Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I Hope You Fail

Not a phrase you hear every day, but I mean it.

Our lives are focused around "success"...in fact, most of the people I know are obsessed with it, often to the extent that they sacrifice everything else just to achieve it. many of us strive for that success, and cannot even define what it is - so we can never know if/when we reach it.

We are under constant pressure to hit our targets, to make our numbers, to exceed expectations at work, at home, even at play (golf scores, etc). Everything in our lives is measured, and we are taught to feel inadequate if we are not in the top percentile. Children are made to believe they are not worth their parents love if they do not get the best grades, score the most goals, and get into the top schools. We are compared to one another in everything.

The result is that many of us have our priorities mixed up. We need to fail to really succeed.

In my life I have failed at so many of the things I have tried. Time and again I have failed.
I'm proud of it. Actually, proud of it. Let me explain.

Failing was a tremendous motivator. I felt that metaphorical cold slap across my face and worked much harder after every time it happened. I am proud of it, but failing is never fun.
It puts things in perspective and helps you find that next level deep inside. It helps you decide how bad you really want something, and how hard you are willing to fight for it when it matters.
The times it didn't, I just let go and moved on.

By failing, I taught myself that failure is not the end of the world. My life went on, many times even after I convinced myself it would not. My wife and kids still love me. My friends still respect me (as much as they ever did anyway). My co-workers still work with me (as much as they ever did anyway). All this despite the fact that I did not meet my expectations (or someone else's). LIFE WENT ON. And it will keep going on for you, too.

Failing showed me how lucky I really am that most of what really is important in life I already have - my lovely wife and my wonderful boys; my family and friends; my health and my mind (as much as I ever had anyway); my insatiable curiosity. The rest was never as important as society subconciously made me feel it was. The material things I wanted and couldn't afford I really don't need.

Failing also taught me that I have to always be reaching for something new, and to never be complacent. My greatest failures never came from new things I did - they came from failing to adapt to routines I had that were no longer suitable. I failed when I didn't pay attention to what was going on. I learned from this and try hard to remain vigilant to signs that I need to adjust my approach to things.

Failing is a part of what makes us human, and one of our greatest teachers.

I hope you fail...it will be good for you.

(thanks for the inspiration DP)

New Cycle

Fresh from a one week integration break, and dying to get back into it. Last night was great training. We had an intermediate class (with a few new joiners) and a great session of Panantukan after.

I really believe that the week off helps. It gives your body a chance to heal up and rest, and you get to missing the mat so much that you come back with a lot of energy and focus, ready to train hard hard hard! I also find that after a break, you pick things up much faster...one look and you are ready for the drill. 10 minutes into the new drill and we all had it down.

Our new cycle is cool, and involves some new stickwork, knifework, and kickboxing. Plenty to master over the next 9 weeks or so. This may be my last full cycle before I go back to Japan, and I want to make the most of it.

I am a bit tired today, and my body hurts from the training, but it feels so good to have been working out that I really don't notice that much.

See you Thursday!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

That Big Small Business

Growing Pains...the sweetest pains there are. This is a sure sign that things are going in the right direction. For any business, having growing pains is an inevitable part of expansion. It sure beats going bankrupt.

At the same time, businesses, especially service-driven businesses, must never lose sight of the reason why they have expanded in the first place: service.

What does this mean? A basic marketing primer will tell you the 4ps (product, placement, price, promotion). How does this apply to a martial arts school?

1. Product - the quality of the lessons must be first and foremost. That means the best instructors with the best curriculum taught in the best facilities. The product and delivery must be professional. It must meet the needs of the students.

2. Placement - the location must be accessible to students. Only people in movies train on mountaintops.

3. Price - affordability, hopefully on several levels according to a student's desire/ability to commit.

4. Promotions - family plans, friend campaigns, special seminars, etc. to encourage repeater business

But...isn't there something more? YES...PERSONALIZED SERVICE.

The modern scientific world of marketing and business has become a dehumanizing place.
Most of us no longer know the people we do business with for our most important purchases - the grocer/butcher, the car dealer, the realtor, the travel agent, etcetera. The internet especially has made it more convenient to not talk to people or get to know them.
This is dehumanizing and subconciously most of us want something more personal.
Even a generation ago, we did business face to face. Our parents knew these people in their neighborhood. We must be extra-careful not to hide behind blackberry, email, mobile phones, and the like. Real people do Real Business in a Real Way. Face to face. Old school.

