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Cor Navin commented on John R. Malmo's page School Directory
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Jul 1, 2021

Some thoughts on teaching martial arts.

When I first started teaching, I was assisting my instructor. I was nervous as heck. Mostly because I was teaching in front of my instructor. I gradually got used to it but it took some time and I'd still get butterflies every time I got up to teach.

Then I was asked to teach a class at a school I was visiting. It was my first visit to the school and I'd barely met the instructor. Even now, I barely have any idea why he asked me to teach a class. I wasn't even a full instructor yet under my own instructor (I tested ~6 months later).

I called my instructor and explained the situation. His advice? "Blow them away."

I didn't know if I *could* blow them away. I had attended one of their classes where I was asked to share some drills with the assistant instructor (drills that I had and that the teacher was interested in but had never learned). While I was in the back of the class working with the assistant instructor, the head instructor was teaching. He had a bum knee (got surgery on it a week later, in fact). He could barely walk and couldn't stand on it for any time at all so he taught from a chair. I barely saw anything he taught because I was too busy working with the assistant instructor. I had no idea how good the instructor was or the level of his students. The only clue I had was that the assistant instructor was excellent and he was one of those guys who could pick up anything after only a few repetitions.

So, I went in to teach the class. The instructor wasn't there because of his knee. The owner/head instructor of the school was there, though.

I went into the class and I asked the assistant instructor what they usually did for warm ups. He named a drill they often used. I decided to start there but modify it slightly from the way they normally did it - just adding a little spice to it from my own background. The modification was, in my mind, trivial. The assistant instructor picked it up quickly, of course. The rest of the class was completely lost by this modification. I had very nearly blown them away without even trying. I thought, "Holy cow! I can bring out *anything*!"

The rest of the class went smoothly. In fact, it was one of those rare nights where I couldn't have screwed anything up if I had tried. Everything clicked & flowed as if it had been choreographed & rehearsed for hundreds of hours (which, in a way, it had but it's still a rare situation - I think I've had one other training session like that in the ~15 years since this event happened).

The head instructor watched most of my class. Afterward, he told me, "That was great stuff and you're an excellent teacher." I thanked him but explained that part of it was just the night; that it just happened to be a night when everything worked for me.

That experience was sort of the final puzzle piece in an epiphany that my unconscious mind had been putting together for me. I realized a few things:
1) If I'm teaching - unless I'm just explaining something to a training partner - then someone has asked me to teach. That means that, at the very least, they think I have something worthwhile.
2) When I'm teaching I'm not teaching the material. The material is just the vehicle I'm using to explain my understanding of the underlying principles. What I'm *really* teaching is my understanding of that material. Since no one else in history has lived my specific life and since my understanding is based on my life experiences inside & outside of training, no one else *ever* has had (nor ever will have) my specific understanding of the material.

From these two realizations came confidence. When I get up to teach, no matter what I'm teaching, it's completely unique. No one else can teach it the way I do. Consequently, *anyone* can learn from it. Even if it's my instructor or his instructor. Even if someone watching knows the material a thousand times better than I ever will, they might still learn something valuable from my expression of it.

This is the inverse of something else I've known for a while - not everyone has something to *teach* me but I can learn something from *anyone*.

Since then, I've had zero problems teaching. No matter who was watching.

Since then many, many other people - including some world class martial artists & instructors who are legends in their own system and well-respected outside of their own system - have complimented me on my understanding and teaching.

From all this, my advice:

1) When you start teaching, you will have years of training and hundreds (probably thousands) of hours of "dirt time." If you've been asked to teach then someone has faith in your ability to do so. If you keep a level head you will live up to or exceed expectations.
2) Be yourself. Remember that you're teaching your own understanding. No one else in the world, or in history, can do that.
3) There are no mistakes; there are only opportunities for exploration and growth. Remember that this maxim also applies to your students and their work.
4) Remember that you're still a student. Be open to learning - even from the lowest ranked person in the room; even from a spectator on the sidelines who has no training or experience in martial arts, you might still learn something from them and their questions/observations.
5) Be patient. First, be patient with yourself. Frustration at yourself can bleed over to how you treat students. Breathe. Relax. Move on. Second, be patient with your students. Remember, your instructor's patience is part of the reason you've made it this far. Third, be patient with everyone. You never know what kind of day they had before you dealt with them or what kind of life they have in general. For good or ill martial artists and, especially, instructors are looked to as role models and often held to a higher standard. We may sometimes fall short of those standards but we should always strive to set as good an example as we can.

