A matter of trust: "testing" your sensei

My last article got me thinking about the whole issue of trust. I see our "illusion of security" as just part and parcel of a greater tendency of human beings to "suspend distrust" in order to function effectively and happily in a society.

The student/teacher relationship is a good example of that suspension. Why do I say this? Because if we accept someone as our teacher, we accept a level of expertise on their behalf. And, as you will recall from my article on mentalism, critical thinking shuts off once an accepted expert begins to speak. Note again the following TED video, particularly at around 3:37 (set to start at that point):

But isn't that a bad thing? After all, aren't we urged from all quarters to "question everything"? Why shouldn't this extend to our teachers?

I was talking about this with my eldest daughter on Sunday as we took our puppy for a run at the park. As I noted, it would be exhausting and extremely inefficient to go through life questioning every single thing our teachers told us.

"You weigh only 1/6 of your Earth weight on the moon."
Yeah right. Prove it!
"The capital of the Czech Republic is Prague."
Sure. Give me some evidence!

In some respects, having to question everything your teacher tells you would be as exhausting and inefficient as consciously negotiating every aspect of climbing stairs (rather than relying on motor learning and kinaesthesia - what I have previously called your "autopilot"). Indeed, you really couldn't call a person you are constantly questioning your "teacher" for the simple reason that you obviously wouldn't trust them enough to give them that title.

But shouldn't we be wary of trusting people? To some extent, yes. But in the end, we have to lower our guard at some point in order to get on with the business of living happily and effectively. Being endlessly distrustful is simply not conducive to this end.

Some years ago my brother made a bad Ebay purchase: I can't recall the details, but the product was unsatisfactory so he returned it (as advised by the vendor). The vendor however never sent a replacement. Since the latter was in Germany there was little my brother could do. Even the Ebay reporting options had passed, my brother having acquiesced to the vendor's entreaties that he not to give him bad feedback as "all would soon be rectified". Afterwards, I remember my brother being philosophical about the whole experience, noting that it wouldn't change his outlook on internet purchases, or indeed, life. "You can't start assuming that everyone is going to cheat you. At some point, you've got to trust someone."

Of course, he was right.

I've noticed that as people age they divide ever more neatly into two categories: those who are cynical and irritable, and those who remain open and cheery. I made a conscious determination years ago to become one of the latter: it seems to me that cynicism is just a subset of resentment. And to quote Malachy McCourt: "Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

So at some point we must put our trust in others. While we can and should be careful in this regard, we really can't live can't live without giving trust.

This is especially so if we want to learn something. For example, you won't get far with a music teacher if you raise a sceptical eyebrow the moment he or she says something like: "This is a scale." Nor will you progress at university if you scoff at your anthropology lecturer for giving you some facts about the culture of the Dogon people of Mali in West Africa. And so it goes.

Clearly, we all accept people as teachers sooner or later. And, in so doing, we accept their expertise (albeit within certain boundaries). And it follows from the data discussed in that TED video that we will then be less inclined to examine everything they say critically. This is not evidence of the need for a more cynical worldview; it is evidence of just how much responsibility goes with being a teacher - and how reprehensible it is to abuse that position.

I asked my daughter to imagine, just for a moment, how she might feel if she discovered that her current (much admired) school teacher turned out to be a fraud with no qualifications; that most of what she had been learning at school this year was flawed, if not entirely wrong. She admitted it was hard for her even to conceive of such a hypothetical - she had that much trust in her teacher.

Eventually she said that she might feel quite disheartened; that in future she mightn't trust other teachers. And I said that reaction would be perfectly natural. It would be hard for her to put her complete trust in a teacher again. In some respects, she would feel not unlike those people I mentioned in my previous article who, having been the victims of a violent crime, find it hard to feel "safe" again. In both cases an "illusion" has been shattered - one that is necessary for our societal function but that is open to abuse and accordingly deserves our special protection.

So how should we go about making sure we aren't foolishly placing our trust in the wrong teacher? There is no single way. Mostly we make up our mind at the outset that someone seems trustworthy and we take it from there. If, after a period of time, we find ourselves disagreeing with some of the things our teacher is saying, we might re-evaluate the relationship.

But I believe one of the things we should not do is "test" the teacher via continual requests for "proof". To do so is to violate the teacher/student relationship.

Now, I'm no stranger to hearing doubtful things from a teacher. But I have never sought to "test" any of my teachers. I've either liked it or lumped it.

For example, I recall my sound engineering lecturer telling us: "The floor to ceiling ratio is 90." At first I thought I'd misheard him, so I asked: "Is there another figure that goes with the 90? I'm used to ratios being "X:Y". His response was: "Not this ratio."

