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.



Tuesday, October 1, 2013

You got your art on my martial! No, you got your martial in my art!

     Many years ago (even slightly before my time) someone was tasked with the creation of a new advertising campaign for the confectionery wonder than is Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. As a child, I actually didn't much appreciate these delicacies, but in my maturity I have come to recognize their genius. The marketing idea that came to pass for this marvelous blend of sweet and salty goodness was both simple and brilliant.  It created a perfectly simple scenario in which two people who loved an individual tasty treat would, through an accident of fate, come to realize that both things together can be even better. The rest, as they say, is history.  There were many commercials over the course of several years that followed the same pattern, but you can view what is possibly the earliest below.

In this clip, we see the principal participants move through several stages of development.  The initial response is one of surprise, shock, and disappointment. The disappointment turns quickly to revulsion. However, once each of them tries their newly created combination, there is an additional surprise that comes with acceptance and delight as they come to understand that this new and innovative combination is something good.  Much the same thing is actually happening in the martial arts world as well.  Unfortunately, it seems that many of us have been unable to get past the stage of shock, disappointment, and revulsion.  
     No matter what we do or how we present ourselves and our chosen path, there will always be a group that values the artistic side of what we do above the perceived violent nature of the martial side.  There will always be a group that moves away from real-world application and self defense and toward emphasis of movement, stance, positioning, athleticism, performance, and beauty. In short, this group seeks to preserve everything that is "art" without worrying about, exploring, or in some cases even acknowledging, the "martial." This idea is exemplified through much of today's "traditional" martial arts competitions, and has been carefully and meticulously nurtured in some (though not all) forms of contemporary wushu, in which performances are judged much like gymnastics, figure skating, or diving.  This movement has likely reached its apex in the United States with the development and proliferation of XMA, or Extreme Martial Arts, in which acrobatics, dance, and feats of gymnastic skill have been added in order to play up the aspect of showmanship in order to draw more attention from an audience.  The skills of the practitioners of these styles are undoubtedly impressive, and much of what they demonstrate could be applied to fighting or self defense, but those aspects are ignored in order to create a better show. Truthfully, in may ways, these systems have become more of a performance art than a martial art.  While these forms of individual expression have removed much of the real-world fighting and martial application from what they do, there has been an equally strong (or even stronger) movement against this way of thinking, in which many decry the development of "flash over substance."
     There has been a steady increase, particularly within the last ten to twenty years with the rise of technology and online media, toward the "bringing back" or "rediscovery" of the myriad of martial applications present in traditional or classical martial arts styles.  Internet websites and Youtube videos abound that are dedicated to sharing effective applications of traditional techniques. Proponents of this movement believe that traditional martial arts are not lacking in effectiveness, but have been "watered down" over years of ineffective and unimaginative teaching.  Personally, while I believe that this resurgence of  martial value in what we do as traditional martial artists is mostly a very good thing, I also believe that it can be taken too far.  I guess I blame Bruce Lee.

Well, not really, but we'll get to that.  I do realize that I'm walking on dangerous ground by challenging the "legend" that is Bruce Lee...but that's exactly what I intend to do: challenge the legend, not the man, nor the martial artist.  
     Bruce Lee was one of the first prominent figures in the martial arts world to encourage doing away with strict adherence to traditional styles. He believed that martial artists should expose themselves to as many styles as possible, absorbing what is useful from each, while discarding anything that was not effective, and thus deemed not useful. Lee believed that developing oneself as a martial artist was akin to creating the perfect sculpture, starting with a lump of clay, and through the removal of the unneeded parts, one would eventually arrive at a finished piece, including only that which was readily effective in a combative situation. He referred to this process as Jeet Kune Do. In essence, Bruce Lee was one of the first proponents of removing "flash" or "flowery techniques" in order to develop effectiveness or "substance."  This concept is wonderful in theory, and in that it forces us to question how and why we do what we do in our own martial journeys, it is good. However, I do believe that there have been some who have misinterpreted Lee's efforts to the point at which they have so zealously pursued the "useful" and "effective" that they have actively worked to remove the "art" from martial arts. 
     It is this idea that fuels and drives the modern juggernaut that is the MMA, or Mixed Martial Arts, industry. Many (though not all) proponents and practitioners of MMA seem to advocate either the stripping away or the combining of martial arts styles in order to arrive at something that is effective in a fight above all else. Traditional practice in forms, as well as the practice of tradition itself, is often abandoned altogether.  The "art" is removed, and the "A" in MMA goes missing. With the popularity of MMA on the rise, and the popularity of Bruce Lee never truly having waned, many who practice the traditional arts have felt the need to become apologetic or defensive about what they do.  In some cases, it has even been suggested that the term "martial art" (wushu, moo sul, bugei) should be replaced with the term "martial way" (wudao, moo do, budo), and some styles, particularly those of Japanese or Okinawan origins, will swear to the fact that they practice "budo" and not "bugei."
     If we do trace this movement back to Bruce Lee, though, we must acknowledge a fact that is all too often overlooked, in my opinion.  The fact is this: Bruce Lee was only 32 years old when he died, and at that time had been actively training in the martial arts for less than 20 years.  There is no doubt that he was a phenomenal martial artist, and perhaps was even a martial arts prodigy, but we will never know how his philosophies may have changed as he grew older. I myself have been training for nearly 30 years, and as I approach 40 years of age, my understanding of martial arts is much different than it was when I was 32.  I do not even remotely believe that I have discovered everything that is "useful" in even one style, let alone many, and I therefore do not feel that I can safely discard anything.  This is not to say that I think I am in any way a better martial artist than Bruce Lee, but I do believe that we often do not realize exactly how "useful" something can be until after we have discarded it, only later realizing that we need it (or at least that we can, in fact, use it). Just because we do not understand how something is used now, that does not automatically make that thing useless. I actually think that at some level, Bruce Lee would have agreed with this, in that while he may have chosen to limit the techniques he used to what he found to be effective, he never believed in limiting the self. It is unfortunate that many who choose to quote him and  believe they follow his example have chosen to do so.
     Real-world self defense, the development of fighting skills, and the deeper understanding of martial application are all reasonable and desirable outcomes of training in the martial arts.  Aesthetic beauty, athleticism, and grace of movement are reasonable and desirable outcomes as well.  Much like the chocolate and peanut butter in the Reese's commercial, each is a tasty treat all by itself.  It is the combination, balance, and blending of the two that brings out our true potential, though. It is the study and development of both sides that makes us martial artists. The desire to eliminate the art fom the martial or the martial from the art only limits us from experiencing the benefits which come only from the synergy of both.
       After all, if we examine the qualities that make a technique "artistic" what do we find?  We find art in the blending of correct body mechanics, athleticism, the proper alignment of our musculoskeletal structure, the appropriate execution of balance, speed, and power, and the elusive quality that is "attitude" or "spirit."  If we in turn analyze what it is that makes a technique "effective", we find the exact same things that make the technique "artistic." It is only the added understanding and comprehension of how to properly apply the given technique to an attack or series of attacks in a way that works which makes the technique "martial" as well.  In only one of two ways, then, is the "art" or the "martial" removed:

