One of the biggest influences on my young life was a martial arts teacher I had in college. He was as tough and talented as he was unassuming. I remember walking into the first day of Jiu Jitsu and seeing him, a skinny blonde guy who looked like he was in his early twenties, and assuming he was a student. Turns out he just looked young and skinny—he was a top competitor in Oregon, and an excellent teacher of sport-based and self-defense-based martial arts.
But it wasn’t just his teaching and talent that influenced me. It was the way he lived and breathed his mission of giving back to the community—a sort of enlightened martial arts ethos—and wove it into his martial arts practice in a seamless, unified way.
This teacher was pretty modest, so it took me a while to piece together that he volunteered in local community gardens (he had a world class vegetable garden at his home) and taught self-defense to kids in schools. All that impressed me. But on the first day of class, I got to see just how tightly woven into his martial arts teaching his sense of community service really was, and how sophisticated and effective he had made that link.
On that first day of Jiu Jitsu, after the din of conversation had died down and we all realized his was, in fact, the teacher, he brought us into a circle and started talking, but not about martial arts. Instead, he recommended a book—Ishmael by Daniel Quinn—and offered any student who read the book free private lessons. He described how the book had changed his life, and made him far more sensitive to environmental and community-based concerns. It was an unusual way to start a class that I thought was just about learning how to choke people out, but I was so intrigued, I vowed to take him up on it.
I also assumed, by the way, that most people in the class would take him up on it, too. After all, an hour-long private lesson with a real master is hugely valuable, especially to a college student who rarely has two extra pennies to rub together. But to my surprise, I was the only one.
I couldn’t understand it, but later I realized the genius of his overall approach. My teacher didn’t just recommend the book; he gave incentive to read it. And he wasn’t just offering his valuable private time as a charitable donation to whoever happened to wander into his gym. He was also weeding out all the people who weren’t willing to put in the effort up front.
Later, when I started teaching and coaching, I recognized how important this is. If someone’s not going to read a short book, they’re probably not going to get much out of an hour of private instruction. There are only so many hours in the day, and if you’re trying to give to the community, you have to find a way to give to the people who are actually going to get something out of your giving. Otherwise you spread yourself too thin and burn yourself out, without even really helping anyone along the way. It was the perfect middle path approach to giving back to the community.
That hour-long private session, by the way, was one of the most valuable teaching hours of my life. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to learn proper form for a basic jab and cross, but it is far from intuitive. We spent that entire hour working my form for those two most basic punches, and by the end, I had completely retrained me reflexes. I was hardly a champion, but I was at least on the right path.
That form is still with me, and provided the foundation for much more learning as a fighter. But what I remember the most, and with the most gratitude about that era of my training is how effectively, efficiently, and unassumingly my teacher gave his gifts to the world around him.