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I heard it once said that there are teachers and there are fighters. Can a great fighter lack the ability to be a great teacher and can someone who lacks the skill of a great fighter be a great teacher of martial arts? I've met a few great fighters that all were great teachers but never the other way around. Has anyone ever known a great martial arts teacher who was never a great fighter?

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Over the course of my half-century on this planet, I have found that students train for different reasons: Some for self-defense, some for health, and some to learn how to fight. The great (sport) fighter and teacher is rare. It would be the ideal situation of course. From my military time (27 years), I can attest that your best Army Ranger does not make the best SF (Green Beret). Indeed, being a great warrior does not translate to excellence in training and advising. Too many analogies available here... Bottom line. No. A great trainer does not have to be a great fighter. 


Man o' man, this kind of question can bruise a lot of egos. I think context and terminology are the keys. The idea of martial arts can represent so many things to people. For instance, if you ask a group of students what the purpose of martial arts training is, you will get a wide range of answers ranging from stress management to self-defense, from fitness to social interaction. Ask the question to non-martial artists and you may get an even wider range of answers.

Realistically, a single style or system probably cannot provide exposure to every possible purpose for training. So you have to reduce some of the variables. The big "schism" over the years has been sport vs. self-defense. I'm going to go out on a limb here and you decide if you can agree with me:

A "great" competition oriented martial artist  is not the same as a "great" self-defense oriented martial artist. 

This isn't a judgement of which is "better", or even which is "great". You would approach either of these in a different manner depending on your needs as a student. Now, if trying to make this sort of comparison seems difficult (and it does to me), then comparing participants to coaches is an even more slippery slope.

Which brings us back around to context. During the period of time that a martial artist is training for competition, he or she should be too focused on that task to be a great teacher. Otherwise they won't be a great fighter. If you are trying to compete at a high level of performance, you can't afford not to have a great coach. Some professional fighters will employ several coaches, each handling different aspect of the overall goal.

Now, just to be clear, if you are saying "great fighter" as a term for someone who has some sort of street survival history, then that has additional contextual layers. If someone presents themselves as a "great street fighter", I'm going to need to see two things. First the scars, and second the police records and court decisions. Hey, no trophies, so what is an aspiring street combat artist supposed to do?, take your word on it? My point is fighting for survival and fighting for sport are extreme opposites, I won't even guess how you could compare them.

Now thinking about some more terminology, there must be a difference between a coach and a teacher. A trainer of specific attitudes and attributes and a facilitator of general knowledge

What is your purpose for martial arts training? What is your definition of great in relation to that purpose? What type of martial artist can help you realize that purpose? Good? Great? Greatest?, Fighter, Survivalist, Coach or Teacher. I have always heard it said that "those who can't do....teach!". If that is true then even when you are purposing to do (become a great fighter), you must find someone who can teach!



Hello Michael,
I really enjoyed reading your response to this discussion and I think you're right on point. I wish I could comment more but I'm at work so I'll follow up later. Great comments!


Good discussion all around.

Great topic…..

I personally know some great, great teachers.. I believe it takes understanding. What makes things work and not work?  Being around the fight game you come to understand fighting. I had a student in Albuquerque that has been teaching Karate and Muay Thai for 30 to 40 years. His teaching experience brought to his door a couple of WBC, WBA world boxing champions which he helped them defend and  keep their titles every time they came to him for training. Was he a world class boxer? No but he is a world class trainer. You just need wisdom and understanding and that takes time….Just like becoming a great fighter again its time, dedication, commitment… willing to endure any and all hardships no matter how bad to obtain your goals. A great teacher cannot produce a great fighter unless that person is willing to dedicate his heart and soul to accomplish his goal and even then your chances a 1 in 100,000. Not everyone will become world champion… 

Very true GM Dan.

Well there are things that a "Fighter" knows and experiences that unless you fight you cant know or understand. So how can you teach Fighting, if youve never fought??? You can tech the "Art", but not the "Combat". Unless you are a Fighter, and have experienced the "Adrenaline" Rush and been in an actual confrontation where your opponent is trying to take your head off for real and really trying to hurt you, you dont know what you dont know. There are alot of people who teach, but have never fought !  How can you call yourself a fighter if you've never fought ????? How can you call yourself a stickfighter if youve never fought !!! Doing "Drills" with PADDED sticks is NOT "Real" or Fighting !!!!! Just my humble opinion !!!


