Do the Right Thing

One of the largest casualties of the Zero Tolerance Bullying and Harassment, Intimidation & Bullying (HIB) policies being enacted over the last 25 years is the average student’s understanding of personal responsibility. These policies provide young, impressionable minds with the maxim that all types of peer pressure are in fact negative. That, in order to live a healthy life in mind and body, one must do so without the negative reinforcement that the reprimands and judgement of others would present. In fact, these policies teach students that there exists only three archetypes – and only three – that any one person could fulfill in reality: “bully”, “victim” or “bystander”. Ask any student which label they would rather wear and they’ll resoundingly claim “bystander” because no one wants to be seen as a bully and no one likes to think they are weak enough to be a victim. Which makes sense when those are the only options offered.

But what if there was a fourth alternative?

The position of the “leader” is a difficult one to fulfill. As far as I can tell, leadership and hierarchy aren’t supposed to exist in the student body today because doing so would legitimize the presence of peer pressure. In this sense, without a designated leader in place and without a hierarchical system to follow, if students do come across a problem of any nature, the first thing they are to do is contact someone who isn’t part of the student body. A faculty member. A teacher. In rare cases, their own parents.

No wonder kids are confused, stressed out, and unsure of how to socialize. Anxiety wreaks havoc on their minds because of the lack of social boundaries that exist in the reality that they are presented with. Interestingly enough, prior to the last 25 years, children used to self-actualize themselves in social groups. They’d gather in the neighborhood, school playground, and just hang out. They would organize themselves. They would solve the social squabbles of adolescence. They would find ways to and from places and still be home in time for dinner. They could think for themselves.

Now, with all the technological leashes we have for each other, we have less, not more autonomy. We have less intense social bonds, not more intense social bonds in our community. Everyone is supposed to get along, yet no one’s supposed to be different. Everyone has to come to the party, without a doubt. And, most of all, nobody can ever fail because everyone must win and receive some sort of trophy just for trying. But if a problem occurs, which it shouldn’t given all the above caveats, how does a child solve the problem that’s not supposed to occur?

When everyone around you thinks the same way and problem-solves the same way, then how are you supposed to solve the “one” problem that you all have? The answer is: get someone who is different than you. Well, then, how does a child learn how to be that person who can think differently than others when the protocol they all abide by is to follow in unison?

When we teach children that they are incapable of solving their own problems, by solving all of our kids’ problems for them, all “children” problems become adult problems. The whole point of being a kid is to experience the slings and arrows of childhood so that they may become strong, competent, and resilient adults.

If children aren’t allowed to experience life without being constantly refereed, then how will they know how and when to do the right thing? If the only time they are doing the right thing is when “someone different” is watching them, then do they really know what the right thing is or are they just afraid of the capricious whims of “someone different”. How do you even become “someone different” in this modern era, since all of the ways that difference is born are deemed as negative forms of peer pressure?

Let kids self-actualize and someone will always end up leading the group. In the end, it won’t always be the same leader, because good leaders know when to follow someone who knows how to do the right thing. And how do you know when someone is a good leader? By first experiencing what it feels like to be lead by a bad one.

Thoughts are People Too

One of the toughest things about growing up is figuring out where you end and the outside world begins and vice versa. Not only is it difficult to manage your ever expanding social landscape, but it is also difficult to manage one’s own internal dialog about who you are and how you fit in the world, especially given today’s technology and connectivity. If we look at it in a different light, we need not only establish boundaries with negative people, but we also need to establish boundaries with our own negative thoughts.

Boundaries clarify and solidify our identity. Establishing boundaries with people allows US to focus on OUR own thoughts, valuations and goals. The establishment of boundaries also creates confidence in OUR own mind because doing so makes it easier to discern when it is appropriate to follow someone else’s advice instead of our own.

Just as a person can intrude on our space, so can our own thoughts. Developing a value scale to segregate thoughts that are helpful over thoughts that are hurtful is important. This kind of prioritization makes it easier to establish firm yet movable boundaries as people and thoughts do change over time. Burning bridges to thoughts or people can often blind us to them never having been experienced.

