On being a Martial Arts Professional

The best instructors are going to be those who are teaching for the right reasons, as is the case with any teacher.

Personally, I teach because the martial arts made me who I am, and continue to play a big role in what defines me to this day. I love the martial arts, and respect the martial arts. I see the martial arts as something that contains immeasurable value for individuals, and society at large. I see what I give to my students as a gift of incredible value, and at the same time, I receive something of great value from my students in return (not money, as the majority of my students never pay a dime, that majority being students in the KICKSTART KIDS Organization).

I have a strong desire to have my students surpass me in skill, and many have done so already.

Just as important as the reasons one may begin teaching is the method one chooses to give instruction. This will affect every aspect of every class you teach.

There are several rules which I have come to understand in my 20+ years of teaching the martial arts. These should prove extremely helpful if put into practice.

Achievement and Exertion are usually two different things. When I was a new instructor, I used to work my students butts off. They left each class with trembling legs and sweat puddles following them. My instructor had to teach me that although they were tired, and they had been working very hard, I had taught them nothing. This is an all too common mistake made by instructors of every age and style.

In each class, every student should be learning something new, or improving on material already learned. Period. If they come in, do the same old thing, and leave exhausted, you have lost that day with them. Any instructor who has been around for any real length of time can tell you – you may only have one training session with that person. You need to have as much of an impact on their life as you can.

Use the see, hear, do method. If you follow the see, hear, do method in all of your in class presentations, the students will excel more than you think possible. This is because you will be reaching every type of learner in the room in the most effective manner possible. And once it becomes a habit, you will see that it takes so much less time than you ever imagined.

Compliment, Correct, Praise. When you need to correct a student, you need to do so in a positive manner. One must be especially careful in working with children. It will not take very many corrections for a child to begin to see you as someone who only notices them when they are doing something wrong. You will quickly become a source of negetivity in their life. There is a simple habit to get into which can solve this problem in short order. When there is a student that you need to correct, first identify to the student something that they are doing correctly (Hey, your feet are in exactly the correct position!), then identify the problem (What I need you to do now is bend your knees a little more.), and finally praise the corrected demonstration (Now that is a perfect stance!). Again, you will be shocked and amazed at how much of an improvement you will see in your students in a short period of time.

The class should be informative and fun. The students should be learning in every class you teach. At the same time, the class should be fun. If you are not having fun, the odds are pretty high that your students are not having any fun either. If they are not having fun, they will drop out. If you are consistently not having any fun, you need to close your school and find another line of work.

Also, do not fall into the trap of thinking that for a class to be fun it has to be light on effort. Some of my best memories of training in martial arts are from classes where we worked to near exhaustion, and coming in the next day barely able to move because my muscles were so sore. You may have similar memories yourself. I loved these times, and I love these memories, and I see nothing wrong with giving this same experience to my students.

Learn to disguise repetition. Martial arts are only learned through repetition. Those who become the highest caliber practitioners are those who are capable of bulling through the endless repetitions of basic techniques.

But if you are intent on being a successful school owner/instructor, you are going to need to disguise repetition.

There are many ways to do this. One possibility is to change stances. Another is to change the technique being practiced, but only slightly.

An example would be, if I want my students to practice knife hand block, I may have them start with knife hand block alone. Next they may switch to knife hand block with a reverse punch. After a set of these, they may do knife hand block, reverse punch, stepping front kick. All the while, I am focused on making that knife hand block as perfect as it can be. The students feel as if they have done a lot of different things, and I had the opportunity to get a couple hundred repetitions of a knife hand block out of them.

Stay professional at all times. Many are the instructors who insist on being called a “martial arts professional”, but there are few enough who try to behave in such a manner.

If you become romantically involved with a student, you have crossed the lines of good judgment, and your reputation should be called into question.

If you were to become romantically involved with an underage student, you can and should go to prison.

This can all be avoided with a simple rule of propriety.

It is never (barring abuse at home) acceptable to become involved in the private lives of your students. And it is simply not acceptable, under any circumstances to become romantically involved with any student.

It is simply not to be done.