What were my choices? I could have scoffed loudly, pointed out his erroneous use of the concept of "ratio" and put him on the spot. Or I could have decided to end my participation in the course as soon as possible. Or I could have remembered his general superlative skill and knowledge relating to sound engineering - whether it be mic technique, mixing, sound file editing, mastering or production - and seen his small error on the theoretical side for what it really was: inconsequential to my trust in him as an expert in his field. So I thanked him and wrote down "Floor to ceiling ratio - 90" in my notes.

For what it's worth, I believe that only other option would have been to discontinue my studies in a polite way. Arguing with my teacher and putting him to proof would have been pointless. If it ever comes to this I feel that you (rightly or wrongly) do not have the requisite trust to call that person "teacher". Hanging around and arguing makes no sense at all.

Over the years I've had a number of students who routinely question practically everything I show them. This is exhausting and takes up valuable class time while I demonstrate and explain in multiple ways. Because I pride myself on approaching my teaching in a logical and scientific way, I don't believe I've ever been found wanting; I've generally always given a good case for my point of view.

But students like this are not easily appeased. For every bit of "proof" you give them, they want more. I've generally found that they are far more trouble than they are worth, as they interrupt the flow of the class and unfairly occupy too much of the teacher's attention. The class suddenly becomes focussed on them and them alone. The teacher has to do backflips to please them and the rest of the students are neglected, if not forgotten. Thankfully, these sorts of trouble-makers generally don't hang around for long.

Don't be this sort of student.

Either be a student or don't be. There is no "in-between". Don't "test" your teacher via continual requests for proof. Even worse, don't "test" him or her via sparring etc. It "proves" nothing. I've had teachers who were very elderly and for whom "sparring days" were long past; this didn't mean they had nothing to teach me. On the contrary. Their lengthy experience was precisely what I wanted to avail myself of. Had I ever felt the need to "test" them in sparring, one would have had to wonder why I still called them my teachers - or, more importantly, why they still had me as a student!

As a point of fact, I would never, ever, in a pink fit, consider "testing" my teacher Chen Yun Ching or my senior James Sumarac. I never considered "testing" my former teacher Bob Davies. If I hadn't had sufficient trust in them, I wouldn't have been their student to begin with.

There is an old saying attributed to Buddha that goes: "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." I agree with this - it is a truism: a truism that reminds us not to have blind trust. How do I reconcile it with my preceding remarks? Well in this essay I have not tried to argue in favour of "blind trust", but rather reasonable or, rather reasoned trust. For example, I wouldn't become the student of a person whose words I found "inconsistent with my own reason and common sense". And I certainly wouldn't remain the student of such a person if I discovered down the track that my initial assessment of their worth as a teacher was wrong.

In the case of the latter, I would not leave in a "blaze of parting shots". To do so would be pointless and, assuming their only "crime" was disagreement on technical issues, disrespectful. Leaving on such bad terms and with such a wanton display of disrespect would make me an ass.

Either be someone's student or don't be. Just don't be an ass.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. I agree with everything you've said Dan, and its always been the approach I've taken when learning from a teacher.

    I will say however, that this mindset cost me the use of my hand for a year, and almost my life. In hindsight I wish I had tested him before he tested me.

    High price to pay.

  2. You might think it harsh on your teacher to say this, but I think you're being harsher on yourself. Was it reasonable for you to put trust in your teacher? Almost certainly. I'm sure I would have done the same in your position. You have a person with expertise and many years of experience telling you something that seems reasonable and you act accordingly.

    And how could you have "tested" him to avoid the outcome that you had? Presumably he was past demonstrating. He might have pointed to any number of famous performers who were once his students. You would have been in the same boat as before - making a decision as logically as you can on the available evidence.

    I've also chastised myself for following bad advice - in my case from doctors (in particular a surgeon). But, as I later reflected, the decision I reached was reasonable at the time.

    Hindsight is indeed a powerful thing.

  3. I think what you've got to go off in the first place puts limits on how far you can go and justify your trust without resorting to testing.

    That it seems reasonable's the kicker. What's a guy measuring that by? I'd guess general knowledge, past experiences. But if someone doesn't have much general knowledge, or a foundation of experience that can be made to apply, then that'd be difficult for them.

  4. By the same token, if you have not much general knowledge, by what criteria are you going to "test" your teacher? In martial arts, are you going to try to "best" your teacher in sparring? What kind of measure is this of what the teacher is able to teach? Can a top seeded tennis player beat his/her (much older) coach? Sure.

    And in any event is sparring representative of how your techniques are meant to be applied? Is your teacher going full-bore or is it more likely that he is actually going "easy" on you?

    I can't count the number of times I've had a cocky (and clueless) beginner try to "muscle" me in some exercise that is really just a limited drill (ie. totally unlike civilian defence).

    Yes, in the past I've sometimes resorted to "teaching them a lesson" but I'm getting older now and I can't be bothered. I just don't see the point in "proving" myself to some beginner (who manages to injure me through brute force in a limited drill)!

