Keeping it real

In a recent article, I discussed the very necessary role trust plays in the teacher/student relationship – and how an attempt to "test" your teacher would necessarily be contrary to the terms of that relationship.

I've had a number of responses that article, both public and private, querying my analysis. To quote one correspondent (who left a comment on the article):
"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...

I'd suggest an easier way to approach it is the same way you'd approach other sports... 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..."
My first point would be to observe that the correspondent is talking more about the need for more practical, transparent "hands-on" material in defence-oriented karate and less about "testing the teacher".

But the correspondent nonetheless raises a valid question: How can a beginner know whether he or she is being "taken for a ride" by a school teaching nonsensical or inefficient techniques/methods? And why wouldn't "testing your teacher" be one way of answering this question?

Let me first define what I mean by "testing your teacher" (as opposed to "testing the material" – more on the latter in a minute).

By this expression, I mean challenging the teacher's authority. This can take the form of continual, sceptical questioning, sneaky "tests" launched when the teacher's guard is down, "muscling" the teacher during a limited drill (in order to "show that the drill doesn't work") or any number of other examples.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I do not subscribe to any sort of "slavish adherence" or other blind trust in a "guru". Quite the opposite. I believe that students must have an inquiring mind at all times. However as I've said, this is quite different from trying to "test" a person whom you purportedly call "teacher".
  • The former is a mindset the pursues knowledge but has prima facie trust in a particular teacher in relation to whom there are reasonable, objective grounds for assuming a sufficient authority.
  • The latter is indicative of a prima facie distrust in relation to a particular teacher – in which case the title "teacher" is not really appropriate vis a vis the student.
I strongly believe that you should be satisfied as to the veracity of the material you are being taught. However if you find that you're increasingly coming to the view that you disagree with your teacher, you really have no business continuing to call yourself the student of that particular teacher. Clearly you are on separate paths.

In my view, if you are trying to "test" your teacher, this is less a reflection of an inquiring mind and more a function of your ego. Why do I say this? I think that if you suspect that the teacher is wrong in what he or she is teaching, the fair and honest thing to do is discuss the matter privately with the teacher. If the teacher fails to allay your concerns, then you must leave. This makes sense. Sticking around and trying to "test" your teacher in class makes no sense at all. It implies a very different motivation – to "prove" something in a way that diminishes the teacher's standing while simultaneously boosting your own. As I have previously discussed, this is (for want of a better term) an act of aggression. And such an act is only justified (in logic – not morality!) where it is a regrettable necessity.

I have to think through some pretty long-winded, extreme and outlandish examples before I can conceive of one that meets this criterion. "Teaching him or her a lesson" does not constitute such a regrettable necessity. Nor does "protecting the other students" (except in the case where your action will directly prevent some injury or other abuse). In such cases, the "reason" offered for the challenge is really just a justification offered after the fact. The primary motivation is something else entirely (ie. ego): If you think you can stop every mentalist, charlatan or peddler of bull***t, then you're just "swatting mosquitoes at a barbecue"; your time would be better spent doing something else. You can't stop all the charlatans of this world. You can't even make a decent start.

So how then can a new beginner safeguard against being "taken for a ride" by a particular school? I suggest that he or she can do so by the same method any other consumer would:
by being informed and maintaining an inquiring mind.

What this necessarily means is that the student must be prepared to test the material (as opposed to the teacher).

Isn't this the same as "testing the teacher"? You might think that it comes to the same thing. But I am going to make a distinction here so as to highlight some significant issues:

To me, testing the material is just a function of "keeping it real". By contrast, testing the "teacher" is overly focussed on the physical ability of one person in the school – at one particular point in time.

Now it is, of course, true that the teacher's physical performance can be directly relevant to your evaluation of a particular school. You can be sceptical of a teacher who, while speaking of health and fitness, has appalling conditioning; you can be sceptical of a teacher who, while speaking of combat effectiveness, cannot demonstrate anything (except against "zombie attackers" who step forward and pause while he or she slaps them around); you can be sceptical of a teacher who, while speaking of his or her "abilities", never partners off with the students for anything other than the aforesaid "zombie demonstration".

