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 (kidnapped in 1979) and Adam Walsh (abducted and murdered in 1981) 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 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. 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). The vast majority of strangers are no more a threat to our children than we are, yet 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, and  lumped runaways, and kids taken in custody disputes (which current estimates put at over 90% and 5% respectively of the total missing) in with the visceral images of actual stranger abductions (less than 1%), thereby inspiring us to take action. What a terribly inaccurate message to be communicating to children.

“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)

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 that 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.

My issues with the current tone of the discussion, and how we present this information to children, can be broken into five main problems:

  1. As I pointed out in previous posts, the current definition of bullying has become too broad. We have lowered the threshold of what constitutes bullying by not emphasizing  a) the threat of physical violence in conjunction with the other phenomena, b) the repetitive nature, and c) the intent. Since many of the phenomena are also normal components of child development, this has blurred the lines between pathological and normal, such that any perceived slight now potentially qualifies as bullying.
  2. 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.
  3. This lowered threshold diminishes or trivializes the severity of the earlier pathology, (what I would term actual bullying) as well as the suffering of it’s victims.
  4. The concepts of the bully, the victim/targetand bystander constitute dichotomous, or black-and-white thinking. This oversimplification is convenient, but forces children into preconceived roles. Such labeling reinforces 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.
  5. The resulting feelings have become a defining factor. “If you feel traumatized, you may have been bullied.” In addition to the obvious problems with such a subjective standard, by equating emotional pain with physical pain, we make feelings fact; we’re teaching children they are fragile. When combined with the bully-victim construct, this reinforces victimhood – your feelings are somebody else’s fault. We need to help our students recognize their individual agency, rather than tell them they’re victims to other’s words and their own often volatile emotional state. They need to learn to be resilient, or better yet, anti-fragile – to remember the admonishment,

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

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

 

Back To School

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

– President Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910

 

Professor Cassio Werneck traveled all the way to Danbury, Connecticut this past weekend to compete in the Fight 2 Win 83. His dossier is packed full of accolades from over 20 years of competing. From Brazilian State Champion to Pan American Champion, and from World Champion To Masters’ World Champion, Professor Werneck has won them all. He could easily rest on his laurels, yet he continues to lay it on the line; rather than taking the easy path, he chooses to challenge himself again and again.

This is the indomitable attitude of a warrior. It is the willingness to push one’s self past the comfort of the known; it is the self-disipline to embrace the day-in, day-out grind of never-ending improvement. It is the internal fortitude to commit to excellence, even when surrounded by a society full of those who settle for mediocrity. A warrior chooses to strive for more; win, lose, or draw, they will know that they gave it their best.

As summer comes to a close many of us find ourselves shifting gears – children head back to school, and parents re-adjust their shuttle schedules. This can be a time of excitement, and of a bit of trepidation; children can be a bit intimidated by the prospects of new teachers, and moving up a grade. It is a great time to remind ourselves, as well as our children, of the power of accepting the challenge – just dive in.

  1. Based on past experiences, make a plan of action, and execute.
  2. Stay focused on the task at hand, the potential for victory, and the many benefits of success.
  3. Remember that stumbling, sometimes even failing in the attempt, is still an opportunity for learning and growth. Learn the lesson and move on.
  4. Surround yourself with a good team. Your family and friends should be like-minded and support your efforts

We should approach the rest of our lives just like we train in BJJ. Play all in; push past comfort zones – sometimes winning, sometimes losing, and always learning. In the end we will know we gave it all we had.

Let the nay-sayers worry about the risks from the side-lines.

See you on the mat.

Perception

We recently took our family to Hero’s Virtual Reality Adventures, and had a great time immersing ourselves in the imaginary worlds of the various games. It is truly amazing how engaged you become, as you lose touch with “reality.” While your logical self knows you’re simply in a room with your family & friends, your senses are telling you a different story; you find yourself flinching in response to an orc-thrown battle axe. Your heart races and your legs get weak when you step out of the elevator onto a wooden plank some 40 stories up, even though you know it’s a 2X6 lying on the floor.

The reality we perceive.
The reality she perceives.

Of course it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that our senses could so easily deceive us. In a very real sense, we already create our own virtual reality. A limited amount of information further distorted by our own psychological biases leaves us with a perceived notion of the actual reality of the world around us.

One of the most powerful is the Negativity Bias: the tendency to focus on the negative. This bias stems from our ancestral past, where recognizing imminent danger (negative) could mean the difference between life and death. While modern society has greatly reduced the existence and severity of such threats, for many of us the tendency to focus on the negative remains.  (here’s an earlier post on this)

What do you see in this image?

