I have seen a fair number of demonstrations over the years, and afterwards there is the inevitable de-brief. Most of the time this consists of a minute examination of exactly what the group in question has done wrong. Poor mechanics, sloppy organization, no contact, unrealistic application, poor conditioning, lousy tactics, bad posture, improper grammar, the list seems endless. Often these criticisms are valid. I have seen people teaching exercises that were so bio-mechanically incorrect I wanted to run into their class and cry out for everyone to stop before they damaged themselves. I have seen kata done so poorly I wanted to cry, and I have been told to do things visiting a class that were so absurd I have simply refused. So after seeing or experiencing these things it seems the conversation is inevitable: “how can they do that?!?”, “why do the students stay?”, “doesn’t the teacher know any better?”. All accompanied by a gratifying sense that while we may be making some mistakes at least we are doing better than….
But while this is pretty common it is also something I try to limit in myself. A number of years ago I went to a demo with two friends. The groups were all pretty bad- bad mechanics, a hilarious lecture on how to stay out of the center of mass attacks followed by the lecturer demonstrating by jumping right between two attackers, and a number of groups who got stage fright and lost track of their presentations. Most of the participants were pretty young, but one group had an older (probably early 40s) member who gamely followed along with the rest of his dojo. During the after-demo conversations, while we took the various demos apart one of my training partners said something along the lines of: well, that older fellow was doing well. He remained un-flustered when his group got lost, worked hard, and showed that someone in their 40s can train with college kids.
Out of what was admittedly a sea of pretty bad practices he had found something good to say and in the years since I have tried to take that lesson to heart. It is sometimes hard, but most of the time you can find something good in just about anyone’s practice. They get a good workout, the dojo has a safe and welcoming atmosphere, specific elements of their movement or application are unusual and interesting, there is almost always something.
Finding those good things and noticing them is important. On a practical level you are far better off training yourself to see what a potential opponent does well than what they do poorly; it’s what they do well you need to worry about. But more importantly, what you pay attention to is an indication of who you are. Are your arts teaching you respect for other human beings or are they teaching you to be critical and dismissive? Do you spend your time figuring out ways you are better than everyone around you, or are you comfortable with yourself and more interested in what others are doing well, what you can learn from them? Can you simply be happy for someone else doing something they enjoy, or do you have to degrade any part of it that you do not think is the “right” way to practice?
I’m not suggesting that all practice methods are equal, they are not. I’m not suggesting anything everyone does is just wonderful; sometimes it sucks. But I am suggesting that constant denigration of other peoples’ practice Is both unnecessary and often subtly self-destructive. So next time you see a demo try to see the good side of what people are doing before criticizing them. It feels different, gives you a different perspective on what you are seeing. It opens up alternative areas of examination and can limit the self-importance that often comes with criticism. It can make watching or trying out someone else’s practice a much more enriching experience. And since karate begins and ends with politeness, shouldn’t we pay attention to what our mothers told us and if we can’t say something nice….