Masterful instructors don’t make it about them

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Martial arts instructors have a great opportunity to help people. Each instructor has to decide what they wish students to get out of it and what they personally want to get from it.

When students come to me, they have some vague notion of why they are there. Maybe they’ve been bullied. Maybe a friend or family member has been hurt or threatened. They might say it’s because they think it would be fun and awesome exercise, or they *love* fighting, or it’s cross training, or they love kung fu movies. Whether they say so or not, confidence is #1.

They are all good reasons to start, but confidence is the #1 reason. Good training makes students more capable and confident in themselves.

Action items for masterful instruction

When you’re teaching martial arts, regardless of style, I see these instructor responsibilities:

  • When they come to you looking for confidence, seek to build them up.
    Confidence comes from overcoming challenges, but too much challenge too quickly and they are worse off than when they started. Start easy, help them overcome small challenges so they believe they can overcome big ones later.
  • Make it clear what they are learning and what they are not.
    There are a lot of drills, forms, etc. that have a place but don’t directly prepare you to defend real attacks. They help you learn things which should help you fight better. Drills to learn moves or build up strength, conditioning, mental focus and body awareness are good. There’s nothing wrong with having fun. Let them know what a drill should develop but don’t let them mistake useful drills for actual skill at fighting.
  • Guide their expectations.
    When beginners learn new techniques, you don’t have somebody attack them relentlessly with full power, full intent. Learning is maximized when the student is alert but not constantly nervous about getting hurt. Too little tension and they get bored. As the intensity is ratcheted up, there is more risk, but true confidence requires challenge.  Every student overestimates their skill and readiness at some point. Encourage them but keep them grounded.
  • Be careful what you teach and tell students about what they’re doing.
    In every class related to martial arts, students will default to thinking they could use everything from class on the street. Many women do a “kickboxing” or “cardio karate” class and think it increases their safety. It doesn’t and isn’t intended to. It’s just a cardio class with kicks & punches for novelty and venting. In every martial art, there are fundamentals to learn such as blocks, footwork, contact feel, defenses & strikes that students learn outside a fighting context first. Drills and forms build a needed foundation that isn’t directly useful in combat without practice applying these things in combat. If they can ace a pattern, drill or contact sensitivity, they’ve achieved something but it’s of no combat value until they succeed in using it in combat.

You and your lessons are meant to be forgotten

Your students should be proud of you, up to a point. If they trust you, they can listen and commit to what you teach. However, if they put you or your lineage on a pedestal, they will never get very good because they will always believe they are inherently a pale imitation of you.

Don’t make anything about you, your instructor or your lineage unless you want to keep your students down.

Without owning what they do as their OWN, students are unable to internalize what you teach. Everyone starts by emulating their master. They only get good through enough training and practice that they do it without thinking about you, your lessons or if it’s right or wrong. They only become masters by teaching someone else.   This is what Bruce Lee was talking about when he said “learn it all and forget it all”. A good instructor is important, but when a student is confronted in a dark alley, belief in their master or lineage means nothing. Belief in themself means everything.

If my students gain capabilities from training with me, that’s enough.If you need your students to think you are special or even let them think so, you’re holding them down. Every master who ever lived started as a dumb, incompetent beginner.

Lessons learned from teaching kids

chancekungfu2I started a Kid’s Kung Fu class long ago. I was spurred to do this because my 3 year old followed and copied everything I did when training. My wooden dummy was her favorite toy. She kept after me for years, so I eventually formed a kid’s class. I get the appeal of having kids do a fun activity where they burn off energy, wear a cute uniform and might learn a little about discipline. Parents feel happy and the kids have a good time. However, some of the kids, including my own would ask awkward questions ‘what can I really defend? when can I use this? can I use this playing with my friends?’ These questions made me reconsider and improve what I was teaching children and  adults. Like everyone who teaches kids (I hope), I instilled responsibility and life lessons along with martial arts. While respecting your parents, being a good friend, nutrition, caring for the community, etc are important, the primary rule has to be that you must never use martial arts outside the kwoon, never in anger, only in self defense when there is absolutely no other choice.

However, some places teach kids things that are dangerous or dumb down kids martial arts to the point where they think they can defend things that they can’t. Either way, it’s dangerous. If someone hasn’t learned any martial arts, they know to run, yell and get help immediately because they know what they don’t know. The minute you start to teach a martial art to someone, they will believe that maybe they should stay and defend instead of running, unless you make it crystal clear otherwise. Conflict avoidance and choosing to run when possible are important things to not only say, but to actually drill kids on.

Teaching an ineffective technique is worse than nothing at all.

When I emphasized avoiding a fight and going to get help,  the kids perceptively asked why bother learning defenses if they’re supposed to avoid using them. Anyone could be attacked or grabbed when help is unavailable, so I strove to refine and improve their defenses to work better & scale against bigger attackers. I wasn’t trying to teach them to destroy an adult, just to save themselves, deflect, distract and get away in a credible way. Over a number of years, we evolved truly effective modifications of what I taught adults that we fully tested out.  This process refined how we could teach effectively to anyone of any size. While we always emphasized that children should only do physical defense when help isn’t an option and conflict can’t be avoided, it was exciting and satisfying to see how effectively the techniques worked for them.

I had two feelings emerge from this 8 year process. Seeing kids use what we taught to truly defend against large adult attackers was incredibly validating for Wing Chun and how we taught it.  This challenge made us improve what we taught, how we taught it and how we included conflict resolution as part of it. It inspired greater resolve to keep it real for my adult students so they know what works and doesn’t in real combat, when to cut and run and how to do so safely.

Peace, Sifu Bill

About Sifu Bill Stewart

Sifu Bill Stewart is a master-level instructor in Wing Chun kung fu. As the son of a boxing champion, he brings 32 years of experience with various martial arts including Wing Chun to inform how he teaches self defense. He is also a UX designer, inventor, and business strategist.

One thought on “Masterful instructors don’t make it about them

  1. Its not so easy to become a Martial Art Instructor. One need to take huge responsibilities after becoming a martial art instructor.

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