What’s in a name? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Names give meaning and value to things and people. By attaching a name to an experience, an event, a thing, or a person, it signifies that the named thing is both known and important for a reason that is unique solely to the entity that bears the name. There are very few places in modern society where names, lineage, and pedigrees carry as much weight as the martial arts, self-protection, and security communities.
If you have followed our podcast on YouTube for any length of time, you will notice that I avoid dropping names to the greatest extent possible unless it is absolutely vital to the message we are conveying. I have several reasons for this. Primarily, it is an issue of respect. Let’s face it, we are all flawed human beings. As we get older, our memories fail us, or in many cases we may recall events in a different light than those who may have shared the experience with us. I try to avoid recounting events with names attached to them in case there are key details of the event surrounding a key player that have been forgotten. I also avoid identifying names because it creates a false sense of importance, which is pandemic in the martial arts, self-protection, and security professions. Read on.
If you have spent any amount of time around martial artists, a key attribute of their credibility is the lineage in which they hail. I am not a practitioner of BJJ, but this seems to be an important characteristic within their art. Coming from Kyokushin Karate, I can also attest to the importance of lineage. If you meet enough people in the Kyokushin world, you will eventually meet somebody that knows someone that you know. I have often joked that the world of Kyokushin Karate is incestuous, meaning that it is so close knit that sooner or later, we will find out that we are all related somehow. The key point here is this: if you are dropping names in a false pretense, someone will find out about it, and your public teaching persona will pay a heavy toll.
I have spent time in many martial arts schools and around many martial artists. One of the first questions to be asked pertains to your lineage. Who is your instructor? Who was his instructor, and so on and so on. If you go online, you will in short order find a website of a school in which an instructor has “trained under” some pretty famous names. What exactly does “trained under” mean?
In most cases, it means that the instructor doing the name dropping paid to attend a seminar in which a well-known instructor was either a guest or was the lead instructor for the session. Is this an outright lie by stating that you trained under a particular martial arts legend? Maybe not. After all, the person paid to learn from the famous instructor. They were a student, the famous instructor was teaching. The problem here is the lack of etiquette involved. In my opinion, to “train under” an instructor becomes a personal endeavor more so than a professional endeavor. It involves building a personal relationship with the teacher. I have said many times that some of the most important lessons my instructor taught me occurred when we were having supper in his home or when we were riding down country roads in one of our vehicles. Of course, the physical aspects of the martial arts were the key reason we were drawn together. But I was truly “training” under him by getting to know his philosophy. I was learning how he saw the world, and by doing so it allowed me to develop my own views in a way that was strategically sound and would serve a purpose in my own life.
If we proceed solely on the idea that I was standing on the same mat when a certain instructor was teaching, then I have a hefty lineage. I have taken courses, in person, taught by such names as the late Joe Lewis, Bill Wallace, and Yoshio Kuba. Would any of these instructors remember me by name? I highly doubt it, because if you take my idea of having “trained under” an instructor at face value, we were not around each other long enough to establish a personal bond. I am not part of their inner circle. Indeed, I learned some valuable things from them during our time together. But from a deeply personal perspective, I was never their student. Martial arts must be deeply personal if it is to be of any value to a practitioner. That deep value begins with a deeply personal relationship with the teacher.
Name dropping, if done with reckless abandon, can also land you in some very serious trouble.
I recall a story my instructor told me once that occurred when he still lived in England. On one occasion he and his wife took a motorcycle trip from Canterbury to London. One evening after dinner in London, my instructor and his wife were leaving a restaurant and an unknown man physically bumped into my instructor, at which time the unknown gentleman became incensed. His mouth overrode his sensibilities.
“I’ll have you know I’m a trained martial artist. I trained under Gerry Todd!”
Not realizing that he was talking to Gerry Todd in the flesh, he had made two serious mistakes. First, he acted as a ruffian with the wrong man in the presence of his lady. Second, he established himself as a liar and a fraud. It was at this point that the name dropper was walloped alongside his cranium with a steel trash can lid.
“I’m %$#@ing Gerry Todd!” my instructor would reveal to him. We are left to assume that the gentleman regained consciousness. My instructor did say that the motorcycle ride back to Canterbury was scenic, pleasant, and beautiful. The key takeaway here is that name dropping can have negative, unintended consequences, even in one of the largest cities in the world.
Instead of using the names of others, let me offer this idea. Let’s establish our merit based on our own skills and accomplishments. Sure, it is noble and great to train under great instructors. Be proud of that! But as a martial artist, our goal is to move our arts forward. We are artists, which means we create. We should be taking the foundation that was handed down to us to create something more beautiful and useful in the lives of our own students.
My lineage, might you ask? I began my training in 1992 under Bill Daniels in Shito-Ryu Karate. Although we have been estranged for a few years now due to a personal disagreement, I hold him in high esteem, and I am forever grateful to him for introducing me to karate. While in college, I met Tony Geouge of Little River, South Carolina. It was under Tony that my kicking ability was born. He is like a brother to me in every sense of the word. The man I consider to be “my instructor” is Grandmaster Gerry Todd. A native of Canterbury, Kent, England, he has had the most profound impact on my life in martial arts. He is like a second father to me. I am presently affiliated with Shihan Roman Herman of New York as a member of United States Kyokushin. Although I do not get to see Shihan as much as I would like, his friendship and mentorship continue to mean a great deal to me. He is truly a remarkable man.
As the story portrayed here in London has shown, you never know who may be listening. Names mean things.