Living at school has always meant that I have had the privilege of being a student at a large number of different martial arts schools. There would be no way, otherwise, to keep up my training both at school and at home. Recently however, two dan grades at a local club at home had a really silly disagreement which ended in a puerile and unnecessary argument. In the course of this, one of the people involved claimed that he was constantly being “abused” and “just treated like a visitor”. This got me thinking, when you can’t commit yourself to a single martial arts club all the time, or even if you don’t want to, how do you handle the group dynamics?
Now I cannot and will not judge anyone else or take sides, but I can say from my experiences at training sessions, what was happening was not abuse, but questioning. It can be hard, especially if you’ve got a black belt in an association, maybe even an instructor’s license of your own, to be told by another instructor that you’re doing something wrong, or even that you might like to try doing things a different way to how you were originally taught. For example, the different aikido clubs I train in have very different styles. Some are Tomiki, sport aikido, while others are Yoshinkan, more traditional aikido. Even within these spheres there is huge technical variation between clubs and between instructors. The bottom line, however, is that you are attending a club, and often paying to do so, to learn. You don’t pay a teacher to teach the teacher, or to stubbornly refuse to try to use their methods. It just doesn’t make sense. I don’t pay my instructors to just say “well if that’s the way you do it, that’s ok then”. I pay them to say “how does that work?”, “can you do it on me?”, “what about in this situation?”
As a student you can really help yourself just by showing all your teachers an equal level of respect. Sometimes people go into a martial arts school openly sceptical, and that’s ok! Saying to an instructor “I’ve seen some of what you do, and I want to try it, but I’m just not sure it works” is completely fine. If someone came and said that to me I would not have an issue, rather I would explain “well this is actually a traditional Japanese art, and is more focused around traditional weapons” or “well if you’re interested in practical fighting then you may want to come to one of our self-defence sessions instead”. What I do object to is people coming into a school with the objective of disproving what that school does. By all means come with a sceptical and open mind and see what they do. If after that you decide “this isn’t for me” that’s fine. Martial arts, and certainly traditional ones, are not for everyone!
That said, a lot can be done by instructors to make visitors, guests, and those who train at other clubs and in other styles feel welcome. One obvious start is allowing them to explain. So for example, the versions of Waki gatame (a common elbow lock in aikido) which are practiced by the clubs I train at are vastly different. When I came home and performed a waki gatame, and the instructor didn’t recognise the technique, he did not say “that’s not right”. First off he said, “so how does your one work?” and allowed me to explain the rationale behind my version of the technique, before saying, “well that’s fine, but we’ve got a different way of doing it that you might want to try because in some situations your version might not be the best option”. Maintaining this objective stance as in instructor really makes people feel at home, because you aren’t discounting their past training. In any student’s mind, a slight to their other training, or instructors is an insult, as they have likely shed blood sweat and tears in the course of that training.
It’s also really important to include people in the social life of the club. Many clubs have the tradition of going for a drink in the local pub, or something similar, after a training session. Many also have meals, events and the like, and if you want people to feel like there in a welcoming, friendly environment, then you cannot exclude people simply based on the fact that they train less often, or train in other styles.
One of my personal gripes with some parts of the traditional martial arts community is the medieval attitude of “you can’t train with us unless you dedicate yourself exclusively to our school.” Now how you choose to run your school is your own business, but to me, this attitude reeks of insecurity and cult like behavior. I am a great believer in empiricism, and I think that if you’re really doing your duty as an instructor or teacher, then you are actively exposing people to new ideas and different approaches in order to broaden their horizons, and allowing your own mind to be open to new things as well.
Practicing martial arts should be challenging, physically and mentally, but it should also be fun. People don’t enjoy themselves if they feel like outsiders, and any school has to have a collaborative effort between instructors and students to produce a constructive environment. Teachers and students must both be willing to learn new things and swallow the pride of their prior experience in some circumstances! The ultimate aim of any school should be to provide a safe and fun learning environment, and inclusiveness and tolerance is a major step towards achieving this goal.