Showing posts with label teaching. Show all posts
Showing posts with label teaching. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Teachers Who Can't Share

I run into people all the time who sincerely believe that training in another art or with another teacher is a terrible and disloyal thing to do. I also bump up against teachers who tell their students they should never train with anyone else, and that their art is the best so they shouldn’t try anything else.  

To me, this is pure foolishness and unrestrained ego. No art is 100% complete and perfectly prepared for every possible turn of events. Even the great sogo budo that were born in Japan’s Warring States period (circa 1467 - 1603) and include a range of armed and unarmed skills,  - even techniques for fighting while in armor or street clothes - don’t have or even attempt to have a kata for every conceivable situation.

I think back to the great martial artists of the last few hundred years in Japan, and I can’t think of any who trained exclusively with one teacher.  Even now, I can’t think of any arts that expect and demand 100% exclusivity all the time. I know of arts, such as Kashima Shinryu, that ask beginning students not to train in other arts without getting their teacher’s permission, but this is more about making sure students learn good fundamentals without getting them mixed up and messed up by training in systems with different - or worse - conflicting principles. Even then, they don’t insist that a student train only with one teacher.  Once the student reaches sufficient proficiency with the fundamentals, training in other systems is not forbidden.

Historically, I look at teachers like Kano Jigoro, Ueshiba Morihei, and Kuni’i Zenya, and the subsequent  development of their own systems. None of these teachers and developers could have achieved anything close to what they did without training under multiple teachers in multiple systems.  Kano Jigoro received licensing in two different koryu jujutsu systems before he founded Kodokan Judo. Even after founding the Kodokan, he continued to train and learn from other systems, most notably adding instruction from Fuse Ryu to strengthen the Kodokan’s groundwork.

Ueshiba Morihei studied a lot of stuff. He studied judo in a dojo his father established with a teacher brought in for the job. He studied jukenjutsu in the military. He learned a chunk of Yagyu Shingan Ryu.  Even after he had mastered Daito Ryu and founded Aikido, he continued to study and learn, taking keppan with Kashima Shinto Ryu.

Kuni’i Zenya was the soke of Kashima Shinryu. However, he was sent to train in Maniwa Nen Ryu as well. He took what he learned from Maniwa Nen Ryu and used it to refine Kashima Shinryu (don’t let anyone tell you that koryu budo never change.  They are like rivers. They continue as the same river.  The Nile at its headwaters is very different from the Nile as it enters Egypt, and even more different as it passes through the delta into the sea.) Kuni’i Sensei would not have become anywhere near the martial artist he did without exposure to more than one system.

I look at my teachers, and none of them has been exclusionary in the own practice or in their expectations of their students, so I suppose I am prejudiced in favor of being open with students because that is a notable element of my background. I started my budo journey in Kodokan Judo, and my teacher there encouraged his students to take advantage of any training opportunities in the area. Almost as soon as we knew the etiquette well enough to not make any major faux pas Earl started suggesting visits to another local judo dojo to train on days we didn’t have keiko at our dojo. I got over to the dojo at the YMCA fairly often, got extra keiko and a different set of critiques on my technique.

My sword teacher, Kiyama HIroshi Shihan, may well be the poster child for cross training. He has 7th dans in kendo, iaido and jodo, as well as decades of koryu iai and jo practice. He also has dan ranks in Shito Ryu karate, jukendo, and judo.  There may well be other stuff that’s just never come up.  

Matsuda Shihan, my jodo teacher, has a license in Kukishin Ryu as well as in Shinto Muso Ryu,  plus he has dan ranks in iai and karate to go with his 8th dan in jodo. He actively told me to go train with a senior jodo teacher he had great respect for.  He said I should take any chance I got to train with this man.

So my background definitely predisposes me to be in favor of being open with my training. My teachers have always been open to me learning from others.  There are limits of course.  If I’m doing iai with Kiyama Sensei, I would never object to anything because some other teacher I had seen did it differently from Kiyama Sensei’s way. I have too much respect for my teachers to insult them like that. Kiyama Sensei was a senior teacher before I was born. I can’t imagine that I’m going to come up with anything that he hasn’t seen dozens of times already.

Matsuda Sensei is perfectly open with my questions about things I’ve seen or heard from other teachers. He’s happy to talk about these things in the right time and place.  During his lesson is clearly not that place. If we are doing free practice, or outside the dojo, that’s the time and place.

All of these experiences with my own teachers make me suspicious of teachers who won’t ever let their students train with anyone else. In such a situation, who gains? I don’t see any great benefit for the students, or for the teacher. I can see the point of limiting the outside training of beginning students who are just starting to get control of their own bodies. I can understand teachers who don’t want students to confuse themselves and slow down their development by mixing their learning with multiple instructors giving them potentially conflicting advice. This is a temporary situation, though. Once a student has a firm enough foundation, they can train with other people, even take up additional martial arts without damage to the art they started with.

Not allowing students to train with anyone else is a red flag to me. This is not the early Tokugawa Era with people wandering around challenging each other to duels with live blades or even wooden substitutes. People aren’t in danger of losing their government stipend or even dying if they lose a challenge match. We aren’t protecting our techniques and strategies in order to to give us an advantage when we have to fight our next duel.

This is the 28th year of the reign of the Heisei Emperor, or the early 21st Century to much of the rest of the world. Duels don’t happen that often these days. This is the age of YouTube after all. There aren’t many secrets left. Almost everything can be found somewhere on the internet with the minimal effort of a Google search.

When I hear of a teacher who won’t let students train with anyone else, I always wonder what their reasoning is. And then I wonder if the problem isn’t with the students, but with the teacher. I’ve never been able to come up with a valid reason for limiting students’ training myself. I have  seen a number of reasons that reflect poorly on such teachers though.

