Friday, May 4, 2012

Seminar Attitude

This is NOT the review of the Wilder Seminar. If you are looking for the review of the Wilder seminar, it can be found here.

**As a forewarning, this blog might upset some people, probably black belts. I honestly sincerely don't mean any disrespect by it, but I want to preface the blog with this disclaimer: I'm sorry if this upsets you and I do not hold this opinion to be universally true about all black belts.**

I recently attending a seminar. It was awesome. It was the third seminar I have been to, and the second martial arts focused seminar. (First was a Mr. Rory Miller seminar on violence, second was an Iain Abernethy seminar on Bunkai and Kata, and the most recent was a Kris Wilder seminar on power generation and application of this principle with some of the kata movements)

I did not get this vibe from the Miller seminar, probably because some of the first words out of Miller's mouth were "This is not about Martial Arts, this is about violence." and no one showed up in uniform.

However, I have to say something I experienced at both the Abernethy and the Wilder seminar has left me feeling rather perplexed. I felt it quite a bit more at the Abernethy seminar then the Wilder seminar, but it was still there.

Generally speaking I am usually one of the youngest and lowest ranking people there, but not usually via the same person. There are younger attendees who hold black belts, and older attendees who hold green and brown belts. There have been one or two other people younger then myself and maybe 3 to 5 people who are not black belts at these seminars. Overall, there are not a lot of us 'newbies' at these seminars. It's probably 90% Black Belts. I am not sure if the other lower ranking students feel the same way I do, but I usually feel a distinct 'mood' emanating from some of the black belts who attended the last two seminars I went to. Both seminars, walking into the room first thing on the first day, I feel a general air of... I want to be politically correct, because I do not want to hurt feelings or step on toes, that's honestly not the purpose of this post, but to be blunt I feel like a lot of people are looking down their nose at each other.

I have never felt this feeling or attitude from any of the hosts or presenters of the seminars that I have attended, and I certainly don't get this vibe from all the participants either. This is not a blanket statement. However, this feeling does come and go throughout the seminar, and I feel like most everyone is on guard and is always slightly on the defensive. I see a lot of dour expressions.

(There was a brief discussion following the seminar about this, and the comment was made "I don't think those kind of people come to these seminars, I think everyone here wants to learn." I'm not sure I entirely agree with that. Perhaps I am just imagining it though? I agree that close minded ignorant martial artists will more then likely not sign up for these types of seminars, and I do think that everyone there wants to learn, but I just don't get the feeling like the attitude is all bubbles and roses and sunshine. And yes, I am aware that Martial Arts is a serious subject, but like Miller has stated, you learn things better if you have fun with it.)

I'm not sure where this sense of standoffish-ness comes from, but I don't like it. I think it would be cool if all the attendees left their belt at the door and put on a white belt for the duration of the seminar. I think it would be neat if everyone would let go of their pretenses and insecurities and just have a good time and enjoy themselves. Introduce yourself to people, make a point to go talk to someone you don't know, ask them about their style, work with different partners and be excited about it for godssake! We get this chance to work some of the heavy hitters in the industry and I think we should make the most of it, not spend time sizing each other up and worrying about if the person next to you knows more then you.

Are you worried that your partner is going to hurt you? Are you worried about looking weak? Do you feel like you have to uphold your black belt macho attitude? I don't get it! Please help me understand why I saw almost no laughing or excitement. If you do feel this way, maybe other people feel this way too. (I did see SOME, especially when people are doing the drills, but I also saw a lot of eyeing up and turned backs during breaks or before or after the seminars.)

Whatever you're holding on to, let it go!

This little orange belt would be pretty darn excited if everyone came with an empty cup, an open mind, and a willingness to work with others, to listen, and to drop the pretenses, to go as slow or as fast as your partner is comfortable, to hit as hard or as soft as your partner is comfortable with, to be willing to scale back, to not be embarrassed to ask your partner to scale back if that's what you want.

We are all there to learn and to have fun. We all come from different backgrounds but we are united by our passion for the martial arts. No one is out to get you, no one is out to make you look stupid or feel like a fool in front of everyone, no one cares if you don't know something specific that the person next to you might know; you may know something they don't! No one cares what color your belt is, or how many stripes are on your belt or how long you have been training. We are all equals there to learn, share, practice, and enjoy.

