I love swinging by other martial arts clubs. It’s always fascinating to see how other people train. Even when it’s a style you know very well, there is still the unique gestalt of the teacher and her students to make things fascinating. I used to make a habit out of taking the free drop-in beginner classes almost every school offers, just to get a better taste of what they did. I don’t do that so much anymore…unless the school offers something radically different, I don’t get much out of beginner classes anymore.

I suppose that’s a sign of my maturity of training…I’ve finally mastered beginners classes? Is that a good thing or bad? It’s not to say I can’t learn from other instructors. That would be a lie. It’s just that I’ve hit the point where I know enough about the commonalities to all martial arts to know what has to be taught to new students. I can pick up the basics by just watching the top students move for a bit. I’m not going to get the meat, but I will be able to replicate what they want from new people before they start to really teach them.

It’s one of the reasons I don’t take workshop or seminars classes anymore. There is only so much you can teach a disparate group of students in a finite time. You have to pick a median level to which you are going to teach, and pretty much stick to that. You build in variations for the people who sit on either side of that median, and a really top teacher can run an class with something for everyone. But not so much in the WMA world as yet. We are still building good instructors, still working the leapfrog of good teacher, good student, great teacher, great student that will eventually hit a critical mass of excellence. That’s only going to take time.

One on one? Completely different world. Give me five minutes to do slow or fast work with anyone teaching out there, and I can walk away with a years worth of things I want to work on. So much to learn from so many people. My travel budget has been less than zero lately, and will continue to be so for some time yet, so my only chance to work with other teachers  has been the Cascadia North weekend. It’s a busy one, so it can be a bit tricky to find some mutual free time to play with the people you want to play with. I really miss traveling to meet and fight with people. You just can’t break out of the “local shell” mentality without testing yourself against people who do things radically different from you and those you know.

There is an art to putting yourself into the home base of someone else and asking to learn from them as an equal. You’ve got to be humble. And you’ve got to be prepared to be at your best. If you want to taste someone else’s art, you’ve got to make sure you give them the opportunity to display it…but that’s not the same thing as trying to beat them. The goal when learning is to observe. You give your best attacks in order to learn the responses, but you keep your mindset receptive, not focused on outcomes.

Amongst equals, even with different weapons than you are used to, you will likely land some shots, and do things that surprise or sneak in. Don’t get smug about it, but fix it in your mind for later thinking. Working with a fellow teacher is different than working with a fellow student. It’s best to continue your bout for more touches. Afterwards you might be asked to share how you landed such shots, and you want to be able to contribute to the mutual lesson constructively. Bluntly, if you keep landing the same shots…stop throwing those shots. If you’ve found a hole in the person or their style, they’ll ask you about it later.

If they don’t…the correct way to bring it up is to say “I noticed that I was able to land x shot a few times, when I did y. Was I missing something?” because you might have been. It might have been on the mind of the other instructor that you were being stupid and going for an opening, and being completely ignorant of his real attack that he was restraining out of politeness or concern of hurting you. It’s happened to me from both sides. I’ve patiently let my opponent land a shot, assuming they would see me indicating the hit I wasn’t landing because of safety concerns…and I’ve thought the other guy left a big opening, only to have them patiently explain the set-up trap I had fallen into. Teaching is a humble profession.

At some point, though, hopefully, you get a chance to do some competitive sparring. It’s a real joy to fence other instructors, and I have a hard time understanding teachers who don’t take the opportunity. I do understand being too tired at weekend events after teaching, you get a pass for that easily. But you really should seek every chance for a friendly test against your peers. Between peers, it should be a win-win situation. We all come to the teaching game with a top level of ability, but some are always better than others. Teachers should know that better than anyone else in the martial arts game, and accept it of themselves first and foremost. It’s part of the teaching experience. You will humble your students, and you should be able to teach them how to deal with that from an experienced point of view.

Plus, if you win…somebody should be buying you a drink. You did bet on yourself, didn’t you?