Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bruce Lee and the Lost Art of Cursive Writing

I was listening to the news the other day, and I was surprised to hear that cursive writing is no longer being taught in many schools.  I was not aware that it has been phased out in several school boards.  One such institution is trying to revive the practice of cursive handwriting.

My first impression is that it should be taught.  After all, I learned it and look how great I turned out...

Then again, when is the last time I actually wrote anything?  Work reports are all on computer, reminder ‘post-it’ notes are printed, and notebooks are print, mainly capital letters, we text more than we talk…

Come to think of it, I haven’t written out a hand written letter in over a decade, maybe longer.  In fact, I can’t remember the last time I actually wrote anything out, cursively speaking.

Yet I’m still left with the feeling that something will be lost by not learning it.  What, exactly, I still can’t pin down. 

My inner debate got me thinking about Bruce Lee.  One of his concepts/beliefs was that one should keep what is useful and discard what it not.  Makes sense for self defense.  If a technique doesn’t work for you, due to size, shape, physical condition, etc, throw it away.  Why keep practicing something you won’t ever use?  The issue with this, of course, it that it’s not always apparent what will be of use.  Not at first, anyway.  I discussed this in a bit more detail in my post found here.

I still maintain that for self defense technique, you often must first learn and explore and experiment with a technique before you can toss it away.  It is tempting to discard a technique that doesn’t seem to work for you when you’re just learning it.  From my experience, several techniques I initially thought I would never use are now my ‘go-to’ moves.  I needed to really understand them before I was able to make a proper assessment.

Does the same hold true for cursive writing?  Does the value of learning it trump its actual use once learned?  You could argue that it forces neural pathways, increases dexterity and fine motor skills etc. but is of limited real world value. 
The same could be said of (some) kata out there today.  I’ve seen a whole bunch of forms and kata out there that are pretty questionable on the whole ‘real world’ scale.  They may not have always been (not trying to kick off a ‘value of kata’ argument, that’s for another time), but they certainly are now.

Should cursive writing still be taught?  Does Bruce Lee’s assertion that you should discard what is not useful apply here?  Food for thought.

For now, I’m off to write a letter, by hand, just to remind myself what it’s like…

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Good business or Good Martial Arts? The Passion vs. Profit Debate

I’ve heard it said often that you can’t make money at the martial arts unless you’re ripping your students off.  I don’t totally agree but there are truly two sides to teaching martial arts. 

 1. A passion for teaching martial arts
     2. The business side of things

There are fantastic martial artists and teachers who fail at running a school or dojo and there are so-so ones that succeed and make a fair amount of money in the process. 

Is it ok to make enough money to teach martial arts full-time?  I’ve always been around people who had full-time jobs and taught on the side.  They often criticized anyone who ran a big school.  I originally agreed, shunning the bigger, flashier schools with lots of merchandise, fees for stripes, strips, stickers etc.  It seemed wrong somehow.

Now I’m not so sure.  Running a club (for profit) is a business.  A business must have a plan.  When we compare what we pay for other services, it’s surprising how little we want to pay for martial arts training.  Many people wouldn’t hesitate to pay much more for yoga, exercise classes in the park, spinning etc.  These are all great pursuits by the way, but to many, $100.00 a month for 1 and ½ to 2 hour classes, 3 times a week seems on the high end.  That’s 12 classes a month minimum if you went to all of them.   That’s $8.33 per class, or a little over $4 bucks and hour.  Your average yoga/meditation/mindfulness class will run you much higher, often 3 to 4 times as much (per hour).

Still, you aren’t going to get a lot of people signing up for a martial arts club willing to pay $200-$300 a month.  So you’ve got to do other things.

Merchandise is one way.  Most uniforms, pads etc. can have a decent markup.  Kids are good money makers.  Parents tend to be willing to pay lots more for their kids to be in martial arts than they are for themselves.  Compare other children’s activities, sports, clubs etc. and martial arts are a bargain.

If you could make a living teaching martial arts, is there anything wrong with that?  If you continued to improve your own skills to give your students the best possible training you can provide, isn’t that a good thing?

I’ve revisited this topic due to some recent visits I’ve made to some clubs in hopes of supplementing my current training regimen.

I watched a class, and was struck by…how shall I put this…poor the instruction was.  There was clearly no real knowledge base about how an attack might come in, or how a defense could be applied.  The people were, in my estimation, well intentioned.  I just felt they lacked the depth of knowledge surrounding the realities of violence.  They had clearly learned the techniques and were doing their best to pass them on, but I’m not sure they really understood them.  

