Today, I want to run a weird little video/article I did called Sweep Dojo. For those not familiar with the term, I shall explain shortly but it’s a little bit of a weird piece Esoteric isn’t the right word although I might call it philosophical. By that I don’t mean the pointless navel gazing that most philosophy seems to represent. Rather it represents part of my philosophical approach to training and coaching.
So let’s find out what it means to sweep dojo.
What Does Sweep Dojo Even Mean?
Anyone with a martial arts background probably recognizes the phrase Sweep Dojo. Even without the background, you might know what it means if you watched Kung-Fu movies. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, let me explain.
In the most literal sense, the idea of sweep dojo is something that comes out of very classical martial arts training. By this I mean the type you might see in Buddhist monasteries. Seekers of booting to the head would often be required to spend some time doing nothing but sweeping the dojo, the training area, initially. The book Snow Crash actually had a cute take on this.
There were many reasons for this. For example, it showed the acolyte’s dedication. If they couldn’t do this one task, they certainly didn’t have the ability to dedicate themselves to training. Sweeping dojo also helps to reduce the student’s ego. It tells them that no matter what they think of themselves, they are not above this simple task.
It also showed their fealty and respect for their master, for the teaching and for the process. And if they weren’t willing to do this simple thing, they could go elsewhere. It was really that simple.
You sweep dojo or you leave.
My First Experience Sweeping Dojo
There has always been a fairly odd link between weight training and the martial arts with many people doing both. When martial arts started to get big in America in the 80’s, there were even Tae Kwon Do/Nautilus facilities. You’d go do TKD and then run the Nautilus circuit. Ah, the 80’s.
Like so many I grew up watching martial arts movies. The ninja craze was on during the 80’s and I consider Ninja Domination an under-appreciated classic. This is probably because it stars the actress from Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
For example, Sho Kosugi always impressed me with his ability to pull an 8′ naginata (bladed spear) out of his ninja suit. I wondered where he kept it.
I had the same thought about the Highlander TV series when Duncan would pull a sword out while wearing only a bathing suit. Where did he hide it? But I digress.
In high school through one of my mom’s friends I started doing Tae Kwon Do. This was about the time I was getting involved in sports in the first place. My high school had mandatory sports and at one point I was on the swim team, cycling, and doing martial arts.
My teacher/master was Ricardo Patton, possibly one of the most amazing athletes I’ve ever met. He was strict but fair and I got my first exposure to sweep dojo. Not in a literal sense, mind you. That sort of thing wouldn’t fly with impatient Americans (yeah, yeah, patience how long is THAT going to take). I learned to sweep dojo in a more figurative sense.
As a white belt, I deferred to everyone. It didn’t matter their age, sex or race. I did what I was told by whomever was a higher belt level than me. And if I didn’t, I got (fairly) punished. That’s how it works. You didn’t show disrespect to higher belts, only respect. You shut up and swept dojo or you paid the price (or left the class).
Once I got caught practicing one of the higher belt’s forms. I had learned it simply by watching. But in doing something above my belt level, I was showing disrespect to my master and those of a higher belt. And I was rightfully punished.
Specifically, Mr. Patton told me to “Do knuckle pushups until he got tired.”
Where it got interesting was a year or two later. At this point I was a higher belt level. But due to being at the university, we would have a crew of college students looking for an elective every semester. And as white belts they would have to defer to me as a higher colored belt. And I can only imagine what a metaphorical kick in the nuts that was, having to say “Yes, Sir” to a 16 year old.
But I carried a lot of the lessons from that experience forward in my life. At least one of them was a newfound respect for women. Because once you’ve had your ass kicked by a higher belt level woman sparring, you learn some valuable lessons. You learn something anyhow.
More relevant to this piece, that experience impacted on how I approach both coaching and being coached throughout my entire career. So here are some more examples of sweeping dojo.
My First Two Powerlifters
In the early 2000’s, I would approach the first two women I would train for powerlifting. I had watched them training at my gym for over a year. They had drive and intensity but they lacked focus and structure. So I approached them with an offer to coach, they bought my patter and I took over their training.
And I made it clear from the start that there were three ways of doing things as my athlete:
The right way, the wrong way, and my way (this is an old military joke).
Because at least initially they were to do what they were told even if they didn’t like it. They needed technique work so we stripped the bar back and worked on it. Don’t like it? Tough. Find another coach.
And for at least the first 6 months this is how that worked. They did what they were told and didn’t get an opinion. They had to shut up and sweep dojo.
Dictatorial? Sure. Autocratic? Yup. But that’s how I do things. At least initially.
Because eventually they got an opinion. At one point I made a change to training and one of my athletes felt it wasn’t benefitting them. Because eventually, they could feel what I couldn’t necessarily see. So I considered what they said, made the change and that was it.
That isn’t to say I always agreed with them or said yes to their suggestions. But at that point they had earned an opinion. Most of them time I still expected them to sweep dojo. I just wasn’t quite as absolutist about it.
