This is one of my favorite interviews I’ve done so far! Got to be honest. Super interesting and great to chat with Tom who is a gent, but arguably one of the best BJJ grapplers in the UK today. He has been way ahead of the curve and has been teaching online for a number of years now, so it was great to talk all things martial arts with Tom!
We hear about Tom’s background and how his eclectic mix of martial arts training eventually led him to brazilian jiu-jitsu. Through training with Erik Paulson, to sparring Ken Shamrock, we hear about Tom’s experience in martial arts in a time when MMA was on the rise.
We speak about some career highlights in competing, travelling for hours to train with Braulio Estima and a hectic schedule in the days when BJJ wasn’t as popular as it is today. We also speak on the coveted Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Tom’s thoughts on the current state of BJJ in the UK and abroad.
The first part in a two part interview, we hope you enjoy as always and subscribe to The Martial View on YouTube to make sure you catch part 2! Also be sure to check out Tom’s BJJ School Escapology BJJ for some training while we’re in lockdown, as well as his academy when we can get back training together!
A system of hierarchy is something that the Martial Arts, and especially traditional Martial Arts, are built upon. While the elusive and often coveted Black Belt (gasp, oooh, ahhh) should not be the main goal of training, it is often a useful motivational tool for those who struggle with self-discipline and attending class, especially after the initial high of learning a new Martial Art has worn off. So while hierarchy, or belts and levels can be a fantastic tool within the Martial Arts, there are also some drawbacks which are often overlooked or not address.
Levels or grades can be intimidating for those just beginning in the arts.
I am sure we all remember our first ever martial arts class – walking in to a sea of white pajamas, feeling completely out of place and wondering why the hell you walked through the front door in the first place. Let’s face it. Walking in to a room full of people willingly kicking, punching and throwing each other about, and agreeing to participate when you have no clue what you’re doing – can be a little scary.
Of course, those of us that teach know this and should instantly make the new person feel super welcome. We should let them know there is nothing to worry about and that we won’t go in to full on sparring until at least week two right…?
It can still be a little scary however, and the presence of colored belts or grades adds to this intensity. The black belts are the ones to be avoided at all costs as they are basically ninjas and you can just stand at the side of the class with the other white belts, desperately trying to remember your left and right as a fully grown man or woman. All while doing your best to ensure you don’t make a nasty stain in your beautiful new white gi bottoms…
At no time is this more prevalent than at major seminars. I have been lucky enough to attend a number of seminars with high ranking instructors in various martial arts and often saw the instructors gathered together. Black and brown belts together, and then lower grades together, both in training and socially after.
In training at these events, if you can pluck up the courage to ask a brown or black belt to train with you as a beginner, this can be a big deal, but I remember seeing the disappointment on their face at being paired with a lower grade. The clock watching from them began and you could tell, they just weren’t feeling it. This obviously left me… and I’m sure other beginners, feeling a little dejected! I seemed to be an annoyance and someone holding them back from really achieving the maximum in their training, and this happened on a number of occasions, not just with myself, but with many other lower grades I talked to. Black belts trained with the black belts and the white belts trained together slowly mastering the art of putting one foot in front of the other without falling over from nerves.
This seemed an unspoken rule but saying this I have been to other seminars where the visiting instructor has actively encouraged the senior grades to train with the lower grades for a while, before then training with someone equal in terms of experience. This does however, seem the minority, not the majority.
This – as stated above, also translated to hierarchy off the mats at the socials afterwards. The post training beer at the local boozer and meal would see a similar situation. Instructors and high ranking students sitting on a table together, laughing, joking and drinking. While lower students would often be on a separate table, missing out on the experiences and stories from the high ranking instructor’s years in the arts. It seemed as though this almost had to be earned in a way – an almost VIP to hang around with the cool kids!
Is this the way it should be?
Levels or grades can lead to some delusions of grandeur.
