Martial Arts

Warriors & W*nkers

14/02/2012 – Update: We have made a decision to modify slightly the contents of this blog, because the matter has been put to rest in a mutually satisfactory fashion, and I have no wish to tarnish the reputation of the club’s new administration, nor the greater organisation to which they belong, based solely on the actions of past instructors.

02/02/2012 – Update: My personal integrity is very important to me. I try hard to ensure that the information contained in my blogs is accurate and fair. As such, it behoves me to inform my readers that I have been contacted by members of the club in question, who advised me that the club is under new management, and that the instructor who was in charge at the time of this blog is now no longer a member of the club or organisation.

There’s a saying that goes “when a door closes, somewhere, a window opens”. Perhaps it is an altogether too finely tuned sense of cynicism that leads me to suggest and addendum: sometimes, people are waiting at the window with boards and a nail gun. This week, I had the uniquely unpleasant experience of being expelled from a martial arts club that I have been studying with for a number of years. Shortly after a seminar which we attended, during the post-seminar coffee, one of our instructors called T over for a chat. After a few minutes, he returned, and once we had left, T told us that we had been handed back our licences, and expelled from the club. Apparently, our behaviour had been deemed unacceptable, and our motivations for training had been questioned.

I won’t lie – this news left me absolutely devastated. After speaking to my former instructor myself, I left, feeling pretty distraught. I had, honestly, no idea that it was coming. Although our instructor maintained that we had been warned, I don’t recall ever having been told that we needed to behave differently in class. I feel sure that, if I had been told, I would have made efforts to change my behaviour – I would have done whatever necessary to continue with the club, to continue learning the system. Our instructor was asked if we could take this incident as a warning, but apparently, this was not an option, due to the fact that he had allegedly warned us multiple times, and had “had enough” of us.

Sadly, they felt it necessary to deliver a parting shot – apparently, I only ever trained there because T did, and not due to any interest or dedication of my own. This was a particularly cutting blow for me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that, unfortunately, this is not the first club I’ve had to leave.

Some time ago, I was actively training in two clubs (in addition to my own home club). As my usual training partners were away for the summer months and variously busy, etc., I had ended up substituting a lot of my mid-week training by going and training in another style, with a very talented instructor. I made good progress there, and really truly enjoyed it. What’s more, I actually felt like the instructor respected me, and was glad to see me coming training. He seemed genuinely happy to teach me and to train with me, and seemed to consider me as an individual, and as someone who was really in it to learn. As a girl, I often have to work hard to get that kind of respect in the world of martial arts, so to be treated like this meant an awful lot more to me than I think that instructor could even imagine.

As any martial artist will tell you, unfortunately, there is no training without politics. No matter what style you choose, and what club you train with, there will always be fights, disagreements, and grudges with other clubs or instructors, and these clubs were no exception. After several months of instruction, I was getting on pretty well, and starting to progress, and so, as is often the way with these things, it was time for an ultimatum. Due to a long held grudge between the head instructors of the two styles, I was essentially told that, for as long as I was continuing to train with one club, I could not also train in the other. I had to make a very difficult and unpleasant decision then. With no friends or training partners around to help out, I defaulted to a old standard of mine – namely, if you ask me to make a choice, you have made that choice for me. So, with huge sadness and regret, I stopped training there.

Around this time in the first club, because my regular training partners away, I was attending classes alone. This meant that, each class, I was treated to one of two options – either largely ignored and left in the corner to practice alone, or grouped with the beginners, and left to train the first few strikes and blocks of the system. While learning all of the single strike patterns by myself in the corner undoubtedly improved my basics, it was hardly the most stimulating or rewarding way to spend class after class. After one particularly memorable class, during which I was left alone and not given instruction for the duration, I was given what has become affectionately known as the “dedication speech” (where I was told that I needed to be showing up consistently (I was), training my material outside of the class time (I was, and continue to do), and really dedicating myself to the study of the art). At this point, I decided to take a week off and consider my training options for the future. Having already given up one system to continue to study at this club, I needed to make sure I was willing to keep going to class, even if it meant being ignored, in order to learn the system.