    If you're talking combat sport, believe me, top coaches are well known; they either have fight records or lists of champions on the wall.

    And you don't need to "test" your instructor to get some idea of whether his/her techniques are effective. You generally get a good feel for the effectiveness of his or her techniques in class and by trying them out yourself. If it doesn't seem to make sense or looks ineffective, you'll move on. You won't need to "test" your teacher by constant questions or by trying to "best" him or her!

    Thanks for your input.

  5. The only person people need to test is themselves. ANd maybe their enemies. Know yourself and know your enemy. Those were the two precepts. The Ancients never said anything about figuring out whether your teacher is right or wrong, because that doesn't really do much for whether You are right or wrong.

  6. That'll teach me to approve things on my tiny phone screen - I keep hitting the "delete" button accidentally (they are awfully close together!). Anyway, sorry to Ymar Sakar whose comment I accidentally deleted in this way just a second ago.

    Ymar wrote:

    "Why didn't you mention the option of individually researching out the claim to see if it is valid or not, on your own time and dime. Then when you have a solid case, bringing it to the attention of the teacher and testing them based upon their reaction. But that would of course presume that a student had the work energy and intellectual capability to do research work on their own and test their own hypothesis.

    The ability to analyze human nature is a philosophical skill and area of knowledge. The ability to detect deception and judge human qualities of virtue and vice comes from interrogation training and practice. Both of those aren't necessarily fields that martial artists specialize in during training.

    Being the best at A, does nothing for you when life calls for Z.

    Essentially speaking, a lot of things in martial arts requires the student to be able to reverse engineer concepts and technique blueprints that someone else created, before they can start using it to their full effect. That same skill can also be used to detect whether it's an individual's reverse engineering skill responsible for the progress or the teacher. If it was the individual, then that means other students are proceeding slower and making more mistakes, even though they are learning from the same source. If it is the teacher, then generally speaking, everyone advances at a quick pace, with some quicker than others.

    Ymar, the reason I didn't mention the independent research and question thing is that, to me, this is something one undertakes as a question of one's teacher - not a test. I routinely get polite, considered questions from students and I don't mind this at all. So a student recently asked me to demonstrate a pin on him because he couldn't see how it could work. He didn't say it wouldn't; he didn't approach it as if he were "testing" me - he genuinely wanted to understand how it worked. It was more of a "I don't get it" rather than a "Yeah - right!" sceptical challenge.

    So ultimately I encourage students to inquire and think. Challenging the teacher? That's another story.

    If, for example, you do your research and disagree with the instructor, then you can query it with him/her. If you don't get an answer that you agree with, this isn't a "test". It is just that - a disagreement. You can then choose whether you want to continue being a student. But what you're doing in asking your teacher is more of your own research - not "testing" anyone. If you approach the question as a "test" it is time to move to another teacher - one in whom you have a greater measure of trust. Because the very nature of the word "test" implies mistrust. And the teacher student relationship is based necessarily on trust.

    Thanks for writing and sorry about the slip-up.

  7. As to your comment Ymar that "The only person people need to test is themselves" I agree entirely.

    Well said!

  8. It's fine so long as it gets recovered and I don't have to write it again.

    I suppose the manner in which you are speaking of the test, would be similar to an ultimatum in a relationship. Do this or this will happen. Similar to a threat actually. Many people in bars have said "get out or I'll kill you". Some have actually carried out that threat, others have not.

    The reason why that kind of stuff is negative and not a negotiation skill is probably because it tries to limit human choices down to two pre selected routes. Success or Fail, as determined by one flawed human, against another flawed human.

    This kind of binary condition is pretty self limiting. As it is also similar to the "if I become best at A, I'll be best at A to Z too". Which isn't true either.

    A lot of young, foolish, or reckless people tend to believe if they get one thing, they can get the rest. They don't truly understand what enlightenment requires. That's what wisdom was for.

  9. Right before I read your new blog posts, Dan, I had just got done teaching a class on certain survival mechanics to a group of adult students. It was the same curriculum as I used before on 1 to 1 classes, but what I noticed is that when people get in a group, they start listening to the teacher and waiting for commands. I got the sense that a lot of people weren't making their own decisions or doing the exercises I gave them on their own cognizance, but waiting for me to tell them what to do. Whereas when I could get a smooth flow of communication with my 1 student, and set up a dialogue, I could get them to think and fix their erroneous thoughts (like Socrates-Aristotle) by listening to their external/internal dialogue.

    It's one of those little side effects of group classes in an industrial age that people might want to pay more attention to.

  10. Yes, that is consistent with the TED video I embedded in my article. However I suspect it has little to do with the industrial age; I think it is a human characteristic that we when are in a group learning environment we become less critical.

