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What Martial Arts Taught Me

When I was a kid, my parents signed me up for martial arts classes. This was only a few years after immigrating to Canada. Though I spoke English by that time, my vocabulary was minimal and so was my confidence. I was painfully shy, barely spoke in public and as it turned out, had absolutely NO skill for martial arts. I did however, possess a deep interest that allowed me to connect with the philosophy, training and discipline. And just as importantly, I had a truly outstanding martial arts instructor, who happened to be British and from whom I learned not only about martial philosophy, weapons training, self-defence, and sparring, but many life lessons as well. Besides my parents, it was he who helped lay a solid foundation in my life. From this foundation, I was able to further develop, empower and open to a degree I don’t think would have been possible until much later in lfe. Thank you to my parents first of all for this, and thank you to Sensei Mick Walsh of Northern Karate School, in Toronto, Canada.

First of all, every student at the karate school received goal sheets. By everyone I mean adults as well as children. We all had to think over and write down our current, mid and long range goals. We then had to break these down to smaller stepping stone that we could do each day. Every now and then, each student would be called into Sensei Walsh’s office to review their progress. He would ask we were doing, how things were at home, how things were going in school, he would ask if there was any bullying of any sort at school (or work if you were an adult) and if there was anything that hindered us in any way he would help us find solutions AND later on follow up. He remembered everyone’s name and made everyone feel like the dojo was their home.  I remember even as an eight year old feeling surprised to hear him tell us that only two percent of North Americans had written goals. Although you hear a lot about goals and visualising your dreams nowadays with speakers such as Dr. Wayne Dyer, and Oprah Winfrey, you have to remember that in the 1980’s, this was practically unheard of.

To demonstrate HOW we were to visualize, think about and thus, manifest our dreams more quickly, he told us about one of his personal goals. He wanted to own his own home. That’s nice. That’s what a lot of people say. Sensei Walsh, however, did not stop there. Next, he DEFINED his goal and told us HOW it made him FEEL to think about it. He described the exact layout, the colour scheme, the backyard, the front yard, the number of rooms it had AND their location. He even told us what kind of furniture and art we would find in those rooms. Years later he purchased a home. That year he invited the instructors to a holiday party at his place. At one point I needed to find the bathroom and rather than ask him where it was, I decided to see if the home matched his earlier vision. Guess what? The bathroom was exactly where he said it would be some 10ish years earlier! Not only that, the entire house was laid out and decorated pretty much as he had described.

 During practice sessions if there was a new student, one of the more experienced students was sent to help explain and practice with the newbie. This was tough for me at first due to not only my lack of confidence, but also my lack of experience. What Sensei Walsh told us was that even if you have only been here a little while, you have something you can now give back and share. When you receive something, it is important to share it and help others as you too have been helped. Also, you learn just as much if not more, by teaching what you have learned. It allows you to practice from a different angle so your mind has a chance to absorb the information even further. Of course he was watching all the time and came over to make corrections when needed so you never felt like this poor newbies’ entire first impression depended solely on you!

Over time, every student was asked to lead a warmup or demonstrate a technique. These were little steps that helped all the shy kids slowly get over their self-consciousness. It also reigned in the exhibitionists because they were not allowed to take over and be the centre of attention. They learned the benefits of patience and humility. The entire underlying premise was the subjugation of the ego. This was ingrained in us in many ways, through stories of warriors from the past who had acted in humble and humane ways, doing good as they went through life, and also by personal examples when someone acted unselfishly and helped another, they were recognized for this, but not showcased in a flashy manner. Sensei Walsh was smart in that he married philosophy with the practical nitty-gritty of every day life.

During tournaments, specialty training camps and demonstrations, everyone had a job they were responsible for. It was always ok to make mistakes or be honest about not feeling comfortable with a particular task (I.e. going up on stage in front of a group of thousands of viewers to announce and talk about the upcoming demonstration). You were encouraged to overcome your fears and discomforts with positive self talk, deep breathing, visualization techniques and an ”I can DO THIS!” attitude. Sensei was always there with us for support and afterwards for a congratulatory high five and pat on the back that said ”See…. I KNEW you could do it!” If someone made a mistake, it was never a big deal. You were quietly corrected and told to try again. Constant, vigilant correcting of each student according to their level kept us constantly improving – IF we put in the time and effort.

