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.