What a grand title. Trust is really important for people to share in many aspects of life – that should not come as a shock to anyone. But how much of a role does it play in martial arts clubs or other shared-interest communities?
In this article, I would like to share some of my recent thoughts about trust between people in small and large communities, both online and offline, both in general and when sharing a specific interest.
When people trust each other
When people trust each other, they are more willing to do two things: they will be more willing to help each other if they see someone struggling, and they will be more willing to try things or to take some risks because they know that the community is generally helpful and trustworthy.
Both of these results are good. Societies, communities, and teams all tend to be stronger when they can work together as a group to achieve a communal goal. To have synergy is to be able to achieve more than the sum of the component parts, and that’s what a good team is able to do.
Willingness to take risks can sometimes backfire, of course, but many great steps forward have come about when people have been willing to take a risk of some description. It is much easier to show some vulnerability when you trust the people around you, or at least, to let down your defences a bit and allow yourself to show your struggles or difficulties.
Communities where people trust each other tend to be happier and safer and more cohesive. When a martial arts club is like this, members tend to be more willing to experiment and try things out, and tend to do a better job of looking after each other in sparring and other exercises.
When people distrust each other
However, if people don’t really trust each other, then the fabric of society begins to break down. We are not willing to rely on people we don’t trust, we are less likely to ask for their help, and so we are more likely to struggle in silence while developing resentments for those around us.
In business teams or workplace environments, this can lead to hostility, stress, and greatly impaired productivity.
In family environments, it can lead to hostility, stress, and ongoing trouble with relationships.
In communities where people live, it can lead to hostility, stress, curtain twitching, and very strained living conditions.
In martial arts clubs or at events where participants do not trust each other, it can lead to some risky behaviour combined with some very risk averse behaviour, so that people tend not to be on the same page about what we are doing, how we are doing it, or why we are doing it that way. This can in turn lead to a greater chance of injury or damaged equipment, or to a greater number of people deciding to sit out and watch instead of participating fully. This stifles the club or event and can eventually lead to people deciding to leave the club or not returning to events, and so attendance can dwindle and scenes can begin to die off.
A classic and well-known psychology experiment is that of the prisoner’s dilemma. In short, two prisoners each need to decide whether to keep silent or to confess:
- if they both keep silent, they both go to jail for 2 years
- if one stays silent and one confesses, then the person who confesses goes free and the person who stays silent goes to jail for 10 years
- if they both confess, they both go to jail for 5 years
The thought experiment tests how cooperative people are willing to be in order to achieve the best result for both parties, or whether someone is willing to throw the other person under the bus in order to achieve the best result for themselves alone.
An interesting development upon this idea is the evolution of trust game, which expands the prisoner’s dilemma to model some related behaviours and to introduce game theory.
This evolution of trust game models the way that our own communities and clubs interact as well. If people in a community are willing to cooperate then the result can be mutually beneficial. If there is a bad actor present, however, then this can change everyone else’s behaviour to be more defensive, and then people are less willing to take risks or to put themselves out there to help others. It can lead to a cultivation of selfish thinking that, over time, leads to people leaving communities that no longer feel fun or welcoming.
If you are involved with running a club or curating any sort of community, I think it is worthwhile to spend some time thinking about the prisoner’s dilemma and playing the evolution of trust game. Investing even just a little time in this way may help you understand better how to keep your community safe and welcoming for the kind of people you want to have there.
Building trust between members in a martial arts club
To build trust between members in a martial arts club, people need to believe that their fellow club members are going to look after them while training and that injuries will be rare. This is probably the biggest factor, because if there is the worry at the back of anyone’s mind that a particular person hits hard and seems happy enough to hurt others, then people are not going to be willing to train with that person and the whole atmosphere will begin to change for the worse.
Beyond that, people need to trust that the instructors are capable of teaching them what they come to learn at the club. This doesn’t mean that instructors need to be fully certified masters with encyclopaedic knowledge and phenomenal skills; rather, it means that there needs to be alignment between what the club does, how the instructors help people to develop, and why people attend the club.
Honest marketing helps dramatically. If you portray your club as high intensity, hard hitting tournament fencing, but then just mess about during training time, that will alienate the people who come to the club wanting the high intensity training. Similarly, if you say that your club has a strong academic focus, then you need to embody that in your practices, since people will be coming to your club because that statement appeals to them.
There are lots of different ways to develop a healthy club culture. Some of these methods will be more suitable for introverted club leaders, other methods will be more suitable for extroverted club leaders. Some methods might be more appropriate for instructors who have greater or lesser amounts of experience. But it all begins with thinking about what your own strengths and weaknesses are, what sort of club culture you want to have, and what you can realistically do to help this develop.
In the local area where I live, I fear that there really isn’t much trust between people, and the fabric of society is rather threadbare. It’s not the best place to live from this point of view. It shows in the way that people on the local neighbourhood Facebook groups talk about the place – people often express fear or resentment, some people take great pleasure in berating others for every perceived misdemeanour (ranging from complaints about legitimate crimes and anti-social behaviour to complaining about people being the “fun police” for complaining about such things).
There doesn’t seem to be much social cohesion at all – except between people who know that they share similar values and are friends because of that. And this is very similar to cliquey martial arts clubs or events where people only train with a few specific people, because they don’t trust everyone else and don’t feel inclined or motivated to reach out and broaden their social circle. I have witnessed this in clubs and events in the past, and it’s not a very enjoyable experience.
And when it comes to how well people drive on the roads here, I have absolutely no trust at all! Every time I go out in the car, I genuinely fear that some idiot is going to drive into me at high speed. Therefore, driving is something I try to avoid at every opportunity, and it is very similar to how I opt out of high impact fencing when visiting clubs or events when I don’t trust my training partners to be able to look after me while we play with swords.
By comparison, Liverpool HEMA is a place where I can relax during training and sparring sessions, because I do trust everyone to be sensible and to be interested in looking after each other. The fabric is society is strong and cohesive, because the club culture is one where we try hard to look after each other and so we feel able to develop trust in our training partners. It truly brings me joy when I see my students trust each other enough to show some vulnerability or to take some risks with each other in the knowledge that they will be safe because their training partners will look after them. This is exactly the sort of club culture I wanted to create when I started thinking about opening a new club after moving here.
It can often be easy to complain about things because they aren’t perfect. Complaining can be a valuable thing to do, to raise awareness that something isn’t right, but solving those problems requires constructive action. Complaining in the background without constructive action to address the problem is ultimately pointless – and this holds true whether we are discussing social issues in real life, or social or safety issues at a martial arts club or event.
So what do you do in your local area, your social circles, or your martial arts environment to improve the social fabric and help people develop trust for each other?
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.