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  • Writer's pictureMatt Powell

Flick the Switch!

Dodge the Ego Trap and seek only trust!

Probably sometime around 2002 I was sat in the stands at the SEKU nationals watching the finals of the Junior events. Thankfully, I was competing myself so I would not have to subject my tender bottom to those rock-hard plastic benches for too long.

I was sat with a family from our dojo where the Mum and all three kids trained. This family were a fantastic asset to the club. All four went on to be black belts and I took a lot of pride in helping and supporting them along the way. The eldest child had passed black belt before me and we took second dan on the same day, he was an excellent technician and a kind soul. The Daughter was again an excellent technician with outstanding kata. The younger son was always cheeky but extremely capable at karate and whatever he set his mind to. He is now a world class hairstylist in London.

These guys were exactly the type of people an instructor wants in their dojo. Dutiful, attentive, focused, consistent, and kind! Wonderful people!

The Dad did not train. He was/is an absolute machine and would constantly work seven days a week. He has that quiet solemn way that encourages instant respect. I think before that day I had never really spoken with him, but on this day, he was there supporting his kids, so for a moment we were all sat together.

As the finals started, I was aware that the Dad was looking around the hall and seemed agitated. He leant over to me and simply said:

‘there is a lot of Ego in karate isn’t there!’

Wow! I did not really know what to say. For a start I think it was the first time we had spoken properly, and secondly, he had just planted a thought in my mind that I had never considered before. I just smiled and nodded. What could I say?

Suddenly I looked around the hall with my eyes open to a different view. Why did he think this? What had he seen that I had not seen or was not wanting to see?

To answer this, I have needed to really define Ego and it's affects in my own mind.

One definition of Ego is as follows:

a person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance.

Another is:

the “I” or self of any person; a person as thinking, feeling, and willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought.

In this context however I believe the Dad was observing the following:

egotism; conceit; self-importance.

I have been conscious of the risk of Self-importance and inflated sense of self ever since that competition.

When I started teaching my own club in 2009 it was a baptism of fire. Suddenly I was solely responsible for everything. The aspect I have realised I enjoyed most was ‘Creative Control’. Now I could teach and say whatever I wanted!

How wonderful, and at the same time, dangerous is that?

One of the viewpoints I have developed while teaching my own clubs is that karate performance is akin to a light switch.

It is a skill and mindset that you develop an ability to ‘switch on’ when necessary.

Some may relate an element of this to the Japanese term of Zanshin.

Zanshin (Japanese: 残心) is a state of awareness, of relaxed alertness, in Japanese martial arts. A literal translation of zanshin is "remaining mind".

However, I consider the ‘Light switch effect’ to also utilise a coordination of Kamae.

Kamae (構え) is a Japanese term used in martial arts and traditional theater. It translates approximately to "posture"

In essence I believe ‘switching it on’ is akin to increasing your awareness in body and mind, simultaneously adapting one’s posture, and preparing for explosive performance if necessary. All of this while remaining free from self-doubt, outwardly exhibiting extreme confidence.

To perform karate at the highest level you need to draw on confidence and put yourself on the line. It becomes a mind-set.

I fear some people struggle to switch this off once they have learnt to ‘turn it on’.

I once worked with someone who was really guarded about his work. No one ever really knew what he was doing. I just could not work him out. Then I became aware of the term known as Imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. 'Imposters' suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.

Suddenly, once I had absorbed this definition, I appreciated why there is an apparent high degree of Ego amongst some karate people.

Some must wonder if they can really do ‘IT’?

These people are just not as confident as they perhaps should be and so adopt a different persona to try and be who they think they should be, or worse still copy the behaviours of someone they admire and lose their authentic sense of self.

To avoid the demonstration of an inflated ego or to compensate for one’s own insecurities I believe the answer is simple. Train!

Balance is found in humility, honesty, and vulnerability. We can find that in our training. If you cease risking failure you then begin to fear it. Get your gi on, work on your short comings, have a go and do not pretend to be perfect.

