• Matt Powell

A Mountain View …. Are you a sponge or a rock?

Perhaps it is my love of Strictly Come Dancing, or maybe it is my work that encourages me to ponder the ‘journey’ rather than the destination. Either way there is a Japanese proverb that I particularly enjoy, and it goes something like this:


‘The view from the top of the mountain is the same, regardless of the route you took to get there’.


Last weekend we had our most recent Kyu grading for coloured belts. This is a big step up for some, especially those new to our clubs and the formality of grading. In the build up to the exam I have an important role to play. Firstly, I must encourage and offer everyone the same opportunity to prepare. Then, along with my colleagues at the clubs we will make considered decisions on who will be ready to progress by the date of the examination and of course those who will not!

Over the years I have seen some students struggle when encouraged to miss an exam and focus on the next test in a few months’ time. Inevitably some people battle with the perceived halt to their progress.


Some falter, loose motivation and stop training. Others just get on with it!


I try my best to communicate well, but sometimes my encouragement falls on death ears.


When I grew up in karate, we had kyu gradings every three months. For those studying and training a minimum of two times a week this made for rapid progression through the coloured belts. As a youngster I was possessed with changing colour every time. I was very driven and focused, but on reflection I wasn’t really learning and absorbing knowledge.


I was however very well drilled!


Back in the late 1980’s when I started training after school options were limited. I swam and did karate. When I progressed to county level swimming the schedule clashed with karate, and I had to make a choice. I chose my white pyjamas!


Nowadays it is normal for children to play a multitude of sports, be learning at least one instrument and have other activities which they regularly pursue. Generation Z are busier than ever!


I have a lot of students who can only commit to once weekly training and that is fine. It is just as tough for the adults as the children.


Consequently, my teaching is not based on regular belt progression. We focus and study the next steps in a grade appropriate way, but my teaching is always theme based and designed to provide value and enjoyment in the moment.


I want our classes to provide an escape from routine and pressure and a means for the students (regardless of age or ability) to be present and find flow.

I have found that by not insisting on twice weekly training and offering flexibility instead. Our students request extra training and reorganise schedules if (and when) they desire the increased study.

They find their own way!


I have been leading Petersfield for approaching thirteen years and I have often been impressed when the youngest of students have proactively told me that they plan to miss the next grading as they want to either ‘enjoy’ or ‘learn more’ about their current grade.

People develop differently, at different speeds and in different ways. But for some it is still hard to stomach when it appears that other have ‘overtaken’ them!


A few years back I was fortunate to work for a large company that hosted large corporate ‘kick-off’ events. It was common for the managing director to book inspirational speakers to present to the crowd. One year I was particularly fortunate to be present at a talk with Sir Clive Woodward the former World Cup winning Coach of the English Rugby team.

Sir Clive gave a fascinating talk on how he built the infrastructure and tactics necessary to win the world cup. Many of his strategies resonated with me, but I particularly enjoyed his deliberations on player mentality when he categorised those he was coaching.


Sir Clive explained that he felt people were either Sponges or Rocks.


Sponges had the ability to soak up and absorb knowledge and would consequently grow.

Rocks did not absorb. New information sat on the surface like rainwater which could be wiped away or would simply evaporate. The rock therefore would remain unchanged!


Sir Clive classified the players he inherited to qualify them in or out of his team based on their capacity to improve.


For a few years I pondered Sir Clive’s classification regarding my students and wondered if I could simply determine one from the other in our classes.


I quickly decided that ALL children (those under 18) were sponges until they lost inspiration, therefore it was and is my responsibility to keep them engaged. The adults were however a little harder to classify.


I once had an adult coloured-belt who was very successful in business. He had a high-powered job and managed a large team. He was well respected professionally and lived in a large and beautiful house. He trained extremely hard for a long period of time but quite simply didn’t improve significantly in the periods between gradings. He often had to miss the tests.


Academically this student was gifted and was continually progressing with work. But physically he didn’t seem to absorb the new information. I pondered was he a rock? Had I taken him as far as I could?


Then one day I realised something. Every time I tried to help him or teach to him directly, he would become uncomfortable. He would immediately say ‘Osu’ or ‘Yes I have got it’ in a way that encouraged me to move on to someone else.


Did he really think he had understood my point or was he quite simply uncomfortable with learning or being taught?


Inevitably this student stopped training. He lost motivation when his peers graded and held higher ranks. Inevitably he could not see that they were simply more open to my teaching. They were sponges and absorbed the new information. He needed to understand that he learnt slower than them. His path up the mountain was a slower one. But as the proverb eludes, that does not mean he wouldn’t have climbed as high or higher in the end!


When I consider this example, I conclude that the difference between a sponge or a rock must be Ego!


It was Epictetus who said:


“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”


To that end I think it is important for us all (especially senior black belts) to remain open to learning and to keep check of our egos. If we fail to do so, then we will become rocks or at least dried up sponges no longer able to absorb.


Tonight, I will look forward to presenting new coloured belts to many of our members. I hope those who didn’t grade this time are happy for their colleagues. After all we are all climbing the mountain together.


At the dojo I am the guide, but we are following the same goal, never standing still but enjoying the journey.


Our routes up are different, and some may be slower.

But the view remains the same!


See you in the dojo. Osu!



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