I know I just said that no one cares what color your belt is, but perhaps because of this general vibe it can be very intimidating for a low ranking student to walk into a room full of black belts. (For those of us who don't have a black belt, it can best be described as the black belt complex. You know it shouldn't matter, but you can't help but fixate on it to some degree till you have it) I just didn't feel overly welcome till the host and presenter showed up, I didn't see enthusiasm or excitement, I saw sideways glances and people sticking to clicks/schools.

I will be the first to admit, I am just as guilty of this myself. I tend to mainly work with Sensei Nick during these seminars. Partly because I am shy, partly because I have a very strong sense of trust with Sensei Nick and it can be unnerving for anyone to work with a stranger, and partly because I didn't feel like most (not all, but some) of the other attendees wanted to work with an orange belt. It's very difficult sometimes for us newbies to come out of our shell and approach you 'towering black belts' who have been doing this for 10, 20, 30 years or more. Does anyone else feel this way?

Last night in class, we talked about how cool the seminar was and are encouraging out students to attend the Brent Yamamoto seminar. We had a student, a white belt, say he didn't want to go because he was afraid he would be in the way, or he wouldn't be able to keep up with the material. Sensei Nick and I tried to encourage him, but I got the feeling that that is why a lot of lower ranking students don't attend these things. If he were to attend, I couldn't honestly guarantee that he wouldn't pick up on some of the attendees not wanting to work with him because they, too, felt he would be in their way, etc.

It can be really scary attending a seminar for the first or second time, especially as a lower ranking student. We feel like mice among giants! You're the role models, you're the ones we all look up to for guidance and acceptance. We need your welcoming attitude and encouragement, not your aloof detachment. In our minds you embody the black belts we want to become. Think about that for a minute... We're watching your every move to see how a real black belt behaves. If you snub other schools, your students will do the same. If you go out of your way to talk to other people, to share information, to be pleasant etc, your students will follow your lead, especially when you encourage that type of behavior.  Do you want your students to be like those of Cobra Kai or those of Mr. Miyagi?

Sensei Nick and I discussed this on the way home, and he said that honestly the two seminars that we have attended together were pretty good. He's been to seminars that were almost downright hostile. Has anyone else had any type of experience like this? What have you done to get past it?

There were some suggestions like forcing people to work with different partners on the first day, but then letting people work with people from their own school on the second day so they can collaborate and be able to take the material back to their own schools better. Miller did this at his seminar and it seemed to work pretty well. It was only a one day seminar that I attended but by the end of the day it wasn't a big deal/awkward to go introduce yourself to someone and change partners every time.

I've decided that the next seminar I go to I am going to make a point to try to get there early and talk to as many people as I can before the seminar starts and during the breaks. To introduce myself and find out who they are and where they come from and what they study. This is going to be a huge challenge as I am actually pretty shy when I have to face people in person. In fact, I've gotten so nervous I've thrown up before! However, this is really important to me, so I want to push myself outside my comfort zone. We grow through challenge and adversity, not by staying in our safety zone.

So if I see you at the next seminar, you can bet I'm going to try to come over and talk to you. And if I suddenly dash off while we are talking, please don't be offended, I might be throwing up in the bathroom because I am so nervous, but by golly I'm gonna make the effort!


  1. This is actually a very good and very interesting post, Sahara!

    The last seminar I went to was one specifically for the system I train in by one of our most experienced and skilled practitioners, and I can tell you that even in that setting I was aware of the same thing you noticed in your seminars. Everyone did tend to stick to their dojo, and very few yudansha partnered with mudansha. I am a brown belt and ended up working with a brown belt lady from another dojo, but can I put it lightly?...she had some trouble the roughness of the techniques we were practicing. When she had to stop I tried to work in with a pair of young women next to me wearing black belts, but I saw they were having trouble with a technique that I felt confident with. When I showed them the technique again and walked them through it I got very awkward looks from them and the one I demonstrated on ended up letting me hurt her wrist (despite applying the lock very slowly) because she never tapped out until she finally yelled out. I asked if she was alright, of course, and tried to help her up, but she just gave me a dirty look and her friend (or sister?) helped her up, and neither of them had spoken to me at all the entire day, before or after I worked with them. I think that they DID get offended that I would help them with something, and then even more offended that I hurt them, and I had never thought of those things--I just saw some other martial artists working a technique that was new to them but not new to me and tried to help.

