There are few things sadder and more embarrassing than someone saying: "oh yeah - I used to train (or) got a black belt years ago, but then, you know, life happened." or worse still, "welcome to my dojo - yes, i'm out of shape and so are my senior students - but I have a high degree of black belt, so sign here" - and then expecting to be taken seriously as a teacher by coasting on that history.
The COVID-19 crisis is proving to be a number of things for a lot of people: a time of mourning, a time of crisis, a time of anxiety; but also a time of hard truths. As there are many who are in the first few groups, please know that my thoughts and those of our entire dojo family are with you during this challenging time and our hearts are with you.
There are two martial arts groups that seem to require special attention during this challenging time:
I'll define an instructor as anyone who was teaching at least 1 or more classes regularly per week at a dojo or martial arts school and includes owners who teach as well (leaving investors - for those lucky few - out).
Would-Be-Instructors are senior martial arts students who are nearing a point in their training when their time on the mat makes them want to share their experiences with others - and so they begin overtly or gently hinting to their instructor, that they would like to teach.
Let me first start by very clearly defining, for our dojo, what it means to be a teacher - as this definition can vary between schools and disciplines, and as such, can absolutely change the outcome of my conclusions. A teacher is someone who has agreed to taken on the responsibility of: a) maintaining a consistent pattern of self-discipline in physical, mental, and spiritual training as a main priority in their lives, b) trains regularly and more often than they are teaching, and c) looks for opportunities to share and ask questions of juniors coming up after them (notice I say "after", not "under" - this is a crucial difference, as time spent does not necessarily equal seniority in our dojo).
Would-Be-Instructors: I have yet to experience a dramatic, relationship breaking moment in our dojo (or really any dojo I've been a part of) - though "keyboard warriors" on social media abound - and are ignored - an important moment to point out that if you do "have a bone to pick" with me - you'll only get a response via phone, email, or text - never social media; and I'm happy to have the discussion/debate and I say that with zero intended sarcasm.
The reality is that there are many would-be-instructors who are out of shape, practice no balance in their lives, and act with seniority on and off the mat. When this happens, we must always start by examining their instructor and the expectations they set in their dojo. For example: is your chief instructor over-weight? Do they place an emphasis on maintaining discipline physically, mentally, and spiritually while simultaneously acting in an opposite way? Many try to explain these contradictions away - and in so doing - damage any discipline they are attached to.
Instructors: I'll start with an outlier example. One of the judo teachers I talk about the most, Yonezuka Sensei, who passed away a few years ago at age 77. The man had a six pack well into his 70s. Did this have to do with his genetics? Without a doubt. Is it realistic to expect everyone to have a six pack ever, let alone into their 70s? Of course not. Should we expect everyone to aspire to that level of discipline and work ethic? Hell yes. One of my favorite Aikido instructors, Andy Demko Sensei is quoted as saying: "anything short of a full commitment, is no commitment at all". Does that mean we judge the outcome against others? Absolutely not - especially if you espouse the Aikido principle of non-competition.
So what does it all mean?
It means, first and foremost, cut yourself some slack. It does you absolutely ZERO good to up your anxiety because you haven't spent the last X number of years already at a full commitment. Start by accepting where you are, what you are, and everything that has led you to this moment, reading this article. It's O-K. It's okay if you "let yourself go" before now. It's okay if you having read a book in a decade or more. It's okay if you haven't spent any time on you in years because you had kids, or work a demanding job that exhausts you, or whatever other reason brought you to this moment.
I ask you to accept yourself in this moment. NOW - make a decision.
Will you be a "used to be" or "AM"?
Nothing is less impressive to me than someone who “used to be”. I don't care what rank black belt you have, what status you attained, or what position you hold - none of it is impressive and none of it demands attention beyond the moment in which it was achieved. 5 minutes after you got your X rank black belt, teaching certification, or championship - now what? Are you done now? Coasting time? Riding off into the sunset? Nothing is less impressive to me than someone who "used to be":
Used to be in shape Used to be successful Used to be flexible Used to be strong Used to be coordinated Used to be an instructor Used to be on the mat Used to be a regular at the dojo Used to be....
For me, there are three axioms on this:
1. You’re only ever as good as your next “at bat” (not your last) 2. Maintaining the habit is orders of magnitude more important than your genetics 3. You must be patient with yourself, but always give your best current effort
From these axioms we can derive power in knowing that it is in our hands to pursue and achieve our goals - others may influence, as genetics might - but the vast impact comes from our efforts alone.
This is why anyone who wants to be an instructor at my dojo must adhere to consistent physical conditioning routines and set an example, in the long term, that:
1. Physical fitness (including proper nutrition) is a cornerstone of your Aikido journey 2. Consistent support and gentle encouragement by Sempai to kohai is our responsibility and also should not be taken lightly 3. How we interact and love each other during the most frustrating and painful times is a true indication of the strength of our dojo family bonds
Allow me to be specific and point out two individuals I feel embody an impressive level of consistency over time (though they probably don't care about my opinion - which only reinforces my respect for them):
Dale Roznowski: Sensei at Aikido of Hernando County, Dale is the perfect example of someone who started Aikido in the '90s with time spent in Japan where his practiced martial arts originated and simultaneously places ZERO expectation on anyone to show him deference for that experience. Why? Because he knows that it pales in comparison to the effort he puts in day-to-day now on and off the mat. He pushes himself harder today because his work ethic demands it and as a result, he becomes an example to follow - whether he wants to be or not.
Jonathan Weiner: Sensei at Aikido of Charlotte, Jonathan is an example of someone who spent years training and then faced this question bravely - committing himself to life changing behaviors and patterns that resulted in a healthier and clearly balanced leader. It's palpable when you watch his students at his dojo interact with each other and with him that there is an expectation of work ethic. He sets the standard and while many may not meet it - it's clear that he inspires them to try.
I met these unique and talented individuals later in my martial arts journey, so while they are not sempai or kohai of mine - they very clearly are tomodachi (close friends) with whom I share and give enormous respect.
As always, the views expressed here are yours to do with as you please - take them in, process them, and adapt them into your life - or discard them as in-congruent with your own thoughts and ideas. Either way, I love you all unconditionally and look forward to seeing you on the mat sometime soon.