There are teachers who are quite capable martial artists, but who are also insecure human beings. I can see how an insecure teacher would worry about students liking another teacher better.  Telling them not to train with anyone else is a simple way to make sure they don’t discover someone they like training with more. It doesn’t solve the problem of students leaving, but it may slow them down, and maybe it makes the insecure teacher feel a little more in control.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen people who had an overabundance of confidence and no actual skills. They tell great stories, often about how they trained in Japan or China with secretive masters. Their descriptions of the awesome secrets they learned and how powerful their skills are can be truly amazing. Their only concern is that if their students train with other people, they might realize that all their teacher has to offer them are some great stories, and no real skills. These folks have a genuine concern. If anyone were to check with folks in Japan or China or wherever they say the trained, their teachers would be even more mysterious, because no one could find them. In this age of Facebook, it takes about 15 minutes to find experts living anywhere in the world who can check on things like this. Best for these teachers if their students never talk with other martial artists, and definitely don’t let them train with other folks. Students figure out pretty fast that what they’ve been taught is empty sound and fury when they are repeatedly knocked on their rear ends by strangers.

Teachers are humans too, with all the possibility of the angelic and the risk of the demonic. The vast majority of teachers strive to be the best example they can be in the dojo, and lead students to higher levels of being, not just higher black belt ranks. There are others who are there only for what they can get out of it, whether that is the satisfaction of lording their rank over others, having people show them respect and excessive deference, or just collecting a lot of money from students every month without having to give anything more than the illusion of teaching something.

Even when a teacher has a lot to offer students, if they are so insecure, or so into controlling others, that they can’t bear to see their students get some training from someone else from time to time, they are crippled as teachers. Someone like this will feel threatened when a student gets good enough to be a teacher herself. Their own fears and insecurities will hobble them and prevent them from giving students their best teaching. Behind every decision and every interaction will be the fear that students will leave.

I can’t recommend that anyone train with a teacher who can’t stand to see them train in some other art or with another teacher if a good opportunity arises. For me, cross training is essential to understanding my primary art. Training with a good teacher is essential to learning an art deeply. I can’t see how a teacher crippled by insecurity or mad with the need to control others can be a good teacher for anyone. If a teacher says you should never train with anyone else, that should be a loud warning signal to find a different teacher.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Joy Of Being A Student

I attended a marvelous seminar over the weekend.  I’m not always a fan of seminars, but this was fabulous. There were two high level teachers, and nothing was required of me but that I be a willing student open to learning.  It is a role I don’t get to play as often as I would like.  I’ve been doing budo long enough that more often than not, I’m one of the senior people in the dojo.  I spend more time teaching students than I do as a student.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching. I just happen to love learning even more. The longer I do budo though, the opportunities to be a pure student become more and more rare.  This annual seminar in Guelph is one of the best for me. The seminar was led by to two 8th dans from Japan.

The students were divided into two groups by rank. Those of us who hold higher ranks for North America (nothing exceptionally high in Japan) were training together. Nobody had to do anything but try and understand the level Morimoto Shihan was attempting to pull us up to.

I trained with people of similar skill, and with whom I shared the joy of trying to figure out the subtleties of Morimoto Shihan’s technique.  All of us are fairly experienced at Kendo Federation jodo, but he kept doing things that we could hardly imagine. Little motions with the jo that made the sword go whipping out of our hands with maki otoshi, or slight adjustments of the striking point in hiki otoshi uchi.

I love trying to work out what a teacher is doing. Just focus on the problem and go after it without any other worries. Being able to go into training and just open myself up for whatever the teacher has to offer. There is a term in Japanese that describes the ideal state of mind for a learner, shoshinsha 初心者。It’s a wonderfully descriptive term that is often translated as “beginner’s mind.”  The characters for “mind” and “person,” kokoro and mono 者、 are pretty straightforward. “Sho”  is a little more unusual. It’s the same character as in shodan 初段, which is usually incorrectly translated as “1st degree black belt.” In shodan, the “sho” is more like “beginning” as is “beginning step.”  In shoshinsha, the feeling is even more subtle.  It’s not just beginner, but it strongly harkens to the meaning of as a stand alone word, when it is read as “ubu” and has connotations of “artless; innocent; naive; unsophisticated.”

I wish I could always suspend my preconceptions and my prior learning and my ego so I could stand before any teacher as an artless, innocent, unsophisticated student absorbing the lesson without first filtering it through my preconceptions.. All too many times I drag all my preconceptions about what an art is and how it should be practiced with me.  I assume that my experience means that I know something of value, and my ego insists on putting its spin on everything. My ego wants to make everything complex and sophisticated.

It’s so much better when I can let go of my ego and be a beginner again. Morimoto Shihan is so much better than I that my ego looked around and said “I’ve got nothing to offer here. Call me when you’re dealing with someone who’s down in our league.” With my ego checked out, I could relax and make any mistakes I could find to make and not feel the least bit ashamed.  I completely blew the transition in one kata, and it didn’t bother me at all. I just thought “Wow, he is really smooth. I’m going to need a lot more practice to be able to keep up with him.” None of the usual excuses or rationalizations came flying to the front of my mind. It was perfectly clear to me and my ego that I was completely outclassed and that what training with Morimoto Shihan calls for is a whole lot more practice on my part.

In my college judo days our club motto was “Mada heta desuまだ下手です, or“still inept” as we liked to translate it. At this seminar I could say I am “mada heta desu” without any self-consciousness and without any false humility.  This was a wonderful and freeing feeling. I could see how little I know, and how far I have to go before I can start to believe I know anything about this art I claim to study.

