Boost Your Karate Talent The Spartan Way

By Jesse | 24 Comments

There are many things I still don’t understand when it comes to Okinawan Karate.

One being their facilities.

Or, as we usually call it – the dojo.

Whereas a dojo in the West might to have things like sofas, TVs, a lobby, maybe a snack bar, reception, mats, pads, fancy strength training equipment, showers and such – rarely do you see these kinds of luxury articles in an Okinawan dojo. Sure, okay, sometimes you do. I’ve been to fancy dojos in Okinawa, they do exist in some places.

But it’s not the norm.

In fact, when I think of the most skilled practitioners I’ve encountered in Okinawa, whether adults or kids, in Karate or Kobudo, they all have at least one thing in common.

They belong to a butt-ugly dojo.

In other words, their training facilities tend to be rundown.

Rusty. Makeshift. Overcrowded.

Old.

Sometimes downright crummy.

I don’t want to mention any names or places, but exhibit A could be some of my friends who quite recently secured a male team kata place in the Japanese WKF national team. They’re super talented. No, I don’t believe in the word talent, but they’re super great anyway. One of them even won the 37th High School Interhigh Championships of Japan just last October. Awesome dudes.

And their dojo?

An insanely small public community centre.

Located in some shady backstreet far away from fancy monorail trains and shopping streets.

I mean, it doesn’t even have real locker rooms! We just change in the staircase outside. And there is one (yes, 1) bathroom for everyone to share! As icing on the cake, there is one (1) small mirror that everyone has to fight about, and it’s not even located in the dojo room! No “dojo” sign hanging outside neither. No sophisticated calligraphy on the walls. No makiwaras. No wooden floor, even!

Yet this “dojo”, despite its considerably-less-than-lovely setting, has produced World Champions. Yes, it’s true, and I’m very sure there are more to come.

Crumminess + Crowdedness = Beautiful Talent.

Isn’t it… fascinating?

An Okinawan dojo. Sort of.

The same goes for other dojos in Okinawa too. Oh yes. For example, one of the most incredible Kobudo dojos of Okinawa that I’ve had the pleasure of training in… is basially a shack!

Tin roof and concrete floor. Some chairs. A couple of bo staffs leaning against the wall. An old table in the middle. Training is done outside in the dirt if the weather allows. No “dojo” sign hanging anywhere outside, again. The only makiwara, if you could call it that, is an old car tire hanging from a rope in a tree!

Yet, the magnificent Kobudo practitioners that this dojo has produced I can’t even describe with words.

Just sheer brilliance.

Of course, all of this strikes most of us comfy Westerners as surprising. To the modern American/European mind, crumminess and crowdedness are considered deeply undesirable, right? We all instinctively strive for polished wooden floors, top-level technology, finest tatami mats, comfortable surroundings… and enough space so that each age group may gather in splendid isolation for maximum development.

High quality surroundings give high quality skills.

Right?

Well… almost. Considering what we are seeing in Okinawa, the million yen question is; is talent really developed better in roomy, fancy, well-appointed facilities? Or is there something special going on in these dimly lit Okinawan dojo-shacks? To put it simply, are there any advantages to being crummy and crowded? To being below “standard”?

Perhaps you actually need spartan surroundings to produce Spartan warriors?

We’re all acquainted with the phenomenon of the scruffy underdog from the remote country who rises up and defeats big, fancy Goliath from a richer country — we see it all the time in sports, music, movies and business. Hard work and dedication always wins over talent and money (unless talent and money works equally hard). So perhaps crumminess and crowdedness, used properly, can be advantages? Perhaps it makes you work harder, for some reason? I think so, at least.

Skinny Okinawan kids might look like underdogs to a Western visitor — but in fact, they’re might be overdogs.

Because they’ve designed the perfect space for creating deeper, better, thorough practice – igniting more motivation.

Success comes from the inside. And if the outside (our surroundings) don’t look specially nice, our passion for making them nicer, in striving for that rose-growing-out-of-concrete effect just grows stronger. And stronger. A quick look at MMA, for example, shows the same trend – from the mean streets of Rio de Janeiro to the dark woods of Stary Oskol, the hardest fighters have almost always come from the hardest conditions.

