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Learning about life from the Dojo

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

I used to teach a program to Martial Arts Instructors on ideas about running their business. My system at the time (which had about 100 schools) called it the "Instructor College". One of the most important lessons I taught (and first learned), is about adaptation and people. This has truly influenced my life (world view).

Hards, Softs and Blendables

In Martial Arts when you are teaching people, there are Hards, Softs and Blendables.

What that means is some students are very intense and hard -- are really in there to control and do things hard, take shots, and be tough. Others are there to learn, but are a lot less aggressive (more soft). They want to do the moves and learn -- but don't want too much resistance to their techniques. They don't want to hurt others or be hurt. They are more on the timid side -- but are there because they want to learn. Blendables are the ones that can be "hard" when working with a "hard", or be more a soft when working with softs. They just intuitively know how to blend and adapt to others -- even without being told.

Of course there are many degrees in between, and this oversimplification is just for explanation.

The problem is that there are two schools of thinking on how to deal with the extremes.


Traditional schools tend to expect the the student to adapt to the class (school). Most schools and instructors want the hard core aggressive students. Most instructors think the "show no fear" attitude is a good reflection on the school, and that these people will stay the longest, compete (and win) an so on. It is a partial fallacy -- but what matters is what they think (their perception) and not reality. The instructors often pair off the "softs" with the "hards" in order to bring the "softs" up, and get them more aggressive. They do things to promote the hards, and reward them and promote that attitude.

Many instructors are instructors because they pushed themselves hard and were pretty aggressive. Most people's memory also remembers things "worse" than they were. So they remember all the things they had to endure to get where they are, and want to make their students "better" by being even tougher on them, or making them tougher on each other.

It is all about making the biggest baddest students. The old schools often do other things that are bad for business and bad for learning -- like non-communication or punishing (mildly) those who ask questions, and so on. There are a lot of little gotchas in traditional thinking -- but this is wandering off topic.

The problems are that most people just want to work out and learn -- they don't want to go "hard core" all the time. They have enough stresses in their jobs, and lives without having to always push for some pecking order in their play (Martial Arts) as well. The hards either get tired and frustrated at working with the softs, or they get somewhat sadistic (frustrated) and beat on them -- and neither is good for either side. The softs often leave the school because they are tired of being beaten on (or being pushed too quickly) -- and even the hards often get frustrated (and some leave) because they are tired of dealing with softs (and think they are better than they really are). And the whole attitude of making hard core students often leads to more injuries (the instructors push too fast, or too hard, or allow the students to do the same). So the harder you go, more regularly, the more likely you are to lose students because of injuries. So too much pushing hard, or too much hard-soft pairing is bad for business and bad for the students.... and too much hard alone is not balanced and bad for a lot of other things.


A better way to run a Dojo (IMHO), is to learn to adapt to the students -- and not expect them to all adapt to you (at least not too quickly). Pair the hards off with the hards, the softs off with the softs, and use the blendables in between (filling in the gaps). Promote an attitude in the school that is more blendable than just "hard". Allow the hards to work hard, and the softs to work soft -- but very slowly wean them into being adaptable.

This is very non-Asian (and especially not very Japanese). This is also nontraditional -- with the traditional being more the Confucianistic attitude about the individual adapting to society -- "the nail that sticks up gets pounded down" -- and not society (or the school) adapting to the individual. Some parts of Asian culture are about breaking individuals down and teaching them (or letting them learn) "the hard way".

Some days, having a hard class and aggressive is good -- but you don't want to run at that level all the time. Some days having a soft class (take it easy, and do softer movements and meditation) is good too -- it teaches calm, patience and many other things, but again, you don't want to run this way all the time. The variety is good for all, and teaches them all something and makes them more "blendable". You can have days that specialize on one or the other (like sparring night, or meditation or forms night) -- but most of the time you want to blend a bit of both, and sort of swing back and forth and keep up the variety.

What happens is that both types of students are much happier. The hard core students will stay longer because they are lest likely to burn out, get into ego wars or injuries. Sometimes the hards are really only displaying insecurity and false bravado -- but in this atmosphere that gets to be toned down a bit and the school becomes more peaceful for them. They may not get quite as much hard core experience quite as quickly, but they stay far longer -- and the winners are the ones that go further (longer), not the ones who go faster.

The soft students grow too and stay longer. They often learn to become blendables, and may surprise and change as they gain confidence -- Both learn to adapt (over time) and have a better experience. They practice longer and with more enjoyment and less trepidation or frustration. The business does better -- but more importantly, the students do better and learn a lot more in the long run.

The business doing better is important though. If you have a health school with lots of happy students that are all learning, and likely to stay a long time -- then that means they will learn much more (in the long run). They enjoy and gain. The prize for most of them is not being the biggest bad-ass on the street (though they had better know how to defend themselves) -- it is about doing something they enjoy and are learning from and bettering themselves. They can do this best if they don't have to keep jumping from school to school, which are all barely hanging on (business wise) because of some hard-assed instructor who expects everyone to be a hard-core student like they think they were.

As for the old schoolers that think that the only way to get good is to be hard core, they could learn some invaluable lessons from the softs. A "soft" with a few years of experience is likely to be a much better martial artist than a hard with less experience. The point being that it comes out in the wash -- and in the long run, it is total effort exerted not just the short-term burst. Hards with the same experience do tend to be a little "better", in that they are more likely to push themselves (and learn more in the process) -- but they are also more likely to burn out quicker (or injure themselves), so they seldom last as long. Basically hards need to learn how to pace themselves -- while the softs are often much better, and much longer lasting students if you give them the right atmosphere. Best of all (with a good instructor) are the blendables. They can adapt and learn lessons from both extremes and can adapt the most.


So when choosing a school, it is pretty easy to figure out quickly what the instructor (and atmosphere) will be like if you know what to look for. If you see a school that is all low-ranking students, then it may be that they are new school (which is fine) -- or that no one can live up to the expectations of the instructor. If you see a school that is heavy on the black belts, and light on the new students, it may mean that they are a hard core (traditional) school. The instructor may just have the the students beat on each other as a way to separate the wheat from the chaff -- and most burn out. The few that make it long term, are there for good -- but most of the lost students (ones that left) could have been turned into good martial artists if they had a better (more versatile) instructor. I much prefer seeing a school where there are quite a few advanced students, but even more intermediate and beginning students -- and a helpful and open atmosphere, and you don't sense fear or worry when the instructor says that people are going to spar or do some drill that has contact. I like to watch to see if the instructor knows how to manage hards, softs AND blendables, or if he doesn't know how to manage and expects them to all adapt to him.

The points of course run much deeper than just running a Dojo. I look around a company (at the corporate or team politics) or even just a group of friends and can see the same things. These lessons are very applicable to managing (or just fitting in to) any team of people. Look around and see how have people paired up, and why. What is the tone? Do you you have a bunch of hard-core types all trying to be the biggest bad-ass -- or do you have a balanced team that works well with each other, and who tries to be "blendables"? Youth naively favors the former, and often experience (wisdom) favors the latter.

If there are problems this reflects on the management or team leaders (and the people and atmosphere they choose), as well as all the contributors.

There is something to be said for the short term hard core attitude, and you can get a lot done in a short amount of time (before the team either implodes or explodes) -- but in most cases I like the nontraditional, longer term team where everyone grows and learns and you have a variety instead of just hard-core all the time. The latter just seems healthier and the environment lasts so much longer that people win the marathon, and not just the 100 yard dash.

The most important lesson that I learned is to recognize what situation I am in. Sometimes you can change things (improve them), sometimes you will only be able to recognize them (and try to adapt), and sometimes you just have to know when things aren't going to change (and are unhealthy) and know when to leave -- but the key to any of these is just learning to see what is going on around you.

Created: 08/10/99
Updated: 11/09/02

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