    For example, if I show something apparently counter-intuitive to a senior student in a one-to-one environment, he or she can be quite skeptical. However if I show a similarly controversial thing to the student in a group environment, he or she will accept it with little to no questioning. I've noted this tendency many times over the years.

    I mention "senior student" because I want to point out that I'm referring to people who are essentially my contemporaries rather than my "juniors"; even though I am technically their instructor (ie. our relationship has evolved to be far more a friendship than teacher/student) they default to "student" behaviour when in a group. I see this as a human trait, not greatly affected by societal/historical change.

    Thanks for the input.

  11. One of the things that make me stand out in a group is that I really really don't like synchronizing my stretching and kata movements to everyone else around. I tend to go at my own pace, even though some instructors tell me it is part of skill development to be able to synch up my movements to the people around me. Personally, I didn't join to learn synchronized group music dancing, but I don't say that out loud. I learn at my own rate and if I copy someone else's movements, it's just to get a beginning mold to start my crafting off. It will soon be discarded for a superior mold.

    So while some teachers go out of their way to develop individual cognizance in groups, others go out of their way to generate more group uniformity and Unison of Mind. Unity is great when the leader is infallible and a supreme leader in both practice and theory, but that's not always the case.

    Unison of mind makes great sense in a unit or army or team that is fighting together. Personally though, I didn't join because I thought I would be fighting in a group against another group. I joined because I expect to fight 20 people, by myself.

  12. I agree that it is part of human nature, originally speaking. I mention the industrial age because I believe it has gotten worse. Back in the past, the days of the Ancients, if someone said they could beat, outfight, or kill any enemy, they will be challenged and proof will be demanded. Similar to Trial by Combat. God will judge the righteous because he'll be the only guy alive.

    In an industrial age, there are so many skills that people need 10-20 years to understand and utilize. Or at least they are told this from the Ivory Towers of US academia. So people often take on faith when others talk about psychology, medicine, politics, electricity, climate change, and how their microwave/refrigerator works. Because they have already assumed that it is a topic too advanced for them to proof or research.

    People have gotten into the habit of assuming only an expert can expound on a subject because so many subjects in human life is not easily "proven" one way or another. And they have given up on God being the ultimate judgment and they have given up on themselves as being the ultimate judge, so what else is left but experts. Self anointed scientists, politicians, and experts at that.

  13. 1/2

    Hi again, Dan. Can't find a quote option here so I'll just italicise this:

    “By the same token, if you have not much general knowledge, by what criteria are you going to "test" your teacher? In martial arts, are you going to try to "best" your teacher in sparring? What kind of measure is this of what the teacher is able to teach? Can a top seeded tennis player beat his/her (much older) coach? Sure.


    And you don't need to "test" your instructor to get some idea of whether his/her techniques are effective. You generally get a good feel for the effectiveness of his or her techniques in class and by trying them out yourself. If it doesn't seem to make sense or looks ineffective, you'll move on. You won't need to "test" your teacher by constant questions or by trying to "best" him or her!”

    This does actually worry me quite a bit. Because I think this is one of the edges that something like BJJ has over things like karate in terms of the prevalence of good practitioners - and one of the reasons why we have so much bad karate. Some newbie goes into a BJJ class, he'll lose - and if he doesn't, then the people there don't know what they're doing. It's a cut and dry test. If he's interested, he can fairly easily find strong people to train with. Some newbie goes into a karate class, where's their standard of proof?

    You or I could take a movement away and, comparing it to feelings that we've honed over the years, have some idea of whether it would work. But if it's all on faith, and feelings being very easy to exploit if someone doesn't actually know what they're feeling, then the magical-ki guys have just as marketable a product as the people who spend twenty years learning to do things to a really high standard. At some point there's got to be something on the table, something that an untrained eye can see. Otherwise it's gonna be easy for kids who don't know a whole lot to get sold a false bill of goods - and that's not good for anyone.

    Maybe what we hand them is a book with citations for stuff they can go and look up - that might be one way to address the general knowledge angle. Considering the extent to which information, especially in the martial arts, is in other languages and/or contaminated... I'm not sure how well that could come off. People may just not want to read a lot too.

    I'd suggest an easier way to approach it is the same way you'd approach other sports:

    Can the total newbie, who wants to test what the teacher's teaching, beat that teacher's top seed tennis player? How good do that teacher's students get how quickly? Will his second seed tennis player do as well? What about someone who's been training there a couple of months? That sort of thing, to me, seems a fair test for comparing teachers if the person doesn't have a wide background knowledge.

    If you get the newbie up there doing some light sparring with one of your students, and the newbie's winning, then that to my mind raises some serious questions: Either about the way in which you spar - (if the way you spar doesn't, at least to some degree, simulate the context in which you expect stuff to be employed why are you doing it like that?) Or about the way in which/what you teach. There's something missing if, like so many dojos round my area, someone has these beautiful katas and then they start sparring and it's just bad boxing.

