Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A really great article

This article at the above link is one of the best I've read in a long time. Let me explain…no, there is too much. Let me sum up.

Atul Gawande is a surgeon. In fact, he is an outstanding one based on his accomplishments. He is questioning the established methodologies used by doctors. Here are a few key points made in the article.

“as in almost any human endeavor that is complicated, there is a bell curve. There are some who are on the poor end of the curve, there are a few who are at really the top, the great end, and then there are the vast majority of us in the mediocre middle. And there is a real distance between the bottom and the top.”

According to Gawande, what distinguishes a great doctor doesn’t turn out to be genius or brains, science or skill. Successful doctors don’t “have a pill no one else knows about,” he says. What they do have is an outstanding ability to monitor failure and learn from it. They identify and seize opportunities for small changes that end up making a big difference. ... What made the success possible, he says, is a “willingness to recognize failure and innovate."

In great doctors, “their ego was not so overwhelming that it prevented them from seeing the facts of the situation.”

“In a certain way, I’m attracted to blunt criticism. I ended up in surgery where there is the general sense that when you are in training, no one is there to make sure your ego is not hurt. People put it to you straight: ‘You suck at this. You’re better at that. Do less of this and more of that.’” Today, when Gawande hands over an essay to the New Yorker, he prepares himself to see its flaws. “I always make myself think, there has got to be something we can do here that will make it better.”

By no means am I comparing what we do in martial arts to anything as vital as a surgeon and his skills. What I am saying is the mindset he is talking about is exactly what I have been asking, demanding actually, people in the Icho Ryu group to develop.

For far too long, what was imposed on people in Icho Ryu due to Bernie not taking an active leadership role was an attitude that created stagnation in students as well as the teachers since it relied on dogma. By that I mean an American militarized version of Japanese etiquette used as a means of keeping people in place, rather than challenge them to learn.

Rank and authority were handed out for the wrong reasons. Training was all to often done by rote and that got very comfortable for people. This is all too common a story by the way. Not that some good people were not involved, they just were not in authority positions and didn't know what to do about the situation.

And then Bernie stuck me in charge and retired.

And as with any drastic change in expectations and methods, the attitude was from many people, "Better the devil you know rather than the devil you don't know who is demanding things be done differently." I believe that I've managed to get most everyone to comprehend that to grow, you can't rest too much upon status. All it took was having having a bunch of people resign or thrown out and A LOT of time spent working at modeling and teaching what I wanted to communicate.

In any case, read this article, perhaps read Atul Gawande's books too. For Icho Ryu members, this is not about being a samurai, continuing a great tradition, pretending to understand Japanese culture by using some Japanese etiquette, basking in the reflected glory of training with someone who earned his status like Bernie did through hard work and personal sacrifice. It's not about acceptance by society and polite behavior so people will like us.

It's about, as Bernie put it "Through training, research, and further development, we can get better at this."

If there is anything I get out of this article it is a sense I can do more to live up to what budo is supposed to be teaching me about life in and out of the dojo. I hope all of you reading this (and training in what ever martial art is your preferred way) feel the same.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

I am the "Budo Whisperer"

When Bernie Lau decided to put me in charge of Icho Ryu, it was really not a well thought on move on his part.

First, I had really not been involved at all with Icho Ryu for years. I was off studying on my own quite happily. What had happened while I was not involved was some people had played upon Bernie's friendship and trust. They tried to use Icho Ryu as their own petty fiefdom to be big fish in a mud puddle. They were only in charge since they were of high enough rank and Bernie didn't try to be in charge. Bernie, for all his talents, is not a good leader for day to day things. He's a good inspiration to people, he's a great friend. But he is not one to want to be in charge and lead. So, if someone else wanted to be in charge and only told him what he wanted to hear, he was happy enough to let that happen. It created some real problems, which I ended up taking steps to remedy.

Second, I was stuck in charge not for the right reasons, I was simply the only one that nobody would try to confront and mess with openly since they were all unsure or outright afraid of what I would do. Fear leadership is not a good place to start. But it was what I had to work with.