We have all done it and all been there. The new “black belt dickhead”. You’ve just got your black belt, you think you’re the dog’s danglies. You walk into the dojo, chest out, head high, smiling and nodding to all the stupid lower grades that know jack shit.
This could last a day, a week, a month, but at some point – you will realize. You are not the dog’s danglies, your head will go down, your chest will sink in and you will realize you are that dickhead you took the piss out of when you were a white belt. The guy who thinks he knows it all!
For some this can take quite a long time to realize. For others, they have yet to realize…
But in terms of the arts, this can be an issue. As a black belt, you instantly want to start teaching and imparting the knowledge you have acquired. But here’s the thing. It may not be all that good!
Sure you have a black belt. But that just means you have put the hours in and know the techniques/requirements to pass the grade. Oh my friend, the journey is just beginning ad you have such a long way to go until you are ready to impart the knowledge you think you are capable of!
Sure you can help out with some basics, but trying to teach too much too soon can just be more detrimental than anything. You can teach bad habits which then need to be un-learnt by the student. Or, heaven forbid, you teach something that is completely the opposite or in contradiction to what your instructor is trying to convey, be it in a class or seminar.
For some, black belt means you are ready to teach and nearly at the end of your journey, this is completely the wrong attitude and can be a problem with having this hierarchical nature in the martial arts – especially the traditional ones.
At the end of the day, we are all just students
We are all just students of the martial arts at the end of the day, whether you have been training for one month or for 10 years, you still want to just improve yourself and learn more. The best teachers and martial artists are those that continue to learn even though they are considered by many to be at the very top of their game. An excellent example of this can be Guro Dan Inosanto. In an interview done with one of his top students – the legendary Bob Breen in my book Martial Masters Volume 1 – Bob talks about Dan’s day to day routine and how he is constantly on the go and learning new arts, be it in striking or ground such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu!
Hierarchy can sometimes hinder this when we think we have reached the illustrious black belt, we can rest on our laurels and chill. This should be where the training really ramps up, test what you know, evolve it, develop it and make the style uniquely your own – Bruce Lee Style.
How many of us truly do this however, and how many of us simply think we know what we are doing now all due to the fact we now have a different colored bit of cloth around our waste? We all unfortunately have an ego, and we all like it when that ego is massaged, especially on the mats.
The traditional martial arts can be a great place to have your ego massaged as once you reach black belt you are sometimes placed on a pedestal and thought to have more knowledge than others. This is fine until it’s tested and if you can back up the goods, awesome, if not. Your ego may be a little bruised rather than massaged.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a great example here of an art that has adapted more to this hierarchical system through competition. Any newbie walking into a new BJJ class should know that they will be tapped out… a lot. It is part of the process and keeps your ego in check from the get go.
Even at black belt level, competitors still compete or even just roll with their students, and it takes one mistake to be caught in a submission and realize that you are not invincible and some sort of black belt demi-god! Sure you should be tapped out WAY less than a white belt, but it can still happen! Yet how many traditional martial arts have this same mentality where the instructor is shown to be a mere human?!
For me, martial arts are about ego checking and we often tell our students to leave their ego’s at the door when they train. How many instructors follow through with this too however…?
Always interested to hear your thoughts… Let me know!
It’s a well known fact that many people quit martial arts after achieving their black belt. I’ve always wondered why this is?! Do they think that once black belt is achieved, that that’s the end of the journey, there’s nothing more to learn? If they are studying martial arts for self defence, do they have the misguided belief that they are now indestructible and able to effectively protect themselves in all situations based on the skills they have acquired? If they are looking at martial arts for fitness or the acquisition of techniques, do they feel they have reached the peak with nothing more to learn? Or is it that the black belt as an image is so engrained in the martial arts, this is what people aim for, not the study of the martial arts itself?
