MMA – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Part 2

This post is also available in: Italian

The following article (Part 2 of a 2 part series) was inspired by a number of comments posted by a serious Black Belt instructor who studied with one of my direct students and then expanded the ground aspect of his own MA experience by studying Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. I have slightly modified some of the excerpts from my responding comments in order to share the content of our discussion with our general readers.

This instructor explained the challenges he endured when he attempted to add an MMA program to his curriculum, subsequently resulting in a significant degree of dissatisfaction. You can find his original comments written at the end of my previous article titled, “MMA vs. Tradition – Part 4“.

In these comments submitted by my second generation student, he included the “lessons” he had learned from not so positive experience. Part 2 of this series, written below, is a continuation of my responses and remains in context with his comments.

Shihan Pascetta & Grandmaster Urban, circa 1977

REFLECTIONS

Many years ago, as a young Sensei and long before the recent MMA popularity, I also made some mistakes similar to those lamented by my student’s student in Part 1 of this series. In a sincere attempt to remove what I mistook for “egoism” from my teaching I began to replace the somewhat formal structure in my dojo and began to run it more like a “coach” in a “gym”.

I became lax with dojo protocol such as exchanging courtesies (bowing, etc.) We called each other by first name and even socialized outside the dojo more like “peers”. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how significantly this began “blurring the lines” separating student and Master teacher, particularly, the responsibility to “set the example” that any strong leader and/or mentor must do and not allow himself to become “one of the boys”.

What subsequently occurred shortly after was that it became more and more difficult for me to teach some of the students who had begun to reach a relatively proficient level (with regards to fighting skills). A large part of this change was because our overall relationship had changed from one that clearly separated “mentor” and “student” to one that more closely resembled “peers”.

Due to the liberal extra-curricular interaction and the protocol changes in the dojo, some advanced students affected simply began to treat me as a peer in the dojo rather than to respect the many years of experience that I had in comparison with their own. The social undercurrent in the dojo began to denigrate to more of a “buddy-like” structure and the undercurrent of individual “opinion” began to overshadowed the wisdom and leadership based on real experience.

Needless to say, after a time, this handicap caused me to become less able to benefit those students. Even some of the less advanced students were confused by the varied conflicting “opinions” of the “seniors” they looked up to.  My attempts to lead these newly “enlightened ones” in the right direction became more and more frustrated.

“YOGA-GOJU”?

For example, on one occasion I returned from my training in the State Police Academy to find one of my assistants had added a practice to the regular class of beginners that was totally foreign to our system and to what I had taught him. Since I was temporarily dependent on him to cover some classes while I was away at the academy, he took it upon himself while I was out of class to add his own “innovations” to our well established method of teaching.

He had taken a night course at the local high school that included some practices from yoga. Since he personally liked what he learned, he decided to add some of those practices to our regular program. The fact is that with a very brief exposure to “yoga” he arbitrarily took some of the practices from that beginner yoga class and added his own distorted and mystical twist to them. Although there are many interesting and positive things to learn from yoga and many other disciplines, he had no concept of how these practices either fit or conflicted with our method and overall system of teaching. He had no idea even of the qualifications of the “instructor” teaching in the 6 week adult education evening program!

Further, he had neither the experience, qualifications, or authority to make arbitrary changes in our practices and procedures. What may be readily missed here by the inexperienced practitioner is the fact that the senior instructor or “Master” in any school ultimately has the responsibility for the effect of any curriculum and/or procedural change on all students of all that is taught or practiced in that school.  All means all!

Here was a classic example of a novice, inexperienced assistant adding content on a whim to a quality program without any awareness of its long term impact on the students’ development. What was even more evident was the mindset of such an unqualified, inexperienced assistant making curriculum decisions on his own whim and ego. Obviously, this caused somewhat of a conflict in leadership within the Dojo and confused some students.

INDEPENDENCE or INTERDEPENDENCE?

