Now and then I receive e-mail from readers who have questions on various Karate related topics, and one topic that keeps popping up is styles.
More precisely, changing styles.
As people advance in their “chosen” (most often it just happened to be the nearest dojo, and not a choice at all!) style of Karate, they gradually learn that there’s other styles, schools, organizations and sensei out there – making them doubt their own stuff. Everything seems so exotic compared to the same ol’ Karate they’re used to!
Sometimes they’re wrong. Changing isn’t the solution, they are just bored with their lack of overnight progress and want more visible results, ending up changing styles more for the sake of changing environment rather than changing styles for the sake of preventing stagnation. That’s just unnecessary.
But sometimes they’re right. They are realizing that their current situation is not working anymore, and just like in any random James Bond movie they have to get the hell out of there before the metaphorical radioactive nuclear bomb blows up.
Like this e-mail I got last week.
It went (emphasis added by me):
Thank you for reading these words, because I don’t want to waste to much time/words on this. By “this” I mean a problem of changing.
Bluntly put, I’m leaving my club and I’m considered one of the “oldest young students of the club” with this brown belt around my buttocks. I don’t care about color really, but here is the difficult part for me, where some of your advice could be useful and much appreciated:
I’m moving away from a Shotokan-club where I’ve been training for 5 years now, a club that’s slowly turning into a “McDojo” like you would say (no more discipline, no more spirit, more and more students who don’t give a damn and who aren’t put back in line, more “mass training”…) And it’s killing me that no one sees what I see. I’m trying to talk about it but the subject is like taboo, and still I feel… guilt, shame by leaving.
Like all the others students are almost begging me to stay “by being an example ” and all that kind of stuff…..What can I do without feeling to betray these people ? Can I change my karate-style without losing the small experience i have built up? I’m looking for the “pure” karate (bad choice of words I know), not the watered down stuff they teach everywhere, where is the spirit gone ? Where are the roots of karate? [...]
Sorry for the sea of questions above, but I realise I’ve lost my way, lost my way in what karate is, lost my way in the search of the spirit of karate.
I’m lost. There, it’s so simple.
I’m reading ALL of your articles, but can’t find a simple clue that could help me move on.
The big question is, where am I now ?
I hate asking like a little child for directions, but well, here you have it all. PS. Love carrot-cakes with some hot peppers in it by the way!
Cedric from Brussels
See what I mean?
This is a problem indeed, and my friend Cedric is not alone. People ask me similar stuff every week (except they usually don’t bribe me with new carrot cake recipes!), so for everyone’s benefit I thought I would today publish an expanded version of my answer to Cedrics e-mail.
Hopefully more people will learn something.
This is a problem of global proportions – you are definitely not alone.
Changing style is never easy.
If you’ve been climbing a mountain (style) for several years you don’t want to one day hear that you’re on the wrong effin’ mountain, right? You don’t want to be told that you need to slide all the way down from your current mountain and start all over again, on the mountain next door. Especially not after almost getting to the “top” (black belt seems like the top for most Karate-ka), right?
But also wrong.
Why? I’m so glad you asked. Because, progress in a certain Karate style should not always be likened to climbing a mountain. Sure, mountains are great, but we need to look at trees. Advancement in Karate should be likened to climbing the branch of a tree.
The tree of Karate.
If you do Shotokan, and decide to change to Shito-ryu or whatever, you don’t have to fall all the way down from Mt. Shotokan and run over to Mt. Shito-ryu to start climbing again.
All you have to do is retrace the Shotokan branch of the Karate tree back to where you can easily jump over to the Shito-ryu branch without falling down from the tree altogether. Obviously, this will be the easiest if you are either a complete beginner or a very advanced student (Shu-Ha-Ri), while intermediate students will have a bit tougher.
But still, anybody can change their style.
You see no matter how many different branches a tree has, and no matter how big the tree is, it always has roots and a trunk.
The roots are shared by every branch.
So is the trunk of the tree.
The roots are hidden below surface though.
The trunk is visible to all…
Think about what the above metaphor really tells you, and you should come to realize that changing styles is not so much about forgetting everything you know and starting all over, but more about viewing stuff from a new perspective. You’re just shifting branch of the same tree. Like a Karate monkey, jumping to a new spot.
The trunk and the roots never change.
Your position relative to these only change.
And knowing that; styles suddenly seem less interesting. Yet people generally advice against changing styles of Karate, even though it might sometimes be legitimately needed. They come up with all kinds of excuses, saying you will have been “training in vain for all these years”, and you “need to be loyal to the dojo”, you “don’t show respect”, and you “dishonor the gods” yadda yadda.
Let’s compare a dojo to the public school system: When you were a kid, and you were done with elementary school, you changed school, right? We all did (unless you were a bit slow). When you were done with high school you graduated to a new level of education, right? That’s right – university. Where one school stops another one begins.
Because that’s how education works.
And to me, Karate is all about educating – yourself and others.
A dojo can only contain a certain amount of information (unless the sensei/sempai continually develop their own skills, which is rare these days) and when that is not sufficient… you upgrade. To a higher level of learning. To search for more higher, advanced knowledge. Not to change because you’re simply bored with your current situation, oh no, but because you’re done with your current situation. Finito.
Simple, but most of all logical.
Unless you’re completely sure, for a fact, that you’re continually expanding in width of knowledge (quantity) and/or depth of knowledge (qulity) in your current Karate, you should change style, dojo or sensei immediately.
People graduate from regular school all the time
What makes Karate so special we can’t do the same?
Oh, that’s right...
“Obligation” (1) and “Respect” (2), I’m told.
So let’s look at those:
1. If you ask me, your only obligation is to a) Karate in general and b) yourself in particular.
Look, if you don’t improve anymore, Karate as a whole won’t improve. Therefore, by not changing from an ineffective style or dojo, you’re effectively hindering the evolution and development of Karate as a whole. And I don’t like that idea. So…
But beware: if you make your plans public, the group will always want you to stay – by brainwashing you with words like “betrayal” and “loyalty”. But groupthink is like war: It starts out with everybody going “yeah man, do it for the team!”, and ends up with you all alone in a bloody mess on the floor.
Our time on this earth is too short to not do what you want to do, and my guess is that after you leave others will definitely follow. They just don’t want to be first.
You need to take one for the team, compadre.
2. And respect? Give me a brizzake.
The one who is disrespectful is not you, and it never was.
It’s your sensei.
You respected the dojo, style, sensei/sempai and everyone else including their pets for years, paying your fees, getting your belts, going to seminars, being polite to higher ranked jerks and so on, but they’ve clearly not kept their part of the “respect-equilibrium” lately.
Your dojo is turning to a McDojo… but you did not sign up for that, did you?
I’m getting to the end of this reply, so here’s the deal, Cedric-san:
Your dojo is a sinking ship.
And last time I checked, the captain was supposed to leave last.
You’re not the captain, are you?
So, take one for the team.
A man gotta do what a man gotta do.
In any case, I guess that’s enough wisdom for one e-mail reply. Whatever you choose to do in the end, good luck and always believe in yourself. I’m no guru of Karate, I’m just a guy with a blog. It’s your choice. Your Karate. Your style.
Addendum: If anybody has any experience with the above stuff, feel free to share in the comments. There is no correct way to handle these things, since situations and reality differs, but we can always learn something from each other.
PS. Carrot cake recipes also welcome.