September 09, 2004

More thoughts on character building

James' comment, "This depresses me, I would like to believe that there is something in our art that makes people better, not that it just attracts people of a certain type." and all the responses which focused on comparisons to sports got me thinking.

First, rather than compare martial arts practice to football, soccer, or another team sport, I think we should try to compare to other individual sports. Two that I have personal experience with are fencing and table tennis. I also have some experience with gymnastics through my children. By virtue of being individual events, a lot of the accountability question is resolved. If you lose, there's almost no one else to blame. Of course, in fencing or gymnastics you can blame the director or the judges. In table tennis you can blame it on your paddle. But when you reach any sort of proficiency, you realize only you can take responsibility for the outcome.

I also think that gymnastics, fencing, and table tennis (in decreasing order) all teach some body awareness that helps with balance and body coordination that Shannon writes above.

But, I do think there is something fundamentally different between martial arts and these individual sports. Unique in the martial arts experience is the constant interaction with fear. And not just fear of inanimate objects like bars and gravity as in the case of gymnastics, but fear in the interaction between human beings. In kumite, we need to face our own fear of getting injured. We need to fear for the safety of our partners - for the consequences of our own attacks. I think that it is in facing the many fears on a repeated basis that forces many of us to look at ourselves and see where our character is weak or tarnished. (It seems that this fear should exist in fencing, but I don't remember feeling afraid. There are rules about excessive force. In many ways, it's only a game. Oversimplified, if you can get your weapon to make your light go on, you get a point.)

Now here is where things diverge. I think the difference between good sensei and bad will be in what they decide to do when the student sees something in themselves they're not happy with. The reaction I would expect in the 'street fighting fu' schools would be to tell the student to ignore it and "be tough". If the student stays in this type of school he will just adds another layer of protection around the unhappiness and bury it away. The problem won't be solved and the character won't change. Another day, in another way, the same thing will come back up and out. On the other hand, a good sensei will understand what the person is going through and offer support and encouragement as the student explores what's bothering them. There may even be other exercises within the art that can help the person see things from a different perspective. This causes change in the character.

So, it's not black and white: sport vs martial arts. Even if the martial arts are special the sensei and/or the tradition of the art will play a large part in whether or not change occurs.

Lastly, I don't think it's black and white between self-selection and change caused by the martial arts.. People who decide to study the martial arts have to think that there's something "fun" about putting themselves into a fearful situation (in the form of kumite). Something about that has some initial appeal to them whether it's to build confidence, to defend themselves, or to fight others. Whether or not their initial reason matches the sensei's style at the school they attend will determine whether or not they continue long enough to find themselves with fear, uncertainty, and doubt. And once they do, their sensei's reaction will be another determining factor about whether or not they continue.

Seems like an awful lot to right to in the end say there's still no easy answer to the question.

Posted by rob at September 9, 2004 12:09 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?