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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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Great post!  I like everything about it.  Your understanding of what you do (and why you do it) is an excellent example to everyone of humility and maturity in Martial Arts.  Thank you for sharing your insights.  I know I have learned something. 

Much respect,

Guro Lawrence.

Great Post!

Mike thanks for sharing this post here!

My pleasure. Thanks for suggesting that I do so. I'm not very active on discussion forums these days - gradually getting more active again, though - so I hadn't really even thought about doing so until you mentioned it.

Thank you, a very elegant and precise essay.  I appreciate it especially since I am restarting formal teaching after a long hiatus. 

Lew Cottell.

I couldn't agree more, Mike.  

I've earned many levels(degrees) of proficiency in all arts I've studied as well as teach from Moo Du Kwan TKD/Hapkido to Serrada Escrima.  Regardless of proficiency level of teacher, bottom line is I'm still just a teacher or coach.  In my opinion when someone refers to me a teacher, regardless of language (Sifu, Guru, Guro, Sensei, etc.) it's the highest compliment one can be paid as a representative of an art, style or system, internal organizational or association positions aside.

Absolutely. "Teacher" in whatever language or variation is a high compliment indeed.


I wasn't even half way through your discussion article, when I started to just jump down and say,"Dude, you oughta write a book!!!" ... but, I caught myself and looked online and found that you, DID!!!, indeed, WRITE A BOOK! ... what a DUH!!! moment for me. When I saw the cover, I remembered seeing in years back ... after checkin' your site and videos ... back when you taught in Kentucky!??! ... anyhoo, I remember liking your "flow" & the way you expressed yourself / taught!!! I'll be checkin' out that book now!


Mike Parsons

LOL! Nice.

It amazes me that I wrote that book nearly 12 years ago - only a few years after the "new teacher" incident I described in this post, in fact. A few months ago I started working on a revision of the book with some updates that reflect how my understanding has evolved in that time but it wound up getting set aside due to other obligations/commitments. I may continue that revision at some point, though. At some point I expect I'll write a follow up book and I expect it'll be on teaching (where the first one was focused on training). In fact, this post is like an intro and thumbnail sketch of it :D

Yes, please.


Sounds great, Mike!!!

Looking forward to your future literary efforts!!!

This was an excellent post and especially beneficial for new instructors. My instructor always told me that he learned new things from me all the time and i was always impressed with his various teaching techniques. different instructors are required for the needs of the students. i have also been teaching yoga and various other fitness activities and when i was training,some instructors were much better for the way i think than others and it does not make them a good or bad teacher, just different and beneficial for me.really enjoyed your post!


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