Enough with Bullying

Those of us who teach martial arts recognize the transformative nature of our chosen craft. We have experienced first-hand in our own lives, as well as those of our students just how powerful life on the mat can be. Through training, we identify our weaknesses, as well as our strengths, and strive for improvement on all counts, physically, mentally, and spiritually. It turns out we’ve been promoting the growth mindset (Dweck, 2007) for decades. We need to “lead by example,” and grow some more – it is time for the anti-bullying rhetoric to be shelved, and the bully hysteria to end.

As I pointed out in previous posts, the current definition of bullying has become too broad. By lowering the threshold of what constitutes bullying the lines between pathological and normal have been blurred. This lowered threshold diminishes or trivializes the severity of any actual pathology and the suffering of those targeted. Simultaneously, it demonizes children for behaviors typical for their cognitive development, while turning others into victims. As martial artists, educators, and parents, we must push back from this inaccuracy for the well-being of our students and children.

The concepts of the bully, the victim/targetand bystander (B, V & B) reinforce dichotomous, or black-and-white thinking. This oversimplification is convenient, but forces children into preconceived roles. Such labeling creates what psychologist Carol Dweck, (2007) calls a fixed mindset as opposed to a growth mindset, and precludes the many other very real, and more-than-likely, possibilities.

Given the age of our junior martial art students (4 – 15) most of the behaviors currently listed as bullying are, more often than not, unintentional – the result of the social ineptitude, lacking impulse control, and cognitive ability common at these ages. When adults view such common childhood behaviors as bullying, we are projecting an adult level of understanding and intent that simply isn’t there for children.

Likewise, the “Bystander” concept is problematic. A person in this “role” is taught to act, thus inaction becomes tacit support of the offense. It is unreasonable to expect a child with cognitive abilities similar to those of the purported “bully” to not only distinguish between typical behavior and pathological, but then to take action. While we want to teach children about empathy and compassion, it simply isn’t age-appropriate to saddle them with such responsibility.

The current B, V & B model is contradictory to our message. The martial arts teach us to recognize our individual agency, and pigeonholing children into these roles does the exact opposite; it reinforces a fixed mindset. It’s time for a better paradigm.

How the martial arts should lead the way.

As educators, we should be focusing on the behaviors rather than the roles.

  • We must foster a greater understanding of the numerous phenomena currently lumped under the bullying title, and help our students recognize that teasing, joking around, rough-housing and peer aggression are normal aspects to childhood development; we all must learn to distinguish from the pathological.
  • Just as with sparring, we can teach appropriate responses to each phenomena. Being prepared to respond in a cool, calm manner as opposed to reacting in a hot, emotional one is key to de-escalation.
  • We should be helping our students become more courteous and respectful, and to develop better self control, for over time, these are the traits that eradicate so-called bullying behavior.
  • Perhaps most importantly, we must teach our students they are not victims to other’s words, nor their own often volatile emotional state. They need to learn they are not fragile, but anti-fragile. (Taleb, 2012) We need to reinforce the admonishment,

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

See you on the mat.


  1. Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books
  2. Porter, S. (2013). Bully Nation: Why America’s Approach to Childhood Aggression is Bad for Everyone. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House
  3. Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. New York, NY: Random House, c2012.

Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!

Who remembers the kids on the backs of milk cartons? If you grew up in the 70’s & 80’s you surely pondered those poor kids’ fates as you poured your umpteenth bowl of Cap’n Crunch®.  These images were part of the missing children campaign, which quickly gained the nation’s attention in the early 80’s, transforming America’s perception of reality. Our children were in danger – Stranger Danger, and something had to be done.

The Birth of an Epidemic

The 80’s saw an explosion of public awareness to the plight of children as victims. Advocacy groups for the victims of abuse & neglect, child snatching (by a noncustodial parent), runaways, and child abduction were all working to bring their individual issues to prominence.  Through their concerted efforts, and with the horrific stories of Etan Patz and Adam Walsh being burned into the public psyche via the newly created 24-hour news cycle (CNN was founded in 1980) , Congress created the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 1984. What had previously been recognized as separate issues became the monolith that it is today, and this was intentional. Kristen C. Brown of Child Find (a child snatching advocacy group) said it herself in a 1981 Senate hearing:

“It is absolutely critical that we establish a policy which guarantees that the various criteria used to determine whether or not a child is to be considered a missing child be subject to the most generous interpretation. We must not begin by discriminating kinds of missing children.”  (Best, 1990)

The specter of a dangerous stranger became the social norm; the result of an emotional campaign based on disingenuous manipulation of the statistics. There was never a huge increase in these horrific crimes. They greatly overstated the estimates, lumping in runaways (90%), and kids taken in custody disputes (5%) with the visceral images of actual stranger abductions (less than 1%), thereby inspiring us to take action.