I mean, if your dojo has a big fat sofa to chill in – with a flat-screen TV in front – chances are pretty big that you’re not going to do a couple of extra kata after training.

You’re going to be chillin’ with the rest of your friends.

Every single time.

My favorite kind of dojo. Okinawan Chito-ryu (no, not Shito-ryu).

So what should we do about this problem? Because it is a problem. Should we simply demolish our fancy facilities and replace them with crowded, worn-out, tin-roofed structures? Should we start training in ancient community centres, mold hanging from the ceiling?

Please don’t.

Or, well, you could theoretically do that, but you don’t really need to. Because the magic is not in the dojos themselves. The real magic is in the consequences, the impact, that these facilities have on its members and inhabitants.

Looking closely at some useful elements from these Okinawan hotbeds of talents, let’s try to copy some stuff.

A few ideas:

  • 1. Find ways to mix age groups. Isolation kills motivation, so don’t have different age groups in different subsections of your fancy dojo complex. Nothing sparks hard effort and intense training like staring at older talent, someone who you want to become. Someone with a higher belt than you. Therefore, putting groups together — even in passing, as in a waiting room or changing room — injects a burst of motivational electricity in people.
  • 2. Aim to make facilities spartan and simple. Luxurious surroundings diminish effort — and why shouldn’t it? Fancy stuff is a signal to our unconscious minds that we’ve got it made — so why should we keep taking risks and putting ourselves through hard work? Of course, this mindset is not something we want. We want that hunger, that passion. Compare it to a fatty who tries to lose weight; if he goes to work in jogging shoes (rather than business shoes) the chances that he one day suddenly breaks into a jog is higher, right? Control the surroundings to control yourself.
  • 3. When given the choice, invest in people over facilities. Teachers are the real engine of the day-by-day learning process that drives any successfull dojo. No sensei, no dojo. You know it, I know it. The addition of one master teacher creates more talent than a million dollars’ worth of bricks, mortar and flat-screen TVs. Think people over products.

Last but not least…

  • 4. Don’t ever let anyone complain over the conditions of a dojo. Because you already know why.

I imagine hundreds of other conclusions can be drawn from the comparison of Japanese, Okinawan, European and American dojos, but these observations might be the most important ones.

What do you think?

Let me end this post with a test:

Imagine if you received a check for $10,000 tomorrow to help develop talent in your dojo. You need to use all of the money. How would you use it?

  • Pay for new equipment?
  • Build bigger social space?
  • Hire the single best extra sensei you can find?
  • Pay existing sensei/sempai extra?
  • Get new facilities?
  • Give money (stipend) to the students who train the hardest?
  • Start top-notch series of seminars for students and teachers?
  • HAHA, suckers! Keep the money and escape quickly before the authorities find out, preferably to the French Riviera… or maybe Thailand?! Yeah, Thailand it is, living a jet-set life in complete luxury and freedom for the rest of my… Oh, inner dialogue. Better delete this.

In the end, the hard part is figuring out if you really want your dojo to be a successfull a) business dojo or b) striving-for-greatness-in-students dojo.

Ultimately they will become one and the same – but you have to start somewhere.

Preferably in the middle.

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

24 Comments

  1. Meibukanadian

    April 2, 2011 at 1:07 am

    This article reflects my experience as well. I was very surprised when I first visited the Mebukan Goju honbu dojo in Okinawa…small, cramped, a quarter of the size as my dojo back home! But such amazing karate there…something to aim for.

  2. Charles Boyd

    April 2, 2011 at 5:48 am

    But does size matter? Since moving my group from a gymnasium sized multi purpose room to my personal dojo at my house, only about 220 square feet, my students have improved considerably.Is it because they have to be constantly aware of how close they are to the walls and each other that they are paying more attention to what they are doing?

  3. frederic lecut

    April 2, 2011 at 6:32 am

    Jesse, is the picture of Sensei Tsuyoshi Chitose ?

