A long time ago there was a master who lived in a quiet village. He spent his days carefully tending to his garden and livestock. After years of collecting spare wood and materials from his fellow villagers the master built a small dojo on the edge of town. The roof was a little lower than he wanted and the walls more porous, allowing wisps of air to pass through cracks where salvaged boards refused to lay flush. Despite the creaks in the floorboards and the rain trickling through the thatch the old man loved his dojo and was happy to train there.
The master’s activities became known throughout the village, warranting a glance and a smile whenever passersby heard a steady thumping of fist hitting straw-wrapped wood. Three young men, intrigued by stories and rumors of the old man, joined in training and returned faithfully every week to listen and learn.
A few years went by in this way, both students and teacher happily progressing in their studies. One day, the three students got together and hatched a clever plan. It was the master’s 77th birthday in just a few days and there could be no better time to express their appreciation for all his efforts. They decided, one at a time, to inform the master that they could not attend training that week. Then, when the dojo was empty, they would sneak in and decorate the place with paper lanterns, streamers, and gifts.
The next day the first student visited his teacher while he was home in his garden. Bowing apologetically, the student said, “Sensei I’m sorry but I have a childhood friend coming to visit me this week. I will not be able to train.” The master replied, “friends are important – especially long held ones. Enjoy your time together.”
Later that day the second student arrived to find the master still at work in his garden. He bowed briskly and said, “Master I am sorry but I cannot train this week. My uncle needs my assistance on his fishing boat.” Nodding, the master replied, “fishing is important to the health of our village. I wish you a good catch.”
That evening the final student visited the master at his home where he was sipping tea. The young man bowed slowly and said, “Sensei my employer needs me this week to help organize his wares. I’m afraid I cannot train.” The master looked up from his cup and said, “we must honor our duties as much as our training. I will see you next week.”
Shortly after, the three students got together and celebrated their craftiness. The following evening they would sneak into the dojo, decorate it, and sneak out with the master being none-the-wiser.
The next day they bided their time anxiously waiting for dusk to fall. It was then that they snuck to the edge of town, gifts and streamers in hand. Oddly, as they approached the dojo they heard a thumping noise. It sounded like a fist hitting wood, but that didn’t make sense since there was no class. Peeking in, they saw the master steadily striking the board, a bead of sweat rolling down his forehead onto his weathered cloth gi. They quickly ducked down.
“What is happening? Did someone forget the plan?” they asked each other.
Suddenly they heard an old voice, “Hello? Is someone there?”
Slowly they walked over to the door and sheepishly appeared before their teacher.
“Well now,” the old man said, “I thought you each had duties to attend to!”
“We did,” the first student replied. “But I’m afraid we deceived you. Our duty was to decorate the dojo tonight in celebration of your birthday! We apologize for the deception, but why Sensei are you here tonight? We all visited you and explained we couldn’t train.”
“I see,” said the master. “Well your deception caused no harm so think nothing of it. However, I must tell you, you forgot about my fourth student.”
The three young men looked at each. “Fourth student Sensei?”
“Yes indeed,” he replied. “The one I’ve carried with me since the first day I stepped into my own teacher’s dojo.”
Understanding, the students asked, “but Sensei what can you learn alone? Who can teach you here in this place?”
Looking around thoughtfully the master replied, “why the dojo itself! These walls and this floor. My kata. My board wrapped in straw. Every tool I need to learn is waiting for me here if I have the strength to become a student again and learn.”
The students nodded, then began to laugh as they realized how foolish it was to think that the master would slack just because they weren’t around. Apologizing once again, the students cheerfully began hanging streamers and lanterns, celebrating the master’s birthday and the unexpected lesson that night.
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!