There are certainly other things I could say but I think those five items give a very good, solid foundation on which you can build a very strong foundation for doing right by your students and properly representing the training you have been through and the spirit of the art you're teaching.

Another thing to remember is something I got from my old Goju-Ryu instructor.

One day he asked the class, "What is Karate?"

After a long, uncomfortable pause we each came up with an answer. He said, "Good. All of those are reasonable answers but they're all wrong. Karate is what I tell you it is."

Now, this statement may seem a bit overbearing or arrogant. I certainly thought so in the second after I heard it and before Shihan continued to explain that we, as students, don't really know what Karate is until he, or another instructor, tells us. His point was that, as instructors, we have a pretty huge responsibility. Our students don't know any better - though in this info rich age they are generally better informed than when my instructor was explaining this to us.

We must always do our best to do right by our students. To guide them along the path to the best of our ability and help them understand what martial arts is. We must always be true to ourselves, our teachers, and our training. It's certainly possible to misuse or abuse the position; to mislead or manipulate students out of some egotistical impulse. The students won't know any better (again, in this info rich age, they may figure it out at some point but the premise is still valid).

Going back to my previous comment about being role models. I don't know if it's a good thing or bad thing that we are often put in that position. Sometimes it causes people putting us on pedestals - which pretty much guarantees we'll stumble & fall off of them at some point, we're each just as human as the next person. However, since martial arts is, in a very literal way, "what we tell them it is" we have a responsibility to do our best to represent the endeavor well and help others find the same passion and benefits that we ourselves have found in our own training.

That is, exactly, why I teach.

Basically, everything in my life that I label as "positive" (with very few exceptions) I can attribute either directly or indirectly to my life in the martial arts. Martial arts have been *very* rewarding for me and have greatly enriched my life. I teach because I love sharing that with other people and I want to help them find similar benefits/enrichment in their own lives. In fact, on top of my sheer love of teaching, I feel a current of obligation to do so; to use my training to "pay it forward." If I can have a positive impact on just one life then it's like a pebble thrown into a pond; the ripples can influence many fish and if the influence is positive then the resulting ripples will likely be positive and, in this way, that one person I directly helped might help a dozen others (or more). It's a powerful and, for me, motivational thing to realize. It keeps me humble and makes me proud; I don't believe humility and pride are at all exclusive. It keeps me excited about what I do and excitement is one of the keys, if not *the* key to longevity both as a martial artist and in life.

In a *major* nutshell, I would sum up what I believe teaching to be in these five words: live, laugh, love, grow, share. Do those things and everything else should fall into place.

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Thank you.

Yes, different teachers, different methods, some will work better for some students than others.

As I summed it up in the FAQ on my website - - "There are as many ways to teach as there are teachers. There are as many 'correct' ways to teach as there are students."

VERY well said sir! That was a great post.

This is a good essay. As a new teacher, I do find that I'm nervous when I have to teach. When we're doing the drills, I'm comfortable, but the instruction part gives me pause. I realized that even though I'm simply working the drills and concepts that I have already ingrained, I'm learning them again. There is no better learning than when you have to teach someone, that's for sure.

"...not everyone has something to *teach* me but I can learn something from *anyone*." This is a good rule to live life by.

Thanks for sharing. Happy training.

A long time ago I was told by  my instructor to do a disarm on him, he let the technique work- the first time. The second time he resisted and the technique again worked but i had to put more into it. He then asked me what was wrong? Why  was it not easy? I  started to say that he had changed the intensity but he cut me short. No! Explain what it is you were supposed to do. So I started to explain and when I got to the part where I was explaining the catch of the technique- he said- did you do that?  I said  yes, no he said- you just walked thru it without any thought of how it could go wrong.

 The point was, it is one thing to know how to do something- it is quite another thing to explain it or teach it. Students become better when they have to answer questions or dissect the idea , flow, or the dynamics. In some schools   students are forbidden to teach unless instructed to, in our club, every student is a teacher and every teacher is a student. I mean that our students teach us by their presentation or their lack of knowledge- we know they were taught right or they show us where we have failed. Teach on----

Well said Buzz!

Very well said, even after teaching for about forty years, I'm always saying if your not having fun it's harder to learn. when you see the students enjoying what they're doing even with the pain and bruises they are learning, growing and living in the moment. Some of the best teachers I have met don't do it for the money they teach for the love of seeing the growth in their students. Thank you for sharing your writing and thoughts.


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