    • Jesse

      April 2, 2011 at 11:11 am

      Yes, to the far right.

      • frederic lecut

        April 2, 2011 at 6:17 pm

        Thank you Jesse, I thought this gentleman looked a lot like him, and of course iot was the Chito Ryu name. I have very few pictures of him when he was older. Would you have more details about this picture -- date, location ? Would you have other old pictures of Chitose Sensei ? If you are interested I have a few pictures of him in Canada and the US in the 60′s with Yamamoto Sensei demonstrating bunkai and self defense.

        I practice Yoshukai Karate. Our Grandmaster and founder, Katsuoh Yamamoto, was Chitose Sensei’s top student until they separated in the 60′s. And there is a picture of him at the entrance of our dojo in Dothan, Alabama. Most of the kata we practice come from Chitose Sensei. Some of them look very similar to some of your “old style” videos.

  4. Barbara Hesselschwerdt

    April 2, 2011 at 7:05 am

    I recently resigned as sensei at a small dojo because the damp carpet (it’s used as a lecture room by day) & airconditioning (no external windows) were making me sick. Some students wanted to leave for the same reason but stayed because they wanted to train with me. I think the sensei has the most impact on how well a class runs and how students behave. Having clean space to train in just gives you more options as to what activities you use to teach. Personally, I just wanted a bit more space and a gym floor to train on with access to fresh air. Not much to ask for, I thought but I didn’t get it.

    • Sean

      April 2, 2011 at 3:04 pm

      A thing to remember about the olden days is that life expectancy was a lot lower than it is today, largey due to illnesses. Infection from such conditions was a bigger possibility than it is now, especially in America where they try to nip every disease in the bud as much as possible. It’s hard to do your job as sensei if you’re sick all the time. Having the Rocky/Clubber Lang-type gym is fine, but I think it would be irresponsible if karateka in this age didn’t make sure the hygiene was to acceptable standards. Part of being in karate is longevity, walking the path for as long as possible. So whatever type of dojo we have, we should make sure it’s at least a healthy environment.

  5. peza

    April 3, 2011 at 2:16 am

    I can vouch for this having spent a few years training and sparring in some real spit and sawdust boxing gyms, there’s nothing like it. Old Boxing gyms have that special smell of ingrained sweat on leather as you enter. The sound of skipping and heavy bagwork coming from the main gym as you enter the foyer, the bags held together with duck tape. You don’t get this Spartan feeling at the franchise gym with it’s Patrons spending more time drinking the latest fruit juice, having a sauna and eying up the talent. There’s training and there’s REAL training! I know which one gives me a buzz.

  6. Viking

    April 3, 2011 at 7:28 am

    If you read the broken window by Jesse he wouldn’t agree with you. He says that the facilities will bring the students down.

    Life is full of circular arguments as bi polar Jesse has shown.

    • Jesse

      April 3, 2011 at 11:23 am

      Impressive memory, Viking! But the articles don’t contradict each other when you understand them. :/

      • Jesse

        April 3, 2011 at 11:23 am

        Oh, and I’m not bi ;)

        • Viking

          April 3, 2011 at 1:53 pm

          I have read the broken window again, it says to me the human spirit is weak and cannot overcome it surroundings, this post says it can.

          You may be right I do not understand, as you have said once it is posted it stands it is a journey I am glad you share even if I fail to understand you.

  7. Julia

    April 4, 2011 at 4:26 am

    I grew up in a class were it often little six/seven year old me ( with a yellow or blue belt) with a bunch of adult black or brown belts. I can tell you that it was a amazing experience, giving me tons of motivation and inspiration.