So, what to do? First, change the priorities. I cut off yudansha rankings, with a few exceptions which really don't need to enter this blog. That started the change from status based culture to one of learning, skill, effort to learn, and consistent practice base to determine someones status in the group.

Second, demand more from people in terms of performance, understanding, and communication of what they are doing. Ties right into the above.

One tool we use is to have each person get up in front of everyone and demonstrate a technique. The first time through is at about 75% of full speed and power. The second and third time is done at slow speed and is to show technical points, and the person must explain what they are doing. Then again at near full speed and power. Then, we flay them bare with critique. It's a real ego crash to find out you can't actually make most of what you do work when under pressure.

This is not a kind thing to do to people. Yet, if you can't take the criticism from this, how can you expect to deal with the stresses of an actual confrontation where the psychological stress is even greater? This has become along with my "you suck" theme, one of the most useful tools for making a student really think about what they know and don't know.

And when students who get up and perform and explain what they are doing extremely well, honest praise must be given. It's a great contrast tool for showing to each student and teacher, honest praise and criticism is far more valuable than false praise, unearned rank, and vanity.

Third, use humor with the demands for better skills and understanding. Be aware you must be willing to take jokes leveled at you, make jokes about your self, as much as the ones you lay out to others. Frankly, if someone can't take some joking, and critique, they will not be worth much as martial artists.

Fourth, be honest about what you are doing. As much as possible, try and be honest with yourself about your motivations for doing this martial arts stuff. My motivations are pretty clear with everyone finally, but to do that took time, consistent modeling behavior, and single episodic teaching methods.

Fifth, tied to #4 above, train more and think about the method and results. This means you will have to be willing to face your own screw ups, and will probably make more screw ups than your students actually make. But that is how you improve, learning by experience and experiments.

Sixth, be very patient about the message delivered and people really getting what is expected. This takes a long time. People got my message finally, but still disagreed with what I expected. That's fine with me, as long as they didn't try and undermine my authority. I expect and want people to question me and my authority. But when they rest upon what's comfortable and familiar and what has been done in the past that created the problems, I stick it back on them and don't let them get away with it.

This has to be done with a level of respect and empathy. All too often, those last two things are missing entirely in the message delivered. It doesn't change the standard of performance expected, but it makes it human, understandable, and achievable.

Am I doing anything unique? No, it's just what Cesar Milan does as a dog trainer. I saw him doing all the same things at a dog park. I am the "budo whisperer"..

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The wretched hive of scum captured

At a recent event, we posed for a group picture. Note the suave elegant dress and fine quality beverages (Corzo tequila, Sotol Anejo, Mexican beers) being served. Note the Cuban cigar in the right hand of the short ugly guy in the front row.

Now you know who you are reading about. No names are being given in order to protect the guilty.

A Tale of Two Egos

Three if you count my own.

I could have been better in how I did handle these things, but my sense of humor and a wayward follicle in a bodily orifice that doesn't see much sunlight dictated otherwise. That means I had a hair up my ass for those of you who don't get my sense of humor. Besides, I was much younger and very stupid.

Ego #1
In the early 1990's in Woodinville WA, there was a TKD and Hapkido teacher who I'll call Master P. Master P had a 8th degree black belt in TKD and a 7th in Hapkido. I'm sure it was legit, and I'm sure he could show you the receipt for the purchase of those ranks.

Not that he was all that bad, it's just that he was not all that good. What made it bad was his attitude.

Master P taught in a health club and strutted around like a rooster in a farm yard. His dobak was always spotless white with colorful affiliation patches on his chest and shoulders. His custom made black belt gleamed with the bright gold thread embroidery of his name and ranks. Master P was short, round faced, and had a very bad haircut. He wore white leather shoes and matching belt, and when in street clothes, looked like a caricature of a yakuza.

One day, at the health club, Master P was on the pay phone, and was hogging the phone. A rather large body builder got a page (remember this is pre-mobile phone days) and was waiting for the phone. Despite his asking Master P to please hurry, Master P ignored him. Finally, he asked if he could make one quick call and he would be out of Master P's way. Master P replied to him, "Don't bother me, don't you know who I am?" and turned back to his phone call facing the wall.

