Surviving Criticism

For a certain kind of arty girl, reading Plath was like reading the French existentialists. She let us see that the way we felt—that ache of being alive—was something that other people felt, too.

Meg Wolitzer “My Mademoiselle Summer” (New York Times, Sunday July 21, 2013)

Several weeks back, people noticed something wrong with my technique. When I moved, the upper and lower parts of my body didn’t work together. My punches were driven by my shoulders rather than coming from my core. My techniques were top heavy when they should have emerged from the floor up. They were right. I was ungrounded: my blocks and strikes were weak.

I worked on correcting this problem. I did katas in slow motion. I practiced in front of a mirror. I started each class with a mantra. “Ground yourself, ground yourself, ground yourself,” I whispered.

No-one noticed.

“I’ve spoken about this before,” an instructor said. “You need to work on this.”

“You don’t say,” I thought.

Sometimes, when an instructor gives an instruction, other students raise their hands to give additional feedback. If we’re working on upper blocks, for example, someone will say, “Don’t forget to move your hand diagonally across your chest.” Or, “Remember to breathe.” On occasion, after a student does an excellent kata demonstration, someone will make a comment that focuses on what the student has done wrong.

I’m glad that people care about the quality of technique in our dojo. Rigor is good. In a self-defense situation, my ability to defend myself depends on the precision of my blocks and strikes. Also, karate is an art, and I strive for perfection in all the art forms I practice.

But critique can be hard to take. I started leaving classes feeling discouraged. I considered taking a break from the dojo. Most of all, I wasn’t having fun anymore.

Around the same time, something happened outside the dojo that made me reflect further on the subject of criticism. I was walking my kids to school. My daughter (age seven) had broken her ankle and was hobbling along (at a brisk pace, trying to pretend she was just fine, thank-you) in a walking cast. My son (age four) zipped ahead of me on a scooter.

On the parent monitoring scale, I’m probably smack in the middle of the “helicopter parenting” and the “laissez-faire” poles. On my book shelf, Anthony Wolf’s The Secret of Parenting sits beside Tom Hodgkinson’s (yes, the editor of The Idler) The Idle Parent. On the walk to school, while I let my kids go ahead of me, I also watched them, particularly my son, who has a tendency to forget that I’ve asked him to: “make sure you can see Mama at all times.”

Suddenly, a man in his late twenties who was walking in the opposite direction did a little sidestep and circled around so that he could start walking beside me. I flicked my eyes at him, all the while trying to see my children, who were weaving in and out Bloor Street’s morning commuters.

“You should keep an eye on your children,” he said.

“Pardon?”

“Your children.”

“Right,” I said. By now, my son was at the intersection of Bloor and Spadina. He had stopped a few meters before the street, as I had instructed him to do, and was looking back at me. “I am, thanks.” I hurried forward.

“You don’t want your daughter to break her other leg.”

“Actually,” I said. “She broke it on the playground.” I was distracted, trying to keep an eye on both kids. My daughter was now approaching her brother. Soon, the light would turn green.

“Oh,” he said, still walking beside me. “I can’t blame you for that, then.”

I turned to him. “No,” I said. “You can’t.”

He looked at my face, changed his mind about what he was going to say next, did an about-face and walked quickly in the other direction.

One way to deal with a critic is to confront him, head-on. If you think someone’s wrong, tell them so, as I started to do in the above instance, before the helpful stranger decided that he’d rather not deal with a karate-ka in a bad mood.

As for criticism in the dojo, if you disagree with someone respectfully, things should go well. Either they’ll politely disagree with you or they’ll apologize for being over-zealous in their teaching. (When it comes to dealing with a Sensei, however, you should use your discretion. Never criticize a Sensei in front of others. If you strongly disagree with him, you may want to approach him privately, and always with careful respect. My experience is that in the case of disagreeing with a Sensei, you should first address the matter with other, more senior students.)

In my case, I knew that the criticism was fair. I needed a means of improving my technique while preserving my love of karate. In other words, in my karate practice, I want to keep making room for joy.

I was once in a meditation workshop with Zen teacher and poet Peter Levitt. One of his students, a middle-aged woman, complained about her struggle to run her own business. She was sitting on a mat, her neck curved foreword, her brown hair hanging in separate strands around her shoulders. “I’m working so hard,” she said.

Peter gazed at her. “Try to work soft,” he said.

These days, I’m pursuing the soft core of my karate practice. I practice basic katas. I’ve slowed everything down and use my breath, not only to guide each technique, but to revel in it. Sometimes, I take a break from the dojo. I do other things: I hike, swim, run, play piano. Each time, I return to class refreshed, eager to meet again what attracted me to the art in the first place, and to find new ways to practice.

As for class atmosphere, my co-instructor and I have decided to focus on giving positive feedback to students. After all, educational research shows that positive feedback is more effective than negative critique at motivating students. We want to demand rigor from our students, yes, but we also want to enable them to experience the joy of practice. We want our students to have fun.

A couple of weeks ago, I joined instructors and students at a local pub to mark a colleague’s retirement from the dojo. People ate and chatted. Their stories often surprised me, revealing aspects of their personalities that the dojo’s conventions, which required a certain impersonal interaction, usually hid. These are nice people, I thought. They aren’t criticizing me to be mean, but to be helpful. By the end of the evening, I felt tenderness for everyone: for myself and my imperfect technique, and for my colleagues and their well-meaning criticism.

Clearly, I thought, if one is feeling bogged down by criticism, if previous strategies have failed to stem the flow of self-pity, one should break bread with one’s colleagues.

 I’ve been working on something new. Coming soon:

 

KARATE GIRL (A serial comic strip, in collaboration with talented illustrator Hannah Wachs)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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