Recently I was talking with a friend about martial arts and they asked me what I felt my biggest challenge as a teacher would be or is. My friend has never trained but the question really made me think for a few weeks so I could give an honest answer. As I thought about it, meditated on it, I soon came to realize that the biggest challenge is the way I was trained, or brought up in the martial arts. It is the “old school” mentality which can hold me back and cause my biggest issues in my dojo and in life.
When I began training in Karate classes were much longer, much harder, more serious and training was very physical, almost bully like I would say. The dojo was not a place for the weak people and quite often only the toughest made it to black belt. Everything was a competition and sparring often led to pain, blood and sometimes knockouts. Since I didn’t go to any other school until after I earned my black belt I assumed that all of them were this way. Questioning the Sensei was a guaranteed method to get push ups or even a but kicking if you did so in a negative or demeaning manner. They often referred to this as “old school” Karate training. Hours upon hours of holding a horse stance, throwing techniques and brutal rounds of fighting were the norm back then.
Up until the Karate Kid movie it was mostly adults in the school. The training was not very kid friendly, and that was what I was…a kid. Recently they began a series on Youtube Red called Cobra Kai which re-visits the Karate Kid movies 34 years after the first one was released. The more I watch the series the more I realize the school I had trained in as a child through my early 20’s was more of a Cobra Kai type that anything else. We were often told to fight hard, hit hard and never to lose at tournaments no matter what. We weren’t the only ones either because I can recall many a time that my opponents tried to take me out, so to speak, too. The training was very brutal often causing many injuries and I can’t recall the number of times I had blood on my uniform after classes were over.
This lead to a mental state of toughness that I have often found hard to let go. I remember many times that new students were often referred to as “new meat” in the dojo. More than once I would watch as they were pushed to their breaking point their first class just to see if they would come back to the next class. I even remember watching some of my friends that I tried to get to do Karate never come back. I never really asked them why because I just figured they weren’t able to handle the training.
As I grew in my martial arts, and as a teacher, I often found myself fighting against this mentality inside of me. There are times I just want to slam a side kick into a student but, luckily, I have moved on beyond what I was taught to do and have had a couple of great Sensei guide me into understanding the truth about what Karate is. Even with that wonderful leadership beyond my early years in training I still often struggle with this mentality that we are to train people to be tough, hard as nails and able to kick ass whenever it is needed. I often find myself trying to stop the urge to drop students for hundreds of push ups because their Kata is lacking or they have been slacking off in their training.
This has often led to the biggest conflict inside of my own Karate spirit, as well as my ability to teach others. While I know that many people like to make the statement “A black belt is earned in my dojo” I have also visited many schools, set on many belt promotion boards and often I think to myself they have no clue because my black belt exam was a 5 on 1 full contact butt kicking just to see if they could break me. Back then it was “you break you fail” with no grey area. Even today I struggle with this whenever I run a green, brown or black belt exam. I want them to be tough, to be awesome, to have incredible skill and fighting ability but I also must remember their age, their weaknesses and the fact that many people need to go to work or school the next day. This has led to a very hard time for me over the years…not to mention many students who quit because training got too demanding..or I was too demeaning.
Over the last ten years I have began to get more compassionate and understanding in how I teach others. Not everyone is in the dojo to be some sort of super human black belt fighter. Many people just train because they love the art, they enjoy being in shape and practicing just to stay active. In the back of my mind I remember the days when it was about being able to train until you puked, but everything was very competition based in those days and trophies seemed to rule the dojo. The more you won the more you were treated in a certain manner, almost a favorite, by the Sensei. All this being said, deep down inside I knew there had to be more to Karate than what I knew but the damage, so to speak, was already done.
These days I am much more understanding of students and their limitations. I try to watch them grow, nurturing them along through building them up instead of just breaking them down and riding them like some psycho based coach who only cares about the win above all else. I teach, they learn and we share in the training, the art and just enjoy the ride. Belt exams are still tough in my dojo but they are no longer about building fighters but more about building people into stronger, more focused and capable individuals…people who can see a challenge in life (both inside and outside of the dojo) and attack it head on and succeed over it. I still push my students but in a more supportive manner than being a drill instructor as if they were in military boot camp.
Discipline in my dojo is still no laughing matter though. We are serious when we train but I have learned to laugh from time to time too because life needs more humor in it. I used to get frustrated when I taught kids Karate because they would make some very stupid mistakes but now I just smile because I remember I was once just like them and it is like reliving some of my past through their eyes.
If I were to run my dojo like I learned, or like I did for the first five years I was open I wouldn’t have any students today…not because society has became soft and full of political correctness but rather because I was shallow minded, very mean and all about producing tough people versus producing Karate people. I am very thankful to my Sensei for showing me a better way, a more deeper understanding of Karate and the fact that it isn’t about how tough a person is but rather about building stronger minds, bodies and spirits in the dojo. I have learned that being a black belt, while it does require the proper amount of knowledge, skill and technical expertise isn’t about being some bad ass fighter…it is about being an all around Karateka, or good student.
