Maybe You Shouldn’t Be a Sensei

We’ve done two videos on opening and running a dojo, but there’s also something to be said for whether this is the right path for everyone. Oh, it looks great in the movies, and Cobra Kai actually does have a beautiful tribute to what it means to be a real Sensei:

Ali, you’re right. It’s crazy how things change. For a long time, I didn’t have much direction in my life. But then things got better. I met a kid who needed some help. So I got back into karate and became a sensei. There were ups and downs. I even gave up for a while. But I can’t give up anymore. I have a long way to be a better man, a better father, a better teacher. But I can make a difference in these kids’ lives. It’s a tough world out there, and I can help them be ready for it. That’s what I’ve been up to. That’s who I am. I’m a sensei.

– Johnny Lawrence, season 3 of Cobra Kai

And you know what? It is great. It is amazing, and I would have to lose everything before I crawled back to corporate and dealing exclusively with adults and their agendas. And meetings. So many meetings.

(For now, let’s set aside the etiquette and challenges of who gets to call themselves a Sensei, what the word means etc etc. I know some big karate Youtubers have discussed this recently – we’ll get to that another day.)

But this life isn’t easy. And I was warned, no doubt, by those who have gone before me. But maybe it needs to be written down somewhere, where everyone who is thinking about quitting their day job, opening a scrappy underdog dojo and becoming a full-time karate bum, can see it.

These kids are going to break your heart.

95% of the kids that walk in aren’t going to stay. Let’s rip off that particular band-aid first. Because no matter how much you may throw yourself wholly into the work, into being the most committed, caring and invested instructor you can possibly be, these kids, these teens, and even adults, are going to quit. They’re going to move away. They’re going to emigrate. They’ll get bored. Their parents will run out of money. Or the parents will get divorced and karate falls by the wayside when the kid needs it most. Parents will ghost you when you follow up. They and their kids will disappear without a goodbye, even if you have spent years getting to know them. Students get injured. They might get ill. They might be so talented that they get in their own way, and end up quitting anyway. You might have the next Miyagi walk into your dojo, train for three or four years, and then scream out of frustration when they quit because “karate isn’t cool, Sensei.”

That no matter how much you try, the nature of this beast dictates that most of them aren’t going to make it. Most of them won’t want to. And that’s okay.

Good karate, real karate, is hard. Damned hard. It is sweat, and repetition, and showing up over and over and over again. It is slow progress and constant feedback. It is a years-long marathon of effort that requires dedication and time and money, and the willingness to be humble, take that constructive criticism, and to keep coming back. To go to the dojo when it’s cold, when it’s too hot, when there’s a couch and Netflix and no one telling you to pull your hand back into chamber.

Nothing great is easy. Karate is the best thing that happened to my young adult self, and saved me from my worst impulses. I genuinely believe that karate has many answers to various questions, but they must be worked for. The answers will reveal themselves, in time.

But these kids are going to quit on you. A blessed, beloved handful will stick with you, and they really do go a long way to making it worth it. My husband has some students who have been with him since they were knee-high to a meerkat, and they’re young adults now. I dream of the same. But now, 5 years into this journey, I’ve come to realize that no matter how much you try, most of them go. You get used to it. Mostly. When you stop caring, then maybe it is time to quit.

You can only hope that the best of what you said made it through, and they take it with them. You hope that they remember how much you believed in them, and wanted the best for them, and that some of the lessons stick with them. If you do your job right, they might not stay with you in the dojo, but maybe a little part of you stays with them.

(And if you are reading this and you are thinking of your Sensei? Reach out to them. I promise they will be glad to hear from you.)

Your Own Training Will Slide

I thought I would get in SO MUCH training when I started teaching. Doing all that karate, all the time? Yeehah! Effortless kata, here I come. I am going to be a karate goddess.

And as the Yiddish saying goes: we plan, God laughs.

Yes, you will do the most basic kata three hundred times a month. Those will be your better kata – you’ll know them inside out, you can spot the wrong hand/wrong foot from the other side of the room using the mirror – but your senior kata? Your actual grading kata? Not so much. I am not on speaking terms with Seipai; that poor kata is so neglected. I have to make a serious, concerted effort to train by myself to work on everything I need to work on. I can’t do that when teaching, because it is absolutely not about me, but about everything from correcting foot placement to fielding a thousand questions to managing the “SENSAAAYYYYYY HE ISN’T DOING THE KATA RIGHT” tattle-tailing to barking constant reminders about wearing masks correctly.

(I can’t wait until we can be free of masks. If you are reading this in 2022, 2023, I hope we don’t need masks anymore.)

However, one of my favourite teaching aphorisms is “to teach is to learn twice”, so that does help somewhat. And one day, I will become one of those people that gets up at 5am to train. One day is one day.

Karate Wife, Hard Life

I can’t even remember where this came from – it has been said of every patient wife of an instructor, dutifully managing the rest of his life so that he can be a great sensei. Taking care of the minutia of daily life, so that he need never think about finding a clean gi, paying bills or making a meal.

For the most part, I think those days are increasingly behind us, and for good reasons. But being a karate spouse is still hard, even when you are both in the dojo, all the time, together. And just as there are many schools and dojo that are run by spouses, there are many more that are being run by a single instructor. And that instructor is not just teaching all the classes, but they are also taking care of the accounts, running all the marketing, doing repairs and lesson planning, managing a website and fielding calls and whatsapps from dojo parents. I’ve written before about a day in the life of an instructor, but I didn’t add the strain it can put on a relationship. Especially if that instructor can and does travel to compete, or coach, or improve their own karate. If you are both in it, then the sacrifice makes sense and can be shared. When Che used to travel as team coach, I would miss him but I was also proud of him, and knew what he was doing and the extent of it. But if I were a civilian, and didn’t get this karate life? I’m not sure I could be patient for years and years.

