Avoiding Burnout in Martial Arts

“The student who enters into this state of weariness shows that he actually does not understand and appreciate Karate. Therefore, if he does quit training and gives up Karate with only a superficial understanding of it, it can properly be said of him that a little knowledge was a dangerous thing.”[1]

– Funakoshi Gichin

Burnout, depression, and anxiety are often seen as strictly contemporary issues, but while there is evidence that these occur more frequently in today’s world, the quotation above points to the fact that battling burnout in martial arts is not exclusively a modern issue, and that many generations of instructors and students have had to deal with the consequences of mental and physical exhaustion.

Even for those who are passionate about martial arts, especially for those who teach them for a living, training can reach a point where it becomes overwhelming. Any time put in beyond that threshold is not beneficial. Many times we show up to class simply out of habit, when truthfully our minds or hearts are invested elsewhere.

While Budo requires dedication and commitment to maximize efficiency under duress, there can be such a thing as too much training. The body can only handle so much; build-up of minor injuries or failure to recover from them can be a sign that physical burnout has set in. Harder to treat can be the mental and emotional fatigue that sets in, especially because denial is tempting for many who define their identities largely based on their passion for this art.

The following are some tips that have assisted me in avoiding and/or treating burnout from prolonged training.

Pace Yourself.

It sounds obvious, but most often I see this with students who have been recently promoted. The recognition sparks renewed interest, and then suddenly the student goes from training a couple times a week to being at the Dojo daily. This usually lasts for a few months before the unsustainable pace becomes apparent, and in some cases the person ends up quitting altogether.

It’s important to remember that a martial arts career is a marathon, not a sprint. Slow and steady leads to long term progress and retention of skill, as well as a more stable and sustainable dedication to training.

I had a recent conversation about this with a fellow BJJ student who is preparing for a tournament. His approach is basically to carry on as usual. A lot of people drastically increase their reps or intensity heading into a competition, but martial arts is not like an exam that you can cram for the night before. There are going to be some natural peaks and valleys in the process, but a steady pace is the best way to get ahead in the race.

Limit teaching.

Burnout is often not a result of training, but specifically teaching. Leading a class–the planning and preparation of lessons, figuring out how to best explain and demonstrate the material, as well as dealing with people–can be exhausting. Even the people that you like can be draining when it’s the same personality quirks and egos in the room day in and day out.

If possible, delegating some of the teaching responsibility can take the pressure off. Of course, the main instructor is the one primarily in charge of running things, but that doesn’t mean the club will fall apart if a single class is instructed by someone else. 

Also, don’t be afraid to take a few extra days around holidays when the classes are going to be poorly attended anyways. From a business perspective, there can be pressure to run as many classes as possible, but most established owners that I know have become comfortable shutting down on long weekends and taking a week or two off around Christmas and New Years.

Train Something New.

Cross training is always a huge opportunity to expand on your skill-set and knowledge base. It is refreshing to be a student, go into class with an open mind, and have someone tell you what to do. This reminds instructors of the joy and frustration that their own students are experiencing.

Cross training also provides valuable input, which is a critical source of creativity. One sign of burnout is boredom or lack of interest in an area that previously was a source of passion. In some cases, that might simply be boredom with teaching or training the same curriculum day in and day out. Changing pace by practicing a new style or approach can reignite that passion, and integrating those concepts into training can freshen the mood or attitude if your usual classes become stagnant.

Rest

This is another element that sounds obvious, yet we frequently fail to do. The challenge here is largely mental. Personally, I have trouble giving myself a day off; if there is a class, I feel like I should be there, and unless I am physically incapable of training due to injury, I feel guilty for missing class. Peer pressure can also be a powerful factor that motivates us to train when we aren’t going to get the most from the experience.

The discipline of martial arts dictates dedicating yourself to a higher ideal–of course, no one can live up to that vision of perfection. We are not machines. It’s okay to skip a workout or a practice when mind and body are not going to be invested in the process. This is a slippery slope; it’s important that rest is the exception, and doesn’t become the rule. But once in a while, you just need a day off.

Self-Care

It’s a hot topic. For some, this means doing yoga or meditating on a mountain. For others, it might be doing art or reading a good book by the fireplace.

I have a pragmatic approach. Once in a while, a beer and a football game are needed just to unwind and recharge. Self-care is supposed to look different for every individual, but it is significant because if you fail to look after your own physical and mental well-being, it is impossible to positively impact those around you.

Conclusion

Taking these steps can help both prevent and recover from burnout. If you’re dedicated to fighting arts, you will likely reach a point where you experience these feelings. The important thing is to recognize they are occurring and have a strategy to address them. Admitting that you are exhausted is not a weakness, provided that you have an effective method to recover. If you do, you can get back to training at full force and with contagious enthusiasm as soon as possible. If not, you risk becoming Funakoshi’s prototypical quitter, for whom a little knowledge of martial arts was actually detrimental. 


[1] Funakoshi, Gichin. Karate-do Kyohan: The Master Text. Kodansha International, 1973. Pg. 37.

Etiquette 102

This informal survey suggests 2 out of 3 students can bow correctly.

The basics of etiquette are things like when to bow, tying your belt, how to sit, and all the formalities associated with training. Most people mistakenly think this is only for traditional martial arts, and that modern ones have no system of etiquette. While it’s true that these habits tend to be emphasized more in traditional martial arts, there is correct and incorrect social behaviour in all types of training. If you don’t believe me, go into an MMA or boxing gym and claim that you could kick the crap out of every single person there. They will line up to kick your ass because you breached their standards of etiquette.

There are lots of books, videos, and other resources on the basics of martial arts cultural practices. Furthermore, there will always be minor differences depending on the style and club. There are some universal principles that vary little (i.e. don’t call out the seniors, as in the example above), but when coming into a new system or cross-training, the environment may be somewhat unfamiliar. We often assume that our usual practices are sufficient, and this is where missteps in behaviour can hurt you in the long run.

There is a question as to whether knowing correct etiquette will make you a better martial artist. On the one hand, the answer is clearly no. Knowing how to bow or how to address the seniors around you will not directly make you more effective at protecting yourself or achieving the outcomes specified in your curriculum.

On the other hand, to acquire skill, you need someone to instruct you, as well as partners who will invest their attention and energy in your progress. Neglecting etiquette, or refusing to adapt old habits to a new situation, can give people around you a bad impression. In other words, if everybody thinks you’re an asshole, it’s not very likely that they will care whether you improve or not. They won’t bend over backwards to help you if you act like a tool. In that sense, practicing proper etiquette is an extremely important step towards being accepted. Demonstrating respect for your teachers, seniors, peers and juniors can, indirectly, be the most practical thing you do.

Here are some blunders in etiquette that I commonly see, and not just among people who are new to practice. While it is hilarious to watch experienced practitioners step on their own dicks, here are some ways to avoid doing so.

Don’t Assume Equality

When you enter a new training environment, whatever else you have done doesn’t matter. That’s not to say all your previous experience and skill is useless. But just because you are highly ranked in another martial art, system, or style, does not mean you are colleagues with the instructor.

I see this assumption very frequently, where it is expected that an instructor will collaborate with someone merely because they have some unrelated rank or experience. Presumably, if an experienced martial artist is going somewhere as a student to train, it is because they want to acquire new skills, not because they want to show off what they already know.

Obviously, having a solid background should benefit you in the learning process when you take on new material, but that does not make you a colleague of the teacher. When you come to class as a student, you are a subordinate. You might be the most skilled martial artist in the room, but it’s not the right context to demonstrate that fact. Instead of trying to convince the instructor that you are both equals, be interested in what they can teach you. That is, after all, why you are there.

Ranks and credentials in martial arts are arbitrary. Most ranks are a reward for loyalty as much as they are an acknowledgement of progress. Not every organization and instructor have the same standards. However, skill always speaks for itself.

Don’t Improvise

This is when the instructor walks past and says, “Keep up the great work!”