It is well known that my black belt exams are very tough and challenging but I have toned down the fighting portion of it because I want to see people earn a black belt. I know for a fact that they don’t have to get beaten up like I did to be competent at their Karate. When I began this change it upset some of my black belts and I heard comments about how their test was so much “harder” than so and so’s. Well, my test was 100 times harder than theirs but that doesn’t mean squat. Each person’s black belt exam is personal…the goal is to get through it and if you do you earn your black belt. It is funny how quickly people forget this and it seems to become an ego contest about whose test was tougher than whose. Since we are to work at being free of the ego that simply shows a lack of understanding and respect for the new black belts as I see it.
Are my belt exams still tough? Yes they are. Do I fail people? I will if a student ever can’t perform the required material at the belt level they are testing for. Luckily I have learned how to teach much better and that students need to be ready before I test them so it is rare that a student flunks but it still happens from time to time. Personally I would never schedule a student to take the black belt exam, or any other one, if I wasn’t sure they were capable of passing it. Back in the day I flunked quite a few good students on belt exams, some of who never returned to the dojo. What purpose did that serve? Absolutely nothing is the hard core truth of it. It was my failure as much as it was theirs because I should’ve known they weren’t ready. Today I remember this failure quite often and make sure I don’t repeat that mistake any longer.
So my biggest challenge is that I was raised “old school”, taught “old school” and because of that I have to control my inner beast. Like I said part of me wants to just lay a smack down on students, establish my superiority and show them who is the “boss”…but I know that wouldn’t help them, nor would it help the school, not to mention is not the proper attitude for a true Karate Sensei to have. Some people love to proclaim they are “old school” yet they began training in the 1990’s…by then the “old school” had shifted so much that training may have been tough but it definitely wasn’t what I learned as “old school”. In all honesty I think how I was taught was often too brutal and, even though my skills have saved my life on couple of occasions, it was extreme. As I have grown older my body has paid for the repeated beatings it took when I was younger. With the goal in Karate to be able to train for our lifetime I have realized that type of mentality when teaching serves the exact opposite purpose.
Luckily I have got smarter and wiser as I have grown over these past 40 years of training and my Karate has taught me discipline so I can control that inner beast from coming out. Every once in awhile he sneaks up on me but I quickly tame him back into his cage. Everyone has their struggles in life and this one will always be mine. I enjoy the fighting aspect of what we do but I also never want to harm a student like I was harmed when I was younger. All I can do is hope that I am doing a great job teaching others and, even though I want to output great quality and highly skilled black belts, I have to understand that it is a process of building each of them which is heavily individualized. Not everyone will throw a perfect side kick but, given enough time, they will be able to throw an effective one. The struggle is there and will be forever for me but I want everyone to gain the confidence, the focus, the self defense ability that has served me very well in life. To do that I have to understand that not everyone wants to be some tough, super human, invincible black belt type. The great thing about Karate is that is has something for everyone. For those who enjoy the contact training there is Kumite. For those who do not there is Kata. A good Karate person will have a balance between the two. In order to achieve that it takes time, often many years of study.
If all I ever do is produce good fighters then I am not producing good people. I have to remember that, even though we train for combat, the goal is to never use what we have learned unless we have absolutely no choice. That goes for in the dojo as well as outside of it. The dojo is place of training, sharing in the study of Karate, void of the ego. We grow together, we fail together and we get back up again until we are successful. That takes each person to help each person…not beat on each other.
A couple of years ago I learned that I had a neck injury that would stop me from being able to compete in fighting. It was one of the biggest blows I ever took in my life because I loved to fight in tournaments. Even today, as I judge or watch the black belts fight, I get so frustrated and upset that I am not out there, with them, having fun hitting each other. I was always pretty decent at Kata but Kumite was my best event. I loved to fight, I was a dynamic fighter and always placed well in tournaments. When I was told that I couldn’t compete in fighting anymore it ripped a big hole through me and made believe I was now an incompetent martial artist. Luckily, through the help of my Sensei, I learned that many of us face this in our career…a time when we must step back and become more of a teacher than a competitor. It wasn’t easy but I am slowly getting more comfortable with it even though I just want to put on my gear and go kick some butt from time to time. That being said I now live through the accomplishments of my students when they fight in events because it shows me that I understand Kumite at a deeper, more meaningful level when they can apply the principles that I made work so well for me over the years. It is really becoming something I appreciate and love about being a Sensei.
Many people don’t realize that we, the Sensei, are human too and we all have inner demons we deal with daily. Fighting back mine has never been easy because of the way we trained before I got my black belt…but it is needed step in my evolution as a Karate guy. I must learn that not everyone will be like me and I should never want them to be. I should want them to be better, wiser and more capable Karate people than I ever could be. After all that is goal of the Sensei…to produce people who are better than you ever were. Hopefully I can realize that goal one day. Until then I will just keep trying to become a better student, a better black belt and a better Sensei.