We have weird hours, and often lose weekends to seminars, morning classes, gradings and away camps. There are so many unwritten rules and expectations and habits that we don’t even realize we have, and that can be hard on someone who isn’t immersed in this world. (I know its not specific to karate, but this is me staying in my lane and writing what I know.)

Props to those who love their karate wives, and boyfriends, and girlfriends, and husbands, without being karate people themselves. The friends that don’t get half of what we do, but wait for us to get to the braai as soon as our Saturday seminar is finished. (My merchants – I love you for this.)
We see you and appreciate you.

But still, no regrets

I used to work in corporate. It was neat and tidy; 8am to 4pm, dedicated lunch breaks, lots of colleagues to go to lunch with. Paycheck regular as clockwork. I had no real power, so no real responsibility. Just a copywriting and marketing minion. I had my evenings and weekends uninterrupted, and while I have done karate my whole adult life, I got the fun part of just showing up to train and then going home. I didn’t have to worry about liability insurance, or affiliation money, or whether I was going to get another WhatsApp telling me a dear student was quitting.

Would I go back?

Absolutely not. I love being an instructor, and I hope that I have done enough to earn the title of Sensei. It isn’t one you can claim for yourself – it can only be given. And it is only given meaning when someone calls you that freely and without hesitation. When they see you as the one who has gone before, and has something worth teaching, worth imparting.

Otherwise, you’re just some chop in angry white pajamas.

Karate in the Age of Instagram

In my usual forays around the internet today, I came across this article about how Lush UK is abandoning social media. Their reason?

“Increasingly, social media is making it harder and harder for us to talk to each other directly,” the post read. “We are tired of fighting with algorithms, and we do not want to pay to appear in your newsfeed. So we’ve decided it’s time to bid farewell to some of our social channels and open up the conversation between you and us instead.⁣”

And honestly, this is refreshing to see. If a big brand like Lush is tired of fighting with the monsters that own Facebook and Instagram, then it doesn’t feel quite so bad to be a small dojo swimming against the algorithms all the time.

I worked as a social media manager in my past life, before I ran away from corporate to become an instructor, and it was a constant battle of shiny, happy updates and vapid copy, my English degrees weeping on the wall while I used hashtags and SEO-friendly babble to sell books, or book launches. To this day, I still cannot abide hashtags, which are an abomination unto the flow of language and conversation.  Seeing them anywhere other than on a phone keypad and Twitter, where they started their rise, and where they should stay, gives me hives on the inside of my skull. Billboards, whatsapp chats with friends and family, cheesy t-shirts from Mr Price – I barf in my scorn.

But, if you want to play the social media game, you have to play by the rules, and that means hashtags if you want your post to be discovered. And so, on Instagram, I dutifully put in the hashtags, even if it feels like I’m trading parts of my soul for it.  And there’s nothing worse than one line of copy, and a paragraph of hashtags, and that’s one of the reasons why our dojo instagram account doesn’t have 10,000 followers.

Of course, I could just buy followers – it is easy enough, and costs less than one expects.  Risky, though.  And predictably, that article goes on to piously state:

Take the time, energy, and money that you would’ve dedicated to buying followers, and focus instead on building genuine relationships with a real audience. If your content is engaging and authentic, your loyal followers will spread the word and engage with your brand without needing any bribes.

Aye, there’s the rub. In a longer post. I’ve written about the day-to-day schedule a Sensei might have, but to paraphrase here: when you are running a business, it takes up the whole day when you’re doing it with all your heart.  But on social media, no one can see your hard work. By its very nature, it demands that everything is effortlessly beautiful. All is glamorous and charming, all the time.

But by karate’s nature, and that of any martial art, it’s definitely not glamorous. This isn’t yachting in the Bahamas. There are hours and hours of slog – of cleaning and administrating. Of drills done in the morning, when the dojo is quiet and it’s the only chance I have to train.  No one wants to see that. Up and down, repetition after repetition. Who cares? Only me, and definitely not Facebook.

And what about the complications of posting about my students? Sharenting is the new term for when parents overshare about their children online, and there are concerns about the creeps who hang around, looking for information and pictures about kids. Also, there are those who take it to extremes, like the Kardashians:

Last week, it was alleged that American celebrities Kim Zolciak-Biermann and Kim Kardashian (both of whom regularly post pictures of their children on the internet) appeared to have… enhanced recent photos of their daughters, aged four and five. Their stomachs had been slimmed, their skin had been smoothed, and it was claimed (by gotcha account @Celebface) that Zolciak-Biermann had changed the shape of her daughter’s nose, and lifted her buttocks.

Classy.

Now, I teach a lot of really super cute kids, who look adorable in their karate suits. Do I post pictures of them posing to shore up my dojo ‘brand’? Absolutely not.  I don’t even post pictures of my own child online, because I don’t like the idea of any of those tech giants having any more say or information on my life than they already have. I am especially strict about others posting about him online. Why would I then have separate rules for my students?

As it is, I post only pictures of the top or backs of their heads – no faces, no tags, and no identifying markers.  Instagram, and its users, obviously don’t swoon over this kind of content. It’s safe, and boring. Nothing cute about the back of someone’s little head.

There are also legal issues around privacy and photography – this is the South African law around it, and worth noting is this:

You have the right to take photos of anyone or anything if it can be seen from a public area. This includes parks, city streets and sporting events or concerts. This also allows for any private property or buildings to be shot from within the public domain. Any person and member of the public is basically wavering their right to anonymity or privacy by appearing in these areas and are therefore fair subject matter for images.

This makes it interesting when you are dealing with parents taking photos of kids. It may be important to have a conversation about not sharing photos with other people’s kids in them, unless you stick an emoji over their face, as some people do. (Which is weird, but better than blurring their faces so that it looks like a documentary.)  Here are some good guidelines about posting pics, and overall, my rule of thumb is that I try not to post standalone pictures of kids, and these days, only group photos, at a distance, where the faces are small and no one is tagged.

