5. When it’s time to quit

Budo should be fun! A student enjoys sake through a lotus stalk after hard practice.
Budo should be fun! A student enjoys sake through a lotus stalk after hard practice.

I’ve previously written about joining a classical Japanese martial arts.

But conversely, there are times when you should quit a budo.

This sounds like heresy, right? Maybe it is. But at a certain point in time, you may stop and think, “What the hell am I doing? I’m not enjoying myself, I’d rather be (insert a pastime here), and I’m hurting too much after practice.”

That’s when it’s time to reassess your goals and personal feelings about your martial art. Sometimes careful reflection rejuvenates your commitment. Sometimes, if you take a long, hard look at the physical, mental and emotional toll a budo takes on you, it may be time to leave. Okay, you may think of yourself as a “quitter” and you forego rational and logical conclusions and continue to beat yourself up mentally, physically and emotionally. Let up, bro. There are other things in life besides the dojo.

This sounds antithetical to promoting the martial arts, but I’ve left a couple of schools myself and feel better for it. So I “quit.” Hey, I’ve still got a happy life and a decent job. That’s the more important things that matter more than a pastime, be it budo, golf or playing bridge on Saturday nights.

To start with, you have to go back to why you joined a budo in the first place. Hugh Davey (Shudokan Martial Arts Association) and I were sitting in front of a cheap Japanese restaurant waiting to be seated and we conjectured that if all you wanted to learn was how to defend yourself, most moderately athletic people could learn that in a few months, give or take a week or so. So then what comes after that. Between the two of us we had close to 50 years’ worth of martial arts backgrounds, and yet we figured that nothing more really comes out of it if self-defense is all you’re looking for. Learn how to punch, kick, gouge eyes and knee a groin, and the rest is pretty much learning about the mindset and strategies of personal self-defense. You don’t need to perfect a front kick for years to defend yourself adequately. So we concluded that folks like us who continue to practice for decades are probably two shakes short of crazy.

On the other hand, if you enjoy budo practice for other intangibles, such as the physical exercise, the body dynamics, the camaraderie, the philosophy, the history, the sheer FUN of doing it…then you continue budo…Until these don’t become fun any more.

Several reasons may therefore impel you to leave. If it’s the physical exercise, then if you conclude that the physical training is hurting you more than it is helping you, you’re basically beating up on yourself. You could pull back on training and realize you’re not a twenty-something anymore. If that’s impossible given the training requirements of the style, then you may consider leaving so as not to water down the training system.

When you get older, your body ages and weakens. Age has its advantages but as a middle-aged guy, let me tell you, what it does to your body sucks. So you may have to forego training simply because your creaking old body can’t take the punishment anymore. No shame there. We all get old. Football players, for example, age really fast. You don’t see many 50-something-year-old professional football players still in the first ranks of the pro leagues, do you? The body can take only so much punishment from a contact sport like football before it simply gives out. Ditto extreme sports like rugby, boxing, pro wrestling, and so on. The lifespan of athletes in those competitive sports tend to be rather short. Why wouldn’t competitive judo and karate be different?

When I was in my mid-20s, I started graduate school. I was holding down a part-time job to pay the bills and I loved martial arts so much I was training in karate, aikido and judo at the same time, all the while jogging several miles a day. My body fell apart eventually and I realized overtraining was a bad thing. (D’uh!) I had to concentrate on getting a degree so I scaled back my training. By the time I finished graduate school I was getting close to 30 years old, and my schedule didn’t allow the freedom anymore to train as hard, and besides, my body was already aging. I had to focus on only a couple budo that I could do that wouldn’t hobble me when I needed to go into work. Doing competitive judo and karate, and then doing hours and hours of aikido simply was not physically possible for me anymore. So practicality forced my eager hand to scale back on training.

Another problem may arise when political and interpersonal dynamics become messy. A dojo is a place for training, but to keep it going, you need structure. The dojo needs to have a teacher, it needs to be part of a system of budo, and oftentimes, the technical system is held together by an organization. The organization can be big, such as a national group, or it can be an independent dojo run solely by the teacher. In any case, the political and social structure of the dojo may turn sour. Rather than subject yourself to that kind of emotional and psychological anguish, you may rightfully decide to leave.

There was one aikido dojo I used to train in that didn’t feel quite right. Instead of helping each other, oftentimes students who were senior to me (in spite of having trained in aikido for some four years prior, I donned a white belt to practice at this place) tried to beat on me or poke me when I was trying to work slowly on a technique. It took all my self-control not to side kick or punch out those students  in reaction to their snitty jabs because by then I had all those years of aikido, a dan ranking in karate, and a dan ranking in judo.

But where did that snotty attitude come from? It came from the senior teachers, who had a problem with their self-esteem. Soon enough, I began to understand the dynamics of the place. Some teachers hated other teachers. They were jealous of their ranking and spent a lot of time maneuvering to put other factions under their power. It was not a happy place. Eventually, I left. I didn’t want to deal with those off-the-mat politics. Later, I learned that the head instructor finally left and set up his own dojo because he was disgusted with the politics as well, and a huge split fissured the remaining teachers into two parties, with each side threatening to sue the other side in civil court. Do you need that kind of b.s.? I would hope not. Luckily, living in Hawaii the were always alternatives to training at that really spiritually draining place.

There was a karate group I used to train in where the physical training was excellent for young folk. It was intense, physical and challenging. However, over the years I was training, the whole system slowly began to focus on tournament sparring, something I had very little interest in. But I was just one of many low-level black belts. If I didn’t like what the head instructor was doing, then I couldn’t really challenge him on his decision to focus on tournament play to the detriment of everything else. It was his dojo. So I left.

As for judo, I enjoyed it immensely as a young man. But the emphasis in many judo dojo nowadays is on competition, especially since it’s now an Olympic sport. The intensity of keeping up with national-level competitors for me was too much when I had to also work and go to graduate school.

Did I wimp out? You could say that. On the other hand, I had reached a level where I was training with folk from the US Judo Olympic team. They could wipe the floor with me when it came to stand-up randori, but due to my training in Kawaishi-style judo, I managed to hold my own and even tie them up in matwork. And in karate and aikido, I had excellent instructors and trained with a number of very good karateka and aikidoka in the day.

It was just that the politics, emphasis and personalities made things very uncomfortable. And so, because I didn’t HAVE to do it for a living, when it ceased to be fun, I left. After over a decade of training, I walked out the door and never returned.

Although I still miss judo randori, the beauty of doing karate kata and the smooth flow of aikido, I don’t miss the politics and the wear and tear it took on my body. Your experience might be different, of course. One of my friends teaches Okinawan karate and he spent years researching the roots of karate, traveling to Okinawa to study under the best teachers of his system. If I were younger and not involved in what I’m doing now, I’d study with him. His style is wonderfully technical, powerful, and is doable even for older people. When I “retired” from competitive judo, I still helped out with a children’s judo dojo to enjoy being thrown and tumbling around with the kids, until my work schedule precluded that. And I find that my early aikido training really helps my current jujutsu training.

In the end, however, I left. I quit. Yes. I was a quitter.

But I was lucky to have stumbled into other martial arts that seemed appropriate for my lifestyle, personality, work commitments and locations. I eventually began a study of tai chi chuan and classical Japanese martial weaponry. Then I spent some time in Japan and began my lifelong study of iai and Japanese kobudo. Lest it sounds like I was hopping from style to style, I remain somewhat amazed that I have been in the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu iai system and the Takeuchi-ryu Bitchuden kobudo for some 24 years now.

The head instructors I met impressed me as teachers and as human beings. The political structure of both organizations were bearable, i.e., they pretty much left me alone and rarely asked anything of me. I’m a cranky old guy and not being asked to do a lot of organizational stuff was a real plus for me. The fellow students I met were accommodating, friendly and helpful. There would be an occasional jerk, but not more so than what you would find anywhere in any endeavor. Moreover, as I aged into my middle ages, I found I could still train without falling apart physically. The training for iai and kobudo could be structured so as to take into consideration my oncoming physical senility. So I stayed.

If the groups suddenly turned into a crazy cult that worshipped Brillo Pads, would I leave? In a heartbeat. I love training. I love budo, but it’s a PART of my life. It’s not my whole life. It enhances my life, makes my life richer, and enhances my health and sense of well-being. I enjoy it a lot. Training in budo gives me a lot of personal satisfaction, health, poise and stress relief. Once it becomes a drain, once it becomes a negative in my life, once it becomes a weird sucky cult, I would quit.

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31 thoughts on “5. When it’s time to quit

    1. Actually, you’re right, Ron. Good point! Sort’a like my first marriage. I didn’t quit. I moved on when it just fell apart. I think. Do you think?!!

  1. I think too that there is a “fit” issue with a teacher or even a ryu. Dojo politics and personality are important when you must allow a teacher or a system to “reorganize” your being in terms of movement and psychology.

    More than once I have left a system or teacher that otherwise was perfectly fine training, training even that I “thought” I wanted – because the fit was not right. I could see a conflict with a particular teacher’s style, or I did not want to learn to “move that way,” or it clashed with other training I was doing in the officer survival/tactics realm and the former had to take precedent.

    These experiences have had a positive end result in that I observe, research, and visit dojo, as well as instructors in the tactical realm, much more in depth now when considering undertaking training – whether a new system, a new dojo within the same system, or even simply a course of instruction.

    These are actually very important matters and I am glad you addressed it!!

    1. Kit, you added to the discussion because “fitting” is important too; not just personality-wise, but in terms of–in your case–making it fit into practical application to serious life and death law enforcement and/or tactical matters. Some budo have been redesigned to be more sportive, and the emphasis on sport may be detrimental to reacting instinctively to self-defense situations. It’s not that it’s a bad martial art, it’s just that the emphasis may be different from what you may find necessary. An important reason indeed!

  2. Certainly re: modern arts. Over time I have come to respect Judo and its offspring BJJ because they are specifically not life and death arts – paradoxically that allows a physical dynamic that mirrors the pace and contention of a real fight in earnest for the very reason that it is done safely.

    However, in general sport has morphed them so much to be specifically geared to respective rulesets that without a balance found in more combative arts very important – even critical things – get “lost in translation.”

    I basically have come to accept that the tremendous benefits to the LE/tactical aspects that these arts offer must come with a choice not to focus on the sport rulesets.

    Unfortunately in the majority of dojo this limits your ability to go very far. “Non-competitor” is a status not smiled upon in most Judo and BJJ clubs. As they are modern arts, it is a bit easier to pick and choose what you will and will not practice, within reason, so that you can take what you want from them. This is not my impression in the koryu.

    1. Good points, Kit, and ones that I couldn’t have made better. I still miss the energetic, full-on workout of judo but in my creaky old age, can’t manage to do it against young Turks anymore, I think. But it was wonderful in and of itself, and good preparation for later training in other systems, because it trained my body to react instinctively to grappling like no other system did.

  3. I just checked back in here and this subject is very important to me. To echo Ron’s view above, there’s a big difference between “quitting” and making a decision to change, or move on. I’ve seen a number of people in many situations, such as: budo practice, music, wartime combat, marriage, etc. that refuse to quit or change because they don’t want to be “a quitter” or be thought of as a quitter by others. This often can be disastrous when a change is really what needs to happen to be successful in the situation. Sometimes only the person making the decision understands the difference, but that’s the rub isn’t it.

    Great stuff to think about and show your heart. Thanks Wayne.

    1. Thanks for the additional insights, Chuck. Yes; how we handle budo politics is simply symptomatic of how we tend to handle life, in a way. I used the term “quitter” because it would elicit more responses, but really, it’s all about changing and moving on when you need to, or staying to make a commitment when you need to.

  4. I’m not disagreeing with any of the insightful posts here, but isn’t there another side to “fit”? One profound aspect of budo is its potential to radically transform its practitioners, just like any serious kind of teaching. If we change in a fundamental way, we cannot predict what will fit our future selves; what is uncomfortable today may be, in a few years, exactly what we want (and retroactively, what we needed all along). Diana Skoss has written compellingly how the koryu demand openness and flexibility, a willingness to adapt, sometimes through considerable hardship, to methods and requirements which may feel strange and inexplicable. It seems to me that how much we require a good fit depends on how much we are willing to change or how much we are satisfied to remain essentially who we are.

  5. You’re right… that’s one of the good reasons to stay. There are also good reasons to stop, leave, change, and only the individual knows what is right for them. As with all things and all people, sometimes we get it wrong. If you’re a “quitter”,though, I think you really know why you’re quitting.

    1. Good food for thought from both Doug and Chuck! …I just had a lot of fun doing embu with Meik and Diane Skoss and other koryu crazies, and we had time to talk about a lot of things. I think in the course of it, I said something to the effect that I’m not sure how much budo really changes people for the better as it simply illuminates or heightens our existing character and personality. It wasn’t a statement, just a stray thought. Like if you were a real jerk, you would still be a real jerk unless you really made an effort to use budo as a vehicle for change. If you were a dedicated student, you’d make an effort to use budo to better yourself, of course. But in my observations, a lot of people tend to bring heavy baggage to budo training and they often don’t leave it at the door.

  6. Wayne,
    This is by far your best blog (if not work) yet. The insight that is distlled into this is uncanny. What you described in several of the above passages ring so very true for me *right now* and I believe that this will be so for others. You’ve taken what is generally intangible and put into very solid wording that opens the heart of the problems one faces in austere training and the reality that hides just out of sight within the walls of the dojo. Kudos and Outstanding.

  7. Echoing Doug’s post on “fit”: I did aikido for about 4 or 5 years. I enjoyed it, had no complaints about it, no doubts about, and was perfectly happy to keep doing aikido. But I read a blog entry by George Ledyard on Aikido Journal expressing his great love of aikido, and how he could never really understand why people left. To my regret, though, I knew reading that that aikido did not mean the same to me as it did for him. I enjoyed aikido, but I didn’t have his love for it.

    Eventually I took up Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, more out of historical interest than anything else. I fully intended to continue doing both aikido and YSR. But once I began YSR I found it so perfect for me, so engaging on so many levels, that it was an easy choice to quit aikido to focus on YSR. I know one fellow here in Japan who also studied YSR, with some of the same teachers I have. Eventually he left, seeking an art that fit him better. I for the life of me cannot understand his decision. Well, I can to a certain intellectual degree, from my own experience quitting aikido. But having found something that means as much to me as aikido does to Mr. Ledyard, I understand his blog post a lot better now.

  8. Great points Josh, I always enjoy your posts. Just me though, I don’t like the word a’quit’ when it was a valid decision based on a need to change rather than ‘running away or abandoning’ something. From what you said it sounded to me that you made a good decision. Maybe we just use the word quit differently. I value your thoughts about language and it’s usage, by the way. I’m glad you found YSR and fell in love. I feel the same way about what I do.

  9. I just revisited a dictionary… what a concept! I guess I just have a problem with “quitters” so I use ” to quit” in the same way. I’ve been in too many situations in life where we don’t tolerate quitters because they’re undependable.

  10. Really good posts, all. This is really what I was looking for in the old Furyu; more of a dialogue rather than a monologue, with many voices joining in as if around a table, discussing, disagreeing, laughing it off and then moving on.
    And “moving on” is more apropo than “quitting,” yes. But for a title, I thought “quitting” would be more of an attention-getter, especially since most of the readers, I suspect, are the ones who survived, worked hard and endured in a budo system for years and years. Quitting ain’t in them. (insert the clip from “Brokeback Mountain”: “I cain’t quit youUUUU!”
    Certainly, jumping from ryu to ryu is not going to get you anywhere just as being Jon Gosselin hopping from babe to babe doesn’t say much about commitment (from “Jon and Kate Plus 8,” I’m sorry, my pop culture slip is showing, but my wife is engrossed in that family’s dysfunctional misadventures). But moving on when you realize it’s time to move on is sometimes necessary for one’s physical, mental and or spiritual health. When it comes to that, then it’s time to move on.

  11. I think you have our attention because of who you are. 🙂

    I began judo in 1953 and missed very few chances to get on a mat in quite a number of countries with lots of good times and ukemi, however, after much consternation and thought, I stopped all activity with kyogi judo in 1983. I did continue with similar activities that followed the principles of tadashi judo within strong budo training. Seeing the state of IJF/Olympic “judo” today breaks my heart.

  12. Thanks for writing this, Wayne. This being a very sore topic for me, the post acts as a salve, of sorts. I moved down to Kyoto specifically to train at the Chofukan, but over those four years, life changes (starting a new business, marriage) took me away from the dojo more than I would’ve liked. I trained very little in my last year and now that I’m back in the States (and away from not only the training, but also the culture of kobudo), I find myself with strong regrets at times.

    I recognize that we need to roll with it, to flow with the changes, but it doesn’t take away the occasional sting. How do you personally reconcile those long gaps between visits back to Kyoto?

    1. Ted,
      Boy, as Bill Cinton once said, “I feel your pain.” Seriously, though, it’s really hard. I have approval from Kancho to host a little club, and when I say little, I barely have about two to three students show up on good nights, so I’m often carrying the rent. We meet once a week because my work and family schedule keeps me busy, but I try to infuse the training with what it felt like at the Choufukan. It’s not easy. But over the years, I’ve kept up while some others have dropped out, so I figure while I’m not as advanced as some, I’m still plugging away, slowly. That’s the best I can do while meeting the real responsibilities of life, so I accept it. And move on. Having a worthwhile job and a great family makes it all worth it, and I put my budo in that perspective. Hey…Where are you?

      Wayne

  13. Actually Wayne, I did mitori-geiko with you guys one night in Feb 2004, when I was visiting the island. You and Clark and I had food afterward.

    I’m in Santa Fe now, gearing up (read: saving money) for grad school. Alas, more responsibilities…

    I’m on hiatus from Japanese arts and currently studying Tai Chi with Mike deMarco. A happy surprise that he is here. But definitely missing the Chofukan. Hope to get back to Japan for a visit next summer.

    1. Ted,

      Oh yeah…OK. Well good luck on grad school. I know how that went. I wore clothes with lots of holes in ’em when I was in grad school and working part time to survive.

      Tai Chi, under a good teacher, is a wonderful art. It teaches you a lot about balance and core strength. I did it for a couple of years and it added wonderfully to my understanding of TR and budo in general, but right now I’m so busy I don’t have time (yet) to get back to it. One of my TR sempai (Kouno-san; have you met him?) also did Tai Chi and he showed me how he analyzed a lot of TR movements based on his studies of Tai Chi. He whipped Clark and me around like we were little dolls.

      Wayne

  14. Good grief, never say in ten words what can be said in a hundred.

    You are Stephen (K.) Hayes and I claim my prize.

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