    It's true enough that sparring doesn't perfectly simulate a fight, and there are some things you can't morally do in it. But, against a total newbie, I think you can get enough proof in there to earn a bit of trust.

  14. 2/2

    Back when I used to go to university, I very briefly attended an aikido club. I didn't really like the idea of violence, and it was promoting itself as a peaceful martial art at the time. They were running three clubs in the town and had their higher ranked students running the clubs on different days of the week. This black belt who was taking the class, around my own age, paired everyone off - me with himself eventually - and told me to hit him.

    “How hard?”
    “Just do it!”

    So, I did. And it wasn't a fantastic punch or anything, I just half-heartedly swung at his middrift and stepped a short way - pulled most of it. After he'd unfolded himself from the floor, there was this strangest look in his eyes.... I think that's the first time anyone ever even vaguely tried to hit him from an attack that he hadn't already known exactly what was coming. One of the consequences of their not having any sort of tradition of proof was that he'd never got to test himself. And I remember thinking what a tragedy it was for him to have spent so many years on it all before he found out.

    There might be problems to be ironed out in quite how we do test people. Maybe in altering our sparring, maybe in missing some teaching tool that translates valid theories into valid practice, maybe in not knowing what the contexts in which our arts are meant to be applied. But I think without having a clearly visible proof we're prepared to stand by, we lose a lot.

    Honestly, the main problem I see with sparring as a standard of proof is that if you pushed publishing it, (as you'd want to if you had something you could show off as the real mccoy,) you might well just get some total nutters, who aren't newbies, wanting to come in and try to start fights and knock peoples blocks off. To me that's not an honest attempt to find evidence - if you escalate the violence more quickly than the other person is willing to and win, it doesn't show anything more than that the other person wasn't willing to do you a serious injury.

  15. Hello Anonymous.

    I can't help but feel that you've misconstrued my point.

    "Can the total newbie, who wants to test what the teacher's teaching, beat that teacher's top seed tennis player? How good do that teacher's students get how quickly? Will his second seed tennis player do as well? What about someone who's been training there a couple of months? That sort of thing, to me, seems a fair test for comparing teachers if the person doesn't have a wide background knowledge."

    A tennis player can easily "test" because he or she can do the full activity - playing tennis. Can you "test" your teacher in a civilian defence art? Only if you want serious injury. Otherwise you are testing something different - how they compare in a sparring match.

    Second, brute force is a much bigger factor in fighting than it ever is in any sport. If you're looking to a teacher for knowledge and skill, you might do so even if you are 8ft tall and his 4ft. "Testing" is a nonsense here.

    Thirdly, a student won't stay with an instructor if he or she isn't sufficiently impressed with his or her skill and knowledge. I certainly wouldn't be. Just because I'm suggesting that you not continually challenge everything your teacher says, ask for proof and try to "muscle" him/her to show your own prowess, doesn't mean I think instructors should sit back and demand total trust without actually demonstrating an ability and skill that is worthy of the student's attention. To leap to this extreme is to construct a straw man - one that I have not even hinted at.

    I wrote this article to challenge the (rather simplistic) view that appears to have gained traction in martial arts; namely that you can and should "test" your teacher. Presumably this mentality comes from arts like BJJ. Except it doesn't. For example, I have trained with BJJ master John Will - and yes, you get to do things with him and you see (and feel) his skill level. But would I ever try to "catch him off-guard" or otherwise "challenge" him in order to "prove" my own ability (or "test" his)? Of course I wouldn't! Nor would most of his students. Those that would might have to face an "attitude adjustment". I personally don't have time for such measures any more. If a student is being a pain in the ass, I'd just ask him to leave.

    In the end, constant challenges to a teacher's authority are not the product of an "inquiring mind" - they are the reflection of ego. And just because I have observed this (self-evident) fact does not mean I'm somehow advocating slavish adherence and blind trust in a "guru" who does not deserve anything like this.

    Thanks for reading and for your input.


  16. As to your second point (about the punch in the aikido class) I have to say that this is not about "testing". It is about honesty. I'm all for honesty - keeping it real - in training.

    But there is a BIG difference between "keeping it real" and trying to challenge the instructor at every turn. The former is honesty (as I've noted), the latter is ego. It is also mistrust. If you have that level of skepticism about an instructor, then you shouldn't be there to begin with. I certainly wouldn't bother sticking around a class where I felt it was totally pointless.

    As a matter of interest, I have all my students punch and kick for real. I chastise them for missing and I often stand there and do nothing to see if the punch or kick to a non-vital region is going to miss. If it doesn't, I cop it. I copped such a smack to the head on Saturday. I said "Good". Then the next time, I did the technique (knowing the student wasn't going to miss). The slight headache was worth it, because I knew that the student and I had both kept it real.