As we progress along the path of budo, we pick up ideas, knowledge and habits. Budo is a journey down a path that extends further than we can travel in a lifetime. There are endless discoveries to be made. The irony is that more we “learn” and the more we “know” the slower our progress becomes. The more “knowledge” and “skill” we accumulate, the heavier the pack of our learning becomes. The more we are burdened by what we already know, the more difficult it becomes to move forward, the easier it becomes to be satisfied with wherever we are along the path.

The tragedy of this is, if we can just let go of what we already know, we can move forward along the path of budo very quickly. Letting go of what we already know requires uncurling our grasp upon hard earned gems of knowledge, skill and understanding. Having reached one level in jodo, it’s been difficult for me to recognize that the skills, techniques and understanding that have gotten me this far will not get me to the next level. The ranking system in Japan is not based on degrees of black belt, though even the Japanese will ask if you have a kuro obi or “black belt.” It’s based on the idea of steps, and the steps seem to have been borrowed from the ten steps on the Bodhisattva path in Buddhism.  The first step is just the starting step, the shodan 初段。

The final stage, the tenth step, is perfection in the path. To be a tenth dan implies perfection. That no one can be perfect is the reason the major budo organizations in Japan rarely (or never in some cases) award a tenth dan. No one is perfect. If we can’t let go of the learning and skills we’ve acquired, there is no way to move beyond our current level.  Invariably, whatever it has taken to get to my current level, will act as a dead weight holding me back from getting to the next level until I let go of it, let go of what I “know.”
Buddhism makes that point that our attachments are the cause of our suffering. Budo has taught me that our attachments are also the cause of our inability to improve and advance. Any time I become attached to a technique, a way of doing something, or a way of conceptualizing a principle, I stop progressing. It’s only when I look at something and wonder “What’s a better way of doing this?” that I start moving forward again. Just because what I am doing works better than my students technique, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a method superior to the one I’m using.

That can be a tough pill to swallow. My ego really seems to believe my technique is already fabulous. When I start listening to my ego, I find it difficult to hear more reasoned, more experienced voices that could teach me something. If find it difficult to hear my teachers telling me what I need to do to improve, when I’m busying listening to me ego tell me how great I am.

A more useful outlook than dwelling on what we “know” is those t-shirts from my judo club days at Western Michigan University that say まだへたです mada heta desu. “Still inept.” No matter how good you are, there is always something more to learn. I try to remember that and ignore my ego so I can return to that wonderful state of being a clean slate for whatever the teachers have to share with me.

I find that when I can keep in mind that I’m “still inept” and just learn from the teachers without letting my ego talk, training is a joyous experience filled with discovery. Purely being a student, open to everything and making new discoveries with nearly every step is as wonderful an experience as any I can think of. I’m grateful to Morimoto Shihan and Tsubaki Shihan for a wonderful weekend of learning and discovery.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Martial Arts Instructors Should Learn To Teach

Let’s face an unpleasant truth.  Most martial arts instructors are lousy teachers. They may be great martial artists, but few of them know anything about the art and science of teaching. Teaching is not about how much you know or how much you can do.  It is what you can transmit to your student and help them to learn, do, and keep improving.  

When I’m looking for a teacher, I’m not looking for someone who is an incredibly skilled and gifted martial artist.  Those are great things, but they don’t have much relation to the person’s skill as a teacher.  If the best thing I can say about a teacher is that “They really know their stuff,”  stay away from that class. A great teacher might only be a few steps ahead of me, but they can get me to learn, grasp and internalize what I need to know to improve. A lousy teacher may be the most knowledgeable, skilled person in the world, but that doesn’t do me any good because they can’t transmit what they know.

The old saw “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” is a lot of hogwash. Teaching is a skill all it’s own.  Just being skilled at the subject you want to teach isn’t nearly enough.  Because teaching is a job like any other, you get the same range of skills and professionalism as you find in any other career. There are a few great ones, a lot of competent people doing a good job, and few lousy ones.  Unfortunately, we’ve all had an experience with lousy teachers when we were in school. That should motivate those of us who teach budo to avoid making similar mistakes.

Good teaching takes work. The classic approach of the martial arts teacher showing up, demonstrating something, and then counting off the number of reps as the students repeat the techniques over and over is not the best way to teach. We should know that from having done mindlessly repetitive drills when we were in school. Although it’s said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something, that practice must be deep, mindful and correct. Good teachers are engaged with students during practice, correcting them where they need it. As my Dad says, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” Students learn what they practice. If they practice technique wrong, it will stay wrong.

I’m not the world’s best teacher, but I know some great teachers, and I try to learn from them. One thing that has rubbed off on me is that our brains have certain limits, strengths and weaknesses, and it’s part of the teacher’s job to keep those in mind when we are teaching.  The art of teaching may not be something we can master, but we can certainly use the science of teaching and learning to give our students the best teaching possible.

There are some basic things that we can keep in mind, regardless of the particular pedagogy that goes with our martial arts system.

Class size matters. We know this. Research on learning and education is pretty clear. If we try to make our classes too big, we take away from the students in a myriad ways.  It’s tough to see what’s going on in a big group unless you’re right in front of the teacher. There is no way the teacher can give each student the attention necessary to be sure that the students are correctly grasping the points being taught. Just because there is space in the room doesn’t mean you have to fill it with students. Don’t put more students in a room than you can effectively teach and instruct.

