Friday, October 2, 2009

When Life Gets in the Way of Martial Arts Training

This past month has been a little sad for me as a Sensei. I had about half a dozen students tell me that they're going to have to take a break from Jiu-jitsu this semester because their school schedules are too hectic and they need more time to focus on school.

I totally understand that career aspirations must be prioritized over martial arts training, as should family commitments. Personally, when I was in school, I never missed a Jiu-jitsu class for the sake of my studies, but then I was in a fairly easy program and I had decided to make martial arts a priority in my life no matter what. But then my program wasn't very demanding so I never needed to make a choice.

The students who are taking a break are all very dedicated, very promising martial artists, and while I will miss them during their absence, I hope they know that I respect their decisions and will welcome them back when they return. It's all part of running a dojo, and it's the reason why a Sensei must maintain at least a small degree of detachment from their students so that they won't feel guilty about making decisions they have to make.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Huh... my housemate (who genuinely believes that I have a psychological pathology of some sort due to the fact that I train so much) saw the title of your blog entry over my shoulder and commented sourly, "With YOU, it's "Martial Arts Training Gets In The Way Of _Life_"."

Lori O'Connell said...

LOL. I resemble that statement. ;)

Anonymous said...

Is there really something else to life besides training and the MA? Hell, if I could I'd train everyday for hours on end, instead of just a few times a week. Could somebody build me a time-machine and transport me back to the sengoku-jidai period? Life would seem a lot simpler then (kill or be killed, training and fighting as a means of earning a living and being highly respected because of it) and a whole lot more interesting certainly.

Zara

Anonymous said...

Yes, the sad necessity of working for a living is seriously cutting into my training time, darnit!!!!

markstraining.com said...

To be completley honest, I do not see how one can say that they are taking a break from training becuase of studies. If it is family commitments then fair enough.

However, no one studies all day and all night and if they try to, they are definitely over studying and need to take a break, unwind and do something else. Martial arts training is the perfect answer as it gets them thinking about something else, works the body physically and should leave them relaxed ready to get back to there studies with full venom.

MA training could be something as little as half an hour a day and would benefit them so much. Try and persuade them to carry on!

Anonymous said...

I think there is something to psychopathology associated with MA-practioners (in general): for one we're all training to be able to hurt another human-being as efficiently as possible (refining technique and doing it over and over to get it just right) and yet we're having loads of fun doing it! Sure deep down we don't really want to do this and it's all defensive and morally defensible but still: we burn what could potentially be killer-moves into our body and mind, basically forming our body into a weapon to be used to the same effect as any other weapon. I truly believe a properly trained and advanced MA-practioner (regardless of style) could almost as easily kill or severely injure an opponent as aiming a gun and pulling the trigger. Especially when you practice a MA that's not meant for sports or maintaining health/spiritual development: you can mince words all you want but those arts were developed to survive very violent times and warfare and the aim was generally to kill the adversary or at least incapacitate him.

Speaking from experience I know JJ can be used to contain attacks and do as little damage as possible in the process (always the preferred option) but the same techniques done in a different way will most certainly produce serious injuries (broken limbs, paralysis after landing on your neck, internal damage from heavy blows) or even death. For example: kiri-otoshi can be used to subdue and control a violent individual by simply pulling him off-balance and to the ground but it can be modified (which I believe was the original intent) to make him land on his head (either cause brain-hemorrhage or dislocation of the neck) or on your knee (breaking his spine, especially when striking his solar plexus with empi). I know it's very interesting to get to know the roots of the system you practice and I really hope I'll never have to use this rather lethal knowledge for real but still: the results from such actions could be very severe yet a certain percentage of the population (about 2%) actually calls this sort of training and physical exercise a hobby and actually volunteers for it. What does this say about us as human-beings? To me it’s kind of funny to see an instructor standing in front of a class demonstrating some very painful and destructive moves while explaining in a very matter-of-fact, dry voice how to break someone’s arm or knock them unconscious (almost like learning how to assemble or cupboard or drive a car) with all the students attentively listening and making mental notes. Sometimes he throws in a joke and gets quite a few laughs for something that would deeply unsettle non martial-artists (if he still resists grab his face and shove it into the ground, he won’t be so pretty anymore will he?). ...

Anonymous said...