1. Through intention
2. Through ignorance

Traditional martial artists must strive to combat both of the above, as each is equally detrimental to the development of a balanced martial artist. By intentionally removing the art, we remove personal expression and "spirit" as well, and we begin to remove the desire to polish the self through our training while we instead work only toward polishing the "effectiveness" and "usefulness" of or techniques. We begin to forget that all knowledge is useful.  By intentionally removing the martial, we may create something that is entertaining, impressive, and even beautiful, but in so doing we lose the ability to do more than perform or demonstrate, and the skills we develop are of no real value in resolving conflict, which is the true meaning of the word "martial" in Asian culture.  This intent is by far more difficult to combat than mere ignorance.  At least when someone genuinely doesn't know what is missing from their training, we can attempt to show, to tell, to teach, and to guide them towards discovery of his or her own ignorance.  When people stubbornly cling to their intention to keep the art out of the martial, or the martial out of the art, it seems that all we can do is stand back and wonder why they simply won't take a taste of both together. In so doing, they may discover that true Moo Sul (wushu, bugei) is Moo Do (wudao, budo).  Try it. You just might like it.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

I used to do that...

     I am consistently amazed at the number of proficient martial artists we have in this country, and even more amazed at the number that exist in the relatively small towns in which my wife and I operate our studios.  At least that's what I would be forced to conclude if I were to take the word of everyone who walked through our doors.  It seems that at least 50% (and believe me, this is a somewhat conservative estimate) of all prospective students (and, indeed, those I meet in the general public population as well) have someone in their family that trained in the martial arts at some point in their lives.  Let me be clear: I don't find anything wrong with that. While it definitely has its bad side, I think that in most ways the proliferation of the martial arts in the United States and throughout the world is a good thing.  What does bewilder me is that people consistently feel the need to bring up their prior martial arts training to me, and what bewilders me even more are the ways in which they do it. 
     Perhaps they feel that in bringing up their own training, they are in someway relating to me, which I really do understand at some level. In all honesty, though, the longer I train, the less I feel the need to bring it up in casual conversation.  It really only comes up when someone asks about it, or meets me through the martial arts world to begin with. (Yes, I consider this blog to a part of that world.)  All too often, however, I feel that people bring up their past training as a way to feel more like an equal in a somewhat unbalanced relationship. Invariably, when the conversation turns to martial arts, the person who is no longer actively training says something along the lines of  "Oh, I used to do that."  While the details may change from person to person in regards to martial arts style, belt attained, or reasons for leaving, the words "I used to" ring through my brain like an annoying klaxon, but what irks me even more is the need to equate their training experience with my own.  I'm sorry, but in the realm of the martial arts, 99.9% of the time, this person and I are NOT equals.  What I don't understand is the need for them to feel like we are.
     I don't think most parents would feel it is appropriate to walk into their child's classroom and tell the teacher about their own qualifications in education, or feel the need to start giving them advice on how to run their classrooms. (Although, in this day and age, not being a parent, I'm sad to say might be wrong about that). Personally, I  don't take my car to the mechanic and tell him how much experience I have fixing cars.  I don't go to the doctor's office and tell the doctor about my medical expertise.  I don't feel the need to tell my accountant the degree to which I could handle doing my taxes myself.  I could go on with examples, and perhaps I am wrong in my own perceptions of the examples above as they relate to the larger population. I really don't feel that this practice is all that common in other fields, though, so why is it so pervasive the world of the martial arts?
     Now when various people tell me how they "used to do that", I respond cordially, and let them talk about their experiences, because there is usually little harm in letting them get it out of their systems.  I don't ask questions about it, and I don't press the issue, because it almost always ends up being something along the lines of : 