Similar logic, but slightly different point. Even beginners have an awareness that there is a wide selection of techniques for any given scenario. However, when an instructor demonstrates one strategy, it is not because it is the only feasible option for that situation–it just happens to be the option they are working on at that time.

Again, it is amazing how often students from other disciplines come into their training and start making up all their own sequences and combinations. To a degree, they are not necessarily wrong. Their improvised sequences may be practical and efficient. The point remains that they are not learning what they came to learn.

In kindergarten, it would be inappropriate to interrupt the teacher in mid-lesson to blurt out, “Couldn’t it be C-A-B instead of A-B-C?” Gold star for creativity . . . Yes, it could be. But it isn’t.

This phenomenon often comes from the desire to impress by showing off how much the person already knows. Ironically, the instructor would probably be far more impressed if they demonstrated the ability to do what was shown with precision and efficiency.

In the end, all Captain Improv walks away with are the things he made up on his own, which kind of defeats the purpose of going somewhere new to get fresh input. The time for experimentation is in your own club and your own classes. When you’re training a specific thing under a specific instructor and you spend all your time creating your own exercises, you look like a moron.

Don’t Record Without Permission

Subtle. So smooth.

We live in a world of cell phones, where ubiquitous recording devices are the norm. Here’s the thing, though: recording anyone without their consent is creepy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a photo or video. It’s creepy.

If you want to remember what an instructor is teaching, and recording is the fastest way of doing that, ask for permission. If the instructor doesn’t want to be recorded while teaching, then record yourself doing the exercises that they taught after the class, when they’re still fresh in your mind.

If this is for your own personal records, don’t share or post said recordings without the permission of the instructor. Their lessons are their intellectual property, and being respectful of that fact means keeping it to yourself. If you are awesome at executing the material you were taught and want to spread it on the Internet, ask for permission before you post. The instructor may not think you are as awesome as you do.

We live in an age of shameless self promotion. That is undeniable. Martial arts are not immune to that reality. While you may have pure intentions when you record or post on social media, a lot of conflicts between organizations, instructors, and students that I’ve heard about recently began with an “innocent” post. You don’t always know how others will interpret your attempts to flatter or promote them.

This is interesting in part because, with social media being a recent development, there is no established etiquette in the martial arts regarding this. We are creating the rules as we go. Generally, silence is difficult to be offended by, so if you’re not sure, I would suggest that as the default.

Don’t Equate

This looks and sounds like the second point above, but it’s slightly different. Assuming equality means thinking that you and the instructor are peers. Equating means taking everything back to what you already know.

Of course, if you have invested a long time in a singular system or style, when you start doing something new, your brain will naturally draw connections. These connections are important–but only to you. Your classmates and instructors probably don’t care how what they do resembles or mimics the actions of whatever else you’ve done. The BJJ professor probably doesn’t care which Karate kata his guard pass looks like.

It gets irritating for a student to constantly be comparing techniques to whatever else he or she studied before. In martial arts, there are going to be a lot of commonalities. Pointing out those commonalities is an interesting water cooler conversation during breaks or after class, but when you’re training, just do the training. Constantly stating that one strategy or technique is like something else you’ve already learned gets annoying very quickly, especially if you are the only person who is likely to get the reference.

Conclusion

While etiquette shouldn’t be the primary focus of training, it is important to get these aspects of martial arts correct. Any instructor knows that breaches in these unwritten rules can lead to conflicts and annoyances within the training environment.

The points above are not as obvious as the typical “Bow when you enter the Dojo” type of principal, but failing to adhere to them can cause you to become the butt of others’ jokes. Being liked is the first step towards accessing the knowledge and skill of superior practitioners. Apply the principles of sound etiquette, and, given enough time and shared experiences, you will gradually earn the respect and loyalty of those around you.

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!

The Role of a good Beat Down in Martial Arts.


The paradox of martial arts is the conflict between its two elements: the martial, which deals with raw violence, and the art, which deals with aesthetics and personal expression. Balancing both of these elements is an ongoing challenge for those who choose this pursuit.

Many schools are infamous for their brutal approach, where senior students welcome the new by physical initiation, using martial arts as an excuse to demonstrate their physical prowess on victims who are unable to fight back. Most would agree that this is at best a form of bullying, at worst a crime. This approach clearly lacks in basic ethics.

However, most experienced martial artists, especially those who teach, would probably also argue that, on occasion, there is a time and place to lay a beating on someone. It’s a fine line–you don’t want to cause permanent physical injury or damage, but rather put someone in their place and remind them that pain is not fun.

I do not condone using martial arts as an excuse to inflict pain on those who don’t deserve it, but there are times when people need to be put back in line. This article will explore some situations and examples when laying a beat down on someone is actually the appropriate move.

Control? What’s that?

One recent situation was when we were doing a bit of light sparring in a class, and one particular individual decided to go not so light. I had noticed in a previous class that another student was very quiet and seemed upset after the training, but because I had been working in with another partner, I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened. Based on the evidence that followed, I could fill in the blanks.

This student was throwing techniques very hard and with very little control. I found some openings and gave the student a little taste of his own medicine.

This was actually quite difficult to do. Again, if the goal was just to drop him and not care about the consequences, that would have been relatively easy, but the fact was that I wanted to send a message without causing any serious damage. The control required to hit someone with enough force to cause pain, but not enough to injure, is a difficult edge to walk.

At the end of the training, I also made sure to verbally address the issue with the entire class. Actions speak louder than words, but sometimes people need both. A student can misinterpret the increased speed and power as permission to continue escalating things, which would result in the opposite outcome as what I wanted. I made sure it was clear that if you’re going to go at your partner like you mean it, you can expect the other person to match your intensity. This results in less happy learning, and more painful lessons.

The bottom line was that the student got the message. The next week, the sparring was noticeably lighter and more controlled. It seemed to be a more pleasant experience for everyone.

Intervening here is necessary. If not, that student could approach others with the same wild enthusiasm, and they could get hurt. If the safety of participants is in jeopardy, it is the responsibility of the instructor to step into the line of fire and diffuse the situation.

Great, kid! Don’t get cocky.

Another common situation where demonstrating your ability to kick someone’s butt is called for is when success begins to go to their head. It’s not always the case that promotions, advancement, and skill development will lead to inflated ego, but it does happen. On those occasions, it makes sense to remind a junior of their place.

A good example of this is when rolling. Sometimes a student may be getting encouraged by their success, not realizing that they are rolling a lot harder and that the senior student is actually taking it easy on them. If this translates into a “See that? I tapped him like ten times” attitude, then the student needs to be reminded that the bar is actually a lot higher than they might have realized.

There is a hierarchy in most martial arts for a reason. Success should not come at the cost of humility. Being humble is an important character trait, because it reminds us that we still have skill areas to develop, and that there will always be someone who is better than you.

Hammer Time!

Actually, in this case, the hammer is grading time. Again, this should be done with the requisite control and safety measures in place, but a grading should be an opportunity to pressure-test techniques and strategies developed under passive resistance. There should be more intensity and physicality required.

Again, this can’t necessarily be done with every technique. Some are too dangerous to practice without equipment, and even then, research shows that shots to the head (even ones not severe enough to cause concussion) can add up in the long term, leading to CTE. However, with proper precautions, situations such as bear hugs, tackle attempts, and wrist or lapel grabs can be facilitated with a fairly realistic amount of resistance.

The student in question will end up very sore the next day, but also with a legitimate sense of accomplishment.

Conclusion:

Overall, an instructor has to make calculated decisions about whether and when they need to send someone a message. It could be for the purpose of an attitude adjustment or to push the student’s boundaries in the case of a grading. However, this tactic should never be used out of anger, spite, or cruelty.