As I got older and gained more experience, I started taking on more of the teaching. Not just in the dojo, but outside in the neighbourhood school and summer camps as well. We ran specialty courses for women, for elderly, and did many free community events. Whoah! Public speaking just got a whole lot bigger! My self-consiousness began to subside as I felt safe to learn and make mistakes in a supportive, positive, and inspirational environment. I loved training… even though I was afraid of sparring because I was afraid of getting hurt. However, one day when I was thrown over another student’s shoulder quite suddenly and unexpectedly, I came to a realization while lying on the floor that I was actually OK. Not only was I ok, but without thinking I instinctually broke my fall and reacted exactly as I had trained. A lightbulb went up -wow… this „muscle memory stuff” actually works! Instantly, my fear of sparring disappeared and I started showing up for the sparring classes more often. We were constantly told to train as if it was real life. If you only put in 50%, that is what you will get back. I have found this to be true of most things in life.  You get what you give.

Allow me to share a little tip with all the parents out there: If your teenager has a place or activity where they are able to destress in a safe manner via a sport or serious hobby, you will both be MUCH happier. I was a perfectionist and also had a lot of pent up energy as a kid and teen. Having a place where I could kick and punch and scream, do intense workouts and fun physical challenges with my fellow students helped me reduce a LOT of that inner tension and spastic energy. It also greatly calmed me and focused my mind, which made studying easier. By the time class finished, I had not only physically tired myself out, but mentally relaxed as well. Everyone in my family was happier with me training daily. Lol.

Part of our training included specialtly psychology lessons on human behaviour, how to teach different types of learners, what types of words are motivational and uplifting vs. which ones to avoid. We also read many books and learned about proper and safe warmup techniques, first aid, CPR, how to take control in an emergency, how to handle upset parents or students (in case you end up failing them in a grading or test), how to properly and clearly explain the contract, how to take payments, how to write receipts, how to file all incoming information from every person that walks through your door, how to professionally and clearly answer the phone and take down information, and how to handle bounced cheques. We also studied marketing techniques including what colours cause the human brain to retain information.

Besides martial arts, the students got all of this ”extra” training as well. In my case, I started learning these valuable insights at the age of eight. By the time I was 12 I was running little side businesses in school and privately, as well as actively studying psychology and marketing on my own by reading everything I could at the local library in Flemingdon Park. We were constantly tested and encouraged to do personal development on ourselves, as well as regularly volunteer in different ways throughout the neighbourhood to help us maintain a down to earth and honest perspective. The thing is, most of us at the dojo did not have an overinflated head since pretty much nobody had much money.

 I grew up in a place where poor immigrants move to when they first arrive in Toronto. There was government housing, less expensive building and townhouse or rowhouse options. There were Jamaicans, Koreans, Philipinos, Indians, and a few Eastern Europeans like us. The thing is, when you are a kid, you don’t know that you are considered ”below the median standard.”  I have to say though, that I had many happy times in Flemingdon Park and I am grateful I grew up there during that time because it was wonderful learning experience. To this day some of my dearest friends came from that time and are from a wide variety of backgrounds. To me, this rich and diverse cultural education was a gift that gave me yet another perspective on life.

For a young teenager to have an opportunity to learn how to handle stressful situations, prepare and become better public speakers, how to handle simple business transactions and money, be responsible for opening and closing and setting up the alarm system, preparing and leading classes, giving inspiring talks after classes, putting together demonstrations, addressing crowds, ordering merchandise, deal with disappointment GRACEFULLY, learn the benefits of DELAYED GRATIFICATION, experience personal successes through diligent hard work, focus attention on goals AND see them through, overcome fears and understand that to grow you must challenge yourself and not give up even when things don’t go according to plan….are INVALUABLE learning lessons. In fact, they are invaluable for anyone, child or adult.

No one was given a free pass. We all had to work hard towards our goals. Fears were actively faced. Disappointment was dealt with and not something that would cause someone to go off the deep end. Anger was also dealt with accordingly. Conscientious behaviour, accountability and personal responsibility was extremely important and deeply ingrained in us. No one got away with anything. You were expected to conduct yourself with grace, compassion and even tough love when necessary. Not just in the dojo but outside as well. If it was known that someone had acted poorly or was fighting outside the dojo they were disciplined and if things didn’t change, dismissed from the school. Bad attitudes had to be changed. Even with adults. There were no exceptions. When you entered the dojo, you left behind the screaming boss, the sick kids, the bullies, the job loss, the headache, the backache, the hunger, the fatigue, your negative self talk and with utter humility, you bowed in and did your best to empty your mind of everything in your outside world.

Right now, right here, you are here for YOU and no one else. You were expected to BE HERE in both mind and body.

I find that nowadays, many people expect to be given things for free, they don’t have the discipline and tenacity to work through problems until they find a solution, they get discouraged too easily and then have the audacity to complain that things always seem to go wrong for them, that it is never their fault but someone or something elses. This worldview belongs to someone who does not take responsibility for their own lives or their actions. Sadly, many who think like this grew up not having the opportunity to get to know how good it feels to EARN something YOURSELF. That’s right folks, I said EARN, not breeze through and expect others to make accommodations or excuses on your behalf.