All of this is even before we have a wider conversation about social media and its inherent problems, like how it is linked to the exacerbation of mental health issues in teens, or how it favours right-wing parties. Is this even something we want to be a part of?

Overall, it is just easier to avoid all of this nonsense and risk, and unsubscribe from the unrelenting demands of social media, and especially Instagram. I know its 2019, and everyone, including their pug, is expected to have a social account, and a following.  There’s even the careful monetisation of parenting, with moms (90% of the time, its moms) sharing how ‘exhausting’ parenting is, yet they have the time to make those damn cutesy letterboards with funny quotes and have perfect hair, and still be influencers getting paid that sweet dollar dollar for their twee posting. Parenting isn’t anything like that, and yet its now the new norm.

It all feels hollow, and pointless, and so antithetical to what a dojo is all about that it seems cheapening and soul-destroying to play the likes game. Because that’s all it boils down to: more likes = better, and how can I compete with someone who spends hours upon hours cultivating a careful artifice to attract those tasty likes?  And why should we be forced to compete?

It is important that students are not taught that their looks and image are more important than what they do. There is far more value to the qualitative life than the quantitative one, and social media actively promotes the worst in all of us. What message do we send kids when we post only their best, or use their tempers and failures as funny posts to get likes and comments?  Karate is about long-term goals, the daily work of attending class and practicing. It is the integrity to work when no one is watching, to do the lonely, simple work that progress requires. It is also important that students are taught not to value someone’s training based on their posts. Some people will post literally every time they put their gi on, but that’s no indication of how hard they work, and what kind of person they are on the mat. Social media is the opposite of the simple life called for in the dojo kun, and while it might help us promote our dojos to passing customers, it can easily distract us from what is important: teaching good karate and values.

I would much, much rather take the time to send photos I take of the kids in the dojo directly to their parents, so that they can enjoy seeing their kids’ progress. Especially for the parents who work full time and can’t come watch their kid train. I think that is a much better investment of my time than choosing hashtags.

Apps for Instructors

While the noble art of being an instructor goes back to the first time someone said “hey, let me show you how to do that better”, today we have incredible tools at our disposal. Sure, Sensei Youtube often causes more problems than it solves…

martial arts humor #jiujitsumemes http://instagram.com/p/0NTR8hjpjN/

But we are lucky to live in an age where we can connect with instructors all over the world. Some of them are even on Twitter! Below are some of the apps that I use to free up time for teaching, streamline my admin, continue my education and improve my lesson plans.
(PS: Links below are for Android, since that is the platform I use and there isn’t always an Apple version.)

Metronome Beats 

Cover artYou’d be amazed how many training exercises you’ll come up with when using the humble metronome. It is ideal for teaching students pacing in randori, or for picking up the speed in drills. I like to do a Hell Week kind of exercise where they do basics at 40, 60, 80, 100 techniques a minute. Punches, blocks, kicks – sure, it gets untidy towards the end but it is great pressure-testing and for building spirit.

Beep Test 

For those nights when you really want to test endurance and cardio – the beep test introduces increasingly shorter times to do sprints. Handy for building energy fast in the dojo and doing a full-body warm-up.

Tabata Timer 

The gym rats don’t have to have the corner on High Intensity Interval Training. 20 seconds on, 10 off helps with doing crazy volumes of basics, hojo undo and kata snippets.

Invoices Online

This is the best accounting app I’ve come across yet. It is well priced, offers lots of features and has great support. It is made for South African businesses, so it has easy VAT functions. Once you’ve added your student body, it is super easy to automate invoices and free up hours and hours of your time. It also helps you keep track of stock, expenses, payouts, quotes and more.

Whatsapp 

Trying to get hold of people via email is a pain – spam filters are the enemy and people chop and change emails way more often than phone numbers. It is well worth taking the time to set up broadcasts and holding groups when parents send in their paperwork. I personally prefer Telegrambut not everyone is on it like Whatsapp. (Which is a pity, because Telegram is beautiful to use and has a much nicer variety of stickers and emojis.)

Namola (South Africa) 

How prepared are you for a dojo emergency? Do you have emergency response numbers up somewhere? Namola helps get first responders for medical, fire and crime emergencies exactly to your GPS location. They also let you run tests to check response times.

Any.Do or Evernote

Running a dojo means a checklist for DAYS of little and big tasks. Short-term memory is useless for keeping track of all the little tasks, so I use Any.Do for my lists and Evernote for my ideas. Having an external brain frees me up to think about big stuff and long-term goals. If you think I’m crazy, Tim Ferriss backs me on this.

Pocket

I am a compulsive reader of articles about everything (anything from 10 – 30 a day) – I am always reading about everything from teaching practices to parenting to karate to running. Pocket is a great way to save all those articles in one place. Evernote offers the same functionality but it isn’t as streamlined. Articles are also nice to share as content with your dojo on social media, and this is a great place to store ideas.

Stitcher 

Linked to my compulsive consumption of information, Stitcher is my favourite podcast app. I listen to podcasts on teaching practice, economics, history, medicine, news, the list goes on. Good podcasts for instructors include: The Cult of Pedagogy, K-12 Greatest Hits, The Tim Ferriss Show, Note To Self and The Art of Charm

Pages Manager (Facebook)/Hootsuite

Honestly, I hate Facebook, but a dojo’s got to have a good Facebook page. Use Pages Manager to manage only your dojo page and not get sucked in to larger Facebook and pointless scrolling. If you want to manage multiple social media accounts (FB, Insta and Twitter), then give Hootsuite a bash. I used it in my social media manager days.

Pinterest

As much as Pinterest is full of sickeningly twee photos and mushy quotes, it is an excellent place to find teaching ideas. Teachers, educational psychologists and occupational therapists post their ideas all over Pinterest, and I have found amazing ideas for lesson plans, reward systems and dojo games. Once you teach the algorithms what you want, it serves up handy links and infographics. (Although mine is interspersed with fudge recipes, because that’s my life now, apparently.)

