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Friday, June 24, 2011

Making Peace With Mediocrity

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.
- Henry Ford

I admit it: I'm never going to be a great martial arts master or champion. If I ever had a chance to accomplish something like that, I have surely missed it.

I'm not old, or even middle-aged, but I'm already nearing the age at which professional athletes either retire or become their teams' "veteran leaders". I know my body does not have the potential it had ten years ago, and moreover I know that the vast majority of people who become great achievers in any physical sport--the martial arts included--master the basics of their sport when they're teenagers or younger. That opportunity is long gone for me.

The world is full of 30- and 40-year-olds who start martial arts training believing that, if they train hard enough, they can become great warriors capable of taking on hordes of opponents Bruce Lee-style. Most people who have have no emotional investment in the martial arts find this kind of thinking laughable, and I'm with them. I have no such illusions.

I have no doubt offended some aikidoka with what I have written so far. "But Matt," I can hear them protest, "my instructor didn't start aikido training until he was an adult. He's in his sixties now and is still getting better. He just earned another dan rank."

This is a popular sentiment in aikido, and in many cases there is much truth to it. It needs clarification, though.

When we say that aging martial artists are still "getting better", what we mean is that they are still learning. Their understanding is still increasing, which means that they are probably becoming better instructors and may even be performing techniques more correctly than they were when they were younger. But we are fools if we think this keeps them from becoming weaker or slower with age, and even greater fools if we think becoming weaker and slower doesn't make a difference.

Me, I'll likely be just getting my black belts as the weaker and slower start setting in--and I was never particularly strong or quick to begin with. I'll most likely have children by then, too, which means I won't have the time to train every day or the money to have my pick of instructors or programs. The best I can hope for at this point, then, is a long struggle to become, and then to remain, a mediocre black belt in two martial arts that have largely been watered down for mass-consumption.

Maybe this doesn't sound like much to you, but I'm pretty excited about it.

I have the opportunity to learn something new every time I step onto the mat between now and the day I can no longer stand. I have an enjoyable, interesting, and enlightening way to keep myself active and healthy for years to come. What's not to like?

So many of us, I think, cling to the unrealistic hope of becoming like The Karate Kid's Mr. Myagi, in old age taking on five young black belts at the same time. I think there would be less of this if more of us realized what a privilege it is to be an ordinary martial artist. I, for one, am looking forward to many years of happy mediocrity.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Searching for Morality in Martial Art

A few weeks ago I introduced my small readership to a much better and much more famous online martial arts writer than myself, Rob Redmond of 24 Fighting Chickens. In that entry, I examined my own martial arts in light of one of Redmond's biggest criticisms of modern Shotokan karate practice: a failure to embrace martial artists' individual creativity.

As I continue to read Redmond's work, a few more recurring points are starting to jump out at me, and one in particular cuts very deep for a practitioner of aikido and taekwondo.

In spite of many advertisements' and anecdotes' claims to the contrary, Redmond suggests karate is not a noble pursuit, and does not make its practitioners into more moral people. This widespread selling point of karate training, is, to Redmond, largely nonsense. Harsh sentiments, especially coming from someone who so obviously loves the art.

I must admit that one of my goals when I began martial arts training was to make myself into a better person. I have even suggested on this blog that the lofty moral goals of aikido and taekwondo justify my preference of them over more realistic and practical arts. So this crticism of Redmond's is a little more uncomfortable for me to turn on my own arts than the last.

Can aikido and taekwondo really make me into a better person? What if they can't--have I wasted the last year-and-a-half?

In light of history, a few concessions must be made right away. Being a master of aikido didn't keep Steven Seagal from cheating on three wives in a row, or Clint George from exploiting an underaged student. And being a great taekwondo champion didn't keep Angel Matos from kicking a referee in the face on international television. Obviously, then, training in aikido or taekwondo, even the kind of training that produces world-class skill, does not automatically produce exemplary moral fiber or exceptional restraint.

But I can't shake the feeling that aikido and taekwondo have changed me in some way. In "In the Presence of Mine Enemies", I suggested that I have found more perseverance and discipline in myself in the time I have been training. It's nothing revolutionary or life-changing, perhaps, but I think I'm a little more likely to hit the gym, empty the dishwasher, or take out the trash than I used to be.

Redmond, though, would caution that none of this makes me a more moral person (see the second 24FC article link above). The willingness to persevere through displeasure or discomfort in pursuit of a goal can be used to acheive good or evil, depending on the goal.

Another thing I think has improved a little in the time I have been training is my confidence. This is probably the biggest martial arts selling point; nearly every for-profit dojo or dojang in the country promises to improve your children's confidence. But confidence, like self-discipline, says Redmond, is amoral. Confidence can lead to bullying and snobbery just as surely as it can lead to championing any noble cause.

So far, I have determined that I have perhaps increased in perseverance and confidence some small bit through martial arts training. Anything else? What about the other popular claims martial arts instructors like to make? Have I become less violent? More respectful? More resistant to temptation? A better citizen? A better husband?

Honestly, I don't think so. For my part, I have noticed no such thing.

The best I can say of the martial arts, then, is that they give us tools. Perhaps I can use these tools to affect positive changes in myself and the world around me, but I can just as easily use them selfishly and perhaps become an even less moral person than I was before I began.

