TreebeardTeachingWe started working on new footwork techniques about a month ago, and experimenting with new guard positions for rapier. We changed up our stance, and altered our hand position. This gave us some interesting new tactics to explore. Some worked out, some didn’t. I think it’s a valuable course to follow, but will require significant increases in forearm strength to really soar.

Some confusion sinks in when we work on new material. We do have a set, core body of knowledge that forms the basis for everything we do in class. This is taught in our beginner class. I assume this knowledge is in the background of everyone in the regular class. Drills work off of that understanding. New material is intended to be an alternate to the core, but sometimes students think it’s a replacement to the core material.

Which is why I prefer to call myself a coach as opposed to an instructor. An instructor’s job is to get curriculum across to students. A coach’s job is to get students to do the job they need to do, and find a way to help them reach their goals. The coach works with individual growth (even in a group environment.)

Traditional martial arts, like Shotokan Karate, are meant to teach a tradition. To do so, they force the student to conform to a standard. Most martial arts that we know of and practice today follow this example. A style is imposed on the student, and their success as a student is measured by their ability to accept that mold. This is an excellent way to make sure that important lessons are passed on from one generation to the next. Coaching in this format works by helping a student interpret what he has learned in a way that is useful to the student.

Non-traditional arts, like modern MMA, are meant to make a good fighter. They teach a student the currently used techniques and counters. The students will usually work on a small body of technique, and learn to apply it in many situations. They will practice and polish techniques endlessly, with constant coaching on how to make each technique personal and unique to the fighter. Instruction in this format is rare, usually done at seminars or in the beginning of a fighters training.

In Western Martial Arts, we don’t have a tradition. We have an understanding gleaned from manuals, and that understanding is starting to solidify now. We have the beginnings of standardized tournaments happening, but it’s still in the beginnings of the coalescing phase. With no real experience in tournaments, we have only fledgling coaches. With no tradition, we have only a small body of instructors who can teach with some knowledge married to a concept of application. Everyone knows this, and we all work hard in our schools to do the best we can. It’s a process, and it’s coming along well.

The problem here is that our experience of martial arts is that of a traditional school. We think that we must teach like the aged and respected masters of the Asian schools. Our students expect the training and methods they see in media. They, and we as instructors, think of this as how “true” arts are taught. There has to be some formality of instruction, and it must have some gravity to it. We must organize ourselves into schools that teach curricula. We must be different from each other.

Most damaging of all, we think there must be right and wrong technique. Some techniques must be better than others, and correct students should only use the best techniques. Why would they be called master blows, otherwise? Right? Winning with anything else is not correct. It’s bad art.

Can you imagine running a boxing gym or wrestling club with that mentality? Jabs are better than uppercuts. Left hook? Not as strong as the right. Not as efficient. My instructor only used the philly shell, and that’s the only acceptable stance in this gym!

Not the best analogy, but I hope you get the idea. When I teach an extended palm-up guard, and a footwork to go with it, it’s hard for students to not think of it as the new standard. Sometimes I forget that, too. Sometimes I fall back into thinking I want to be Bak Mei, stroking my beard and cursing my foolish students for not being good enough. But that’s not my goal. My goal is to coach.

When I teach, I’m putting new elements into a students repertoire. When we work on a new footwork pattern, it’s not a new best. It’s not a replacement. It’s a tool to incorporate into your personal game. I want students to take the new material and drill hard on it for a week or two, and try it out in sparring. If they can get it to work into their system, excellent. If it’s not a fit at all, they don’t even want to try it in earnest, no problem. For those trying it and not quite getting it…that’s when I coach.

On the wider scale, I watch the students to make sure they are developing correctly. I don’t care if they can do the same workout as someone else, I only care that they are steadily improving in a balanced way. Everyone should get stronger and more mobile from one week to the next. If they aren’t, I coach. I watch their fight game to see if they are growing and getting a deeper game, or just doing the same thing over and over and hoping it will somehow magically work. So many coaching opportunities.

It’s what I really love to do.