    But if a student tried to be smart and smacked me during a "soft" demonstration, I'd kick him out of the class pronto. Ditto if he or she kept being a smartass with constant questions and bad attitude.

    That is what I mean by "testing". I don't have any time for this.

  17. Sorry, Dan. I did take you to mean that, not on the basis of your OP but on the basis of your response to Ashley followed by myself. Reading back I can see different assumptions I could've made that don't lead there though.

    I think we might disagree on the value of newbies getting some sort of testing through sparring - I agree it won't show anywhere near the upper bounds of how good the school is but I think, at least as concerns people who've not done martial arts before, it sets a reasonable lower bar to meet. Not necessarily with the teacher, but at least with one of their longer term students with the same sort of build as the newbie.

    However, as far as that testing every little thing the teacher says isn't productive (whatever you tried to use for the testing), or that the idea you'd only be able to trust his word if you threw down with him doesn't really work out, I don't really disagree with you.

    Sorry again.

  18. No reason at all to be sorry. If I sounded terse, I apologise. I write in a very formal, minimalist way (due to the pressures of time) - I am very rarely put out by others having some small (or even large) disagreement.

    As to "testing", I think we are really saying the same thing. My point is, I use "testing" to mean "challenging". Being honest and real - that's not what I call "testing".

    I don't disagree that sparring can be one of the ways in which a student gauges the worth of the material. But I expect him or her to see it in context. It's no use sparring with me and expecting me to win if you're half my age and twice my size. A few years ago I might have given it a go, but now I'll just say "pass".

    If you want to take into account my personal factors, then this is a little different. I'm happy to be "judged" on my real skill - not just what I say. I think my students will agree that this is correct.

    You seem to use "test" to mean "evaluate the material". If so, then we all carry on a continuous evaluation of our material - it's just that some practitioners are less rigorous and inquiring in this regard. To me, this honesty and rigor relating to the material are quite different to "testing your teacher". Your teacher has a job to do. Whether he/she fails or succeeds in that job is the only appropriate test for him/her as an individual. But I have always supported honest and rigorous assessment of any material. I insist that my students be inquiring at all times. Challenging to me personally? That's another story.

    Thanks again for your input.

  19. Something to pay attention to is that Dan here is mostly focused on "testing" as in the things people do in relationships to try to get their way with the other person. It's a form of coercive negotiation tactic or threats/ultimatum, which is why he sounds peeved when he talks about students doing it to him.

    A test as in classic education and Socratic dialogue, is considered normal.

    A's proposal that people discover how much reality is in a dojo by sparring against the top ranked student, the second ranked, and then a mediocre ranked student is a good idea. Japanese schools and dojos do it all the time, as part of the Japanese inherent respect for hierarchy. You can't have a hierarchy when you don't know where someone fits. However, as with all good ideas, problems will always come in the details and application, as A mentioned concerning the side effect of advertising your dojo as a "real testing place" for fights. I've seen many good ideas shredded by bad applications.

    Concerning aikido, as I've mentioned before, the art itself historically came from people who fought in real life battles, where life and death weren't just theories spouted off by an instructor. It also had some unofficial influence from the Chinese internal arts or martial arts in general, I would suspect. New students with zero background in Chinese arts and knowledge, with no war experience, that have never seen a real physical act of violence in their life, are operating on some strict limits when it comes to learning and practicing aikido. One does not transform force into love without first understanding and utilizing the destructive nature of force. If love was naturally force, you wouldn't need a training program to learn to use force as love, harmony, or Ai. In modern mass taught classes, the number 1 indicator of how fast you will go is whether your peers and seniors are good or not. And whether your fellows are good or not, is dependent upon the quality of their teacher and their peers as well. Without a sufficient karate user or someone who knows how to attack using hands or legs, aikido's focus on two man drills to develop timing, fails without a sufficiently advanced partner.

    After some years of consideration on the topic, I came up with the conclusions here at this post.

    One time I did see an instructor do something a bit strange. They had put a senior student with a relatively new guy on the mat, and the senior student was doing something on his own, like a technique demo or something. The instructor was watching them and said something like stop using counters, to the new guy. The new guy was engaging in a technique duplication/repetition, where the technique has an arm leverage set on the chest and then a leg sweep to the back of the knee, plants them into the ground. At times, the new student would fall from the technique, at others he would lose his balance then bring the leg that was swept, back over, taking a step backwards with that leg to rebalance. I assume that was the "counter" the instructor was speaking of.

    Anyways, this kept going on for awhile as described, until the instructor seemed peeved off a bit and grabs the new guy from behind and starts applying various throws and joint lock techniques or something of that nature. They weren't full out techniques, but the result ended up with the new student being pushed around, gi fell out of place, hair got messed up. It was sort of at this point that people watching figured out there might be an argument happening. Because the instructor was saying things, and the only guy responding was the new guy, the senior guy he was working against was silent, as if afraid of the instructor. This eventually led to the new guy claiming A, instructor saying A was false, and then new guy raising his voice and trying to get support from Senior B. This ended up with him being called off the mats.