Regularly maintaining healthy boundaries helps us handle our daily issues with as much kindness and openness as the circumstance requires. Kindness can help you recognize that patterns can be comforting and negotiated with, whereas unbridled anger can start an all out civil war of mental self-abuse where thoughts wage an unending battle of chaos. This is the importance of evaluating which thought patterns are helpful and positive versus which patterns are subversive and negative.

Taking some quiet time out of our day to establish boundaries with our own thoughts is as important as establishing boundaries with those you love and those you might have just met. The earlier we learn to establish boundaries, the easier it will be to maintain and renovate those boundaries as we grow older for the benefit of ourselves and others around us. Because thoughts are people too.

A Choice to Control

When people think of martial arts, they typically think of discipline right after they think of kicking and punching. However, I like to add one four-letter word prior to discipline — SELF. Discipline implies that one is being trained to obey, whereas self-discipline is the ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses; the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.

At WTD we use logic, compassion and dialog with our students so they may learn how to control themselves and their feelings. The very first lesson we teach every child is that in order to protect yourself, you must first learn to control yourself. Not “let me control you” or “have someone else control you” but “control yourself.”

As the flight attendant explains to passengers, “please place the oxygen mask on yourself prior to helping anyone else in need.” We are no good to ourselves or anyone else if we do not learn to take care of ourselves first. This is not selfishness. This is an intelligent choice we need to make on our own. In an emergency we may not have the time nor our ideal disciplinarian lurking over our shoulder to remind us what to do first.

The earlier we start the habit of self-discipline the earlier we free ourselves. This in turn frees those around us from having to correct our behavior. After all, what could be more freeing for an adult or teacher than watching our children and students freely make intelligent choices in life?

Everyone is Different

I have a quip about the way we teach at WTD: We teach everyone the same way, differently. It amuses me because in an age where everything is personalized, the one thing we seem to forget that is truly personal is ourselves. Meaning, why is it that we can personalize all of our belonging but we want to move in the same direction, at the same time, in the same way when it comes to our education?

At WTD it is rare that I test more than a few people in any class precisely because of this difference. Some students are incredibly dedicated, come to more classes, work out on their own and maybe even have some physical or mental attributes that are above average. I know, right? It’s almost like we all aren’t cardboard cutouts.

Other students aren’t in a rush or don’t have the drive or time to push for rank and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that and it is why each student is given their own personalized optimal challenge. An optimal challenge is designed to keep a student walking the tightrope of failure while forever reaching for the lifeline of success. Learning this way helps create self-discipline, fosters resilience, and establishes confidence all the while reinforcing that never-quit attitude.

No matter what kind of student you are, we are invested in you doing the best you can do. After all, the real optimal challenge is about you triumphing over yourself.

All of the Failure Behind Success

Although I’ve posted about this before, it bears repeating – every happy face and stellar performance you see posted is the result of a lot of time, hard work, perseverance and failure. It’s impossible to capture in one minute of video what that time has been like for anyone, because time is relative.
Some of my students have worked for a year or years to earn a stripe or belt whereas others have worked a few weeks to a few months to earn the same stripe or belt. Sometimes the same student experiences both outcomes over time.
This is why we foster a never quit attitude and taking pride in everything we do. What is hard for some is not hard for others and vice versa. No one’s station is permanent as long as their mind is not stuck.
In short, this is a shout out to all of my students, because I know they have struggled, failed and spent a massive amount of time to get their face and video on this wall. Let us also not forget their parents, their other teachers and most importantly, their fellow students who stood by, held them accountable and actively encouraged them to keep pressing on. Fail forward!

What To Do About “Me Too”?

“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” 
― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

When I reflect upon the past week of people posting the phrase “me too” (indicating they have at some point been sexually harassed or assaulted), all I can think is, “these adults were once children”, and I am saddened that they were exposed to these situations. But it also reinforces the necessity of equipping our children with the mental and physical tools they need to help protect themselves, should it ever become necessary. Over the last 20-plus years I’ve done nothing but try to teach children how to develop and protect boundaries, respect and empower themselves, defend themselves, rely on themselves and discipline themselves. This is to ensure that they are prepared, should they ever go up against any of these societal ills.