This next point is one I am constantly working on. Just as we can put more students in a room than we can effectively teach, we can put more lessons in a class than students can absorb. Our minds have a working memory capacity of 3 to 5 items. That’s it. If we try to teach more than that in one session, the students will not be able to hold on to the lessons. Once we get past our personal limit of about 4 main points, we start dropping things because our minds just can’t hold onto all of them. For me, this means that when I work with students, I can’t overload them with all the many important points in a technique or kata on the same day. It also means that I shouldn’t try to teach too many things in one lesson. To be most effective, I have make sure I pick just a couple of main points that I want to everyone to focus on for the day.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work on koshi. If I want my students to retain the important points about koshi, I can’t go off and start working on how they use their arms when swinging the weapon or spend a bunch of time on metsuke. I have to stay focused the lesson. If I start throwing other points at my students, they won’t be able to remember any of the lessons later. I try to keep my lesson and corrections centered around 3 principle points for any class. For example, when we’re doing koshi, I work on proper alignment, driving the koshi with the leg, and driving the upper body from the koshi. That’s all. I work at biting my tongue and not correcting any other issues I might see. Those are for another day.

The same is true when I critique kata. Working memory is limited to 3 to 5 items. So I only make 4 comments. That way the student can hold on to the corrections long enough to get to their notebook and write something down. There is no point in giving a huge list of corrections when we know someone can only hold about 4 points in their head. If we overload someone, there is a good chance they won’t remember anything.

Once I’ve introduced a point, I make sure to give students enough time to explore it and try applying it in their technique or kata. That way they can practice and I can see if they really understood the point. If I didn’t get the idea across as well as I want (which is usually the case), then I can give the students some more help with the same point. I don’t go on to the next point until the first one seems pretty solidly understood.

One way to help students get what I’m teaching, and keep it, is to make them retrieve it. When I teach a structured class, I stick to that limit of 3-5 items. I also don’t fill the entire class time. At the end of the class I have the students review what I’ve taught so they are actively thinking about and remembering what we did. I want my students to remember and apply the lessons I’m teaching. If I just run through the lesson, I don’t know what they’ve gotten. By having the students remember what I taught and show it to me at the end of practice, I help them remember and retain the lessons, so they can continue practicing the lesson at home. It’s also a check for me. If the students don’t remember what I taught, or they don’t really understand it, that means I didn’t do a very good job of teaching it.

Every time I teach a class, I’m not only teaching the students. I’m also practicing being a more effective teacher. Not every martial artist is a teacher. That’s fine. But if you are teaching, your students deserve the best you can give them. By learning and applying some fundamental knowledge about how people learn, you can give your students much more. And if you really want to learn how to teach budo skills well, find a music or art teacher and learn how they teach skills to their students.  They know the science of teaching complex skills like nobody else.

Special thanks to fine art teacher and martial artist Rick Frye for suggestions and editing assistance.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Going To Seminars

Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

I hosted a budo seminar last weekend. It was attended by a small, focused group of experienced budoka from a range of disciplines. Seminars can range from very good to OK to a complete waste of time and money.  This  was close to my ideal of what a good seminar should be.

Budo is a physical activity that is exceptionally personal. At lower levels a lot can be learned from just seeing techniques demonstrated. Students can pick up movements and concepts from teachers even if they don’t experience what is being done. At higher levels though techniques become progressively more subtle and difficult to perceive the important aspects of what is happening.

There are lots of reasons for attending seminars. Most of them don’t have a lot to do with improving your skills. That doesn’t make them bad reasons, they just don’t have much with to do with getting better.

One reason that has motivated me to go to seminars even when I was unlikely to get anything else out of the seminar is just to see someone great. In Hindi, the act of going to see a great teacher or expression of divine is called darshan, This seems like an appropriate way to describe going to a seminar with the primary goal of seeing a great exponent of an art I study. The great practitioners and teachers have transcendent skill and technique. It’s a privilege just to be able to see them express their skill in person.  I’ve been to a few seminars for this reason, and a couple of times I’ve had the great good fortune to feel these teachers’ skills personally. The lasting memories from these experiences are ongoing inspiration for me. I’ve had the opportunity to see and feel people who are the best in the world at a few seminars.

Sometimes I go to seminars just for the social fun. I know the seminar is unlikely to offer me anything special in the way of new insights or ideas, but the opportunity to hang out with a crowd of other brain-addled budoka can be irresistable. On these occasions the training is an afterthought, and can even get in the way of the real point of the trip, talking with old friends and new ones. Being able to freely talk with people who share my passion is rare and wonderful.

Some of the other reasons for attending seminars besides developing your own skills are less exciting. For those of us who belong to one of the big budo organizations that use dan tests administered by panels of judges, there are a couple of useful reasons to go to the seminar. Organizational standards are set by committees, and I’ve yet to see a committee that could sit down, look at the existing standards and say “Yup, those guys last year did a great job. We can’t improve on what they’ve done, so let’s leave it alone and go get a drink.” Never happens. Which means that if you are testing, you need to go to the organization seminar and find out how they are doing things this year. Not a particularly inspiring reason to go to a seminar, but if you need to grade, you’d better do it. Go, find out what the judges are supposed to be looking for, and then do it.

On the flip side of seeing what the organization is asking for this year, those big, organization sponsored seminars are usually lead by the same folks who sit on the grading panel. That makes them a chance to be seen by the judges and let them get familiar with you and your skills. Judges are human after all, and if they have seen you practice and are familiar with your skill level, you increase you chances of passing when the test comes around. And there is always the chance that you might catch a personal comment or two during the seminar.

I know people go to seminars for the wrong reasons as well. I don’t enjoy dealing with people like this, but they are always a risk at an open seminar. These are the people who show up to show off. The want everyone to see how good they are. Every moment on the mat is a chance for them to  display the wonder of their technique so the rest of us can appreciate their greatness and tell them how awesome they are. They drive me nuts because you can count on them to not pay attention to what the instructor is trying to teach. Instead they will do every technique the way they like so their partner can feel the clear superiority of their technique and everyone else can see how good they are.  

