I’ve written on several occasions about how one’s martial arts style needs to be more than walking into the nearest dojo and training with whomever they find, there. Although not the original intention, there are hundreds of different styles currently practiced throughout the world and each one of them has its own specific nuances and techniques that have the potential to suit one person more than the next. Choosing a style of martial arts to commit years of one’s life to, can be a lengthy process involving more trial and error than most people are willing to work through.
But the importance of finding a style that suits the practitioner is important enough that it took me almost five years to land on a style that suited me, worked for me and fit my my overall goals. Not everyone is willing to do this. For many if not most, once they decide they want to train in the martial arts they’ll look up the closest dojo within their community and walk into it. This can be detrimental to that person’s journey since, if that style doesn’t suit them, they’ll walk away disappointed and if their community happens NOT to have another dojo, they’ll likely assume martial arts simply isn’t for them.
For example, even the people who know me likely didn’t know that I hold an orange belt in Hap Ki Do or that I studied Judo and Kendo for a number of years prior to joining karate. It wasn’t UNTIL I joined karate that I came to terms with what I was looking for and what suited me. Leaving those previous dojos was difficult, especially since I was climbing the belt process in Hap Ki Do, but since my main goal was my overall health and not my ranking, it didn’t matter. And I have no regrets.
My point and the point of today’s post, is that students will come and students will go. It can be difficult to see a student with solid potential start training within your dojo, only to quit and walk away. Sometimes it happens for the silliest and most frivolous reasons. Sometimes, it’s pride. But almost universally, it comes down to two categories: behavioural or technical. And now, I’m going to share the story of a student from each category.
We are not the sum of our behaviours. This can be a difficult lesson to learn, especially for a Sensei. When one becomes a teacher and takes it upon themselves to train others, it has to be through the lens that every person is different will not only learn differently but will likely behave differently. This should be common sense but in an art where discipline and obedience are key to learning the style, this can be a difficult pill to swallow. This is where a student that I’ll simply call “John” comes in…
I met John when i was still a white belt myself, albeit just a kyu or two shy of achieving green belt. He was younger than I was and quite brash and carried a significant chip on his shoulder. He acted out and behaved like a little shit within the dojo, often farting, causing distractions and teasing other students. Despite all of those things, he showed an affinity to karate and began learning quickly. He gained skill to the point that in only a couple of short years, our sparring matches saw us almost even matched and until I fractured my rib earlier this year, is the one responsible for the only time in my life that I’ve broken a bone. But I digress…
As John grew from a young boy into a young man and began to come into his own, he started to close the gap in rank with me and the promise of getting some green on his belt became a real possibility. Until he allowed his behaviour to trickle onto Sensei. During a rather heated sparring match with Sensei, John made some verbal comment that was more than Sensei would stomach. He delivered a single blow that sent John sprawling to the floor. Although he had been training to block, absorb or deflect such impacts for years, John walked out of the dojo feigning pain and lack of breath and went home. His pride had been wounded.
Now this situation has been hotly discussed on two fronts: The first being, John should have learned the lesson, returned to the dojo and continued training through the lens of having learned something important. The second that Sensei should have been more tolerant and SPOKEN to John about his behaviour and he shouldn’t have struck him. I fall under the former category. If you’re foolish enough to start mouthing off at me during a sparring match, I’ll likely bury my big toe in your spleen as well. But i once again digress…
John never came back to karate. Ever. Which was heart-breaking because he had significant potential and would likely be well on his way to being an instructor himself, by now. To this day, I believe he still regrets having never stuck with it and I genuinely believe that although Sensei’s rigidity could have softened, it’s John’s pride that prevented him from making his way back and achieving his goals. true story.
My technical example takes the story above and demonstrates the total opposite. I used to train/teach a younger student that I’ll simply name “Donny.” Donny was a teenager and by most views, was a respecting and appreciative student of the way. He had a keen interest in the martial arts and was hungry to learn. He followed all direction and instruction and was always pleasant to train with. Realistically, he simply wasn’t very good. I need t be clear on what I mean by this, since everyone’s level and skill is subjective. Learning and properly mastering techniques and forms did not come easily.
Despite this level of skill, which could have improved over time, Donny had no patience and began questioning when he would climb in rank. Although this was a question that many students had, it was somewhat rare to hear it from one who consistently required correction on material he had been practicing for years. The effect was that Donny began to realize he wouldn’t climb in rank, which caused impatience to rear its ugly head. As most of you know, impatience has no place in the proper learning of karate, although it tends to peak its head out more than it should.
The end result is that Donny left karate and joined a local Tae Kwon Do school. In my teens and my 20’s, I spoke a lot of smack against TKD but as I’ve grown older and wiser (please hold the comments) I’ve come to recognize that it’s a substantial style with a lot of fantastic history and techniques. It simply sin’s for me. For Donny, however, it held the promise of what he was ACTUALLY looking for: ranking. It took very little time to realize that he was climbing the almighty belt ladder and was happier than a proverbial pig in shit.
Within a few short years, Donny held a black belt and was beaming with pride. Traditional martial arts won’t allow you to reach such a skill level or belt rank that quickly as one simply can’t absorb all the material necessary to get there in so short a time but hey! Good for him! Hopefully that belt also holds up his pants… I sound a bit bitter and in fact, I am. I firmly believe that the skill is more important than the belt and if Donny had stuck it out and put the time in, he would have improved and grown exponentially. But if all he wanted was the prestige of a black belt around his waist, so be it.
The thing to recall about the martial arts is that it isn’t a sport that you play for a few key years then walk away from. It’s a life-long journey and commitment, requiring sacrifice and occasional disappointment. But those things can also be used to fuel one’s forge to keep the hunger alive and train towards one’s ultimate goals. It’s gotta come from you. Although I would never want someone in my dojo who doesn’t want to be there, these two stories reflect the student losses that have stuck with me. Sometimes it’s hard to watch someone with potential walk away. But everyone has their own journey to complete. ☯️