But as against all this, your teacher might be old, or might have recently been in a car accident, or might be ill... there is no "hard and fast" rule. Everything must be taken in context. To me, the main guiding principles are these:
  • Does what the instructor's material accord with common sense or does it require some level of suspension of disbelief?
  • Does the teacher demonstrate or does he or she rely almost exclusively on description and tales of "days gone by"/previous exploits?
  • When it comes to demonstrations, are you being distracted from the obvious (eg. that attacks against the teacher are never in anything other than "zombie mode") or is the teacher being honest about limitations in the demonstration format?
  • How much of what the teacher does in demonstration is calculated to "impress" you – and how much is necessary to teach you the relevant concepts?
  • Is the amount of force applied in demonstrations evidence of a sadistic egoism or is it just enough to "keep things real" and safe at the same time?
  • Can you really see yourself being able to apply the material, if not immediately then at least one day in the future?
In other words:
How much of what the instructor teaches seems, on an objective analysis, to be honest?

If, upon undertaking an assessment along the above lines, a teacher fails to meet prima facie standards of credibility, the resulting scepticism is, I think, clearly reasonable. In such a situation I find it hard to imagine any need for a further "test" of the teacher's skill/knowledge. Any such "test" (be it in the form of questions that "put him or her on the spot" or some sort of sparring) would, in my experience be of limited applicability to the data and is likely to be motivated by something other than an "inquiring mind".

Note that I don't consider questions sincerely and respectfully asked and answered as a "test": this is just part and parcel of having an inquiring student and diligent teacher.

Nor do I consider situations where the teacher has willingly engaged in sparring with you as some sort of "test" you've imposed on him or her. If you wish to use that as part (or whole!) of your assessment of the teacher's material, that is your prerogative, however it is worth noting that this "test" comes with significant limitations. If you doubt me, consider these points:
  1. It is self-evident that unlike sports or other activities, civilian defence is not easily "tested" (at least in a complete, determinative way). For example a tennis player can easily "test" his or her coach via game because they can both do the full activity - playing tennis. By contrast, you could only truly "test" your martial arts teacher if you were prepared to inflict (or have inflicted upon you) serious injury. Otherwise you would be testing something subtly, but significantly, different - how you both compare in a sparring match with specific rules, for instance.
  2. 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 8 feet tall and he or she is 4 feet tall. Ditto if he or she is twice your age or is now in a wheelchair. Furthermore, as I've stated, you might not even be aware of other limiting circumstances – injury, disability, illness... Heck, the teacher might just be "going easy" on you during sparring (that has certainly happened to me – much to my later, over-confident, surprise!).
  3. Despite any contrary impressions of your own your own worth, you might be a very poor reference point for testing your teacher's skills: I've certainly had people try to "test" me when they were actually hopeless. What kind of indicator do you provide if you don't even have basic coordination, strength and fitness? Even if you are coordinated, strong and fit, you might just lack the necessary skill for the particular activity, eg. groundwork. In that environment, even a poorly trained (but experienced) person might easily beat you on the mat, leaving you to assume that their knowledge was sound. Meanwhile, down the road a school is teaching ground skills that make this school look like a joke.
  4. For the reasons referred to above, your teacher isn't who (or rather, what) you should be testing anyway. You should be testing the material. So if you want to use sparring as a testing measure of the skills you're being taught, you should at least spar against a variety of different people, be they students of, or external to, the school – not just the teacher.
Leaving all this aside, it is true that sparring can give you some idea of the teacher's skill – and of the value of the skill set. It is just important to note that this is very different from some sort of determinative "test". Basically, there are a multitude of factors that you should consider to ascertain whether the teacher is "bogus" or whether his or her school meets your needs (whether in relation to "fighting" or in a more general sense).

If your focus in training is health, fitness, meditation, art, tradition, or any other non-combat purpose, then the applicability of the skills (or inapplicability, as the case may be) will take a back seat to other issues: (How healthy is your teacher? How flexible, strong, and fit is he or she? How calm, composed and happy does he or she appear to be? How satisfied with life is he or she? Much more importantly, how happy are you in taking the class? How does it make you feel? How is your health, fitness, flexibility, strength, happiness etc. relative to when you started?)

