Instructors, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Martial Arts Instructors, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In all of my years as a martial arts student, competitor, instructor, and school owner, I’ve had a variety of martial arts instructors personally, not to mention the hundreds more I’ve met and observed.

I had a fencing instructor once who could literally be the brother of some wacky cartoon character. He was goofy, energetic, at times VERY bizarre. He was normally very happy with a freakishly woodpecker style of laugh, but with occasional bouts of frustration and anger at our inability to be as good as him. For the most part, he was like a weird older uncle, trying to teach us sword fighting. You couldn’t help but like him, but his instruction style was without direction, his curriculum was without structure and his style was very helter-skelter.

I had one instructor who refused to ever do a technique a second time when teaching it, no matter how complicated the move. If you didn’t observe it correctly the first time, you didn’t deserve to know it. If he did ever do the technique a second time, he made sure to do it differently the second time. Since his classes were normally outside, and often after sunset, it was virtually impossible to learn very much from him. Thankfully he had some very talented students who were nice enough to teach me. I ended up learning a lot from them.

I was warned once when I was training at a big international gathering with a renowned Japanese instructor, to not look him in the eyes, don’t speak, don’t smile or laugh unless the instructor laughs. When we partnered up to work on technique, I was with another Black Belt from the main instructor’s school, who seemed to do everything he could to hurt me. I could tell I was NOT his partner of choice, and it took all of my control to not be injured by him, or to not retaliate. This Japanese instructor encouraged this type of behavior from his senior students. I think it was his way of weeding out the weaker students.

I once had an instructor send a senior student over to me, who demand that I stop smiling when I was having a good time sparring or doing forms or just working on technique by myself or even with a partner. He said, “It is disrespectful to Grandmaster.” I think the Grandmaster thought that I wasn’t being serious about my training if I was smiling. It might also be a cultural thing; some cultures shun expressive emotions. I’m sorry, I just love doing martial arts that much.

I had several instructors whom we were not allowed to address or ask questions. Asking questions was seen as questioning their knowledge and authority and was seen as disrespectful. This was actually really common. I suspect a lot of it had to do with the language barrier since the Korean they taught us amounted to their titles, counting to 10 and about 10 other words, and their English was far from ready to teach with. Great learning environment. Oh, I was recently criticized for not teaching in a foreign language. My reply was, “Oh I’m learning Spanish as quickly as I can because so many of my students speak it.” Of course, that wasn’t what the person meant. They felt I should be teaching in Korean. To me, being able to teach the student is the most important thing. Perhaps it’s that pesky Teaching Degree of mine getting in the way.

I know instructors (even today) whose students have such devoted zeal, that it seems almost cult-like. The students seem to put them on a high pedestal, and practically worship the ground they walk on. They hang on every word they utter as if it is the word of a holy man. But these are just regular guys, most earned their Black Belt at a young age, and have had no higher education to speak of, yet they still act like they have the authority to guide their students as if they have some understanding or wisdom beyond what is normal.

Some of those instructors often fell into the next category too. It’s like these men hated teaching or hated their students, or both. In reality, I think they just hated themselves, and to suppress their self-loathing, they abused their position of authority to make themselves feel more powerful. They never praised or tried to uplift students. All they knew was brutal criticism, usually very brutal, “Your kicks are like a baby,” or “Your stance is stupid, like you.” Sometimes the abuse was even physical. Some carried a split bamboo sword, called a shinai in Japanese, or jook-dae in Korean, and they would hit us hard enough to leave welts if our stance wasn’t right or our attention was off. I’ve even seen them punch or kick students hard enough to break noses and to be driven to the floor, knocking the wind from them. I once witnessed a guy, who still teaches in the area, break a 16 year old girl’s leg with a kick, during her Green belt test, because she moved away from the punching bag a bit, to reposition herself. He blamed her, saying that he told her not to back off of the bag.

All of these above instructors are small town, usually single school owners. Some are part-time instructors, never growing big enough to own a school. Why is their ego so big if they are such small fries? I think that is the answer. They are small and barely (or not) successful. They are so desperate for respect that they can’t see that someone else might know more or know better than they do. They wouldn’t dare open up to the idea that there might be a better way to teach. Today we know more about teaching and how students learn than ever before in the history of mankind. Doing something because it’s “tradition,” even though you know it’s incorrect is like using medieval medical practices of blood letting, leeches and skull tapping.

Then there are the amazing teachers. Ricardo Liborio, owner and coach of American Top Team MMA. He is humble, respectful, approachable and immediately a friend to everyone he meets.

Herb Perez, Olympic Taekwondo Coach and 1992 Gold Medalist. Herb is one of the most compassionate, kind hearted, friendly and funny men I’ve met. His students hold him in very high regard, but he would never allow them to idolize him.

Dave Kovar is VERY famous inside of the martial arts industry. He is one of the greatest men I’ve ever known and definitely the best instructor I’ve ever seen or had the opportunity to train with. Dave is known in our field as the instructor’s instructor. He is as hardcore as they come in his no-nonsense fighting style but is as kind and gentle as anyone would want their mentor to be. He is never condescending or sarcastic, is always ready with an anecdote to illustrate a point and makes sure his students are smiling, sweating and learning. I’m blessed to have him as a friend, he has been a huge influence on me and my style of teaching.

Roland Osborne, the founder of HYPER is a former competitor, school owner, instructor and TV show host and has worked hard to incorporate modern teaching practices and positive reinforcement into what he does. Every instructor he influences gets better exponentially, me included.

Melody Shuman designed her Skillz program to be developmentally correct for the younger age groups of martial artists. She has applied the modern teaching skills and modern knowledge of childhood development in her program’s design. It provides step by step directions, so any instructor can teach great classes and positively impact students of all ages.

Bill “Superfoot” Wallace is the greatest kickboxer who ever lived. Humble and funny, charming and sometimes mischievous, he is one of my favorite people on the planet. His teaching skill is profound with an incredible enthusiasm for not just the subject matter, but very obviously for the individual students too.

These are but a few of the greatest instructors I’ve had the pleasure to work with and learn from. So, what is the big difference? I’d have to say ego. Some people become cops, or teachers (or middle mangers), because it’s their dream job or because they were born to do it. Others, however, do it because they want respect and are willing to demand it instead of earning it.

I’m thankful to all my instructors, the ones that were good and the ones that maybe weren’t so nice. In life, we need examples and non-examples. Some showed me how not to treat students and some taught me the most valuable lesson a teacher can have. That lesson is, that it is a privilege and an honor to have a student you can share your experience and knowledge with. I will never lose sight of the fact that it is my privilege. Thank you to all my students in the past and present, I’ve learned more from you than you ever learned from me.

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