Leave your ego at the door

A friend of mine wrote an interesting blog a little while ago. Read it here before you read the rest down below. Bear in mind that he is outspoken in his views and opinion. In other words, don’t complain if what he writes upsets you: you were warned.

Don lived in Japan for many years and he is fluent in Japanese at a level most Westerners can only dream about. So not only does he have a more in-depth understanding of the country and its language, he also received a different kind of training than those who don’t speak Japanese well and only visit for a few weeks at a time (at best). I’d advise students of Japanese arts to take into account his writing when they study with a Japanese teacher. It can help you avoid all sorts of problems.

That said, I’d like to offer some thoughts on what he wrote. Be prepared for some rambling and jumping from one thing to the next.

Here goes.


Talent is overrated

As I’ve said before, I wasn’t talented when I started training at age 13. I was strong for my age, but I was neither flexible nor well-coordinated. I was also a slow learner and still am to this day.  I was tenacious though. I very quickly fell in love with martial arts and would come home from class to train some more in my room. Or I’d be in the garden kicking and punching an old tree we had there. I also routinely showed up to class at least 30min. early and practiced on my own before the teacher arrived.

I was a lot of things when I started, but I wasn’t talented.

It’s been almost 30 years since I started training an I learned a lot since then. Some of my peers tell me I’m really good now. My critics say I’m full of shit and suck blocky nuts. The flattery strokes the ego and the vitriolic criticism is usually best ignored, neither changes anything about whatever skill I do have.  Personally, I think I’m pretty good at some arts and OK at others. When I look at my teachers though, I see how much more work I have to do to be at their level. That’s the most exciting prospect for me, but I digress.

My point is that I only improved my skill level by working at it very hard for many years. That’s not a big deal, by the way. Anybody who’s good at something works at it to get that good. “Getting good” can only be done in one way: improve what you can do now so you can do it better tomorrow. The only way to improve something is to grind away at whatever is making it “not right”. The only way of doing that is knowing what is wrong to begin with. That’s where your teacher comes in.


Top row, 2nd from the right. Me as a white belt, just beginning my training.

In the best possible scenario, your teacher tells you exactly what to do, at the right moment in time, so you make the most progress. That doesn’t mean he’ll hand you everything on a silver platter, but he should know what you need at your particular stage of development. It doesn’t always work like that, but if a teacher is truly doing the best he can, that’s what he strives for.

Here’s the thing: he is trying to “educate” you. He’s trying to give you an education in the martial arts. The words comes from the Latin verb “educere” which means “to lead (forth)” or “to draw out”. The “e” implies a direction, whereas “ducere” means “to guide” or “to lead”. When you bring those two together, you get the concept of guiding somebody towards somewhere specific. Your teacher is your guide towards the goal of mastery of the art he teaches. Just like your mountain guide brings you to the top of the mountain and then safely back down again. Why? Because he knows how to climb mountains in general and that mountain in particular. Here’s a question:

If he tells you to take a left along the path instead of a right, do you listen to him or not? Remember, your life is on the line.

If you have an ounce of common sense, you defer to his knowledge and expertise.

Why would it be any different with your martial arts teacher?

This brings me to one of Don’s points. He noticed Westerners coming to Japan to train and then being rude. If you know anything about Japanese society, then you know how much etiquette is an integral part of it. Coming in as a stranger and immediately correcting other strangers on the mat, or heaven forbid, local students, is stupid. It’s even worse if the corrections are worse than whatever errors the rude gaijin perceives to see in others…

Don’t be that guy.

Don’t correct your fellow students, unless your teachers tells you to do so. Instead, go ask the teacher. He’s the guide. He’s been up and down that mountain, you haven’t.

Especially if you are talented, go ask your teacher anyway. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen good students correct others the wrong way. It’s not that they lack skill, that’s not the issue. But being talented doesn’t mean you are a good teacher. Teaching and doing are two different skill-sets. You need to work just as hard to become a good teacher as you do to become a skilled martial artist.

Leave your ego at the door

Talent, it’s overrated…

Eating bitter

Don mentioned feeling bad about the constant corrections by his teacher. I can relate, more in a bit. First this:

Getting your nose pushed deep into your mistakes stings your ego, but it is the only way to get better. It hurts, but it works. The Chinese have a martial arts saying: “eating bitter.” It means you have to put your ego aside and swallow the bitter pills, the harsh lessons and the constant frustration of not getting it right. It is the only way to truly excel.
This doesn’t imply you should mindlessly do  the same thing over and over. It means you should try to improve and never be happy with having only average skill. As Harry said: mediocrity is a terrible fate.