Worse, the show-offs are there to prove how good they are to every one of their training partners. Anything the teacher asks that might present them with difficulty or challenge is ignored in favor of the way they already do things. I hope that Sensei sees them and intervenes if they do have trouble with a technique, because their response will almost always be to crank up the raw force to make their partner react, even if they can’t do the technique. Forget about trying to figure out the lesson being taught and figuring out how to apply it. They aren’t at the seminar for that. Show-offs are there so everyone can see how great they are, and if their partner won’t cooperate by falling down easily, they will drive their uke down with raw force.  

That makes these people even more dangerous than absolute beginners. Beginners are liable to substitute strength for the technique they don’t yet have, but that’s a stage everyone goes through. After you’ve been through it, you usually have enough skill to protect yourself from the mistakes of beginners. Show-offs though have some technique, but when that isn’t quite enough, they amp up the strength as well, which is a lot more dangerous than the innocent pushing and pulling of beginners. Watch out for show-offs.

Over the years, I’ve been to lots more seminars than I can clearly remember. What I’ve learned is that I don’t enjoy the really big seminars for anything other than socializing. Once the floor gets crowded, real learning and exploration is often lost in crush of fellow budoka and the effort to not get hurt. Anytime people are getting thrown around in a crowded room, or sticks are being swung without lots of space, I spend most of my time making sure I and those around me aren’t getting hurt, and relatively little time focused on improving my skills. I’m not big on organizational seminars either, though I recognized their necessity and function, they aren’t the seminars are really enjoy and get the most out of.

That’s why when I planned my own budo gathering a few weeks ago, I tried to implement all the features I’ve found most enjoyable and which contribute the most to a great learning experience.

One of the most important features of a really great seminar for me is that it be relatively small. This is tricky unless you have a wealthy sponsor, because seminars cost money to run and teachers deserve to be properly compensated for their time and effort in sharing their understanding. Ideally, I like seminars that are around 20-25 people. There are a number of reasons for that size. First, it means that the instructor will be able to work with everyone multiple times throughout the seminar. She won’t be stuck at the front of the room demonstrating something and then having to helplessly watch as the crowd tries to replicate it.

With a small seminar, the teacher can provide hands on corrections to everyone there many times. I can’t overemphasize how important this is. Budo is an inherently personal activity that is learned directly from the teacher, whether it is koryu budo where the teacher is expected to act as uke for the students trying their techniques, or a training paradigm like aikido, where students are expected to learn by feeling their teachers’ techniques. Either way, without that direct, one-to-one experience, it’s nearly impossible to truly understand the higher levels of the art. Small seminars give teachers the chance to share one-on-one throughout the day.

On the flip side at small seminars, students not only get to work with the teacher, but they get to train with everyone in attendance and be part of many different responses and explorations of what the teacher is offering. I like to get to know my training partners. In a small seminar, you can do that. When I go to big seminars, I find that I either end up working with the same 2 or 3 partners the whole time, or I never work with the same person twice. I enjoy working with different people, but I also like getting to know people. Small seminars let me do both easily.

A few things I like at any seminar are a focus on a limited number of key points, having time to make notes between lessons, and having a little review at the end of each session to reemphasize the lessons ideas covered. These are all things I learned when I was teaching school as full time occupation.

It’s important to keep the major points being covered and emphasized to no more than 5, and I think 3 is even better. There’s a good reason for this. Our brains can only hold that many ideas at one time without dropping the others.  As soon as we go over 5 individual points, our brains start dropping stuff, and it becomes difficult to hold onto anything. A good seminar focuses on just a few key points or principles and approaches them from a variety of directions and means. We all learn differently, so approaching a principle from a variety of angles gives all the participants a chance to examine the lesson from a perspective that’s best for them.

The other advantage to staying focused on few keeps points and attacking them from different angles is that students can gain a better, more complete grasp of the points. I’ve been to classes and seminars where the teacher introduced a dozen or more important points. I got nothing out of these experiences because the were so many points that I never had a chance to get a firm handle on any of them, and there were so many different ideas presented that I had trouble even remembering what had been presented, much less any details.

I’ve also learned to appreciate breaks spaced so I can make useful notes. An hour of focused learning is about all I can handle and hold before my mind needs a break to absorb what’s happening.  Everyone is different, but I find that for me, a five or ten minute break every hour to make some notes and mentally organize what I’ve been learning is helpful. The note making process helps me organize and anchor what I’ve learned, and gives me some references for use later when I’m practicing.

A good seminar doesn’t happen just by having a nice venue and a skillful person leading it. It takes planning, preparation and an instructor who is not only a skilled practitioner but also a skilled teacher. Seminars that are too crowded make it difficult to learn. Teachers who throw too many points and principles at participants do them a disservice, since we can only hold so much information before it all starts to spill out of our heads. A modest sized seminar, with a teacher who focuses on just a few key points, and gives me time to make some useful notes is a wonderful thing.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How To Be A Good Uke

In most systems of budo, it takes two people to train. On one side is the person studying the technique or kata.  The other person is not the teacher.  The other person is their uke 受け.  Having a good uke to train with is as important as having a good teacher.  The problem is, a good uke can be as difficult to find as a good teacher.

Uke is your training partner.  Just as in most things budo, there really is no consistency of terminology.  So aikido and judo use uke 受け.  Kenjutsu systems often use uchitachi 打太刀.  Another terms you may hear are aite 相手 or partner.  You might sometimes hear teki 敵 or enemy, but that’s not accurate or appropriate when talking about the people you train with.

For the person doing the techniques, I’m partial to the judo term tori 取り, because it implies taking form from chaos (randori anyone?).  For now, I’ll use tori to indicate the person doing the practicing.