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Copyright: Krisdog / 123RF Stock Photo

Initially, most people will see a broad canopied tree with a crooked trunk. How many see the two faces? Once we see the one image, it can be difficult to see the other, but with a bit of effort, we can direct our mind to see both. In this manner, it is important for us to strive to look for the positive in our daily lives, in order to balance out our tendency to focus on the negative.

As a martial artist, do you focus on your successes or your failures? Do you focus on how far you’ve come, or how far you have to go? Do you see problems as insurmountable barriers, or challenges to be overcome? Do you dread an upcoming workout because of it’s difficulty, or anticipate the feeling of accomplishment? Do you dwell on the “boring” redundancy of yet another class, or look forward to the exhilaration of adding a powerful skill to your arsenal?

As with any great endeavor, becoming a good Jujiteiro/a is a difficult undertaking, requiring much time, effort, and sacrifice. By staying focused on the positive, we can avoid the many self-inflicted pitfalls that would otherwise keep us from success. A positive attitude helps us see past temporary discomfort, and enticing distractions. It helps us work through short-term feelings of boredom. It gives us the perspective to avoid self-doubt. Just like a great arm-bar, it only requires a bit of practice.

See you on the mat!

Are You Comfortable?

I recently came across a blog written by another student of Brazilian Jiujitsu. Grips & Growls chronicles his journey. Anybody already living the BJJ lifestyle will be able to relate. For those considering trying Brazilian Jiujitsu for the first time, his is a fresh perspective from one who has just recently begun. One particular post entitled “Sweaty Floor Karate,” hit upon a key concept of our art.

When you’re comfortable being uncomfortable for a hobby, everything else gets easier.

Let’s face it. We all enjoy the good things in life. We glory in the opportunity to sleep in, look forward to the chance to just sit on the couch and “veg,” and spend our weekdays anticipating a weekend at the lake, or a night out on the town. Daily, we are tempted to just hang out at the local coffee shop. While we’re at it, we can snack on a Snickers® bar, have a soda with lunch, and a little cheesecake for dessert.

While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying any of these from time to time, too much of a good thing is, simply stated, too much.

Consider as well all of the technology we’re surrounded by, and for the most part, take for granted. It was all designed with the intent to make life easier. There are planes, trains, and automobiles that get us where we’re going. Flip a switch and we have lights. Push a button and we have air conditioning. Push another and we change the channel. Turn a dial and we’re mixing, juicing, and cooking our food. We can open and close the garage door without ever leaving our car. Indeed, with a few thumb clicks and swipes on our smartphone, we can do just about anything, without ever leaving our home!

Remember the people aboard the spaceship Axiom in the movie WALL-E?

Our modern, suburban lifestyle provides us with ready access to every luxury imaginable, and an environment nearly free from discomfort. However, all of this easy living has a downside: it makes us weak. Just like the poor folks abroad the fictional ship Axiom, such a lifestyle can leave us ill-prepared to deal with adversity.

There are moments in our lives that can be less than pleasant. Taking an exam in school, applying for a job, and speaking in front of a large audience are some common examples. Avoiding them isn’t always an option, and oftentimes it isn’t in our best interest to do so. A successful test score, job interview, or presentation could lead to a vast improvement in our lives in the form of college placement, employment, or a promotion. These are times when being able to remain confident, calm, and clear-headed can enable us to effectively deal with the circumstances. (Let’s call these the three C’s of being comfortable.)

Learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable is fundamental to the transformational power of Brazilian Jiujitsu.

There’s nothing quite like having a larger, stronger training partner who has gained a superior position to help us understand the importance of the three C’s. In this circumstance, it is guaranteed you are going to be uncomfortable. As the pressure they apply smashes you into the mat, it gradually becomes harder to breath, with each consecutive breath a bit more shallow than the last.

The beauty of Brazilian Jiujitsu is that there’s a way out. If you can stay calm and clear-headed enough to remember your technique, and then execute confidently, you can escape. Not only that, but it can become a total reversal of fortune. It is an exhilarating experience to escape, improve your position, and then submit the person who was smashing you moments before.

Brazilian Jiujitsu is physically and mentally taxing. It pushes us to our limits. This is what makes it so powerful. The confidence gained radiates into every aspect of our being. After training with our teammates, everything else appears less intimidating. Any anxiety regarding an upcoming exam, job interview, or public speaking engagement is more manageable. We can look life’s challenges in the eye and say, “is that all you’ve got?” Our training enables us be confident, calm, and clear-headed when facing adversity.

We can be comfortable being uncomfortable.

See you on the mats.

Character

Over the past few years my daughters and I have really enjoyed watching the movie versions of Marvel’s Avengers. We can’t wait for the hubbub at the box office to die down, so that we can go to the latest installment, Black Panther. I think that part of the popularity in this series is the diversity presented in all of the various characters. Each has her/his own superpower, as well as their own personality. As they evolve under the stress of the various adversities they encounter, both individually and collectively, we see them struggle with their own character, both strengths and flaws.

