When a Roman General was given a Triumph, a great parade through the City to celebrate his important victory, he was sat up high to receive the adulation of the crowd. Next to him sat a slave whose one job was to whisper in his ear on a regular basis:

“Remember you are mortal.”

They wanted to remind the guy that he was just a guy, and shouldn’t get too uppity.

Now some doubt has been cast on the accuracy of this over the years, but the fact that the legend even exists says something. The ego thing is dangerous and people are rightly wary of it, especially sitting Emperors/Consuls when faced by a triumphant general being told how great he is.

I’ve been interested in ego in the martial arts for decades. Like many people I just trained because I wanted to know how to fight and keep in shape, then in my early 30s a sensei visited our dojo who told us that the true enemy in karate was actually not the guy in front of you, it was your own ego; the greatest enemy, the ultimate opponent, was inside your head.
Now this surprised me a little because this sensei was obviously a massively egotistical guy, and I saw a few heads nodding in agreement to his assertion that were on people not short on the conceit thing themselves; and much quicker to talk about the beauty of Zen than put their hand in the pocket when it came to getting the drinks in.

I think in general it’s safe to say that Martial Arts teachers are not the least egotistical group of people on the planet and that most of us, very definitely including me, have a long way to go before they can say they’ve taken out the ultimate enemy as described by the visiting Sensei above, a very long way. And there are some good reason for this: you stand up in front of a group of people, some of them may be very tough guys indeed and you need to be by far the dominant personality in that dojo. If not you’ll be hammered one way or the other. And let’s be honest, most students don’t want to be trained by a shrinking flower who is shy to speak up and can’t assert themselves, everyone likes to tell people “oh my teacher is a real bad ass.”

So what’s the problem with the ego?

Apart from the fact that its gets a bit tiresome listening to someone tell you how great they are – and it’s not always down to some deep-rooted insecurity, some people really reckon themselves- there are various ego related issues that the Martial Arts Instructor needs to be aware of, and can control without becoming Gandhi or a Bodhisattva:
• The class is not about you, it’s about making the students better and giving them the proper environment in which they can learn. We’ve probably all been to classes where the Instructor was more keen on demonstrating his prowess and telling people about his achievements, “how I took this guy out” etc. etc. This sort of guy isn’t interested in helping his people, particularly the less able, get on: it’s a chance to parade.

Not all techniques work for everyone, most students will not have the ability of an instructor, the experience nor the time to practice so much: so if a student can’t make a technique work, the good instructor will tailor and restructure to see if it can work for the person, not lecture on “working harder,” “trying again,” “if it works for me it and we’ve been doing this for years it can work for you.”

Empathy, and the willingness to make a little time to help people out without making them feel small and lucky to have someone like you on their side: not qualities that you associate with the egoist but definitely in the locker of the decent Martial Arts Instructor.
• If you think a lot of yourself and your style, cannot see how it can be made any better and view any questioning of it as a slight upon you and all those who have gone before, then how are you going to get any better?

I don’t teach the same stuff as I did five years ago, I’ll probably be saying the same thing five years from now. As you get older, you still need to train with different people and observe closely how your students handle various situations in pressure tests etc. You can learn a lot from your students, never forget that, and never dismiss their questions as nonsense from the uninitiated.

You owe it to your students to develop your style and open it up to outside influences, that’s how the guys who originated your style worked: the whole of human advancement is based on incremental development of the work done by the men who went before, it’s not a criticism of that which they achieved, it’s a continuation of their legacy. If your ego prevents you from making such improvements then you’re letting your people down.

If the ego of those who run your organizations prevents change, well you have to be true to your beliefs to enjoy a certain level of contentment, so maybe think about whether you want to stay in that organisation.
• The attitudes of an organization and its behaviours, its ethos, comes largely from the top, especially in martial arts. So basically if you act like a dick then so will your students.

Years ago I was in between clubs and went to a Ju Jitsu place quite nearby for a while. It was one of those places where the different belts had to stand in different parts of the dojo when waiting for the arrival of the teacher. The teacher was an arrogant guy, full of his own importance and this transmitted to pretty much all of his students, particularly the brown and black belts: a really pompous bunch, with a few exceptions, who couldn’t tell you the time without condescension and even outside the dojo treated lower belts with entitled disdain. I didn’t stay long.

Apart from anything else, all this creates a poor learning environment. All the research suggests that people learn better in a friendly, cooperative, interactive atmosphere. You don’t need to pretend that you’re in the army and shout and scream at people to get their respect and make them listen to you, that’s a bit more about you playing out your own gig than helping people learn, in my genuinely –mostly – humble opinion.

This is an interesting link for schoolteachers on creating the appropriate classroom environment. Not wholly transferable to martial arts instruction maybe, but enough in there to resonate with those who want to listen.

The Characteristics Of A Highly Effective Learning Environment

And here’s this page’s Top Ten Characteristics of a Highly Effective Learning Environment:
1. The students ask the questions—good questions

2. Questions are valued over answers

3. Ideas come from divergent sources

4. A variety of learning models are used

5. Classroom learning “empties” into a connected community

6. Learning is personalized by a variety of criteria

7. Assessment is persistent, authentic, transparent, and never punitive

8. Criteria for success is balanced and transparent.

9. Learning habits are constantly modeled

10. There are constant opportunities for practice

And to summarise: I’m not religious but I’m happy to acknowledge that whoever wrote the holy books knew a lot more than I ever will:

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”

Matthew 23:12