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.

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Top 5 Cross-training Activities for Martial Artists

As an instructor, I’m often asked what types of exercise I recommend outside of our classes for cross-training. If you’re looking for a complementary cross-training activity, it’s important to choose something that helps develop the type of body that allows for the style of movement you’re trying to develop as a martial artist. Here is my list of 5 activities that I recommend to my students:

1. Rock/Wall Climbing.
Climbing is an excellent activity for martial artists because you use the entire body to do it. It tones the body without bulking up and develops muscular endurance. It can also help develop flexibility, depending on your climbing technique. Furthermore, it involves a great deal of technique in order to be an efficient climber, a principle martial artists should become very familiar with the longer they train. It’s also great for developing a strong grip, which is important for grapplers. Whether you do it on an actual rock face or at a climbing gym, you’ll get these benefits. I like to go climbing outdoors in Squamish (see below) in the summer and wall climbing in the winter.

2. Yoga. Like climbing, yoga tones the whole body. It tends to be a lower impact activity with strong emphasis on stretching, making it a good recovery exercise for the day after a particularly hard workout. It’s also great for increasing overall flexibility, which is important for injury prevention. What’s nice about yoga, is that it’s easy to fit into your daily training regimen. I have a couple of series’ of 20-minute workouts on DVD (including Am Yoga for Your Week – DVD) that I use every weekday when I get up in the morning. If you’ve never done it before, it’s a good idea to also take classes so you develop proper technique.

3. Running and/or Skipping.
As a martial artist, it’s important to have good cardio. Aerobic exercise is important when prepping for belt tests to keep you performing strong even toward the end of the test. Anaerobic exercise is important for high intensity activities over the short term, like sparring, grappling, training circles, or for the potentially high intensity situation of a real self-defense situation. Both running and skipping are great forms of cardio training. Running can be adapted in different ways too like interval running (switching between regular running and sprinting), running up hills or stairs to develop leg strength, etc. Many people don’t think they can run, believing it to be too hard on their particular body. Unless you have some sort of injury that prevents it, everyone can run. You just have to start slow and work the body up to it. Start by walking more than running. Start by walking 4.5 minutes and running half a minute, repeating this for 30 minutes. Then, every time you go to run, increase the running and reduce the walking in each interval by 30 seconds until eventually you’re running the full 30 minutes. Skipping is good for cardio training and also develops timing and coordination. You can also do interval training by adding in double skipping into your routine. See the video below for an example of double skipping.

4. Strength Training that Uses Core Muscles & Stabilizers. This includes pilates, fitness ball, kettle bell, medicine ball, and many types of isometric exercise. Many people want to do a form of strength training in addition to their martial arts training, but most people think only of weights. Weights, the way they are traditionally used, focus more on the “mover” muscles, the ones that propel you, but don’t do as much for the “stabilizer” muscles, which hold your parts in place and prevent you from being damaged while the movers are moving you. The stabilizers are very important for martial artists to protect you, especially when doing explosive movements. Developing your core usually goes hand in hand with your stabilizers because your core (abs and lower back muscles) stabilizes your centre body. A lot of important movements come from the core in the martial arts, so it’s important to develop your core strength.

5. Dancing. This may seem like a strange choice, but some of the finest martial artists I’ve trained came to it with a background in dancing. Dancing teaches coordination, timing, choreography and body awareness. Couple dancing forms like swing or salsa give you the added benefit of learning to coordinate body movements with someone else’s movements, which is a great skill to develop for things like throwing. You may laugh or have trouble seeing the relevance, but the skills you learn in dancing have a lot of cross-over into the martial arts.

These are my top recommendations but I’d love to hear what other people do or recommend though in the comments for this post. 🙂

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How to Train in a Martial Art When You Already Have Experience in Another Style

Over the years I’ve dealt with many students who wanted to train at my dojo but already had experience in another style, with mixed results. It can be challenging to switch styles and reprogram your body to a different curriculum. And the more experience you have, the more challenging it can be. As a result, most of them either don’t sign up or don’t last long. That being said, the ones that do usually have a great attitude and bring an excellent training ethic to the mats.