My second reason would be the attitude of some (usually the best) martial-artists: I’m not talking about picking fights or engaging in criminal behavior (this in itself has nothing to do with the MA) but about how they change (in facial expression and attitude) once they step onto the mat and do some serious training. Lets take my sensei as an example: he’s one of the most friendly guys and upstanding citizens you’ll ever meet yet when he’s training (especially higher levels techniques) and sparring he’s so focused on the task at hand sometimes I actually wonder whether he’ll let go or snap my arm like a twig (of he course he doesn’t but still) or pull his punch which could very well land me in facial-surgery when it would actually connect. Don’t get me wrong: he’s got excellent control and he’ll never hurt someone just for the heck of it (he has a deep respect for life and is very interested in Buddhism) but sometimes he gets this look that says ‘I’m going to kill you and not even break a sweat over it’. I don’t know what it is exactly (killer-instinct probably) but it’s a kind of methodical efficiency and confidence (you just know they can pretty much do to you whatever they want and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing you can do to prevent it) that tells you you’re dealing with a potentially very dangerous person yet at the same time you know you’re perfectly safe and you admire them, both for their skill and character/composure. It’s easy to be good when you don’t have the power or opportunity to be evil but there’s something contradictory or at least unsettling about being a generally good person yet at the same time training to do things that in most cases would be considered very bad.

Just yesterday I was at an escrima-seminar and it was great: the second half of the seminar was devoted to knife-work (both empty-hands against knife and knife-against-knife) and especially the knife-vs-knife applications were quite brutal: basically you block at his wrist, cut the biceps and stab down into the kidney while at the same time cutting the triceps (turning the blade). After the stab they usually turn the knife into the wound and make an extra cut while disengaging. If need be you still have the opportunity to cut the calf-muscles or sever the tendons at the back of the knee, preventing the opponent from turning and lashing out at you once more (yes he’ll be dying but if he’s a true fighter he’ll keep at it until he looses consciousness and even one cut with a knife could very well kill you). Of course these are traditional and military applications and doing this on the street (even against an armed adversary) will most likely land you in jail for a very long time (and rightly so) but it does go to the core of the MA: violence to combat violence, hurting another human-being in order to prevent them doing the same to you or others. Yet some of the best and most interesting people I’ve ever met are martial-artists and quite a few of my friends too.

I’m curious to know what others think of this.

Zara

Lori O'Connell said...

Mark, if it were just studying, they would probably be ok, but they all have part-time evening jobs that they need to pay their bills. There are also those who have classes that conflict with training nights. But if students can manage to fit in some training, I fully agree that it's good to find the balance.

Zara, like with any art people who truly embrace the art allow their psychology to be affected by it. I believe this is true whether it's Jiu-jitsu or something non-martial like poetry or calligraphy, though it does have to be something that contains a philosophical element.

markstraining.com said...

Lori, I have a question. Just really to see your opinion as I am a bit of unsure myself, but, when/if the students who take a break come back and you find that there techniques are not as good as when they left, will you keep them on the grade they are on or move them back a few grades, maybe even to white belt. email me back your answer if you like. (email address at my site)

Anonymous said...

Sure, any art or activity you’re passionate about will become a part of you after a while but there is a big difference between poetry and calligraphy and the MA so your comparison is not entirely correct. Poetry and calligraphy are about beauty (among other things) and are essentially peaceful pursuits, the MA are about violence and conflict. There are obvious similarities but they do differ in a very real way: both require serious commitment and the goal is self-mastery but art is used to create, MA are still martial and thus meant for destruction (to various degrees: what is taught to the Seals will differ greatly from the instruction at your average self-defense course).

I’m just wondering whether the MA attract people with an innate need for or attraction to violence (again this does not mean they’re bad people just like soldiers aren’t morally corrupt because they learn how to kill) or that it is a product of training. To become effective you need to develop the ability to immediately and aggressively react to threats and attacks (coordinating both your body and your mind to act as one) and you have to be willing (some say even eager) to hit with force and use violence effectively. Technical mastery without intent and a certain amount of killer-instinct is only half of what is needed to build a good martial-artist and it’s not even the most important part: some people have never in their life learned proper fighting-techniques yet they can beat the crap out of even experienced martial-artists simply because they’re willing to go all the way and to accept punishment without getting deterred from the ultimate goal of winning. I think this is what separates good martial-artists from great ones: the ability to switch from zero aggression to full-out intention (you’re going down, no matter what) in a heartbeat, without getting mad or losing ones composure (if this happens all training goes out the window and the whole fight degenerates into a brawl where strength, size and luck all play a major role). There are a lot of people in the MA that can only perform adequately on the mat, when the moment comes they have to use their skills to beat an aggressive opponent outside the friendly atmosphere of the dojo they freeze up or lose a large portion of their abilities. ...

