There is a tendency in the martial arts, particularly the more traditional styles, for students to value the personal martial skills of the teacher above all other factors. It is thought that the teacher must represent the pinnacle of the arts expression if they are to be able to guide students towards their personal development. Of course, a teacher should have a deep knowledge of what they teach and should have at least deeply researched everything they are aiming to pass on, but this article we will explore why ‘personal skill’ shouldn’t be the only metric for a student when assessing a teacher.
In complicated training systems like the martial arts, especially those where the primal skill of fighting is deeply interwoven with a larger set of ‘life skills’, it is important that those teaching have a deep level of experience in the process. Specifically, where traditions and lineages are to be upheld the teacher should always have a full understanding of the system they are responsible for preserving. I do not think this is under any question and the upholders of the old ways are a vital part of the martial landscape, even for those of us who may have moved away from those circles.
There stands however, an interesting situation which is mainly pervasive in the Traditional arts, where the Teacher is expected to be the ‘best’ exponent in the room. One simply needs to ask a martial artist about their teacher or master and they will normally respond with comments about how good the teacher’s personal skills are, how brilliant their application of the art is, how unique their body skill is. It is from this reverence of the ‘master’ that we see the strange behaviours of the martial arts emerge, from excessive reactions to simple actions to full scale brainwashing. The evidence of these strange habits and tendencies are pervasive and a simple YouTube search will show you students flying about at the masters slightest touch. Of course, it also shows the eventually dissolving of these delusions at the hands of real fighters.
The oddities of the martial arts can often be traced back to a problem I call the ‘Pinnacle Fallacy’ which is the false assumption that the coach should be the highest level exponent of the method.
To dig into this more, it is useful to initially consider the elite athlete environment. Think about Roger Federer’s Tennis coach, do you imagine for one minute that he could win a tennis match with his student? How about Connor McGregors coach, I would wager he would be beaten quickly by McGregor in a sincere and true MMA match. How about Mike Tysons Boxing coach, there is no reality in which he would defeat Tyson in the ring. We can say the same about almost every Olympic gold medallist or world Champion in almost any sport.
When we examine combat sports for instance, or other martial systems where there is no traditional consideration, we see a divergence away from the idea of the teacher as the pinnacle of the system. The primary concern becomes ‘Can this coach develop my skills’ not ‘can this coach beat me in a fight’. It is my contention that this change of focus is one of the factors that allows most exponents of these methods to reach fighting capacity and fundamental levels of body skill more quickly.
The true role of the coach is to put the student above all other considerations, especially above the tradition or labels prescribed by the ‘style’. The coach should be soley concerned with producing the best results for the individual. This goal is often at odds with the traditional syllabus, where you are restricted to the ‘process’ prescribed by the tradition. A teacher may research and understand new and more efficient training methodologies for a given goal, but they will not be accepted as ‘authentic’ if they were to be applied within the context of the art.
Moreover, when the style comes first, the teachers skill is often held to account as the top exponent, the ‘master’. They obtain the highest rank in the art, and for almost all the student’s journey, the higher the rank the better the personal skill. There is a point, however, where the teacher’s personal skills become less and less important in their ability to teach. Some of the best Brazillian JiuJitsu gyms in the world are run by teachers who now cannot defeat their elite students. If one were to walk into one of these gyms and purely assess the method based on the teacher’s skill to express it they would miss the brilliance of the teachers coaching ability. A Prominent example of this is Professor John Danaher, a BJJ wizard and the coach of some of the most recognisable and elite athletes in submission grappling. Due to knee problems, he was never able to compete or achieve high level results himself, but he has produced some of the truly great names of the modern game.
This is not to somehow suggest that personal skill is complete irrelevant of course! The truly useful martial arts coach will be deeply experienced in the art or method they are teaching. However, when we examine what it takes to produce results in the individual, the teacher’s personal skills fade into the background quickly. They become nothing more than an interesting side note in the athletes or exponents development.
So why does this idea remain so pervasive? It seems that the first metric almost all martial artists who visit me are interested in, is ‘What can Chris do?’. Of course, I am happy to show people, but it is always quite amusing to me when this is the focus. So many martial artists hold to this mindset. Indeed, I have travelled to see many exponents of many martial arts, and in almost every case one of the most important questions people ask afterwards is ‘How good is he? Could you do this to him? Could you do that?’. I have never been asked ‘Did you learn much? Was he a good instructor? How did he teach you?’ … When you think about it, it is quite a strange phenomenon.
There are of course some very good reasons that the Martial Artists have traditionally taken this approach. In the old days, the ability of a martial artist often meant their ability to kill an opponent. It would be due to this ability that people would flock too Martial Artists, especially in Feudal Japan where experts like Myamoto Musashi would have droves of Bushi rushing to his door to learn his infamous skills. And it is this process, the process of value based on personal achievement, that has been transmitted into the modern age. Indeed, it is considered a part of tradition in many martial arts. The disciples tasked with carrying on the tradition will often be the most gifted and advanced students in the school, regardless of their ability to teach, this way the line of high level lineage holders is maintained.
But there is a problem with this approach, and it one that we have seen rear its head in many traditional arts where the skill levels of the system have consistently dropped from generation to generation. The problem does not lie with the skill of the chosen heir, it lies with their ability to teach. Firstly, someone committed to their own training may not have spent as much time learning the methods of tuition or coaching. I have seen many a brilliant martial artist fall apart when trying to teach a room of expectant students. Also, as the teacher or headmaster ages or becomes injured they may not be able to perform at their best anymore, and the skills in which students placed so much faith will begin to fail him.
It is my contention that coaching skill and an ability to put the student before the system, to put the individual at the heart of the training, should be the most important metric. This is not to say that the age-old adage ‘Those who can’t do, teach’ is correct! It certainly isn’t and if the teacher themselves can’t do or have done what they teach in some capacity eyebrows should raise. But it is to say that the personal skills of the teacher, which may be limited by biology, age, injury, personal focus, and other individual factors should not be the highest value for the student.
In conclusion, the skill to help someone develop is one not found in many. Indeed, the ability to coach a person well in the skills of combat or martial arts is even rarer. To find someone with this ability and with a focus on making the people they teach their priority is a rarity. This is one of the things that we must strive to find, and value when we do. These people exist in every style, in every approach, but they are indeed rare. The sooner we value the coaches ability to coach more (but alongside their ability to do) , the sooner the Martial Arts catch up with the rest of the elite disciplines of the world.