As you may have discerned, I continued to attend the club. While the class format, and constantly being ignored, often brought me to tears, I wanted the knowledge. And so, I went to as many classes as I could. I continued to train the material outside of class, and tried to improve as much as I could. Meanwhile, I kept hoping that we (myself and my training partners) would eventually be accepted as part of the club, and would be able to progress to the higher levels of the system. Whenever I was asked, I bought the necessary equipment, attended the extra classes, went to the seminars (where possible). In short, I believed that I was putting in all of the effort possible to show that I really was interested in this system, even including, as mentioned above, sacrificing another system that I also loved, to continue in it.

And so, this brings us to Sunday, when I tweeted that I, along with my training partners, had just been expelled from the club, handed back our licence fees, and told to never darken the doorstep again, prompting many replies and emails asking what on earth had happened, and wondering what I/we had done to get kicked out. The truth is, I don’t know. I’ve spent the last few days running through everything in my head, and I still don’t know. My loyalty and dedication was drawn into question by my instructor, who takes attendance at every class, and who could quickly and easily demonstrate that I have the one of the best, if not the best, attendance record in the club. My longest absence from training there was in the immediate aftermath of surgery, when I was prohibited from training for 6 weeks. On the first day of the 7th week, I was back in training. I was told that I only attended when T did, and that that was the only reason I attended at all. Of course, only I know what my motivations for training are, but I thought that I had done everything possible to demonstrate that I was interested in, and dedicated to, learning the system, up to and including quitting another club to do so.

Finally, we were told that we were always messing and joking around in class, and never sticking to the one exercise. On this, I must hold my hands up – I will not say that my behaviour in class has always been one of submissive studiousness. Where people shared a joke, I joined in. While training, I did sometimes chat to my partner (while continuing to train though). If an exercise became boring after the 20th consecutive minute without change, I did work other movements in (sticking with the same drill, for example, but adding extra strikes). I did these things because I believed them acceptable, having taken my lead from the more senior students in the club, who sometimes stood and talked instead of training, who occasionally improvised within or changed the prescribed drill, or who often just did completely different things. Most of all though, I believed that it was acceptable because I was never told any different. While our instructor maintains that we were warned several times, I can honestly say that I was not aware that we were causing such a level of annoyance. Rather than believing that we were on the road to being expelled, I had thought that, recently, we were finally being accepted as members of the club. Up until recently, there was even talk about when our next grading might take place. This contributed significantly to the level of shock and upset that I felt on Sunday, as our expulsion came as a complete bolt out of the blue.

Upon hearing about some of the things that have happened in class, many of my friends have asked why we stayed – why we continued to attend class when we were so often ignored or, seemingly, punished for our attendance. Frankly, we put up with it because we wanted, more than anything, to learn the system. For every three classes of monotonous ignorance, there might be one class where we were taught some new material. This gave us something new to practice, and one more piece of the whole system, and this made it worth while. Every now and again, one of the other instructor level students/instructors would show us a small twiddle, or a set of techniques, perhaps from a higher level, or from the older syllabus, and these were the gold dust in the river mud that kept us coming back for more.

Some time ago, I promised myself that, once I had completed my studies with the club, I would tell the instructors that, while I loved the system, I often hated the classes. I would explain that we never once felt like part of the club, that we couldn’t understand why every other new student seemed to be brought into the fold, and we were still left out in the cold. I would tell them that it was profoundly frustrating, and frankly, a little insulting to be ignored every week, or to ask a question, only to be told to piss off, to be told “I’m not your instructor”, or to be told that that was far too advanced, only to see it being taught to another beginner who was two grades beneath us. I promised that I would tell them that they took some of their most dedicated students, and systematically chipped and picked away at that enthusiasm until it was almost all gone.