I like being an agent of change; over the last 20 years my goal has been to empower young men and women and to help them develop into the best people they can be. For young women this is especially relevant because our society doesn’t always portray strong, powerful women in a positive light, and there are still plenty of societal implications centered on the idea that women should be weak. So for some young women, they have difficulty finding their voice, and strength is a space they typically are not used to inhabiting. The best way to become emboldened and to grow stronger is to be taught. Yet, for boys, there is an automatic assumption that they will grow up to be strong men that can “handle themselves” – just because they are boys; that somehow, young boys will just naturally be able to regulate their power and place in society. However, the body cannot go where the mind has never gone; one has to be taught to be strong and to speak up and/or stand up for his or herself.

A boy will not stand up to another boy’s misdeeds if he has been constantly told “yes” by everyone in his family, and has not had the opportunity to learn to do so. A boy will not stand up to a man if he has constantly been taught to defer to an authority with every slight he has ever encountered. Similarly, a girl will not likely speak up for herself, or challenge an abuser, if she has not been taught her worth and taught to feel comfortable reaching out for support to the women AND men in her life. A girl will not feel comfortable establishing boundaries and protecting them (violently, if need be) if she has never been taught how to establish boundaries, nor taught to feel comfortable about protecting those boundaries.

As we all know, most attackers are men. Therefore, girls will never learn what it takes to protect themselves from boys/men if they are sheltered from intense, male energy. If they’ve never been exposed to controlled, safe situations where men have challenged them physically, as opposed to just intellectually, then they will never know how to respond if a violent encounter ever arises. In order for any female (or male for that matter) to truly feel comfortable in creating these boundaries and defending these boundaries, they must work with other boys and men that challenge those  boundaries in a safe environment.

This is what White Tiger Dojo does everyday. So this is a shout out to all the men and women of the White Tiger Dojo community: I’d like our community to come together and try to bring as many young men AND women to the White Tiger Dojo for a seminar about this very topic. (Date TBA/Proceeds will go to Jersey Battered Women’s Service). The seminar for boys/men is called “Man Up”. I’ve designed this coursework to help young men learn how to better respect each other, authority, and women and to become the brave men that they need to be in order to protect anyone who cannot protect themselves. Then I’d like to offer the same free seminar to young women so that they too can have a better understanding of how to stand up to, and stand together against unnecessary violence.

With all that has been discussed in Hollywood and anywhere else in our country, what I find most surprising is how so many people only stood up after the fact. Look at how many links you find across Facebook that say, “I knew, everybody knew, but I didn’t stand up and say something.” Well, that’s not good enough for our community. I believe that through educating people about a course of action they can take, empowering them to find their voice and teaching them to feel justified in speaking out when something is happening – rather than after the fact, is a great way to prevent future cases of abuse. And the only way for this to become possible, is to learn it by having actually “gone there” at some point in the earlier part of one’s life. If you’ve been trained to value your worth, learned that others are entitled to the same respect and protections, and have practiced speaking up for and defending yourself and others, you will feel more comfortable, confident and be more successful should you ever encounter such a situation. Once again, the body cannot go where the brain has never been.

After these seminars, I will publish an account of how each went and what value – if any, people felt they provided and/or have ascertained. Our community needs to know if we are going to be the instigators of positive change or if we are just going to stand by idly and watch. We need to hold ourselves, as a community, accountable. Will you help be a part of the solution?

There’s Only One “I” In Martial Arts, but Two “T’s”

A number of people join martial arts because they don’t feel suited to traditional team sports. With today’s 24/7/365 demands of team sports, I find it hard to compel my students to come more often than they can honestly commit. I believe the study of martial arts is important, but not at the expense of balance. I understand that team sports demand this time commitment because they’re part of a team, but who isn’t a part of team?

My dojo is comprised of a latticework of personalities, ages, levels of athleticism, coordination, etc. There are no wasted parts and everyone is included. No one is ever benched or cut because they didn’t perform well on a given day, week, month or year. Every single student strives for success, even on their worst days. More importantly, everyone around them is trying to do the same while encouraging each other to push the boundaries of failure towards the infinite markers of success.

If I don’t challenge myself as a teacher, I am doing my students a disservice. If my students aren’t challenging themselves as individuals, then they are not challenging their partners. This is a cooperative experience that requires a ton of relationship building (which includes honest dialog and honest self-assessment). No one walks away unchanged and everyone has something to give.

So when you or your kid signs up for martial arts, remember that there’s twice the number of “T’s” than “I’s” and they stand for “trust” and “teamwork”.

