A Fool for a Teacher

I am reminded of a saying:  “A man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client…”  How true! And applicable–in the martial arts as well.

So allow me to rephrase it:  “A man who trains himself has a fool for a teacher.”

I was watching the original “Rocky” movie, and there is a short scene when Sylvester Stallone’s character accepts a fight with champion Apollo Creed and he gets up the next morning to train himself. Obviously, he isn’t going anywhere because he’s both out of shape and unprepared, and worst of all–at odds with his trainer. Fortunately for Rocky, Mick (his trainer) ends up training him and the rest is history. But there were two scenes from that movie that inspired this article. This was the first one. The second was the scene earlier, where Mickey first tells Rocky that Creed is looking for sparring partners. In this scene, Rocky is walking out the gym and stops to ask Mickey why he never paid attention to him. Mickey answers that Rocky had what it took to become a champion, and he wasted it on women and a fast life. (In so many words)

This is significant because as a teacher I have had several students that I felt this way about, as well as having a few teachers who felt this way about me. When a student shows promise, we teachers are excited to teach them. Often, we hold out our best instruction for the student whom we will not waste this effort and information on. There is nothing like pouring your heart and soul into a potentially great martial arts student–just to have him stop training because he discovers women, or decides to go away to college or something else. Yes, this is a lifestyle, and no matter how talented a student may be… it isn’t “for” everyone. Hence, the saying When the student is ready, the Master will appear…  We teachers will teach you as much as we can, but we cannot train all of our students as hard as we’d like–or with as much detail or rigor as we’d prefer to–because we have a business to run and only a few students will accept this type of training.

I have had a few students who will do everything I’ve asked them to do. I’ve had students who will come to the school 4 or 5 days a week. I’ve even had students who trained nearly 7 days a week. But not many will. When you get one who is that enthusiastic, we jump at the chance to train him or her to perfection. Therefore, we are always searching for a student who is so fanatical about training and developing in the art; it is a big disappointment when those students are never “ready”.

On the other hand, we have seen students who are fanatical about their training but are too arrogant to learn at the teacher’s pace or by his program. These are the students who work hard, have good natural ability, but hop from school to school not wanting to dedicate himself to any program. These are the foolhardy students who confuse their natural athleticism with martial skill and believe that they can “create their own path”. We all have known at least one. Sometimes, these students can guide themselves and impress enough people that they end up with their own schools and styles and become known as a “Master”. Want a good example?

Bruce Lee.

A man who taught himself boxing, wrestling, fencing, and whatever else he’s studied outside of his Wing Chun training under Yip Man, barring a few exchanges with other Masters in passing. He worked hard, had some seemingly radical ideas about the Martial Arts, but in the end, he was a self-taught man. In reality, he did not know how to box, he did not how to wrestle, but it looked good on film and sounded good in theory. His memory seems to have empowered others like him to chase the same path and create their own styles. While people speak of “self-expression” and “using what works” and “thinking outside the box” and “liberating oneself from classical karate”, they have the same undertone of arrogance of a 20-something who had a fool for a teacher.

Can it be done? I don’t know… ask Kimbo Slice if it’s a good idea. Sure, he kicked a lot of bootie in streetfights with nobodies. But against trained, knowledgeable fighters (and some not-so-knowledgeable), he’s had his behind handed to him on a platter a few times. You can get somewhere while training yourself. You’re just not going to get very far. Another fighter that comes to mind is former Cuban Gold Medalist Jorge Luis Gonzales, who was a pretty good fighter as an amateur, decent as a pro, but sucked when it came to fighting the big boys. Take a look at his fight with “Big Daddy” Riddick Bowe, who brought it all  home in the 6th round. 😉

I am not going to get into the benefits of having a teacher versus “creating your own path”/training yourself. If you have to ask, you might want to go to a different blog because I don’t want to embarass you here. Plus, this blog is for grown-ups. But I will say this:  there are a huge number of so-called martial arts experts who are teaching themselves. Sure, they have legitimate Black Belts. But after that accomplishment, they often void out their training and dedication by putting together a portfolio of add-on Black Belts and certifications and calling it “cross training”. (In fact, we will visit this subject at another time)  I have little desire to jump on those foolish teachers right now…

In the meantime, thanks for visiting my blog. Please come visit us again!


Author: thekuntawman

full time martial arts teacher, full time martial arts philosopher, and full time martial arts critic

4 thoughts on “A Fool for a Teacher”

  1. Maybe I can add something about Bruce Lee here, and his path of self-expression.
    I am relying on an academic article about him that i can’t find right now, but it said something like this: at some point, Lee became convinced that aspects of Wing Chun were being withheld from him, and this hiding of secrets made him determined to strike out on his own path.
    In addition, there was the famous incident in which Lee publically boasted that he could whip any man in the San Francisco Bay Area, and when Wong Jack Man accepted this challenge, Lee fought to, at best, a messy stalemate (that’s the version of events I found most plausible).
    I think Lee felt that the secrets of the Chinese martial arts were never going to be accessible to him living in the West, so he had to step out of the Chinese community/hierarchy to become a master.
    Now I’m not *sure* this is true, because I was not born then, and i wasn’t there. pretty much everytung about Lee is wrapped in legend.
    But I am suggesting that maybe Lee felt he *had* to strike out on his own path to get the results he was looking for.
    What would I do if I had to go into an enviroment where I really needed to defend myself and at the same time I had no teacher? I might well end up devising my own methods, testing them, etc.
    Given the choice, though, I would rather have a competent teacher, for the reasons you mention.

    1. hi im sorry i didnt notice this post when you put it up. those are very good points. I am about to put an article that speaks about that idea a little. I hope you like it. thank you for your comment. it is a good one.

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