  8. Igor

    April 4, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I think that the crummy place makes all the half hearted practicioners leave in the begining, and make them appreciate it more. It’s like my sensei, he busted his chops to get the knowledge he did, gave lots of money, and dont get me started on the hardcore trainings they had in the former Yugoslavia time under Kaze and brothers Jorga. And now all of this kids (even me sometimes) take it for granted and don’t try hard enough. During the winter and late autumn we train in a highschool gym, with bad wooden flooring (they change it but not as often as they should) and the rest is outside, on a football pitch. I’m loving it :).
    But on mixing the ages, it can be bad if you don’t have enough sensei’s. If you don’t, it’s really hard to adopt the class…

    • Dojorat

      April 5, 2011 at 5:47 pm

      There is a big difference, I think, between a sober and austere training place and a run-down, neglected place that is a hazard to the health of those who would enter it. This is why I think this article does not contradict the one about the broken window theory, which is about neglect. Even the most spartan of dojos in Okinawa or anywhere else gets some kind of maintenance. Usually by the karateka training there.

  9. Dan

    April 7, 2011 at 11:40 am

    How can you “not believe in the word talent”? You can’t claim that Mike Tyson could ever have been as great a physicist as Albert Einstein, or vice-versa as a boxer. Clearly people are different, they are each better at different things, and there’s nothing wrong with diversity. It logically follows that some should be naturally better at things such as martial arts.

    • Randy

      April 8, 2011 at 10:16 pm

      Motor learning and control research identifies a few areas that bear on our performance:

      Attributes- relatively enduring traits such as strength, agility, attentive capacity or coordination.

      Ability- potential for an individual to perform specific motor actions skillfully, based on their attributes

      In that light, talent does exist. It should be kept in mind though that ability/talent depends on training towards that specific skill in order for it to be realized. Just having the potential for skillful specific movements is not enough. A better trained but less-talented individual might perform better than a talented but less-trained individual- but if the talented person has the benefit of quality training, their attributes give them a combined advantage that another person may not have, despite training.

      Magill, R. A. (2011). Motor learning and control. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    • Mike

      September 25, 2011 at 2:23 am

      Paraphrasing a running coach I know:

      Yes, there is such a thing as talent. But most people have never pushed themselves hard enough to find out if they have any or not.

      • Jesse

        September 27, 2011 at 8:27 pm

        Great quote! There’s talent and “talent”.

  10. Neil

    July 4, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Ive heard it said a few times over the years that there is more “atmosphere” in a small dojo.
    Maybe it because you might “feel” closer to your fellow karateka and feed off each others energy ?

    Also i think that you may feel more closley watched by your sensei(s).
    Overall there is a bigger sense of “nowhere to hide”.

  11. Caitlin

    July 6, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    I replied to you on Twitter about this, but I thought I’d leave an extended comment too. :) Our “dojo” is a rented multipurpose room, clean and simple. Hard floors, no mats (I always tell the kids “Life doesn’t have mats”), no mirrors, and our equipment is mostly focus pads, padded sticks for Filipino martial arts sparring, and some cones for plyo drills. We also run classes that are mixed age, as well as mixed style (Shito-ryu and Chang Moo Kwan TKD, everyone does FMA).

    Our students are awesome--not just their martial arts, but also their character. Our head instructor was a world cup champion who came out of this environment. So, yes, something about it works. For one, I think the lack of mirrors really keeps us focused, and forces us to go inwards and think about the feeling of the move. Plus you have to rely on the sempai/sensei to see & correct the little things.

    Ultimately, a “spartan” dojo tends to keep everyone humble and focused on martial arts, instead of on appearances, money, and status. Thanks for this post, Jesse-san!!

  12. Ian

    July 16, 2013 at 11:46 pm

    Hey, I thought “Rocky IV” settled this once and for all!

    ^__^

    I think it boils down to a mathematical formula of some sort, with the sensei’s skill and knowledge, and the student’s commitment, on the one side, and on the other side of the “equals” sign … results. The facilities and training equipment are tools to be used in that equation … but if the tools are too good, too advanced, there is a risk that the student will not *use* the tools but *rely* on them.

  13. Monica Bremo

    April 24, 2014 at 12:14 am

    Wow! I can’t believe there are actually fancy dojo’s out there! The Dojo in which I train is a school’s rundown P.E facility!
    Although now that I think about it,it’s definitely easier to concentrate in a place that lacks luxury.

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