Did you know you can use your space bar to scroll down on websites? Go ahead, try it now (unless you’re on mobile).
Pretty slick huh? Little tips and tricks like that have become known as ‘hacks’ due to our computer friendly society. Hacks are a great way to improve your productivity and efficiency in virtually any endeavor. That includes teaching martial arts.
One thing I’ve realized over the years is that good instructors know how to manage themselves as much as their students. Avoiding emotional and psychological tangles frees up the class to focus on the material at hand. The following three mental hacks are great ways for you to improve both the quality and consistency of your teaching.
1. Remove Your Patience Trigger
Imagine a thermometer. As heat rises so does the red mercury goo inside the glass piping. Now imagine things getting so hot that the goo bursts out of the top (I don’t know if this actually happens, but you see it in cartoons all the time). A patience trigger is like that, where we experience a certain level of annoyance or frustration and it results in an external reaction. Road rage, for example, is a very common patience trigger. A slight inconvenience on the road can cause people to launch into fits of rage.
The big realization here is that with a little forethought you can understand where your own patience trigger is in most common situations, learn to feel it coming, and take active mental steps to avoid allowing that trigger to activate.
The bigger realization is that when instructing martial arts you can eliminate that trigger if you have the wherewithal to try.
I remember many times parents approaching me and apologizing for their child’s behavior in class. In most of those scenarios the child was definitely being disruptive. I had to take special time and attention to wrangle them back in. The funny part is that the parents expected me to have the same patience trigger for their child as they themselves had (which is to say, very low tolerance). However, as a martial arts instructor I (and you) live up to a different standard while in the dojo. It is our job to maintain balance, poise, and focus. The rest of the class will feed on that energy one way or another. Therefore, even as your temperature rises, there can be no trigger moment where you lose your cool.
This one is hard to execute all the time and is something we need to remind ourselves regularly especially when there is a particularly abrasive annoyance. We should not confuse this for allowing ourselves to be pushed around. The Sensei does not tolerate annoyance and bullying but neither do they sink to those levels.
Identify the behavior you are most likely to encounter in the dojo that will trigger you. Learn to feel it coming and consciously disarm it.
2. Utilize Your “Prime Time” Self
This one is all about being a professional. It’s odd, but since the Sensei is autonomous in their own dojo they lack accountability. Good managers and CEOs know that going to work means delivering top performance. The company is relying on them and they are expected to set the tone for the rest of the work place. On the other hand, many Sensei fall into the trap of believing their dojo is their own personal playground, workshop, or therapy couch.
Your “Prime Time Self” is essentially a way of bringing your best game to the dojo time after time. When you enter the dojo door you should imagine yourself putting away external problems, worries, and grievances. You should then adopt the persona of your best self – the teacher you WANT to be. This does not mean putting on airs and pretending like you’re Confucius. Instead it means behaving in a way that is worthy of your title as Sensei – thoughtful, level-headed, and focused. The attention of the class should be on progress and the art itself, not the mood of the Sensei.
3. Avoid Buddy Syndrome
This particular hack tends to apply more to Western instructors than Eastern. In Eastern culture the role of instructor has a built-in aloofness that can be downright distant at times. Western culture, on the other hand, prefers more of a coach mindset where the authority figure becomes a mix of friend and confidant as well as guide. The role of Sensei can be found somewhere in between, but it’s easy to get off track.
If a Sensei has an innate need to be liked and approved-of they may find themselves looking to be friends with students as well as an instructor. This can lead to buddy syndrome, which often results in complications. A Sensei’s treatment of students needs to range from encouraging to challenging and will often switch at a moment’s notice. If a student’s behavior begins to go awry, or their focus wains, the Sensei needs to get them back on track. This treatment can be more stern and demanding than a ‘friend’ would be able to do, so when those roles begin to mix a certain amount of relationship drama is sure to ensue.
Having a friendly, comfortable relationship with students is one of the great pleasures of being a Sensei…but avoiding buddy syndrome is important to maintain at all times.
Conclusion – First Know Thyself!
When people think about teaching a martial art they tend to focus on technical content and managing the personalities of the students. Those are both important, but if you don’t check yourself first you’ll find more trouble than you expected and be less prepared to deal with it. Use these hacks the next time you take the floor and remember – you are setting the tone. What you see in the students is a reflection of yourself!
I was recently at an Iaido seminar working Seitei waza. The instructor, Iwakabe Hideki Sensei, was demonstrating one form in particular known as Sanpogiri.
(For reference, here is Noboru Ogura Sensei demonstrating the form):
After discussion of technical details and multiple demonstrations it was our turn to try. We performed as a group, and then individually. When it was my turn I got up, moved through the waza as best I could, and then waited. Iwakabe Sensei shuffled up to me, smirked, and said:
“Good, but next time don’t walk like an old Japanese man.”
You see, after decades of training Iwakabe Sensei has developed a subtle gait to his walk, taking careful steps so as not to find himself off-balance or tweak any pre-existing injuries. These adjustments over the years were born of necessity and a desire to continue training despite the natural effects of both age and hard exercise.
I was watching Iwakabe Sensei as closely as possible, and while I was focusing on the technique I was inadvertently absorbing everything else. In order to make myself perform like him, somewhere my mind and body decided I needed to walk like him too. This was in no way an actual conscious decision. It was astute of Iwakabe Sensei to catch me on that and correct me ASAP before it became a habit of muscle memory.
The Natural Evolution of Kojin Kata
We often think of kata as these unchanging obelisks of technique, handed down throughout the centuries. Of course, we all do our best to live up to that lofty standard of “unchanging-ness” but never truly achieve it (nor, as it turns out, would we want to).