Martial arts is the study of physical violence, so ultimately it needs to be violent. However, giving someone a good old-fashioned beat down should always be done with the right motivations in mind: protecting other students from someone’s lack of control, slapping down someone’s ego when it starts getting too big, or pressure-testing someone’s technique to see where it begins to show cracks. These reasons ultimately are for the benefit of the students, and not just an exercise in intimidation.

Respect is a value that is often thrown around in martial arts classes, but it is a two-way street. If the instructor is respectful of the other human beings in their club, it will reflect in all of their actions. The line between utilizing their skills to be a jerk and using it for a benevolent purpose will always be clear.

The Death of Kata

Since I first began Karate at nine years of age, kata has been an integral part of the training process. I was told many times over that kata is the essence of all Karate, and that it held all the secrets of self-defense that I would ever need. 

So for many years I studied all the various kata I could find, from the perspective of body mechanics, holistic benefits, application principles, history, and pedagogical principles.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if the ideal I have been chasing is just bullshit.

“The Classical Mess”

Kata are time capsules that allow us to access the self defense principles and techniques that the Okinawan pioneers found effective in Toudi’s formative years (mainly the 18th and 19th Centuries). While those strategies and techniques were useful at that time, there are reasons to believe they may not be so today.

First of all, most kata underwent radical changes in the early 20th Century, when Karate was introduced to Japan. Budo served as a precursor to military service, indoctrinating young men with national pride, loyalty, and obedience, as well as physical conditioning[1]. Kata’s role in the process was primarily as a form of militaristic calisthenics; bunkai or application practices were entirely absent[2]. This was also when, in many systems, movements were altered for aesthetic purposes or to increase the level of physical exertion. As an example, in Shotokan, the depth and length of stances became exaggerated to increase muscle stimulation in the legs[3].

Ultimately, this means that many of today’s surviving kata are bastardized versions of the originals[4], which prevents us from knowing what exactly the movements were–thus, we can’t know what applications they were intended for. Until recently, most mainstream bunkai practices have been artificial and extremely impractical[5].

Many modern practitioners–at the forefront of whom is my instructor, Hanshi Patrick McCarthy–have made significant headway in reconstructing practical application practices based on Habitual Acts of Physical Violence (HAPV), historical influences, and the contextual premise of which the original versions of the kata would have been based. The ancient Chinese text Bubishi contains a number of scripted HAPV and response scenarios that relate to templates found within the Okinawan kata tradition[6], which sheds light on the original thought processes that went into their creation.

The fact remains though that it cannot be verified that these were the exact intentions of the original kata creators. Furthermore, while these practices are historically valid methods, they might not remain the most direct and effective way to learn self-defense for today’s brand of violence.

Definitions:

As I discuss kata, I want to ensure that we have the same understanding of what that word actually means. The way I intend it in this article is to mean set patterns that were created by the Okinawan martial arts pioneers, primarily before Karate’s transition to mainland Japan in the early 20th Century. These are Karate’s historical exercises that have been used to encapsulate and hand down the art’s principles to the next generation of learners.

Solo exercises are any practices that represent a two-person application without a partner. Shadowboxing would fall under that category, as would many warm-up drills used in BJJ that simulate the motion and mechanics of a practical technique without actually doing it on a partner. Kata falls under this broader category.

The word “kata” actually means “form” or “template” in Japanese. Karate kata is a method of template-based learning. Template-based learning refers to any sequence or pattern of movements. Virtually every martial art, whether traditional or modern in nature, makes use of template-based learning. In boxing or Muay Thai, any striking combination is an example of template-based learning. In BJJ or wrestling, any drill that involves more than a single technique is template-based learning.

What’s Useful?

For pedagogical purposes, it would be pretty near impossible to learn any martial art without template-based learning. Even something as simple as hitting focus mitts relies on having a pattern you follow to drill and memorize combinations of techniques, as well as develop muscle memory and efficiency with your body movement. Any curriculum is based on sequential learning. Just like you learn how to write a language by memorizing an alphabet (a template) with letters put in a specific order, you learn a martial art by learning techniques and strategies that have been organized in a specific pattern to ensure maximum retention by the student.

Solo exercises can also have their function. It allows the individual to focus on maximizing speed, correct positioning and movement, and increase efficiency without having to worry about all the other variables that a training partner brings into the equation. Elements of the technique such as breathing and footwork can also be easier to emphasize in solo practices. Some potentially dangerous techniques can be difficult to practice with full power and intensity without injuring your partner, but done in solo form, no restraint is needed.

In terms of kata, I would argue that many kata contain useful application practices that address realistic and vital aspects of self-protection. Utilizing these application practices can definitely help an individual develop the technical skill and strategic knowledge to deal with violence. By working these scenarios over and over with a partner, gradually increasing the resistance provided and pressure-testing the techniques in order to learn from where they fail, the practitioner can improve their ability to protect themselves from the unpredictability and viciousness of real violence. There is never any guaranteed victory when it comes to self-protection, but at the least this type of training can increase the odds of success (i.e. survival) if the individual ever finds themselves in a violent encounter.

The question then becomes, in a roomful of practitioners who you could be training with, why practice the solo form of the kata at all?

Why Still Kata?

There are two valid reasons why kata practice may be relevant for a Karate-ka in the 21st Century. The first is for sport. Karate competitions have specific standards for the performance of kata, and if your goal is to win a tournament by performing the kata in a way that judges will score you favourably, then it makes sense to spend hours of your training time towards that end.

The second reason is as a form of cultural anthropology. In other words, some practitioners just like the idea of learning the same training methodology that the pioneers of our tradition once did. It is equivalent to historical reenactment or cosplay; the goal is historical authenticity rather than training for the purpose of modern use.

While those two uses of kata are legitimate, neither will make someone better at protecting themselves. In other words, they are very heavy on the art, but neglect the martial.

The way you study should reflect the outcomes you wish to achieve. If you are a body builder, you don’t exercise the same way as a yogi. In the same manner, if your purpose is to train to protect yourself from a chance violent encounter, you should not train as if you are preparing for competition or as if you are doing it for historical authenticity.

You don’t get good at defending yourself from modern violence by practicing obsolete kata. You only get good at doing obsolete kata.

If there are practical applications associated with kata that translate effectively to the modern context, of course it makes sense to retain those templates in your martial arts practices. However, I would argue these practical aspects should be kept mostly in two-person training form. If you can work something practical with a partner, it doesn’t make sense to spend the majority of your training replicating the sequence of movements by yourself. This also allows you the freedom to discard templates of the kata that you don’t understand or can’t apply in self-protection.

Kata once served a mnemonic tool to remember the application practices in sequence. Luckily, today we have better mnemonic tools. Rather than memorize a solo version to summarize the two-person practices, students today can merely pull out their phones and record the information that was presented. This is a far more accurate and reliable way of summarizing two-person drills.

Even the leaders in the current generation–the most innovative and dedicated minds in Karate today–struggle to come up with realistic and efficient application practices for every single template, movement, and aspect of historical kata. They often have to neglect elements of the way the solo is traditionally done, modify positions of hands or feet, or arbitrarily leave out techniques in order to make it practical for today’s self-defence. It’s a lot like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

The historical kata may have once been a vehicle for passing on practical self-defence, but either the techniques that worked then wouldn’t work now, or the kata got lost in translation to such a degree that the original meaning is impossible to reconstruct. Rather than worship the bones of a broken tradition, I think it is a better use of our time to take what we know works, practice it with partners, and, if needed, do it in solo version when we don’t have anyone to work with.

Insisting that practicing the old, obsolete solo forms is a way to effective self-defence is a dangerous fallacy that, if Karate is going to have any relevance to future generations of martial artists, needs to be stamped out.


[1]Lowry, Dave. The Karate Way. Shambhala Publications, 2009. Pg. 122.

Sidney, James.The Warrior’s Path: Wisdom from Contemporary Martial Arts Masters.Shambhala Publications, 2003. Pg. 8.

Bishop, Mark. Okinawan Karate: Teachers, styles, and secret techniques. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 7.

