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Your Instructor

A Critical Key to Your Success

No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher - Mr. Miyagi

There is plenty to be learned even from a bad teacher, what not to do, how not to be - J.K. Rowling

Bad teaching wastes a great deal of effort, and spoils many lives which might have been full of energy and happiness - Gilbert Highet

During my first 20 years in the martial arts, I attended lots of different schools, more than most black belts I know. Some were just a few days, or a few weeks, sometimes I even stuck around longer than I should've, hoping to see if the instruction got better than the first day, but often it didn't.

This morning I was thinking about all that, and I sat down and made a list of every instructor I had, just to see how many it was. It ended-up being exactly 20 instructors over 20 years. I looked at the list and thought "why did I stay with certain ones and not others?" I made notes about each instructor, and then I decided to sort all 20 into 3 categories, based on teaching skill. Those 3 categories were above average, average, and below average. From my sample size of 20, only 5 were what I'd call above average/exceptional instructors. I then looked at the list, thought about how I teach, and noticed that the qualities of the 5 I liked the most, are qualities I've always tried to emulate.

I then dug up some old lists I'd last reviewed almost 15 years ago, about why people quit the martial arts. When it came down to it, I noticed the instructor could either be directly or indirectly linked to most of those reasons, including some student frustrations.

Why is all this important? Because if you don't like something about your instructor, or the way they teach, or they aren't proactively addressing things that frustrate you, you're probably not going to stick around. Most schools have a revolving door of students, that are coming-and-going faster than anyone can remember their names. If you're a martial arts student, most students that start after you will only be around a few days, a few weeks, or a few months. Getting and keeping students are a martial art schools 2 biggest business problems, and keeping students is harder than getting them. Sadly most schools put more effort into getting them, and if they did the opposite, they wouldn't have too.

Student retention is in my opinion a schools most overlooked business problem. To put that in perspective, the most well-known martial arts magazine, a magazine started in the early 1960's, did a survey of all martial arts schools in the late 1960's. They found that 97% of students quit the martial arts before reaching black belt. Now combine that 97% with the 75% of instructors I didn't think were outstanding. Could we be on to something? Martial arts is about excellence, instructors demand and expect it from their students, but often they're not giving it back, by constantly striving and pushing themselves toward instructional excellence. Shouldn't students expect instructional excellence? And what's crazy is most instructors think they are excellent instructors.

There are lots of reasons students quit, however I think most can be grouped into 3 primary categories.

First reason, in most striking art schools no one gets their black belt in less than 4 years, and for the exceptional I think that's too long. I think it can be done in 30 or 36 months, maybe even less for exceptional students, those putting in more training at home each week than they are in the classroom, and consistently performing at levels way above their rank. I remember in one of the rougher-and-tougher school's I was part of, some blue belts were so good at sparring, they were allowed to enter tournaments as black belts, wore a black belt during sparring, and consistently beat black belts from other schools. When I saw blues beating blacks, everything in the martial arts changed for me, and once I found out what they were doing, it changed my opinion about classroom training, which leads to the path of a student becoming a self-sufficient martial artist, which in my opinion is one of the qualities of a black belt. I went on to learn every detail of how those blues got black belt speed, and it was mostly done with home workouts, tailored to what they needed to work on, but done differently than classroom training. From then on, that's the way I built my speed, and everything for me became about achieving speed as quickly as possible.

Back to those blue belts beating black belts in tournaments, they had to go back to being and wearing their blue belts in class, they told me the reason why and it just didn't make sense to me. Judo is so much simpler with regards to students having a skill level way above their rank, if a judoka beats those of a higher rank in a tournament (or at the Kodokan), there's a good chance they'll get an instant promotion, and judo calls that a "batsugan". Think about the dynamics of that, the student incentive/motivation it creates, and why judo wouldn't keep someone at a certain rank to long, if that person was performing like those at a higher rank. It's certainly not good for the fairness of tournaments, for someone to stay at their current rank, if they're performing at levels way above it. I kind of like that "batsugan" idea for kick-punch arts, if someone has speed and sparring skills consistently several levels above their current rank. Looking at it a different way, could you imagine how different martial arts history would've been, if someone had told the late great Joe Lewis (a national sparring champ in the 60's) about 7 months from when he began the martial arts (roughly when he got his black belt), "Sorry Joe, you can't have your black belt for about another 3.5 years."