How “good” you eventually become is irrelevant. Talent is one thing but it is not the only determining factor in how far you can go. There’s also the amount of time you can spend training, how much you study the theory of your art, physical limitations, etc.  Many of those factors are beyond your direct control. They matter, but what counts the most is that you squeeze 100% out of whatever potential you do have. Give it your all every single training session, try to learn as much as possible. Work hard and never give up.

That’s the only way to “get good.”

Here’s an example of my own:

Many years ago, my teacher corrected me on a movement in a form and said “Your form is dead.” Then he showed me why it was dead and how to make it come alive. The whole exchange took maybe 30 seconds and then he walked over to correct another student. At first, his words hurt my ego because I thought I was doing OK. Not great perhaps, but adequate because I had been training really hard. Apparently not enough…
The thing is, my teacher was right. My form was dead. So I kicked myself in the butt, swallowed the bitter pill, got over it and a few seconds later, I started working on making my form come to life. I spent the next year focusing on that aspect alone. Since then, my teacher has never said my form was dead. The work I did on that aspect also helped me progress a lot faster in other aspects. So it was win-win for me, even if I didn’t know upfront that would happen.

A bit of pain to my little duck feelings, a lot of progress as a result. But only because I got over my ego right away. Had I taken offense and acted like a spoiled brat, refusing to heed the advice of my teacher because he phrased it too harshly for my tender feelings, I wouldn’t have grown as much. In the words of one of my friends: “Suck it up, Princess…”


They are watching you…

I want to touch on another aspect to teachers correcting you, one Don mentions from his point of view as a student: Teachers are watching you, even when you don’t think they are. Just because they don’t say anything or don’t look at you, doesn’t mean they missed what you did or said. After a couple of classes, they’ll have a pretty good idea who you are, as you will have demonstrated both by action and inaction what you are all about. One consequence of this is that they make up their minds about you, even if they never tell you about it. It’s called “being human” and no teacher is beyond it.

There’s another side to the teacher watching you: he also watches how you react to corrections. Often, I can tell when a student has a hard time accepting the many corrections I give him. Then I usually explain that when I train with my teachers, they correct me too. Even after almost 30 years of training, the work is never done. Instead of feeling discouraged about it, see it as another opportunity to get better. There is no end-level; there is no growth to a point where you are perfect. There is only more work.

After that speech, I move on but keep an eye on what the student does. If he starts working on the corrections right away, then all is well. If he doesn’t, I usually don’t say anything. If his ego gets in the way of following advice, then that’s his choice. Whether he knows it or not, he’s making the choice to not make progress in his training, which is yet anther data point I then have about his character. Unless he disrupts class or is dangerous to other students, I won’t turn a student away. But as of that moment, his progress has stalled because of his choice.  I can teach him, but I can’t do the work for him.

The basic concept his ego needs to accept is this: teachers correct students to help them get better, that’s why they’re teachers. When students don’t listen because they don’t understand the correction, the teacher tries again and again until they do. When a student deliberately ignores the instructions and advice of his teacher, the teacher often acts differently: he stops correcting their mistakes. Sometimes he does so completely, other times he only makes few corrections anymore, usually the sames ones over and over. Sometimes, he even tells the student to leave his class as there is no use attending anymore. Or like Don wrote, they say it’s all good and move on to the students who are open to being corrected. But in all these cases, the teacher will look at that student differently than at the ones who take corrections in stride and work their butts off to get better. Some teachers get upset or angry about it, others say nothing and carry on with the other students.

Teachers are human, just like you.