McCarthy, Patrick. Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts, Volume B. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 44, 73.

[2]Lowry, 2009. Pg. 153.

Willoughby, Paul. “Kata Bunkai”. Shotokan Karate Magazine, issue 101. SKM Publications, 2009. Pg. 26.

Nagamine, Shoshin. “Tale of a Great Bujin.” Karate: My Art. International Ryukyu Karate Research Group, 2002. Pg. 45.

Sasaki, Gogai. “Secret Fighting Techniques”. Tanpenshu: The Untold Stories of Gichin Funakoshi.International Ryukyu Karate Research Society, 2006. Pg. 28.

McCarthy, Patrick. The Bible of Karate: Bubishi. Tuttle Publishing, 1995. Pg. 11.

[3]Lowry, 2009. Pg. 159-160.

O’Dowd, Seamus. “Takayuki Mikami 8thDan JKA: Open Mind”. Shotokan Karate Magazine, Issue 107. Pg. 4.

Cook, Harry. Shotokan Karate. Page Bros. Ltd, 2009. Pg. 170.

Nagamine, Shoshin. Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters. Tuttle Publishing, 2000. Pg. 78.

[4]Bishop, Mark. Okinawan Karate: Teachers, styles, and secret techniques. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 100.

Nakaya, Takao. Karatedo History and Philosophy. JSS Publishing Company, 2007. Pg. 43.

McCarthy, Patrick. The Bible of Karate: Bubishi. Tuttle Publishing, 1995. Pg. 11, 29.

[5]Lowry, Dave. Essence of Budo. Shambhala Publications, 2010. Pg. 155.

Cook, 2009. Pg. 259.

[6]McCarthy, 1995. Pg. 167-191.

Open Mic Dos and Don’ts

Reading on open mics is a great way to establish a presence in the literary world before you’ve published extensively. It can be useful as a method of troubleshooting poems and getting constructive feedback on your work. In order to make a good first impression, here are a few ground rules to keep in mind.

DOS

Stick to the time limit. Most open mics are squeezed in before, after, or between featured readers. The features are why the majority of the audience is there. There is typically a line of people who want to read on the open mic, so usually a three to five minute window is allotted to each person. Failing to stay within that range implies an ego that is disrespectful towards the other readers and the audience, which is not a great way to earn support from your peers.

Know what you’re going to read. Within the limited amount of time mentioned above, it doesn’t make sense to spend the first thirty seconds of your set flipping through twenty pages of work to select which poems to read. It’s usually best to bring roughly five pieces to choose from, then read about three of them. Choose before you walk up to the mic.

Say thank you. You know your work is that of a genius yet to be discovered and acknowledged by the literary world, but the audience and organizers do not. Show gratitude for the opportunity to be heard by expressing your thanks to the listeners, readers, and hosts.

DON’TS

Read something you just wrote. The idea of sharing a fresh, unadulterated moment of pure creativity is sexy, but it doesn’t play out well in a reading. Editing is crucial. New work that hasn’t been rehearsed often causes stumbles and hesitations in delivery, which obscures the quality of the work. Plus if you’re anything like me, reading your own handwriting is a significant obstacle.

Give more backstory than content. A lot of poems are understood more vividly when given context, but especially with shorter works, it doesn’t make sense to spend three times as much time on introduction as actual poem. Give the poems the context they need, but nothing more.

Ramble. We would all love to think that we can arrive in front of an audience and be spontaneously witty and charming. About a quarter of us are correct in that assumption. It’s amazing how often readers talk themselves into a corner and then struggle to bring the banter back to the poem they wanted to read. Know what you want to say to transition between poems, and stick to that. If you’re not sure, err on the side of just reading the poems. Good work should speak for itself.

Why The Old Masters Sucked

Nope, not a sarcastic title. They really weren’t that good.

“I will now risk excommunication and utter a martial arts heresy: many modern authors have much more to say of practical value than do the masters and classics of old.”[1]


Models of cultural comparison can be problematic, in that they often lead to gross overgeneralization and emphasize the differences between cultures while neglecting their similarities. With that in mind, cultural gaps are one of the major sources of misunderstanding in traditional martial arts.

East Asian cultures are largely Confucian-based, and one of the primary tenets of that belief system is “filial piety”, i.e. ancestor worship[2]. This translates to respect for both tradition and authority[3]. Parents and grandparents are held in very high esteem, and family lineage scrolls are prized possessions. The same is true in martial arts, where lineage is used not only to determine Ryuha or style, but, in many cases, quality as well. Some lineages, especially more direct ones to an original source, are of greater prestige than more obscure sources, even if the resulting technical skill is the same.

This bleeds into the narratives about Okinawa’s martial arts pioneers as well. Books such as Richard Kim’s The Weaponless Warriors and The Classical Man, Nagamine Shoshin’s Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters, and Mark Bishop’s Okinawan Karate gives us stories full of superhuman feats including levitation[4], puncturing walls with fingertips[5], and kicking ceilings that are over four metres tall[6].

Certain common narratives–for example, the disciple who is rejected several times by the master before ultimately being accepted as a student, or the sickly child who becomes healthy because of their training–are archetypes that are not meant to be taken as literal truth. Buddhist texts often do the same, using identical stories in a wide variety of biographies. In the tradition of Chinese training manuals, authorship was commonly attributed to a long-dead historical figure as a form of tribute[7]–and again, it was understood that this was not meant to be taken as literal truth.

So what are we supposed to understand when reading the obviously embellished tales about the great martial artists of the past? And, realistically, how would these figures have fared in the world of modern martial arts?

Most Things Improve:

In a Ted Talk titled “How Not To Be Ignorant About The World”, Professors Hans and Ola Rosling discuss the misconception people often have that the world is going to hell in a hand basket[8]. The reality is that most things across the world are improving.

Across all sports and physical activities, feats of speed, strength, and endurance are routinely being rewritten by today’s athletes. Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile was a groundbreaking accomplishment, but entirely unremarkable by today’s standards. In 1920, roughly a century ago, the winning time in the 100 metre dash at the Olympics was 10.8[9]. In 2016, the person who finished last in the finals did so in 10.6 seconds[10].

It would be absurd to believe that, for some reason, Karate is the only exception to that trend. While the old masters were, by all accounts, outstanding for their generation, it is hard to believe the common sentiment that they would be superior martial artists if a time machine could transport them to today’s epoch.

The Evidence:

For the multitude of famous Karate figures from the 19th Century, there is only oral testimony to account for their skill and prowess. However, for those who lived into the early 20th Century, the development of video technology allowed us a brief glimpse into the standard of mastery at the time. Unfortunately, it appears to have been not all that high.

It should be acknowledged that these videos are often taken when the individual had passed their athletic peak, and age may be a factor in how they perform. However, the video evidence of Funakoshi Gichin, Chibana Choshin, and Higa Seiko is not particularly impressive. Compared with modern standards, these kata are lacking in body dynamics (especially hip rotation) and explosiveness. I’ve included the links below so you can judge for yourself:

Funakoshi Gichin (Tekki Shodan): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOfMJtZqn0U&frags=pl%2Cwn

Chibana Choshin (Passai Dai): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JCasTOeuqk&frags=pl%2Cwn

Higa Seiko (Suparinpei): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x88M38nBTY8&frags=pl%2Cwn

What the great masters said can also be a demonstration of limited knowledge. There are many examples of this, but here a couple notable ones. Funakoshi Gichin explains the double block in Pinan (Heian) Sandan as a method of blocking a simultaneous punch and kick from the opponent[11]. Kanazawa Hirokazu explained the movements in Chinto where you slap the inside of your thighs as a way to distract the opponent before attacking them[12]. All practitioners of Karate seem to have heard a few explanations like this that hold absolutely no practical value, handed down from our teachers’ teachers.