Abraham Maslow did important work understanding our human needs and our inherent desire to have these met. Once we go beyond the basics of survival, that is, food, shelter and warmth, we must deal with our needs as a human being. That means addressing our need to belong, our need for self-esteem/respect, and our need to fulfill our potential and be creative.

A martial arts school is in a unique position to deliver many of these needs in a way that makes the students happier and healthier. In fact, all successful businesses appeal to as many of these needs as they can. How do you do this? And how do you do this when you are going through growing pains?

Belonging - mentoring is a great way to make sure new joiners are part of the family. Senior students can be paired with newer students to help them in class. Assistants can be assigned a group of beginners to mentor, which helps the students connect, and helps the assistants develop the foundations of customer service and interpersonal skills that will make them good teachers later on. In many companies these people are called "account managers". Simply telling people to reach out will not be enough. It has to be a direct and purposeful focus activity. Even simply, this means everyone knowing each other's names. There is no excuse not to.

Self-Esteem/Respect - This is done through the testing and curriculum, whch gives students concrete goals to focus on. The next level is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each student, and helping them get the additional support they need to build up those areas. This can be done through keeping class sizes limited, and also by having one-on-one trainings, small group seminars, personal assessments, and the like. Of course, knowing each sudent personally is part of it. All students must participate in the lessons actively, rather than passively. All students must be treated fairly.

Self-Actualization - Once all the other needs are met, at the apex is self-actualization. This means we have an innate desire to reach our true potential and use our creativity. Many times this needs is self-consious, but will manifest over time under the right teachers. Students often start with one goal in mind (ie. combat training), and later find other goals appear (personal health, longevity, spirituality). Good teachers encourage these transitions as part of the students' growth and maturity. I would argue that the unique nature of Filipino Martial Arts, with the emphasis on concepts rather than rote techniques, allows a level of creative expression that few other styles can match.

make no mistake, most students are aware of the atmosphere and what is going on in their school. You may only watch them 5% of the time, but they watch you 100% of the time. It is critically important to LISTEN to the students and get their feedback. They will tell you what they want.

At the other end of the spectrum from this are martial art lessons run in community centers and health clubs. These cookie-cutter dojos leech the spirit away from legitimate schools, and promote an "MTV" culture of martial arts being cheap, shallow, faceless, instant gratification - not so different from a cable TV cooking show.

As we grow and expand, we must be vigilant not to lose sight of the fact that schools are built on individuals, and individuals are what make it a success.

Nobody should have to train at "McDojo"

Monday, June 08, 2009

A small point about a small point

Namely, the elbows.

Yesterday was outdoor training. Did a bit of wing chun and an important point from Guro was introduced - how the elbows are key to generating punching power. The elbow is a small point, but a very important element of the punch.

At arm's-length distance, the elbow must rotate to allow maximum reach and deliver the hips behind the punch (think about the right cross). Inside of arm's-length distance, the elbows need to stay pointed downward and NOT ROTATE. The key strength for these punches comes from the triceps and back. Even uppercuts and body hooks are thrown with elbows down, not up, and both are close to the body rather than wide outside of shoulder-width.

Thus, when working on trapping hands/wing chun, it is at close distance - YOUR ELBOWS STAY DOWN and close to your body. Punches can be vertical or horizontal, but the straight line "piston" movement is very important.

This small point can be a big point when you master it.

See if it helps.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Your Own Worst Enemy

It is often said that the key to martial arts is that there is no victory and no defeat - you can neither win nor be beaten. This is especially true as we dig deeper into Buddhist links between martial arts and spirituality - the closest thing to religion we have in martial arts.

However, this does not mean our lives are without enemies.
I contend that often, the worst enemy we face is ourselves.

It is we who know our own weaknesses, our own temptations, and our own shortcomings.
It is we who can destroy all of our own achievements, harm our loved ones, and ruin our relationships. We have the power to do this in a way that is far more destructive than an external foe ever could.

