An Interview with Shihan Pete Smedley

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Pete grew up in Tyabb, Victoria and started training in martial arts at the age of 18. He trained under Kyoshi Nigel Kendall in Mornington, became a full-time Martial Arts instructor and gained the title ‘Shihan’, which is an honourific title that translates as ‘Master Instructor’ in Japanese.

Shihan Pete has been running Amphibian Dojos in Mornington Peninsula for 11 years. I (Lottie Seymour) caught up with him to talk about the group sessions he runs for I Matter Foundation all over Victoria.

What appeals to you about teaching these classes?

I really like teaching people to have self empowerment. I’m not going to teach anybody how to feel anything, I show them how to do it themselves. Maybe if people don’t have much physical ability or sporting ability or even mobility, I start showing them what they can do and set the bar just out of reach and then encourage them to reach the bar, then I move the bar a little bit more.

I like communicating with people. Connecting with others is a skill I’ve developed over time – I did a fair bit of community radio and really enjoyed having guests in the studio. I was genuinely excited by what people could share and bring on air, so I suppose that excitement is something I bring to the classes.

What does a general class consist of?

I normally do a warm up, we’ll talk about how we’re feeling, then we play some connectivity games. I get a nice vibe going, everybody starts to have a laugh and a good time and people realise we’re not going to be doing anything overly serious. Then I teach some fundamentals of self-protection. Depending on the group, sometimes we can learn more advanced principles, everything from defensive posture to evasion to striking back, but only particular groups work in that area.

Sometimes I like to check a little bit of resilience, like asking a participant do to fifteen push ups with me and then we talk about how long you can last and the psychology behind that, encouraging them to do better. I use affirmations a lot; I get people to lift their voice and come out of their shell. Then we have a nice stretch and wind down and reflection about how we’ve been feeling over the course of the class. Some classes run for about an hour, some for an hour and a half, yesterday’s one was two hours because we really got into some deep stuff which was great.

Where do the classes take place?

All over, yesterday I was in the North Eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It was the first time I’d worked with this group so I had to get to know them, have a cup of tea and a chat. We hung out for a little while then we trained for a bit, then we sat down and had lunch. It was really interesting after training because people trust you more and reveal a bit more about their circumstances. It’s a nice debrief and expression session.

Do you work with the same people over a certain period of time?

Yeah and it’s all confidential, so whatever people say to me I keep to myself. I may share a story but I keep the names and personal circumstances out of it. I learn things as well, yesterday there was a lady talking about something that had happened to her. She asked for advice and two or three people started throwing advice out. I picked up some new ideas and thought ‘that’s really valuable!’

There’s a new group that I’m working with now and most of those ladies don’t know each other but I am confident that after eight weeks they will have developed some close friendships.

I’m working in a group tomorrow with six to eight ladies. They’re a bit older. One of my personal aims for those ladies is not just teaching them self-protection and a bit of mental wellbeing but also getting their mobility going. That doesn’t mean they’re going to be doing backflips or anything! Just to enable their bodies to move and free up a little bit. Just encouraging them to find movement in their joints – I get them to do all sorts of kooky moves!

What differences do you see in the participants over the course?

Self- esteem. Motivation. Confidence. One lady, after just one session felt she had more courage to get out of the house and break her routine. Sometimes people will shut themselves away and rarely get out of the house. They might do their shopping and then run back to shelter. A little bit more physical empowerment as well as social and emotional wellbeing helps a lot.

How do you tailor each class to the unique needs of the attendees (neurodiverse /trauma/ social anxiety)?

Knowing how to train people, having empathy, a heart for others and backing mself has developed over thirty years of experience. It’s hard sometimes because I get really connected to people and I’ll get emotional. That’s part of the parcel, if I’m not feeling for them I’m not gonna try as hard.

I teach a girl with a disability, Katy*. Katy also has a speech impediment. I know her family quite well. They asked me if I would work on increasing her mobility and helping her connect with her social circle a bit more, getting her school friends involved. When the girls all go off and play she’s left in her wheelchair with no connection to people. So, we’re running a little program where Katy invites her friends along. I’m teaching these girls what they can do with their hands to stop someone from snatching something from them, or being aggressive or violent towards them. These are ten-year-old girls and they benefit from the self-defence skills too.

We spoke about things that were easy at the start of a class and ran a bit of an endurance session with them. I asked them ‘What things are really hard?’. One girl said ‘Maths is really hard’, and I explained that you have to find endurance to get through your maths test, and related it back to toughing it out a little bit. I came to Katy, and I’ve got to control my emotions here, and I said ‘What do you find really hard?’ And she said ‘My mouth.’ Because she gets frustrated and finds it really hard to speak. She’s such a gleeful girl, and when she said that I nearly had to lie down. If you don’t feel that, you shouldn’t be doing it. I didn’t cry, but I felt like it. At the beginning, I wasn’t sure what she would be able to learn, and she’s really taken on some tricky hand techniques. I am thrilled and lucky to be working with her.

Favourite affirmation?

With the ladies yesterday, we were working towards a physical challenge as well as a mental challenge. I said I’m going to tell you what the objective is and then ask you if you can.

Everyone needs to shout out – ‘YES I CAN!’.

I would follow up with, ‘OF COURSE YOU CAN!’.

Just that, embracing of oneself, and the affirmations of ‘I accept this challenge and I know that I can, and I know I can make it all the way through and someone else is also telling me they think I can.’

What’s one of the most powerful lessons you’ve learnt from the classes?

It is wonderful to see people realise how easy it is to do a small amount of training and find some empowerment or confidence again. That’s what struck me – to spend two hours with a group of ladies I’ve never met before and have had so many horrible things happen in their lives, and to see them all laughing and smiling, standing upright and lifting their heads up. I look at body language at the start of a session, and where they’re standing and so many small things we take for granted. Then, at the end, I like to see how their posture has changed. So yeah, just how pleasing it is to see results and see people gain confidence.

Names have been changed to protect identities*

Author: Lottie Seymour


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