“Now Gentlemen, I am going to indulge in one of the favorite techniques used in the past to generate a reaction on the part of legislators. I am going to tell you a story from real life, imply that it represents the tip of an iceberg and infer that only you can offer redress, justice or correction. It worked before, why not again?

-Charles A Sutherland (U.S. House 1986c, 92)

The martial art industry was perfectly positioned to help in the war on this apparent epidemic. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s we were all caught up in the fervor, doing our part to teach our students about Stranger Danger. (What a terrible message to convey to our children.) While we may have had the best of intentions, we were wrong. In fact the NCMEC finally admitted this in 2017 (better late than never).

I am afraid that once again we martial art instructors are going to end up on the wrong side of history. Today’s buzzword is Bullying. A quick google search brings up 1000’s of books, websites, and programs devoted to the menace, and advising you on how best to protect your child. The rhetoric and statistics used to warrant the products being peddled are just as scary as those used for missing children back in the 80’s. State legislatures have passed laws directing school districts to establish policies to address the epidemic. Even the martial art industry is on board, developing programs to help “bully-proof” students – and why wouldn’t we? We are supposed to be experts in self defense, right? While all of this is done with the best of intentions, we’re often missing the mark. Our over-reaction to a threat that barely exists is in many ways harming the very children we’re trying to take care of.

Currently there is too much misleading hype and rhetoric surrounding the concept of bullying. This has led to public misconception as to what the threat is and it’s severity.  As this plays out in the public forum, the public’s understanding of what bullying is, and what it is not, should evolve into a better, more concise picture. This clarity will enable us to develop better responses. The question is, are we leading the way, or will we end up on the wrong side of history?

Next week: How martial arts should help lead the way.

See you on the mat.

 

Best, J. (1990). Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern About Child-Victims. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books

Haslam, N. (2016). Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology. Psychological Inquiry, 27(1). Retrieved from: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2690955

Porter, S. (2013). Bully Nation: Why America’s Approach to Childhood Aggression is Bad for Everyone. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House

You’re Right

The human condition is fascinating; our capacity is unfathomable. Consider for a moment what we have accomplished over the past 1000 years. Science has given us a much better understanding of the world we live in, while technology has made our lives easier. We have 24/7 access to clean, safe drinking water, nearly an unlimited amount of food, and flush toilets. We have developed some of the most fair and equitable socio-economic systems ever witnessed in human history. Our understanding of health and medicine enables us to save lives formerly lost to accidents and disease. Every child in every modern society has access to a decent education. Athletes continue to break barriers and accomplish “the impossible.” For crying out loud, we put a man on the moon!

With all of this success, with all of the collective knowledge we have attained as a species, there is still great disparity in the human experience. There are people who own luxury homes and yachts, while others live in the streets. Entrepreneurs build multi-billion dollar businesses, and others can’t find a job. World-class athletes are breaking records and defying the possible, simultaneouly the U.S. is witnessing an epidemic of obesity and all of the health problems that come with it. Why can so many individuals living in the same time and place experience such varying levels of success?

“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t – you’re right.”

– Henry Ford

While there are a multitude of factors leading to such diversity, (or disparity depending on your perspective) there are but a handful of traits common to those who are successful. One of the most powerful is recognizing our individual agency. Ford’s message isn’t just an over-simplified, positive affirmation; it’s acknowledging that what you focus on matters. You can either emphasize the things that stand in your way, or what you’re going to do about it.

Ask anybody in the fitness industry and they will confirm this observation: people can create a long list of well thought-out excuses as justification for avoiding the very thing they know they should be doing. All of the worldly expertise in nutrition and exercise can be neutralized with the simple declaration, “I can’t because <insert excuse du jour>.”

“God grant me the serenity 
To accept the things I cannot change; 
Courage to change the things I can; 
And wisdom to know the difference.”

-Reinhold Neibuhr

What are you going to do about it?

Take a moment to consider the monumental achievements of your human family. Realize that you, too, have the capacity for greatness. Identify your goals, and DON’T MAKE EXCUSES. Just get busy doing what you know you should.

See you on the mats!

Strength through Adversity

“Sometimes you’re the hammer, and sometimes you’re the nail.”

– anonymous

Everybody who trains in Brazilian Jiujitsu gets it. There are those days when everything “clicks.” Our defense seems impenetrable, and our offense unstoppable. We are the hammer. Then there are those days when nothing seems to work. Our opponents pass our guard like the proverbial hot knife through butter, and we spend the day on the run, while fine-tuning our arsenal of various tap-outs. We are the nail.

This is the nature of Jiu Jitsu: we are continually pushing our limits, as we work to build a better, stronger self. In order to improve, we need to fine-tune our strengths and improve our weaknesses; we need strong partners to train with and put those skills to the test. Just as one needs both a hammer AND nails to build a house, we need to experience the full spectrum of training in order to build ourselves.