Why? Many times this happens due to feelings of inadequacy or a lack of self-worth. We feel deep in our hearts that we don't truly deserve all the success and good things we have. We hate ourselves and in doing so, subconsciously force ourselves to destroy everything that would make us feel good.

Is this you? I know it is me. At least sometimes it is. Maybe sometimes it is for all of us.
I want to believe that martial arts training, meditation, and proper health can be a great way to keep the bad feelings from coming. Negative actions lead to negative spirals, and positive actions to positive spirals. Sometimes, it just may not be enough. I am sure that if we could talk to the people that make up the suicides, mentally ill, and chronic abusers we would find that they have in common a low sense of self-esteem and a belief that they "deserve" the bad things that happen to them, and can never escape them. These people are truly their own worst enemies.

If this is you, really you, then I can say I understand you. I have been my own worst enemy most of my life. Many times this caused me to destroy relationships that were good for me (or get into relationships that were bad for me), push loved ones away, lose jobs, give in to my obsessions, engage in any number of harmful and self-destructive behaviors, and even attempt suicide (glad I failed). I know what it is like to feel a devil inside you that you cannot control, laughing whenever another part of your life is taken away.

In my case, much of my trouble still comes from unresolved anger at being abandoned when I was an infant, growing up in a foster home, and generally never feeling as good as the other kids who had "normal" families (whatever that is). I cannot make excuses, and I have been far luckier than most kids like me. I even made my peace with my birth parents, and at 42 I am starting to understand the tough decisions they had to make to try to get the best life for me they could. Intellectually I understand. However, emotionally I have to admit I still have a long way to go. I have serious anger management/stress management issues, and this affects me and those around me. I have to take it day by day, and I am a difficult person to be around much of the time.

Don't believe you are alone. Train hard. Stay the course. More importantly, talk to someone or seek professional help. Do it before it gets worse. Do it before you do something you cannot undo. The life you save may be your own. The life you save may go on to save many more.
Trust me, the world is a much better place with you in it. Even if you don't believe that, I DO.
Give me a chance to convince you. Maybe we can convince each other.

Monday, June 01, 2009


Yoshinkan Aikido is bigger than most people realize. There are branches of Yoshinkan in more than 22 countries worldwide, and thousands upon thousands of students practicing.

One of the key reasons for this is the senshusei program. This 11-month intensive given at the Yoshinkan HQ dojo in Shinjuku, Tokyo, put students in a live-in immersion where they train every day for nearly a year. This course is also taught to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Riot Squad, who join with the students for much of the training.

The famous book, Angry White Pyjamas, chronicles the author's experience in this course and mentions many famous teachers who are part of the Yonshikan leadership. Students typically come in with little or no aikido experience, and graduate the course with a testing for shodan (first degree black belt). It normally takes about 3 years of training two or three times per week to reach that level, so one could argue that it is about 3 times as intensive as normal practice. I think it is even more than that. Upon completion, some stay on to teach other groups of senshusei, some go into the three-month intensive teacher program directly after senshusei, and some go home to teach in their own countries. This has led to the great diaspora of Yoshinkan worldwide.

Why does it work?

1) Length
The 11 month course is about the same length of time as a typical master's degree.
I don't think it can be longer, but should not be shorter.

2) Intensity
The course is run on average 6 hours a day. That is a lot of practice.

3) Exposure
During the course, students train with and are coached by all of the senior masters in the HQ dojo. These veterans all have slightly different teaching styles, emphasize slightly different aspects of Yoshinkan, and their combined decades of experience are formidable in combination.
Training with many masters in the same style gives a great sense of perspective.

4) Atmosphere
I do not think the Senshusei course would work as well if it were done in London, Sydney, or LA.
The fact that the students are all in Japan, and exposed to the background history and culture directly, helps form a deeper understanding of the framework of Yoshinkan, and Japanese martial arts in general.

5) Camaraderie
The friendships people make in that course last a lifetime.

Both of my Yoshinkan teachers in Tokyo, Michael "Stumpy" Steumpel and Roland "Terminator" Thompson, are graduates of this program, and it shows.

Overall, this has been a great way for Yoshinkan to control the quality of teachers, develop cadres of teachers to go to every place in the world, and create a framwrk for expanding the style globally.

A lot can be learned from this. And for those of you with the guts to take a year off and make the most of it, here you go: