Avoid the “derp moment” traps in martial arts teaching.

There are a lot of things that go in to passing on martial arts knowledge that’s in most cases handed down from one generation to the next. If you’re passing on that knowledge you may be doing it wrong.

First, stop believing you’re the best in the world. You may tell yourself that and you may even believe it. I’ve heard instructors promote themselves as such and when confronted they say it’s the only way to win. To live like the champion you want to be. They are wrong. It’s arrogance and if you are emitting arrogance your students will have it as well. What instructors, sifus, or whatever your title is need to emit is confidence. You are optimistic about your own abilities and your potential to become even greater. Nothing slams a student’s interest to a halt then to feel like they have peaked. Project confidence and remind them that they have a lot of untapped potential. Plus, there is always someone better and tougher than you. In a world with billions there are thousands that can outmatch you. No disrespect, but it’s the truth.

Champions train very hard, some have no full time jobs, no kids, and money to eat like a pro athlete. The stress levels from the pressures they put on themselves are tremendously unhealthy at times. The reward is great. A nice trophy or medal, but at what cost. Your family suffers, your students suffer because your focus isn’t on them. Once you become an instructor your number one goal is to get your students to that level. If it’s not then you are kidding yourself that you are being anything but selfish. Train when you can and give it your best shot, but remember what the goal is.

I’m not saying that dreaming of becoming a champion is bad. I was training hard and not just in what some of you would call a McDojo that I was a member of, but in MMA as well. I boxed and grappled with some of the most well known UFC fighters at the time and didn’t fare so badly either. I knew that thirty minutes of traditional martial arts three times a week wasn’t enough to get anyone in the right shape or for me to establish the tenacious mindset that would allow me to win. If you’re taking that mindset with you in to the classroom it affects your school as a whole, how you instruct, and if you have kids they can sense the tension in your voice and actions.  Parents might see it and misunderstand your demeanor as aggressive and angry. I was guilty of it a few times.

I had 80 to 100 students at one point and a solid class of adults and when I wasn’t careful I wore them out holding them to my own training standards. Some never came back because it became too hard and less fun. If you are a hard ass and your school produces trained killers shame on you. Bringing out the potential of someone and teaching them that self control is everything beats a cool reputation as a tough guy gym unless you are solely focused on full contact sports. How’s your attendance doing if your focusing on that? Not good no matter how hard you kid yourself and convince yourself that you are content with the small group you have. You have a responsibility to pass on what you have learned and keep the lineage going.

In my thirties I took first place at World Championships in sparring, and second in traditional forms, but I did it with a smile on my face because one of the greatest martial artists I have ever known taught me to be that way. My instructor at the time Eric Moberly taught with the intention of changing lives and steering not only kids, but adults towards their full potential and he passed that way of thinking on to me. I had shy adults break out of sheltered habits and kids making A’s instead of F’s. The key was that I had someone else helping me once a week in a class where I was a student. If you are your own master or have your own style with no superiors or only see those people sporadically then you need to seek out some form of continued education relating to being an educator yourself.

You learn things in those classes like the praise sandwich which is a great example and works well with adults. “That’s a strong kick Mr. Smith, turn your foot that way and watch how much better you can throw it, see the difference there”.  Things like that make someone feel like they are getting somewhere on frequent occasions instead of simply getting a different color belt around their waist or a stripe at the next testing. If you teach like a hard ass you are creating an environment where you lose students who really want to learn, but feel anywhere from scared of other students, afraid to make a mistake, or simply that they just can’t get a grip on what you are teaching. You are unknowingly being a giant tool and teaching that way only serves one thing and that’s your subconscious need to feel like a bad ass.

Your approach to instructing should be to ensure your juniors turn out to be better than you. My instructor told me once that a part of my skillset was better than his. Now do I think so, nope, but he made me feel like I achieved a little of what your goal should be. If you cling to your need to be the big dog on the porch you are failing not only yourself, but you are also failing your students. If you do not recognize that someone else can do something better than you can – well you are doomed to failure. Never tell someone undeserving this or someone who you may feel cannot responsibly handle that compliment. Your students telling people they are better than the instructor to anyone that listens is not good. On that we all can agree. Take your ego out of it and make smart choices.

If you want to be a champion then you have to commit to it fully. Eat right, train hard, and have someone capable take over your teaching assignments so you can do so. Don’t abandon your post and only show up for testing because the students will notice that and lose respect for you. The last thing I will say about training is that you need to recognize that not training right or having time to train right in just one area can be frustrating, and carrying that frustration in to the classroom can be death for your school. If you want to be a good instructor then focus on what matters most and put your own ambitions second, but don’t forget they are there. Nurture both areas equally and I promise your school will grow.

Remember that the way you were trained is not necessarily the right way. Keep what works and correct what doesn’t. Don’t assume that because you turned out great means it is the definitive teaching method. Explore, learn, and educate in a way that is effective for all of your students.

Good luck and may your school stay open and your legacy live on.

By Sean McClure

Sean McClure was the AFL marketing Director. He also wrote for MaXfighting and BJPenn before finding his true home at PMN. He is a retired ring announcer and former sparring partner to many mixed martial artists.

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