Sun Dragon Martial Arts and Self Defense, NFP

Being a Good Partner

June 29, 2024

One of the most valuable tools we use in teaching karate at Sun Dragon is partner training.  From a physical perspective, it allows us to work on power, control, targeting, distancing, understanding the strengths and limitations of the human body, and much, much more.  From a interpersonal perspective, it gives us an incredible chance to work with another person, develop trust, read situations, challenge, compete, show compassion and empathy, and consciously set and respond to boundaries.  Partnerships at Sun Dragon should always be mutually beneficial, based on consent, and rooted in love and respect for your partner.  

That reads like a pretty tall order, doesn't it?  Fortunately, the lessons you get to grapple with in your partnerships are progressive, just as the complexity of the partner curriculum increases progressively.  You won't have to negotiate the dynamics of sparring on your first day!  If all goes to plan, as you mature as a Sun Dragon and as a martial artist, you'll grow in your ability to handle more complex dojo relationships.

Along with all the good things we get from our training relationships, there are plenty of ways that these partnerships can go wrong.  As Sun Dragon began as an all-women karate school, one of the pitfalls that we always want to be aware of is how gender affects our partnerships.  Sensei Suzanne created Sun Dragon to be a safe space for women to train, without fear of the sexual politics, patronizing attitudes, condescension, bias, and abuse that were often part of the training experience in other schools.  We try to guard against all kinds of privilege souring our relationships at Sun Dragon, but gender-based privilege is one that we were literally founded in order to minimize and eliminate from our practice.  Other ways that our training relationships can go wrong include overly aggressive (or overly passive) techniques and bullying, lack of focus, trying to teach our partners during class, and failing to approach our partners with humility and respect.

I think that love and respect are the foundation of strong karate relationships.  If you love your partner, aggression and competitiveness will be tempered and, when things go wrong, you'll attribute mistakes from your partner as accidents rather than as malicious acts.  Respect is a wonderful baseline for all of our relationships in life, but it has one aspect that I'm particularly interested in today--if you respect your partner you won't patronize and condescend to them.  You'll view them more as equals, not as someone that you have to help get up to your level.  Respect is what takes a training relationship from being hierarchical in some way (rank, age, privilege, whatever), levels it out, and makes it mutually beneficial.  

We have some default rules when it comes to our training relationships in class.  We don't always talk about them, but they're in the manual and they are an important bulwark in reducing the risk of some of these negative aspects becoming part of our training relationships.  Generally, they boil down to a few principles:

* You are only responsible for you when you're in class
* Don't teach, unless you're the teacher
* Don't assume you know more than your partner
* Try not to correct your partner unless their mistake affects your ability to fulfill your role in the drill
* If you need help, call the instructor

Like any bullet list, that's pretty black-and-white.  In reality, you'll find that all of your training relationships are a little bit different.  And, if we teach the way we hope to teach, there will always be room for questions and exploration within our classes.  Sometimes, your instructor will build exploration into the drill and you and your partner will learn to riff and play and discover together.  But our main goal is to avoid situations where students are teaching each other in the class.  For the student doing the "teaching," it means that they are taking their eyes off of themselves and not focusing on their own training.  For the "taught," it can feel patronizing and condescending, and it can derail the intentions of the instructor to lead the student in a step-by-step manner.  Leaving the teaching to the instructors makes class better for both partners.

I know this is running long, but I'm going to just plunk down in here the text from the manual related to training relationships.  It's a little more comprehensive than what I've written and I hope it will round out what I"m trying to get across:

Our practice at Sun Dragon involves a great variety of partner work.  The most basic partnerships include holding a target for another person or simply a few feet away from them and allowing them to reference your body as they practice targeting with techniques without making contact.  As you progress, your partnerships get more complicated, as you memorize and practice choreographed self-defense and sparring sequences, play karate tag, spar, help each other stretch, build up strength with the help of a partner's resistance, block and counter, take turns striking and kicking into each other's unguarded bodies to learn the intricacies of control, perform synchronized kata with another person or a group of people, and the list goes on and on.

In order to learn how to be a good partner, you have to approach both of the roles involved in every partnership with equal diligence, enthusiasm, and care. You need to value the work involved in helping your partner succeed as much as you value your own success. And you must accept the idea that improving difficult partnerships involves honestly evaluating yourself for traces of unexamined fear, arrogance, rigidity, stubbornness, feeble effort, or poor communication instead of automatically blaming your partner for failures in these areas.

One key point to remember is that every single person you partner with is unique and will interpret the very same exercise in a slightly different way. They will also have specific, individual abilities and limitations that affect her ability to partner with you. Never get so caught up in the belt your partner is wearing that you fail to see them as an individual.  Also, never assume that the belt they wear tells the whole story–many of our students have trained in other styles and there may be a black belt lurking behind that blue belt.

Assume that your partner is trying as hard as you are to do the exercise correctly.  Resist the urge to give unsolicited feedback or offer evaluative coaching unless the teacher's explicit instructions call for that.  Of course, situations where one person has failed to hear or understand the basic instructions of how to do the drill will require verbal clarification, but this should be done with as few words as possible, being careful not to talk over the teacher's instructions.  If there is a disagreement as to what the instructor expects of you, you can always ask them!

Always be aware of the social dynamics of your partnership.  Our society has developed in a way that privileges and advantages are granted to people who have certain characteristics.  If you are male, this often means that you are more readily listened to (or you consciously or subconsciously assume that people are going to listen to you) in ways that women and non-binary people are listened to.  Similar advantages apply if you are white, or straight, or if you reside in the majority in other aspects of life in the United States.  If you hold characteristics that typically grant you advantages in your daily life, consciously try to set those aside when you enter the training floor.  If you feel the urge to give instruction to your partner, check that.  Are you an instructor or are you assisting in the class?  Has the class instructor asked you to teach your partner?  Are you in a position to give feedback because you know more than your partner, or are you just doing it because that’s what you always do? Sun Dragon was created as an all-women’s school to be a safe place for women to train, without being talked down to, lorded over, abused, or patronized because of their gender.  That has to remain the case and it must be the case regardless of the characteristics in question.  Open yourself to listening first and always be willing to give up your privilege.

Although senpai are entrusted with the basic task of helping juniors, their efforts to help when they are in the role of a partner should stay focused on doing the exercise with correct technique, enabling the junior to learn by imitation.  Kyoshi Graham and the other instructors have the big picture of each student's training in mind as they teach.  They want to control the amount of input that each person must integrate, to avoid them becoming overwhelmed or confused.  Unsolicited technical feedback from a junior to a senior student is not welcomed, appreciated or appropriate.  In fact, it is considered a serious breach of etiquette since a junior student has not yet walked down the path that her/his senior has and has not yet earned the trust needed to comment on another's art.  However, neither this statement nor the one above is meant to discourage students from sharing their ideas and skills with others both above or below them in rank outside of class, provided the person has asked for help or it is part of a mutual conversation sharing ideas.

Lots of words.  But your partner relationships at Sun Dragon are probably the most important part of your karate training and I think it's worth the time to make sure we have a common view of these relationships and that we do our best to make sure that they are cooperative, mutually beneficial, based on consent, and rooted in love and respect.  Thank you for persevering to the end of this section!