by Steve Coleman
“Before enlightenment - fetch wood and carry water.
After enlightenment - fetch wood and carry water”.

Over the years I have seen many people boasting and bragging about their escapades and achievements. This is all fine of course given that these anecdotes are given and received in the correct environment and at the correct time.

A great example I have is from a seminar some years ago. A guest instructor from a karate dojo was trying to belittle me asking what the point was of training with the jo, as we happened to be that day. He proclaimed that “No one carries a staff around with them these days-what a pointless waste of time”!

As it happens this was in front of children who were happily learning their jo kata, which is a huge confidence builder and the kids always used to enjoy weapons sessions. After which he spent some time leaping around the tatami doing spinning kicks and flying punches, he pulled out a set of nunchaku and started twirling them around only to be immediately asked by a 9-year-old “Do many people carry those around these days”?

The point is that the kids had all been taught that there is nothing of value in showing off, and they had recognised that this guy was a show-off. Now, as we were all internally in hysterics (some of us less internally than others), this question was perfectly posed: shouldn’t you be more humble?

It’s fair to say that we live in a time where many martial arts schools/dojos are flourishing. They have a good student body who are committed to what they are taught and to respect others for what they do in their own martial training. On the whole, none of this is bad for the arts until you drill into the concept a little further.

If a dojo is run as a business then those who work there are in danger of being more like business people. They are at least in part focussed on the business performance rather than teachers who are solely dedicated to what they do on the tatami. Getting more students into the dojo, and then grading them up before they’re ready is sadly becoming a reality. In the longer term, this practice fails their students and the art they are supposed to be studying.

There are so many people who’ve posted videos, or even commented on them when they clearly have little idea what they’re doing or what’s going on. Saying you’re this grade or whatever grade means nothing if your ability, knowledge, or both aren’t up to their supposed grade.

It simply isn’t good enough to go through the motions of a technique, from a syllabus you don’t understand and then to say that you have mastered it - because you have not.

Basic techniques need to be drilled over and over. They need to be linked to their alternative forms which in turn need to be drilled over and over. Then link them to their sword form and guess what? That’s right, drill these over and over as well. Mastery comes only from having an in-depth understanding of the basics and these need to be drilled so that the body instinctively knows what to do, or in other words ‘train until you can’t get them wrong’. Only then will you see how the more advanced techniques piece together. If you fail to do this then genuine high grades will see through your technique. There’s nowhere to hide when it comes to being observed by someone with decades of experience. Seriously, and I mean seriously - Drill. The. Basics. There are no shortcuts or secrets here. Now, look at the top of the page again.

However enlightened you think you are, the basics will always need to be done. This is what your Sensei should care about.

My advice is as follows: Don’t allow your mind to be caught up in racing through your gradings or with fancy-looking techniques. Stick with the basics and your Sensei should acknowledge that you’re ready to progress. Aim for a depth of knowledge that you can build upon rather than a wide array of nonsense. These techniques are held back from lower-grade students for many good reasons.

Saito Shihan said that “if its not martial, then there’s no point”.