    Interestingly, the next weekend my dojo hosted an open sparring session and invited several other martial arts schools of various styles to come in and spar and practice with each other. We ended up with karate people, kung fu people and a kenpo guy, and only two people wore uniforms (my sensei and one of the other black belts from my dojo) but they were two people who are very open to working with anybody. We had a good time, had some laughs and learned some things, and I can safely say that it was more of a fun learning atmosphere. It's entirely possible that the lack of uniforms contributed to it.

    1. Thank goodness I'm not the only one! It's just a very strange vibe and it's very hard to articulate, isn't it? I'm sorry you got 'the vibe' too.

      I have to admit, it kind of puzzles me that the ladies wouldn't say anything to you, especially the one who didn't tap out. If you don't they communicate, you can't help your partner keep you safe! I am tempted to wonder, and I don't think it's this way with all female martial artists, but perhaps these girls in particular felt like they had something to prove, they had to be tough and prove their black belts in front of a lower ranking male brown belt, so she didn't want to tap out too early, but once she got hurt, then of course it was your fault. Who knows. I'm not a sexist, but I know lots of ladies who are. I get really irritated with guys or girls who don't seem to realize that Martial Arts is a tough practice. It's hard on the body. It's designed to hurt people! If you don't want to get hurt, if things are too hard for you, if you have a low pain tolerance, whatever, if you're not up to it, then you need to speak up and/or you probably shouldn't be practicing. But... I'm think I'm kind of a hard @$$.... so, take it with a grain of salt I guess.

      Anyway, as mentioned, I had the same experience with the Miller seminar. No uniforms = no ego and no attitude, just everyone working with everyone else. It's an interesting dilemma and something I would like to figure out how to address/solve. Thank you very much for your feedback, I really appreciate it!

  2. I'm a black belt and I see it, too. It's a shame - as it really has no place in martial arts - but the reality is that martial artists (as a group) aren't really much different from the population at large; there are nice, mean-spirited, quiet, unsteady, loopy and peaceful folks everywhere, I dare say. I think lots of that - especially working only with folks they know/from their own clubs - comes from insecurity. Seriously.

    I like your idea of talking to folks before things get started, but might I make a suggestion? Chat them up in the lobby, parking lot or changing room - y'know, BEFORE they have put on their gis and obis. No club patches or belts to get in the way might make conversation flow a little easier, IMHO...

    Enjoy the next seminar - and encourage the white belt from your school to go, too :-)

  3. Rank-Ego-Preceived Authority.

    Maybe showing up with out a rank belt or maybe there needs a grey belt, for those time we want to promote a beginers mind.


    1. Could be. There was a couple at the Wilder seminar who studied Aikido, they were I think a couple dans into Black Belt but they put on a white belt for the seminar. They said it was out of respect for learning a new art, or something close to that. I thought it was neat.

  4. Ego has always been a part of martial arts (and that is not a good thing). Why else would nearly every style that has a Dojo Kun include something about humility?

    The snubbing of their kohai comes from the same place that had upper class men treat Freshmen like garbage (people just loooove feeling superior to others). This is further exacerbated in the MA world because:
    1. Kohai in many schools, to greater and lesser extents, are EXPECTED to do a certain amount of capitulation towards their senpai.
    2. Some of these black belts are school owners and they require their students to treat them like gods - thus they grow to expect it from others.

    The hostility towards other black belts comes from insecurity, gender, and pride. Black belts have spent years polishing their skills; and once they attain that coveted belt they feel a certain amount of accomplishment. They are the only, or perhaps one of very few black belts in their school - they are the big fish in a small pond. Then they find themselves at a seminar and realize they're just another fish in the sea....their accomplishment is diminished; their pride is threatened.

    This feeling of threat is multiplied because the other black belts may be more skilled. And this, on the surface level, means that the other guy can best him physically. And that doesn't sit right with a man who has spent years learning how to fight.

    At the end of the day, guys like these are going to get left behind. They are like doctors that don't take Continuing Education. They learn nothing beyond their comfort zone and will ultimately be surpassed by those who seek to learn from others.

    1. Miller says something along the lines of how most guys who are martial arts instructors or black belts choose Martial Arts because it places them in an environment where people have to bow to them and call the "master".

      I DO think that kohai should be respectful to their sempai and sensei, but I don't think that that respect should just be automatically lavished on, expected or demanded. Respect and trust is earned through good leadership and example. Not granted to you just because you become a black belt.

      It's a sad and frustrating situation.