  20. I've heard other weird stories of this, like from people who went to a boxing gym, the head coach said "this guy says he's new, but he punches like a vet, so I'll teach him a lesson by having my top ranked fighters beat him to a pulp in a spar". Well the reason the newbie knew his punches was only because he was self taught. And he had to hit the other guy in the face, with the wrist of his gloves, to knock him out, since he was taking a pummeling in a spar (which was a real fight as instigated by the coach). He didn't go back to that gym again. With his self taught fighting skills, probably could have done better.

    A lot of so called instructors, being human, starts taking things personally. Then they act out of turn, and because they're not children with adult supervision, there's literally nobody around to stop them.

    Dan's perspective is naturally that of an instructor, since his time is invested in his single location. My perspective is naturally more from a student orientated perspective, because I often roam around looking for what others can offer. Both of us have relatively high standards when it comes to quality, but neither of us have been in the position of a rank beginner recently, where we had no idea whether the instructor's qualifications were real or not.

    The most common answer on yahoo answers is "check their lineage because lineage equates to quality". Of course, that's not necessarily true either. Someone can be very capable as a fighter, with good lineage, but sucks as a teacher. Bruce Lee's first generation sparring partners, what most call his students, were in that situation. It becomes very difficult to get a student to make the right decision, when the very reason they are looking for a teacher is because the student lacks the knowledge to make the right decisions (in his or her training). This then becomes an original chicken/egg cause-effect issue.

    Some time in the past, kids and teenagers would sometimes walk by me as I practice sword techniques or open handed movements. If they're interested, they might act in one way, then we'll start talking. Sometimes they want to learn some martial stuff, so I get them to do basic punch/block drills. Only with me, of course. Their movements were somewhat desynchronized and one time, one girl punched her friend in the jaw because she was mimicking what she imagined in her head and her body just acted. This was during normal talking, before anyone had even mentioned learning anything. An example of a gap between body and mind mastery. Another time, some elementary aged kids were playing in the neighborhood within visual sight and they seemed interested in the sword I was using, so I gave them a little mini lecture on metallurgy, Japanese katana history, and so forth. In the course of such things, I never mentioned how long I had been practicing martial arts or anything of that nature. Whether they believed me or not, was entirely based upon their own judgment. I was deflecting one person's attacks with my right hand alone, since that was all I needed. They did a one two hand combo, and it seems the bony part of my underwrist hit them in a nerve cluster on their forearm. They couldn't continue their attacks after that. But it did demonstrate that they were attacking with some real intent. At that time there was no body power involved, simply hand speed.

    The point of all that was to show that personally, I believe in showing things, rather than telling things. To get people good, whether it is myself or others, I want them to do things that get them to learn. Rather than copy things other people can do well, or listen in on lectures for 50 minutes, or memorize kata movements that might as well be sketch copying a photograph. That's what I expect out of other teachers as well.

    Efficiency in speed and power is greatly prized by martial artists. Efficient in compressing knowledge transfered in 1 second, not so much.

  21. One of the better things I've discovered to boost a rookie's learning rate is to introduce a sufficient level of adrenaline or fear into the program.

    When I'm practicing with my iaito, I don't have to worry about slips, fatigue, or mistakes as much. When I take out my shinken and draw it, I at times get the image of it slicing through the scabbard and into my fingers if I feel the blade is catching on some wood on the draw or sheathe. Sometimes people come up and talk to me when I'm using a shinken, and I have to focus a bit on safely sheathing and controlling the blade, while talking to people, so the blade doesn't hurt me or anyone else. Double that for when kids are around and what not. All of it is a test of my motor control skills and whether they are really down or not. Because if they aren't, I should be making mistakes when I'm devoting a lot of my energy on talking and using verbal speech centers (which interfere with battle skills).

    The focus of that small dose of adrenaline and fear is great for instilling motor skills and memory. It's a good precursor for testing yourself as well, because if you can relax and do all the techniques you've learned before, yet do it while you are worried and somewhat more hesitant than normal, then you'll have more confidence in battle.

    Whether adrenaline comes from training in high places, where people can imagine themselves falling off and breaking a leg, or whether it comes from hitting people so pain promotes adrenaline, doesn't really matter.

    For the body and mind to be One, the body must be conditioned along with the mind, not separately.

    A bushi or martial artist must never give in to fear and stray off their training path. They must always do that which they have visualized. If they don't wish to do it, don't visualize it happening.

    A word of warning. Adrenaline is useful, but not when you do reckless things like this.