What then occurred was similar to the experience lamented by my student’s student in his comments. The very students, to whom I had dedicated my time and trust, found a “source” where they could receive teaching “certification” without meeting the high standards of our program.

This would be akin to an academic student attending high school for a few years, then purchasing a “Mail Order” diploma and subsequently claiming to be a college Professor based on that certification! Within a few months they opened a facility close by, using my logos, using a watered down version of my curriculum, the system name, and reputation I had worked so hard to establish in that region, all while now claiming to be “Masters” of the same.

In the meantime, my own livelihood and family was challenged by the affect on my business. What a mess. When I protested, their propaganda to the uninformed public was that I simply was trying to “control” them or block them for succeeding as I had done. The false statements and the illusion presented was that these students simply wanted to be “independent” and “do their own thing”.

The sad fact of the matter was if they legitimately wished to be “independent” then why would they continue to remained connected by copying what their teacher had created and developed? If they sincerely wanted to “do their own thing” then they could have easily achieved that by also choosing their own unique name for their “system”, a curriculum that was significantly different, and logos that were distinctively unique to their own methods. To this day, those lines are still blurred for some people in our area due to my own error and misconception about the importance of the structure in the dojo, regardless of my best intentions.

This acknowledgment of my own mistakes in no way relieves culpability from their choice to exaggerate their own accomplishments and experience. It also does not relieve culpability from the “Grand Master” and “Association” that provided certificated for false and inflated ranking and status. If, in fact, the diplomas they received were truly considered legitimate by that “organization”, or that “Grand Master”, then logically it must be deducted that a Brown Belt or Probationary 1st Dan by my standards and in our organization is equal to a 4th Dan in theirs. This is quite a distinct comparison and self- indictment of their standards. Further, these types of errors are clearly not errors based on good intentions. They are clearly errors based in personal and professional ethics.

In taking responsibility for my own mistake in this example, this experience represented a few minor examples of the numerous problems that resulted due to the change in the structure of relationship between students and Master as well as the change of formal dojo protocol. It literally took years to undo this mistake in policy and procedure.

Ultimately, what I discovered was that the “structural protocol” in the dojo that I had begun to abandon was less about “ego” and “hierarchy” and more a daily reminder of the important and distinctly different, interdependent roles of student and teacher, senior and junior, along with the responsibilities that came with more advanced ability. Every time that the Master is addressed formally or the Black Belts as “Mister” or “Ms.” It serves as a reminder to those  leaders that they are in a position of responsibility. It also serves a reminder to the students that they should expect a higher level of performance and responsibility from those who have earned that formal address.

I have deliberately left out the names from this story because what is most important is the lesson learned, not some political rehashing of old conflicts. I will point out, though, that some of my subsequent protégés continued to be impacted by this mess even years after.

To the degree that they were able to rise above it, subsequent student/instructors have benefited from the resulting quality level in terms of the “character” of students, as well as technical level, of those carrying our system forward that occurred after the change back to a more conservative protocol and structure. To the degree that they have promoted deviation from the time-tested structure (typically with the best intentions to encourage some type of “individualism”) those future generations may have inherited the tendency to open themselves up for some of the same situations recently experienced and described by my student’s student in his comments.

COMPARE, EVALUATE, ASSESS, ADJUST

It is my opinion that each person must take responsibility to use his own intelligence and must do his own assessments. The proceeding “War Story” was not intended as an indictment of any particular student or instructor. I have the highest respect for most of the instructors who have gotten their initial foundation from our organization and I continue to maintain a constructive and positive relationship with almost all of with them. I have shared this “story”, however, and intend for it to be used as a tool for sincere self-scrutiny and self-assessment.

These well intended “mistakes” that some instructors like me have experienced further underscore another reason why any teacher of Martial Arts would benefit greatly from continuing his relationship with his teacher and perhaps, even the teacher of his teacher. This is one of the more realistic advantages to belonging to any legitimate MA organization.

That proposition is presented with the assumption that such an teacher and/or organization, hypothetically, fosters such vales and creates opportunities for all instructors to grow in that direction. It is also assuming that the individual leaders in these roles have a track record of stable behavior and wisdom.

Those leaders must not only possess technical skills, organizational skills, and motivational skills, but they must “walk the walk”, not simply “talk the talk”. This is not a matter of technical skill but primarily a  matter of character and ethical behavior.

In my article series, “MMA vs Tradition” you can see that I sincerely respect the many benefits of both MMA and “Tradition”, however, what seems to be the best road, is a true balance between both worlds. This “best of both worlds” model should hypothetically possess the versatility of technique and the striving for “realism” that many MMA programs attempt. Along with that, however, it must also possess the value system and structure that is one of the core goals of a more “Traditional” MA program and that potentially contributes to molding the “whole” individual.

Unfortunately, this combination of “old” and “new” is a rare occurrence and difficult to find. Our AGKAI standards, system, and methods are an example of my best attempt to accomplish that blend. With that stated, our system is still imperfect and evolving but will continue to evolve in that direction until I can no longer teach.

EVOLUTION vs. REVOLUTION

On a final note, please distinguish between “Evolution” and “Revolution”. The evolution of any structured system takes a careful and disciplined investment of time and resources along with much patience. Although some “mistakes” are inevitable in any type of progressive development, they are typically smaller and more easily managed. Any “damage” done that is due to instructor error is usually limited to a small number of students, lasts for a relatively brief period of time, and is typically “fixable” with diligent review.

Every teacher, in every type of education must honestly admit that their ability to produce a higher quality of student will likely be less when they are at the beginning of their career and likely greater with more experience. These differences are more likely counter-balanced when that teacher is under the guidance and supervision of other more experienced teachers. The problem with too many martial arts schools is that too many “instructors” begin to teach independently long before they have established the experience to recognize their own fallacies.

This is yet another argument supporting the need for professional MA organizations that provide such support, guidelines, and supervision. In fact, it is this author’s opinion that these positions of leadership, guidance, and mentoring are the primary justifications for the higher ranks of Black Belt, not simply time in grade. Those higher degrees of Black Belt represent, “Teachers of Teachers” and the administrators of those organizations become the “Leaders of Leaders”.

The tasks and skill sets required to become a “Teacher of Teachers” are part technical, and part administrative. The tasks, skill sets, and accomplishments to become a “Leader of Leaders” are also part technical and administrative, however, they also require a level of charisma, and of ethical wisdom. “Leaders” who are lacking in those areas produce followers who are also lacking in those areas. “Leaders” who possess such a combination of these qualifications produce strong students, strong Black Belts, Master instructors possessing both knowledge and wisdom, and ultimately produce future charismatic leaders.

Contrasting with “Evolution”, in any “Revolution” the changes are dramatic, more drastic. With most “Revolutions” some things will be permanently “damaged” or be completely lost. Blood is drawn and people are seriously injured and/or inevitably die. I hope you can follow my descriptive analogy.

Subsequently, “revolutionary” changes in any system of MA training (i.e. when an instructor suddenly emerges with some “new”, innovative creation of his “own system”) typically are short lived and rarely remain relevant in MA culture for the long run. In my MA career I have witnessed a number of “shooting stars” that fell back to earth even more quickly than they exploded on the MA scene.

Those which do last usually undergo some repeated changes over a longer period of time and leave behind yet another group of individuals/students whose perception of the process may be forever mutated, not unlike adult children from “dysfunctional” families. This phenomenon results in a repeat of the same nonsense, over and over again, based upon and “justified” by the less than reasonable actions of the original perpetrator. This is akin to a type of martial arts “incest” where the “interbreeding” ultimately succeeds in producing a weaker and weaker offspring, handicapped both physically and mentally. There is a lot to be said for the old adage, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.

It is this author’ opinion that a large part of any lack of credibility of certain practitioners/Masters (alleged) of USA GoJu is due to this type of dysfunction. What is sad is that some of these individuals have no clue as to what is necessary to achieve the level they claim to be. They are incapable of that awareness because it was never honestly taught to them and subsequently they have never experienced the normal progression leading up those levels or ever legitimately accomplishing those levels.

What is even more pathetic is that many of those who legitimately have such awareness pretend as though this crisis in credibility doesn’t exist. Remember the age old fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (by Hans Christian Anderson). This is unfortunate but true when applied to more MA Masters than I would like to mention.

GIVING BACK

It is my motivation (and that of any sincere MA Master) to “give back” to MA by passing the results of a lifetime of dedication and passion on to the next generation. It is not the intention to teach such structure in order to “limit’ students or “control” them. My motivation is to use such structure to create an atmosphere that will ultimately “free” them to take the goals and practices that are our common passion forward, hopefully to an even higher level. This “atmosphere” in the Dojo is a critical element leading to the appropriate intellectual and emotional development that most MA claim to foster. If we do not learn from history we are destined to repeat it (Winston Churchill).

With time, age, and wisdom, we learn that “to give” is always greater that “to receive”. It’s not that we don’t wish to receive anything for our efforts and I’m not suggesting to not expect fair and reasonable financial compensation for your work. I am talking about the difference between a “shepherd” and a “wolf”. The shepherd will risk his life for the sheep, while the wolf will hunt them down, capture, maim, destroy, and devour the sheep. In my opinion, the true MA Master must be a “shepherd”, not a “wolf”.

Unfortunately, the majority of the MMA I have seen out there seems to lend itself more often to the latter. No matter how dramatic and appealing the “cage” spectacle may seem, presently it is based on a short term mentality. Remember that any “champion” is only a “champion” for that day. Until and unless he repeatedly reaffirms that status ad infinum, eventually he will fade in history.

As a MA Master, your accomplishments are forged into the lives of the hundreds/thousands of students you touch with your potentially life changing skills and knowledge. Their future students (if they teach), but also their own children, families, co-workers and society around them can be impacted for generations to come. That, my friends, is “paying it forward” and “long term” thinking.

I am sorry for anyone who has had a less than positive teaching experience, but then again, I’m not so sorry. Remember that “PAIN” is most times the best “teacher”. It leaves us with a lesson that is not easily nor quickly forgotten.

I greatly appreciate what was shared by my student’s student, with his candid comments concerning his own personal observations. It certainly served as an inspiration for this article. I wish all the best of luck to with their teaching and training. I hope this discussion can open the eyes of those who most need to make some changes. I further hope that it will also open us all, as martial artists, for sincere dialogue to continue to improve our own methodology and ethical behavior.

So now you’ve read it, “The GOOD, the BAD, and the UGLY”.

“….AND THAT’S THE WAY I SEE IT!”®

Copyright 2010, R.V.Pascetta, all rights reserved.

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  • abraham says:

    Nice article, I admire your honesty its not easy admitting your faults but often times that is what people learn from the most. I believe you may have helped many young sensei (such as myself) avoid as you say "becoming one of the boys." A Sensei wears many hats teacher, friend, father, mother, disciplinarian, etc. but he or she has to make sure they don't wear one hat (the friend hat ) too long. lol Thank you for the lesson!!

  • Hanshi Andrew Linick says:

    Greetings Shihan Pascetta: Great words of wisdom on this blog from a great teacher of the 'old ways'. Just a little note about the reverse type you use. It is very hard to read and i suggest you make it 16 pt type in a non serif type style. I like Tahoma or Verdana for digital screens. If you want to read my article on the best fonts to use and why-just ask. Be Well. Love and laugh often.—ASL/Hanshi

    • rpascetta says:

      Thank you for your words of encouragement, Master Linick. Also, I've tried your suggestion by enlarging the font, however, the web program gives me limited control. It gives me several size options but does not allow me to change fonts. The standard font here is a sans serif, as you suggested but I have exhausted my options at this point. I hope the larger size is helpful. Thanks again for your help.