There is a very common misperception in the martial arts world, that the sensei is always the best fighter and technician in the dojo; they are unbeatable and will never lose a sparring match to a student!
This is often very far from the truth... And here's why.
Martial arts have evolved with deep traditions of respect and sharing. Knowledge is passed on from one generation to the next; it evolves and takes on new forms while (hopefully) maintaining the underlying combative principles that the system was founded upon in the first place.
Martial arts instructors are therefore passing knowledge that was previously passed on to them. They achieve a high rank after many, many years of training.
The common misperception is that as they have spent so many years honing their skills, they should win every match. And often, the reaction when they lose to a student is that students will assume they have surpassed their teacher, or may even leave to seek out another dojo, thinking that their previous teacher just wasn’t very good.
This is a real shame, as it is based on an unrealistic understanding of martial arts, fighting and aging. Very often, that response reflects on the lack of maturity and understanding of the student, rather than on the capability of the instructor.
How so, you ask?
Let’s look at a few examples:
1. The On-Field Coach – How often have you seen the coach of an elite soccer club join in on the drills he runs his team through? Or even replace a team member in a league game? The answer is never. What about in rugby? Basketball? Tennis? Cricket? The answer remains unchanged. The coach’s credibility comes from his or hers deep understanding of the sport, rather than from their ability to currently engage in on-field play. In martial arts however, this seems to be ignored. A boxing coach is expected to out-box his fighters. A kung Fu Sifu is expected to defeat all of his students, etc. Much like any other sport, credibility should come from deep understanding of the system, rather than be gauged by current fighting ability.
2. The Great Equaliser – Time comes for us all! There is no escaping it and age is the great equaliser. Yet, a 75-year old Kung Fu master is expected to still defeat his current students. A 50-year old retired (and in all likelihood injured) MMA fighter is still expected to defeat students half his age and twice his size. This is completely illogical! I recall seeing an interview with some of the Gracie family, where they discussed this. They were talking about how Helio Gracie kept rolling until his 90’s. They explained how this was a common misconception. He wasn’t free rolling. He would pick a student young enough to be his grandson, give them a position and then just defend himself for 1 or 2 minutes. This, for him, was a victory! And I totally agree. One of the best segments of this interview was when they explained how one should approach this in regards to one’s own training; When you are sparring with someone, consider their age and weight. If they are younger than you, give them one extra belt level for every 10 years’ difference. If they are heavier than you, do the same for every 10 kilos or so. This means that if you are a 40-year old black belt, who weighs 75 kilos, and you are rolling with a white belt that is 20 years of age and weighs 120kgs, then really you are fighting another black belt!
3. Different Streams of the Same River – Different people will end up in a different stream of the same martial art due to their natural tendencies in terms of capability, athleticism, physical attributes, learning style, etc. Some will go on to do exhibitions and demos, as they are athletic and technically capable and can make even complicated techniques look easy and beautiful. Some will evolve as fighters as they posses a killer instinct, hunger to fight and great attributes. Lastly (I feel I belong in this category), some will evolve as teachers as they posses a deep understanding of technique, context, application and principles. A great example of this last stream is renowned MMA coach Greg Jackson, who is arguably the most successful MMA trainer of the modern era. He is well known as an excellent trainer, yet his fighting ability is rarely discussed. He is an experienced and capable martial artist, who simply found his vocation in teaching and coaching others. While they all come from the same martial art, they approach it in different ways, each as valuable as the other. As such, not all of them will have the same fighting ability, nor should they!
4. Context is King – Consider what is the context in which you are sparring. If you are a white belt with no real training that consistently beats a high-ranking instructor, then you probably have a valid reason to question the quality of the instructor. However if you have been training for many years and happen to catch your instructor on a bad day (we all have them), you may want to take some time and rethink before you jump ship.
The other side of this is often perpetuated by instructors who refuse to let students demonstrate any technique on them or do any sparring at all out of fear they will be embarrassed, or they consider it to be beneath their station. This is a much better indicator of the quality of an instructor in my opinion. Personally, I would question the quality of an instructor who never lets anything be done or demonstrated on him a lot more than that of someone who would put his hat into the ring even after getting defeated on the odd occasion.
So why should you beat your instructor up?
Defeating your instructor is often a sign that you are improving. Rather than take it a sign of bad teaching, it often reflects the exact opposite!
Does this mean you should be able to destroy your instructor every time you step on the mat? Absolutely not! But measuring your improvement against a high benchmark provides a realistic understanding of one’s own capability and progress over time, which applies to both instructor and student. Seeing one’s students improve in capability is both a source of pride and inspiration to continue training, thus perpetuating the beautiful cycle of sharing knowledge through generations of martial artists.
Stay tuned, stay safe.