the most important things to him. Perhaps that's because he genuinely feels that way.  He hasn't forgotten that the success of a worldwide Association is based on the dedication and support of every individual member, and we can't forget that the success of our schools is based on the loyalty  and support of each student, and the families that in turn support them.

And so, as it so often does in the martial arts world, it comes full circle.  Go Back to the Basics.  See what more there is to learn there, and in so doing, you may find that the "big" stuff won't seem so big anymore, either.  Until you go back and look at it again, that is.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.