I’m away from our club in St Louis again, this time spending a semester at Berkeley in California, and so once again, I’m training with a new club, and one that I will only be with for a few months. Since my job involves quite a lot of travelling, I’ve been lucky enough to acquire a fair bit of experience visiting other martial arts dojo, including karate and aikido in Canada, karate and judo in Australia, and six weeks of karate at Harry Cook’s dojo in Hexham in the UK. My level of involvement with the different groups has varied quite a bit. With some of them I’ve trained as long as a year and gone to seminars and special trainings, but with others, it might only have been one class. But since I’m away again, it seems like a good time to tell a few travelling-martial-artist stories, so there may well be a series of short posts coming up around the general theme of visiting at other dojo.

Visitors often get the chance to observe OTHER visitors. One of the most awkward and painful for me to watch was a young American ISKF shodan who turned up at a karate club in Australia wearing her blackbelt (the club she was visiting was not a shotokan club). She was treated quite deferentially by the club’s normal instructor, for example, she was asked to kneel with the instructor in front of the shomen while the group bowed in. And then fun really started.

This particular club trained in 2 hour sessions and they would do up to an hour of conditioning before any more recognisable karate training began. It quickly became apparent that whilst she was quite strong, (she could do push-ups, for example) our prestigious visitor couldn’t really keep up, either in terms of aerobics or agility – she couldn’t do a set of 10 burpees and she couldn’t do a handstand against the wall. That’s ok, of course, lots of the local white belts weren’t that good at that kind of exercise either, and every club has different foci, so that the yudansha in that club will tend to excel in particular things – you get good at what you practice.

What wasn’t so OK was the loud proclamations that began whenever we did something that she couldn’t do. That exercise was “silly”, “do you guys really think this is important for karate?” and “we don’t do that in America” etc.

The embarrassed instructor – a very kind and enthusiastic gentleman who led by example and always encouraged his students to follow as best they could – tried to encourage her by suggesting modified forms of the exercises. This worked on the white belts, but not on someone who was too proud, too scared, and too defensive to even give it a go.

Next class, the instructor was a few minutes late, and our visitor took it upon herself to run the warm-ups until he arrived. These consisted of a series of exercises that she was more used to, and she proceeded to verbally humiliate any less than stellar white and coloured belts who couldn’t do them as well as she could. As this was her second class, and the normal atmosphere in the club was one of friendly co-operation, this did not go down well. (I should mention that at the time I was a 2nd kyu with a different organisation, and I was training in sweats and had made no mention of my background as yet, which is just to make lame excuses for not having intervened when I thought it would be much more fun to just watch things play out.)

But my favourite part was when we did newaza, which unsurprisingly, given her background, she’d never done before, and so didn’t regard as “karate”. We each paired off and practised the pins that were demonstrated, and then we had to wrestle our partner to the ground and try to get the pin on. We ended up working together. Now I’m no newaza-queen, but I probably had nearly a foot in height and maybe, what, 40lbs?, on this woman. To the untainted by theory, and to anyone with even a little bit of experience, it was obvious that this was going to be tough for her. But most of her training had been non-contact, and even her sparring had forbidden grabbing and grappling – so she didn’t really have a sense that weight was something that would make a difference. And I was in sweats, and she was wearing a nice thick blackbelt. It quickly became apparent from her extremely patronising manner that she thought that this was going to be easy for her (and that it was sort of ridiculous to even ask her to even work with me.)

Well, you know what happens. Since I’m working with much smaller opponent, I get the pin a few times, she learns to think differently about tapping out, I give her the pin a few times and she can’t get it on, she gets mad and the wise instructor pairs us up with other people. She gets mad at everyone.

When I came back to visit the club again a year later she was gone. But I think probably the experience of watching this train wreck of a visit is one of the main experiences that went into shaping the informal code that I follow when I’m a visitor at someone else’s dojo. I’ll flesh it out in another post soon. But as a rough summary, this isn’t too far off: don’t be her.

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