Take a Favorite Student

Now, before you get all up in arms about how Mustafa Gatdula is advocating favoritism, give me a chance and hear me out.

I am pretty much opposed to a traditional, age-old idea:  holding back knowledge from most of your student base and pouring all you have into one or a few favorite “chosen” group. This is common mostly in Kung Fu, but a natural tendency for martial arts teachers of all backgrounds and cultures… we are the Masters who “show up” when the student is ready. The truth is that most of your martial arts students will not be as committed or as serious or even as gifted as you’d like. It is commonplace for the student with seemingly “natural ability” or a knack for skill or just a fanatical student to get most of the attention… especially when they come into the school 7 days a week and practice like no tomorrow. Favoritism is a negative way of describing the practice of discipleship–called the “bai si” in the Chinese Martial Arts or “nang alagad” in the Filipino martial arts. This is a student who has pledged his allegiance to a teacher and is allowed into an “inner circle” of study with the hopes of being a future Master in the style.

The practice is rooted in the lack of suitable inheritors of a Master’s art, as many teachers took his art and its secrets to the grave. Often, the most precious bits of knowledge a Master had acquired is held for the student who will best represent his teacher. And sadly enough, this student never appears. I have known Masters to have gone to the grave without having that “perfect student”. I have also seen Masters turn over systems to inferior students simply because his best students moved on, or he just never had one.

Then there are those teachers who only want to pass on the best parts of his system to a worthy student who has paid his dues with dedication, practice and service. These students are even more difficult to find today, as we often must compete with our students’ career goals…. we are looking for the next future Master of our arts, but the ones we thought would accept the baton want to be rich lawyers instead.

So what is a proud teacher to do? Let his art die with him? Force a son to study the art full-time, rather than pursue his true life’s passion?

This question is not easily answered. The ideal situation is to have a ton of students who want to become teachers one day, who are naturally gifted with ability, have a good work ethic, and enough money saved to train with us every day. Not likely. So, do we turn these techniques over to a student who may forget them in a few years? Or a student who will sell them on DVD? Or give it away for free on Youtube to show off how he knows some rare style or technique? You will have to think this out. Many teachers do not possess techniques worthy of such consideration. Most of us know the same junk you can buy on video or catch in some random clips somewhere. But then there are those of us who actually have something unique, that very few have seen, that–if executed properly–will enable any fighter to gain a huge advantage over his opponents. We just don’t pass stuff like that down in a random Thursday night sparring class to a group of students who have not proven their worth to have this knowledge.

So, many teachers will assume a favorite student. One who has promised to train with his teacher full-time, possibly forego a college education or career to do what his teacher wishes. A student who appears to want the same for himself that his teacher acquired in a lifetime of learning. This student will know his teacher more intimately than even his own children, be privy to secrets about his teacher or his teacher’s upbringing, and learn things about this art that the teacher wouldn’t sell for a million dollars. Few of us can assign a price to what we know, and it is even that difficult to find a student we believe is valuable enough to do what we hope they’d do with it.

This is one of the secrets of the art:  Rarely will a Master impart all of his knowledge to anyone but a select few. Trust me, any Master who disputes the existence of this type of information is most likely not a “Master”, or does not possess anything so valuable he would screen who gets to learn it.

So, I advocate doing this if you have valuable art. If you do not have valuable art, then share what you know with whomever you please. But just know that a teacher who releases all he knows for a price either has no sense of value for what he has, or what he has is worthless.

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Learn by Teaching (The Case for Full-time Martial Arts, Pt II)

I’ve been wanting to write on this topic for a long time, so finally I am getting this one out. I hope you find it informative.

There are many things in the martial arts that can only be learned by teaching–or, I should say best learned by teaching. I have had some discussion with freelance martial artists about my opinion that martial arts development requires full-time indulgence. There are many part time martial artists who feel that one can pursue the art a few hours a week and attain the same results as one who does the martial arts all day long. This is an absurd, arrogant notion, and not worth my blog time disputing. Bottom line, you can’t. And I’ll prove it to you.

But that isn’t to say that you can’t learn and excel at the art while pursuing it part time. Of course, what you do when you train makes a significant difference, and if you couple serious training with active testing/sparring/competing, reflection and teaching you can certainly benefit while training part time in the arts. Today I am going to discuss how teaching the art can enhance your experience.

#1:   Seeing things you hadn’t seen before

The first reason I recommend you teach at some point in your career is to experience the arts from the outside in. By saying “outside-in”, I am referring to the switched role of student/fighter to teacher. As a student of the arts you think you understand the techniques, but you are really following directions and often your opinions are mere regurgitations of what your teacher has said, or whatever you have read in a magazine, book or internet. But as a teacher, you must take a novice from scratch and teach him the finer points, until the student is performing the way you want him to. In doing this, you will make adjustments to how the technique is executed, answer “what-if” questions, and be in a position of defense if the student is not easily convinced.  This is quite difficult to do because you cannot treat the student as an adversary, so you must find the most logical way to explain the technique as well as demonstrate it. Once you have done this many different ways (as students all learn at different levels), you have looked at this technique from many angles that you most likely have not done before. 

This is much like how football players look at football in a smaller way than the coach, who is on the sidelines watching everything.

#2:   The Student Who Doesn’t “Get It”

In our career, we will meet many students who has the coordination of a bowl of Jello or the rigidity of a statue, and you must firm up the Jello guy or loosen the statue. You will say to yourself, “If I can teach this guy, I can teach ANYONE!”  And that’s true! Not everyone walking through your door will be a child progidy. Many people are terribly out of shape, uncoordinated, difficult to explain concepts to, or so excited they try to talk and learn at the same time–without listening. As the teacher, you must take them all. Our martial arts is far more than just repeating what our teachers have taught us. We must grasp what we know, mix that knowledge with what we have heard, seen and felt, add a little of our own prejudices and opinions, and then mold it into the learning and physical level of the students who are attending our classes. Good luck!

This is a skill that is mostly learned by trial and error. If you are one of the fortunate few who had a teacher who also taught you how to teach, then it will be easier. Yet, most teachers learned on their own, as the art and teaching the art are like day and night, or vinegar and water. Rarely will you be able to enjoin both skills. I would say that the majority of your time, you will have to reinvent the wheel because you will find a better way to pass on the art that suits your needs.

#3:   Leading your men into battle

This is one of the most important parts of being a teacheer, as it relates to your role as martial artist. It is unlike most other teachers, who teach a skill and send students to the next level (like the work force). The martial arts teacher is expected to accompany his students into the battlefield, and often maintains the teacher-student relationship well after graduation. This means in addition to being a fighting arts teacher, we will be their coach when they fight, and their debriefing officer when they return from the battle.

You are responsible for helping the fighter connect his learning, to his training, to his fight plan against each successive opponent–if you lead your students into battle. Fail to do this, and you have done nothing more than a DVD from Panther Video:  teach movement alone. It is important to take your students to a place where they can fight with other fighters and refine what they have learned afterwards. This is an important stage in a martial arts student’s learning career. Prior to matches, he has learned nothing more than movement. After he has had an abundance of matches under his belt, he has learned a skill. Your job is to help him navigate through this process.

I understand that many teachers did not have this experience:  learn, fight, refine. But you can still help your students with their learning. No–you must help your students with this experience. Once they have had it, they will have better command of their knowledge and what they can do will catch up with what they know, and they will do it better. And you, as the teacher, will understand your art much better and can do a better job teaching the next generation of students.

This is what mastery of the art is all about.

So, I return to old arguments that have been rehashed in the martial arts community for ages:  Can one become a Master without teaching? Probably not. Can one become a Master without fighting? Absolutely not. See, somebody has to do it. The teacher may not have fought, but his student better have, or that art will become diluted with every generation. Teaching your students, and then taking them to matches and teaching them some more is a very healthy, important stage in each of the levels of the martial arts:  the teacher’s development, the student’s learning, and the art’s propogation.

And one last argument:  Is there a such thing as inferior/superior arts? The answer:  YES.

You see, the quality of an art is only as good as the ability of the students and the knowledge of the teacher. If the teacher has not proven his knowledge, and he has not proven the students’ ability, he will end up passing down unproven, untested art. “Testing” does not take place in the classroom amongst friends and family. “Testing” is an event that must be proven to adversaries who intend to prove that his way is superior to your way. You cannot get this by taking pictures and holding hands in a seminar or gathering. If a style has skipped this process, it’s teachings are not worth the paper it’s “certifications” art printed on.

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