Lord of the WiFis: Attack of the Couch Slouch

Lord of the WiFis: Attack of the Couch Slouch

(The 1st of a Series)

In today’s society, we are bombarded by more information than ever experienced by previous generations. The speed of information gives us the illusion that we can accomplish more, faster and better than any generation before. Although technology has advanced rapidly, our genetics have not. The gap between the rate of receiving information and actually processing it can directly affect our ability to prioritize.

I wrote the above statement approximately 3 years ago when I started building the website for my business. An important realization came to mind as I was sorting through some of my past projects: The impact from what you’ve said or written in the past, things that may have seemed somewhat inconsequential or of little importance back then, will more often than not have a more significant impact on yourself when revisited.

When I grew up in the late 70’s and 80’s, video games were just getting started. Even when Nintendo hit the stores, practically wiping out the competition, it was a rarity to spend all day inside. At some point, we had had enough of Punch Out or Legend of Zelda and our parents said we’d go blind in front of the TV which was more than enough to get us out the door and in the field. Now we walk around with screens six inches from their faces all the time.

What was once a “momentary activity” to engage in for a minute section of our day has now become a controversial compulsive habit that negatively impacts society as a greater whole. I see video games, the Internet, SmartPhones and the like as mere tools. Like most things in life, “intent” plays a very large role in determining whether or not something is good or bad. For instance, too much exposure to bacteria can be bad. However, exposure to bacteria helps the body develop a healthy immune system. Too much time spent exercising can be hard on the body, but regular exercise with proper rest helps develop a strong body and healthy mind. The point here is about maintaining balance, which is a problem that society has been struggling with since time immemorial.

So how does a parent, teacher or caregiver stop the dopamine drip of a habit from turning it into a deluge of addiction?

  1. Limit access: whether it’s food, video games, or a favorite sport, everyone needs a break, self reflective time or just time learning to be in their own skin. It’s important not to forget that alone time has many healthy benefits.
  2. No devices in the bedroom. For many reasons, all devices should be charged and kept outside of a child’s room. (more on this in the upcoming blog posts)
  3. Play video games with your kids. Create physical penalties for making mistakes in-game like push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks or burpees. That way, the intent for playing video games is no longer to just “play the game” but rather spend valuable time with loved ones. Besides, you won’t be slouching on the couch the whole time.

Defining clear, positive and balanced boundaries creates good habits early on which will help children learn to self-regulate their time wisely. This fosters self-confidence and a sense of self-control that will pay dividends later in life as well as strengthen your familial bond.

Trust Me

(Part 6 of a Series)

Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.

– Stephen Covey

Learning how to differentiate between kids who were just acting friendly and kids who were actually my friends was one of the toughest obstacles I had to overcome in my younger years. I simply wasn’t always sure who my friends were because I didn’t know exactly who I was yet. Without a clear understanding of the self, making positive and effective decisions about the self is nearly impossible to accomplish. However, after I learned how to trust my own instincts and take ownership of my own actions, I began to attract and gravitate towards people who shared the same beliefs, values and goals that I did. In other words, I figured out how to differentiate between those who were simply complying with social niceties and those who trusted me as much as I trusted them. I learned that choosing to give the right person control can be a courageous and trustworthy act of intelligence in and of itself.

Choosing to trust people is a daily necessity that happens way more often than many of us would like to think. In fact, I often think about how easily and how often I trust unseen strangers with my own life and livelihood. I do it instinctively and habitually everytime I’m driving down the road and another person is driving the opposite direction a few feet to my left. I trust unknown people to make laws that govern my actions and purchases. I trust unknown people who hold my money at banks and other financial institutions. But why is it so difficult to trust someone face-to-face and how can we better manage that process?

Trust starts out with the basics such as introducing oneself to another. I’m a firm believer in eye contact, handshakes and the exchange of basic pleasantries. Conflict can be ignited or avoided in the first few seconds of two people meeting, which is why it’s so important to establish a positive first impression.

I like to use analogies to build the unknown into a known template. It’s an easy way to help someone feel comfortable with the unfamiliar and feel less hesitant about receiving new ideas. Whether I’m teaching a new technique or physically engaging in the use of that technique with a partner, we need to trust one another. Without it, any exchange (physical or otherwise) would be unproductive and potentially destructive to our relationship.