    Also, a real bushi would have drawn her sword, even if it was a wooden one, and deflected that flying sword attack, especially if she was surprised by it. Bare hands Block No Swords, just in case anyone was wondering.

    Always pay attention to people that have lethal force available around you. Even if they are your friends or teachers. Especially if they are your friends and teachers. Always look out for the backstabber, enemy spy or assassin. Never let down your guard. One mistake is all it takes for a warrior's path to end.

    So far, I have yet to make any mistake with losing my sword or failing a cut like that. But I suppose if you train for decades in a weapon controlled society, anything can happen. It's worse in the US when it comes to H2H training. We don't even consider H2H training to be lethal force. Which is good and bad at times. A DEA agent was demonstrating firearms safety to a group of parents and kids at a local school. He took a glock, and was talking about safeties, when he fired it down into his leg with a big bam. He really should have checked the slide, unloaded the clip, and THEN checked it again. All he did was load a round into the chamber, then fired it, since the glock only has a trigger guard safety. Then he tried to walk it off as if nothing happened.

    I would recommend people do their research, learn to watch people and understand movements from youtube videos, and basically use your trial period with a teacher to your best advantage.


    I wouldn't try this one either if I were you. I wouldn't try it if I were me, either.

  22. Thank you once again for your insight and perspective Dan.

    Not so long ago, I thought the best way of understanding a martial art style was by practicing randori/controlled sparring with the instructor or a senior student. But the few times I dared to ask, despite the respect and genuine desire to learn, I was politely refused. I wondered at first if I had been arrogant or confrontational, but in hindsight I have come to believe that those teachers felt that randori/sparring was not the most appropriate way to teach me the principles of the art.

    After reading this post, I reflected further on the failures of randori as a teaching tool to beginners.
    1. I would not be testing the style so much as the capacity for the teacher to express that style. And every person has a unique expression, some of which is effective in certain situations, some of which isn't. I could practice with a hundred people and get a hundred different opinions of what that style emphasised.
    2. As a beginner, I would not have the base knowledge to comprehend the concepts that were being applied to me. I essentially wanted to shortcut months or years of training by using "combat" as a dynamic learning experience. But as you have taught me, there is no shortcut to understanding and applying certain principles, and a five minute exchange of technique could never have encapsulated what I wanted to know (or at least, I would not have comprehended it).
    3. Sparring is just one element/exercise in training- and a small and limited one at that. If I truly wanted to understand the art, I would be better off observing or participating in a few (or a few hundred) lessons, going through all the drills practiced holistically, not out of context. This is especially obvious when you consider not all arts were made for sparring. It is a foolish notion to value the entirety of an art by a single limited exercise, with a single practitioner, in a single experience. No scientific experiment would accept results under such circumstances! (Unless you're National Geographic's "Fight Science", that is.) Besides, randori is not actual, earnest fighting, and there is no real way of testing the effectiveness of a self-defence art without serious risk of injury to both parties.
    4. Despite my earnestness, my request could have been seen as a challenge or test to prove the effectiveness of the teacher/style. It's hard not to be confronted by that, especially if your skill (or reason for practicing the art) is not through free sparring. Even if my request was accepted under these circumstances, it would be easy for the ego of the teacher to become more important than the knowledge imparted.
    5. I suppose there was risk of injury as well. They didn't know my skill level, and I didn't know theirs. We could have overestimated ourselves or underestimated each other, or our styles could have been unorthodox and full of techniques we had not developed appropriate responses to. For example, as a sport karateka, I had never experienced someone staying in the melee range- they got in close and I couldn't back off as I normally did. I got a bloodied eyebrow because I just had no idea what to do in close quarters.
    6. Not everyone has the same interpretation of randori/sparring. Many people have little useful knowledge of range, speed or depth of contact. It's difficult to play the same game when the other person interprets the rules differently.

    I'm sure there are many more reasons I haven't yet thought of, but it's clear to me now that I was misguided in my desire for understanding the entirety of a system through a brief sparring match. It's not to say that sparring is a poor tool for learning - just that it requires mutual understanding and a base level of skill before it becomes effective as a teaching method.

  23. I also used to think that the mark of a skilled martial artist was the ability to defend themselves against random attacks. Many a time have I been tempted to walk up to someone who identified as a martial artist and just take a swing at them, but fortunately I have had the good sense not to do this. Apart from being rude and downright dangerous, there's more to martial arts than honing an appropriate response to a random assault. Had I attempted any such attacks, I would offended some incredible martial artists. And for what? A single test of situational response, ignoring decades of experience and training and other worthwhile knowledge. If they had defended poorly, I probably wouldn't have wanted to train with them. And if they had defended well, they probably wouldn't have wanted to train with someone who spontaneously attacked people! Tests like these are usually lose-lose scenarios.

    Sorry for rambling so much, I just thought I'd throw that out there!


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