I’ve see lots of descriptions of good ukes, such as : “provides committed attack,” “Gives sincere attacks.”  I don’t find these descriptions very helpful.  What’s a “sincere” attack? On the other side, why does an attack have to be committed to be effective.  Believe me, even a half hearted attack with a sword or knife or crowbar will do plenty of damage.  I’ve heard people say that uke has to understand why he has to lose in practice.  The problem with that is that this is practice. There is no winning or losing. If people are caught up in worrying about winning and losing during practice, they’ve missed the point of practice.

I’ve written before about what a good uke is, and I’ve seen other good writings on the subject. Steve Delaney has an excellent article.  What is missing seems to be direction on how to be a good uke or uchitachi.  Hopefully we can get a conversation going.

The first thing a good uke does is understand that this is not a fight and it’s not a competition.  This is often overlooked or underemphasized by teachers. We have to emphasize to students that this is practice,keiko 稽古, renshu 練習.  This should help to get rid of some of the ego I see floating around so thickly in many dojo.  As soon as people learn enough to be able to hinder or stop tori’s technique, they do. That’s not practice anymore.

Uke’s job is to facilitate their partner’s training. That means giving them access to their body so they can complete the technique or kata being practiced. If uke makes it so difficult that tori can’t do anything, it’s not practice. On the other hand, if uke is so limp that tori can do anything without effort or challenge, that’s not practice either.  Uke’s job is not to give committed, or sincere attacks. Uke’s job is to give appropriate attacks.  

Once people understands that this is about learning and not competing or showing how strong they are, they can start learning how to be an uke.  Good ukes don’t just attack. If the attack is a strike, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all attack.  What is an overpowering and uselessly powerful attack on a beginner, may be ridiculously over-committed and telegraphed for a senior student. In both cases, the attack is wrong.

Being uke is a significant job and it takes far more thought and effort to do properly than most people give to it. It seems simple.  Whatever the designated attack is, uke does. Boom. Simple. Wrong. Uke starts with the designated attack, and then decides how much warning she will give. Will she telegraph the start of the attack so tori has lots of time to react and adjust, or will she hold back all indication of the attack for a while.  A big, telegraphed attack is great for beginners and public demonstrations, and just about nothing else.  As tori becomes more and more capable, uke has to consider tori’s ability and make the attack more and more difficult to detect.

Once the attack has begun, how fast should it be?  If tori is a beginner, or if the technique is unfamiliar, slow it down a few notches. As tori demonstrates the ability to handle a slow attack, then you can pick up the speed a little to the point where tori has to work at doing it right. Not too much though.  If uke attacks so fast that tori can’t do the technique properly, it’s not practice anymore.  Practice means doing it right.  Forcing tori to work beyond their ability is stealing their practice time from them.  If tori can’t do the technique under the conditions uke provides, uke is wasting tori’s time.

This applies whether the attack is a strike with the hand,  grab on the wrist, a cut with a sword, or blow with a stick. If the attack is a grab, grab with what you think is an appropriate amount of force.  If tori can’t do the technique, let up a little until she can. If she can do the technique, add a little more to the grab, or ask if she would like a stronger grab or more resistance. I’ve got enough experience that I can manage my own training.  I’ll tell my uke, “Please be stiffer at that point.” or “Please resist a little more.” or whatever is necessary to raise the difficulty of the technique for me to a point where I am being challenged and can practice the element that needs polishing.

This sort of communication is, to me, essential for good training and learning for both tori and uke. Particularly when it is a senior tori working with a junior uke, this kind of communication gives the person learning the uke role the feedback she needs to become a better uke. Many dojo, whether aikido or judo or other art, don’t take the time to train people how to be uke. This feedback is important, and ukes need it. I appreciate all the times I have been uke and my teachers or partners have told me what I needed to do to be a better uke at that moment. It has helped me learn a lot about being a good uke.

Uke is a tough job. We have to think about it. We have to give the right attack, at the right speed, and in the right place.  This is another important aspect of being uke that I don’t think gets enough attention. Whether the attack is a strike with the fist, a thrust with a knife,  a sword cut, or a blow with a stick, it has to be accurate. Tori is trying to learn how to deal with an genuine attack. If their uke only offers attacks that would never be on target because they don’t want to hurt tori, they’re already hurting her. This sort of attack robs tori of the opportunity to learn real maai, or spacing.  Pulling your attack short, or swinging to one side, doesn’t help tori learn anything.  If you are worried about hurting tori, attack more slowly, but keep it accurate. Once you’re confident tori can handle the attack slowly, pick up the pace slightly.  Keep doing this, always maintaining the accuracy of your attack, and you’ll find out what tori can handle without hurting her.

I often read in aikido circles that people want “committed” attacks. What seems to be meant by this are what I would describe as off-balance, over-committed attacks. Uke seems to be throwing themselves at tori instead of attacking. Just because you are attacking doesn’t mean you have to give up the balance, posture and structure that you train so hard to develop. The first problem with this is that you rob tori of the chance to learn to break your balance. That’s a really important lesson, absolutely fundamental in judo. When you’re working with a beginner, you don’t go all out resisting their efforts to take your balance, but you don’t attack without any balance either.  They have to have the opportunity to practice taking your balance.

Once students get past the initial phase of learning, then uke can attack with a more and more stable structure, giving tori a consistently more challenging kuzushi puzzle to figure out.  Again, don’t be impossible, just be challenging enough that tori has to work for it.  This requires uke to consider what they are doing.  What lesson is tori working on? Will it help tori if uke maintains the same level of stability and increases the speed, or will it be better if uke slows down a little and increases their structural stability?  Being uke isn’t easy, and sometimes it helps to ask tori “How do you want this attack?”

