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!