Said body builder picked up a 10 lb dumbbell and clocked Master P, dragged him into the stairwell and left him there to sleep off his rude behavior. When Master P woke up, he couldn't describe the body builder, but had to explain why he was knocked out in a stairwell, banging on the door to be let out, had a lump on his head, and missed teaching his class. Which is how this came to be known by the staff at the health club and was relayed to a friend of mine who did aikido - jujutsu, sometimes taught in Master P's Hapkido class, and who told me the story.

Fast forward 3 or 4 weeks. I'm asked to take part in a demo of various martial arts. Several teachers are taking part, including Master P. My aikido -jujutsu friend asks me to take part as a favor to him. I hate demos, but I agree since he makes me custom bokuto and had just done a very nice one for me.

I show up to go to the demo with my bag. My friend sees me, waves, thanks me for showing up, and offers to take my bag for me. I hand it over and he's not ready for the weight of the bag and nearly drops it. He asks me "What the heck do you have in here?". I open the bag and pull out a set of 10lb dumbbells, and explain that I thought I would teach defenses against dumbbell attacks. For some reason, I was not asked to do demos again.

Ego #2
In the early 2000's, I was asked to take part in a seminar for raising money for charity with numerous other instructors. The organizer was Jerry Dalien, and his Judo Bash was a yearly event. Jerry was one of the old time judo men in the Tacoma WA area. A strange but wonderful man. When Jerry passed away a few years ago, there were over 400 people at his funeral, including people from across the country, many of whom had studied judo with Dalien as children who came to pay their respects. He's one of the good guys and was well thought of locally. I'll post about him as one of the good guys later.

But this post is not about Jerry Dalien. This is about a Hapkido Master who I'll call Master Pity who was teaching at the event. He was high ranking, I believe he was 6th degree, from California. I took part in Master Pity's class and couldn't stomach it, and bowed off the mat about half way through. In truth, I did have to leave and go to an appointment, but was happy for the excuse to leave.

What was so bad, was he presented his techniques as "inescapable" "can't be defeated" "most powerful" "deadly" What ran through my mind was Pat Morita in the first Karate Kid movie going "If done properly, no can defense." And the things Master Pity was teaching were no more than basic entry level aikido or jujutsu. Yet, to many of the people there, lots of beginners, and including his own senior level black belt students, they were swallowing his crap like it was all you can eat shrimp night at Red Lobster and they hadn't seen food for weeks.

In my session the next day, I taught counters to everything Master Pity taught. I never criticized him, I never mentioned his name. I just showed how to counter locks which were most powerful, deadly, inescapable, and which couldn't be defeated.

I gave lots of attention to Master Pity's seniors in how to counter things. About 30 minutes into my class, Master Pity had left the mats. After class, one of the 3rd degree black belts from Master Pity came over to me and told me Master Pity was very upset with me and had told his black belts to leave my class. None of them left, they stayed and practiced my whole session for some reason. I've never heard from Master Pity since, despite giving him my card and offering to buy him dinner.

Later, some of the old time judoka, came over and told me they liked what I was doing, it was what they thought was weak in modern Judo since it was structured towards too much competition now, and loved to see it was still being taught well.

Another friend, Aaron, also took part and taught his Yabe Ryu tachi waza techniques in his session. Afterwards, the old time judoka complimented Aaron saying he did old time judo and it was nice to see someone do it the way they remembered it being taught when they started judo.

Surprising that two punk snot nose kids were well thought of by veterans. And gratifying to our egos too really.

OK, make that A Tale of Four Egos, not two.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A template for group dynamics

This is a framework for how I try to approach my position as head of Icho Ryu.

While there is an overlay of Japanese culture at times in how I apply this, and my own personal preferences as to formality, or better put as "my lack of formality", there are regardless of my personal strangeness, numerous common factors in this summary of how a group interacts and bonds that go across cultures and is valid for any group.

Despite the differences in cultures, these same factors are always there in a stongly bonded group and lacking in a dysfunctional group. This is very abbreviated, and leaves out much detail, but a study of these things on your own will fill in holes. If you are part of Icho Ryu and want more discussion on this, please let me know. If you are not part of Icho Ryu, too bad.