Hopefully this list will help you free up time to enjoy your karate and teaching! If you have any apps that you find useful, please share in the comments below.

How to Balance Training and Studying

“No matter how you excel in the art of “Ti” (Okinawan precursor to Karate), and in your scholastic endeavours, nothing is more important than your behaviour and humanity as observed in daily life.”  Junsoku Uekata (Confucian scholar), written in 1683

We are always aware of the increasing demands on children’s time. As schools introduce more and more tests while slashing down on break time, children have less time than ever before to just be children. Our teens have not only increased workloads, but social pressures that we are all still learning to navigate, especially the tricky ground of social media.

On top of this, it always feels like students are busy with cycle tests and exams. The tests are starting sooner and sooner, and like American schools, South African schools seem to be developing a toxic culture of test-taking that has 9 and 10 year olds swotting an unrealistic amount for tests that seem to have little value other than teaching them how to cram. But, whatever difficulties the school system presents, wherever you are in the world, school still has value in transferring knowledge and skills, and failing finals has very real consequences. We definitely understand that schoolwork comes first.

However, we also believe that the time students spend in the dojo is incredibly valuable in managing their stress. It is an hour away from a screen and from the books, spent challenging entirely different parts of their brains and keeping their bodies moving. It is also an opportunity for socialising and relaxing, for them to see friends and to share some of their frustrations. A good dojo always feels like a refuge from the challenges and pressures of daily life, and this is especially important during times of relentless stress.

It is also an ideal way to teach time management, as children who love the dojo will quickly learn that if they get their homework and studying out the way, there will be time for karate. Teaching time management from a young age will ensure a life-long discipline that will carry them through the challenging years ahead, especially at university!

Here are some tips for balancing training with studying:

  • Chat to your instructor about changing class times to earlier or later just over the exam season, or to reducing classes to just once a week for a month. We would always much rather be flexible in our schedules than lose students!
  • A disciplined study routine will ensure that time is set aside for karate – you only need to find 2 hours a week out of 168 to maintain your progress.
  • Kata are the living textbooks of karate – a student can do kata at home during study breaks, which helps combat the effects of sitting too long as well as restoring mental focus and energy through increased oxygen intake. Five kata per 15 minute break x 5 a day = 25 kata! That’s a wonderful way to keep up with training when it is impossible to get to the dojo.
  • Take study materials to the dojo so that some extra work can be done while waiting for class
  • Stay involved in the dojo – once you lose momentum, it becomes too easy to quit, and that path is filled with regret. For advice on how to prevent this, read this post on Returning to the Dojo

Parents, we really do get it. The schools are piling on the extracurriculars and reducing the amount of time kids have to play and explore their interests. And now, you’ve got to help them get ready for the umpteenth test of the term. On top of that, you’ve got to get them to the dojo as well.

It is up to us as instructors to offer high-quality karate that serves as a vehicle for important life skills such as discipline and self-confidence. However, developing these skills takes time, and this is why we always insist on regular attendance.

Slow or fast doesn’t matter – progress is progress, but it can only be made when students continue their training with patience.

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As Practical As You Make It

What do you do with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree

I can’t pay the bills yet,
‘Cause I have no skills yet,
The world is a big scary place.
But somehow I can’t shake,
The feeling I might make,
A difference,
To the human race.

 

I actually have a BA (hons) in English, so when this came out during my university days, it was quickly seized upon by my friends in the more respectable faculties. Of course, our lives have all diverged greatly since then, and I may have a BA in English, but I am also living my best life as an instructor.

But back to the issue of practicality. What’s practical about a Bachelor of Arts? What’s practical about karate in an age of guns, knives and pepper spray? Most people start a martial art with self-defence as a primary motive, and they are not mistaken in seeking this goal in their training. However, building the necessary muscle memory, calmness and repertoire necessary for self-defence takes several dedicated years, whereas most people assume it’ll take mere months.

 

I’ve written before about how much people underestimate how much work goes into being basically competent — never mind skilled — at something. It’s the training montage effect, that six weeks or six months is enough to match wits with someone who has been training for years. The Karate Kid is still the worst offender of this trope, as David Wong puts it. When it comes to the practicality of the martial arts, and especially traditional styles, it takes a long time to build the foundation necessary for a wider self-defence application. It does not happen over a weekend workshop.

Modern martial arts would never have survived the advent of the gun if there weren’t a number of vastly important and useful tools to be gained from a formal martial arts education. Just as a toolbox does not only contain a hammer, practicing martial arts is not only for self-defence. The longer one trains, the better equipped we will be to face a variety of challenges. In this toolbox, my favourite tool is discipline. (And here my metaphors fall apart, since the only tools I own are a Leatherman 19-piece, a hammer, some screwdrivers, and a camping Swiss army knife.)

 

“True freedom is impossible without a mind made free by discipline.”
— Mortimer J. Adler

 

Discipline is what truly sets us free, as it allows us to take control of ourselves given any situation. To follow the Stoic example, we cannot control all that happens to us, but we can control how we react to it. As Marcus Aurelius, the king of Stoicism puts it: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” 

 

Similar to the Japanese concepts of  mushin, or mizu no kokoro, we react only as necessary, and as much, as the situation deserves. The mind is still, like the surface of a lake. It reacts only when disturbed, then it ripples and rapidly returns to its stillness once more.

 

Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from anger, fear, or the ego during combat or everyday life.

Discipline, with its suggestions of self-regulation and mindfulness, allows us to control how we interact with the world around us, rather than being helplessly buffeted by circumstance. It is the choice to not overeat, to go for a run on a winter’s morning, or to calmly withstand the irritations of modern living without being overwhelmed. It is the ability to withstand the storms of life without taking on water and sinking.

“Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.”
― Seneca

This all comes from the large and small disciplines of training: the neatness of a gi, the hierarchy, the courtesy, the patience to repeat something hundreds of times. Learning to accept criticism of a technique and posture with grace, and the humility to copy (at least for the first, long while) while we are beginners. Just as a toddler can only learn to walk through imitation, so we must be humble enough to accept how little we know and to copy as best we can the teachings of those who have gone before us. (For more, read up here on shu-ha-ri.)

It is difficult for the exceptionalist, individualist Western mind to accept this kind of top-down guidance, but this is largely because we mistakenly carry over expertise in other areas into the dojo, when in fact the knowledge is rarely transferrable. It would be as arrogant as walking into a university physics lecture with a background in primary school mathematics, and expecting to parse the complexity of the subject matter right away. Similarly, a Westerner whose entire understanding of martial arts has been formed from movies and anecdotes is not even remotely equipped to understand the actual mechanics and application of genuine traditional martial arts. They must empty their cup, as it were, and start afresh. This is where the lesson truly begins.

“Be honest in your efforts, and balanced in your expectations.” -Michael Clarke, The Art of Hojo Undo

It takes time to cover the basics and build a foundation. It also requires humility and honesty in our approach. Just as a professional baker must learn to make cookies before croissants, a beginner must first learn how to punch properly before dealing with multiple attackers. Unfortunately, nearly everyone wants to jump straight to the cool stuff, and when they can’t or aren’t allowed to do it, then they quit.

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It’s the skills and tools we learn and gain on the path to mastery that truly matter. I may not be able to execute a technique that would impress a fifth dan, but I have also learned to fight for two hours without stopping. I am not, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, a phenomenal practitioner, a polished example of karate-do. But what matters is that, over more than a dozen years of practice, I have learned to find and trust my own strength and skill.  That confidence and growth alone is priceless, and is very difficult to measure given our limited ideas of what success looks like.

There’s no real shortcut up the mountain, even if you are rich enough to hire sherpas to carry everything for you. Perhaps you are talented, and your burden is that much lighter (the number of sherpas you have), but you still have to get yourself to the top. And sure, for the smart-asses out there, yes you can get a helicopter to drop you at the top. Well done – that means you’ve joined a McDojo, where black belts are only a matter of cost, not effort. You have gained and learned nothing, and it will be made evident if you ever have to go toe-to-toe with someone who has the experience and grit.

So, after all this: is it still practical to do a martial art, even with guns? Yes, but only if you accept that the best self-defence is prevention, and that part comes from all the other tools you learn along the way. Whatever style you train in, it will be as practical as you choose to make it.

Don’t Save: Teach

“We rescue because it feels good,” Lahey says.

Parents want to rescue their kids from everything, and so do instructors, sometimes. In this clear-eyed article about the gift of failure, we are reminded that “we seem to be more worried about raising happy children than competent or autonomous ones.”

Go ask your instructor if failing a student has ever bought them joy. For all that we may be a bunch of crazy people who do martial arts for a living, it is rare (and perhaps cruel) to take pleasure in failing a student.

We are the first to complain about helicopter parenting – how dare this parent question my teaching, we fume — but when it comes to our students and protecting them, we can be just as terrible. There are some students that we just shouldn’t be protecting anymore. Kids that we know that other instructors would never pass at a panel grading. There are some students that really do need to fail, and to fail hard. You know the one. The talented kid who coasts. The sloppy kid with patchy attendance. The know-it-all who needs to be taught the first line of the dojo kun: be humble and polite.

Of course, we worry. Most students quit when they fail, because they’re not accustomed to setbacks. That’s not just a dojo thing – that is a societal fear driven by our punishing treatment of those who don’t make an immediate success of things. Because success is made so obvious with so many ranking systems (Twitter followers, Grammy awards, Forbes Lists, bullshit internet “40 Under 40” lists) , failure seems an unacceptable outcome.

We’re surrounded by stories of success that conspire to make success seem easier than it in fact is – and therefore that unwittingly destroy the confidence we can muster in the face of our obstacles….We see our early failures as proof of conclusive ineptness – rather than as the inevitable stages on every path to mastery. Without an accurate developmental map, we can’t position ourselves properly vis-à-vis our defeats. We have not seen enough of the rough drafts of those we admire – and therefore cannot forgive ourselves the horror of our early attempts. – “How Knowledge of Difficulties Lends Confidence”, The Book of Life

(Remember when you were a yellow belt, and you thought you were never going to learn that kata? Like that, but for everything.)

We have a habit of praising outcomes, not effort. We focus on gradings, not the day to day grind of just showing up, the persistence and participation that makes for great adults. We laud talented kids, we set them up as the examples, and then when the talent fails to make up for hard work, we have left them without the tools to learn.

It is our job to be the instructors, not the saviours. It is hard to look a kid in the eye and say “not this time, buddy.” Especially when you think that the kid will quit, because the short-term pain is not worth the lesson, and you’ve seen it happen dozens of times before. Sensei Pain is a great teacher, but no one wants to take his classes. It is hard to not have a bit of a saviour complex when so many seek the wisdom and guidance of their sensei. It makes it hard to be the teacher, who simply teaches without offering salvation as well. We always wish some parents would try be parents instead of best friends to their kids – we need to remind ourselves that we are instructors first, and that means doing what needs to be done, even when it makes us uncomfortable. Especially when it makes us squirm.

When we choose to protect our students from their own shortcomings, we fail them completely. Like when we don’t force them to finish doing the boring, BORING drills that will fix their problems. Yes, it sucks, but eat your karate veggies, kid. But we worry that they’ll get bored and leave, and so maybe this time, we don’t drill basics (like we meant to) and instead we teach that cool bunkai that they don’t need to know just yet.

When we grade them and let them scrape by, we teach them (and the rest of the dojo) that the bare minimum will do. We lower our standards and theirs, out of fear and misplaced compassion. No one wants to be the reason a kid quit martial arts forever. No one wants to hear that a student cried all the way home in the car.

