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!
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.