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About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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  1. Recognising success…

    Eric Wang has a really interesting blog on health issues (http://healthdemystified.wordpress.com); it’s holistic, practical and focussed on providing objective insight into subjective issues. I was taken with this post in particular, not because of the specific context, but because the lesson he’s offering generalises across life and impacts physical and mental well-being. Martial artists – at least the life-long variety – tend to be quite driven people, and the arts – especially in the modern era – are as much about self-development as they are fighting skills.

    One of the questions I’ve been asked quite often over my nearly 40 years of teaching is, “How will I know when I’ve ‘got it’?” If I’m in a rush, I am sometimes guilty of the slightly dismissive – though no less valid for that – answer, “The moment you think you’ve got it, is the moment you’ve almost certainly lost it”, or worse, “I don’t know, but don’t give it to me!”

    But even at my most flippant, I remain a teacher at heart, and when I have time to give a considered answer, I generally acknowledge that it’s a very difficult question to give a useful and sensible response to. When I’m facilitating a training session in my guise as a corporate trainer, one of the questions I will often pose to a group examining any process is, “What will success look like?”

    The point of the question is not to come up with a rigid metric necessarily; it’s more to do with getting people to consider what their criteria for success are? Interestingly, even when working with a team of business people, who you might imagine would share a fairly clearly defined set of goals for an activity they undertake, there’s often a good deal of variation in the answers you get back from the individual clients.
    This is equally so when working with individuals studying the martial arts – thankfully, for if that weren’t true, either I would be attracting a succession of weirdly similar people to my classes, or indeed, unconsciously moulding the happily unique individuals who come to me into some sort of disturbing clones of myself. Just as everyone who takes up the arts does so for a different set of motivations, which inevitably mutate over time and study, so too does their perspective and with that how they measure success.

    I had the distinct honour recently to teach at a convention to celebrate the life of one of the twentieth century’s most significant and innovative martial artists, who also happened to have been one of my mentors, Prof. Wally Jay. Rob Gale, who had been the Professor’s dojo manager for some years, was acting as M.C. for the teaching sessions, and asked me how I “wanted to be announced?” I was a little mystified by the question at first, but Rob clarified that, since I have teaching ranks in a number of arts, and therefore different titles, which did I prefer he use? I’m afraid that my reply was a little flippant. I told him that, “Well, ‘pinhead’ isn’t real nice, but simply ‘John’ will do!” I felt bad immediately, as Rob was only being courteous after all, so I amended that to, “Sensei, please Rob – it’s all I ever aspired to!”

    I thought about how I’d reacted afterwards – I was reminded of it again when I read Eric’s post – and I realised that my reaction had been fuelled by embarrassment; it’s hard to feel the part of ‘Sifu’ or ‘Guro’ this, or ‘Professor’ or ‘Grandmaster’ that, when you’re surrounded by many of the most talented and senior teachers in the field. I once complained to Prof. Leon Jay (Prof. Wally’s son and successor) that I was embarrassed by the fulsome introductions he would give whenever I attended his class as a guest instructor – mostly because I had no idea how I was going to live up to them. “You want ‘low key’, then ‘low key’ is what you’ll get,” he said. I should have known better; at the beginning of that class, we bowed as usual and Leon announced, “I’ve no idea who this guy is. He just wandered in off the street – still, he might know something?” and walked away!

    I’m never really satisfied with whatever level of knowledge or skill I’ve attained in an art. On the one hand that is obviously a good thing, as it keeps me striving to improve; on the other, it is easy to forget that one does have something to offer – as one ought after this number of years in any pursuit – and hard to remember to value that. Certainly Prof. Wally valued what each individual he encountered had to offer, and he firmly believed we all did – from the absolute beginner to the tenth degree black-belt.

    But as one improves with study, practise and experience, the goals shift too. There are many arts I have studied to a certain basic level of competence, and will almost certainly never exceed that level – either because I have realised they do not fit my attribute set, or because I have satisfied whatever lack or need (always curiosity first) in myself that I conceived required remedial action. And for many years now, my answer to the question, ‘How will I know when I am succeeding? is that I start to feel I’m ‘getting it’ when I can do what I call ‘a bad impression’ of it. That somehow sounds rather negative, but I assure you it isn’t intended to be, quite the reverse; what I really mean is you might not think I was all that good, but you would be able to recognise what art I’m trying to express, which has to mean I am able to reproduce something of its shape and feel.

    The key to being successful by any meaningful measure in the martial arts, or perhaps life itself, has to be to stop measuring yourself against anyone else. How many of us have taken up a martial art because we were inspired by watching a master – or even a competent person – performing it? For that matter, how many of us take up a hobby because a skilled expression of it by an adept made it look so attractive and so accessible? Once you begin your study or practise, if you measure yourself against that inspirational figure, you’re likely to be perpetually disappointed – not unreasonably, they presumably have a considerable head start on you.
    Even if they’re not the one you’re measuring yourself against, but another, you’re doomed to feeling inadequate ultimately. As Eric Wang points out, that ‘other’ you measure against is external, and the only factors in life you can truly take control over are all internal.

    Regardless of my own struggles with any particular art, the single most important thing I could say about success in the arts is that ‘you’ are the only measure you need. Are you happier for your continued practise/study? Does it give you any of what you need? Do you feel you are making progress? If you fought another stylist, would that necessarily prove the superiority of either of you, or the respective arts you study? Personally, I don’t think so; I think it would just show that on a given day, under specific restrictions, one of you was able to dominate or outperform the other – not a particularly useful lesson to live your life by.

    Something I noticed over the many years I’ve had the privilege of being associated with Prof. Wally and his successor, Prof. Leon is their generosity of spirit. While pursuing becoming the best they can be in their chosen field, they somehow manage not to be in competition with anyone else. Instead they have always – entirely instinctively and without any ulterior motive – celebrated the successes and the talents of others, and it’s always brought them reciprocal success and praise tenfold.

    Yes, it is always nice to be well thought of by others in your profession, but it’s always more important – and much more rewarding – to be loved by those around you. Prof. Wally Jay was both those things, as the gathering at the Convention a few weeks ago proved all too well, and I know which of those he would have valued the more.

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