Group interaction dynamics can be summed up as - ACTCC (B optional)

A stands for Appreciation - If no one shows appreciation to each other in a group, the group will not function or bond, leading to dysfunctional behaviors. This must be non sexual for it to work.

As one example, a strong well knit group notices what can be termed "little things" or "invisible work". That is, things that are only noticed when not done. Like cleaning the bathroom, sweeping the mats, missing paper towels or TP. A well knit group notices those things and acknowledges the person who did them.

A also stands for Affection - The group must have people who do care about each other and want to fit. Again, expressed in non sexual behaviors.

We at the TNBBC express this by making fun of each other, finding as much humor in ourselves and our mistakes as we find in others, (and a very important point) listening to each other. As in any male dominant group, we have male bonding with booze and food regularly, and show this affection by always having too much money in the pot when its time to settle the tab and buying each other drinks regularly.

A very important note as well, is those of us in committed relationships are lucky enough to have partners, wives, girlfriends, who somewhat understand the importance of the dojo relationships to each of us and supports it(that support ranges from tolerates to encourages) most of the time.

C stands for Committment - The group has to have people who believe in what they are doing and this will show by interest in the activities of the group and efforts with the group. There must be a unifying goal and purpose for this to work.

You have to be present and active with each person in the group. And that means interest in the people off the mats as well as on. As a good example, a dojo member and his wife recently adopted a little girl from China. Everyone was interested and wanted to contribute to a gift. A small thing perhaps in monetary value, but an important small thing to group bonding.

We also try to take part in things off the mat together. I can only think of a few examples of group social activities where there were less than 80% of the group in attendence, and those missing were gone for family activites.

In any case, for us at the TNBBC, the unifying goals for all of us are found in the wisdoms posted on September 10.

T stands for Time - No such thing as quality time alone exists. You must have the drudge time in order to have peak or quality time happen.

Pretty simple really, put in your time with the group and on your own in training or nothing good will come of your efforts. either as an individual or with the group. The peak experiences only happen when you go through the drudge and day to day time and effort.

C stands for Creative problem solving - Figure out how to solve problems in ways that intrigue the group and individuals.

This is the role of a good teacher, not to rely on dogma and "sensei says" as answers. This is perhaps the hardest part for most people to understand as a teacher and senior, is to help guide and influence the group and individuals to creative thought on their own. But it is perhaps the most important.

As an example, in a healthy group, fights and disagreements will take place just as often as in a dysfunctional group. But in a healthy group, the fights end quickly with creative solutions and results in a better group dynamic. In a dysfunctional group, fights will drag out and become intertwined with non related issues, resulting in more fighting in the group.

C stands for Communication - If you do the above things, you will be communicating.

Nuff said, I hope.

One thing I leave out on this most of the time is belief.

I usually lump belief in as part of commitment for most people in discussion. This means belief in the group as valuable at a basic level. Or it can be taken to be a belief in a higher being or power. Many martial arts teachers make the mistake of confusing the two belief ideas into one which destroys the validity. Can you say "cult behavior?" I think I pretty much covered this point in my first post explaining the reasoning for why this blog exists.

So, there you have it, by direct transmission from the head fluffy bunny himself, a template to work on for group dynamics in your own dojo.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Some wisdom from the training partners of the TNBBC. This will be modified as other wisdom which we find useful arise.

Does it work?
Just keep trying to get better.
Now matter how much you suck, it's always possible to suck more.
No shots to the kidneys. That's for after class.
More good stuff happens in our damp dark stinky basement than your cute dojo.
You have no clue what you're getting into.
No piece of wood is safe.
There are no secrets. It's all hidden in plain sight.
If you ask about the secrets, we'd explain them but you wouldn't understand.
Ark's exercises hurt so good.
Ark's exercises don't get any easier.
Don't drink the Kool Aid.
There are two things you can learn if you look at your feet, how many feet you have and that they match.
Every class is a history lesson.
Relearning and rewiring your body makes a lot more sense when the techniques are taught correctly.
Turning on your toes keeps the orthopods in business.
Hip sockets move?
If it's complicated, I'm lost. If it's simple, I'm lost.
Illegal? Does it hurt? Cool.
Did I mention irreverent?
If it works on Neil, you know it works.
If it works on Fritz, woohoo!
Don't buy a (jo, hanbo, bokken) until Neil tries it on his telephone pole.
It takes longer to learn to be good martial artist than a brain surgeon.
We don't use belts to keep our pants up.
Take the red pill
What? Ray Charles asked Stevie Wonder for driving directions? (In reference to two guys trying to give each other advice when both don't know what they are doing)

A long time ago in a city on Elliot Bay...

