The Art of Teaching the Martial

Martial Arts and the Art of Teaching

So Much Bad Teaching, So Little Time

I have worked in many industries at many levels and in many roles, but the most difficult role I have been trying to fill adequately for the last 38 years is that of the martial arts teacher and mentor.  Why is it so hard?  Perhaps it is because in no other area of tuition is there such a variety of clients, so much to learn, such a variability in needed outcomes and such an utter lack of structured training for the role of ‘expert’.  When I began teaching in my mid-teens in my local karate club, I was fortunate that I began teaching beginners in both children and adult classes.  I was a decent technician and I had the role model of a teacher who, like every human being had his faults but, was able to clearly demonstrate excellent technique and who was also very able in application.  I was also fortunate that, as in all major karate systems, I had a very clear structure to work to in the form of a standardised syllabus.  For all its limitations, that syllabus made it very easy to know what material to present, and my instructor made it equally clear what standard of performance was required. 

Expressing Yourself and The Art

Having said all that, it is largely true that then, and now, there is very little available in the way of proper teacher-training in the martial arts.  In the modern Japanese model, in contrast to most Western societies, to be a black-belt is not synonymous with being a teacher or an expert.  Indeed, according to this model, only a third-degree black-belt instructor should be addressed as ‘sensei’, and the major associations in Japan would additionally put these ranks through their own instructor-certification courses.  Those standards have never been consistently applied in the West, and black-belts routinely break away from, or are required by, their instructors to teach independently as early as possible.  For several years I was the Coaching Officer for the largest of the martial associations in the UK, and when conducting coaching courses, I was disturbed to note two primary failings in many of our otherwise excellent trainees.  The first of these was that many black-belts had little idea of basic body-mechanics and anatomy, and the second – perhaps even greater – weakness was that an even greater proportion of them had little skill in verbal communication.  You may, like many, take the view that in most activities “those who can – do; those who can’t – teach”, but trust me, if you can’t express yourself well, then you can’t have any confidence that you can make martial art accessible to a wide range of students. 

Coaching the Positive

Imagine you are in a classroom – it doesn’t have to be a dojo, dojang, kwoon or any kind of venue for any particular physical training – and you are faced with a group of thirty pupils.  Whatever point, item of knowledge, or movement you are trying to teach, you can only describe it one way.  The chances are that in watching your students’ responses you will see from their expressions that one of them has understood you perfectly, another two or three have pretty much understood – their faces will probably show that they ‘got it’, but they’re now translating what you have just said into an analogy that makes more perfect sense for them – and that the other two dozen or so are nodding their heads, while their non-verbal signals indicate ‘nooo…’  Consequently, one of the most useful exercises I would take my coaching trainees through, would be to have them prepare a technique to demonstrate and teach to all the others, with the proviso that they must have at least three different ways of describing the move.  Alternatively, I might set a standard technique for several paired prospective coaches to teach to the class, and then analyse and critique their teaching delivery – by the way, although I would address any obvious weak points in their presentations, always in terms of ways they might improve them, I always emphasised the positive, bringing all the strengths to the fore, whether they were of a technical nature or related to the way they described or presented them.

Can it really be taught?

Arguably you can’t actually teach anyone martial art; it’s really more a process of guided discovery, making the art more accessible by offering a ‘model’, an ‘exploded view’, like those cutaway diagrams designed to show the inner workings of a piece of technology.  It’s the job of a teacher to offer the student structured and controlled experiences, alongside technical advice on physical motion, which together allow the student to absorb and internalise the art.  As a teacher, you cannot perform the art in the student’s stead, and because you are a different individual with different strengths and weaknesses, the offering of such advice as ‘when he does that, you do this’ just won’t meet the need of the student to truly learn the art.

‘Aping’ the Teacher

The ‘monkey see, monkey do’ method of demonstration, then practise, accompanied by verbal encouragement: “Do like this; step like this”, is an instructional strategy every teacher has tried repeatedly, and will continue to employ, at least occasionally, throughout their entire careers.  Sometimes it even works, mostly with either very experienced artists of another related school, or sometimes with a very gifted athlete with a natural ability for seeing and copying motion.  Why on earth it is the single most common strategy employed in the teaching of the beginners, I will never understand.  I have often heard it justified on the basis that beginners can’t cope with the many and simultaneous requirements of even the most basic techniques.  The argument goes that say, you are learning to drive; you don’t set out to perform all the complex co-ordination required in the first lesson.  However, you probably wouldn’t get very far if the instructor simply demonstrated the art of driving, with occasional informative snippets, such as: “Keep your eyes on the road”, and “Don’t forget to check your rear-view mirror, while you’re about it”, or “See, I’m changing gear now”.

There’s Method in this Madness

Apart from the degree of art/craft that the individual teacher displays in their teaching methods, there is another major factor in the effectiveness of the learning process for the student, and that is the methodology behind the skills development of the art as a whole.  Some arts are designed to be pragmatically taught; or rather all arts were originally designed this way, but in some cases – particularly those of modern ‘do’ disciplines – this has, over time, become less of a defining factor in an art’s transmission to the modern student.  This can be seen as an issue of priority: perhaps there is less immediate and daily need of deadly self-defence capability in general in a highly developed society with fully mature institutions of law and order?  Even though it may not feel that way sometimes!  In recent years some of the arts previously seen as more exotic – largely because they were mostly unrepresented in the West where the arts are more commonly seen as primarily leisure activities – have become easier to access, though not as ubiquitous as the major karate or gung-fu styles. 

Geometry and Art

In my personal experience, I have become associated with Filipino, and other South East Asian systems, even though they are probably one of the smallest parts of the technical canon I have studied.  This is largely because I use parts of their theory to teach a core understanding of martial art, even when the specific material being presented is from an entirely different system or art form.  In particular, one generic element of the Filipino martial arts (FMA) is their tendency to characterise movement and categorise elements of fighting mathematically and geometrically.  Although, for example, the triangle, and its 3D counterpart, the pyramid, form the basis of the stance and footwork theory of many arts not from the Philippines, outside of FMA, this is rarely explicitly talked about when teaching – at least until the student is fairly advanced!  In FMA however, stances, footwork and the ‘shape’ of techniques are often described in arcs, triangles, horizontal and vertical lines. 

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

This may have developed in ancient times as a consequence of a society where literacy was not the norm, partly because it was agrarian in nature, and partly because as an archipelago, it had so many languages in use.  Therefore, a mostly visual, geometric medium was a clearer way to express essential structural truths of mechanical and tactical efficiency, and circumvented any problems of miscommunication between teacher and student.  Whatever the reasons, this has resulted in some effective and expressive teaching methods.  The triangle in FMA is even used to explain the relationship between three of the most important variables in combat: Range; Angle; and the Technology of the weapon.  Could not these elements simply be listed as tactically significant?  Of course they could; however, this wouldn’t express the interdependence of the variables in the tactical choice of the defender’s response.  It is the mix of these factors that defines the countering response as adequate, good, better or optimal.  As an example, a technique used to neutralise an attack using a single-edged bladed weapon at a given range and on a given trajectory, may in fact, prove disastrous when applied against an identical threat from a double-edged weapon.

Methodology is also the key how skill areas within a broader art relate, what material you teach in what order, and whether that order changes according to the attributes and existing skill set of any given student…but more on that in another article.

If you are interested in the ideas presented in this article, please sign up to my emailing list; I will be launching some training seminars focussing on improving teaching and communication skills in the martial arts in the near future, and subscribers to the blog will receive a discount on seminar fees.

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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