Everyone who has looked at martial arts in any depth knows that there is a distinct difference between martial arts and effective, real world self defence. This was highlighted and emphasised recently in my three part interview with one of the leading figures in the self defence world – Geoff Thompson (Link to part one of interview can be found here). Geoff attained a high grade and skill set in the martial arts, but found through his real world experience that his training in the traditional martial arts had given him overall, a very poor impression of real world violence. We constantly see martial arts schools offering effective self defence training for those that join up, but you have to ask yourself, what is this based on? Does the instructor have any experience of real world violence, or has his self defence experience to date been based on techniques practiced with a partner in the comfort of the dojo or academy? An image is associated with martial arts, and with the idea of a black belt. You think martial arts, you think Karate Kid, you think Bruce Lee, able to defeat anyone with his bad-ass skills! Someone finds out you hold a black belt in a martial art and the usual response is either “Oh better not mess with you then”! or “Waaaaaayaaaaaaa show me some moves karate kid”! I like to think a very small minority of people sign up to the martial arts purely for training in self defence, as martial arts can offer so much more than this and to join for this reason is a very one dimensional view. I like to think an even smaller amount believe that once they achieve that somewhat illustrious rank of black belt, they are now able to handle themselves effectively in any given situation! Teachers or academies that promote this view are in my opinion dangerous, giving people false ideas that if you learn the techniques and achieve the grades, it will then make you effective in a real world situation.
I hope the view above really is the tiny, minuscule, teeny weeny proportion of people who study martial arts, but it still begs the question as to why people seem to leave after achieving the rank of black belt? I was always told that achieving black belt means you have a solid understanding of the basics – that’s it! Now it’s time to really start getting into the technical detail and that for me was the driving force behind my training. I wanted to get more in depth information and try (and mostly fail) to understand the trickier concepts associated with the martial arts and this was due to my instructors. I wanted to do what they did, to throw with that amount of power, to be that quick and to have that knowledge. The fact that they had a black belt around their waist wasn’t nearly as important to me as the knowledge they transmitted. I’m fortunate, I’ve had good instructors, but I wonder if some schools or academies simply wish to get people to black belt as quickly as possible so that they can say they have “progressed 100 or more people to black belt status”. I’m all for martial arts becoming more recognised within the business community, the same as personal training or yoga has become, but quality still needs to be assured. On-line courses to achieve black belt, or quicker promotions to black belt done internally in order to set up more satellite schools are in my opinion a waste of time. The belt means nothing, the knowledge acquired on the road to the belt is what matters. Those rushed through a course, or promoted quicker than usual to become an instructor can easily miss the details needed to teach, leading to a dilution of the martial art, and frankly, people making it up as they go along. Have you ever trained with someone who had an instructor level status, but could barely perform basic movements and was unwilling to answer questions as to why we do the movements and the reasoning behind them? I know I have and it makes you question how these people became instructors. Maybe some people are rushed through these belt progressions, ultimately to gain a black belt, then when that belt is achieved, the realisation sets in that they are not a rarity as they have a black belt, and that their knowledge is not what they first thought it was. Some people may either rise to this challenge and want to achieve more, whereas others may simply go “well I’ve got my black belt, that’s the main thing, let’s start working on something else now”
People may quit a martial art once they’ve reached black belt for a variety of reasons, but it’s interesting to analyse possible reasons so that instructors can set up safeguards to this happening. Black belt is the start of the fun in my opinion, where you get into the more technical aspects and start looking at the art in more depth. Instructors should acknowledge this from the get go, saying that black belt is only the first rung on a very large ladder! Courses that promise a black belt in 6 weeks, or 6 months are one-dimensional and will lead to more dilution of the martial arts! Try doing a 6 week on-line business course then going out and teaching it. I’m sure it would be exceptionally difficult as the underlying understanding and deeper knowledge simply isn’t there. Good instructors can draw from experience and knowledge to provide insight and effective transmission of learning. Poor instructors simply teach the syllabus as it was taught to them then make the rest up as they go along. Martial artists need to realise that black belt is only the first stage and that so much more learning is required. The image of a black belt is engrained within society through media, yet the reality is a very different image.