"I used to do that when I was a kid"  
"I used to do that for a few months (or even years)"
"I used to do that until I got my (insert color here) belt"

Every time I hear one of these "I used to do that" lines, I want to respond how I really feel: NO- you didn't. How do I know this?  It's quite simple really, though I feel that the English language lacks the appropriate words to convey my meaning, so I 'll use quotation marks around the words that come closest to expressing my feelings on the matter:

If you truly "did" what I "do", then you would still be "doing" it.

"Do" isn't really the right word, though, (at least not the right English word) because being a martial artist isn't something I "do".  Furthermore, it will NEVER be something I "did."  A  martial artist is something I AM.  Even if I cannot continue to train physically due to injury or illness, I will not stop being a martial artist. Even if (in the most unlikely scenario imaginable to me) I decided to give up my art and close the doors to my school, I personally won't stop being a martial artist.  I just can't.  It's not in me.  I will continue to study, to read, to write, and to train to whatever degree I remain physically and mentally able to do so.  I will strive to better my mind, my body, my spirit, my technique, and my understanding of the Martial Way of Life. Martial arts just will never in any way become something I "used to do", and if you "used to" be a martial artist, then I'm sorry, but you never really were one to begin with, and you are simply not my equal in that realm.
     I'm sorry if that offends you, but it doesn't make it any less true.  I'm most likely not your equal when it comes to your profession, either, but I won't try to be, nor I will I try to share my experience in your field when I really don't have any.  I went to college to be a high school English teacher, but I never actually held a job it that capacity.  Therefore, I am NOT your equal in that field if you are a high school English teacher, or if you are a public or private school teacher of any kind at at all.  My experiences in college can in no way relate to the experiences of a teacher in a real classroom, and are therefore irrelevant in conversation.  In fact, my college degree almost never comes up, unless someone asks me about it, or when it is in some way relevant to my actual life as a martial artist and martial arts instructor.  While I may try to relate to a school teacher through my own experiences as a martial arts instructor, I most certainly do NOT try to relate to them as another school teacher would.  Therefore, I would find it much more interesting if someone tried to relate another occupation to martial arts then just telling me "I used to do that"...because, no, you didn't.
     By now perhaps you are beginning to feel that I am rather full of myself as a martial artist, but I assure you, this is not the message I am trying to convey.  It is simply a quantitative analysis.  Unless you have spent the last 30 years or so studying a specific martial art in depth, and the martial arts in general, you aren't my equal in this field.  If you have done so (as I know some of my readers have) then you are an equal, and you already know exactly what I'm talking about in this post.  Finally, if you have done more training and studying than I have, I readily accept the fact that I am not your equal, and am happy to learn from your experience, without thinking I have to elevate my own status in any way.  I know that I still have a long way to go.  In fact, Grandmaster Jae Chul Shin told us in his final volume of Traditional Tang Soo Do that:

If we consider a total course ranging from 0 to 100, 
Ko Dan Ja have an achievement rating of ~40% for 
4th Dan, 50% for 5th Dan, and so on.

So, if we accept this premise, then at 5th Dan I have achieved at a 50% level. Frankly, I think that's probably a bit on the generous side, but it still isn't even a passing grade. Why then would I stop?  In the World Tang Soo Do Association, a minimum passing score is 70%, so I'll have to continue to at least 7th Dan. Even then, I think I'll keep going, because who wants to just barely pass?  I'd like to reach 9th Dan one day.  Why not?  Our Association has set it as an attainable goal, so I see no reason why I should not attempt to attain that level of achievement.  I may not make it, but it certainly won't be a goal I "used to" have.
     All people are not equal in all ways.  The only thing that's new is the attempt to convince others we are their equals when we know in our hearts that we are not. So, if you are a martial artist, I'll be happy to converse with you about the martial arts, even if you no longer actively train.  (And believe me, I actually know martial artists who have never set foot on a training floor, but that's a different topic altogether.)  If you aren't a martial artist, please don't tell me about how you "used to be" one, unless you have the intention of becoming one again, because:

If you truly are what I am, then you always will be
and there is no need to qualify or quantify it to me.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On Legos (and Alchemy)

     Lego may very well be one of the greatest toy lines ever created.  Actually, Xevoz, which was the perfect synergy of construction toys and action figures, was, in may ways, much cooler.  However, since that line was short-lived, mishandled, and prematurely canceled (Curse you, Hasbro!), most of you have never heard of it.  So, we'll stick with Lego, because if you don't know what Legos are, I'm really not sure I want to know you, and you very possibly couldn't relate to me anyway,
     When I was a kid, I very much remember a time in which I started to become disenfranchised by toy lines like the Transformers (which were releasing things like Pretenders and Action Masters) and instead became obsessed with obtaining as many Lego sets as humanly possible.  My family was very giving, and over the course of my birthday, Christmas, and many other holidays, I recall that during one particular year I had acquired quite a few Legoland Space Sets. Of the sets I owned, my absolute favorites had to be the FX Star Patroller and the Cosmic Fleet Voyager:

     What young sci-fi loving geek wouldn't want these sets?  Both were very cool spaceships, and both had some very cool hidden features that can't be seen in the pictures above, including moving hatches and modular construction.  They were, to put it simply, awesome.  
     As soon as I could, I broke into those sets, and I went about following the instructions within, to the best of my ability, in order to construct the wondrous vessels depicted on the front of each box. To the uninitiated, Lego instructions look something like this:

While they are theoretically easy to follow from step to step, one would often find that if careful attention was not given to exactly which pieces were required and to the exact location in which piece was to be placed, it often became necessary to tear everything apart from several steps in order to find a simple mistake and rebuild the set correctly.  If nothing else, this process at least imbued within me the skills I would need later in life to build IKEA furniture. 
     The sets did get built, with time and perseverance, and the resulting ships really were awesome. They stayed built as designed for quite awhile to come, too.  Eventually, though... these ships would have to see battle... and battle between Lego spaceships can only lead to one thing:

Okay, maybe it wasn't that bad, but I did have my own imaginary Lego explosions, quickly followed by Lego crashes.  I quite fondly remember the various multicolored bricks flying to and fro, and the rather convincing Lego wreckage left behind.  Lego spaceships were toys you could break without actually breaking them.  What could be better? 
     Interestingly enough, that actually was the next question my young mind sought to answer.  What could be better?  I went back to the boxes, and noticed that the back of each depicted a number of different ships and vehicles... none of which were included in the instruction booklet, but all of which could be constructed from the pieces contained within that set:

While I did spend some time trying to replicate the vehicles contained in these images, an even better thought occurred to me.  If I had two Lego sets that resulted in one awesome ship each, what might I build if I combined ALL of the pieces from both sets?  It would no doubt be glorious.  Believe me, it was, at least to me.  I proceeded to rip into my ships, pulling them apart into their smallest component pieces.

I began anew, creating new and incredible things. Radar dishes and antennae became lasers and weapon emplacements.  Pieces intended to be cylindrical lights or loudspeakers instead became the heads for new alien species, as Lego did not make alien minifigures at the time.  Ships became giant robots.  I was soon building everything from hovercars to Escape Pods to entire cities.  Indeed, it was glorious.
     So.. this is a martial arts blog, right?  Yes, stay with me, I'm getting there.  Actually, I believe that many of you will have already seen at least some part of the implied simile.  Working trough the color belt system on the way to black belt is very much like receiving that first Lego set, the picture on the box showing a completed black belt.

At these color belt levels we are gradually given all of the pieces required to build ourselves into that black belt, and are given the instruction manual to follow, showing each piece and where it must go. Sometimes we are overly ambitious, though, and may try to build too quickly.  Only later do we discover that a piece is missing or improperly placed, and in order to build our black belt correctly, we must tear ourselves down and begin anew.  Eventually, with perseverance, we are able to finish the set.  We have built our black belt.  What could be better?
     There are some black belts who simply can't see that there is anything better. They will proudly place their "finished" product on the shelf to be displayed and admired, and will never really touch it again.  To this I merely say: "What fun is that?"  Sure, they may have built one awesome thing with the pieces they are given, but this is the exact time to answer the question: "What could be better?" What else can you build with the pieces you were given?  It is time now to look at or techniques, our forms, our self-defense applications, our sparring, and everything else we think we "know",  and it is time to take them apart to begin again.  It's time for a martial arts explosion!  Yes, the explosion is sometimes followed quickly by a martial arts crash, but as long as we are willing to pick up the pieces that are strewn to and fro, we can learn something valuable from our crashes as well.  We may find that as we pick up the pieces and begin to build that the results do not always match what our mind's eye has envisioned, but through dedication and persistence we will one day rebuild the pieces into something new and different, and it can be glorious indeed to make discoveries about something "old" that we thought we "knew."
     It is often said that black belt is only the beginning.  If so, we must of course ask and answer: the beginning of what?  It is truthfully only the beginning of many things, but in this context, I submit that it is the beginning of creation.  As humans and mortals we cannot create something from nothing, and therefore must have obtained something from which to begin.  As black belts, we are not often given new pieces with which to build, but this is because we already have been given the pieces we need. We must simply be willing to take our awesome constructions apart in order to rebuild them into something better.  Eventually, we will see that if we break apart each of our separate "sets": our forms, one-steps, basics, etc., that they do not need to be separate at all, and instead we can begin to combine them.  In doing so we come closer to the realization that we have made our martial arts skills (and hopefully ourselves) better.
     As is the way with many things, my interest in Legos waned somewhat over time.  In fact, over the years, and to my chagrin, many of my Lego sets were lost, sold, or merely misplaced.  The longer I live, though, the more I begin to see how all things relate, and that many of my interests intersect, overlap, and share the same underlying themes.
     One interest I have always had (outside of the martial arts) is watching Anime, or Japanese Animation.  I have enjoyed anime since before I really knew what it was, and can still recall being a very young child in the late 1970s, sitting on our couch and pretending to fire the Wave Motion Gun while belting out "OUR STAR BLAZERS!"  Later years would bring me wonders such as Battle of the Planets, Robotech, and Voltron.  Only much later would I learn of the Japanese source material: Space Battleship Yamato, Gatchaman, Macross, and King of Beasts Golion.
     Um, wait... weren't we just talking about martial arts?  or Lego? Trust me, this really does make sense.
     In the modern age, producers of media have realized that American adults actually appreciate anime as much as children, and we have finally had exposure to the original stories as they were intended to be told.  In some rare occasions, an anime may be completely torn apart and remade in order to tell the story the author always meant to share, and in doing so, it becomes better. Such was the case with the production of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which may well be one of the best anime to reach the mass market.
    Fullmetal Alchemist accepts as its main premise the idea that alchemy is real; alchemy in this case being the conversion of one form of energy or matter to a different form of energy or matter, along with  the ability to control said matter or energy.  This may manifest itself through such things as the creation of a tool or weapon from mere pieces of earth, or may involve the repair of broken iems, or even the healing of injuries.  Despite all this power, alchemists in this world must follow The Law of Equivalent Exchange, which states:

In order to obtain, something of equal value must be lost. 

This law can be circumvented only through the use of The Philosopher's Stone, which can only be obtained through great and terrible sacrifice.  How wonderful it is then, that as martial artists, we need not lose in order to obtain something new. While it is true that we cannot create something from nothing, we need not lose our previous knowledge or techniques in order to create something new from them.  We can, in essence, have our spaceships, hovercars, aliens, robots, lasers, cities, and anything else we can imagine all at once.  We have our Philosopher's Stone, without too much great and terrible sacrifice, and it is glorious.
      Learning to make use of this is a process, as is all of our learning, and is eloquently described in the world of Fullmetal Alchemist through the terms Deconstruction and Reconstruction.  (If you can't see the video below, please clear your browser history/cache, or click here.)  

As black belts and instructors, this then is what we do.  We examine our existing skills and knowledge, we deconstruct them with the intent of reconstructing them into something new, something more useful, and something better, and, hopefully, we begin to see the connections in all we do.  One is all, all is one.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

Monday, June 17, 2013

What's in a Test? Part 2: Respect is a Two-Way Street

One of the chief motivators for young people to perform tasks and services assigned to them by their elders is the desire to earn the respect of their elders.  It follows then, that one of the chief fears young people have today is that their successes will not be accompanied by respect from the adult population.  All too often, this fear is justified in today’s society.  The successes of our youth are often devalued or ignored.  Formal occasions in which our youth might be granted the respect they have earned through repeated success have become mere exercises in custom, with little or no real value placed upon them, and no real respect granted.  There are numerous reasons for this shift, including a decline in overall parental involvement, the prolonged stage of adolescence we have previously discussed, and the rising belief that providing our youth with tangible items and rewards somehow makes up for providing them with guidance and respect.One of the biggest reasons, however, is that the adults of today’s society are so preoccupied with gaining respect from their own successes that they are ignoring the accomplishments of the next generation. This stems from the fact that these adults were never formally initiated into the world of adulthood themselves.  As Don Pinnock of Conflict Resolution Center International puts it:

Western cultures have largely lost what most pre-industrialized cultures knew: adulthood does not gain full expression by itself-- initiation and ritual guidance are required.2

We must find better ways of acknowledging the successes of our youth, and granting them the respect that these successes have earned.  We must find better ways to bring young people into adulthood, and this starts with recognizing successes for what they are.
            In the past, ancient cultures recognized the successes of their youth through established rituals.  These rituals played a combination of roles.  They indicated in front of all who had succeeded at their tests. They honored those who had succeeded by proclaiming them adults and ready to take their place in society. Perhaps most importantly, they granted those who had succeeded the respect that went with becoming a contributing member of society.  With the respect granted by society came a level of self-respect that could be gained only through earning the respect of others.  It may be argued that these rituals still exist today, in the form of graduations, bar mitzvahs, confirmations, and the like.  While we will examine each of these rituals in depth later, it is safe to say that most experts agree that each of these rituals has become a ‘watered down’ exercise, and that none of them carry the meaning they once held. Almost before these rituals end, we see a return to ‘life as usual’, in which no real change has taken place.  The child is still a child, or at most an adolescent, even after the ritual ends.
            In the past, those who succeeded at their tests were first given the respect of becoming an adult and then asked to fill a role in society.  Today we have it exactly backwards.  Uninitiated adolescents are asked to find their role in society, and only after doing so are they considered adults.  Filling a role in society once meant contributing to the overall health of the society.  As people in these societies began to contribute and take responsibility for the well being of others, they earned the respect of those others.  A sense of Social Responsibility was fostered and maintained with each succeeding generation’s initiation into adulthood. As formal initiation into adulthood began to fade, so too faded the levels of respect granted to each successive generation.  A never-ending search for that respect began to replace the search for ways in which to contribute. A focus on self-accomplishments supplanted the focus on Social Responsibility.  This becomes a vicious cycle, as each succeeding generation desires respect to a greater degree, but receives it less from elders who are still searching for respect themselves. We must find a way to break this cycle. A good test, then, must provide a vehicle for formal recognition of success. A complete test will include some meaningful ritual in which the test taker who succeeds is not only formally recognized, but is granted a new level of respect, and in turn is initiated into a new circle in which a new level of status is confirmed.

