Sunday, 14 January 2018 17:24

The Art of Picking Locks - Thoughts on Teaching Martial Arts

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I recall the following experience from the time I was studying music at university;
I was experimenting, before class, with a particular effects pedal for my guitar that I absolutely loved. The lecturer walked in 5 minutes late, while I was still playing around. He didn’t say ‘hi’ or ‘good morning’. What he did say was “yeah, cause that’s the sound we all want… turn that shit off and let’s do something useful. Start with this tune – 1, 2, 3, 4…”

In one short sentence, he managed to embarrass me in front of the class, mock my creativity and hurt my confidence. He moved on to the tune instantaneously and thereby eliminated any chance I had to reply or comment.
The rest of that rehearsal was torture. This was over ten years ago, and it still stings when I think about it! So why bring it up now?

Studying music in university was a real eye-opener for me as a teacher, but for all the wrong reasons. We had a couple of great teachers and a lot of shockingly bad ones. They were absolutely world-class musicians, and some were good teachers too in the sense that they knew how to teach music. But boy oh boy, was studying there a terrible experience! It was a small team of big egos, privileged mindsets, and bad attitudes.

Lecturers would often miss or cancel lectures with no warning or without reason. Often it would be because they had a private student booked so they can earn some extra cash on the side on top of their salary.

They would ridicule and insult students on a regular basis and under the guise that it was because ‘that’s what the industry is like when you get out there’.

The drop out rate reflected this, which was a point of which many of the teachers were proud of. They considered it a sign that the course was challenging (which it certainly was), but there was no reflection on how their behaviour contributed to this.

On the other hand, my first guitar teacher, when I was 14 or so, was a phenomenal teacher.
He instilled in me a passion for learning music that became an obsession, much like martial arts are have been for me in the past decade. He made me want to learn the ‘boring stuff’ like theory because he made it clear that it was important in order to become a better musician.

He would set a great example for what a teacher was meant to be!

Fast forward ten years or so. I decided to study music in university because of his influence and I have what I can honestly say were the worst educational experiences of my life.

Unfortunately, this is not dissimilar to the experiences many people have when studying martial arts - egos, drop out rates and all. More on the similarities between music and martial arts here and here

Some teachers are inspirational, challenging and supportive. Others are apathetic at best and destructive at worst.

So what makes a good teacher?

In this article, I discussed one of the most common misconceptions in martial arts and one that is unique to martial arts as opposed to other sports or athletic ventures.

One of the things I discuss is about finding your own path and what you are good at as a martial artist. And I’m not referring to technical skill sets (i.e. I’m a grappler, striker, etc.). I’m referring to whether you see yourself as a technician, a teacher, a fighter, etc. We all have different strengths and our paths take us in different directions.

My choices and experiences have led me down the path of being a teacher first, which I love. If you want to read more about my history in teaching, you can find a brief summary here.

Throughout my entire career in education, which spans more than half of my life, nothing has brought me more joy as a teacher than teaching the martial arts.

In short, I’m an eternal student and passionate teacher. I hold teachers in the highest regard and believe that the passing of knowledge and, more importantly, wisdom, is something sacred.

As such, my own self-reflection often focuses on how to learn better and how to teach better.

A comment before I go on. The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather a list of recent thoughts. I will return to this in the future.

So without further ado, here are some things that I think make a good teacher:

1. Technical proficiency and experience – Let’s start with the more obvious things. A good teacher needs to have a deep understanding of technique and application in real conditions, whatever ‘real’ means for your training context. As the old saying goes, ‘in theory there’s no difference between theory and reality; in reality, there is’. Having a visceral understanding of how things happen and work is crucial. Just as important is the ability to transmit that experience to the student. I’m not going to spend a lot of time here because I think this is pretty obvious. If you want to teach, you need to be good at what you do.

Let’s look at some of the things that are less obvious:

2. Be a critical thinker – To me, this is one of the most important things as a teacher. Being a good teacher means being able to problem solve on the fly. What kind of problems does a teacher need to solve?