Guro Andrew "Tattoo" Filardo

I know this certain experienced eskrimador. He spars on the mat with passion, speaks about FMA likewise. Unfortunately, he's not so great passing on his techniques. Not many students stick around for longer than a few months.

As for being a great teacher but not a great fighter... I hope I never meet a person like that. I equate this scenario to somebody teaching from a textbook.

So to answer your 2 questions... yes and yes. Ideally, of course, a fighter moves on to teach and the students get the best of both worlds.

This is a great discussion, finally had time to chime in; I would categorize myself as a teacher and not a fighter. When I think of the term fighting I associate it with the non-sport arena, bar fights and other such scuffles etc… My students and martial peers have told me I am a good teacher and my frame of reference and or gauge of how well I am doing as a teacher is through watching my students perform, if they can move with efficiency and also understand the reasons they are doing a technique then I believe I am doing ok, I feel especially proud when I get kudos from my instructor regarding my students. As far as the fighting goes, I have personally been in a few scuffles; however I try my best to avoid any and all altercations as I risk losing my high level security clearance and govi job. Try as I might trouble has still at times found me where my only resolution was hand to hand combat. Before anyone gets to excided there was nothing glorious about my altercations, my physical response to the danger was always simple and direct, disarm and take down of a bottle yielding drunk, jab to the throat, choke, and a number 5 stick to someone stomach (domestic violence situation). I don’t consider these altercations make me a fighter or a good one at that, I simply used the simple stuff that I was taught to save others and my own ass from a possible ass kicking. So what lessons could I pass on to my students because of this combative experience? Drill on the basics and the simple combative arts, this is the stuff that you are going to recall when your body is stressed out, element of surprise if huge in situations like this, once you have made the mental determination that there is no way to take the high road to avoid a fight, then strike first, fast and hard. I for one will never claim that I am a great teacher or a great fighter, I will however be honest with my students and tell them that some things I will teach them may or may not always work based on physical differences of the opponent and or their experience. They should also know that there is always someone out there who can kick their ass no matter how many certifications and or black belts they may hold. A punch to the face from a white belt may knock you out just as well as one from a blue belt or black belt. This is why it is good to spar from time to time and train for realism; just the art of controlling the butterflies and tensing of muscles during a confrontation can give you a huge advantage over the situation, regular sparing can help with this. So with all this being said I think a fighter can be a good teacher and a teacher can be a good fighter. However you can never be a good teacher if you don’t have students who are willing to learn.

IMHO I think teaching ability is another skill separate from fighting ability. An FMA instructor must have some ability to be able to apply what he teaches, but the ability to transfer what he knows to his or her students is even more important. It's safe to assume that anyone who was taught FMA properly and trained it correctly will have skills to use what he learned. Since we're discussing teachers, teaching ability is the primary consideration.

This is absolutely true.  Just as there are great coaches who were not the best players, and great players who cannot coach, there are very good practitioners of the art who are simply not good teachers.  They have no curriculum, lesson plan, etc.; no knowledge of the principles of pedagogy and motor learning; and cannot pass on what they have learned.  

This is very common to see.  It is also one of the reasons I always try classes for a while before committing to a place to train, and I am not talking about one or two, I am talking about a month or so.  I want to see if the person can teach, and I want to observe their top students in action.  If they have some students who have been with them for a couple of years and they look like crap, I start getting real concerned about whether or not the teacher can actually teach.  

Teaching and fighting are not synonymous entities, though they can be related.  The keys that go into making a great fighter are different from the keys that are associated with being a great teacher.  The fighter is concerned for the most part with learning and enhancing his/her own skills so that they can become the best in the business.  The teacher is focused on the mechanical, technical and conceptual skills of the art of fighting and how best to impart that information to his/her various students in a way that each individual can utilize to improve their performances.

Fighters have relatively short careers at the top of their game while teachers can have longer careers at the top of their game, particularly when they produce a series of great fighters.  Some one can still be teaching in their 70's and 80's, but there are no great fighters at that age.  I am not saying that people can not fight at 70 or 80, they simply are not as fast or strong as they were at the peak of their careers.

On the other hand, we should keep in mind that age and treachery usually defeats youth and ego.


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