Limited Resources:

Historical study reveals that the Okinawan masters had limited access to martial arts knowledge. Many like Aragaki Seisho, Higaonna Kanryo, Matsumura Sokon, and Kojo Taitei went to China to get greater exposure to the skills that were available[13], and of course these lessons were passed down from generation to generation to preserve the precious information that they could get a hold of.

Today, this type of information is not rare. The airplane has made mass migration commonplace, and with it, skills that once would have been highly localized have become widespread. Now any major metropolis would have not just one, but a choice of highly qualified instructors who teach martial arts from all cultures and eras. Although it isn’t a source of skill, YouTube definitely can aid in one’s awareness of the strategies and techniques that are used in various disciplines.

Our ability to cross-train and access information that would have been highly exclusive several hundred years ago puts us at a competitive advantage to previous generations of martial artists, and gives us a stronger foundation on which to build our practices.

Conclusion:

In the context of their times, and considering the limited resources at their disposal, there is no doubt that Okinawa’s masters accomplished commendable things. However, the common sentiment that the practitioners “were better back in the day” is not an intelligent demonstration of loyalty to a tradition.

All significant achievements, whether intellectual, scientific, or athletic, should be recognized within their context. In the same way, the narratives about Okinawan Karate’s founders should be acknowledged as important landmarks in history, but insisting on their superiority to today’s standards of physical prowess and proficiency is not a worthwhile use of time.


Kennedy, Brian and Elizabeth Guo. Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey.Blue Snake Books, 2005. Pg. 132.

2 McCarthy, Patrick. “Matsuyama Koen Theory.” International Ryukyu Karate Research Society Blog, 2013https://irkrs.blogspot.com/2013/03/matsuyama-koen-park-theory.html,Accessed 2019-08-03.

3 Lowry, Dave. The Essence of Budo. Shambhala Publications, 2010. Pg. 162.

[4]Bishop, Mark. Okinawan Karate. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 140.

[5]Kim, Richard. The Weaponless Warriors. Ohara Publications, 1974. Pg. 87.

[6]Nagamine, Shoshin. Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters.Tuttle Publishing, 2000. Pg. 2-6.

7 Kennedy, Brian and Elizabeth Guo. Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey.Blue Snake Books, 2005. Pg. 118.

[8]Rosling, Hans and Ola. “How Not To Be Ignorant About The World.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, 2014. https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world,Accessed 2019-08-03.

[9]Wood, Robert. “100m at The Olympics.” Topend Sports Website, 2010https://www.topendsports.com/events/summer/sports/aths-100m.htm,Accessed 2019-08-03

[10]“Athletics at the 2016 Summer Olympics – Men’s 100 Metres” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athletics_at_the_2016_Summer_Olympics_–_Men%27s_100_metres, Accessed 2019-08-03

[11]Funakoshi, Gichin. Karate-do Kyohan. Kodansha International, 1973. Pg. 63.

[12]Cook, Harry. Shotokan Karate.Page Bros Ltd, 2009. Pg. 259.

[13]Nakaya, Takao. Karatedo History and Philosophy. JSS Publishing Company, 2007. Pg. 3, 8, 46, 86. 

Martial Arts Ranks: What They Do and Don’t Mean

Introduction:

When it comes up in conversation that someone is a martial artist, it is usually one of the first questions asked: “So what belt are you?” Typically a layperson is the one to ask this kind of question, and if the martial artist answers “black belt”, the Muggle usually utters something such as, “Well, I’d better not mess with you” or “I bet you could kick my ass then, right?” Aside from the social awkwardness of having no appropriate way to respond to this comment, this situation also reveals a fundamental issue with how ranks are perceived in Japanese martial arts. While this misperception is frequently compounded where non-practitioners are concerned, it also exists at any embarrassingly frequent rate when the people in question are trainees.

How often are instructors confronted with questions about what the requirements are to “get the next belt”? How often are students most driven or most disappointed as the result of a promotion decision—either positive or negative, in regards to themselves or their peers? How often are students reminded by their Sensei that the belt is not the point of training, only to see their Senpai disassociate themselves from those who are lesser ranked?

The reality is that coloured belts are one of the most recognizable symbols of Japanese Budo, both for those who practice and those who do not. The truth underlying that reality is that the ranking system used in virtually all modern schools of Budo has nothing at all to do with tradition. Another truth that martial artists should be aware of is that black belt is an intermediate, not an advanced, rank.

The system used in Karate and a number of other Japanese martial arts is the Dan-Kyu system. The Kyu levels are represented by different coloured obi (belts). Dan rankings are represented by a black belt. There are typically seven Kyu rankings and ten Dan rankings, which means that achieving black belt requires less than 50% of the possible rankings. That’s why Shodan is actually an intermediate rank.

Before moving to a discussion of common misconceptions regarding belts and ranks, it will benefit us to look more closely at how the Dan-Kyu system evolved and why it was incorporated into Karate.

The History of the Dan-Kyu System:

Many Karate students will be aware that the Dan-Kyu system was adopted into Karate from Judo largely as a result of political pressure asserted by the Dai Nippon Butokukai[1]. In the early 20th Century, Okinawan Karate was introduced to mainland Japan by figures such as Miyagi Chojun, Uechi Kanbun, Motobu Choki, Funakoshi Gichin, and Mabuni Kenwa. However, Karate was viewed as a somewhat unsophisticated—and more importantly, un-Japanese—art. Okinawan culture is generally characterized as more laid back and accepting of ambiguity than that of the Japanese mainland. Karate had no standardized terminology, uniform, curriculum, or method of ranking at that time[2]. For it to be accepted as a legitimate form of Japanese Budo, it had to conform to established Japanese standards.

In the late 1920s or early 1930s, the Dai Nippon Butokukai, which was responsible for regulating Japanese martial arts, gave several conditions for Karate’s potential acceptance into the Budo fold. Due to political tensions with China, they had to eliminate use of the term 唐手 (“Toudi”, meaning Chinese hand), adopt a standard uniform, develop a competitive format, and implement a ranking system[3]. Additionally, they were supposed to unite the various styles of Karate to form a single, cohesive curriculum; however, that goal was never accomplished[4].

Especially in light of Kano Jigoro’s support of Funakoshi’s campaign in Tokyo, it was relatively easy for Karate to merely adopt the uniforms and ranks that were already established in Judo. Kano himself was the one who originally adopted the Dan-Kyu system from two unexpected sources: go and swimming. Historically, both Dan and Kyu ranks were systems used in the Japanese strategy game of go to show a player’s level of proficiency[5]. Kano Jigoro was the one responsible for utilizing this system to demonstrate progress through the Judo syllabus[6]. However, go players hardly put on white uniforms and tied black belts around their waist when they sat down to compete; that’s where swimming comes in.

Like other sports such as bowling or golf, there was a handicap in swimming in Japan. The various handicaps of the competitors were represented by coloured ribbons worn around their waist during practice, the highest of which was black[7]. The theory is that Kano Jigoro adapted this idea to fit the context of Judo as well, originally using black sashes to represent Dan rankings.

The first Dan rankings in Judo were given in 1883[8]. It wasn’t until 1907 that the modern gi and obi evolved to replace the sashes used previously[9]. At this time, the only distinction was between Yudansha (those with a Dan) and Mudansha (those without)[10]. The rest of the spectrum of coloured belts representing the different Kyu levels was not introduced by Kano himself, but rather one of his representatives, namely Kawaishi Mikonosuke, who introduced Judo to France[11]. Kawaishi developed a curriculum for each level and, once achieved, the series of belts that symbolized promotion within the art[12].

It was in 1924 that this practice was first used in Karate, when Funakoshi Gichin became the first Karate instructor to give black belts[13]. At this time when the Dai Nippon Butokukai was pressuring Karate to conform to Japanese standards, rather than reinvent the wheel, the vast majority of Karate instructors simply adopted the uniform and ranking system of Judo into their own practices. That was how the white gi and coloured obi became part of Karate mythos.