Anonymous said...

To this day I still don’t know whether this ability can be developed and nurtured or that it is simply inborn: some people are born fighters, some will never develop this instinct (not even with thorough instruction and years of training). As a child I’ve always been pretty meek and studious and even during my first years of training (the first 6 to be exact) I never could summon the necessary will-power to go all out (with control of course) and use the techniques the way they were meant to be used. Now, after two years of pretty hardcore training with sensei, a few nasty experiences and the general hardship one invariably endures in life, I’ve become pretty tough and when training I give it my all since this is what the MA are about. Perhaps I’ve always had this in me (I’ve always been attracted to MA and the history of warfare) but maybe my upbringing (my father was a pacifistic intellectual, my mother an overly concerned woman prone to depression and anxiety) prevented its flourishing.

Quite a few of the lower belts in our dojo apparently fear me to some degree, this is completely unnecessary since I’ll never hurt them on purpose and I do have good control (even at great speed) yet apparently there’s something about my intensity and facial expression (on the mat) that somehow unsettles them. I’m not a violent man, on the contrary, but I do want to train realistically and I’ve spent too many years doing stupid routines that are useless when it comes to building fighting-ability (no-one will come up to you, grab, stay stationary and wait for you to do something). On top of that I feel responsible (as sempai and out of loyalty to sensei) for the growth of the students in our dojo: the primary goal in training is still self-defense and if one of our students got beat up because we went too easy on them or encouraged sloppiness in training then this is partially our responsibility and I’d actually feel somewhat guilty about it. Sometimes I may go a little overboard with this (you cannot expect the same response from a woman you would from a man, or from a beginner as compared to someone with a little more experience) but I will never hit or hurt them just for the heck of it.

Just yesterday I got a great compliment from sensei: while I was training with a yellow belt (been with us a little over a year) and she couldn’t cope with my attacks (she panicked instead of doing what was just shown and has been practiced over and over the last couple of months) and she asked sensei for advice (half complained actually) he said I should take it easy on her. He also explained that people train with different intentions and goals: hers was more to do some physical exercise, to socialize and learn some basic self-defense while mine clearly is getting good at the art and fighting in general. According to him I have fighting-spirit… I think this is about the biggest compliment you can get as a martial-artist and it actually means more to me than any official recognition (inner growth is more important than outward recognition), especially since it comes from such a knowledgeable and able fighter and teacher. If I’m any good at the MA it’s in large part thanks to him and I do hope we can spend many years training together as serious students of the MA and friends.

Zara

Lori O'Connell said...

Mark, to answer your question, I wouldn't take their belt away from them if they had earned at my dojo under my instruction. That being said, if the student's quality of technique has suffered due to their absence, I would have them work on lower belts' curricula until they're once again training at a level of technique that is appropriate for their belt level.

Lori O'Connell said...

Zara, in response to your comments, I truly believe that at the highest levels of training in the martial arts, it is very much like poetry or calligraphy in terms of what they have in common. It is this element that distinguishes martial art from pure combat training.

But this is too interesting a topic to simply relegate it to the comments section of my blog. I promise I will write on this topic in more detail in my next blog post.

But for now, I'd like to address one of your remarks separately. The aggressiveness/intention/fighting spirit you spoke of can be present in anyone, man or woman, novice or experienced martial artist. While I would agree that the way men tend to be raised, they are more likely to have it, and people who have trained in a martial art for longer or more likely to develop it, there are many, many exceptions to this rule.

I've personally trained with women who are more hard core in this respect than the vast majority of men I've met. I've also seen novices train with intention and aggressiveness that rivals that of many senior belts I've met. Of course, the biggest difference with the novice who already possesses this fighting spirit, has to be carefully monitored and controlled until they have developed their skills and learned to control their power.

Anyway, my point is that as instructors, we owe it to our students not to assume how much pressure they can or can't take on the mats. When starting out, we should always take it slower with them to ensure a safe training environment and when a certain amount of technique and control has been developed, we can push students further based on their training level.

It is important for us as instructors that we continue to push our students as they show improvement, to up the intensity as they show enough competence to handle more. It is good for a students growth to push them a little beyond their comfort zones for their own development and growth as martial artists. But if we push them to far, too fast, that is when injuries happen or students get frustrated, shut down mentally and stop learning.

