Don’t Confuse Niceness for Weakness

March 12, 2015

throw2A certain football coach has been at the forefront of the news lately.  The overwhelming majority label him as a “nice guy”.  However, the context and tone of the phrase leads me to believe that when they say “nice guy”, it is not actually a compliment, but almost a character defect.  It is as if the coach will not be able to perform his duties or rise to greatness because he is “nice”.  This is a cultural myth perpetuated by the media and movies; that if you are nice, then you are somehow weak, uncompetitive, and do not “have what it takes”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

This idea starts from the notion of “tough love”; common in sports and athletic endeavors.  This idea is that you have to be hard or harsh to a student for their own good – to make them take the step to the next level.  On the same thread, a student must develop a strong mental attitude to overcome the inevitable hardships and setbacks one must endure to get to the next level.  They also must have a strong mental attitude to face their competition.  Often, an opponent can mentally derail a fellow competitor with trash-talk, jibes, insults, etc. so that they do not perform their best.

Where this notion has gone wrong is the next idea that a competitor/athlete must therefore become “mean” in order to be tough enough to face the competition.  By extension, a person who is not “mean” must not be tough enough to excel in athletic endeavors.

In martial arts, courtesy is taught right alongside lethal and joint-destructive techniques.  The most terrifying people I know are the ones who will smile, say hello, and then take you out,  without so much as a hint.  These people have nothing to prove, they are confident in their own abilities, and they will not provoke or insult, because there is no need to provoke.  They have the greatest desire to excel; to become constantly better than their opponents, and themselves.

So you can then, have courtesy, and be nice without compromising your competitive spirit.  Trash-talk, insults, and being “mean” is about trying to prove something to someone else.  It has nothing to do with being an excellent competitor, improving your abilities, developing a tough mental attitude, and being strong, mentally and physically

Integrity – Its What You Do When No One Is Watching

February 27, 2014


GambatteAs an Instructor, I often move about the martial arts mat making corrections to techniques, and offering advice.  Even with Adults, I often notice that the student will adjust their technique if they think I am watching them. For most students this is an unconscious action, but even so, I still ask the question “Why”?  What are you trying to change now that you think I am watching?  If you are changing, then which is the “real” technique, when I am watching or when I am not?

Most of us are social creatures; we interact and respond to the people that are around us.  Have you ever acted differently because you knew someone was watching you?  Have you ever been singing in the car to a great tune, only to stop  when you see the guy laughing at you in the car next to you?  We are often embarrassed in social situations when we perceive others are judging us or mocking us.

However, as I tell my students, eventually you must become comfortable with yourself as a person; what you say, what you do, what you think.  The term I would use for this is Integrity.  Integrity is the steadfast dedication to the truth, be it scientific truth, historical truth, or personal truth.  There is an easier way to think about it, however.  Integrity is what you do when no one is watching you.  You sacrifice your integrity every time you change your behavior for others.  In order to take your character (and your training) to the next level, you must find a way to become a person of Integrity all the time; 24 hours a day / 7 days a week.   Find the person that you are when no one is watching, and make that person who you are in all situations.  You will be one step closer to becoming a more happy, comfortable, fulfilled person.  A person of Integrity.

Its OK to be a White Belt.

October 11, 2013

white beltArticle provided by Paul Fanning, 6th Kyu

Think back to a time when you learned a new martial arts technique.  Did you get it right the first time?  Probably not.  How did that make you feel?

If you were a white belt, you probably didn’t feel surprised at all, because you knew you were a beginner.  You knew it was natural to make some mistakes when starting something new.

If you were a more advanced student and didn’t pick up the new technique immediately, how did you feel?  Did you

feel stupid?  Incompetent?  Did it make you wonder if you really deserved the rank you wore?

There’s a challenge to learning in martial arts that tends to grow as we move up in rank.  The farther we move forward, the more we are tempted to feel frustrated when we don’t pick up new things instantly.  When our sensei shows us a new move and makes it look effortless and even magical, some of us think, Wow, I’m a [insert belt color] so why can’t I do it like that?

Let me suggest that the problem is that advanced students frustrate themselves because they think they should be experts right away.  My previous martial arts instructor told me that sometimes you have to give yourself permission to be a white belt.  His point was that anytime you learn something new, you’re still a white belt as far as the new material is concerned—no matter what color belt is tied around your waist.  So if you tell yourself it’s okay not to get something right the first time, you can avoid the self-doubt and frustration that come with expecting perfection.

