Is it your responsibility to help others in the dojo?

Is it your responsibility to help others in the dojo?

So you attend a Karate/Martial Arts Class and you pay good money to be taught the skills you wish to learn. In return for your money you therefore have a right to test yourself, prove yourself and do everything to the max so that you can see how you are improving… right?

What happens if during partner work (kumite) you are put with someone of lower ability, or who is having difficulty with the particular training exercise?  

You should still train at 100% and show that you can perform what is being asked regardless of any difficulties your partner is having, otherwise it is just diluting the class that you have paid for….  

…or does it make you a dojo bully?

Having grown up as dojo captain in an adults class when I was as young as 14 I have experienced being both the guy being held up by an opponent having difficulty and the one who has had difficulty when my opponent has had no trouble.  Many different factors can cause such a mismatch: age & experience, size, fitness, flexibility, understanding….etc.  

Based upon my experiences on both sides of the fence I can categorically say that it is wrong not to assist your partner.

Before moving on to my reasons I will recite some of my dojo experiences, these are 100% true as I remember them and some of you reading this may even remember them.  In light of this I will neglect to mention any names, organisations and locations, only the rough timescales are relevant as they will show my stage in my learning at that time.  I would therefore request that anyone who comments upon this article/blog who does remember any of the incidents please refrains from mentioning any of these details also.

I was in my mid teens, there was a visiting dan grade in his early twenties.  The mismatch was in both size, weight, strength and experience.  So during medium speed practice of Gohon Kumite the visiting instructor proceeded to perform all attacks with the intention of making them difficult to block, locking down early to ensure that the block could not move it.  Some may say “surely this is the intention and shows you that your block is not effective?”, I would agree that pressure training is required and that this is an essential lesson to learn.  However, it is down to the class instructor to set the intentions of the class.  When you are first with a new partner you are free to test the water to ascertain ability, but once you know their level and possibly shown them where they may be lacking it is time to ease off and work on your technique.  What the mentioned individual did was to make his own technique into something that would not work, would not strike in the right direction nor replicate a true punch, therefore compromising his own training in order to prove that my technique would not work against a technique that no-one would attack with… we can therefore only assume that Ego was the deciding factor.

So what should you do when faced with such a partner?  Simple, swallow pride and ask them to ease up.  If they do not, then gain your instructor’s attention and explain that you are having difficulty with the technique so that he/she can watch.

Aged 19, I was at a course held in the North of England.  During the 2 days of training I was partnered with a rather unfit and sweaty guy in his 40s for some basic fixed move kumite, where the only counter attack to be used was chudan-gyaku-zuki.  My partner was either a sandan or yondan level and his karate was average, we practiced the kumite with no real issue except one thing… he persisted in hitting me with an excessive amount of force on EVERY counter attack.  Once or twice would have been fine, but repeated punishment of this kind, where the only defence you can use is your own “kime”, leads to pain, bruising and anger.  So again, some might be thinking “toughen up, this is part of hard training” and I would be inclined to agree to some extent… IF it were in a normal class where all members are used to the same level of contact and the intention of the training is to also condition the body.  However, this was an external course where the intention of the class was to teach speed of reaction with an accurate technique.  Any conditioning training must be a regular thing (to have any benefit) and therefore can only be conducted in a regular dojo, irregular or isolated sessions of conditioning can in fact be quite dangerous and bad for your health.  In my opinion when fixed move kumite training you should be working on perfect control and therefore any unblocked technique must touch but not impact.  This is probably a more important learning objective for anyone who wishes to train for a large portion of their life.

So what do you do when faced with such a partner?  

Simple, ask them to ease off!!


If this does not work then there are several options, the first would be to begin blocking the counter attack and when anyone questions this you can advise that you were being hit too hard despite requesting a lower level of contact.  The other option would have been perfectly valid 20 years ago, though in modern day society would not be recommended, which is to either land your attack or counter their counter attack  in order to give the message that you have had enough.  I have seen this happen and in my youth have also done it, but would be very disappointed in anyone within my dojo who took this action.  It is dangerous for many reasons including the risk of escalation in tempers.  The last option is to purely ask your instructor for another partner.  Remember that you never have to be used as someone else’s punchbag, that is not what any of us are there for.

So, the above two examples seem to have little to do with the title of this post (Is it your responsibility to help others in the dojo?), until we look at the flip sides of the scenarios.  If we put ourselves on the other side, in place of the two partners that I have described, we could (ignoring the possibility of their actions being ego driven) believe that they were both trying to help me.  The first by making me perform a strong blocking technique and understand that some techniques are too strong to block in that way, the second by showing me I must strengthen my core and do more conditioning work.  We come back to the original question… was it their responsibility to do this?

I like to think that most people in martial arts are nice and like to help people if they can.  I have seen individuals at courses and in classes (both mine and others) who have endeavoured to help and advise others, whether they be a lower grade, a younger age or any other reason with the best of intentions… but giving totally the wrong advice.  Sometimes a student will have been instructed to do something in a particular way in order to gain some specific benefit, therefore the advice they received from their partner was incorrect in this light.  Other times the advising partner did not actually understand the lesson themselves.

As a rule of thumb, I would suggest that you limit any advice that you give during a session unless you are an instructor yourself (even then I would suggest you proceed with caution when offering advice to anyone who is not your own student).   Should you be partnered with someone who is struggling with an exercise/drill/technique/concept then slow down your training.  Continue to work on perfection of your technique and your control, remember the better your technique the easier your partner will find it to do what is required of them.

Therefore the answer to the title question is no, it is not your responsibility to help… well not in the western sense anyway.  

Often I hear discussion, criticism, encouragement during kumite.  This is wrong and exactly the type of “help” that I am saying should not be given within the dojo.  You can help them through concentration on your own training so that your partner stands the best chance at achieving an understanding of what is required of them and for the instructor to easily see that there is a problem and how to rectify it.  In a dojo we communicate through our karate and not our voices.

There are some out there that will agree with this purely because they believe they should be getting everything they want from the sessions that they are making the effort to attend, which brings me on to the second aspect of my question… if you have made the effort to attend and paid good money for the class, should you not be able to train at 100% regardless of the ability of your partner?  If a dojo were like any other fitness class then you would be entitled to a workout and instruction in return for your payment, but a dojo is not the same as a gym and I will address this in another article.  Participation in a karate class will provide opportunity for improvement on many planes.  If your opponent is not able to train to the same level as you, then you must find other aspects to work upon.  If you can only go slow because you are with a lower grade, then work on muscle control, accuracy and perfection of technique, if you need to go gently because you are with a child then check that your technique can work when using no strength.  There is always something to work on and you can always achieve improvement by training with someone else, regardless of what form that training must take or how it effects what you can do.

Written by Kevin Archibald

N.B. Please do not forget these are just a few unfortunate scenarios that I have mentioned, the other 99% of my experiences of training with others have been a great.

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