  1. Everyone learns differently – a good teacher needs to be able to explain and demonstrate a single concept in many different ways. in-depth discussion of this here. This means explaining the ‘who, what, why, where, when and how’ for everything they teach. Sometimes a single word is enough to totally change the entire message and how it’s received. More on this here. This also means being able to give feedback that is timely, relevant, specific and constructive.

  2. Everyone fights differently – a good teacher will show techniques but will focus more on principals and concepts. For example, in order to develop you need to be able to block, parry or evade a strike. However, the litmus test is ‘can you avoid getting hit?’. One of the most important things a teacher can help develop is a critical thinking mindset. By doing this, the teacher empowers the student to find solutions to problems. They may give you a few tools, but ultimately which one you use is up to you!

  3. Everyone expresses himself or herself differently – a good teacher needs to be tuned in to the way people behave. What they say or don’t say, how they react to different drills, partners, environments, etc. How they walk into the dojo, how they talk to and who with, etc. These are all reflections on who they are at that moment. All of these things have a huge impact on how a student will perform in class. Sometimes (I would even go as far as saying ‘often’) it’s not the technique or the drill that’s the issue; it’s the person they are partnered with, or the day they had at work, or something their partner said to them in an argument 3 days ago. This also means being able to sense the real intention or meaning behind what someone says. Being able to identify this and help motivate and focus is an important and often underrated skill.

3. Leave well enough alone – Obviously, it’s important to be able to fix mistakes and answer questions. But it’s equally as important to know when to just let someone do his or her thing, even if it’s not perfect. Sometimes being corrected, especially if it happens repeatedly in a session, will hurt motivation enough to more than offset any technical gains from that correction. We all have those sessions where we know we are not performing at our best. When someone has a day like that, sometimes it’s better to help them just get through the session. For example, instead of correcting their technique, try complementing their work rate or intensity. This is a balance that's very hard to find.

4. Bruised but not broken – my teachers always said that's how you should feel at the end of a hard session, and I wholeheartedly agree. A good teacher knows how hard to push and when to ease off. Every teacher I have ever spoken to has had moments like this; you look at a couple of student drilling something and your gut screams that one of them is just a tiny bit too excited, fatigued or undisciplined. Those are the moments that often end in injury. Knowing to identify these well in advance and keep people on track without injury is important. A teacher that regularly lets students get hurt is not a good teacher. You need to know how to help people push past their barriers – but safely.

5. Must strive to continuously improve – I’m going to break this down into a few parts:

  1. No one knows everything. Anyone who says they don’t have any more to learn is lying, stupid or arrogant. A good teacher is someone who still invests time and energy becoming better at their craft. There is no end goal or a point where you should stop learning, ever.
  2. People imitate behavior, not just techniques. Examples include being on time, wearing a clean uniform, being respectful, etc. A teacher must exemplify the kind of behaviour they expect from everyone else.
  3. We all make mistakes - teachers included. No one is infallible. A good teacher will admit when they have made a mistake, or when they need to do more research to find a solution. Obviously, this is tempered with the fact that it should not happen on a regular basis - but still. Being able to admit to making mistakes is important. 
  4. A teacher must continuously strive to be a better teacher. Master Mannie de Matos, whom I speak of often, has a group of dedicated students from different disciplines that train under him. Most of us have multiple black belts in a wide variety of styles. One of the things he often says when we help each other is as follows; “you are black belts. But are you black belt instructors?”. In other words, you can be a black belt practitioner but a white belt as an instructor. When he teaches us, he also teaches us how to teach, which is invaluable. A good teacher always works on being a better teacher.


A bad teacher can destroy your passion for something you love. Remember my music example from the start? 

But good teachers... well, I can't begin to describe what they can do for you. I've had the privilege to study under many amazing teachers (not just in the martial arts), and the impact they have had on me is nothing short of life-changing. And I mean that literally. I am who I am and I do what I do because of those teachers.

Good teachers will help you find your own path by being the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. 

And that’s what it’s really about, in my eyes - helping and inspiring people to find ways of solving the problems they need to solve, whatever those problems are. Martial arts are the tool we use to do this.

It’s not about giving the student the keys; rather, it’s about teaching them how to confidently pick locks

Stay safe, stay tuned.


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