If you are martial artist in this situation, here is a list of guidelines for training in a new style that will help you get the most out of your training without being disrespectful or interrupting the dojo’s class structure.

1. Keep an open mind. Try your best to perform the technique as demonstrated. The new style may have similar techniques or even the same technique with slight differences. While it may be easier to just resort to the method you’ve always used, you’re there to learn the new style, not showcase your old one. Look for the advantages that this new method may present. You may be surprised if you give it an honest chance.

2. Be respectful when questioning differences. Because of your prior experience, you may wonder why things are done differently. While it’s ok to ask technical questions specific to a technique in class to make sure you get it right, but it can be disruptive to question the differences openly during class with regards to your prior training. Even if done politely, it can take more time to explain answers to these questions, which can hold up the class’s training time. As for integrating your new learning with your old, this is something that you do yourself outside of class. If you don’t think a particular techniques fits into your martial arts schema, note that in your head, but don’t bring any special attention to the fact in class.

3. Don’t act like an instructor. If you are an instructor in your old style, you may find it difficult to just be a student on someone else’s mats. But that is what is expected of you, unless you have worked out an arrangement with your new Sensei. Don’t try to help other students as you train with them. You may think you know what you’re doing, but you probably don’t know all the nuances of the new style and there is a good chance that by “helping” you’re disrupting the learning process by imparting information in a way that conflicts with the Sensei’s teachings.

4. Be cautious and considerate when integrating your prior training. Some open-minded Senseis might be willing to let you practice your prior training, generally not during class, but perhaps during open mat time. If you’re going to do so, it’s better to restrict this to solo training or working with advanced students or instructors. Lower level students may be confused by the introduction of different concepts, or they may not be equipped to handle a particular techniques safely.

Some students with prior experience go so far as to keep their prior training under wraps, which I can respect. It doesn’t really work with me because I can usually tell, but I like that they have the attitude of wanting to be treated like any other student. As the old zen saying goes, “If you want to fill your cup, first you must empty it.”

Anyone out there in the blogosphere have any interesting stories of dealing with students with prior training, good or bad?

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How to Do Martial Art Cross-training Effectively

Cross-training in more than one martial art can be a great way to improve skills or to learn new ones. But at what point does it start to interfere with training in your primary martial art (if you indeed have a single art on which you have primary focus)? Since we have a number of students who cross-train or ask to learn skills from other students that are training with us who have significant experience with other arts, this is an important question to consider.

If you’re going to cross-train, pick a martial art that either reinforces skills that are already being taught in your primary style or pick one that covers an entirely different area than your primary.

For example, in my style, Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu, our striking system is based on boxing/ kickboxing principles, but since it is not our sole focus, a student can benefit from taking extra training in them. This is why I have Louis Sargeant (the professional boxer with whom I do extra training) come in and teach a class once a month for my students. It’s a nice change of pace for my students and they get to experience a different teaching style, as well as have the opportunity to get extra focus on their sparring skills.

On the other hand, if you study an art like Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, you might be getting excellent focus on competition ground work, but might be interested in learning skills to improve your stand-up game for MMA. You might consider taking up Muay Thai to work on your striking, or perhaps Judo or wrestling to get more focus on throws and takedowns.

I generally discourage students from learning other styles that are very similar if they are just starting out in the martial arts world. For example, learning two different styles of Karate would be very difficult because they are so similar yet have many differences, some subtle, some major. It would just be confusing to someone who hasn’t already a strong foundation in one.

I myself am currently cross-training in two styles of modern traditional Japanese Jiu-jitsu. But since I’ve been training in Can-ryu for over 15 years, it’s much easier for me. I’m able to compartmentalize my learning in such a way that keeps me from getting confused. I can’t say I could have done this kind of cross-training with the same ease back when I was in the Kyu ranks (coloured belt ranks).

As for my students, I have no issue with them doing cross-training (many schools frown upon it), but try to keep the above in mind when choosing an art. And if you want to ask some of the resident ambassadors from other styles to show you things that are different from the techniques being taught on our mats, please do so during open training times and NOT DURING OUR CLASSES. Can-ryu class is for learning Can-ryu, unless I’ve given over the mats to a guest instructor.

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