While we are intrigued by their superpowers, I think the most engaging aspects of the storyline involve their struggles with their own, very real, and very human weaknesses. At different times, it’s reigning in their ego, or coping with self-doubt. Sometimes they must resist the temptation of power. There’s always the weight of doing what’s right for the greater good, versus what’s best for them. In the end, they always find their way through the turmoil, and make the hard choices that lead to success.

Which superhero is your favorite? Which traits do you appreciate the most? Obviously, while we can’t have their superpowers, we can rise to the occasion where it truly matters. While we train to develop our physical skills as martial artists, we can also work toward developing in ourselves the character traits we admire in our heroes, both real and imaginary.

See you on the mats!

 

Steel Sharpens Steel

The age-old maxim “steel sharpens steel,” or “iron sharpens iron” embodies the simple premise that we grow stronger when we surround ourselves with others who are strong. More modern sages tell us to associate with like-minded people, at least in regards to goals, and people who have already succeeded in achieving those goals.

“…avoid the negative influences of other people and surround yourself with successful people who will encourage you to pursue your dreams.” -Zig Ziglar, Born to Win: Find Your Success Code

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins puts it succinctly, “Who you spend time with is who you become.”

In the martial arts this is paramount. As a BJJ practitioner one pursues not only strength, conditioning, mental acuity, and emotional toughness, but more effective methods of combat. While one could conceivably build the first four traits on their own, having a partner and/or coach will greatly facilitate their growth. Developing effective combat techniques, however, simply cannot be accomplished without great training partners.

It is important for each of us to remember that while we’re putting in our time on the mat, working our butts off to achieve our own personal victories, that we’re also there for our training partners. We need one another in order to get where we’re headed. The more like-minded, goal-oriented people we can surround ourselves with, the better.

“Proximity is power… Who you spend time with is who you become.” – Tony Robbins

See you on the mats.

Self Discipline

We’ve all been there. The alarm goes off, we reach for the snooze button, and the debate begins.

“I am so tired, I just wanna sleep in.”

“Is it my day off?”

“Perhaps I overtrained yesterday. Do I need a bonus day of recovery?”

“Is that a hint of a cough? Should I call in sick?”

I’ve been waking up at 5:30 am to workout for almost 30 years, and I still catch myself having this internal dialogue nearly every morning. The fact is, I am tired –  I am stiff & sore. I probably could take a few more days off than I do. I really enjoy the one day a week when I get up, take a leisurely walk with the dog, and then relax with a hot cup o’ joe and read a book. Why not do that every day?

The answers to that question are what motivate me to drag my carcass out of bed six days a week.   As a younger man, I wanted to be a bad-ass. I had to get up earlier, and work harder than everybody else. As a member of the over-50 crowd with three young daughters, my purpose has evolved. Now I train to be the best father I can be. I need to be able to protect my family to the best of my ability. I want to be able to play with my kids. We run, we ski, we hike, we ride bikes, and of course, we do martial arts. Staying in shape increases the odds that I will be around to share in their milestones; graduations, first jobs, weddings, and all the other setbacks and victories that await them.

Anybody who’s ever worked in the fitness industry can confirm – it is stupefying the lengths to which people will go, in order to talk themselves out of doing the very thing that will help them achieve their desired goals, or make their life better in the long-run. One can easily come up with an entire litany of reasons not to do something. The people who cave to this list are the poor, miserable souls who continually find themselves short of where they’d like to be. As time goes on, the goals seem further out of reach, the bad habits become more ingrained, more comfortable, and the vicious cycle perpetuates itself.

“In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves… self-discipline with all of them came first.” – Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States

Simply stated, self discipline is the ability to do that which needs doing, even though it’s difficult, inconvenient, or uncomfortable. It’s doing what you know you should, even though you don’t feel like it at the time. It’s putting off the temptations of immediate gratification for greater reward at a later date.

As adults, we demonstrate self-discipline by going to work every day, even on the days we don’t feel like it, in order to put food on the table, provide a home, and save for the future. By being self-disciplined, we can avoid the financial pitfall of never-ending debt, by postponing those purchases of the shiny, new whatever, until such time as we can afford to pay without borrowing.  By being self-disciplined, we can manage our time more effectively, focusing on what’s important, and leaving for later, that which isn’t. By being self-disciplined, we can improve our diet, work out more, and be more fit.

I tell my girls, self-discipline means, “Dinner before dessert.” Do what you know is the best for you, then you can afford to splurge a bit. Work hard in school, and the knowledge will make life a bit easier later. Train hard at track practice, and you’ll have greater success at the meet. Drill those pirouettes as much as you can, and your ballet performance will be amazing. Get your homework done and keep your room clean, and you’ll have more free time to play with your friends.

