Gradient of Competence

There are a lot of pop culture references to traditional karate that make fun of it. From the Karate Kid movies to Seinfeld to Jim Carrey to Friends and on and on, karate dojo’s are mocked, and karate teachers are presented as pompous, self-regarding goof balls.


A healthy dojo is a training environment. To fulfill its mission there is a hierarchy. It is not a dominance hierarchy, like a band of primates.  It is not a hierarchy of authority, like a government. It is a hierarchy of competence, based on a willing exchange of information and skill.


Unhealthy dojo environments can produce pretentious leaders and servile students, with teachers who have an emotional need for admiration, and students who have an emotional need for approval.


That is not a part of martial arts. That is a silly distortion of a traditional relationship between teachers and students.


In a professional training environment, where everyone is required to have competence in multiple skill sets, 40 of us will get together for a week of training. Three or four subjects will be covered each day. Among the 40 participants there may be 8 or ten responsible for teaching one or more blocks of instruction each. Some are expert in one subject, some in another. We all attend each other’s classes. We all learn. No one puts on airs, or acts like a big, blowhard authority – not about their subject, and not about life.


We are there to learn and to teach and to get better at what we do. If we have a good time, excellent. If we become friends that’s even better. If someone has some life experience to share that lifts other people up, great. There is an important place for that.


Although not everyone in the room is a subject matter expert, that is a good model for the relationship between teachers and students in the dojo, too. We come together to train. Most people in an adult class have lots of life experience. Family responsibilities, professional accomplishments, jobs to go to, things they have done and need to get done in many areas of life. They are not grasshoppers. Healthy people do not need to jettison their dignity to learn, or become a supreme ultimate grandmaster every time they get in front of a group to teach.


If you have something to teach, teach it. If you can take care of your people and serve them well, then do it. We can be natural and respectful, professional and demanding, as appropriate.


In a traditional dojo setting no one has power over other people. Everything is mutual, by agreement, of our own free will.  No one has any authority that is not granted – out of respect for the teacher’s knowledge and experience, and his or her ability to share that knowledge and skill effectively with everyone who sincerely wants to learn it.


That makes for solid training, strong people, and a healthy training environment.




Post Copyright ©2020 by Jeffrey Brooks, author of  “The Good Fight”, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle eBook, and lifetime practitioner of Okinawan Shorin Ryu, “Shaolin style” karate.

 Photo of martial arts students and their instructors at Shaolin, Henan Province, China

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