As a person grows in their understanding of a form it naturally takes on subtleties that the performer may or may not realize they are imbuing into the performance. These nuances can come from mindset, understanding, visualization, and favored ways of moving the body. Another way nuance develops is through age. The combination of mental growth as well as physical aging turns into something known as “kojin kata“, roughly translated as an “old man’s form”.
It sounds slightly derogatory, but kojin kata is far from it. As a martial artist grows they are better able to understand their own abilities (and eventually limitations). The end result is economy of movement and clarity of purpose. Unlike sports competition, classical “do” (“the way”) martial arts are designed to enhance a person’s life, increase longevity, and give a sense of purpose.
For example, this performance by Higa Yuchoku Sensei occured just a year before his passing. You can tell the limitations he has but also his strength of spirit:
Higa Yuchoku is forced to perform his version of Passai in a way that suits his understanding and capabilities. It would NOT be suitable for a young practitioner in their 20s or 30s to move in such a way. This was the point Iwakabe Sensei was trying to get across to me. At my age, I need to move in a way that is either natural for my body type or constructive for body development.
Naturalness vs Body Development
One of the biggest lessons to be learned in traditional martial arts is how to be natural vs how to develop body conditioning. Every style emphasizes both things to a different extent. For example, Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Seitei Waza emphasizes a lot of body development in terms of flexibility, strength, and balance. The stances used in these forms are long and deep, the movements big and smooth. Old (koryu) styles like Muso Shinden Ryu or Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu tend to have a more combative focus and thus the stances are higher, natural, and mobile. The cutting and sheathing motions tend to be sharp and quick.
In karatedo, the mix of naturalness vs body development is just as pronounced. Some styles like Shotokan feature many deep stances and large movements ideal for body development. Old Okinawan styles like Matsumura Seito feature body movement that is higher and smaller for combative engagement. This comparison can be done with almost any style, and most styles have elements of both to different degrees.
Back to Kojin…
Connecting all this back to the original point of kojin kata – it’s important to look down the road when practicing your style. Take note of how your instructor trained and how it eventually affected his/her body. Heed their advice in terms of things to do and NOT to do. Most of all, don’t be overly focused on mimicking individuals who teach you at the expense of what they are trying to tell you. Also, remember that arts inevitably grow over time. The only way this becomes detrimental is if those teaching and passing the art along don’t fully understand what they are doing and how it is changing while in their care.
One of the immutable truths of martial arts training is that it requires hard work. Time, sweat, and pain are the primary currencies for martial growth. However, I’ve never believed in the concept of training without thought. “Shut Up and Train” may be a great way to kick yourself (or others) into gear, but a career spent “shutting up and training” fails the true potential of martial arts, by my estimation.
Let me explain in the context of exercise, and walking around the neighborhood.
What is a Walk?
Sometimes when I am taking a stroll around my neighborhood I wonder what passersby must think of me. As they push forward to make pace on their run, mind the behavior of their dogs, or chat with their jogging buddies, they see me doing none of those things. In fact, I am walking at death row pace and looking around like I’m lost. They might very well think me a vagrant…or so high I forgot how I got there.
In truth I use those walks to untether my mind from the day’s grind. I try my best to appreciate small things I never noticed before, or wrestle with problems that I haven’t yet come to terms with.
While I walk I wonder of those passing me, must everything be so…regimented?
The Trap of Pure Exercise in the Dojo
There are limitations in my story above. For example, I hardly know what other people are thinking or what their intentions are…and I certainly don’t think people need to do things the way I do them. In fact, many people state that they achieve a relaxed mental state and calmness through hard physical activity (like hitting a bag) or repetitive activity (like running). But that is the subtlety here – I am not referring to a peaceful mind, but instead of mindfulness.
In his book “My Journey With the Grandmaster” Bill Hayes Sensei discusses the results of training Sanchin kata over and over again. He pushed his mind and body to a point where normal aches and pains washed away in the rhythm of the kata. By the end, his attitude and perspective had changed and he felt a great happiness. This is the potential benefit of prolonged exercise. However, it was not on that same day that Hayes Sensei gained his massive insight into the fundamental operations of that kata and how it could be applied throughout his entire karate paradigm. He did that slowly and thoughtfully on different days, observing himself and others and finding the important questions to ponder.
If, every day, an individual arrives at the dojo and commits fantastic effort into their training they have a chance at receiving the same kind of benefits Hayes Sensei experienced. But if that’s all they do, they could be forever limited.
Mindfulness in the dojo should not be confused with discussing technique or bunkai drilling as both of those matters have distinct purpose. Instead, mindfulness is taking the time to step outside yourself and “watch” with patience as you execute the art. You, as the observer and the executer, have the opportunity to poke around and ask why, how, and to whom. As such, the observations made will likely begin technical and expand beyond it.
A mindful observation of form and function should consider physical technique as well as emotional content (we all remember the finger pointing to the moon right?) and presence of character. Some questions that might arise include: who are you? Why are you moving in such a way? What change in emotional state does this bring? Are you feeling focus…or anger? How does this relate to the bigger picture of the art? Are you being wasteful? Does the dignity of this kata walk with you when you leave the dojo?
One of the least tangible but most critical qualities of true martial arts masters is Hinkaku, a possession of quiet dignity. When around those rare individuals who embody Hinkaku one tends to feel at ease, and wishes the individual would speak more as everything they say and do has weight. In some manner, the dignified individual both exemplifies the simplicity of training for trainings-sake and the discovery of mindful introspection.
Of course, a person of Hinkaku has something else that can’t be written about or photographed or recorded. But that once again is the purpose of mindfulness, as everyone’s something is entirely unique and embodying it is paramount to the martial way.