You are there to teach the student martial arts, and not become their counselor, friend, or anything more. Odds are that you have no formal training to be their counselor or psychologist. So, do your job, and know your role.

Stick to what you are supposed to be doing and you can avoid many problems.

If you want to be seen as a professional, live like one. Dress properly, don’t get drunk in class, do not use profanities, etc. Live your role. Some of this may seem absurdly simple, but there are people who have done everything listed.

Do not allow anyone take over control of the room. You are the person who is supposed to be in charge of the class, it is foolishness to let the students take over. There will be times when students laugh at another student. Some people, the class clown type, will continuously act up to get these laughs. It is your school, and your class, and there is never a good enough reason for anyone but you to be running the show!

Apply all rules to all students. In the chart of the class rules in my school, all of the rules posted end with the line “No exceptions, no excuses”.

It is a trap for the unwary to allow students to get away with things that other students are immediately squashed for doing. There has to be an even handed approach to all students. To approach the class any other way is to open up questions about your own integrity, and such questions can bring your school crashing down.

You cannot play favorites in your classes. If a student breaks a rule, there must be a consequence, whether that student is your favorite, or not.

Remember who the expert is. Present the facts as facts, and remember that you are the person that the students are learning from. You know what you are doing, so carry yourself at all times as a person who knows what they are doing. We all have those moments where we realize we are not effective at that moment, and panic can grip you at these times. Do not let it sink in.

Take a breath, and proceed.

Do not overlook the non verbal aspect of what you are telling the student. Most of our communication is going to be non verbal. How you stand can be perceived, consciously or otherwise, as a threat. We all learn this, but we usually fail to follow through on where the logic goes from there.

Eye contact with student when you are speaking makes them feel as if you are speaking directly to them. When criticizing a certain behavior, look around the room without focusing on anyone, or you may cause a student to feel that you are intending to criticize them personally.

When praising a student, look directly into the eye of the student who was doing what you are praising.

Layer your instruction to build all new material on top of what you have previously covered. You would never dream of teaching a Black Belt kata to a white belt student in their first class would you?

So, why should you start a beginner off with complex techniques? It is much more intelligent to allow the students to begin with almost absurd levels of basics and build up from there.

I personally start beginners off with forming a fist properly while seated.

Then we will move on to performing seated punches.

Next we will stand, and learn the horse stance.

Once they have that down properly, we will begin executing punches form a horse stance. This allows the student to have a skill built up from scratch, rather than being put into the awkward (for beginners) horse stance and being expected to hold the stance while punching.

This allows you, as the instructor, to make sure that each aspect of the process is correct before moving on to the next.

It allows the student to feel successful at each stage, which will in turn bring about higher levels of effort and motivation. Put simply, there is no good reason to not approach every stage of teaching in the martial arts with this process! The benefits are too great to pass up for any reason.

If you intend to be a high quality instructor, you will need to always put student progress at the top of your priorities. Everything you do should be motivated by the desire to have your students succeed. We all want to get rich, but that is best done in another line of work. You can build a very successful school by taking the time to build successful students. This creates a solid reputation and the people who want to be great will be coming to you.

Every student should show some improvement every day. If you are not seeing some improvement from every student in every class of every day, you are wasting your time and that of your students.

Beyond the simple waste of time, you are missing out on a tremendous opportunity to have that powerful impact on the lives of your students that is the goal of every instructor worth their salt.

Beyond simply having progress every day, the students want and need to hear about this progress from you.

Remember, you are their teacher! Everyone, even the worst students ever, still want to please their teacher!

When you just take that small moment, and let the student know that you see that they have improved, it will be a long lasting, powerful moment for them, and this will keep that student training with you for a longer period of time. Do not miss out on this!

Be able to do everything you ask your students to do.

At the very least.

Never forget that there will come a day, and that day will be sooner rather than later if you work with children, when a student will tell you, “Why don’t you do it?”

When a student asks this, make no mistake, it is a challenge to your authority. You will only get away with throwing a fit about the challenge so many times before your students begin to realize that you are not capable of performing the said technique or exercise.

Once they have this knowledge, you will never get those students back under control, and everything you ask them to do will be questioned. This point can be summed up quite simply – practice what you preach!

Focus. It is very easy to get yourself distracted when teaching a class. You can always allow some slight off track moments, as when you are giving the students a glimpse of your own personal experiences through a short story, but get right back to work once the point is made.

The longer you talk the more you lose the momentum of the class.

Visit other schools. Every chance you get, you should drop in on a martial arts class going on somewhere in your area. It never hurts to see someone else teach. There are so many instructors out there, and nearly every one of them brings something interesting and different to the floor. There is a lot to be learned from them.

Even if they make a ton of mistakes, you have the opportunity to see the mistakes from a disinterested position. When you yourself make those mistakes, you may instantly justify it, but when you se another person make them, it can easily help you see it as an error to be avoided.

Think outside of the box. Thinking outside of the box is a business term used to tell people that they need to be innovative in what they are doing.

If you teach the same class the same way day in day out, month in month out, year in year out you will become bored, and your teaching will suffer.

When your teaching suffers, your students will be poorer for it.

Some days you can present the martial arts from a performance point of view. This is wonderful as it gives the sport or defense minded students as chance to see the beauty of the martial arts.

On other days you can present things from a self defense perspective. This allows the aesthetic minded a chance to learn that there is a function behind the beauty.

Some classes can be gut busters, and others can be more relaxed.

Speaking for myself, I have had ideas just surface while I am presenting something, and I always try it out. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but the real point is in trying.

Many of the things that I have tried are lost to me now, as I never bothered to write them down, so I recommend keeping an instructor journal for just such instances. When I realized all of the times I had done things that just clicked like magic, and had forgotten, I started keeping just such a journal.  

Get to the point. It is a lot of fun, and usually very interesting to the students to hear about your life experiences in this crazy world of the martial arts, but they are still paying you to teach them martial arts, not reminisce about the “good old days’.

Illustrate your point, but then get right back to work. It is too easy to end up far off course if you let yourself.

Give the students the tools they need to self diagnose. We all tell our students to practice on their own, and there are some students who actually do so! But for those students who take this advice to heart to be able to progress, they need to have at their disposal at least a short mental list of bullet points which enable them to self diagnose their performance.

Remember, this is not rocket science. A short list of points to check is enough for most beginners. Without this, they end up practicing, and thus making permanent, incorrectly understood techniques. Practice makes permanent, perfect practice makes perfect.

Evaluate yourself based on the success of the middle students. We all know, and some hate to admit, most of our students who are natural athletes don’t need us specifically, they just need someone. These are the students who will be awesome no matter who their instructor is. I know some instructors like to argue against this point, but it is their own insecurity.

There are also those students who are going to be those students who for whatever reason are simply not going to “get it”.

So, you will never be able to accurately judge your own effectiveness based on either the best or the worst students.

But that big group in the middle – there is where your effectiveness (or lack thereof) will really be seen.

These are the students who may have to work hard to make any gains, and those gains may be slow, but they follow your instructions to the best of their understanding.

One of the best descriptions I have heard is that martial arts are “self actualizing”. Anyone can be successful if they are willing to put in the time and effort required.

As an instructor, you would be out of line to let anyone off the hook because of age, gender or simple laziness. All students should be expected to put forth the same effort in class. Never allow students to not perform a technique due to self imposed limitations. Beyond physical injury, there is no real reason for modifications. Obviously, a paraplegic is not going to be kicking, but that does not follow through into areas where the student is always playing the victim. 

Surprise your students from time to time. After a short period of time, many student tend to think they have the instructor “figured out”. This will be seen in anticipation of the instructor’s commands and habits. It may be that you typically burn the student fast in the beginning and then slow the pace if they have been working hard enough. So, they will put out extra effort with the idea that things will get easy faster that way.

Shake things up from time to time and pick up the pace instead of easing up. Mix up the cadence of the count. Use trick commands. One that I love it to give the instructions with a “When I say go, you will…” and then at the end of the instruction I give a sharp “DON”T” followed by a “go until I say.”

Use appropriate physical contact with every student every day. It is much better to move around the room at all times and make “one on one” corrections than it is to stand in the front of the room and bark orders. This makes the student feel that you are paying attention to them personally. It will make a world of difference in the esteem of your students.

But the contact must be appropriate. Do not correct a horse stance by slapping the student on the butt and telling them to tuck their hips. The physical contact should be on the knuckles, hands or wrists. Personally, I use my foot when I need to get a student to bend their knee more. I hook my foot behind their knee and pull the knee forward. What looks like laziness when I do this is just an instructor with a very bad back, but I also have no intention of touching a student’s knee. This is seen as very personal by some people and it is best to not cross those lines.

When you need to adjust the student’s hands, do it from in front of them, and never reach around their body from behind to move their hands. This should be common sense, but in some schools…common sense isn’t so common.

Make rank MEAN SOMETHING! Remember when being a black belt meant something?

I do.

I remember as a kid thinking that black belts were supermen. Humble, but deadly – like Kwai Chang Cain.

Somewhere along the way, black belt stopped being anything special. I lost count of how many 10th degree black belts we have in a five mile radius of my house. It is really sad.

People needed to be a higher rank than everyone else, and now it really doesn’t mean anything any more.

An instructor who is secure in his abilities does not need to artificially inflate his or her rank in order to stay ahead of all of the students in their school. Done properly, the students should not catch up to your rank anytime soon, but a 5th Dan instructor should not be insecure about having a 3rd or 4th Dan student. There is no need to suddenly promote himself to 10th.

Another way to help rank mean something again is to award it when it is earned, and withhold it if it has not been earned.

This tends to get into that grey area of the business that instructors don’t like to call a business.

It is really quite simple though – write out your rank requirements, and create a testing sheet. On the testing sheet should be a simple rule, “X number of points needed to pass”.

Next, use your testing sheets! If the student passes, they move up, if they do not pass they do not move up. In this way the industry could raise the standards which have been inexplicably lowered.

There are schools and organizations which have no standards, and exist simply to charge for rank. But even this was not enough; they needed more money, so they added more ranks. Where once stood the mighty white, brown, and black, we now have schools with pink, periwinkle and camouflage belts! Camouflage belt! I am still waiting for the rainbow belt.

Drop the absurdity. Have a few ranks prior to black. I think five is more than enough, but that is only my opinion. Some schools have nine. That is not what I would do, but there are those who disagree. I know of schools with nineteen! No kidding! Nineteen ranks prior to black belt. This came from having no standards and passing everyone who tested. So they had to push black belt further back. Then they noticed they were making more money in testing fees, and so they pushed it back even further, until now it is a bad joke.

I believe that integrity should still have a place in this business.

Develop an eye for trouble. This is important on so many levels, but to be brief here – if you know that there is a student in the class who has been known to get rough with students of lesser skills, and there is another student in the same class who tries to hide his lesser skills by irritating those around him, it may not be wise to allow those two to partner up. The same as when you are sparring – learn to anticipate what may happen next.

Don’t be afraid to give praise to your students. Make praise authentic. Praise should be spontaneous and varied. It must show clearly that we were paying attention to the student.

Don’t be embarrassed to let the student know that it pleases you when they do it right. Sometimes I do a dramatic pause and quietly say, “The whole room feels different when you all do it right!” You should also do everything you can to encourage more of the same.

Reprimand when you must. No matter how hard you try, you will end up with a situation where you must reprimand a student. Proper reinforcement will help you to keep your classes on the right path.

Do not let rules slide, and never play favorites.

Reprimanding a student should be the last resort, but each situation will dictate your reaction. Be sure that you are not getting personal. “You always ruin my classes!” will hurt your relationship with a student more than you can imagine.

Remember it is the action which offends you, and not the student, and be sure that the student knows this as well. Even with your spouse, you will not like everything they do, but caring about them personally will not go away.

Deal with student and parent complaints promptly. When a student or parent has a complaint, the first thing you need to be sure to do is – listen to the complaint. Do you best to fully understand the complainant’s issue.

This is best done by paraphrasing what you understand the complainant to be saying, saying it back to them (this is called mirroring) and asking; “do I understand you?” Then without wasting any time, deal with the issue. Later, follow up with the parent or student to be sure they are satisfied with how the issue was handled.