Leave your ego at the door

I used to be a lot stricter with students, but I learned over the years that not everybody studies for the same reasons as I do; so I don’t have to hold them to my own standards. The way I approach it now is this:
When a student starts attending my class, I make him do the basics. Once he masters these sufficiently, he moves on to other material. This process never stops. the more he practices, the more I give him. The better he gets, the more details I give him to work on. This also never stops. As this process is going on, I tell him to work on specific aspects because those are the things he needs to focus on at that point in time. If he does so, I can tell by his progress. If I see him idling about or doing something else after I move on to the next student, well…
The same goes for advice. I routinely give students homework. I tell them to do something every day, if only for a couple of minutes. Without a fault, I can tell whether they did so or not by the time next class comes around. If they don’t do the work, I mention the exercises again. If they still don’t do them, then I stop suggesting the homework. At that point, it’s clear the student isn’t motivated enough to do it ,which is fine by me, but it also means he won’t make the kind of progress he’s looking for. At that point, that’s of his own making and not mine. I gave him everything he needed to get where he needed to be. If he doesn’t take the journey, then my hands are tied. Again, I can’t do it for him.

This applies doubly so to people who come to class with a background in other arts. It is difficult, but it is important they try to forget it for a little while, especially at first. They need to learn the differences between what they learned before and the art they just picked up. Not the similarities, those are usually a lot easier to spot. It’s the differences that they have to learn and those are often subtle and hard to get right if other training has been ingrained.
It’s not that their previous art isn’t good or that they shouldn’t practice it. The point is that if they keep trying to do the new art in the way of the old one, they won’t get anywhere. It’s like learning a new language by always using the grammar of your mother tongue. You might make yourself understood but you sure won’t speak fluently. That doesn’t make your mother tongue an inferior language. It only makes it different. No matter how comfortable it feels to you, you have to let it go to learn the new language.

The same holds true for learning a new style. It always baffles me when new students with a decent background in other arts come to my class and insist on doing things their way. If they are only there to practice their previous style, what’s the point of showing up to my class, where I teach something very different? The only answer I can come up with is ego. It’s hard for some people to become a beginner again if they’ve invested years in another system.

Which brings us full circle: many of the brick walls standing in the way of your progress are all about ego.

Which is why that old cliche is still true after all these years: leave your ego at the door.

You’ll be better for it.

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  1. Great article.

  2. Well said Wim. It seems that being a student and being a “teacher” offers endless opportunities for increasing awareness, and for improving.

    And it’s so nice to hear someone of your caliber admit to being a slow learner. Same here. But I thrive on the process and am thrilled at the achievements; I have excepted my pace.



    • Thanks Dennis. When I started training with Patrick, it was very difficult given my background in hard styles. But lots of lightweight guys were tossing me (a heavyweight) around in pushing hands, so I really wanted to learn more. So whenever Patrick corrected me, I would spend 5-10 min on average doing just that technique until he told the class to move on to the next thing. Then I’d go home and do it again. For the next week, I’d focus on that movement until it was time for class again. And then I’d get the next correction. After 17 years, this hasn’t stopped. :-)

  3. Hi Wim, Great article again. I have always been interested in how other styles do things and gladly participated in whatever was being taught to help the class reach its full potential and for me to get an idea of what that style is about. I’m still quite shocked at the number of other martial artists that I know that think their style and way of doing things is the be and end all and will not entertain any other ideas or methods. I so often find that their attitudes are holding them back but I feel there is very little I can say or do as their minds are made up and do not wish to spoil the training atmosphere by showing them their flaws (I am reasonably okay at martial arts imo but always seek to have an open mind as much as possible). It’s rather like getting all your news from one source and never seeking to get an alternative view point or some I know shun TV and most news sources and have made up their minds on just about anything. This scares me as well as all consuming ideologies that some people have as they are teaching material that won’t work (I know what works depends on the skill of the individual) but some of the stuff I see has no chance in hell of working (unless it’s simply to get an idea of the movement) but these people are so utterly convinced of their methods and their superiority on doing something different to other people yet they don’t see how vain they have become and yet they think they are humble beings with their amazing ideology. I am at a loss at how some of these people cannot see their limitations and their art’s and that no one is invincible and understand how and when their arts can work despite some of them having intellectual well paid jobs. I suppose it’s easy to deceive yourself rather like no one seem to understand the financial crisis was coming in 2008 or they became overly confident in themselves and their systems and did not understand the risks involved.

  4. Ego is always our adversary Wim. You make a good point about leaving what you know at the door when learning a new fighting art. A student should try to learn what the teacher has to offer. If he/she wants to compete with the teacher – go to a tournament.

    When I started with Tracy’s karate I had to eat a bit of humble pie as I was told that while I knew how to kick and punch – he (my new instructor) would teach me how to hit something. :)

    In my case – I’m glad I stuck it out.

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