Self-discipline leads to more freedom. In the end, you will have more time, more money, and better health to spend on the things you want.

See you on the mats!

Constant and Never-Ending Improvement

With fall here, I am once again engaged in all of the projects that come with the change of seasons: fall pruning, garden winterizing, gutter cleaning, and halloween decorating. Such manual labor provides plenty of time to think, and I find myself, as I do with every transformation of the seasons, ruminating on the change that is constant in our lives – spring to summer, summer to fall, and so on, cycling back around to start all over again.  This circular perspective of such repetitive labor can feed into the misconception that we, too, are just running in circles.

It’s really more of a spiral, isn’t it?

 

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A little girl with a dog, in the back yard in October, and yet…

As we cycle through the annum, circling back around in the all-too-familiar pattern, we also become older, having experienced yet one more year that we will never see again. In this fashion, the circle of the seasons becomes the spiral of our lives. So I ask myself, “as we’re spiraling through life, are we spiraling upward or down, forward or back?”

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Same little girl, same dog, in the same back yard in October.

The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) lifestyle offers many “tools” that can help us direct our own personal spiral in the direction we choose. The martial arts have long recognized the ideals of courtesy and respect, self-discipline and humility, patience and commitment as being vital to a healthy, successful, and ultimately happy life. We find these ideals espoused in the ancient Budo Code of the Samurai and the concept of Chivalry from Europe’s knights in the Middle Ages. Read any self-help book today, and one will find a re-hashing of the same, time-tested truths.

Perhaps the most important concept, and the one I believe binds all of the other ideals together is embodied in C.A.N.I., a term coined by Tony RobbinsConstant And Never-ending Improvement should be ingrained in our lifestyle. We should be taking every opportunity to improve physically, spiritually, and intellectually. Just as we train daily to hone our martial art skills, so too, should we be fine-tuning the other areas of our lives.

We should be furthering our understanding of the world around us in every way possible. Being a voracious reader should be near the top of our to-do list. Podcasts can be a great source of thought provoking ideas. Taking classes at the local university/college, or participating in work-related seminars & conferences can also be sources of growth. Take every opportunity to learn and grow, to be motivated or inspired. These sources, together with a healthy peer group (see last weeks post) can help us stay motivated and on course to achieve our goals, and enjoy the good life.

It is a mistake to think that at some point in our lives we get to coast. Only if we are continually striving to be the best person we can, will we ever experience our true potential. We should be striving to be the best version of ourselves possible; as a parent, as a spouse, as an employee, as a neighbor, and as a citizen.

See you on the mats!

 

Because sometimes things don’t go as planned.

This week brings us to the fourth part of Self Defense 101. Previously we looked at the importance of awareness, knowing the risks, and avoiding potentially dangerous situations. We discussed how we can further reduce our risk by communicating to predators (bullies, muggers, etc.) that we’re not to be trifled with. Additionally we covered how to use our breathing to help deal with the stress of confrontation. When our efforts to avoid confrontation have failed, we’ve reached a juncture where it’s time to take action.

The action we take will vary as the circumstances of each incident are unique. The level of threat plays a large role in what that response should/must be, while on the other side of the equation, our individual circumstances dictate the tools at our disposal. For example, a child dealing with a bully on the playground has a slightly different set of rules to play by, as well as other available resources, then does a woman being accosted in a shopping mall parking lot.

If the opportunity exists, the best option is always the same: LEAVE! Run if you have to. Unless you’re trapped, or have others to defend, it is always better to leave the scene on your own terms. For children, find someone of authority; a teacher, yard duty, police officer, store clerk, etc. In all situations, remember that well-lit areas with lots of people mean plenty of unwanted witnesses for the predator.

Finally, when the aforementioned forms of physical and verbal communication have failed, and escape isn’t an option, the tone has to shift from trying to avoid and defuse the situation to stopping it. The more calming requests must change to definitive demands. A strong stance, with hands up and palms open,  communicates that a person doesn’t want trouble, but will defend themselves. A loud “NO,” or “BACK OFF,” has the added benefit of potentially drawing the attention of others who can assist. (It’s been suggested to yell “FIRE,” as this tends to be a real attention getter)

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In the end, it all comes down to preparation. Have you thought about your game plan? Have you rehearsed/practiced it? What about the actual physical skills of defense? If one has done everything correctly, the odds of ever experiencing a violent encounter can be greatly reduced. Just like a fire extinguisher collecting dust in the kitchen cupboard, with diligence and proper preparation, it will likely never be used.

In the off-chance there’s a grease fire, however, you’ll be glad it’s there.

See you on the mats!