Then we worry about pushback from parents. How dare we, this karate bum who doesn’t have a ‘real’ job, dare fail their child? Can’t we see how amazingly special they are?

“Teaching has become a push and pull between opposing forces in which parents want teachers to educate their children with increasing rigor, but reject those rigorous lessons as ‘too hard’ or ‘too frustrating’ for their children to endure” Parents, Let Your Kids Fail

Or, and this is much worse, seeing a parent pile on the abuse – “see, even Sensei knows how bloody lazy you are,” and then an unwanted conspiratorial wink as they drag the child out the dojo. What was meant to be a lesson in hard work and growth was turned into a humiliation no one asked for.

Of course we want to rescue them, sometimes. There are some kids that we wish to plead a case for: they have problems at home, or they have lots of homework. But if they’re not doing the work, and if there’s nothing physically challenging them, it does a disservice to the kids who do do the work and make the effort, but who are rewarded equally to the lazy kids. In saving one kid from themselves, we may be discouraging the ones who do the work and put in the time. Why make the effort, when Sloppy Joe still gets graded?

If you think they don’t notice, then you haven’t figured out that kids will spot the laws you’ve broken and call you out on it. It is the core root of why kids tattle and snitch. (That article, by the way, offers the best advice for ending the scourge of mini karate police officers in your dojo.)

I know I’m guilty of making excuses, usually because they’re a sweet kid who loves karate but not the hard work. I would miss them if they quit. But after all, it is my happy duty to forge better character through karate. Giving them a free pass creates the exact kind of spoilt brat (and useless adult) that we all dread. And if they quit, then maybe this journey just wasn’t for them, just as it isn’t for so many thousands of others.

But if they fail, and come back? Well, then that’s a job well done.

Lessons From My Students

There’s a lot to be said for the wise Sensei motif, but any teacher worth their classroom will tell you that the exchange of knowledge goes both ways. I have heard wisdom from the mouths of toddlers, and utter tedium from boring-ass grown-ups. This list is open to future edits as my teaching career continues.

Still knowing what’s cool (without even trying)

How do I even know what a dab is? After all, Vine is dead, I deleted instagram off my phone and Snapchat is just a charming waste of time. (Also, I get it – people are really into filters, but not even anime girls look cute with dog ears.)

People who pay taxes and recycle tend not to be up to date on the memes and fads that have all the use and lifespan of a mayfly. All I know, usually, is that once a meme makes it onto a t-shirt you can buy at Mr Price, it has completed its life cycle. Man-child t-shirts are the graveyard of funny ideas.

But when you’re trying to demonstrate a move and one of the kids shrieks “Oh my god, that’s like a dab!” and then proceeds to ruin a kata with it, it becomes unforgettable.

Homework can wait – there’s a world out there to explore

As a child, I was the polar opposite of Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame. I was Suzie – dutiful, patient and mostly indoors and clean. And despite the fact that the schools are trying to crush the kids with hours and hours of homework, they are still rebellious. Sure, homework has its place, but why do third graders have several hours of homework now? Of course they should be angry that they’re being kept indoors on a beautiful day to do unnecessary work that should have been covered in class. (Sorry, school teachers – I know it’s not your fault, the system is broken and we are all suffering for it.)

I may have been one of those kids that always did my homework, and always got my work in on time, but you know, I wish I had maybe had more adventures along the way, especially in high school and university.

This is why we don’t assign homework in the dojo. The kids get plenty of that at school, and when they’re older, they’ll want to do that little bit extra. But until then, we’ll train outside and take group pictures under the dojo’s cherry blossoms.

How to make and keep friends

I feel like adults are really, really shitty about friendships in a way that kids just aren’t. Kids don’t bail on each other at the last minute with the tired old phrase “Hey, something’s come up, can I take a rain check?” Or that most bullshit of excuses “I’m tired.”

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I get it – I’m tired, you’re tired, we’re all tired, but as adults, it’s the equivalent of saying “the dog ate my homework.” 

Kids will nag their parents for sleepovers. They’ll want to spend all their time with their new friends. They will do the randomest shit together, and be happy to muck around doing nothing. But trying to get some grown-ups to sit around a table for coffee? It’s like herding cats on meth. Kids are so, so excited to see their friends. and to spend time with them. When did we lose that? As adults, we have our own transport, and money, and maybe time. And we are the first to complain that “we never see each other” but no one makes the damned effort. “It’s been so long!” we cry, when we finally, finally grab lunch with someone, but kids? Seeing each other at school every day isn’t enough. They need weekends and holidays too.

When did we stop being happy to see our friends? Is it because we’re jealous when their lives hit a great trajectory? Is it because it’s so easy not to make the effort? Is it because real friendship requires vulnerability and investment? And then when the midden hits the windmill, we realise that we haven’t got the same connections we used to have.

Kids live for friendship, and once upon a time, we did too. If that’s one thing I take from them and implement into my life, then I consider it a beautiful lesson.

A Day in the Life of a Sensei

Morning:
“Ah! What a beautiful day! I think I’ll go and train and -”
*phone starts vibrating*

And then pour in the Whatsapps.

What time is the grading next week? When are the dojo shirts arriving? Suzy Q has gymnastics/maths/chess trials today and will miss karate later. My account looks wrong – are you sure you can add properly? Have you spoken to my child yet about the bullying at school? What time is the training seminar? I know its for black belts, but maybe my kid can come anyway? Is it holiday hours yet? What’s happening with the tournament? Any chance you could do private classes, but for like, free?

Ping, ping, ping. Then various whatsapp groups for parents and students start blowing up because someone shared something utterly idiotic they saw on Facebook, which is usually kind of racist and awkward. Apologies are made, rebukes issued and with a sigh, the phone is set aside for the moment.

