Poland 2012, #1

So I’ve been here in Poland for two days now. Didn’t yet have a chance to do any training whatsoever. So I compensated by eating lots of food, mostly sugar and fat. Great way to begin a deload week.

Anyhow, today I met Jakob, chief instructor of the Ronin TeakwonDo group here in Warsaw [www.ronin.waw.pl]. Spent about two hours discussing rather random martial arts related topics. Here’s what I consider to be the most important topics:

  • Don’t take blackbelt gradings lightly. If you think about taking your black belt exams, aks yourself honestly: „What have I done to deserve beiing a black belt?“. Jakob told me that he refused to take that exam for quite a long time, because he just didn’t feel worthy of wearing a Dan. Only after he won the european championships did he decide to finally test for the black belt. A black belt should take a long time to achieve, too. Receiving a Dan grading after two years of training is a joke. Obviously, a black belt only has so much meaning as you put into it – so, in a nutshell, you just need to be honest with yourself, define what the black belt really means to you and if you truly live up to it. As an instructor, always keep in mind that your black belt students will represent your style, your dojo and even you personally. Hence, you should also honestly assess black belt candidates for their qualities as human beings. Being a great athlete and technician just doesn’t cut it – set your standards and be true to them.

  • The MMA scene here in Poland is pretty well developed. KSW is probably one of the biggest freefight promotions in Europe. Media is paying lots of attention to the local heroes of the sport such as Khalidov, Pudzianowski and the like. All of a sudden, every major Kickboxing and/or Muay Thai gym in the country seems to be offering MMA classes. Concerning this, I expressed my worries that the MMA scene may deteriorate due to that – after all, being a great kickboxing instructor doesn’t make you a qualified MMA instructor. In my understanding, MMA consists of three distinct parts that need to be mastered: the striking game, the ground game and wrestling as a transition between them. However, just teaching kickboxing classes and BJJ classes in parallel isn’t a proper approach to MMA training, at least not anymore. MMA is an integrated sport. Of course, kickboxing skills do play a part in the bigger picture, as does proficiency in BJJ. Still, in order to be truly skilled at MMA, one needs to practice MMA. That’s idiot-zen, huh? MMA tactics revolve around very specific aspects of the game, aspects that are not necessarily part of any non-MMA curriculum. Also (and because of all the above stated), I feel that someone who has never competed in an MMA bout won’t be a particularly effective MMA teacher. So much for my point of view. Jakob countered that in the long run, those former-kickboxing-turned-mma-gyms that fail to deliever results will finally have to close shop. Those gyms that actually do a good job will continue to do so, as quality prevails. Hence, after a certain merket clean-up process has finished, the overall level of MMA in Poland might actually have improved. I don’t know about that. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

  • Lately, I’ve not been particularly satisfied with the way my students spar. Sparring is too hard, the risk of injury is enormous. Now I’ve been there, done that and bought the t-shirt. I guess everyone has. That’s why I’m not sure if those experiences aren’t just a natural step on the way of the martial arts. Still, as an instructor, I believe sparring should be conducted in such a way that both partners can actually try and learn something new. Hard to do that if all you’re doing is fighting for your life. I asked Jakob on his opinion on the topic, since he’s much more experienced than me. „We never sparred at 100% back then.“ was Jakob’s simple response, „After all it’s just that – a training fight“. Simple as that is, it makes so much sense. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional all-out brawl every now and then. Just save it for when it matters – in a tournament fight. Getting injured in training is bad. Not only does it take away valuable training time, it can also have a devastating effect on morale. Take away message – take it easy when sparring. That’s an important one.

  • Now this „take it easy“ approach is great, but explaining it to beginning students isn’t that easy. Most sparring-related injuries result from a lethal mix of poor technique and high stress levels. Jakob argued against allowing students to partake in any sparring whatsoever in their first year of training. He said that during that first year, those who are physically unfit for training will leave the class anyway, hence they won’t be at risk of being injured in sparring. Also, those „street“ guys who imagine they’ll turn a badass MMA champion in three weeks and just need to strike hard during sparring will get demotivated by the prospect of not fighting for a year, and also leave the class. In the end, only those will be left that are fit to actually practice martial arts and can keep a cool head. That’s what instructors are looking for in students. Here, I see things a bit differently. Those who are – on the first look – unfit to practice the martial arts are those who need martial arts practice the most. Hence, I believe an instructor should consider it a personal defeat whan a motorically challenged person leaves the dojo because he or she gets frustrated by a lack of results. It’s the instructors job to offer those people an approach to training that they can embrace, follow and profit from. Also, it’s important to keep track of every success, as little and minor as it may seem from the outside. Go ahead and motivate your students, tell them what they’re doing good, encourage them to keep the good work up. Don’t lie to them – rather, build them up on the foundation of their own achievements. Always keep in mind that the old-school „bad sensei“ image just isn’t up to date anymore. When it comes to those that pose a challenge due to their attitude, I believe that as martial arts teachers, we have a certain pedagogical responsibility. Those that come to a martial arts school looking for a fight do have their reasons. Find out what those reasons are and offer alternatives. After all, the martial arts are all about becoming a better person – that opportunity should be given to everyone, not only who are great fellows already. Of course, anyone who endangers other trainees needs to be expelled from training – after all, no gym owner can save every sould out there. Still, there might be other methods of cooling down a hot head, like putting him in the ring with an advanced student…

Well, anyhow, this whole thing has gotten longer than I planned it to be, so I’ll just stop here. All of the above is just what has been going on in my head since the talk with Jakob, so there’s little to no structure. Also, some points might be wrong or invalid. If that is so, just let me know by posting your own thoughts to the comments section below. I’m really looking forward to a good discussion.

So long,

take care

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