Ice said...

Martial Arts Training mirrors life and so can't really get in the way.

There are challenges to be risen to. There are obstacles to be overcome. And there are conflicts to be resolved.

Perhaps, after training for awhile, that there is more to martial arts than fancy moves, it's about a way of life.

There's a certain balance to things.... Triumph is balanced with painful loss. Martial Arts Training is Life condensed in a simpler package.

Now I'm not preaching to be Zen-like, it's just that just like life, sometimes you don't have enough hours in a day to train and make your day to day commitments.

After all, we all have to put food on the table and a roof above our heads.

There's been times I have to cut back on training because of life, but it's simply an excuse.

You can still go running, maintain your fitness, stretch, do solo exercises until you can get back into the dojo to train your techniques with a qualified instructor and sparring partners.

Again, you will still need fitness to go the distance, and if you can't get to the dojo, at least maintain/improve your cardio, strength and flexibility.

So back on topic. Martial Arts Training will never leave you, it'll be a part of your life always...

Anonymous said...

I’m convinced there are women out there that do exhibit fighting-spirit, train hardcore and can actually fight when it comes down to it. My remark about not expecting the same kind of behavior from women than you would from men was meant in general: there are a few women training in our dojo (the number is increasing steadily so we must be doing something right) and what I found was that they startle rather easy when you apply pressure and always insist I slow it down and be gentler, something I don’t get from the men. Presumably because they’re more used to it in daily life (when boys grow up they tend to romp, get into fights and play physical sports far more than girls) and because they’re physically stronger but still it’s significant. Besides that men are biologically more likely to exhibit aggression and single-mindedness due to the simple fact the male body makes much more testosterone while the female body makes the opposite hormone that actually breaks down muscle and counteracts the effects of testosterone to some degree. I’m not saying this is necessarily a good thing: anti-social personality-disorder and sociopathy are far more prevalent in men than women (serial-killers are almost exclusively male) but it does play a role in crisis-situations (invoking the fight or flight reflex) and I do think the average male will be better equipped (physically and emotionally) to deal with a physical altercation than the average female.

That being said I have enormous respect for every serious martial-artist who trains hard and doesn’t give up when the road gets tough, male or female. I know we had differences of opinion in the past (I remember one comment where you basically called me a sexist) and I still am convinced on the whole men are more suited to combat than women but that doesn’t mean there aren’t women who are on par with their male counterparts (in attitude and skill) although I do think given a more or less equal skill-level a male will be more than likely to defeat a female than the other way around.

If I really thought women weren’t able to fight or get good at martial-arts I wouldn’t train with them (or as little as possible) or spend much time teaching them which clearly isn’t the case: when I’m teaching or acting in my capacity as assistant-teacher I usually spend more time supervising and correcting the women because I know their technique and attitude must be perfect in order to defeat men. Once every two weeks I train with a woman for about two hours, not because I get much out of it (she’s a beginner and not very strong or aggressive) in terms of improving my own skill but because I care for her and I want her to get good as soon as possible.

I agree a teacher shouldn’t pressure beginning students too much, yet it depends a lot on the character of the student in question, that’s why it takes considerable skill to determine whether a student is ready to progress to the next level or not. A dojo shouldn’t become too macho but not too soft either. A sensei should be like a father to his children: firm but caring and with an eye to their long-term benefit, not just short-term gains. Yelling at them or pushing them far beyond his or her limits is counterproductive and barbaric, as is treating them as weaklings or old people. I’ll never disrespect students but I do want them to give it their all (whatever that is at their level and physical condition) and get good, going easy on each other and focusing a lot on technique is appropriate for lower belts but the higher you get the more can be expected of you and the tougher you must be. A black belt that can’t fight doesn’t deserve his or her rank and an art that can’t be used to fend off untrained attackers is not a true martial-art. ‘Martial’ does mean ‘warlike’ after all. More about that in a comment on your latest post.

Zara

Lori O'Connell said...

Thanks as always for your comments. I very much appreciate the level of thought you put into martial arts training. More people should do what you do. :) And for the most part, I believe we think similarly when it comes to training.

Johnay said...

It's about survival not dedication. I have a boss who demands 60 hour weeks regardless of workload. So in this recession there are times when making it to BJJ might mean losing my job. Nice...

That said, we are not boozing, raving or driving cars at crazy sppeds so...