Back in 2018 I was extremely run-down. I was trying to do too much. My immune system was compromised, and Bells-Palsy forced me to stop, slow down and re-appraise my priorities. I also had to admit to myself that despite my Dojo mantra, I was NOT a machine!

After two weeks my face had lost most signs of the droop, but my energy levels were painfully low. We had a weekend course of Kyu gradings and Black and Brown belt courses and gradings planned and my colleagues had kindly absorbed my responsibilities into their own to take pressure from me.

I decided I still wanted to be there. I had students to support and most importantly I wanted to sit on the grading panel and therefore participate in the Black Belt gradings.

Although I was not teaching I ‘assisted’ by walking around offering feedback and advice. I clearly remember wanting to show a talented Black Belt who was grading that day how to effectively deliver a head roundhouse and then land outside of range. I showed him how to adjust his footwork, appropriately demonstrated it once, and was completely out of breath! I was really surprised but realised that I had not really been listening to my body.

I laughed with the students about my current ‘state’ and sat down on a bench to watch the remainder of the class.

I later discovered that my teaching colleagues were worried about me. They were upset that the students had not seen me at my best and were concerned for me. I quite simply had not thought of any of that. I just wanted to be there on the day. Somehow, I knew that being in a dojo was my route back to the best version of myself.

(I am proud of that anecdote as I have realised that on a sub-conscious level, I was not too proud to demonstrate that I too am vulnerable. However, I recently realised that too some degree over lockdown I had failed to ‘turn off’ the Sensei switch and my Ego had been growing.)

Over the last month I have been working constantly on strategies for returning to training in physical venues. I have been designing layout plans, infographics and splitting my members into bubbles to train in smaller groups to prioritise safety. This is surprisingly a lot of work!

I was driven by my love of our clubs and fondness for the students. I simply could not wait to get back out front.

Then something strange happened. I spoke with one of my senior students and she said she may not return yet. She had been doing some online training with someone else and she was enjoying it. It was likely that she would stick to her current routine! I was weirdly uncomfortable and surprised by this and I really wondered why?

I had previously endorsed my students extra training and had felt no issue with it. But even though I knew the current COVID risk was a significant factor in her decision I was rocked. But still, I did not know why I felt like this?

The answer came (of course) from my wife. I was talking to her about the call and how I felt and she simply said. ‘I don’t get it Matt, she is a grown adult. She can do whatever she wants. 'Are you being controlling, or did it just hurt your Ego?’

Boom! Straight in the feels!

Wifey does it again with direct and extreme truth to wake me up.

I had fallen into the ego trap!

In reflection I was so absorbed in my plans for everyone to return to training that I had romanticised what it would be like when we returned. I had day-dreamed on how good I would feel and how much value I could offer my students. I had not thought about some of their preferences or fears. I had inflated my sense of self. Ooops!

Time for a reboot. Time to flick the switch!

Ego in karate and life is a dangerous thing. I believe getting a gi on and training, being honest with yourself and staying ‘on-it’ (whatever it is) will keep us at ease with ourselves and the humility will negate imposter syndrome.

I have found admitting my mistakes and not pretending to be perfect has really enhanced my relationship with my students.

Why?........ It builds trust!

Trust is the firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.

"relations have to be built on trust"

Fundamentally Students and teachers alike face the same challenges. Some are just a little further down the road than others. We were all beginners once, we all learn at different paces. We all have our strengths, weaknesses, and insecurities. We just have-to admit it and make the best of it.

So, for now I am going to crack on and plan my next revision of my COVID plan to accommodate the latest guidelines. I am going to keep myself in check.

I choose to trust my abilities as a Martial Artist and Teacher.

I choose to prioritise friendships and relationships.

I choose to trust my students to do what is right for them and hope I am involved.

I choose to trust the Way!

…….. and I trust my Wife to tell me when I lose MY way.

Stay Awesome, dodge the ego trap and seek only trust.

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