On Sunday, my former instructor did not even have the decency to tell me that I was expelled. Instead, he chose to deliver the message through T, one of my training partners, since we were “only there for him anyway”.  To me, this neatly exemplifies the level of antipathy and apathy that we often experienced while there. I returned to the pub, and kept my promise to myself. With my former head instructor, and my other two instructor-non-instructors (depending on the day and their mood) sitting at the table, I told them all of the above and more.  My former head instructor, once or twice, attempted to refute points I was making. I won’t lie – I didn’t let him speak. As far as I was concerned, he had had his opportunity to talk to me about it, and had chosen instead to deliver the message by proxy. The other two instructor-non-instructors sat at the table, refusing to make eye contact, and making faces behind their hands.We’ve been de-friended and blocked on facebook, and ignored via email. It would appear that the love affair is, well and truly, over.

While the experience won’t put me off training martial arts, it will probably change the way I trust instructors in the future. While I had never thought that I was friends with my head instructor, I had honestly believed that I had a pretty decent relationship with some of the others there. Myself and my training partners have made provisions to begin training in another style, to replace the training hours. We’ll continue to revise the material that we were shown, and try to add to it where possible, through seminars, dvds, etc. Another addendum to the “door closing, window opening” phrase perhaps: don’t forget your metaphorical crowbar.

A phrase that my friend, T, likes to use often is that, when it comes to training, “There are warriors, and there are wankers. Which are you?” By this, he means that, if you want training respect, you have to earn it. You do so by showing up time and time again, when you’re tired, when it would be easier to go home and sit in front of the tv, when you don’t feel like it. You keep trucking on, you keep showing up, and you keep trying, and that’s what makes you a warrior. I can, at this point, only feel sadness and regret that, when it came down to it, I wasn’t warrior enough for them.

Note: This blog is, by virtue, a one-sided account of what has happened. While I’ve been honest about what I know, I can only speculate about the motivations of the instructors, about how annoyed they were at us, etc. 

Martial Arts

The highs and lows of seminar training

Trust is important in so many aspects of life. Over the years, I have found that trust is especially important when training martial arts. There is an implicit trust with your partner – they won’t endanger you or hurt you, they will train safely, and they will look after your body while they are using it to practise. This trust is important – after all, why else would you allow someone to practise high impact, high velocity, or just downright dangerous techniques on you?

This agreement also extends to instructors. When I am called up to be a demonstration partner (an uke) by an instructor, I will do my absolute best to do as I am told insofar as I will attack as I am asked, and I will take the breakfall or technique as required. Once again, there is a trust issue. I trust that my instructor will be careful with me, and will not damage me while demonstrating the technique. Thankfully, none of my instructors have ever been anything but careful in this respect, and the same can be said for my partners.

As someone who travels to quite a few seminars during the year, I see an awful lot of instructors of many different levels (mostly high dan grades). And unfortunately, what I also see a lot of is these high dan grade instructors injuring their ukes. Frankly, it disgusts me.

As ukes, we are lending you our bodies to demonstrate your skill and prowess at the particular martial art that you practice. We are polite, we are compliant, and we do our best to make sure that you can demonstrate the technique effectively, so that everyone can learn. As a dan grade, you don’t automatically have the right to abuse us simply because of your higher rank. As a brown belt, I can perform techniques on our beginners, lowering them gently to the floor, and moving slowly, so that they are not hurt, even if they have not developed the breakfalling skill yet. I fail to understand why high dan grades do not also possess this skill.

When a senior instructor hurts someone on the mats, the whole teaching and training dynamic changes. No longer am I worrying about learning the technique or paying attention to the intricacies of the throw – instead I am worried about the person who has been hurt, and furious at the instructor who has hurt them. I instantly lose so much respect for the instructor that I am no longer interested in learning what they have to teach, because I don’t want to learn from someone who abuses students. For the duration of the set, I won’t be focused on performing the technique well – I’ll simply be hoping that the set will soon be over, that the uke will be ok, and that the instructor won’t want to demonstrate on me. As soon as an instructor hurts a student, the trust between student and instructor is demolished, and if I don’t trust an instructor, I find it almost impossible to learn from them.