I am very grateful to have had this experience growing up. It shaped me in many ways which later lead to opportunities I would never have had the confidence or self-belief to go for. I learned many of these powerful lessons through my martial arts training and instructor. However, there are many inspirational instructors in all kinds of fields: from music, to art to sports and more. It is never too early to start teaching a child concepts such as responsibility, accountability, earning success and feeling successful through their own actions and decisions.  By the same token, I say this to our adult friends as well. It is never too late to learn these positive and powerful concepts. If you aren’t satisfied with your life and you continue to do things as you have been doing them, and continue to think the way you have been, the it is ludicrous to expect or even hope that your life will change for the better. If you want things in your life to change, you are going to have to change things in your life.

So how do you know if your martial arts school (or art/music/sport) is truly a gem? First of all, you need to know what you want out of it. Do you want to learn how to defend yourself, to win trophies, to get in shape, to overcome personal fears, or learn about ancient styles or weapons etc.? Basically, you need to know what YOU want, you need to do some soul searching and understand why you want what you want as well. Each school focuses on different things. Some are very traditional in their philosophy and approach such as Shotokan karate or Aikido. Others are more athletics focused and modern in their approach and tend to attract those who enjoy UFC. One is not better than the other (although many would argue this point), however, it is important you ensure that the quality of instruction is excellent, ensure that the facilities are well maintained and CLEAN, get a sense of the general vibe of the environment, are the students friendly and happy or is unhealthy competition and poor sportsmanship allowed to prosper?

Finding a truly outstanding martial arts school can be tough. There are so many and newbies don’t often know what to look for in a good school environment, let alone instructor. A top notch instructor is reflected in his or her students. They CARE about each student, both inside and outside of the dojo. A good instructor teaches by example and inspires his or her students to be the very best they can be, not just as martial artists, as human beings. This is an important distinction, especially as martial arts training is designed for self development, to help us overcome or at least learn to control our egos and emotions, widen our perspective, tolerance and compassion, and increase our problem solving skills, amongst many other things. I have trained for about 30 years and have had the opportunity to see first hand the difference between an inspirational instructor who positively challenges his or her students to actively go after their dreams and succeed in ALL departments of life, vs. those who are only out to make money or do it for the razzle dazzle.

Having an ability or talent for martial arts, (or any sport, art, etc.) doesn’t mean that person is a good teacher who can convey that knowledge, as well as inspire, uplift and MOTIVATE their students. That requires an instructor to be truly honest and human and take a genuine interest in their student’s wellbeing, and not just as a personal ego trip to see how many trophies they bring home. They also need to be able to make mistakes and demonstrate how to gracefully and honestly handle those situations.

Growing up in a positive environment where (gasp!) you are held ACCOUNTABLE for every thing you say, do and even think, regardless of age (even the five year olds) is the type of training and foundation any parent would be happy to be able to offer their kids outside of the home. Needless to say, this should be going on inside the home as well. The two reinforce each other. Giving people, especially children, a sense of responsibility and holding them accountable for their actions will help them become better decision  makers, aid them in developing depth of vision, have greater appreciation for others and the things they have, as well as instil greater confidence in themselves. That is the kind of foundation I want to see in the next generation. In all generations in fact.

This article really isn’t about martial arts. It is about the powerful benefits of having an inspirational mentor, coach, parent or teacher. This could be a music teacher, a business or athletic coach, a boss or even a neighbour or family member. The point is, surround yourself with those you can learn from, and who take a genuine interest in your personal development and happiness. This is now the standard to which I hold myself when teaching. I strive to bring out the best in each person who takes the time to come to my classes, and to whom I speak. I see that people have SO MUCH more ability and potential than even they believe. It is just waiting to be explored and often times the only thing needed for them to believe in themselves is to have someone else believe in them first.

I would love to hear your stories about wonderful, inspirational teachers you have had. Who were they and why were they so inspiring?


  • Wow. This is an amazingly written article. I do karate too and think a dojo like this sounds amazing; my senseis are voluntary and don’t get any income from it but are all inspirational in different ways. My confidence is not great at the moment and I have not been practicing so I can let a fractured foot recover; but I would like to return next month. Thank-you for this article.

  • Hi Bailey, thanks so much for your feedback. And how awesome you train too! It’s good to hear you have also found a school with inspirational instructors. They will find ways of bringing out the very best in students. I wish you a speedy recovery so you can get back into the dojo soon. Keep training, the confidence will come with practice, as will so many other wonderful “by-products” of your hard work. It is SO worth it.

  • Hi Bailey, if you feel it is appropriate, please feel free to share the name and address of your dojo so that others in the area have a chance to check it out too,.

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