In this regard, BJJ is analogous to our daily lives, where we will experience both success and failure. We must learn to rejoice in our victories with a bit of gratitude and humility. We should enjoy the rewards of our successes, while being grateful for the people and circumstances that helped us get there.

On the flip side, it’s important to remember that we can survive those times when things don’t go as planned. , We should appreciate the learning opportunity our defeats provide. Indeed, even when it seems our life is in a total shambles, so long as we persevere, we will do more than merely survive; we will be stronger. Adversity provides the most empowering lessons of all. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder:

“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”

– Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Whether you’re the hammer or the nail, embrace the grind. You’ll be that much better because of it.

See you on the mat.

Be Like a Child

Young children crack me up. They are curious, joyful, exuberant, and playful; their youthful vigor provides them the spirit and energy to conquer the world. All of that is combined with inexperience, and zero impulse control, rendering them irrational, foolhardy, and short-sighted. Add to this the ability to externalize pretty much everything, and you’re left with a boat-load of random, all day long. For adults accustomed to a more organized, methodical approach to their day, this kid energy can be disconcerting. I find it refreshing, and quite amusing.

All of that curiosity and vigor are advantageous to their ever-growing understanding of the world around them. The more they experience, the more they learn. As they learn to recognize cause and effect, the less irrational and short-sighted they become. Provided their random actions don’t lead to great bodily harm or death, they are surely making progress. As parents and teachers, we need to allow them the space to make mistakes and learn, while guiding them to avoid those which would be catastrophic.

Come to think of it, this is also a pretty accurate description of new white belts, regardless the age. They come in with the enthusiasm of trying something new, but their unfamiliarity with the art leads them to make mistakes. As instructors and upper belts, it is our responsibility to provide them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, while guiding them to avoid those that are detrimental to their training. (Being sidelined because of injury doesn’t help anybody) Of course, as their mat time increases, their experiences will be the most powerful teacher of all.

This is part of the beauty of life on the mat: it is a direct reflection of life in general. The lessons we learn in the finite sphere of our dojo, or training hall, correlate to the bigger world of our daily lives. These ultimate “truths,” if you will, cut across all boundaries, whether one is an athlete, CEO, or parent.

“A dojo is a miniature cosmos where we make contact with ourselves – our fears, anxieties, reactions, and habits. It is an arena of confined conflict where we confront an opponent who is not an opponent but rather a partner engaged in helping us understand ourselves more fully. It is a place where we can learn a great deal in a short time about who we are and how we react in the world. The conflicts that take place inside the dojo help us handle conflicts that take place outside.”

Joe Hyams, Zen in the Martial Arts. 1979.

We’ll cover a number of these truths over the next few weeks.

See you on the mat.

You Are Not Just a Rock

“Like a rock, I was strong as I could be,
like a rock, nothing ever got to me,
like a rock, I was something to see.
Like a rock.
Like a rock, standing arrow straight,
like a rock, charging from the gate,
like a rock, carrying the weight.
Like a rock.”

-Bob Seger (1986)

We admire rock. We use it as simile and metaphor throughout literature, from the old testament, “Ascribe ye greatness unto our God. He is the Rock, his work is perfect,” (Deut 32:3-4), to a cheesy ad in a fitness magazine for “rock-hard abs,” to Bob Segers’ pop hit, “Like a Rock.” Rock symbolizes strength, steadfastness, and honor. To be like a rock is to be reliable, consistent, and resolute in conviction.

Of course, there is a downside to being a rock. Nobody aspires to be as “dumb as a box of rocks.” Rocks are inflexible and extremely slow to change or adapt. Such rigidity is the antithesis of one of our most powerful human traits – our amazing capacity for growth.

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

-Winston Churchill

Nowhere is the capacity to grow more apparent than in the world of sports. World-class athletes, regardless their area of expertise, are shining examples of this. It is a common misconception that world-class athletes are simply gifted – the fortunate recipients of gifts endowed upon them by fate, or more scientifically speaking, good genes. Such “gifts” can only take one so far, however. In the final analysis, the commonality among world-champions is not having won the genetic lottery, but having the ability to improve.

Basketball’s Michael Jordan is a perfect example. Considered by many to be the NBA’S GOAT, anybody old enough to remember knows of his accomplishments on the court. What many are not aware of, is all the work he put in off the court. As a sophomore in high school he was initially deemed too short to play varsity. Rather than quit, he used that to motivate himself. “Whenever I was working out and got tired and figured I ought to stop, I’d close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it,” Jordan would explain. “That usually got me going again.” (Newsweek 2015) Regarding Jordan’s work ethic, Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson wrote,

The thing about Michael is, he takes nothing about his game for granted. When he first came to the NBA back in 1984, he was primarily a penetrator. His outside shooting wasn’t up to pro standards. So he put in his gym time during the off-season, shooting hundreds of shots each day. Eventually, he became a deadly three-point shooter.