Misconceptions about Rank:

One of the most frequently cited pieces of rhetoric, especially from instructors, is the idea that “the belt means nothing”. In a literal sense, of course it’s true; I frequently remind my students that if they want a black belt, they can go to a martial arts supply store and buy one.  The belt itself is a piece of fabric, so in that sense it is virtually worthless.

This line of rhetoric, however, is most often used to remind students that getting to black belt—often seen in mainstream society as the end goal of training—is not the ultimate outcome, but rather a sign of progress towards the next stage of learning. This is supposed to be true, but often isn’t. I’ve seen many good Karate-ka quit once they get to black belt because all they are asked to do is teach basics, and they no longer feel challenged to do more. Done well, any Budo is supposed to be a lifelong path of growth and enlightenment, where regardless of rank or reward, a practitioner pushes him or herself to develop one step further every day. The training itself becomes the incentive to continue training.

The average person doesn’t get this far, but this kind of lifelong commitment is not designed for the average person. However, even the unusual people who make this commitment usually don’t make it right near the beginning of their training. This kind of mentality takes a long time to develop, and in the meantime, without ranks to show some signs of progress, many people who could make that commitment would likely quit instead.

The rhetoric of “the belts mean nothing” is often cited by those who are giving out belts, which makes it a somewhat hypocritical statement. I’ve thought about using the system in my Dojo where you remain a white belt for all of the Kyu rankings until you reach black belt. This would work fine for the people who are already lifers—the demographic that instructors don’t need to worry about keeping—but it would probably not work to bring new people into the fold. The lack of explicit acknowledgement of progress would likely alienate some of those who, if you feed them the belts for long enough, could transform into someone that rank really doesn’t matter for.

A second problem with the statement that ranks don’t matter is, when it’s uttered by the person doing the assessment, it undermines the value of their judgment. If a student comes to me asking why he or she didn’t receive their next belt and I respond with “the belts don’t matter anyways”, I’ve just given the student every reason to doubt my assessment. The ranks given by an instructor reflect their ability to evaluate competence. If I’m the one to award ranks in my Dojo, I definitely want to see that the students that I’ve given brown belts to are executing their techniques better than the ones stuck at green belt. If not, I need to question my own ability to discern proper technique from improper.

No matter how much we repeat the rhetoric that belts are meaningless, the truth is that they are not. They are very useful for instructors in terms of organizing a curriculum and systematizing learning for students. When I say to one of my instructors, “Today we’re working on throws and you’re teaching the orange belts,” they instantly know which material needs to be covered. Belts are a useful tool in that regard.

They are useful to students as well. Again, the caveat here is that they need to have been awarded properly. If students look at those ahead of them in line and see that, consistently, all of the blue belts or brown belts have mastered elements of the technique that are uncomfortable for them, they know what they need to learn to get to that level. If a student actually improves and receives a new belt as a result, that can be powerful motivation to continue developing habits that lead to improvement.

Often in Karate culture, we look down on those who value ranks. Of course, getting the belt is not the point. However, devaluing the ranks we are issued is also not the point. The unspoken rule of not looking too happy about getting a promotion is something I feel we need to change in our art. Because I hold my Sensei in high esteem, when he awards me a rank, I know I have accomplished something. Humility is an important value in our art as well, and should not be forgotten, but true humility doesn’t mean playing down your own abilities when your instructor recognizes them.

The Ranking Dilemma: How Honest is Too Honest?

We all know that rankings are not consistent across different styles and systems, and sometimes not even within the same organization or Dojo. We’ve all met those people we see practicing while wearing a black belt and wonder, “Who did you steal that from?” We’ve all seen students, whether our Senpai or peers, called up by the Sensei and awarded a rank and fought very hard to resist turning to the person next in line to say, “Really?” The truth is that ranking is not fair. The question I want to discuss now is whether it should be.

There are rankings that are awarded based entirely on merit. These usually involve a talented athlete, someone in peak physical condition, at the age when they can perform magic with their bodies. These rankings, usually no one can question; the ability of the recipient is absolutely obvious.

There are rankings that are awarded somewhat on merit, and somewhat on loyalty. Perhaps the person has some flaws in their technique, but because the instructor trusts the student’s work ethic, it is easy to believe that he or she will correct the errors before too long. Maybe the student has been stuck at the same rank for a while, so it’s due time for a promotion, even if there are some rough edges. It’s like the number five in math—the Sensei chooses to round up.

There are also rankings awarded entirely on loyalty and effort. These are the tough ones, because this is the situation when the student does everything the right way, but the results don’t come. This is the student that the Sensei looks at and says, “I wish you were better.” The student is loyal, hardworking, and dedicated enough to show up to train on his or her birthday or wedding anniversary. Physically, the student is probably not showing true signs of progress, but the student has put in enough effort that there should be. The Sensei looks for reasons to promote the student, in many cases seeing what he or she wants to see. This is how incompetent people get black belts.

Attitude and effort are important in Budo, but I think virtually everyone would agree that there has to be a baseline level of physical competence associated with each rank. A black belt should not be a consolation prize. The question is what you do with students who do everything the right way, but somehow get it all wrong. Do you tell them that they may never achieve the aptitude they hope for?

I had a student that was stuck at green belt, and had been for many years. Again, this was a dedicated student who was training more often than many of the students I was promoting above him. It can be hard not to take these things personally. This student had plateaued, and there were no signs that it was going to get better any time soon. I told him, quite frankly, that he may have reached his maximum physical competence within martial arts, but I also reminded him that if he enjoyed training, if it gave him benefits for his health, if he liked being part of our club and supporting what we do, then he should continue training as an end in itself. He never came back to the Dojo.

I could have given him a loyalty rank and moved him up to the next level, but that would have been a slippery slope. One day we would have the same conversation about his black belt, and when you compromise once, it can be hard to know where to draw the line. Even though this student had trained for probably a decade, he still hadn’t understood (or perhaps couldn’t accept) that the training is the point of training, not the belt. I don’t know if anything I said or did would have been enough to convince him otherwise.

Conclusion:

I think we’ve spent long enough in our art trying to convince people that the belts aren’t a significant aspect of training; they are conspicuous enough that denial is not an effective option. We need to acknowledge their importance—the ways in which they both help and hinder progress in Karate—in order to fully transcend them. We need to allow ourselves to enjoy receiving new ranks, but also recognize what they truly symbolize. We need to get to the point where promotions can be enjoyed for what they’re worth, acknowledged, and then used as a base for the next step. It doesn’t make any sense to dwell on a highway sign that just reminded you how far you still have left to go. 


[1]McCarthy, Patrick.Classical Kata of Okinawan Karate.Ohara Publications, 1987. Pg. 20.

McCarthy, Patrick. Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts, Volume B.Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 25.

[2]McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 20.

McCarthy, 1999. Pg. 25.

Lowry, Dave.The Karate Way.Shambhala Publications, 2009. Pg. 11.

Florence, Richard. “Koshin-Ryu: The Rebirth of Okinawa’s Kojo Family Martial Arts”. Journal of Asian Martial Arts. Vol.10, no. 4.Via Media Publishing Company. 2001. Pg. 23.

[3]McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 20.

McCarthy, 1999. Pg. 25-26.

[4]McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 20.

[5]Lowry, Dave. The Essence of Budo. Shambhala Publications, 2010. Pg. 101.

[6]Lowry, 2009. Pg. 38.

Lowry, 2010. Pg. 101.

Cook, Harry.Shotokan Karate.Page Bros, 2009. Pg. 419.

[7]Cook, 2009. Pg. 419.

[8]Cook, 2009. Pg. 419.

[9]Cook, 2009. Pg. 419.

[10]McCarthy, 1999B. Pg. 26.

[11]Lowry, 2009. Pg. 38.

Lowry, 2010. Pg. 101.

[12]Lowry, 2010. Pg. 101.

