I happened on to a martial arts gathering in our area recently, one of the ones where they bring together different martial arts to share with each other. So I went in to watch for a while. There were some martial arts students speaking about an instructor on stage. The comments ranged from how amazing he was to how dangerous he was as a fighter. But as I watched them work out it was obvious they were having difficulty with the material being taught.
I watched as the teacher demonstrated over and over for them but to no avail. He was a strong athletic person and his students were trying to do exactly what he was doing but they were not all strong and athletic. Some of them could simply not physically do what the teacher could.
Over the last few months I have had the opportunity to see a lot of different people teaching martial arts. Some were awesome, others not so much. Obviously there are differences in people’s skills and experience that would account for the wide variation of teaching methods but to me it came down to the question, who were they teaching for?
I know over the years I have changed how I teach based on this question. At first when I started a training group back in 1992 I was teaching for myself. I knew it but my training group knew it too. I made it clear to them that I was new to teaching this art and I was experimenting more than actually teaching. It was okay because we all agreed that we would be working together to figure things out.
When I opened my first school I was teaching for the people who wanted to learn how to fight in the most dangerous situations. I didn’t take into the consideration people’s limitations; we were going to do it the ‘right’ way. Of course it only worked for a small group of students. Most of us were young and committed to hard training. Some of us should have been committed for the crazy things we did in the name of learning.
Now however, with more then twenty years teaching this art my teaching has evolved to the point that I teach for the person I’m working with. It’s not about what I know or can do. It’s not about impressing them with all the cool stuff in our art. Teaching is about helping that person discover what they need at that moment.
Yes it would be fun to show and work on all the advanced material I’m personally training with but that’s not my job. If I’m teaching a beginner level class I need to be helping them understand the principles at that level. It is my job to help them to progress at their pace and understanding.
Martial arts instruction for self-protection has to adapt to the student. It has to meet their needs and capabilities. I’m not talking about lowering standards; I’m talking about presenting and adapting principles to meet the understanding and circumstances of each student. It has to work for them.
The ability to adapt martial arts concepts to individual needs is difficult. Most instructors just follow a set of memorized techniques and teach their students to do the same. If you look at it from a business point of view you can understand why. It is much easier to have everyone doing the same thing the same way then to provide customized teaching to each and every student. But that is what teaching martial arts for self-protection requires.
To be able to do this you must go beyond your understanding of ‘How do I do this?’ and search for ‘Why does this work?’ Only when you understand the underlying principle that makes something work can you then adapt it for some one else.