This has been one of the most valuable lessons I have learned in martial arts.  I came to aikido less than a year ago after training for much of my life in taekwondo.  Although I hold a black belt in that style, I could not expect to do perfect aikido the first day I stepped onto the mat because most of the concepts in aikido were new to me.  As I put on

a fresh gi and a white belt for the first time in 30 years, I had to give myself permission to be a white belt.  I knew I wouldn’t do aikido like a black belt the first night or anytime soon—and that was okay.  It was more important to acknowledge I was a beginner if I was going to give myself room to learn and not grow frustrated.

This is a valuable lesson in life off the mat too.  Some people don’t try new things because they think they wouldn’t be any good at them.  Maybe they are right, but so what?  Maybe people would try new things if they would give themselves permission to be beginners.  When you take up a new hobby, start a new job or take a new class, you are a putting on a white belt in that new hobby, job or class.  Suppose you’re learning to play the piano.  Work hard, but don’t demand that you will play like a black belt in piano immediately.  Tell yourself there is no shame in not getting something right the first time.  Then you won’t get as frustrated about your mistakes and shortcomings as you polish your new skill.

Can an advanced student catch onto new material faster than a beginner?  Sometimes, because the advanced student has spent more time on the basic material that leads up to the new technique.  But even for an expert there is a first time for something new.  If the expert admits that, he is ready to learn with the open-mindedness and humility of a beginner.

Remember, no matter what rank you wear in class or what you do outside the dojo, we all have moments when it’s okay to be a white belt.

The “Art” in Martial Arts

September 17, 2013


In any athletic endeavor, there is a progression of understanding  as to how to perform.  In our martial arts school, my instructor taught that you started by learning;

  1.  the form of the technique (or movement)
  2. the function of the technique (or movement)
  3. the effectiveness of the technique (or movement)
  4. the art of the technique (or movement)

I believe that this applies to all athletic endeavors, from yoga to football.  The progression of form to function to effectiveness seems self-explanatory.  We must work to make our movements more efficient, more effective, with less thought, whether its blocking an incoming attack, or returning a tennis serve.  Where then, does the “art” phase come in?  We all have seen the “art” in watching games or performances in which athletes went “beyond” themselves.  But what did they actually do?

I tell my students that hopefully, if I train them properly, someday they should be able to walk in to another martial arts school and perform their techniques the way that school performs them.  Why?  Because I did not teach them techniques; I taught them how to move.  Thus, if I taught them how to move properly, they should be able to instantly adapt to the new movement they are seeing.

The art of the technique, then, is the ability to perfectly move in any given encounter.  This is not easy.  It requires precision, timing, and an understanding of oneself, and the environment that one is placed in.  But when you see the perfect tackle at the goal-line, the perfect lay-up in basketball, the perfect serve in tennis, it is because the athlete has moved beyond technique, and has entered into the essence of movement.

Look for the “art” in your chosen field.  Practice until you can move exactly the way you want.  Remember, it may take years of practice until you move with this kind of precision.  Work on your techniques, but ultimately, find the essence of the movement.

Learning’s Just the Beginning

August 26, 2013

Aikido 468Article provided by Dave Lehnert, 3rd Kyu

I read quite an interesting article on the web the other day. It had to do with learning through practice, and why it’s important to keep practicing even after you’ve ‘learned’ whatever it is you’re trying to learn. The author cites research involving manipulation of a robotic arm, and applies the findings to music performance and playing tennis, but she could just as easily have discussed the implications for the practice of Aikido as well.

It’s no big surprise to hear that when we first try something new, our initial efforts are usually awkward and full of hesitations and mistakes (remember the first few times you tried Katatetori Ikkyo?). As we repeat the task, it becomes less awkward; we smooth out the hesitations and correct the mistakes. Eventually, the task that at first seemed difficult and strange becomes familiar and easy. Instead of a jerky, barely-controlled careening toward the mat, the tenkan becomes a graceful, swooping circular descent around a firmly established center. We feel we’ve learned the task: “OK, I know this one now. What’s next?”

The research the article discusses, though, suggests that once you’ve ‘learned’ the task, the real learning is just beginning. When we learn a new movement, our brains start setting up neural pathways – the article calls it a “sensorimotor map” – to help us execute it a little better, and more efficiently, as we repeat it over and over. The more we practice the movement, the more the brain “updates the map,” and the more efficiently we move. The technique requires less and less effort (less and less muscle). You finally reach a point where your physical effort is about as efficient as it can be: executing the technique “feels effortless.”