Once you get comfortable with varying the speed and intensity of your actions as uke, and you’re working with an experienced tori, you can start messing around with the rhythm as well. I think my seniors enjoy pulling this one on me. They will subtly change the rhythm of their attack, drawing me into attacking a half step too early, or waiting a heartbeat too long. Either way, they’ve got me. If I attack too soon, uke evades and there is nothing for me but empty air. Wait too long, and I find a sword tip a millimeter from my nose before I can do anything.

This is great practice for more advanced tori, and it does require an advanced uke as well. This is what any uke should be striving towards though.  Tori can’t learn effectively without a good uke. To be a good uke, you have to constantly be considering how you should attack to give tori the best learning opportunity you can. Uke controls the speed, the intensity, the strength and the rhythm of the training.  This means that on every repetition uke has to think about how fast, how intense, how strong and what rhythm the attack should be. Uke should never attack on auto-pilot. Every attack has to be a considered for tori’s benefit (and uke’s safety. Attacking on autopilot is a good way for things to go very wrong for uke).

Uke’s role may be even more important than the teachers when it comes to how well tori learns things.  The teacher can demonstrate and correct, but it is with uke that tori does the homework where the real learning takes place.  Uke has a huge amount of responsibility.  It’s not enough for uke to just throw out whatever attack is called for without thinking about it. Uke has to chose the right mixture of technical elements so tori can get the best, most focused practice on the elements that particular person is working on.  This means considering how fast or slow the technique should be. How much should uke telegraph the attack so tori learns to read uke’s body better? How strong should uke be in this case? Is tori working on smoothing out their technique, in which case fast but not overly strong attack might be called for.  Or is tori working on refining balance breaking or initiative stealing, which might mean they want a slower but more solid, stable attack from uke. Every tori is working on different things and needs uke to adjust their attack to the individual tori. Individual tori work on a lot of different areas too, so uke has to adjust not only from tori to tori, but from moment to moment as the same tori works on different aspects of their technique.

Being a good uke is at least as important an role as that of the teacher, and requires as much focus and attention to what you are doing as being tori does.  Please make the effort to be a good uke. Your training partners will appreciate it, and you might even find that the effort put in makes the rest of your technique better as well.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

What Makes A Great Dojo

I noticed that I’ve been writing about what things aren’t quite often lately. This is an attempt to write about what something is.  What makes a great dojo? The dojo is the center of budo practice, and finding a great dojo is tougher than you’d think, even in Japan. When we look for a great dojo, what are we searching for?

“Dojo” is an old term for a place where one studies the teachings of Buddhism.  When Sanskrit was translated into Chinese, this was used to describe the spot where the Buddha completed the path to enlightenment.  It was the dojo 道場.  the way place.  The word dojo therefore, was ancient when the Japanese martial arts instructors in the Edo Period (1604-1868) began using it to describe their training halls.  

The usage has drifted a long way from the original meaning of the place where enlightenment was achieved. The ancient Japanese applied it to mean places where the teachings of Buddhism are studied, and within Buddhist organizations in Japan, this meaning is still used. The meaning though wandered further when some Edo Period martial artists started calling their training halls “dojo.”  Now the word is commonly used throughout the world.

I’ve seen many gorgeous dojo in Japan, from the stately Butokuden in Kyoto, to the lovely and peaceful dojo at Kashima Shrine, to many small, private dojos that are delightful pockets of beauty. The longer I train though, the more I come to understand that a dojo, no matter how lovely, is empty space that we have to fill with life and breath.  I’ve noticed that both non-Japanese and Japanese alike will use “dojo” to refer to the members of the training group, not just the facility.  This recognizes that it is really the people who make the empty space into a dojo, not the designated purpose of the space.

Interior of the Butokuden. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan

It’s the qualities of the people and their relationships that make a dojo great. I had a discussion with a some friends about what they feel makes a great dojo.  A lot of the ideas were about the physical space and things that are nice.  While I agree that a beer fridge is a wonderful thing to have in the dojo office, I’m not sure it’s a necessary component of an excellent dojo.  I’ve had great experiences in the parking lot back of Sensei’s house, and lousy ones in gorgeous, dedicated spaces (with beer fridges!).

The things I look for in a great dojo are the people.  I find that if you’ve got good people, the physical space will get taken care of.  On the other hand, if the people and relationships aren’t good, the physical space won’t keep things together.

The number one item on most people’s list of requirements for great dojo, and what everyone thinks about first, is the teacher. Having a good teacher is important, because the teacher sets the example for everyone else of how things are supposed to be in the dojo. In a merely good dojo, the teacher can be anywhere from a competent technician to world class, but they will likely maintain a somewhat distant teacher-student relationship. The teacher never stoops down to the students level.

In a great dojo though, the teacher is more like a head student than a teacher standing above everyone at the head of the classroom dispensing the lesson.  These teachers are every bit as much students of the art they are teaching as the newest beginner.  They find a joy in polishing their own skills, and discovering new things about their art that is as strong and fierce as that of any student.  This joy in practicing, improving, and discovering new things about their budo, and the teachers ability to share this with the rest of the dojo is what stands out for me in the teachers at great dojo.  The teacher’s personal skill level is almost incidental.  It may only be a few steps ahead of the students, but that’s fine.  The teacher is leading the dojo on a great, joyous journey of improvement and discovery, not dispensing wisdom and correction from on high.

This sort of teacher demonstrates and establishes the critical respect and trust that, for me, has to permeate a dojo for it to be truly great.  Because these wonderful teachers are sharing a journey with the students, they naturally treat everyone as respected and important members of the dojo. In a great dojo, everyone is contributing to the activity of learning and discovery, from the most senior members to the the lady whose dogi  is so new you can still see the creases from the package. As hard as it is for beginning students to believe, they are critically important too.  They don’t know what’s supposed to work on them, so they only react when techniques really do work. In great dojos, that respect is there for everyone, regardless of rank or experience.  The teacher sets the example, and everyone in the dojo respects the teacher and each other deeply and sincerely.

