Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Importance of Trust: Coaches vs Teachers

Over the course of a person's life, they will have many teachers. Academic teachers, spiritual teachers, parents, mentors, coaches, and (in all likelihood, since you're reading this) martial teachers.

There are some key differences, though, in the roles that a coach within a physical discipline and the roles that a teacher in a physical discipline will play throughout a person's development.

Emotional growth and the emotional well being of students is a subject very important to me and I believe one that more martial teachers should be concerned about. Many martial teachers are not. This is not a problem confined to either contemporary or traditional teachers, but rather some endemic in martial practice. Whether this is because martial arts instructors do not care to or simply do not know how to address the emotional needs of their students, I do not know, but the fact is that martial arts instructors are... bad at it, for the most part.

I was very lucky. My teacher was a reserved man in many instances, but always very careful to push students in the direction that they needed. The prideful were humbled, the self-deprecating encouraged, always with the same quiet but reassuring smile. I can count on two hands the times my master complimented me out right, but they are potentially the most important building blocks of my confidence today... those few moments where I knew my teacher had faith in my abilities.

Not all students of the martial arts are so lucky. I have learned from more than one teacher, though I call only one man my master, and I have not always been in such supportive environments. This has helped me pay attention to how many fighters (as well as people who pursue ANY rigorous physical discipline) have had their technique suffer because of doubt or self-deprecation beyond what is healthy in encouraging a student to push themselves.

As I meet more people from other, non-martial disciplines, I see how often this happens to other physical people and I've come to a conclusion: the difference is that other physical disciplines often have coaches not teachers and that martial arts instruction is moving more towards coaching and away from real teaching.

A coach focuses on the movement, the material aspects of training. A coach is less interested in the personhood of their students. They are not invested in the growth of their student beyond the student's ability to mimic... and so that is the best a coach can produce. Mimicry. A student, coached, cannot rise above the level of his instruction.

A teacher is invested in the student and as such has a stake in their growth. They rise and fall based on the success or failure of their pupil and place deep value in their emotional state. They want their student to grow beyond them: mentally, physically, and emotionally. It is the point of teaching.

I am tired of seeing students whose physicality is a thing of real, true, and intense beauty suffer because they do not know that they are believed in or trusted. Instructors take note and students, take the time to encourage and inspire those around you. We could all use it.

Friday, March 28, 2014

It is really about time for martial arts teachers to start teaching.

This realization really struck me when I became an actual classroom teacher. Pedagogy has advanced in so many ways and we, as teachers, know so much more about how the mind acquires information. What's more, we know so many more creative and effective ways to impart information and we see the importance of variety in how we teach even a single concept, that it is possible now to address multiple intelligences, styles of learning, and challenges with a staggering variety of tools and strategies.

So why not in the martial arts?

A student who struggles with a particular concept in a math class might receive specific instruction for that concept, learn alternate strategies, have the methods for solving that kind of problem broken down, or be given additional reinforcement in foundational skills that will assist the student in addressing their challenge. These are opportunities for growth and learning, as students learn not just how to solve a specific kind of problem but (and much more importantly, mind you) they learn how to learn. 

This kind of learning is incredibly valuable with respect to martial arts because it encourages students to pursue the kind of creativity and acumen within their art that is so difficult to attain but so important in attaining mastery. A martial artist who truly knows their discipline as a result of struggling with its core concepts is far more versed and literate in their system than a student who was naturally gifted. Such a student is far more equipped to be a teacher who can pass on not just specific movements but the thinking that accompanied them.

And so we return to teaching. Teaching, as it exists today, acknowledges the foolishness of forcing a student to learn only one method for acquiring a skill. For example, teaching a student who struggles with aerial movements a butterfly kick in the same way you would teach a gymnast is ridiculous. Teaching a student how to do a kip-up the in the same way when half of your students are ectomorphs and the other half are mesomorphs is equally ludicrous.

We, as martial arts teachers, must become more aware of the ways in which people learn and do our best to recreate the ideal learning environment for all students, not our ideal learning environment or the ideal learning environment for just some students.

And that is, ultimately, our responsibility as teachers.

Monday, March 24, 2014

While training with a dear friend of mine over the weekend, he regaled me with a story of a young woman he knew whose teacher had informed her that her decision to go to college after attaining her 1st Dan was somehow an abandonment of her duty and responsibility.

Ignoring the appalling nature of such a claim, such actions seem more and more common from martial teachers lately. This problem is one that is systematically ignored by teachers and has created a generation of poorly adjusted and and often insecure fighters.

Martial arts teachers are ignoring the emotional well-being of their students. As instructors, guides, and counselors we have a responsibility to our pupils to ensure that this element of training is reinforced and to do so in a mindful way. We acknowledge, as a community, the value of sustainable practice, right? We want students to treat themselves and their physical bodies in a way that will allow them to train for a long period of time. Many Chinese martial arts are SPECIFICALLY longevity oriented and yet it is far easier to regain physical health than it is to regain emotional health.

The attitude that martial practitioners simply need to 'toughen up' or that we, as teachers, are only responsible for the physical well-being of our pupils is ridiculous and irresponsible. It represents an intentional decision to be ignorant of one of the most important elements of martial training: the power of the relationship between teacher and student.

So please, for fuck's sake, start paying attention to your students. Their practice will benefit from it hugely as their confidence soars.