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!
Prior to this past weekend I had never been snow shoeing before. It always seemed like way more work than it was worth and a regular hike was fine by me anyway. However when I called the park service hotline at Rocky Mountain National Park the pleasant man on the other end of the line informed me that almost all the trails were still buried in snow. Any trail worth seeing, he pointed out, would be accessed primarily through snow shoeing.
It was at that time I felt the first tinge of ‘quit’ rising up in me. “Wouldn’t it be smarter”, I thought, “to try snow shoes some other time?” I glanced out the window and noticed the perfectly blue skies, 60 degree weather, and clear-as-day mountains in the distance. I decided there was no time like the present.
After I secured the proper equipment I made the drive up to Rocky Mountain and took off to meet Loch Vale, a rather well known hiking destination and point of natural beauty. The following video takes place at the summit of Loch Vale. I was quite alone and had a chance to collect my thoughts. It was then that I made a few connections between that hike experience and martial arts, namely how two different voices influenced my behavior that day – one telling me not to bother, the other challenging me not to quit.
Enjoy the video and I’ll share some pictures afterward:
The following are a handful of photos that help illustrate some of the points in the video. Loch Vale provided a very scenic, very challenging experience that I am glad to have undertaken.
I hope you enjoyed this little reflective trip through nature. All the best in your continued training!
Mediocrity, by its very definition, is what surrounds us. The world is constantly seeking a balance of order. As such, we as a species follow suit and establish an acceptable average of behavior and endeavor. That’s why excellence is so noteworthy and challenging to achieve.
Of course, with the advent of TV and the internet we can see excellence at work everyday. Tune into a basketball game featuring LeBron James to see what talent plus hard work can accrue. But the flashy kind of success isn’t what I want to talk about today. What I find noteworthy, and truly enjoyable to see, are people who endeavor to be the best they can be at whatever it is they’re doing, no matter how seemingly mundane. Indeed, a person of excellence can turn the routine into something remarkable.
A Not-So-Average Grocery Store Trip
Not too long ago I found myself at the grocery store doing typical grocery store stuff. As I finished gathering my items I walked past the checkout aisles, recognizing the predictable looks of mild impatience from the customers and general malaise from the cashiers. They all appeared roughly the same until I came upon an aisle that was moving faster than the others. Not only that, but the common air of drudgery was suspiciously absent. I saw a few smiles as person after person wrapped up their business. I decided this was as good an excuse as any to hop in.
When my turn came to checkout I got a good look at the young man behind the register. He wasn’t remarkable in stature or appearance; just in average, slightly nerdy fellow. But what DID stand out was his presence. He stood with excellent posture, not puffy but not meek and defeated either. He scanned items deftly, manipulating fruits, vegetables, deli items, and more with ease. While working he engaged me in just enough polite conversation to make me feel attended to but not burdened. Before I knew it I was out the door and headed home.
There’s no outrageous end to this story. The young man behind the counter didn’t rescue any kittens or stop any thieves that day. But what he achieved was quietly noteworthy. He tolerated nothing less than excellence from himself.
How Habits Can Alter Our Destinations
It wouldn’t shock me if the young man behind the counter became a manager one day, or even a business owner. In fact, I don’t see any particular limitations for him as long as he can maintain the same attitude as he displayed during that one work day.
Like Aristotle says in the quote above, excellence is not something that occurs once in a vacuum. Certainly people are capable of heroic acts and unusual moments of achievement, but more often than not those who succeed understand that the destination is a result of how the journey was made. The trap most people fall into is putting focus on the major events at the expense of all the little moments in between.
I remember a friend telling me a story about his father, Roger. Any time Roger went out of the house he refused to dress in anything less than his best. It didn’t matter if he had a critical business meeting or a stop a the post office, Roger carefully selected a button down shirt, dress slacks, polished shoes, and a tie. When asked about this peculiar habit Roger simply replied: “It’s not for other people. I don’t do it for them. I do it for me. If I don’t set high standards for myself, who will?”
It was Roger’s intolerance for mediocrity that made him noteworthy. It’s also something that others around him could sense. There’s an old saying that goes “chance favors the prepared”. In much the same way, achievement favors those who aspire everyday and look inward toward refinement.
Hinkaku – Character in Martial Artists
Striving for achievement is one of the most ingrained aspects of martial arts training. Every serious student has felt the grind of repetition and the burn of correction. The dojo is a rare place in modern society where the idea of habitual excellence is lived out in real time.
However, it’s just as easy (perhaps easier) for martial artists to miss the subtle message espoused by Aristotle. Discipline, character, temperance, and control are elements stressed inside the dojo but are often left at the door as students walk out for the evening. The refinement that was preached during kata training might not make the transition into day-to-day living.
In Okinawa there is a very important term known as “hinkaku”. On the surface it can be translated as “personal dignity”, but really it tells a much deeper tale. Rare Individuals who display hinkaku have overcome the hardships of life yet still exhibit kindness and understanding. They move with a refinement of posture, motor skill, and balance yet do not make displays of it. Their intensity and focus is coated in contemplation and open-mindedness.
Hinkaku is the result of a lifetime of personal refinement and achievement mixed with a fervent maintenance of humility. Hinkaku is impossible to fake and is exuded not intentionally but as a result of “living the martial way”.
Striving toward this improbable feat of character is one of the most important aspects of karatedo training and the mark of a rare person. Making excellence a habit, therefore, is not an option, but a responsibility for any dedicated practitioner.