If your skill level matches the belt that you wear, you should have no trouble performing any of your techniques at a variety of speeds, and you should have no trouble choosing the appropriate speed for the students you are teaching. While accidents can happen when students are learning new techniques, if your skill level truly matches the belt you wear, then you shouldn’t be making these mistakes while demonstrating on students at a seminar.

In particular, when students have travelled to a seminar, there is a financial commitment made – travel costs, accommodations costs, seminar fees, etc. To take one of these students, and hurt them, you are robbing them of the chance to train properly during the seminar that they have paid to attend. The student may be impaired for the rest of the day, or may not even be able to train at all. I have seen students, more than once, travel across the country or from another country, only to be hurt in the first set of the day, and be unable to train for the rest of the seminar. As students, we deserve better than that.

Many times, instructors will make a big show of thanking the attendees. They will say that the students are the life blood of the federation, and that the federation couldn’t continue without students. And this is true, although I don’t believe that the instructors really believe it when they say it. Put simply – if the students stop attending, the instructors will no longer be required.

In short – as a senior instructor, you have a captive audience in the students who have come to learn from you. We are eager for knowledge. We want to learn, to progress. We don’t want to be damaged or hurt. Please remember to respect the bodies of those who you demonstrate on, or you may find that your audience dwindles with each passing seminar.

Martial Arts

Climbing the mountain

Yesterday, I graded for my brown belt in Jiu Jitsu. What we do is technically traditional Jiu Jitsu (really meaning that it’s not Brazillian Jiu Jitsu), but what we do is, in actuality, quite far from traditional.

Myself and my grading partner have been training for this belt for quite some time (some have said a little too long), and it was important to both of us that we put in a good performance. We had grading instructors travelling from other parts of the country, and our own instructor there too, so neither of us wanted to let anyone down.

We had a number of students grading for various belts, with brown belt being the highest grade to be tested, so we stepped on at the very beginning of the day, and trained through every belt up to, and including, brown belt (yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, brown). All told, we were training for about 5 hours, with periodic 1 minute water breaks.

We grade our students on four criteria – material, flair, aggression, and heart (representing the student’s knowledge of the techniques, their skill in performing them effortlessly and gracefully, their ability to affect their attacker meaningfully with the techniques, and their general commitment to keep on going throughout the grading). I’m very happy to say that everyone from our club passed the grading, and many received distinction grades (a mark of higher than 75%). It made me really proud to be a part of our club, and especially proud of our yellow belt candidates for tackling their first grading so well.

As we were clearing away the mats at the end of the day, a fellow student (and new yellow belt) asked me if it was the hardest grade I’d ever done. It’s something I’ve thought about before, so I didn’t have to think long before answering. I told him that it was one of the longest grades I’d ever done, and that while it was by no means an easy ride, it wasn’t the hardest. I still think that the hardest grade I ever did was my yellow belt.

By the time you’ve graded a few times, you’re familiar with the protocol. You’ll still get the nerves, and you may even fumble a technique or two as a result, but overall, you’ll hopefully be able to remain cool in the face of it all. But that coolness is something that comes with experience, and when you’re going for your very first grade, it’s all still so new. I remember being so worried that I’d forget one thing and fail the whole test, that I’d forget everything and be laughed out of the dojo, or that I simply wasn’t up to scratch and would make a show of myself. I had heard tales of previous gradings, and was worried that I’d never make it through it all without injury or exhaustion. Stepping into the dojo that day was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done, because it represented that important first step on the ladder.

Grading means committing yourself to the martial art you’re doing in a special way. You’re not just showing up to train, you’re training with a purpose and a goal in mind. You’re trying to show that you understand the techniques, that you can perform them time after time, and that you can withstand whatever is thrown at you and keep going through it all. And, in theory, grading means that you want to progress along that ladder, until you eventually reach black belt, and then beyond. That’s certainly my goal.