Test Results Reflect Social Status

            In addition to respect, social status is highly sought after, not only by the young, but by adults as well.   It is often the case in society that social status is directly linked with factors such as popularity among peers, looks, physical prowess, or the amount of money one makes, but this was not always as prevalent as it is today.  At one time, social status was more closely linked to the results of the tests administered by the society.  Mental, physical, and spiritual roles in societies were clearly defined, and those that excelled in any of these three areas reached levels of social status accordingly.  Spiritual leaders, teachers, craftsmen, and warriors all had a role to play, and all had a corresponding level of social status.  The results of one’s tests within any of these groups were tied to an individual’s place, or status, within that group. Within the caste of craftsmen, proficiency with the tools of the trade, ability to work across different media, and understanding of aesthetics were all indicators of the status of individual craftsmen. Within the warrior caste, proficiency with different weapons, battle prowess, and the ability to lead were all indicators of the rank a warrior would achieve, and that rank was an indicator of status.  Teachers and philosophers were tested through their thoughts and writings, and through the advancement of their students.  All of these were reflections of the status accorded to these teachers.
Today we have lost something of this link.  While it is true that on the average, those who succeed in school or in their places of employment will earn higher salaries and achieve more respected levels of status in society than those who do not, there is still a decidedly skewed view of social status in our society.  In their formative years, those who achieve academic successes and excellence are often belittled and made the object of taunts, or worse, physical bullying.  Those who achieve spiritual successes are often ignored, while those who reach new levels of depravity and spiritual corruption gain accolades and power.  Physical prowess and beauty is seemingly valued above all else.  Those who look good reach higher levels of status than those who do good. If we are to survive as a healthy society, this too must change. Our tests must once again be given some value in the larger society. The results of a good test should be linked directly to status within the group of test takers. The results of a complete test will be linked to status not only within the small group of test takers, but within the larger society as well.  We must become more aware of how and on whom we bestow social status.  Those who achieve status in a society become the role models of future generations, and without good models, we can never truly have good tests.

Testers Must Serve as Models

            It has been said that a paramount concern of today’s young people is to gain respect from their elders.  Respect however, is a two way street.  A young person will not crave or desire the respect of an adult whom he or she does not respect in return.  Adults must earn the respect of children and adolescents before they can hope that these children and adolescents will want their respect in return.  One of the surest ways for an adult to gain respect from the younger generation is by serving as a model for appropriate action and behavior.  Models must first show the way, and there is only one way to do this.  The testers must be willing to go through, or must have already been through, any test they are giving.  They must have ‘been there,’ and they must have ‘done that.’  Only then can they point out where mistakes are made and how to get back on track. According to Greta Nagel:

The power of modeling has been demonstrated over and over again in various educational settings.

The parent or classroom teacher who is intent upon showing rather than just telling will enhance academic recall and deepen understandings of real life.3

When serving as models, we must be able to show that we have done what we are asking of our youth, and that if called upon to do so, we can still do it today.  This level of modeling serves several important purposes.  First, it builds a foundation of trust between the model and the student, by showing that models will not ask anything more of the students than they are willing to do themselves.  This is an extremely powerful way to both earn respect and build up confidence.  Second, this level of modeling indicates the need for ongoing learning.  By showing that as models, we are willing to continue and maintain our own learning, we stress how important it is to our students, not only now, but later in life as well. Finally, this level of modeling illustrates our respect for and confidence in the next generation.  We are effectively telling them we believe in them, and we believe they are capable of doing the same things we can do.
            Any models that demand more of their students or children than they have done in the past or are willing to do today are doing a disservice to those children.  Children are not stupid, and contrary to what some may believe, they are not easily duped.  They will know whether their teachers and parents have done what is being asked of them. When models have not shared these experiences, children will begin to lose respect for them due to their hypocrisy.  A good test, then, will not include any question or action that the tester has not answered or undertaken in the past.  The complete test, however, will not include any question or action that the tester is not willing to answer or undertake now. Those who serve as testers must also serve as models, and they must understand that their own abilities and proficiencies are being constantly questioned and monitored by those who are taking the tests.  The results of those tests then, will tell us not only about the abilities of students, but will also illustrate something about the abilities and proficiencies of the teachers.
Tests are one of the most powerful indicators we have of the abilities and competencies of our youth.  Good and complete tests are also one of the most powerful tools we have to judge the competency and proficiencies of our teachers.  As we reflect on the status of our society as a whole, we must look not only to the problems of young people, but also to the status of their guides along the path to adulthood.  We must ask whether the models to which we are exposing our youth are prepared for the task that faces them.  Responsible adult members of society must look at the content and results of administered tests to determine whether they demonstrate an appropriate level of teacher proficiency.
            Teachers may be proficient in any number of educational areas, but if they cannot produce consistent results over time, and do not make valid decisions based on test results, they will never be truly proficient teachers.  The results of tests will tell us as much about the abilities of our teachers as they do about the abilities of our students, if only we know where to look.  Complete tests will incorporate the ideas of reliability and validity in their design.  In so doing, they will help us to form an accurate picture of the status of various subsets of our society, including our teachers. Only once we have this picture can we decide where the deficiencies are located and what must be changed in the future.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

