The Expectations and Fault Follow-Up

In the comments to Making the Nice-Guy Challenge a Safe One, mrissa and scallywag195 both shared questions and perspectives I wanted to answer in more detail. That “more detail” ended up being much longer than I thought… but here it is!

Questions from mrissa first:

My question is twofold:

1) In what context would his actions have been reasonable in a class/mat setting? In what context is “respond as though someone who is not in pads etc. is the actual attacker” the correct scenario? If this was a mismatch of reasonable expectations, I am having a hard time seeing where his expectation was reasonable.

The short answer is, “When Sensei says so.”

There are times we go full speed and with decent force for hold escapes, throws, and the like. It’s the reason I teach first general falls, then general throws, then directed falls and counters to the throws, then counters to the counters… A student able to control their landing permits the student throwing to work at greater speed. A student with a strengthened core can absorb a gut punch far better than someone not so conditioned. A student who knows how to flow with an opponent’s force will avoid injury. And so on and so forth.

A great part of learning partner protocol is knowing how to establish those limits, and learning to teach is in great part about reading your students’ abilities so they are challenged to increase speed and intensity while remaining within the bounds of safe practices.

So there are times we work with intensity and without protective gear. However, this is not going to happen in a white belt class. It’s a privilege earned with both skill and demonstrated control. As you might surmise—and as the incident proves—someone with less training is of greater danger on the mat than someone with more training. The adult student in this instance indeed made a very big mistake.

How does that square with my claiming of fault?

I’ll get to that after the second question.

2) What would you do to set the expectations of someone who behaved that way in line with your own expectations? You’ve talked about feeling each other out, but that sounds like finding out whether someone already has the same assumptions, expectations, axioms, whatever as you do. You take on students all the time and presumably teach them what axioms to have. For someone who has already had training that did not line up with what you wanted it to be, how would you perform that reset?

This happens, especially in dojos that provide teen and adult training, though you’ll sometimes have younger ones who “transfer” in when a dojo closes or the family moves.

Not every prospective student wants to change, and that’s perfectly all right. I don’t believe my way of teaching is the One True Way, though I am firmly convinced it’s the best way to get the results I want, both in terms of student achievement and community creation. By both knowing my parameters, and being comfortable with turning away students seeking a different experience, most conflicts over expectations are averted before a prospective student steps on the mat. A general discussion about sparring and self-defense, a half hour or so of seeing what the student chooses to show me of their previous work, an opportunity for the student to observe how my classes work… That’s usually all it takes to see if there’s enough of a match to go forward.

Students who want more of the bare-knuckle dominance assertion atmosphere usually opt to find a different school, as do students who want less self-defense and contact alongside more kata. In either case, I offer to give the folks referrals to reputable schools more in line with their goals. And if a student first professed a desire to fit in, but later became a problem, I terminated our agreement. Believe me: I could tell stories. A teacher who wants to do more than make money off students must be willing to let some students go.

So the question, in my mind, isn’t so much about how you reset a student’s expectations, but how you reset the expectations of a student who wants them to be reset, or at least thinks they want them reset.

The foundation of the answer rests on what the teacher chooses the dojo to be. Is it a place where students come to learn techniques from the teacher, or a community of students and teachers? I choose the latter, which then provides the obvious place to start reshaping behavior.

Even if a student has taken only two or three classes, I start giving them the opportunity to welcome an even newer student. A student who has bowed into class once can help the student who never has before. By the time the students have been around for a couple of years, welcoming and supporting a new person is as common as taking off one’s shoes before bowing in.

So “transfer” students are surrounded by a peer group with established social norms that include respect for one’s partner, as well as non-nasty ways to communicate and enforce those norms. All of my students know they’re expected to voice their comfort with a partner’s contact level—advising if the contact is too hard, or if it should be harder and more intense, forex—and are also expected to adapt accordingly without taking insult. They subtly remind one another of protocol (how to stand when a teacher is talking, forex), acknowledge each other’s struggles (“Dude, I have trouble with that, too. I know how you feel.”), and more. Certainly I’ve had to step in to explain those standards and enforce autonomy from time to time, but having a strong peer group so simplifies the matter. Positive peer pressure and shared expectations are marvelous things.

Sometimes the spirit is willing, but the trained responses are deep, and that was the basis of the incident with my elbow injury.

There are all sorts of methods to help a student like this reset. Partnering with an adult or more senior student who understands and has undertaken that journey. Heavy bag drills to learn how to control power and speed. Slowing self-defense techniques. Analyzing and verbalizing details of a sparring match.

The student who injured my arm underwent a relearning process using most of those exercises. One in particular made a huge difference: he had to punch the heavy bag at full speed, yet not touch the bag with enough power to make it move. Then he had to spar without striking—his role was to block and evade instead—then to spar using only one specific strike. And as he worked through those seemingly simply drills, we also talked of why the drills were difficult.

I don’t want it to sound as if we had extensive counseling sessions. Nope. Most often, we’d exchange little more than a few sentences at the end of class:

Him: “That teenage student kept pushing me, Sensei. He thought it was fun, but I kept trying not to get mad.”

Me: “You didn’t look mad to me. Did I miss something?”

Him: “No, but I told him I didn’t want to be pushed because I’d end up hitting him too hard.”

Me: “So you did the right thing, and the teenager learned about consequences. Good job.”

Him: “Yeah, I guess it did work out that way.”

That student who injured me is now on the road to become a sensei. I set him in charge of some classes before I left my old dojo. He’d learned so much about his own triggers and control—after years as a drill sergeant, combat over a couple deployments, and lingering injuries from said combat—he’d become a favorite among the youngest students and their parents. The preschoolers loved him.

Really, it comes down to teaching mindfulness. Active meditation. Strength over power. Judgment over force. Choosing how to respond when tension and pressure and uncertainty are not the dominant emotions in order to establish new instincts that’ll kick in when they are.

And here’s the confession: I was once one of those easy-trigger students. A little over three years into my training (brown-belt-itis!), I fouled out of a sparring match—completely lost standing at a tournament—because I punched my opponent in the face with far more power than tournament rules allowed.

Three times.

I can still remember the “What the heck are you doing?” look on my instructor’s face. I wasn’t trying to hurt my opponent. I wasn’t angry or determined to knock out my opponent. But I felt a higher level of pressure at that huge tournament, pressure enough to trigger “self-defense” rather than “sparring,” and as a result found the line where my control dissolved into non-thinking behaviors. Behaviors that were more instinct that choice. Behaviors that made me a bad partner.

I had to learn how to move that trigger—we don’t want to be rid of it, else self-defense training isn’t productive!—and how to make better choices.

Here’s the thing: Often, knowing the rules of contact isn’t enough to put the rules into practice. Most times there is an emotional trigger driven by pride, ego, fear, expectations, past experience, trauma, family dynamics… or merely habit instilled by earlier training. It can be as difficult for a fighter to change their level of power and force as it is for a shy person to adapt to a job that requires constant interaction with strangers. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, maybe even painful, and hits all the “I’m failing!” buttons as change occurs.

Which brings us to the other issue, addressed very well by scallywag195 (Comment has been edited/condensed. The full response can be found here.)

My opinion is your student had some responsibility to gauge the fact that your attention was elsewhere. I equate it to this: every person can and should learn the telltale markers of danger and/or develop sensitivity to the people around them. … Maybe you’re taking too much responsibility on yourself because it’s so easy to excuse others’ inadequacies when you yourself were partly at fault.

The questions of fault, blame, and responsibility are critical—in martial arts, and in every facet of life. It’s something I’ve thought about a great deal, and I admit my perspective might be on the different side.

I feel fortunate to have been “raised” in a dojo run by a karate family that takes teacher-to-student responsibilities very seriously. We learn “Sensei” does not mean “great and learned person to be obeyed without question,” but is instead, “one who has gone before.” The respect expected on the mat is not a result of skill and power, but of experience, the willingness to share it, and the goal of training an eventual equal or superior martial artist.

There are idealist underpinnings in its deliberately fostered sense of a teacher’s obligation to students. Students offer up their trust and, frankly, their submission in exchange for training in a potentially hurtful and dangerous art. That’s a huge responsibility, a bigger one than teaching great kata or coaching fantastic sparring skills. And the responsibility for individual and group safety belongs to the sensei because the students lack the experience to fully understand how to put it into practice.

But there is also the very pragmatic understanding that the habit of faulting students, particularly in the absence of naming instructor-responsibility, is what creates an abusive setting. Setting the responsibility for all mat-events squarely on the sensei’s shoulders—in this case, on my shoulders—also puts the responsibility for change in the hands of the one person with the power, in that setting, to change the circumstances that led to it. As the person in charge of the mat, it is most practical to expect me to examine what I could have done different to prevent the incident, and change my behavior accordingly.

Even if I set the fault at the feet of the student who injured me, the responsibility for avoiding a repeat incident is mine alone. Anything else assumes either the student will change, or his fellow students will fend for themselves.

So what happens on the mat is indeed my responsibility.

Full stop.

That personal and professional truth does not in any way negate or diminish the student’s responsibility, nor absolve him of the need to change.

Sometimes we tend to see fault as having a finite value, and perhaps it does when it comes to assigning blame in many situations. But I see fault as having an infinite value, one that can divide and spread, and in doing so, can initiate and motivate change. To me, the acceptance of fault is a powerful tool of agency. So I don’t see a contradiction in telling that student he should have behaved differently and the fault of the incident belongs to me.

This works because by accepting fault for the incident, I am responsible for ensuring it doesn’t happen again regardless of whether the student accepts fault and/or changes his behavior as a result of it. I might opt to remedy my fault by changing how I teach in general, by focusing on giving the student new habits, or even forbidding that student from stepping on my mat again, depending on the ultimate outcome I want. In turn, the student can opt to remedy his fault by changing how he works with a partner, or even quit my dojo altogether.

So… Those answers ended up being much longer than I thought they’d be, and I’m not certain if I cast more light than heat. Further conversation is welcome!


Surrender Your Words!

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