dojo mats

Lessons From Cleaning Mats

It was a hot Sunday afternoon in June 2017 – the air thick with Alabama brand humidity soup. Duncan and I were outside with a 6 pack of beer, two of the cheapest mops Dollar General has to offer, a 5 gallon bucket, “CloverValley” knockoff dish soap and paper towels (I think I spent $10 on the entire outfit), a garden hose, and a giant stack of the black foam mats we train on at our dojo. 

dojo mats

Said mats had been stored wet when it had rained on the way back from a self-defense class our group had put on at Hoover Tactical the week prior. They had taken on the odor of a public swimming pool bathroom, like forgotten soggy beach towels, due to mildew. The smell was stinking up our training space, and frankly it was just gross, so Duncan and I met up post Father’s Day family festivities (did I mention it was Father’s Day?) to remedy the situation… and to have a couple beers but mostly to clean the dead skunk smell off our mats.

After our first couple mat mopping attempts, we developed a system. We would spread out about 10 at a time and one of us would mop a row while the other rinsed, then the mopper would flip them and head back the other way. This worked well for a few minutes, until a few drops of rain started speckling the ground around us. I looked at Duncan and said something like, “Well, I don’t care.” He indicated that he didn’t either, so we kept at it and within another minute we were in the middle of a monsoon level turn-on-your-flashers-on-the-interstate and maybe even a pull-over-and-wait-it-out style summer downpour. 

We took a second to kick off our soaked shoes and socks, because that shit is nasty, and we continued mopping, now rinsing with the help of Mother Nature. The rain was so hard we were basically yelling to hear each other. I hate to get too poetic in a martial arts blog, but there was something at least mildly magical about being absolutely drenched and not giving a damn against the background white noise of burly rain drops smashing into the thirsty ground below. I’ll stop. 

The rain subsided after maybe an hour of cleaning, and we moved on to the next phase. If we stored the mats with any moisture on them, we would be back at smelly square one. Instead, we shredded about 4 rolls of paper towels on their textured surface, drying them one-by-one and chatting over a beer. While we were drying and at some point just after I threw a beer bottle up in the air to see if it would break on its return to the asphalt (newsflash: yes), we both had a thought at the same time….

I expressed it, but Duncan was thinking the same thing – a running theme between us considering we have right hooked each other in the face in tandem, gone for front chokes and ankle locks on one another at the same time, and generally caught a lot of funny moments together, communicated with a glance and followed by repressed laughter. 

Our shared thought was essentially this: we are here doing this… because it is what we do. Ah, now the meat of the story. We both said, admittedly a little high on the badassery of doing dojo labor in harsh weather conditions, “old-school style,” that our motivation for being there in the first place was that it was simply what we do as students of martial arts.

Cleaning the dojo, helping to move equipment, setting up and tearing down, volunteering to be “bad guys” at defense classes, mopping our ass-scented mats on Father’s Day in a thunderstorm – these are all part of the package, we both agreed. 

But why is that? Well, there are always the worn out self-discipline mantras hanging in Japanese script on dojo walls around the world, and that’s probably part of it, cliché though it may seem. I don’t think that’s the whole story when it comes to stereotypical martial artsy behavior, however. We are more than Daniel-sans looking for Mr. Miyagi’s to teach us self-denial and blocking through household chores. In this case, our teacher wasn’t even there to transmit bo staff techniques through mop handle maneuvers anyway. We had just come to do the thing because it’s what we do. 

I’ve struggled to put the exact reasoning behind this into words, which is why this writeup comes a year late, even though I first discussed it with our teacher the week of the Great Mat Cleaning. At first I DID think we were talking about the self-discipline aspect of training, but after mulling it over a bit more, I think we were actually out there because of our love for training and for our dojo. 

We are willing to sacrifice our time and money ($10 at the local DG, in this case) to make our equipment not smell like wet dog in a sulfur spring. That’s easy because we love taijutsu. It’s not really a grandiose display of selflessness for either of us to give up a weekend to have strangers beat us up at a Personal Protective Measures course. We do that because we love training

What I’m saying is that any self-disciplinary aspects of service to our dojo are somewhat secondary. Sometimes when you try to make something about self-discipline, your ego will make it about self-service anyway. I would argue there is a greater force at work, which is, once more, our love for training itself.

So with all of that said, if you say that you love training too, where the hell are you? It is not uncommon for us to hear people rant and rave about martial arts, but then those same people, who often talk the loudest, are nowhere to be found when shit needs getting done. It makes me wonder if your martial art is really that important to you if you won’t sweep the dojo floor, for example.

Maybe you’re one that posts self-defense articles on social media or comments on posts about training, but you only show up once in a blue moon and then flake out, time and again, after promising your teacher and yourself that you’ll be there next Monday. Maybe there’s always an excuse to miss class (not even the extra-mile stuff) because you don’t actually care about it that much. 

I’ve dabbled in a lot of arts and as such I’m often pondering the universal aspects of artistry itself. I wonder what do a great painting, a great poem, a great guitar solo, a great story, and great taijutsu all have in common? Practice (good, solid practice) is certainly a contributing factor, as has been suggested numerous times by people like Gladwell with his 10,000 hour rule. But the word “practice” is a mental cheese grater to the 8th grade violin player who’s only motivation is her parents insistence that she be musically proficient. 

Already in my young martial arts career I have met many in the same boat as a child being forced to practice what they don’t actually love, only it is the person forcing himself to train because the idea of doing martial arts sounded good on paper. I believe that is a trap that many fall into. 

I’ve never been one for conclusions, although I have always been one for self-aware remarks about my poor conclusions. But in conclusion, I think you should probably just shit or get off the pot. If you love training like you say you do, I would expect to see your ass (figurative) at mat cleaning sessions and at training events or at the very least, doing regular dojo maintenance or sharing Facebook posts to promote what you supposedly love. 

And if all that sounds like too much and even training regularly is too demanding of your time, I’d suggest you probably don’t love it at all, and maybe you should find something better to do – something you can actually pour your heart into – because life is too short waste bullshitting yourself. 

Shit or get off the pot. If you love it, live it. If you don’t, find something you can do that with.

Leave a Comment