1.      Kohn, Punished By Rewards, pp.229-239.
2.      Pinnock, “Gangs, Guns, and Rites of Passage,” p. 7.
3.      Nagel, The Tao of Teaching, p. 69.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

They Aren't Called Attitude Suggestions: Regarding Accountability

          It seems to me now that it was only a short time ago that we began to implement the learning and practice of the World Tang Soo Do Association's 14 Attitude Requirements into our curriculum at Keystone Martial Arts.  In looking back though, I realize that we have arrived at Requirements number 5 and 6 at our two respective locations, and that we have been working on this project for nearly half the year.  At the outset, my wife and myself had three basic goals in mind when implementing this part of our curriculum:

1. Our students would learn the 14 Attitude Requirements
2. Our students would learn what the 14 Attitude Requirements actually mean. 
3. Our students would be held accountable for putting the 14 Attitude Requirements into practice.

          This seemed relatively simple in concept, and in truth, I have to say that for the most part, it has been going exactly as planned. We made our students repeat the Requirements until they learned what each one says. We defined the key words included in each Requirement and put these definitions together so that the students understood what each one means. We gave homework assignments keyed specifically toward the meaning of each Requirement that would hold students accountable for putting that meaning into practice. What I did not expect (though in truth I am now not sure why) is that I would learn as much about being an instructor as our students were learning about being students and martial artists.  
          Some lessons learned are actually fairly obvious. The first of these is that some students (and in some cases I will honestly say some parents) do not want to be held accountable.  Some merely wish to show up, kick and punch (easy stuff), and be awarded a new belt.  When confronted with the necessity to be held accountable for their actions, these students tend to wither.  They simply ignore the homework and do not turn it in.  They do not raise their hands when asked questions regarding personal development and personal accountability. In some cases they become argumentative and confrontational when told that they are not moving forward in rank.  They begin to compare themselves (non-obejectively) to other students, and often arrive at incorrect conclusions regarding their own progress or status in the class.  In the end, many decide to quit. This is not to say that every student who leaves does so because they refuse to be held accountable, or even that this is the main reason why students leave.  The sad truth, though, is that in at least half of the cases in which accountability is the cause, the students who quit needed to go. 
          Every instructor with whom I have ever had a serious conversation regarding student status, enrollment, and retention knows this truth, but we are all too often afraid to confront it.  We choose to believe instead that we can "save" every student who is lagging behind, when this simply isn't the case.  Some students will choose to be left behind, and some, when given too much attention, will actively lower the standards and performance of the entire class. If students choose not to be accountable for their actions, and choose to wither rather than grow, instructors cannot afford to focus all of their time on these students, allowing  this attitude to contaminate the class. We must instead nurture those students who do choose to grow, while allowing others to make a choice: Choose to grow, or choose to leave.  The next lesson learned, then, is that many students will choose to grow when held accountable, and the best students will thrive.

           I have found that in any group, be it martial artists or not, when a question or problem is posed, the majority of the group will stand back and wait.  However, there will always be at least one person in the group who is willing to raise his or her hand.  There is always one person willing to take a risk and step up.  Historically, I have not been that person.  However, I have decided, on more than one occasion, to make that choice, and to be the person who is willing to be heard, and who is willing to "stick my neck out." (If I hadn't, you would never be reading this post.)  I have found that, in almost all cases, the results are positive.  We must actively encourage this in our students, and show them that this is the way forward.  Holding them accountable for their actions is a sure way to make this happen, or to make it fail miserably.  As much as I actually believe a good instructor uses both positive AND negative reinforcement effectively,  I do believe that we must link accountability to positive outcomes, rather than focus only on the negative.  Let us congratulate, praise, and yes, even reward, students who demonstrate accountability, rather than only point out what they are NOT doing.  After all, our Attitude Requirements may say "Do not be overly ambitious", but they also remind us to "Frequently inspect your own achievements".  They don't tell us to frequently inspect our failures, and perhaps there is some wisdom in that, for only by helping our accountable students realize that they ARE getting somewhere can we hope to see them take the steps they need to move forward.
          In the end, it is my goal to see the majority, rather than the minority, of my students become willing to be held accountable, whether the results of doing so are perceived as "good" or "bad".  In fact, it is my goal to change that perception, and help them realize that accountability is almost always "good" in the end, even when that end is not instant and immediately known or understood. It is my hope that I will see more students raise their hands, see more students hold themselves and their classmates accountable for appropriate actions and behaviors, and, in the end, see the majority of the class thrive.  While there is no room in the dojang for anyone who will not be held accountable, there is more than enough room for everyone who will.
       This then is the final lesson I have learned.  There really is no room in the dojang for anyone who will not be held accountable, and that must include me.  If I want my students and my dojang to grow rather than wither, then I must grow as well, and I must choose not to wither.  Recently, I have been plagued by a series of personal injuries, but I must ask myself whether I have done everything I can to work through them, or if I have allowed them to stop me from doing what I must.  Equally, I must ask whether what I have been doing is smart, and if  my own methods of training and teaching have helped move me forward, or whether they have exacerbated my injuries and delayed my healing and growth.   I must be personally accountable, and I must choose to grow.  I must be accountable to others as well.   As Grandmaster Shin once said, 

When examining your abilities as an instructor, 
examine your young student's  manners, 
attitudes, school reports and health conditions. 
Their improvements should mirror your own.

