Lessons from the Mats: The Principles I Learned After Getting Thrown Under the Bus by a Training Center.

Some time ago, I decided to cross train for a while in another setting, with a couple of different styles. Being dedicated to Ninpo and my organization, I was looking for something to supplement my style. At first things went pretty well, I was getting to know the students and instructors, and beginning to feel comfortable in the environment. Then, something happened and suddenly I was “let out of my contract.” Of course, my initial reaction was shock and dismay. The incident involved me and another student doing a difficult and high-level technique, that neither of us should have been doing. I started to lose control and torqued the other student’s shoulder a little too much, but did not actually injure her. I was basically told I was dangerous and a liability and was not welcome back to their school.

To start with training is inherently dangerous, we are, after all, learning how to injure people. I’ve been training for three years in a fairly dangerous art, a lot of the techniques are devastating if used with full force and proper technique. I am careful with my training partners, always keeping in mind how far to go before the technique damages my partner. Given this, it’s ludicrous to call me a liability to other people after one relatively minor incident. After explaining what happened in detail to people I trust, the general response I got was that this school is toxic and the actual danger, not me. In the course of working out what happened, what I was responsible for as a student, and what they were responsible for as the leaders, I’ve come up with a list of things that martial arts schools should and shouldn’t do for the safety of everyone. I’ve decided to share these thoughts with you for two reasons: 1. If you are a school owner, considering these principles will help you improve the quality of your school, and 2. If you are a student, and there are signs that your current school is a liability to you and perhaps other students, speaking up or leaving are your best options.

First, how you treat people when they walk in the door matters. I was given the “I don’t give a shit if you join, or not” speech after my introductory class. I really didn’t think much about that at the time, but was warned later that this should have been my first clue that I was entering into a bad environment. The next clue I should have caught was that there was no discussion about safety concerns, rules, reasons for expulsion, or the teacher’s and the student’s responsibilities.  If I wanted to join, I was given a liability release form, and a 6 month agreement to withdraw funds.  Aside from the dismissive speech, that was all that was required to join.

For the safety of everyone, as a leader it is incumbent upon yourselves to make sure people understand what is expected of them from the beginning.  Surprising them with “we won’t tolerate that” when an accident happens and kicking them to the curb is unprofessional and childish.  I highly recommend a thorough contract, an interview, and a discussion on the above topics.

Secondly, as an instructor, especially if safety is a major concern, it is the owner’s and instructor’s responsibility to create and maintain a safe environment.  That means those in charge manage the beginners with supervision. Training in the basics and safety BEFORE a beginner is put on the mats with others is paramount to their success. It is safe to assume that anyone that has not trained in that specific style is a beginner, even if they have training in another art. It is okay to put a beginner on probation until they are ready for more difficult techniques. Asking a beginner to do high level techniques, which require previous knowledge, is dangerous for the students. The instructors assume responsibility for safety and training properly, that isn’t the students job.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to sideline the beginners and teach them some basics before letting them do dangerous and advanced techniques.  Make that a part of the contract, so any student coming through the door knows what’s expected of them.

Finally, if a student makes a mistake and hurts someone else by accident, assuming the worst about them, and coming down on them like a hammer is counterintuitive to maintaining a decent student census.  Labeling a beginner, who had an accident, as a liability with no previous instructions and discussions on safety both when signing a contract and when instructing, will create an unsavory reputation for your school and instructors.  Throwing people under the bus after one infraction will scare people away.  The instructor in this case should have taken the time to discuss this with me after the class instead of scolding me three times on the mats in front of everyone else. The instructor made it clear he thought I did it on purpose or was acting a fool and didn’t care.  Had he taken the time to discuss this with me after class, he probably would understand what happened better. 

It is better to give a warning, discuss how to manage things better, and even spend some time going over basics that can prevent the accident from happening again. There is nothing wrong with pulling people aside for further instruction on safety in techniques.

I hope this is helpful to you as a guide of what not to do, and to do, if you run a school or are a student. I will surely be more careful in the future should I attempt cross training again.

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