And the students were serious about their training (which is good) but I felt they were getting technique that might not translate to the real world.  And they clearly didn’t know this.  I may sound overly harsh and don’t mean to be, but that’s what I saw.  Well intentioned instructors, hardworking respectful students, and positive energy.  The only thing lacking was consistent street worthy technique.  I should mention that some was decent.

The original point of all this was that this business was successful, with charts for grading fees, schedules, merchandise, t-shirts, gym bags, jackets, books, magazines etc.  This particular club has been successfully running for well over a decade.

There are (in my opinion), better qualified people to teach in the area, but few know how to make money in the arts.

Is it ok to make a living at the martial arts?  Does doing so mean an inferior training experience for students? 

Can you still find the depth of knowledge in the arts in a commercially successful martial arts school? 

It would be the dream of many to make a decent living in the martial arts.  Is it possible to do so without ‘selling out’?


Saturday, March 15, 2014

How to judge a martial arts school in less than 15 minutes

I recently had a very positive experience visiting a martial arts school.  A seminar was being held by a very skilled practitioner that was in the area for a couple of days before continuing on his cross country circuit.  I had heard of him and had seen online clips which were impressive.  My Sensei also spoke highly of him, which was reason enough for me to seek him out.

The problem?  It was being held at a dojo that I had never been to.  Add to that I was going solo and knew no one who was attending.  And it wasn’t a Jiu Jitsu dojo.

It’s always a little daunting to go to a strange location full of strangers.  Would I be allowed to attend?  Would it be awkward?  Would people be standoffish?  Would they want to test me to see if I deserved my ranking?  Would I stand awkwardly off to the side while everyone paired up?

So many questions.

So what did I do?

First, I checked the school’s website/Facebook page.  It said “Open to all schools and styles”.  Good sign.

Next, I called on the way, speaking to the owner/head intructor.  I asked him if it was ok if I just showed up and paid on arrival (you could pay on-line on his site – great idea!)  “Sure”, he said, asking only if I had any martial arts experience and if I had a gi or would be in street clothes.   Sounded friendly.  

Another good sign.

Arrival.  I found my way in.  Being a new face, I was immediately approached by the owner who introduced himself and welcomed me.  He introduced me to his second in command (only on paper, I suspect – his wife).  They both shook my hand, asked me to fill in the standard waiver.  I offered my payment, which was nice, they didn’t’ ask for it right away. 

Third good sign.

The owner introduced me to one of his students who offered to show me where to change/stow my gear etc.  Very nice person, let me use his locker so I could lock my valuables away.

Back to the mats.  Lots of people in attendance.  Crowed place.  Mainly students from the same school, but a couple visiting schools were represented with different gis, crests etc.

As we stretched awaiting the start of the seminar, I was approached by most of the students from the school who all welcomed me to the event.  Really made me feel at ease.  

Very good sign. 

As the warm up began (little was I to know it would last over an hour…), there was general good humour and positive energy, with humorous glances and looks during the more intense part of the torture, er warm up as we experienced the ‘shared suffering’. 

Once the seminar was underway, each time the visiting teacher told us to mix up partners, I was always the one approached by someone from the hosting school with an offer to work with them. 

The seminar itself was very good, with some good solid technique and some great things to think about.  A good time was had by all.  At the end I thanked the owner and his wife for allowing me to attend.  I was told that I was always welcomed and they thanked me for attending.  When I was getting changed, most of the students shook my hand saying that they hoped they would see me again.

I tend to judge a teacher by their students.  Good students, good teacher, generally speaking.

I didn’t get a chance to critique the pure martial skills of the owner, but I got a pretty good indication as I watched him taking the seminar.  No standing off to the side not taking part.  Worked hard, looked pretty sharp.  Yet another good sign.

I may not take the style of martial arts that they normally teach, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the club as a place to check out for those that do.  And I’ll be back.

As I was driving away, I realized that in the course of one short afternoon, I had made a whole bunch of new ‘martial’ friends.  I also realized that even though the whole process spanned over several hours, I knew as soon as I walked into the school that it was a good one. 

It took less than 15 minutes.

A reminder what the martial arts are all about. 

A good day.