The only conclusion to be drawn here is that my martial arts are only as noble and moral as I am. Rather than expecting to find morality in the martial arts, I should be looking for it in myself and bringing it with me to the dojo.

How to Get My Attention

Yesterday, I happened upon the very closest thing to a perfect martial arts school web site I have ever seen. I was literally trying to contact this place within 45 seconds of seeing the site. Here it is:

Mind you, this is not the front page; this is the entire site. Without watching any videos, enduring any cheesey music, scrolling through any lengthy mission statement, or even clicking any links, I am provided with exactly what is being taught, exactly who is teaching it, exactly when it is being taught, exactly where it is being taught, and what deals are offered to students.

Sure, the paragraphs at the top of the left column are a little corny, and the whole thing is excessively capitalized. But I don't care. In a quick glance, I already have most of the information that I would ask for in an e-mail, much of which the average for-profit taekwondo school is unwilling to give me unless I talk to them in person.

Oh, and that part about "No Contracts or Registration Fees"--I have to admit, that helps too.

I understand that martial arts schools need to attract the attention of children and parents, most of whom know nothing about the martial arts, to stay in business. But in order to stay relevant in a world where krav maga and MMA sportfighting are as accessible as karate, traditional martial arts--that is, the kind whose practitioners wear pajamas with colored belts--also need to attract and keep grown-ups who are serious about their arts.

I wonder what might happen if, rather than trying to dazzle us with logos, sort-of-true histories, strategically-placed quotes from parent testimonies, full-length instructor biographies, and action-packed videos, martial arts establishments simply told us what, when, where, and how much and let the quality of their training speak for itself. Maybe the world of for-profit marital arts instruction would crumble around us.

But I can say this much: it worked on me.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Martial Arts: Serious Business

Last Thursday night, plagued by a nagging wrist injury and still not sure I was getting everything I wanted out of my aikido training, I payed a visit to a nonprofit Shotokan karate club on the north side of Milwaukee. If nothing else, it was certainly an educational experience.

First of all, I learned karate is not all that much easier on an injured wrist than carefully practiced aikido. This seemed strange to me, since I haven't found the same to be true of taekwondo, which is similar to karate in many ways.

There were other lessons, though, that were much more profound.

To this point, I've mostly had experience with the more lighthearted side of martial arts training. I don't mean to suggest that the people I train with don't take their arts seriously enough or try to do their best, but there has never a question of why we're all there: we enjoy martial arts training. Training in the dojo or dojang is not primarily a matter of honor, devotion, or even necessity for us. We train to get a workout and to do something we enjoy.

What I found at this karate club, though, was very different.

We ran to line up at the beginning of class. We bowed as we were curtly ordered by the senior student, first to the shomen (we were in a gymnasium--where was the shomen?), then to the instructor. We stood silently as the instructor introduced me to the class, then lectured on the history of Japanese karate and how serious an undertaking karate is. He told me that some people cry when undergoing the training he starts to deal out at purple belt level.

No one else spoke. No one smiled.

Kihon (basic techniques) were done as military-style drills with the instructor barking orders every step. Kata were done in a similar fashion, though the instructor softened a little while teaching me the first kata. We never got to any kumite (sparring); I suspect this was a basics-heavy class for my benefit.

At no point did anyone other than the instructor speak, except rarely for clarification of instructions, and I'm not sure I ever saw anyone smile.

Before and after class, the other students were friendly enough, and the instructor was a genuinely nice guy--even if he had a hard time keeping his low opinion of taekwondo to himself. He was very complimentary about the aikido club and showed real interest in my difficulties with the wrist injury.

What I couldn't wrap my head around was why all the friendliness had to be put away before stepping out on the dojo floor. I have read the Dojo Kun and the Niju Kun; there's nothing in there that says karateka aren't allowed to smile. Why do these students keep coming every week if they're not going to try to enjoy themselves? Are they preparing for duels? Do they think that a smile or (heaven forbid) an occasional laugh will weaken their punches?

I must confess, my understanding is limited here. My martial arts training to this point has been in aikido, an art whose founder believed in training joyfully, and taekwondo, an art that is not afraid to be honest about its identity as a sport. I don't understand why anyone would pay to undertake training and then not try to enjoy it (I suppose it's possible that there are a few people who genuinely enjoy maintaining a perpetual grimace while a little man sternly barks orders at them in Japanese, but there can't be very many).

The only guess I can make is that some people think martial arts training is too big a deal to be treated like a mere sport. All that ritual and silence and furrowing of brows must convince some people that they are becoming genuine warriors rather than just hobbyists.

To me, there are two things wrong with this attitude. First, the martial arts, as fun, interesting, and valuable as they are, don't deserve to be elevated to the level of a religion. Second, most of us, no matter how hard we try to be something more, really are just hobbyists. We have (at least) families and jobs that will always be more important to us than martial arts training, and rightly so.

Needless to say, I won't be returning to that karate club. If I ever do leave the aikido club (it seems less likely every time I go looking), it will be for someplace where the instructor has a sense of humor and I'm allowed to behave like the hobbyist that I am.