I’ve written about the unusual trust that can develop between martial artists before. In great dojo, this feeling of trust is everywhere. Students trust the teacher and each other. In great dojo, people who can’t be trusted are not welcome to train. If someone cannot be trusted to treat their partners with respect and to protect their partners body and health as if it were their own, that person will be gently but inexorably rejected by the dojo. Members of great dojo are great people, though they never think of themselves that way. They trust each other and take care of each other.

That trust and care means that people watch each other and go out of their way for fellow students. Trust isn’t just about what we do with the techniques. It means trusting each other enough that we can pull each other aside if we see a problem developing and bring it to each other’s attention without engendering anger or resentment.  This really differentiates the great dojo from the merely good ones. There is always a sense of zanshin regarding the health and safety of all members in a great dojo.

I mentioned above a little about the value of beginning students in a dojo. In great dojo, all the students are seen as valuable, and are valued for the variety of knowledge and experience they bring to the group. Great dojo have members with a huge variety of budo and conflict experience. These dojo usually have a good share of students who train more than one martial art, and usually a sprinkling of law enforcement officers corrections officers and military veterans. All of these different sets of experience and viewpoint are valued and drawn upon in a great dojo. Great teachers and members of great dojo aren’t intimidated by people who practice other arts and have different experiences. They treasure such members for the variety of perspectives they bring to the dojo. Instead of ignoring everything that doesn’t fit within a narrow orthodoxy, these members will be called on to share their perspective, regardless of their rank in the dojo.  No art has a complete knowledge of every aspect of conflict, and law enforcement officers can bring one set of perspectives about violence, while students of weapons arts can bring valuable understanding of the real capabilities of weapons to dojo that practice arts that primarily focus on empty hand technique. In great dojo, everyone with expertise and perspective are will find themselves called on in class to share what they know, especially if it is different from what most in the dojo expect to be true.

This is the next thing I look for in great dojo, a ruthless desire to reexamine everything students and teachers think they know about their art. In these dojo there is no sacred orthodoxy.  Instead there is a constant search for greater, deeper, more complete understanding. Recently I’ve been in a number of Aikido dojo that are notable because they are inviting people from other traditions and styles to teach and share their arts, even when it calls into question they way things have been done in that dojo. These are great dojo. Their search for understanding and mastery doesn’t end at their door.  Instead of closing the door on anything that contradicts their understanding, they invite those teachers with different perspectives in.

Only training in one art, and never experiencing other arts and perspectives leaves you with a very skewed understanding.  No art is big enough to contain everything there is. I’m not saying you have to study everything. There isn’t time in one life to do that. Great dojo and great teachers realize they don’t have all the answers though, so they make a point to expose their students to a variety of styles and perspectives. Kodokan Judo includes some efficient techniques versus knife and sword. However, if you only practice them with people who aren’t experts in the use of those weapons, you won’t understand all the ways things can go wrong. A few hours with a qualified swordsman can clear up a lot of misconceptions about the real maai and speed of the weapon.

A poor dojo declares theirs is the only way, and discourages students from seeking other perspectives.  A good dojo acknowledges that other ways and perspectives have value. A great dojo makes sure students encounter multiple perspectives and ways of doing things by having them demonstrated and shown in the dojo so students can get a taste of them.

Great dojo don’t rely on just one teacher either. A great dojo may well have one exceptional teacher, but they aren’t limited to that teacher. I always love going to study in Japan. The dojo I am a member of there are filled with high level teachers. Imagine dojo where the median rank is 5th dan. This sort of dojo is quite common in Japan. At the dojo in Kusatsu, I can remember nights when there were four or five 7th dans and an 8th dan on the floor. I started iai in a little country dojo with two 7th dan iai teachers. The kendo dojo had 7 teachers with 7th dans in kendo.  This was in the countryside.

Great dojo develop depth and encourage breadth among their teachers. My iai teacher, Kiyama HIroshi, is 7th dan in iai, jodo, and kendo. He has lesser ranks in judo, karate, and jukendo as well. The other teachers in the dojo are 6th or 7th dan in iai, and most have dan ranks in at least one other art. If Kiyama Sensei can’t teach, the people teaching the class in his stead will all be highly experienced teachers as well. Great dojo have room for many people to be great. It is assumed that everyone can become great, and it’s expected that everyone will to the best of their ability.

This leads to the next element of a great dojo. No one is ever satisfied with where they are. There are no destinations in a great dojo. Everyone, including the top teachers, are still striving to improve their skills and understanding. Everyone is encouraged to keep pushing forward along the Way.  Any Way 道, including budo 武道, is a path, a journey. Great dojo always quietly remind all the members, beginning students and senior teachers, that the way doesn’t have an end point. Everyone is always trying to improve. When I train in Japan, the senior teachers will teach, but if you watch, you’ll see them quietly training as well. Omori Sensei, even though he was 8th dan hanshi and 90 years old, still trained every time he came to the dojo. He would often play with the kata at such a level that I had trouble understanding what he was doing. Seeing a 7th dan teacher ask her fellow 7th dans to critique her technique and accept their comments and work to integrate them into her kata is a marvelous experience. People may hit plateaus, but they always keep working, moving forward until they get off the plateau.

There are many elements that make up a great dojo, but for me, they are about the members of the dojo.  A big, spacious building with a beautiful shomen and lovely decorations, stacks of equipment, and a refrigerator stocked with beer is pointless if the people are arrogant and callous, unwilling to learn anything new or different, and indifferent to their partners’ health and welfare. A great dojo is filled with concern for everyone who trains there, from oldest to newest, and they are always striving to transcend their current level of understanding, even if it means giving up ideas they had thought incontrovertible.