Here is where the article became especially interesting: the researchers found that even after maximum physical  efficiency had been achieved, energy use in the brain continued to drop. The brain, apparently, isn’t satisfied with mere metabolic efficiency: it makes its own neural processes more and more efficient, too, after the motor skills have been mastered. And if your brain is spending a little less energy doing one thing, that means there’s a little more energy available for something else: lightning-quick calculations of the speed and angle of an incoming yokomenuchi, say, or being aware of everyone’s position during jiyu-waza.

This is why it’s not enough merely to learn the exercises and the techniques; we must overlearn them. Continue to practice over and over and over, even if you think you’ve already got the moves down pretty well, and don’t just “go through the motions.” Pay attention to what you’re doing, even if you’ve done it a thousand times before. The final paragraph of the article sums it up beautifully:

“The message from this study is that in order to perform with less effort, keep on practicing, even after it seems the task has been learned. We have shown there is an advantage to continued practice beyond any visible changes in performance.”

In other words: You’re getting better and better, even when you can’t tell you’re improving—a thought to keep you going through those long hours of practice.

The Power of “Thank You”

November 27, 2012

Za Rei - saying "thank You"If you just came in off the street and sat down at Aikido of Nebraska, you would probably say to yourself that the students say “thank you” to the instructor and to each other a ridiculous number of times.  Why does anyone need to do that?  Is it some power-game of the instructor? Some constant need of the students to stroke their self-esteem?

I find that I myself say “thank you” much more than I used to in everyday life.  Yes it can be a non-thinking habit, little more than any other habit that you do mindlessly, such as brushing your teeth, or hitting the turn-signal. But for me, saying “thank you” is still in the forefront of my mind.  It reminds me that I live in a society that does a vast amount for me personally everyday.  It reminds me that everyday people do things for me that they didn’t necessarily have to do.  If I have any success in life, it is a result of finding that success through other people.

In martial arts training, people train to get certain benefits for themselves, but at least at our dojo, they help others as part of their training.  Thus, it is important to say “thank you” for every last thing another person does for you.  They did not have to give to you; or they did not have to give to the extent they did.  Saying “thank you” for all these “gifts” makes you realize of the thousands of little things that people do for you every day- whether you pay for them or not.  It allows the student to gain 2 new character traits; 1)Humility, and 2) Gratefulness – character traits which will go a long ways to having a happy life.

The 8 Tenets of the Aikido Student – Courtesy (Rei)

October 1, 2012

This article is part of a  8-part series  on the Samurai Code for Modern Times.

” Samurai have no reason to be cruel.  They do not need to prove their strength.  A Samurai is courteous even to his enemies.  Without this outward show of respect, we are nothing more than animals. A Samurai is not only respected for his strength in battle, but also by his dealings with other men.  The true strength of a Samurai becomes apparent by showing his character during difficult times.”

My students will tell you that they receive training on courtesy and etiquette ad nauseam!  Why? Because I believe that martial arts schools are one of the last places in our society where manners, etiquette, and courtesy can be taught.  I also believe that courtesy and manners can vastly change your life, and it costs you almost nothing.  How often can you get a deal like that any more?

I learned about courtesy the hard way when traveling in Europe. My friend went up to a person and said “Where is the plaza?” The person turned their back on us, and only after several tries on different people did we understand that the proper protocol was “Hello, how are you? And your family? Excuse me please, but can you tell me where the plaza is located?” Otherwise, they would not give us the time of day. We were “Ugly Americans” because had no basic manners when greeting people.

More often than not, we demonstrate a lack of courtesy when we feel we are entitled, or when we want to badger or belittle people into doing what we want.  It’s a power struggle – we don’t feel confident that our argument will carry, so we try to intimidate others to make ourselves feel better.  The person you belittle, however, will retaliate in some petty fashion, be it a rude retort, making you wait in line as long as possible, or spitting on your hamburger.

How different would life be if we were actually courteous, and got the other person on our side, because we treated them with respect? you already know the answer; pleasant conversation, getting through the line fast, and no spit on the hamburger.

As I mentioned in another article, people are so programmed nowadays to expect you to bicker, complain and whine, that they are stunned when you are courteous.  And, the next time they need or want something, who will they choose?   The guy who treated them like crap? No, the one who sticks out in their memory as being pleasant/mannered.

So would you like to increase the results of whatever you do in life? Great, just keep doing it, and add exceptional courtesy. It costs very little, but it will get you to stand out in the crowd.