A strange man named Bernie Lau decided to teach what he could in aikido. Aikido for those not in the know, is a Japanese gendai budo. Bernie was lucky enough to study with some of the best and brightest in Hawaii, and eventually received his 1st and 2nd degree black belts directly from the founder of aikido while he was visiting Japan. That's Bernie to the left, locking up an old friend, Kregg Jorgenson, who is quite a character in his own right. Kregg served in Vietnam with Company H, Rangers, and later with Apache Troop, the 1st of the 9th Cavalry. Kregg is an author, buy his books.

At the time, Bernie began teaching in Seattle, he was a young, tough police officer and had learned much by the school of hard knocks as a police officer to supplement his aikido. Along the way, he also did some Goju ryu karate with the local group, who were higher class thugs, just like Bernie.

Bernie eventually came to the realization that in order to teach what he thought was important, he had to form his own group and leave the aikido world behind. The emphasis was to be practical Defensive Tactics and personal defense training for Law Enforcement, Security, and selected individuals. What he taught became known as Icho Ryu Aikijujutsu, which Bernie now prefers to call Icho Ryu Aikibudo.

Using his martial arts training as a basis for the teaching methods, it also included some trapping of Japanese culture in the teachings. Over laid with use of weapons, empty hand skills, negotiation skills for defusing situations, it was a good place to be.

Trailing along behind him, was a young kid who had issues, but was willing to work hard and could absorb pain and punishment like most kids absorb candy and soda pop. And this kid was stupid enough to keep coming back. Plus said kid's parents made him go to class.

That kid was me, one of the selected individuals.

And when I was old enough to have quit, I discovered I didn't want to quit. Besides, where else could a misfit teenager beat up cops legally? And I wanted revenge on the adults in the class who thought it was fun to beat up on the kid.

Now, some 34 years later, I'm in charge of the little world of Icho Ryu aikibudo. We are a bunch of guys who choose to practice a modern day version of an archaic martial form and find meaning for those things in our modern day lives.

The Icho Ryu group in Seattle has taken to calling ourselves the "Tuesday Night Bad Budo Club" or TNBBC for short. Hence the URL. This is a riff off Sheryl Crow's "Tuesday Night Good Music Club" album since we do our main weekly class on Tuesday Nights. The Bad Budo idea comes from what most people on call the fakes, egotists, made up histories, and such.

What we do is simple. We don't lie about our history, we don't pretend we are any good, and generally piss off the lousy and fakes since we make them look bad. As a result, some people criticize us and say we have a "bad reputation". We don't care. We simply practice and try to suck less at what we do in martial arts each time we practice. The top compliment you can hear in class is "That didn't suck."

We don't take ourselves too seriously. Nor do we take many others seriously. We do take what we do seriously, but not ourselves. It's a fundamental attitude needed for learning in my opinion.

We are not a large group, nor do we wish to be. We are simply people who find Asian martial arts, particularly those of Japan, and the modern day arts known as goshin budo, which are derived from Japanese budo arts, to be something we value and find meaningful. We try and keep functionality of what we do in mind as the major rule. In Bernie Lau's words, "Make it work, try to understand why it works."

Along the way, I and those who train with me, have been fortunate enough to encounter some very high quality people and a lot of scumbags. Sometimes those thing overlap in the same person. As Obi Wan Kenobi said to Luke Skywalker about Mos Eisley, "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious". The same applies to martial arts and the lowlife scum inhabiting the arts. Hence the name of this blog.

This blog is to tell the story of those encounters with the good, the bad, and the ugly. It's also a place for what passes for humor with us and a place to waste time while drinking your coffee.

I will update this as I see fit. Enjoy or not.