Playing outstanding defense didn’t come automatically to him, either. He had to study his opponents, learn their favorite moves and then dedicate himself to learning the techniques necessary to stop them. He’s worked extremely hard to perfect his footwork and his balance.

Nowadays, so many kids come into the league with arrogant attitudes, thinking that their talent is all they need to succeed. By contrast, there’s a certain humility in Michael’s willingness to take on the difficult work of making himself a more complete player. For me, one of the signs of Michael’s greatness is that he turned his weaknesses into strengths.”

Through proper training, we can become faster, stronger, and more agile; we can continually develop an ever increasing level of skill, and become more in-tune to the nuances of the game, whether it’s basketball, Brazilian jiujitsu, or life.

This capacity for growth isn’t restricted just to our physical selves. It’s important to remember that we have just as much ability to improve ourselves mentally and emotionally. We need to nurture what Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck calls a growth mindset, and reject the fixed mindset – the belief that ability is static(Dweck, 2016)

With a growth mindset we acknowledge our potential. We don’t fear challenges, but see them for the opportunity they represent. Through the proper effort, we can deal with what life throws at us, and continually grow in the process. We can build our bodies and our minds. In this manner, we are not so much like a rock, but more similar to a plant. We continually grow stronger, adapting to the conditions of the world around us.

See you on the mat.

Dweck, C. (2016). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books

Jackson, Phil (June/July 1998) Michael and Me. Retrieved from http://www.nba.com/jordan/is_philonmj.html

The Remedy to the Bully Epidemic

As we close out October, and National Bully Awareness Month, we get to wrap up this bullying series on a high note. Repeat after me: “there is no epidemic.” The children of today are no more evil, nor ill-intentioned, than they were when we were kids. No matter how many websites quote horrific stats as to how bad the problem is, remember these numbers are not based on an increase in peer aggression and negative behavior in children, but are due to an all-encompassing expansion of the definition.

As parents and educators, we need to distinguish between very real dangers, such as automobile accidents and drowning, and the pain and anguish caused by less-than-pleasant phenomena of childhood: peer aggression, teasing, taunting, name-calling, and social exclusion. The former can lead to dismemberment and death, whereas the latter, although unpleasant, are mostly benign.

Rather than treating these as threats to our children’s well-being, we need to recognize them as opportunities for growth; these teachable moments present the perfect opportunity to help our children realize their personal agency, and their resiliency. We must remember this is a long, complicated process. Children are still developing their understanding of the nuance of body language, intonation, inflection, humor, sarcasm, and timing. They’re still learning how to filter what they say, consider other’s feelings, and how to follow the rules. In fact, the areas of the brain responsible for cognition, following rules, suppressing impulses, reasoning, and decision making are still developing as well.

If we’re serious about helping our students, we must stop type-casting the players. The current bully-victim-bystander model stands in the way of all this development. It reinforces roles which assume intent on the part of the bully, and a victimhood mindset on the part of the target. Neither of these fixed mindsets is conducive to learning and growth. We should be helping students adjust behavior, but we can’t effectively address the various behaviors when they’re all lumped under bullying. We need to more effectively delineate the pathology of bullying, and the common childhood phenomena of peer aggression, impulse control, teasing, etc. Then we can teach our children effective means of dealing with each. For these reasons, the bully-victim-bystander model should not be used in an educational (K-12) setting.

We should be teaching our students that they and their peers have the capacity to  grow and learn, to be better versions of themselves every day. They can learn better communication skills, become more civically minded, and develop a deeper sense of empathy. They can increase their self-control, self-esteem, and learn to defend themselves. These are the tools that will enable them to deal with all the trials and tribulations of childhood, and to thrive as adolescents. All they require is guidance, experience, and time.

“Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.”

-Anonymous

We need to remember that just like BJJ, our ability to get along with others, communicate our ideas, and understand others’ intent takes years of “mat time.” Children can be given instruction on the rules, and taught different methods of dealing with the most common issues. However, we have to remember the majority of learning and understanding comes from actual application. This means there will be successes and failures, they’re going to make mistakes – they will offend and be offended, insult and be insulted, hurt others’ feelings and have their’s hurt. As we continue to coach in between rounds, they will gradually gain an ever-better understanding of the full spectrum of human interaction. They will gain the skill, and the strength to succeed.

See you on the mat.

 

Best, J. (1990). Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern About Child-Victims. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books

Haslam, N. (2016). Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology. Psychological Inquiry, 27(1). Retrieved from: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2690955

Porter, S. (2013). Bully Nation: Why America’s Approach to Childhood Aggression is Bad for Everyone. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House