[13]Nakaya, Takao. Karatedo History and Philosophy. JSS Publishing, 2007. Pg. 112.

The Need for Theory

“The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice; the recovery of theory’s independence lies in the interest of practice itself. The interrelation of both moments is not settled once for all but fluctuates historically. Today, with theory paralyzed and disparaged by the all-governing bustle, its mere existence, however impotent, bears witness against the bustle. This is why theory is legitimate and why it is hated; without it, there would be no changing the practice that constantly calls for change.” [1]

 – Theodor Adorno


The quotation above, written by German philosopher Theodor Adorno, addresses the tendency in modern society to dismiss or disregard the importance of theory, in favour of practice. However, Adorno raises the point that actual practice is often found inadequate, and as a consequence constantly “calls for change”– and the only way that this change can be accomplished is by means of better theory.

From a martial arts perspective, the same tension exists today. Traditional martial arts are, in some circles, being shunted aside in favour of new-age, more “practical” fighting arts. MMA’s popularity, both within circles of laymen and serious martial artists, attests to the contemporary interest in being able to claim, “ ‘You can talk and philosophize all day long, but we know — and practice — what works.’ ”[2]

The image that most people have of traditional martial arts its is a group of misfits wearing strange costumes, repeating ambiguous and arbitrary techniques while occasionally making guttural noises. In many cases, this is unfortunately accurate. Especially in fighting traditions that originated in East Asia, a great deal of the appeal has worn off simply because there is not as much mysticism surrounding Asian culture as perhaps there once was. The pseudo-Zen qualities that were once considered the main purpose of training no longer seem adequate for many people who wish to develop not only their character, but their fighting skill as well.

So in many classical martial arts, the established practice is calling for change. It is possible to haphazardly alter elements of your established practice, hoping to hit on the right combination to suddenly develop students who are satisfied with the learning process, but doing so is simply a shot in the dark. To paraphrase Adorno, it is impractical to not have a good theory behind your practice.

This is not to say that theoretical knowledge is an adequate replacement for training. Information and understanding are “meaningless if you don’t train.”[3] The body has to be conditioned to respond with fundamentally sound techniques under duress, which is no easy feat.

A large number of students are not interested in theory; they want to reach ahead to the end results without undergoing the rigours of the learning process. They want to become better at fighting without understanding the theories at work in their fighting styles.

Some theory that I have collected over the years.

Many teachers, especially in more established martial arts traditions, are equally dismissive of the importance of theory. Their attitudes project the impression that their martial arts, since they have been taught for a number of generations, cannot be improved upon by modern theory. While there is certainly no need to reinvent the wheel, the fact remains that many classical martial arts traditions have become more focused on aesthetics than practical self-defense technique; hence the current discontent with MRT (Mindless Repetition Training) and practicing simply for the vague goal of “self improvement”.

So how can those interested in doing so revive the classical martial arts to a point where they are considered as effective as the variety of modern methods that are popping up and declaring their superiority? The only way to “chang[e] the practice that constantly calls for change” is through better theory[4].

For this situation to improve significantly, more students and teachers need to take an active interest in theory, rather than hurrying to undermine it. Theory would include research into anatomy and physics, the psychology of violence, crime statistics, and the historical premise behind the development of the martial art.

For the classical martial arts, looking to the past is an effective way of changing today’s theory. While it is true that our contemporary practice methods are a direct result of the history of our respective martial arts, it is also true that, at one time, almost any martial art that is currently criticized as being impractical or overly ritualized was developed—and ultimately employed—as a method of fighting. The fact that these traditions have survived to the modern day is testament to the fact that they were once effective in that capacity. Thus, the more we can discover about the old practices, the closer we come to replicating the same process that once made effective fighters out of their practitioners.

It is also important to employ all of the information that we have access to. More advanced science behind anatomy, bio-mechanics, fitness, and injury management gives our generation an advantage over our predecessors. Similarly, our ability to cross-compare between different fighting styles and methods allows us to see how elements of our arts could be supplemented by borrowing from other traditions. I’m certain that if the old masters had had YouTube at their disposal, they’d be utilizing it at every opportunity.

Books are low calorie and an excellent source of knowledge.

While it is obvious that the fighting arts change over time to accommodate the aims of the people practicing them, it is easy to forget that we are also a part of that process. We train with different goals than those who trained one hundred years ago, just as they trained with different goals than those who trained two hundred years ago. Today, theory is needed to help us understand why we train. If we have a clear purpose for our practice, than theory becomes the bridge that allows us to cross from our desired goals to training methods that support those goals. Otherwise, we may know what we want to accomplish, but we will never be able to develop a practice that will get us there.


[1]Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics.The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005. Pg. 143.

[2]Clayton, Bruce. Shotokan’s Secret.Ohara Publications. 2004. Pg. 129.

[3]Thalken, Jason. Fight Like a Physicist.YMAA Publication Centre, 2015. Pg. 137.

[4]Adorno, 2005. Pg. 143.

Publication and Validation

Before I began my current job, especially when I was an undergraduate student, I was relentless in attending a wide variety of poetry related events–book or magazine launches, readings, and open mic nights–in order to network and learn the ins and outs of the literary world. At one point, I even ran a monthly reading series at the University of Toronto’s historic Hart House. The embarrassingly atrocious attendance for these readings did nothing to dampen my youthful enthusiasm.

Now, as a full-time ESL teacher and part-time martial artist, it is difficult to find time. On the rare occasions that I can make it to a launch or reading, I am typically in the company of at least one or two acquaintances that I made from my more ambitious days. Inevitably, the question always arises: “So have you been doing a lot of writing these days?” My response is almost automatic: “Writing a lot, but publishing very little.”

I began to wonder why I feel the need to distinguish between the two, or to qualify my answer at all. Why is it that “successful” writing is supposed to lead to mainstream publication?

1) External Value

We do love our validation . . . right?

The notion that publication from an established, third party confirms the value of the work is ingrained in many writers. It doesn’t matter that, in many cases, the writer may have personal associations with the editor who is selecting the work; the letter of acceptance is seen as impartial validation that the words on the page are of value.

Of course, having your submission selected from the slush pile by an established publisher lends credence to the quality of the writing. However, as print media continues on its path to extinction, the competition in the market also suggests that many worthwhile pieces (perhaps from more obscure or less connected authors) will be increasingly receiving rejection letters in response.

At the risk of admitting my own incompetence, I will admit that sometimes when I receive the magical words of acceptance from an editor, I am surprised–not necessarily by the fact that they chose one of my pieces, but more that they overlooked the ones that I felt were the strongest in favour of those that I felt were inferior. Perhaps thematically or stylistically they fit better with the issue of the magazine being compiled, or perhaps I simply don’t know my successes from my failures until an editor informs me of the result.

2) Audience

They love me! They really really love me!

Very few writers produce work exclusively for their own satisfaction, however much they may claim not to care what others think. Writers need readers to be satisfied with their product. Publication is the easiest way to access an audience wider than one’s own circle of friends and family members, who may also be too polite to tell you that they hate poetry.

An unfortunate reality of the current market is that we have an excess of writers and a shortage of readers, especially when it comes to creative writing. Fiction is more likely to be read by many who don’t write fiction; poetry, especially, is not. It is also astounding to see how many authors will attend events but refuse to purchase books in support of the press they are hoping to eventually publish with. Naturally, from a financial standpoint it is impossible buy every book we encounter–we are poets, after all–but if we hope to utilize the industry to advance our own careers, we have to invest in it too, before it disappears entirely.

3) Intention

Although not in all cases, at times we may sit down to write with a specific publisher in mind. Themed issues of magazines especially provoke this kind of response. The illusion of the pure, unadulterated moment of inspiration is still powerful and widespread, but the reality is that most authors intend for their work to be published–either by a specific press or an anonymous one–when they are creating and editing it. This intention means that we are thinking about how work will be received by an audience before it even has one.