Day adequately derailed, the Sensei decides to check in on email, sees four million emails regarding team selections, federation meetings, gashuku arrangements and offers from shady martial arts gear companies promising good prices. There’s an email chain with far too many people CC’d in, and some people still haven’t learned basic email etiquette despite being old enough to pay tax. There isn’t enough coffee to deal with this inbox right now, so the Sensei decides to catch up on old school paperwork.

But where to start? Updating the student database? Filing the medical info cards? Sending out accounts? Then chasing accounts that remain unpaid for no clear reason? There’s newsletters to be printed, grading certificates to be signed, testimonial letters to be written. There’s events to organise, forms to collate, merchandise to be ordered, and and and and and — oh god, is that a sneeze, but I got my flu vaccination and and and —

Well, at least, that’s how it feels.

Every dojo is different. Every dojo has its own challenges and offerings. The bigger the dojo, the greater the admin. Some instructors have to work full time jobs and then still teach at night. Those of us who are lucky enough to do it on a full-time basis sometimes miss out on the normal things other people take for granted. Weekends, for example. Some of us are studying, working and teaching. I’ve juggled a counselling course, freelance writing and teaching this year. I know instructors who work at schools, hopping from one to the other, driving all day. Some are just trying to get a foot in the door, just starting out in a tiny dojo with no equipment but with so much heart and passion that they don’t charge a fee that’s fair to them as well. The starving artist trope extends to martial artists as well, as unfair and unnecessary as it is.

And it can be a good kind of busy, when you’re doing it right, and for the right kind of reasons. I love being a daywalker – my day is flexible, until roughly 3pm, when it’s time to prep for class, have that last cup of coffee (and a chocolate) and then teach for four to five hours. I sleep in a bit (because I hate mornings) and at least when I do admin at my desk, no one can tell me that a unicorn onesie is inappropriate workwear.

Of course it’s stressful – we are always worrying about litigious parents, bills, this student’s progress, that one’s troubles at home. We try to keep our qualifications current, and pay huge money to go train with our seniors to keep our skills honed. Never mind the cost of a grading in whichever home dojo we belong to overseas, which can easily cost a couple hundred dollars a pop, just for the certification. Never mind the plane trip and somewhere to sleep that isn’t a bench.

A Sensei is so many things – janitor, nurse, counsellor, accountant, career guidance coach, wailing wall, mentor, caterer, event manager, teacher and role model. Even when we don’t want to be, we are always in a gi. We are always aware of our actions, for the smallest misconstrued comment can blow up, and any lapse in judgement can bring the mobs down upon our dojo. Whatsapp statuses must be carefully written, personal Facebook posts reconsidered. It becomes a habit after a while, this careful self-policing, but there are days when I really would like to use that sweary image as my whatsapp avatar.

Our students often look to us for a good example, and there are days when I sometimes lie on the couch and see if I can catch popcorn with my mouth forty times in a row, and I’ll do this for an hour. I’m not always the shining example of adulthood that my students perceive me to be (although I’m not sure anyone is).

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But when the kids come barrelling into the dojo, so excited to train and be on the mat, shouting over each other and basically carrying on like labrador puppies on a sugar high, it all melts away. The drama, the politics, the admin, the fears, the anxieties. I could be in the blackest, foulest mood, (and I often am when I am hangry around 3pm) but the minute they arrive, it all makes sense.  

It’s amazing, when you think about all the things an instructor has to do, just to be able keep teaching your little one how to do a face block. After all, that which gives light must endure burning, and everything I do is for the students, because without them then I really am just a karate bum.

So, please be patient with us when we don’t respond to your text at 11:30pm about something that really could wait until tomorrow morning. It might seem like we have easy lives, because “you only teach for four hours”, but there are mountains and mountains of invisible work that go into what we do, and yes, we do lie awake at night and worry about our students too.

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Should I Watch My Child Train?

Many dojos have a couple of benches/chairs/rickety stools where parents can sit and watch their children train. There’s a spectrum of parental involvement: some will video every single class, and some never step foot into the dojo after that first meeting. Most parents fall somewhere in the middle, but it still helps to give parents and instructors some guidelines on where the dojo needs the support of parents, and where parents need to let go and trust our process.

One of the questions we get asked most is: Can I watch my child train? 

Usually, this is a great thing, because it shows interest in the student’s progress and maybe the art itself. However, it is important for an instructor to decide how valuable it will be.

Case Study One: VALIDATE ME, MOMMY!

Some kids can’t train while parents are in the dojo. I have any number of students who cannot do anything except check if mommy/daddy/guardian/sibling is watching them. They’re punching in strange directions with their heads craned over their shoulders to make sure that they are being watched. They don’t listen to instructions, and will sometimes wander off the mat to go and cuddle. Sometimes it is entirely at the child’s instigation, but some parents encourage it too. In this case, it is better to encourage the parents to go wait in the car, or a nearby coffee shop, at least for the first month. There may be some tears, but it is important to establish the separation between dojo and home. (Here is an awesome guide on how to drop kids off with a minimum of tears and drama).Sensei is different to Mom and Dad, and the twain should not meet (unless biological parents happen to be teaching their kids in their own dojo.)

Once the student has settled into a dojo routine (using any number of focusing exercises), then parents can come back into the dojo and watch. If it’s still disruptive, rinse and repeat until they are no longer distracted.

Case Study 2: “I’ve never done karate, but…”

For the most part, it is important to give parents the benefit of the doubt that they are
interfering because they love their child and want only the best for them. Unless they have trained in a traditional dojo, they do not automatically understand the workings of our world. And even then, they’ll lead off with “that’s nice, but we did it differently in my dojo.”