I must realize that if I ask a student to do a thing, then I must be willing and able to do that thing myself, and if I cannot, then there had better be a darn good reason why.  If I can't find that reason (not excuse), then it probably doesn't exist, and I had better get cracking on being able to do what I demand of others.  After all, they aren't called suggestions...

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

They Aren't Called Attitude Suggestions (Part 1 of ?)

          For the past ten plus years, I have had the honor and privilege of running a martial arts school alongside my wife, who has always put nothing less than the utmost effort into making sure that our school, our instructors, and our students strive for improvement, regardless of how long that improvement might take.  Recently, she has initiated a plan that will take over a year to reach its ultimate fruition, but one that is nonetheless both necessary and overdue.  Many of our younger students will not, at present, be able to understand the full scope of this plan, nor will they immediately comprehend its benefits.  To them, the final results will not be realized for what they perceive as "a long time."  
          Before I discuss the plan itself, I remind you that I am, at my core, little more than a geek, and as such, my view is always skewed toward geek culture when making connections to the world beyond the martial arts, if such a world actually exists for those of us who choose to walk the path of the martial arts instructor.  That said, the best way I can relate this plan to others may be through referencing a work many still believe to be the greatest work of  Fantasy Literature ever produced: J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of The Rings.  In particular, I would like to make note of one of Tolkien's most interesting characters.  No, I'm not referring to any of the Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, Goblins, or Wizards.  The character in question is the Ent, Treebeard.  I realize that at this point many readers will have no idea what an Ent is, or who Treebeard is, but trust me, even if you have never read the novels or seen the films, Treebeard is cool.

Trust me: Treebeard is cool.

          In The Two Towers, Treebeard is encountered by the hobbits Merry and Pippin.  In the film version, he tells them (eventually) after taking several hours to say "Good Morning" to the other Ents that, "it takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish, and we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say."  Interestingly enough, the novel actually casts a slightly different light on this speech. In the novel, Treebeard says, "It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time saying anything in it, because we do not say anything IN IT, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, AND TO LISTEN TO." (Emphasis added)
          Wait, wasn't I supposed to be talking about the martial arts, and my wife's plan?  I am, of course- weren't you paying attention?  If we replace a few of the verbs, and the language of Old Entish with the words "martial arts", we begin to see the point, that being:

We don't say or do anything in the martial arts unless it is worth 
taking a long time to say or do, and to pay attention to.   

I do realize that I ended the above point with a preposition, but so did Tolkien, so you'll just have to forgive me.  Now, go back and read it again, and take your time.  It wasn't a suggestion; I actually want you to do it.  Really.  Why are you still reading this part?  I said go back and read it again. Done? Okay, then I suppose we can proceed with the plan.
         The plan, simply put, is to have our classes, and in particular our youth advanced classes, learn, understand, and put into practice each of the 14 Attitude Requirements of Tang Soo Do.  Why then should this take such "a long time?"  The answer is because the plan requires us to spend at least one month working on each one of the 14 requirements. Our students must not only learn the words, but must also make a solid attempt each month to understand what those words actually mean, and must show the instructors a genuine attempt to put them into practice.  Oh, did I forget to mention?  This is also cumulative.  For example, by Month 3, students must still be able to recite and explain Attitude Requirements One and Two.  By Month 14, our goal is that each student who has made an effort will be able to recite all 14 Attitude Requirements, explain to the instructors' satisfaction what each means, and give concrete examples of what they have done to actively fulfill each requirement, all of which can be found listed here.  Does this all sound like a bit too much to ask of a child?  I'll be painfully blunt: If you really think so, your child doesn't belong in my class.
          They aren't called the 14 Attitude Suggestions.  They are requirements.  If you don't meet the minimum requirements, you don't move forward.  It's really that simple, but what the heck?  Let's go ahead and make it complicated anyway.  What, exactly, is a requirement? defines the word requirement  as:

a thing demanded or obligatory

and also as:
a need or necessity

If we accept these 14 Attitude Requirements at face value, we begin to understand that:

1. We must demand that our students learn, understand, and fulfill each requirement.

2. We must convince our students that they are obligated to do so.

3. We must help our students identify the specific need associated with and fulfilled by each requirement.
Notice that I used the word must in each of the above statements.  Remember: they're not suggestions.  Not only must we do all of the above, but we must also insist on doing the same for ourselves.  Children understand hypocrisy, and they hate it.  Demand no more of them than you demand of yourself.
          When I am able to put Part 2 of this post series into coherent words, I will begin to discuss the Attitude Requirements themselves.  Let's look at Attitude Requirement Number One just to see how big the plan really is:

Purpose of training should be enhancement of mental and physical betterment. 

Throw that one at your class of youth students, pre-teens, teenagers, or even adults, and watch their eyes bug out of their heads. Then try to explain it, and proceed to scratch your own head.  Each word in this requirement is carefully chosen and carefully placed, though, and it all makes sense.  At the risk of making yet another somewhat obscure reference, I'll leave you with a quote from a somewhat underrated film starring Danny DeVito: Renaissance Man:
Jamaal: Are you gonna come translate this for us?

Bill: Why? It's in English.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.