The second reason I feel students quit, is the lengthy time it takes before they see noticeable and impressive improvement, which I found also takes too long in many schools, mostly because a majority of students are only doing classroom workouts. I personally believe speed is the only thing that really matters in a striking art, especially during sparring. If one person consistently punches and kicks faster than another, they win, unless they have another area with shortcomings. Your goal should be to get as fast as you can, as quick as you can, because that's when the fun will begin.

Now, based on what happened to me as a colored belt, there was about a 2 month period of time when I started doing all my main punches and main kicks a certain way at home for about 2 months. This is no joke, at the end of 2 months I had 2 punches and 1 kick that well over half the black belts in the school couldn't see coming or stop. Years later, after I'd refined that training methodology further, I had several of my own yellow belt students do it at home for about 2 months, and I literally saw them outscore brown belts from other schools during sparring. It came from doing their workouts a certain way at home, which can't be done in a classroom, because for each person it has to be tailored and done a little different. You can "become faster sooner" by doing workouts a certain way at home, and my article about that gives some of the clues on how to do it, but not all of them. There are about 10 speed principles that must be followed, and specific exercises in combination with that, that are different for each student. Each student needs to be evaluated by someone that knows what they're doing, to prescribe the right things.

Now to the third reason I feel students quit, and this one hones in on the instructor. A martial arts instructor needs to have certain leadership qualities, and those qualities need to be seen by each student in every class they teach. Here's a quote I like that in my opinion sums up some of the qualities they should have, and I've often seen lacking.

"If you desire to lead you must first serve; if you desire to serve you must first listen; before you can listen you must care."

Out of the 20 instructors I had, very few taught with the mindset of serving their students. Most didn't want to listen or have any interaction with their students. Few showed they cared about their students. And few proactively approached their students before or after class, to talk with them. I can say this, out of the 75% on my list I categorized as average or below average, not showing they cared was common among all of them.

Here's a few of the crazy things I saw in different instructors...

Nearly everything they said was negative. Rarely did they say anything positive.
Many had a very conceited and arrogant tone about them.
They didn't seem very personable or approachable, and acted like they didn't want to be.
They often retreated to their office after class, or left, and no one dared to approach them.
If they did talk to anyone, it was a small handful of what consistently seemed to be their favorites.
They never gave any explanation about what students were told to do, or why they were doing it.
Their constant attitude was just do as I say and don't ever ask any questions. Great for learning, huh?

My 75% were often cold, distant, seemed like they really didn't care whether or not you were there, nor acted like they enjoyed teaching. It was a very robotic impersonal style of teaching, and nothing positive, exciting, inspiring or motivating came from it. You showed-up for class, tried to keep-up with the orders they barked-out too fast, and when class was done, they often left the mat faster than the students, sometimes rushing adults out of the building so they could lock-up and go home.

The 25% seemed excited to be teaching. They made a personal connection with almost every student during every class. They provided more positive feedback than negative feedback. They explained why we were doing things a certain way. They touched upon minute technical aspects of how to do everything correctly and better. They were also very personable and approachable, and stuck around after class, proactively talking with students, giving them pointers and things to work on at home. In short, they seemed to deeply care about what they taught, how they taught, who they taught, wanting them to get better sooner, and wanting them to come back.

Here's the takeaway I hope you get from all this. If you're not happy at the school you're attending, there's a good chance most of the frustrations you're experiencing are wholly or partially the fault of the instructor/owner. Don't quit martial arts forever and become one of the 97%, because you're currently with the 75%. Stick with it and keep trying other schools until you find the 25%. And this should go without saying based on this article, always refuse to sign a contract. The 75% love contracts and the 25% don't need them.

Mann's Martial Arts
10675 E. Northwest Hwy.
Ste. 2600
Dallas, TX. 75238