If your focus for training is application of the skills in a martial sense, you need to consider the environment in which you want to apply them. If you are wanting to develop combat sports technique, then you will need to test the skills appropriately in practically each class. If you are wanting to develop skills for civilian defence, you will be unable to apply the techniques as literally as the art requires (it isn't really possible to simulate an eye gouge, for example) but you will nonetheless be able to apply them in as realistic a fashion as safety permits.

I call the appropriate application of martial skill "keeping it real". This doesn't mean you should try to knock your training partners' heads off. Rather, it means training honestly and sensibly. It means:
  1. making sure that you aren't missing (direction);
  2. making sure you are in range (distancing);
  3. making sure you don't accommodate your partner by allowing tenuous techniques to look effective (eg. by falling over the moment he or she pushes you);
  4. not pausing unnaturally after an attack and giving your partner a chance to do something for which he or she would have absolutely no time in real life,
and so on. In short, it means testing the material in a logical and methodical way.

Part of training honestly and sensibly is understanding this: you can't leap straight from beginner status to full "testing" of the material. You can't make things "as real as possible" (never mind "totally real") in every respect from day one – or even on day 1,000. If you want safety in training, the extent of "realism" must, necessarily, increase gradually.

But it is true that from day one some things must be kept real:

For example, I insist on correct direction from the very first lesson. You must never punch "off line". You must always aim directly at your target. Aiming to miss is a very bad habit that is hard to break.

After direction, I insist on correct distancing. I've had good friends who were accomplished at "tag fighting" default to punching short when attacked for real (particularly head punches) – with disastrous results. And from my own experience, I can also tell you that once (as a beginner) I kicked towards an attacker's head with insufficient penetration (and, to be truthful, to one side!). Had my kicked landed, I'm fairly sure things would have ended there and then. But "had" is the operative word. After I missed twice, my attacker swept my supporting leg and I ended up on the ground in a very humiliating way, copping a beating that ended only when my attacker was pulled away by others.

Only after direction and distancing have been mastered do I insist on realistic speed and commitment. Until then, the application of the latter is premature – and dangerous.

And, whatever your general ability and experience, it is also true that whenever you are learning something new you will want to do it slowly to begin with (perhaps with some accommodation from your partner) until you gradually increase speed and resistance. (If you couldn't do this with a training partner, then you'd scarcely be able to call your training environment a "learning one", could you?)

You need time to acquire correct and efficient form. If your movement is totally wrong, adding speed not only disguises your errors; it prevents you from noticing (and correcting them). This can be dangerous not only for your partner but also for you, putting undue force at the wrong angle on joints and other support structures. (As it happens I'm currently nursing a strained rotator cuff muscle from trying to do a particular movement with too much speed and force too soon in my learning of it.)

Then there is the matter of your training partner's experience. You might well be prepared and able to go full speed / full force, but your training partner might not. Some consideration is necessary for his or her ability and experience.

Accordingly, "keeping it real" means keeping your training as real as practicable in the circumstances. This means different things in relation to different students. I know that students who are "combat-minded" often want to start "fighting" with "realistic resistance" from day one; young men in particular are competitive by nature and want to "get in there and mix it". But when it comes to a complex skill set, this is an unrealistic expectation. It is a bit like wanting to drive a golf ball straight to the green in your first golf lesson/match. You can add as much "oomph" as you like, but you're not going to get anywhere in a hurry (except by luck).

Put another way, it is a bit like expecting to glide down the front of a wave and through a tube – when you've never even tried surfing before.

I can give you a million more examples but the same truism emerges. And, as I previously noted, the complicating issue with martial arts is that brute force (as opposed to skill) can (and usually does!) play a pivotal role. But you didn't come to a martial arts school just to use brute force. Presumably you came to learn a specific skill set. That is certainly what martial arts training is all about: how to get an advantage via greater skill (perhaps off-setting smaller size and stature).

Whatever your goals in martial arts, you want to keep your training real in this sense – ie. you want to keep it honest. I recall hearing of a taiji teacher who promised that he could enable even his oldest, weakest students to "beat Mike Tyson". This is nonsensical and irresponsible, if not delusional. On the other hand, I know many health-focussed taiji teachers who say things like: "You might use this for defence in this way" without promising that the students will be able to do so. And for students training in that school or class, this is quite okay; they aren't going there for "fighting" but for a very different set of reasons. The fact that the class isn't focussed on realistic application is fine by them – and with me.

