How I Learned to Be a Student

As part of his Shodan requirements, Chris was expected to submit an essay. The topic I gave him was to answer the following question: “What is the most important thing you’ve gained as a martial artist from cross-training in Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu?”. His essay response was very interesting, served with a healthy dose of humble pie. It was as follows:

How I Learned to Be a Student

By Chris Olson

Training in a martial art can be a very fulfilling and enriching experience. It can also be very insular and lead to a very narrow view of the martial arts.

When a new student to the martial arts begins their training, it’s important they receive regular and consistent training to ensure a solid learning of basic and fundamental techniques. Organizations with a well-developed and standard curriculum offer stability, and opportunity for students to grow, and over time take more responsibility for their own training.

They begin to fulfil a necessary role in the dojo, becoming role models, assistant instructors and eventually instructors. Much of what students learn, how they learn, and how they eventually teach is influenced by how and who taught them. You can often tell who taught an instructor based on their method of instruction; the analogies they use while demonstrating, their movement in executing a technique, etc.

While this can lead to a consistent level of instruction, (hopefully a good one), it can inhibit the growth of both the style and the instructors.

Cross training can offer more advanced students/instructors several benefits to further personal development.

It provides the chance for instructors to see a similar technique taught with a different focus, providing new angles for understanding the technique. It can also expose them to entirely new techniques and concepts that can enhance their training.

The biggest benefit I have received from training in another style of Jiu jitsu is not what’s been added to my technical repertoire however. It’s the maturation of my training mind-set, and development of a wider perspective.

I started training in Can-ryu Jiu jitsu because I was looking for a replacement for my original style, Shorinji Kan. I was looking for exactly what I had before, not something new to learn.
Becoming a white belt again, and starting fresh with an open mind was much harder to do than I thought. In retrospect I did a lousy job of it.

Yes, I put on the white belt, and I said all the right things, but underneath it I was an arrogant, cocky brown belt, not really looking to learn, but looking to practice what I thought I already knew. I was lucky that my quiet arrogance was misconstrued as respect and shyness. I didn’t think I was arrogant, and unwilling to learn, but I was, I just hadn’t realized it yet.

I faked learning long enough to actually start learning, at which point, I realized, that might be a better approach. It turns out that it was better, and I’ve been very fortunate since.

Through my connection with Pacific Wave Jiu Jitsu, I’ve been lucky enough to train with professional boxers, MMA students, a Pan American games gold medallist grappler, a world renown Aikido Sensei, and numerous Jiu jitsu instructors. My wide experiences have taught me more techniques than I can remember, but the one thing I do remember is the great attitude and friendly sharing nature of the martial arts community. It’s created a healthy drive to move outside of my comfort zone and to learn from wherever I can.

After nearly a decade of training, I feel more like a student than ever before. I think I’ve finally figured out how to learn, and I am now as comfortable getting insights from senior instructors as I am from my own students.

Comments (2)

2 thoughts on “How I Learned to Be a Student

  1. That's an interesting essay and it shows a good attitude, which in turn reflects well on the teacher. I recognise a lot of myself in Chris' experiences: I too am what can be considered an advanced student (1st kyu, close to black belt) and I too have had my moments of cockiness and intolerance towards other systems and styles. It's important to recognise this, as Chris did, and ameliorate the situation in order to optimalize one's learning curve and get the most out of the time spent training (time being in limited supply). It's good to be proud of ones achievements and the skill-level one had attained but it can also become a hinderance towards ones development, if you allow your ego to stand in the way of true insight and a realistic outlook on life and training. Personally I do try to keep an open mind and what I find most humbling is comparing my skill-level with those above me, especially my teacher: of course I know a lot of what he knows (at least when it comes to JJ since we're both from the same style and dojo) but he's simply better at it and what's most impressive is the ease with which he flows from technique to technique, seemingly effortless and without thought, combining elements from JJ, muay thai, kali, JKD… That is what I strive to become: a complete martial artist, a competent technician, an able fighter and a good teacher… There's obviously still a lot to learn (especially about teaching and other styles) but I know I'm on the right path and if I just persevere someday I'll get there, with the help of some very gifted and kind teachers and the feedback I receive from students. 'By endurance we conquer', cfr. lord Shackleton, the conquer of the south pole.

    Friday there were two new prospective students on the mat, one of the variety that is completely opposite to what Chris described as a good student: apparantly she has experience in the martial arts (I think taekwondo or something of that nature) and man was she cocky: she even had the nerve to publicly question certain techniques… According to her a punch to the nose is ineffective (jee, want to try?), aswell as a knee to the tight (a staple in kali and thai-boxing). Friday we practiced boxing covers (single, double and peek-a-boo) and she thought this ridiculous: the reason was quite unclear but then she demonstrated a swaying-motion with no cover whatsoever (apparantly from taekwondo), which left her completely out of balance and she nearly fell on her ass… I trained with her for a while and apparantly I have no control whatsoever (I've never injured anyone in my 10 years of training, I just don't understand why you'd want to train in a martial art such as JJ if you're not comfortable with close bodily contact) and apparantly I'm not worth the belt I'm wearing: all this while her own skill was very limited and her locks completely failed, even after I showed her how. She seems to think our style is quite worthless yet she's decided to return on wednesday: go figure. I don't understand sensei actually tolerated such rudeness: I would have told her to step off the matt and never return since her attitude completely stinks and it's clear you can never learn if you refuse to empty your cup…

    Truly a reminder of a person and a martial artist I never want to become. I can only pity the people that have to tolerate her on a regular basis.


  2. One of the reasons that I started my journey over again is because I had lost some of what it was to be a good student. I had lost some of the beginner's mind.

    Looking back, I realize that I had become quite quick to judge and discard techniques I felt had no merit without fully exploring them.

    When we lose the beginner's mind, we cease to improve. Great essay and congratulations on your accomplishment.

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