Teaching martial arts is an intricate balance of didactics, leadership, expertise and experience. How we see the training, and how parents see the training, often have zero overlap. They either worry that their child is too slow (like a 5 year old not knowing a kata in a week) or that their child is gifted and we’re not seeing it (we are, but let’s not give ego a place on the mat). All martial arts are complicated, and often parents underestimate this. It is important for an instructor to make it clear that it takes YEARS, not months. (Party trick: ask parents to perform a mawashi-uke, and see how well they manage.)karate-moms

Parents, you are always welcome to ask questions. Your curiosity and enthusiasm is always wonderful for us, because it means you are invested in what we do. But to challenge our decisions constantly, especially when the child has just started, is to remove the student’s autonomy and undermines our authority. It is in especially poor taste when parents want an accelerated journey to black belt. If a student wants a black belt in under 7 years, they’re more than welcome to go to a McDojo somewhere else. They can buy one online, if they want. Trying to bully an instructor into handing out undeserved grades or flashing money is the complete opposite of what a dojo needs or wants.

Case Study Three: Missing in Action 

A lot of the time, instructors will be quite happy to get on and teach without any parents watching. It’s quieter, there are fewer interruptions and kids aren’t distracted. However, some students really do need that external motivation. It takes a long, long time to develop intrinsic motivation, which is the result of discipline. But there isn’t one of us who didn’t want our parents to watch our karate and approve and celebrate with us.

It is so important that once a month (or at least once a term), a parent tries to make it to the dojo to watch. Knowing that a parent is involved goes a very long way towards student retention. Also, instructors should invite the parent to come and see their child’s progress, and maybe find out why they haven’t stepped foot in the dojo. It may be that they are working two jobs, or can’t find someone to look after the really little ones. Finding out a bit about a student’s home life goes a very long way to helping a student thrive.

It is also important for instructors to be available to listen to parents (at the appropriate times, of course) and to accept constructive criticism. After all, though we might think we know their child, they may have some important context to add. I’ve learned so much from the parents in my dojo, even though sometimes it is uncomfortable to be reminded of my shortfalls.

Overall, this is my favourite way to sum it up:

“Sports is one of few places in a child’s life where a parent can say, ‘This is your thing,’ ” Miller says. “Athletics is one of the best ways for young people to take risks and deal with failure because the consequences aren’t fatal, they aren’t permanent. We’re talking about a game. So they usually don’t want or need a parent to rescue them when something goes wrong.

“Once you as a parent are assured the team is a safe environment, release your child to the coach and to the game. That way all successes are theirs, all failures are theirs.”

And discussion on the ride home can be about a song on the radio or where to stop for a bite to eat. By the time you pull into the driveway, the relationship ought to have transformed from keenly interested spectator and athlete back to parent and child:

“We loved watching you play. … Now, how about that homework?” – What Makes A Nightmare Sports Parent – And What Makes a Great One

 

 

Late Bloomers Welcome

I got an email from a possible student the other day, asking if we offered adult classes, or if we would be willing to accommodate a 45 year old. I get messages like this all the time – parents and grandparents who want to either join their kid on the mat, or find something to do now that the children have all grown up and gone. Sometimes, it’s picking up where they left off thirty years ago, always plagued by the regret of quitting. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they wish they hadn’t quit as a kid, I’d be able to buy a shiny, fancy new gi.

Always that question: is it too late for me to start?

I always say, never. 

If you want your child to become national champion, then yes, they have to live it from when they are four or five. You also have to hope that they are freakishly gifted in strength, agility and speed. (But that’s a blogpost for another time.) Otherwise? It doesn’t matter when we start – what matters is that we stay. 

While the majority of my students are under 16, we are fortunate enough to have a thriving adult class of 30, when everyone is on the mat. The oldest student is 67. There is a grandmother aged 62, who trains consistently and with great humility and a smile. She’s properly awesome, and rightfully inspiring.

But this is the hard part for us – keeping adult students interested. The sheer demands on our time – work, family, health – make finding a couple of hours a week a challenge sometimes. In Joburg, there are literally hundreds of dojos, but anyone in a small town will struggle to find one close enough. Even then, proximity isn’t enough, because a dojo should be good. A dojo should be accommodating without sacrificing the integrity of the syllabus.

Adults have different fears; they’re afraid of falling, of not knowing everything, the risk of injury, of not being up to standard. Adults don’t like to work in close proximity with each other, and many feel exceptionally limited by their bodies. And as I’ve written before, the more classes a student misses, the harder it is to come back.

But the important thing is the trying – the participation. Joining in and doing your best is all that ever really matters. Only instructors and professional martial artists have to care about a hundred possible bunkai. Only instructors have to immerse themselves in history, in hardcore training regimes, in endless weekends given up to seminars, gradings and tournaments.

But you, the adult student? All we ask is that you try to attend class whenever possible, and that when you are on the mat, you learn to trust the process. If you’re free and willing to help out, then great! We would love that. But if not? Well, life isn’t all burritos and naps.

I myself started ‘late’ – while I did do judo in primary school for four years, I took a long sabbatical during high school and my gap year. I started up again when I was 19, and only started taking my training seriously in my second year. I never really planned to be an instructor – that only occurred to me about four years ago. But the advantage of starting as an adult was that I already had the necessary focus and experience to fully enjoy my martial arts. Some start too early, hit a plateau while waiting for black belt, and quit. Some kids burn out. Some teens, incandescent with talent, quit because their friends make fun of them, or because their parents want them to focus on their studies.

But you, the adult student? You may have commitments, but you also have more control over your time. You probably don’t have to spend your evenings doing homework. Your Saturday mornings are yours, no longer tyrannised by school commitments. You have the patience to train slowly and steadily. You are less likely to need the external motivation of the next belt.

So why not start? Why not try something new? Meet new people, discover new things. Get stronger, enjoy more focus. The internet is full of wonderful stories of people finding just the right dojo. My life is on a very special path because of one little dojo hidden in a university. Try a bunch of styles. Go to a few free classes. If your gut warns you, then try another dojo. (And if they ask for six months’ fees in advance, then best you run screaming. That dojo is failing.)

May you find the dojo and style that gels with you – remember, there is no perfect or best style. There is only the style that you enjoy, and that you stick with. The rest is decoration.