Train well.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Happy Holidays

I just wanted to say Happy Holidays to all of you out there.  An awful lot of stuff has been going on in my life (hence the lack of posts) but here's wishing you all a wonderful and healthy 2014!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Teaching Styles - Which is Best? Part II

In Part I, I talked about an experience I had with a 'sub-par' instructor.  I was reflecting on different teaching styles.  Here's a few styles I've encountered over the years.

So, first broad teaching style could be called:



-        Student interaction minimal
-        Instructor lead/driven
-        Strict rules
-        Highly regulated
-        Punitive for rules/etiquette violation
-        Variation/discussion limited
-        Reflection on learning minimal

Different stokes for different folks, of course.  The training partner who made the observation later mentioned that if that was what he experienced years ago, he would have quickly quit the martial arts.  His opinion was that he didn’t sign up for people to yell at him and for nothing to every be good enough.
On the other end of the spectrum is the:

Totally relaxed/ Laisser-faire


-        Student interaction high
-        Student driven
-        Few of no rules
-        Unstructured
-        Non-punitive
-        Lots of discussion and reflection

Some people are drawn to this type of atmosphere as well.  Very relaxed and non-threatening.  Sessions tend to have little structure, and tend to drift topics and techniques at random, driven largely by the attendees.  Kind of like a bunch of people hanging out to do martial arts.  Often there is a lot of “what do you want to do” type stuff.  The role of the teacher is much less in this type of environment.  They’re just ‘one of the boys’ (or girls).

And in the middle, you find:



-        Student interaction present to a degree
-        Instructor lead/Student influenced
-        Rules adopted by students
-        Occasionally punitive measures for rules/etiquette errors
-        Reflection and discussion instructor initiated and lead

There are varying degrees  of the Blended category, some closer to one end than the other.

Just as there are different people and learning styles, there should be different styles of teaching.  It’s a constant progress of adjustment and adaptation, just like the arts themselves.

I won’t necessarily berate any one style but the overly hard, militaristic style can tend to automatically discourage a large amount of people from continuing or signing up.  I know more than one person who tried martial arts when they were younger and quit due to this style of instruction, often leaving a negative view of the martial arts for life.

Having said that, many people respond to this type of environment.   I believe they’ll come out fit, sharp, one dimensional martial artists. Very good at one way of doing things. 

On the overly relaxed side, I’ve training with some clubs like this.  More accurately, the head instructor ran and great class, but his senior black belts lead classes a couple of times a week.  When this happened, there was a lot of standing around, kind of working on this or that and the time dragged.  Friends clumped together and worked in their own little groups.  I don’t respond to this extreme either.

For some, however, it is a completely non-threatening environment.  And some might never experience the arts without it.  If it’s a positive introduction, perhaps they will continue.  We’re all wired differently.

Somewhere in the middle is where most long term martial artists end up. 
Productive training should be student influenced, but instructor lead and driven.  The degree will be influenced by the number, age, maturity and level of the students, and by the beliefs and style of the teacher.  This is the balancing act needed to be a good teacher.

There must be some reflection on learning and students must be able to ask some questions.  That doesn’t mean constant ‘what-ifs” but consistently unanswered questions result in lack of understanding.  And if you don’t understand techniques and the ‘why’ behind them, it’s unlikely you will be able to apply and rely on them in a real situation.  How these Q and A portions are set up is also up to the teacher.  Are questions welcomed any time, part way through a lesson, at the end, etc?  This is also up to the teacher, influenced by the needs of the students.

There must also be some rules and etiquette present.  Ideally, these should be set out early and adopted by the students without much prompting from the teacher.  This way, when there are violations, they are usually minor, and the ‘violators’ often know they’re in trouble.  The punishment is enough to acknowledge the breach but aren’t doled out with any malice or ill will.  Crack a joke and laugh, do some push-ups, that sort of thing… 

A good teacher is able to give his/her students what they want and what they need.  These aren’t always the same thing, and that is where a talented teacher comes in.  As with everything, it’s about balance.

As a student, you deserve to find an environment and a teacher that you respond to.  If your primary goal is self defense, make sure you’re getting that.  If it’s camaraderie and fitness, get that.  You’ll get a bit of all of it regardless. 

Enter your training demanding some things from it and your teacher, but being aware you may not have a view of the bigger picture, and many things become clear over time.  Bottom line, do you end most classes feeling you’ve learned or improved somewhat?  Do you leave feeling happy that you went?  Do you want to go back?  If you answer yes most of the time, whatever teaching style must be working for you.

Train well, with balance…