Accordingly, is there any argument for one to "test" one's teacher? I don't think so. The argument is, instead, for teacher and student alike to "keep things real" – ie. honest. My own teacher spends a lot of time on correct form, but I don't see this as a "failing" – it is precisely what I want to learn from him. I don't go to him to "test" my skill – or (perish the thought) his! I have enough knowledge, gained from a variety of schools over 3 decades, to know that he teaches movement I want to learn. I want to learn it for multitude of reasons, only one of which is that I have good reason to believe it will add to my "toolbox" of practical civilian defence skills – an addition that complements and builds on my existing skill set in a more advanced way (in kinaesthetic and motor learning terms).

If you went to study with my teacher and you wanted "combat-ready skills, right now" it wouldn't just be in bad taste to "test" him (or his other students) through constant sceptical questioning, push hands, free sparring etc. – it would be dishonest. Because you should already know that what he teaches doesn't match that description (most people would make suitable enquires beforehand, particularly if the subject matter is taiji). And if you didn't know beforehand, you'd soon realise after a few minutes not to expect hard sparring.

Going back to the beginner at the start of the article, how can he or she know things are being kept "real" at his or her new school? The same as he or she could in any other activity: by honestly and sincerely maintaining an inquiring mind; by evaluating (ie. "testing") the skills being taught logically, methodically and safely by reference to the student's own goals and objectives – and without egotistical motivation; by using common sense.

Over the years I have made my own judgements along these lines, and I have done so on the basis of evaluating data logically and in the context of whatever experience and knowledge I had. I don't need to start sparring with my (older) teacher as part of this process. I can and do "test" the material in any number of ways. And I wouldn't still be studying with him if I didn't feel it had passed these tests conclusively. Nor would I be studying with him if I felt he didn't keep things "real" - ie. honest - in relation to the knowledge he gave to me.

If you were to train with me, perhaps what I do wouldn't have enough martial application for you. But I would be up-front about everything. I don't run an MMA class. I don't train just for "fighting" but for any number of other reasons. Accordingly, my classes aren't always focussed on sparring and application. Sometimes (particularly in the internal arts class) they focus on form alone. This appeals to some and not to others. Some want more martial application, some less. But in the end, I don't "lie" to people. The classes are what they are. You will have to make up your own mind whether they meet your needs.

I won't kid you that you'll beat Mike Tyson. But at least when we do applications I will try to demonstrate them all – with as much honesty as I can – so that you can evaluate the technique based (as much as possible) on my performance (and not my words). In this context, I will note the my own limitations as well as those of the demonstration/application environment. I won't try to distract you from these with flashy zombie slap-fests or mentalist trickery. I will answer your questions and I will demonstrate where necessary to clarify issues.

And if you raise a good objection to something I am teaching, guess what? I'll change what I'm teaching. That's precisely what I've been doing for my entire career. I won't be clinging doggedly and desperately to "the old ways" just because they are the "old ways".

"Ikkyo" is a good example of my own changes to techniques taught to me - based upon honest feedback from students.

But if you try to "test" me through continual, sceptical questioning (the answers to which are never sufficient) or if you keep trying to "muscle" me in sparring or in some other limited drills, guess what? I'll be asking you to leave – whether or not I accept points that you might make. Because sincere and honest inquiry is one thing. A confrontational or distrustful attitude is entirely another. And to me, the concept of "testing" me comes with that attitude; one that is entirely inconsistent with a student/teacher relationship.

So if you're ever tempted to carry out such a "test" on your teacher, look first to your own reasons; ask yourself whether it is genuinely and respectfully based on resolving some sort of "technical question" or whether it has instead to do with your ego – "proving" that which you already consider largely self-evident (and which you intend to "make evident" to the teacher and others). Ask yourself whether you're doing anyone any favours by hanging around that school. Because "keeping it real" means being honest – to your teacher, your training partners and, ultimately, with yourself.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic