91. Who, what and why

There are usually a couple of questions I ask potential students within the first month of training, or even before they begin training. I usually don’t ask it in so blunt a manner,  but they are usually in some form of “Who are you, what do you do, and why do you want to train with us?” Journalism students will quickly recognize that this is a subset of what they are supposed to search for in researching a story: Who, what, when, where, why and, of course, why should it matter to the reader?

There are several reasons why I ask these questions, some obvious and perhaps some not so apparent at first.

Obviously, I want to get some idea of who you are. My club is so small that any new person will alter the group dynamics substantially, and so I want to know from the start what you are like, where you are coming from, and what kind of prior knowledge (and stereotypes) you are bringing to the training. Who are you, what do you do?

Who are you? What do you do? In America, we tend to categorize people based a lot on their occupation. It’s not that I’m a social snob. You don’t need to have a white collar job. But if you are an adult, don’t have a job and are mooching off your significant other, your parents or some sugar daddy or mommy, I’m going to wonder if you can afford to help pay the monthly dues that covers our dojo rental fees. Also, what does that say about your ability to stick things out, to work hard at a concerted, extended effort? The economy being what it is, there are legitimate reasons why you might be out of work. There are also warning signs to me if you simply don’t have a job not from circumstances beyond your control, but because you just want to mooch off someone else.

What prior martial arts background do you have? Some martial arts will complement what we do. Some will only hinder you learning our own style, so I will have prior knowledge of what I need to be aware of. We could sure use new members to help pay the rent but because I don’t make a living off teaching martial arts, I don’t really need to pad the class with students to help pay my personal bills. Perhaps your experiences and mindset are not the proper fit for what we do. I sometimes suggest other martial arts schools that prospective students might enjoy more than ours. We’re not the answer to everyone’s quest for the martial arts that suit their purposes.

Why do you want to train in our dojo? There’s actually no pat and simple answer for this.  Of course, if you say something like “Because I need to fight the ninjas that are coming out of the walls in my padded room,” I may ask that you focus on taking your medication regularly instead of learning how to fight invisible ninja. (Seriously: I encountered someone who wandered into our dojo, feet encrusted with street dirt, asking about ninjas coming out of the walls, and I said they don’t do that in our dojo anymore. He got offended at my flippant remark and began to get belligerent until I pulled out my cell phone and told him I was calling the police. He must have had prior encounters with the boys and girls in blue because he immediately changed his tone, got very conciliatory, and backed away and disappeared down the stairs as fast as he could.)

But when I thought about it, even I have a hard time establishing my reasons for doing budo into a set of short, simple sentences.

So why even ask when I can’t answer my own question succinctly? And why ask the other questions if the case is that more often than not, I allow students to train, usually regardless of their social status or occupation?

The reason that’s not so apparent is that in the asking, I’m not just recording the quantitative answers: what your job is, what prior training you’ve done, why you want to train (even if you struggle on that last answer). I’m looking at your answers in a qualitative way. How are your answering the questions? What kind of emotional and personality traits are you exhibiting when you talk about yourself, past teachers, past training? Are you SAYING all the right words, but are your mannerisms and body language in opposition to the words coming out of your mouth? Then there’s something not quite right with what you’re saying.

Again, I’ve rarely told people to leave and not come back after I talk to them, save for that derelict who wandered in off the streets. But it does give me a quick handle on how you will fare, and after accumulating years of experiences with different kinds of people, I’ve gotten a pretty good idea of how long you will last.

Two people can say the same things, but how they say it and their body language may tell me totally different things about those two.

“Oh, I trained/am still training in X martial arts, but I’m really not that good at it…” That’s the usual way people will talk about their martial arts experience. There’s humble, though, and there’s false humility. One person can smile self-deprecatingly, shake his head, and the entire body language will show humility and a willingness to learn something new. Another person, like a short-term student who I encountered some months ago, said the right words, but he puffed out his chest, stuck his chin out and looked down his nose when he said it, as if his words were saying, “I’m humble and willing to learn,” but his body was saying “But I’m a badass!” He didn’t last all that long. His cup was too full, and he had a hard time adjusting to our training. Moreover, he didn’t think anything about showing up with patches up and down his training outfit promoting his other martial arts style. And he wasn’t a badass. He was just bad.

Then again, there are those students who I thought wouldn’t last past one month, and for some odd reason, they keep coming back and training, year in and year out. I can’t figure those people out. And I’ve also been conned in the past. As I tell my students, my bullshit meter is not totally foolproof. But it’s a lot better than it was ten or twenty years ago. So maybe I’m not perfect, but my meter is getting more and more calibrated.

In a way, talking to prospective new students is like speed dating. How do you get a handle on this new person in only a few minutes, who might barge into your life and stick around every training session, three hours a week, week in and week out, through a cursory interview? You can end a speed date right away if your creep-ometer senses that the potential partner is a jerk. But a jerk in the dojo may hang around for a long time. That’s something I’m still learning to fine-tune, I must admit.

And if you are that new student, are you self-aware enough to know what kind of impression you are conveying to other people, not just in the dojo, but also in the rest of your life? Is that impression positive or negative? Are your words saying one thing, but is your body language giving away your true nature, and is that nature something you actually like or is it time for a change in attitude?

4 thoughts on “91. Who, what and why

  1. Thank you for the article, very insightful. I train at Dojo that is located in a multipurpose and very public facility. This has advantages and disadvantages. Being that we are very small almost never being larger than 8 students it gives the type of exposure that peaks the passerbys interest. The disadvantage being that everyone save for the crusty feet guy is a frequently stops class to talk to us about training.
    Over the last 7 years I have met and trained with every example both good and bad that you gave. I was actually similar to the puffed up chest guy. Thankfully Sensei accepted me as student anyway. My ego was crushed promptly . Empting my cup so to speak. I’ve been around long enough now that Sensei has taken to having me screen and talk to potential students. Thank you again for the article, I will apply this information .

  2. I also think the interview process is critical to all dojos. Who wants to get a trouble maker, or other unsavory student types in the dojo. You want to have students that make a good fit. A great tool then is the weeding out process, a probation period to have more time then a few moments to size up a potential student.

    But, is it is even more of a difficult thing for real traditional dojos. For one thing, the difficulty results from a monumental commitment on the student’s end. How many people into day’s society really are cultured and dedicated to meet the demands of a life time commitment? The high rate of divorce, and the high rate of job turn-over are just samples of the length of time people commit. Second, is the short attention span and quick resolution to boredom we experience. We live is a high stimulating, fast-pace society, where we been conditioned for constant new stimulus. A conditioning where we are bombarded with rapidly changing stimulus all the time, having us constantly active responding to the stimulus. Metaphorically speaking, how many people just sit on the front porch watching life go by for hours? Not many. At the best it is sitting at a coffee shop drinking tall cups of highly caffeinated coffee while on our computers. Then the last difficulty for student commitment is the ability to keep at your station. The society I live in pushes us to the top. If your not at the top of your field you are essentially a failure. We have expectations not to settle. We expect that we don’t sit at lowly stations as the clock ticks wasting your life away. We want to move and move quickly achieving our goals. Doing so is equaling to being in hell. Goal orientated is our society and failure to meet those lofty goals is unbearable failure.

    It is difficult to find good students, as deemed by Koryu arts, Those who will show up to every class for life, being able to see the value in doing the same waza day after day, month after month, year after year that takes great mental effort to ward off the boredom. Finding students who are not hyper-goal orientated and overly rank ambitious. Students who will accept the station where they will not be the sensei (unless the move on), content with their yudansha rank typically a notch or two below the sensei’s rank. And if they are lucky and the sensei dies, they are the one appointed in the coveted position of being the head sensei of the dojo.

    It is really allot to ask of a student to make such a commitment and meet such demands. The qualities of a good koryu student is rare because it is not part of the student’s society or upbringing. It takes a rare person to be such a student to train for a life-time in the hopes of someday they are chosen to replace the sensei. Or at best given permission to run their own legitimate dojo under the contractual mentorship of the head sensei. Those Koryu senseis who happen to have a student stumble in through their door, in my experience isn’t readily recognized either. Not in a momentary interview, not in a few months, or even a year. It may take 10 years before a student reveals those qualities and becomes committed to the long haul. 

    Just another difficulty of being in a Koryu art.

  3. Summing things up, not going commercial is only for the strong and true of heart. Wayne’s interviewing strategy should not be weighted lightly. It takes skill to pose the right questions in the right way to get the quantitative answers, to “read a prospective student” properly. It is speed dating, I agree, as a result of the nature of the beast. You have to be able to read a person’s character, get a sense of who they are, reading their tells, in the short allotted time they give you. That isn’t easy for all the behavioral reasons that fill so many books. People are complex, communication is complex. It is an art in its self.

    I visited many dojos, but very few did what on sensei did when I went to visit his famous koryu dojo. The non-Japanese sensei stared me down with a focused glaring look of unwelcomeness the moment I came through the door. I knew what the sensei was doing, it was his method, for better or worse, it was clear he didn’t want lookie loos taking up his time.

    A sempai of mine was granted to open a branch training group that eventually over the years was granted branch dojo status. He told me the most dedicated student he has is the one he turned down repetitively for 6 months, for a host of reasons. It surprised my sempai that this student was the one who after 20 years is still coming to class. My sempai felt the guy didn’t have the attention span and dedication to train, so he turned him down. Yet the students my sempai felt had the “stuff” to make it, didn’t.

    With myself I too have had similar experiences. It is easy to have a commercial dojo and not have to be so concerned about dedication as koryu non-commerical schools. And your students don’t have to be as self aware as Wayne writes about. But that is what makes Koryu special.

  4. “It is easy to have a commercial dojo and not have to be so concerned about dedication as koryu non-commerical schools. And your students don’t have to be as self aware as Wayne writes about. But that is what makes Koryu special.”

    We are *so special*! Why?

    I do koryu as well, but I don’t like this attitude.
    Why do we need to feel special? It’s so easy to get from “special” to “better”.
    This resonates through a lot of the texts here.

    Are we really so special? Aren’t we just lucky to have found this at the right moment in our lives?

    Why the need to look down on people who do different things or do things differently?

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