Sometimes You Always Have to Sweep Dojo
This is different than how it works in martial arts to be sure. You never get an opinion that questions your master. Not unless you defeat him in single combat to take over the school.
I daresay that in most Eastern European countries it doesn’t work that way either. But that tends to reflect the nature of those countries. The coaches are the coaches and the athletes do what they are told. There are occasional exceptions where athletes take over some of their own training. But that’s not generally the case.
For the most part, that type of approach doesn’t get you far in America. We are too much of independent assholes to be coached that way all the time except maybe in a few sports. Generally, you have to give American athletes a little bit of a say or they rebel. So I give my athletes just enough of a say that they don’t rebel.
Still No Regrets
In 2005, for reasons of my own, I would leave Austin and move to Salt Lake City to pursue ice speed skating. And within a month or two meet the man who would be my coach for the entire 5.5 years I was incarcerated there. When I met him, I basically interviewed him to make sure we were on the same page. I believe in technique, quality and specificity over all. He did too. In fact he coached a lot like Charlie Francis.
In his youth he had made the Olympic trials before overtraining himself into exhaustion. When I met him he had 27 years of coaching experience. He had put athletes into Olympic trials and several onto the Olympic team. Simply, he had the credentials to back it up. That’s a big part of why I hired him.
Now at this point I had a solid decade of coaching/training people. And 15-20 years of training myself. That included nearly a decade of inline skating. It wasn’t as if I was a total noob.
He even acknowledged that I was better in the weight room than him. But he worked with late starting older athletes and just kept it basic there. He just wanted to get them strong and that’s what his program did. I didn’t agree with all of it but it didn’t matter what I thought at this point.
This was a man who knew the sport with 27 years of experience, a master coach. I was new to this side of the sport. Who the fuck was I to question him? I did everything he said, even the things I disagreed with. Why would I hire him otherwise? So I shut up and swept dojo for the first 2.5-3 years.
But I also picked his brain relentlessly, so I could learn the sport inside and out. And by about year 3 I would discuss ideas I had with him about my training. Usually it was weight room or bike stuff, only very occasionally what we did on the ice.
He’d consider it and either say yes or no. If he said no, there was no discussion and it was off the table. But if he said yes, I’d implement the change. So long as it didn’t harm my performance, I’d keep it. But any negative effects on my skating and we’d drop it back out and that was the end of it.
Even when I got an opinion, if he felt it did more harm than good, I’d shut up and sweep dojo.
Twenty Years of Training to Sweep the Dojo
And that brings us to now and my current trainee, another female powerlifter (you know who she is). She had 20 years of training under her belt but decided to get into powerlifting. I had worked with her on and off over the years and already knew her and her training response a bit. But after her first meet, for various reasons, I took over her coaching full time.
At which point her 2 decades in the weight room ceased to matter to me. Like my first two powerlifters nearly 15 years before, I made her shut up and sweep dojo, at least initially. Her technique needed a lot of work and she had to get past her more typically “male” ego driven approach to training. She’d always want to push max weights and let technique slide. That’s not how I do things.
And for the first year or so that’s what happened. I coached, and she listened. And she didn’t get an opinion. Presumably I knew more about the sport than her and that meant she got to train and learn before she got to talk.
But at the end of that year, she had earned an opinion. We went to meet and something went wrong on her third squat. We discussed it during debriefing and she felt that parts of her training weren’t preparing her. I listened, I considered, and I agreed. So we changed it and never looked back. Once she even negotiated me into letting her do less deadlift reps in a workout since I had her do more of something else. But that was a one-off that won’t happen again.
Even now 2.5 years later, it still mostly works that way. I coach and she listens and sweeps dojo.
Other Aspects of Sweep Dojo
I’d mention, mainly to make it synch with the video a bit better that there is more to sweep dojo than just doing what you’re told. Yes, part of it is showing discipline and dedication. Some of it is setting your ego aside. But part of it is showing respect. Respect to the master, respect to the training space, respect to the process.
I feel this way in the gym: you should respect the equipment and the training space. You don’t throw plates down because you had a bad lift. And you certainly don’t spike the bar or shit like that. That will get you kicked out and dropped.
And you always clean up. I make it a goal to leave the gym as clean if not cleaner than when we went in. I put away the plates, wipe down the bars of chalk, put everything into place where it belongs. You shouldn’t know we were even there after we’ve left.
Even now, with 30 years of training and 20 years of coaching under my belt,
I still always sweep dojo. I always will.
What is the Point of This?
So what is the point about my babbling about sweeping the dojo? I’m not sure I have one. I think what spurred me to write this piece was re-reading an old Milo that had an article about the Polish Olympic lifting team. Among other things, it described how the athletes would put the plates away and then sweep and mop their platform when they were done. It didn’t matter if the athlete was a beginner or a gold medalist, they all did it after every workout.
In doing this they showed respect to the coach, to the other athletes, to the equipment, to the training space, to the process.
Because no matter what level you reach, nobody is ever too good to sweep dojo.
- Just Do the Program
- No Regrets Part 5
- No Regrets Part 3
- Winter of Discontent – Book Review
- Coaching Yourself