Another way I like to build trust is to be open to someone else’s well-founded opinion. Even if their opinion challenges my own beliefs, the initial clash of perspective will work in both our favors if I allow myself to accept and understand what it is that they are saying and give them the chance to listen and understand what I am saying.

Learning to trust myself allowed me to attract people in my life that I could trust – sometimes even more than myself. It quickly became very clear to me that I am not “going at it alone”. Life is just too complicated and I’m just one person. Creating a team of like-minded people in my life has enabled me to create better habits and make better choices with a little help from my friends.

Mirror, Mirror.

Photo by Beranger Zylla

(Part 5 of a Series)

I swore an oath, and I will protect you. Even if it means I must protect you from yourself. – Alexandre Dumas

I last left off with the act of choosing to give someone else control as a courageous and trustworthy act of intelligence as opposed to one full of recklessness and naivete. When I’m in control of myself, I am free to make choices based upon my beliefs and then evaluate their effects through a realistic perspective. However, I’ve always found it best to run my beliefs through the mirror of self and then through the lens of another – a trusted partner.

This philosophy of self-reflection and guided trust is constantly present throughout my everyday. Take the Dojo, for instance. When you walk into the White Tiger Dojo, you’ll find four identical posters placed in strategic locations that my students, their friends and family can see. Among the many guidelines that are focused on the art, you’ll see a statement: “A good student is a good partner.” The reflective statement is, “A good partner is a good student.”

The first stage of learning any technique requires that my partner and I intellectually understand the fundamentals of it before any physical implementation is conducted upon each other. It’s imperative to the success of the technique that my partner understands what I’m trying to accomplish so they may give me the feedback necessary to fix my mistakes. In a way, both of us are engaged in a compliant activity in order for us to both learn the opposing sides of a technique. This stage is similar to having a mutually agreeable conversation with a friend. We are openly and honestly communicating verbally and physically throughout the entire exchange.

The second stage of learning a technique requires that I ask my partner to be passively non-compliant. This state of non-compliance should feel like someone I know just touched me on the shoulder from my blind side. I’m alert and guarded, but I’m not actively trying to thwart the touch as I’m awaiting a visual or audible cue that will give way to some form of basic reasoning for their actions. This is where I begin working the kinks out of my technique with the feedback I have gained. This stage is similar to one person asking for clarification of another’s thought process.

The third stage of learning a technique requires that I ask my partner to be actively non-compliant. During this state of active non-compliance, my partner will actively stop me from executing the technique properly. Meaning, they will do what they can to push my physical and mental understanding of how the technique can be implemented. The more trust I have in my partner, the more I can push the technique through that layer of non-compliance. The more my partner trusts me, the more they can thwart the technique through non-compliance. We are both jockeying for control over our bodies while still maintaining a sense of trust. Reason being that the push and pull of the physical and emotional between my partner and I will provide an accurate assessment of each other’s abilities. This assessment will not only help us understand the multifaceted uses of the technique, but also strengthen the understanding of our relationship as trusted friends and rivals. In a sense, this stage is akin to two people having a heated, intellectual debate.

The last stage is the most realistic engagement that two partners can safely participate in. Here, both partners are being freely and actively non-compliant. For this example, let’s imagine that the exercise is geared towards both of us trying to execute the new technique successfully while not being caught-up in the mental intensity of the technique ourselves. This is the essence of being a good partner and student. This stage can get heated and emotions will leak out, but the bond of trust that has been forged between us from the previous stages will prevent either of us from sustaining any real injury. It is only because we have been consistently communicating openly and honestly with each other that a physical and mental exchange of this magnitude is possible.

As I’ve stated previously, if we do not extinguish the enemy within ourselves we will never know what our level of culpability is when we are faced with conflict. Knowing this and owning up to this is how I avoid “avoidable” conflict. Stepping onto the mat and going through these phases of “conversational combat” allows me to see the two sides of the same coin – violence and empathy. This is why trust and honesty are foundational elements to successful relationships. Once I learned the value of a good relationship, I also learned the habit of creating good relationships – especially my martial relationships, as we bare our most honest and vulnerable selves through physical exchanges. That being said, what kind of partner do you want in your life and what kind of partner do you want to be?

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