Was my brown belt difficult? Yes. It was a very long day, and the number of techniques in our syllabus is quite large, so there was a lot to remember. As the day moved on, the junior grades were looking to us to see the techniques performed, so they could try to do them. The instructors were walking around the mats, watching every technique to make sure that we were working hard throughout the day, and any mistakes on lower grades would count against us, regardless of what belt we were being examined for. All this made it difficult. Was it my hardest? For the moment, yellow still pips it to the post for all the reasons noted above.

So, I applaud our newly graded yellow belts for their hard work and dedication over the previous months and years, and I congratulate them on taking a really important step in the martial arts careers. Long may it continue!

Martial Arts

The Disciprin

So, last night I was watching an episode of South Park, where Stan’s dad developed an alcohol addiction. One of the things that came up was Stan telling his dad that he didn’t need AA, or miracles, he just needed “the disciprin”, which Stan had been taught by his martial arts instructor.

This put me in mind of my own training, and finally got me to set this blog up properly, and sit down and write a post.

I train a few different martial arts (4, at this current moment in time) and it takes up an awful lot of my time. To continue at a level I’m satisfied with in all of my training, I put in an awful lot of time and effort – all told, I train anywhere between 5 and 6 days a week, and sometimes twice in the same day (usually twice Saturday and Sunday). It’s a demanding schedule that can be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting, taxing, and elating. In addition, I spend almost all of my free time (and holidays from work) travelling to seminars abroad and around Ireland. It’s a big time commitment, and a not insignificant financial outlay too. And, I suppose, if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t keep doing it (and I’m sure many who know me have wondered why I continue to put all of my time into it).

I guess the answer to that is that I love it. The bruises and bumps that come with the territory don’t sting as much when you’re enjoying what you’re doing. I am hungry for new knowledge, and I am committed to succeeding in what I do. I want to reach the top and then push higher. The early mornings, the late nights, the hours of travel – I love all of it.

Well, I love almost all of it, because there is an undeniable factor to any martial arts training that I just can’t love, because I find it so utterly tiresome. That is “politics”. This phrase is ubiquitous in the martial arts world, and despite best efforts, appears to be completely unavoidable. It seems that no matter where you go, and no matter what you do, you’ll get caught up in it. It’s a genuine shame, but it really does seem like the higher you fly, the more people want to catch you. If you travel to other clubs, other countries, and you excel, you draw attention to yourself. And inevitably, with that attention comes the bad as well as the good. On the one hand, people will praise your skill, your dedication, your heart. And on the other hand, they’ll condemn you for belonging to the “wrong” club, for wearing the “wrong” suit, for training the “wrong” art. And over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that you simply can’t win when it comes to martial politics.

As a girl, I’ve always felt that I needed to try twice as hard when I’m training, to prove to those around me (particularly bigger men around me) that I am a legitimate martial artist. I don’t ask for special treatment because I’m a girl – I don’t want anyone to treat me like I’m made of china. I’ve gotten where I am today by taking a long long journey, turning my mind and my body into something that can take those punches, survive those throws, and then get back up again afterwards. And when someone says that I am good at what I do, I never, ever, want that to include the “for a girl” caveat.

I don’t regret trying hard to prove myself, because it has helped to shape the martial artist that I am today. I’ll continue to work hard, and continue to push myself to be better, harder, faster, stronger, and everything else that comes with the territory. One thing I do regret, occasionally, is the politics.

When it comes right down to it, I really just want to train. I want to learn, I want to be a good student, and I want to train. I don’t want the training I do on one day to impact the training I do another day. I don’t want the colour of my suit or the patch on my arm to dictate how my training session will go. When I travel to other clubs, other countries, etc. I do my very best to “empty my cup” – to enter into the club and do it their way, rather than slavishly sticking to what I know. I come to learn, not to tell you how we do it in <insert martial art here>. I endeavour to always be polite, respectful, and a quick and eager learner.

Please, let me fill my cup with what you know, not what you hate.