Encouraging Personal Development in the Dojo

I was recently discussing the topic of encouraging personal development in the dojo with a newly belted Shodan who was visiting us. Like many Shodans, he has come to realize the profound impact that martial arts training has had on his life, above and beyond the simple benefits of self-defense and fitness, including self-confidence, mental fortitude, perseverance, exposure to different philosophies and lifestyles, etc. This led to a discussion on how to encourage this kind of personal development in the dojo.

I am of the opinion that the gentle approach is best. You provide the opportunity for students to undertake this sort of development but you allow them to do so on their own terms. Most students don’t take up a martial art with this kind of development specifically in mind. Most are looking to either learn to defend themselves / pick up a new physical skill or they are looking for a fun way to get fit or stay fit. So in the beginning, up until orange belt, the focus of what I teach is meant to provide exactly this as efficiently as possible. Realistically speaking, the majority of students don’t make it past orange/green belt so at least they’ll have picked up a good grounding in self-defense skills by that point.

Students that last beyond that naturally develop in other ways over time. There are a few ways I like to encourage this development without hammering it into them. I like to make information available to my students wherever possible. I do this by providing articles on my blog, sharing links through our Facebook and Twitter pages, and lending my students books. I have a plan to start a library of books related to the martial arts and personal development that students will be able to sign out when I upgrade to a bigger location too.

Even more importantly, it is vital to set a good example in your dojo. Whatever characteristics you want to see your students develop, you must develop in yourself, in the other instructors at your dojo, and in your senior students. For the most part, this can be done by example, but there may be times that you have to talk to people to make sure the leadership of your dojo is projecting the image you want.

Running a dojo is much like growing a garden. You supply the seeds, the soil, the fertilizer and a little effort in tending to it and nature takes care of the rest. Ultimately, self-development will happen over the long term if you stay true to your intentions and provide a positive, encouraging environment that maintains student interest and allows them to grow and develop in their own ways. People will come to their own personal epiphanies on their own if they are open to it.
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One thought on “Encouraging Personal Development in the Dojo

  1. We have a website for our dojo with a forum for students to discuss technique and more general stuff. There's a database with the most common techniques (basically scanned from books)and the curriculum per belt. There's also a section for teachers (up til now sensei and me) for the exchange of ideas and training schedules. Personally I think at times this actually provides too much information: a) people can get lost in techniques they do not yet know (there's a reason why certain techniques are only taught at a higher level) and b) imo it makes it too easy compared to the way we were taught. Back in the day Sensei didn't write anything down: you were given a piece of paper with the requirement per belt and if you wanted photo's or actual information on how to do it you had to provide that yourself. He didn't even explain most techniques: you were expected to follow his lead and learn from experience. Nowadays people have almost unlimited access to information yet I don't see the quality of students improving very much, perhaps even on the contrary: it's not how many techniques you know (mostly just the name and a very crude idea as to how to actually do it) that determines how good you are but how well you know them and that only comes with hours upon hours spent on thet mat. It's also funny how people seem to think they 'know' our system just because they know the general outline and trained a relatively short time: only after years and years of training will you know what the strength and weaknesses of your system/style are and only then can you start to critise and improve. I hear a lot of comments like 'this doesn't work': no, it does work, only you're doing it wrong. When I can do it and sensei can do it it clearly works (if he dives to the mat tapping like a madman something must have gone right) but people seem to seek instant gratification and don't take the time to properly learn a skill or technique and they seem to think because they suck at it the skill/technique itself sucks.

    I agree personal development is a mere by-product of training and cannot be rushed or artificially developed. I's comparable to Zen meditation: if you consciously seek enlightenment it certainly will not come, but if you just sit and empty your mind (shikanta-za) sooner or later you'll start to feel different: making progress by not doing anything, very paradoxal but true none the less.


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