The Man Behind The Fence – Geoff Thompson Interview Part 3
In the third and final part of an interview with Geoff Thompson, Geoff discusses his current projects, as well as his thoughts on personal development and plans for the future. Part 1 and 2 of the interview can be found here and here.
So what would you say is your main focus now? Is it the martial arts, the writing, the screen plays, the self help? Or is it all the same in the end?
It’s all the same really; everything I do is just about personal development. All the writing and screen plays are storytelling, that’s what I do, I go out and tell stories and help to heal people through telling stories and then it heals me too. It’s all martial arts at a high level; it’s all budo, being of service to the world and being of service to yourself. I’m trying to fine tune the story-telling so it focusses on this kind of thing – interviews, keynote speaking, writing, screenplays and a bit of martial arts teaching too which is just purely movement and `misogi`. All the elements fall back into the same theme of storytelling. If you see someone down and out sleeping on the street, it’s due to the fact that they heard the wrong story and are unconsciously acting and surrendering to that story. Equally you could go to Mayfair and see someone turning over half a billion a year and running a philanthropic enterprise he’s there due to another story, a better story. Our stories are powerful it’s who we are, so our duty is to tell stories of truth and as you grow, your stories change. My story as a doorman was one of violence, it’s not the same now, and I keep evolving. As Ghandi said, our job is not to be consistent with the past, it is to be consistent with the truth, and the truth keeps changing as we evolve. It all comes back to personal development but at a higher and finer level.
Ok, let’s talk about the pure function course; is this a development of the 100 hour master class course you have previously run?
It’s come from the master class and black belt course; it’s a combination of them and my self-sovereignty course, it’s a combination of philosophy, movement and internal exercises. This is course which has grown organically through all the other courses I have run, some martial arts, some esoteric and some storytelling such as keynote speaking. This one brings it all together because we need all of them to make pure exchanges of energy in life. If I can teach someone to throw the perfect right cross and make a pure exchange of energy when I throw that technique, that perfection can become the template for everything, the template for a better life, a better body, a better relationship or business. If we master one thing we master all things. Once we understand that all human endeavour is about the exchange of energy – money/health/relationships – we can concentrate on making those exchange as pure as possible Everywhere you go you can exchange pure energy with people, sometimes money exchanges, sometimes knowledge or information exchanges. So the course has evolved over a number of years.
There’s a dynamic formed in group work where people ask questions, things come up and things are drawn out of people that seem peripheral to the course, but they’re due to the course as it is designed to encourage and nurture the highest potential. It’s a 6 month course and people have to attend all 6 sessions.
Ok! Finally, what’s on the cards for the next year, 2 years, 10 years etc?
I’ve been working a lot in Theatres recently, again telling stories to a high level. I’ve just recently been doing some work at the National Theatre developing a stage play. We’ve just finished a film called `The Pyramid Texts` which is a discourse on fear. `Fragile` – another stage play I’ve written – has just finished an acclaimed run in Edinburgh and is coming to London next year. That’s a great example of internal enquiry, misogi (cleaning) or budo, it is basically me writing about the trauma and abuse I experienced as a child and the aftermath. It is a very visceral play, it has a weird effect on people and is very powerful. Reviewers give it 5 stars, but then say we don’t recommend you go and see it, this should have a health warning (laughs). It’s basically me, getting an actor in a room and acting out my demons through a story and then allowing 50-100 audience members each night help me to clean it. Abuse is a possession and when we forgive and when we write honestly about our trauma, it cleans it, it’s an exorcism of old cognitions and beliefs.
We’ve just finished a film beautiful film called `The 20 Minute Film Pitch` and I am now working on a film called `Romans` with Ray Winstone, which is feature version of my short film Romans 12;20. All the projects are storytelling, using honest narratives to help other people to change their story. Films and theatre are very important and need to ensure they stay funded as storytelling is such an intrinsic part of our genetic makeup and can really change people’s perceptions.