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Just Say "OSU". Then quit.

Imagine you are out to dinner at your favorite restaurant. You order something yummy, like a steak and a baked potato, but when you taste your food something is wrong. Perhaps it was not cooked the way you asked. Or maybe you wanted the sauce on the side. Or salad instead of fries. If you are like me, you might call the waiter over, and very politely explain the situation. After all, you are the customer, right? You should get what you are paying for. And most restaurants will happily fix the problem, hopefully without expelling any bodily fluids into your dinner in the process.

So now imagine you are a new martial arts student, who has recently signed up for classes at a very traditional school. You have purchased your plain white uniform and spent a few nervous hours attempting to learn how to tie the belt. You kneel and bow and repeat funny words like "OSU!" every time you come to class. Perhaps you even recite a student creed, or nod your head in appreciation whenever the wise, black belt instructor gives a speech about how you can improve your life. You follow all the rules about where to put your shoes, how to stand in line and how hard to go in sparring. In almost every area, you positively love this new pursuit of yours. But perhaps there is one thing that you are unsure about, one part that makes you uncomfortable, one area where you are not quite happy. Do you say something? And if so, to whom?

When I was coming up through the ranks, one of my instructor's favorite sayings was "Just say OSU." He also used to say "This is not a democracy." All those sayings, when you got right down to it, really just meant "Shut up and train." Traditional karate students, like soldiers, are expected to fall in line, follow orders, work hard, and keep their opinions to themselves. That being said, for a karate master my teacher was fairly approachable once you got to know him. And while speaking out in class was verboten, and would likely result in hundreds of pushups, it was not unheard of for students to meet with him in private to discuss any issues that they might be having. In fact, he would often make comments about the couch in his office being like a therapist's, and joking "I just wanted to teach karate."

It is never that easy.

Over the past month, two things have happened in my own little martial arts world:

Some of the highest ranking students at my husband's jiu-jitsu school were feeling frustrated that their classes were no longer as challenging as they would like and were wondering if it would be ok to discuss this with their teacher.

One of the leaders in my karate style organized a series of workshops for third and fourth degree black belts, and invited senior students from all 3 of our local schools. After some consideration, one of the head instructors decided that he did not like the way the classes were being structured and forbid his own students from attending.

In the case of the BJJ school, a few students, my husband included, actually met with the head instructor and respectfully explained their concerns. They felt like there were not enough rounds where they could really work on stuff with each other. That things were too controlled, too pampering. That they were being punished for something they hadn't done, mainly, hurt each other. That they were not being trusted, as the students with the most experience, to go a little bit harder without getting out of control. All they wanted really was the opportunity to prove that they could.

What happened? The heads of this very traditional martial arts organization listened. They realized that their most dedicated jiu-jitsu practitioners were unhappy. They respected them as students, as people and as customers, and they changed the structure of the class!

The situation with the advanced class? Well I sent him a confused email, which described how excited we all had been to train together, and asked if there was any way for his students to attend. He never replied. He then had multiple conversations with one of his highest ranking students during which he attempted to explain why he was against the class. I am not sure exactly what was said but it can probably be summed up like this: "I do not like things that are different from my usual routine. I do not want someone else teaching my students. I do not like someone else organizing events without me." And so on.

Let me say that this man is not a jerk. I have know him for over half of my life, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for his dedication and commitment to the art. He is a very skilled karateka with tons of students, many of them black belts who have trained with him for fifteen years or more. He is also a man who believes wholeheartedly in structure, discipline, tradition and loyalty. His students do not question him, they do not complain about his methods, and they do not, under any circumstances, train elsewhere. Or if they do, they do not tell him. Of all the things that bothered him about this advanced class, I imagine the worst was that another teacher would be in charge of his students.

He's not a bad guy, this instructor. He just made a bad decision.

The student teacher relationship is a very complex one, especially in karate. Of course it is tempting to have a god-like rule over your class, to create an environment where everyone just follows you no questions asked. Where it is your way, or the proverbial highway. After all, who wants to listen to their students complain all the time?

And yes, as a traditional martial artist, you do have to go along to get along. For the most part, you should line up, bow, and follow directions explicitly, even if you do not yet understand how or why.

But teachers do not own their students. They are not obedient children to an extremely overbearing parent. Respect and loyalty can, and should, be earned over time but it does not mean you have the right to control every aspect of their lives. And it certainly does not mean it is ok to rule so absolutely, that your subjects are afraid to ever disagree with you. 

When you make changes that benefit your students, you have happy students. When you don't, people either suck it up or they leave. And every so often, when they are black belts, this happens:

My own instructor trained with the same teacher for years and years. Eventually he opened his own dojo. Then things got a little tricky, politically. He didn't agree with all of the decisions his teacher was making about the future of the organization. So he got together with a few other high ranking instructors, resigned, and started his own style of karate. Which, to be honest, was not all that different from the previous one.

He passed away in 2004 but his organization lived on. Then, about a year ago, one of the other founding members became frustrated with the way events and promotions were being run. He felt like he did not have enough control over things. After some serious soul searching (and a whole lot of meetings), he submitted his own letter of resignation and went off to run his school independently, in a manner that I am sure is not all that different from the way we are currently training.

We are all doing karate. Sure there may be slight variations in philosophy, but we are all doing the same punches and kicks and in many cases the same katas. We are all on the same journey. What is it about the traditional martial arts that makes it so the only course of action when you are unhappy is to resign?

Tradition is a deep and valuable thing. But you cannot be a leader who is so rigid, so set in his ways, so unwilling to listen and learn, that a student's only course of action is to quit. If you lose someone, whether it is to yoga class or their own karate style, you have done something wrong. Period.

My current BJJ school is very casual. There is no lineup, no bowing. Students can wear any color gi they want to class. Some people refer to my teacher as Sensei, while others call him Coach, or they just refer to him by his name. But I get the sense that he is always very well respected for his experience and ability, despite the lack of formality in his classes. And although I do not have any proof of this, I am pretty sure he would be open to hearing a student's concerns, provided they were reasonable. 

My husband's school is quite the opposite, with a required uniform, a clear and obvious structure and a student creed recital at the end of every class. Students bow and say "OSU" just like we do in karate. The head of the organization is an old-school, traditional guy, yet he is the one who listened to his students frustrations and made changes to accommodate them.

And then there the other guy, as rigid and unwavering as a redwood tree, with a whole room full of black belts. Doesn't that mean he is doing something right?

Clearly it is not an easy answer. And while I have yet to figure out the perfect way to navigate the very complicated world of the student teacher relationship (and most likely never will), I do think the key is in that word, RELATIONSHIP. It is a two way street, a give and take where both members gain something and neither side feels abused, disrespected, or unappreciated. Because in the end, your students are everything, they are what make you a teacher. You can be proud and powerful and completely in charge, but if you are preaching to an empty room, what is the point? 

I could go on for another ten pages! But, as this blog post is already too long to be bearable, I will leave you with this: 
In his famous poem, "Song of Myself", Walt Whitman writes: 

"I am the teacher of athletes, He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own, He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher."

Perhaps there is something to that?

And now for the hate mail. In the event that I am forced to resign from every single place that I currently train, does anyone want to join up with me and form Jennifer-Do? 


  1. This is really lovely and wonderful. I am a teacher, although not in a martial art. It is bizarre to me how cult-like behaviors can start. I try to have moderation - I'm loyal to my network because I think the head of our network is a really great guy who has done amazing things for our sport, but I still love opportunities to cross train and see what others are doing and meet more jiu jitsu folks. That's important enough that I wouldn't choose to train at a gym that didn't allow it.


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