If the work is originally meant for a reader and doesn’t find one, this will naturally be disappointing. We all feel that deflating sensation when we realize that a response to a submission is a rejection rather than the acceptance we were secretly hoping far too much for.


It is difficult to know whether it is possible to feel successful without attempting to publish. If the goal is to write better, more meaningful pieces, who measures: the author, the publishing industry, or the readers?

It is both reassuring and frightening to know that, like me, publishers may not know exactly the value of their own decisions either. They may accept books or pieces that they think are works of literary genius, but get a mediocre response, and be on the fence about other works that turn out to earn universal praise and numerous awards.

It is also true that many authors are not fully appreciated in their own lifetimes, but their work resonates generations later. In the moment, it is difficult to know whose words will address the malaise of a future society that hasn’t manifested yet.

How Not To Be a Role Model

Here I am setting an example. Possibly a bad one, but still.

Any experienced teacher knows that the majority of students are ultimately headed for the door, but it is equally obvious that the teacher is probably the largest variable in determining who stays and who leaves, and how long that process takes. Testimonials point out that those who develop an aversion to martial arts often have a bad experience with a particular instructor, and often don’t get past that barrier to actually learn anything about the art itself. 

Conversely, the reason many students stay is largely due to the influence of their instructor. Especially for those who practice martial arts in their formative years, the teacher can be a huge role model in terms of developing one’s character, identity, work ethic, and sense of morality.

However, the role of the Sensei is a fluid one and the relationship between the instructor and student depends on a number of factors. 

The Western Notion of “Sensei”:

            Dave Lowry summarized the image of a martial arts instructor in Western culture best as “a combination Yoda—Mr. Miyagi who is infinitely wise and can solve all my problems.”[1]The prominent aspect of both these characters is not expertise in their respective arts, but insight into all facets of life. There is nothing wrong with a teacher having influence on a student’s life outside the Dojo, but of course giving a student advice about which career path to choose or whether to buy a house or condo is typically outside the instructor’s area of expertise.

            In Japanese Budo, the term to refer to the instructor is Sensei, comprised of two characters. 先(Sen) literally means “before”, and 生(Sei) means “birth” or “born”. We can see quite clearly that this connotes that someone is older and more experienced, shedding light on the path of those following behind him or her.

            The same term is used in Japanese culture to refer to doctors, lawyers, professors, and teachers of other subjects. While it is certainly a term that carries respect, it also contains the notion that someone is an expert in their given field, rather than a “master,” as many seem to assume.

            Japanese culture is hierarchical in nature, as is reflected in both their customs and language. How deeply you bow is dependent on your position relative to the other person. Exchanging business cards is an essential, ritualized practice to determine who is of higher and lower status. The way verbs are conjugated also demonstrates the relative status of each person, based on age, profession, and relationship with one another. This hierarchical culture seems to have been imitated upon the introduction of Budo to foreign countries, where terms such as Sensei have taken on the weight of authority in the context of cultures that are not based on the same rigid social structures.

            It is interesting to note that in Western culture, many are willing to submit themselves to the absolute authority of a Sensei, yet less willing to do so for their supervisor, parents, or landlord. Somehow, the exotic image of the Sensei contains the notion that he or she is the ultimate authority on everything and a person without a single vice, not just an expert in a particular art.

Why Students Want Yoda to Teach Them:

            In some cases, teachers are the ones who put themselves on a pedestal and expect the unqualified worship and awe of their students. Although this is incredibly selfish, it is easy to understand: the ego is fuelling this way of thinking to protect their insecurities.

            Slightly more difficult to analyze is why students believe that their instructor must have unlimited wisdom and power. This can also be a result of insecurity of some kind, possibly lacking authoritative roles earlier in life. For others, it may be more of a military mindset, where the learner in question wants rigid ranking structures to know exactly where he or she stands. A central authority figure makes passing on knowledge unidirectional and therefore without ambiguity, so they want to believe that the Sensei is always right.

            More importantly though, many students who have preconceptions about martial arts don’t want their faith shaken. They are afraid of becoming disillusioned, because it is often the mysticism of Budo that draws people to martial arts in the first place. They want to believe some magic is involved. If they see their Sensei bleed—literally or figuratively—then it shatters not only the image that he or she is invincible, but also the hope that the learner might be able to acquire the same ability.

            The easiest way for an instructor to avoid promoting this image is to train with the students. Ideally they will see the skill, knowledge, and expertise of the Sensei, but also learn that, yes, he or she does sometimes still get hit and no, the universe doesn’t explode when it happens. The reality of self-defense is that no one is unbeatable, and teaching anything different is misleading the learners away from that reality.

Don’t Give a Sage Advice:

            None of this is to imply that a Sensei can’t be a role model for a student, in the same way that a sports coach or a high school math teacher may become a role model if they connect well with a particular learner. However, the extent to which that influence extends needs to be moderated by a number of factors. 

            One of the reasons many parents register their children in martial arts is for them to develop positive character traits and be exposed to a disciplined and austere environment. Children who grow up with martial arts as a hobby often idolize their Sensei or Senpai, and imitate them in ways beyond simply punching and blocking. Learning the value of respect and effort can be a lasting influence and a lens through which a person begins to see all aspects of his or her life. This is the “Do” of Budo at its absolute best.

            However, we see things differently as children, teenagers, and adults. I grew up in the Dojo, and I remember believing that my teachers never drank, swore, or smoked, but of course no one is an angel. We all have vices and flaws, and as I got older and spent more time with the teachers outside the Dojo, I realized this. I believe this is an important process in a healthy relationship with a maturing student: letting him or her see who you really are as a person outside of the martial arts—both the good and the bad.

            Of course, there are also many students who join as adults, and depending on your relationship, it may not be appropriate whatsoever to act as a role model for them. As an illustration of this, my older sister recently joined my Dojo. I wouldn’t suddenly begin giving her life advice or expecting her to idolize me because she became my student. I also have a student who has a PhD, works for Google, and is close to two decades my elder. It would be wildly inappropriate for me to give him advice about anything other than Budo. 

            The idea of an instructor becoming a role model is an organic process and shouldn’t be force-fed to the learners, no matter their age. For a Sensei, the best thing to do is exemplify the behaviour you want to promote. Those who are looking for a role model will latch onto you, and those who are not interested will absorb what they want from your teachings.

Judge Actions, Not People:

            I had an interesting conversation recently with a fellow instructor about a student of his who is incredibly intelligent, highly educated, and extremely successful. The instructor had a dilemma because this student was behaving in a way that the instructor didn’t approve of, but the instructor also felt uncomfortable reprimanding someone older and more accomplished than himself.

             Although every relationship between an instructor and student is dynamic and depends on myriad variables, a student’s behaviour in the Dojo is the Sensei’s jurisdiction. It can be hard to address because of who that student is, but if a certain action is inappropriate, the Sensei’s responsibility is to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

            A litmus test I often use to determine whether an action is appropriate or not is imagining how I would react if a brand new student did the same thing. We often excuse certain behaviours or criticize others because of who is doing it, but if I imagine a white belt doing or saying the same thing, I get a true judgment on whether I am critiquing the action itself or the person.

The Conclusion: Treat People as Whole People

            As much as Budo contains its own norms and taboos, derived largely from its culture of origin, perhaps the best approach to take as an instructor is to not treat your art or yourself as something special. Learners join the Dojo for vastly different reasons; they stay for vastly different reasons; they leave for vastly different reasons. Some people need their Sensei to be a mentor, some need them to be a coach, some need them to be a personal trainer, some need them to be a friend, and others may just need someone who’s really good at self-defense. The point is that if you impose your own view of what you should mean to your students, you risk failing to hear what they want to get out of the relationship. There are already enough people who tried martial arts and were ultimately disappointed by their instructor—it’s time we let the students define what a Sensei means.


[1]Lowry, Dave. The Essence of Budo.Shambhala Publications, 2010. Pg. 129.