Choosing the Best Martial Arts Students? Or not!

I have always said that in the martial arts, you have the culture of the martial arts and the business of the martial arts, and they are often in conflict with each other.
As a martial arts teacher you have the dual purpose of passing on the life of the art you teach to future generations as well as feeding your family and paying the bills. As a result, we must be picky as teachers for finding appropriate students, but not so picky that our enrollment suffers. We must find students who are dedicated and will work hard to ensure good representation, and these students are difficult to find. A part of this policy means that we will have to turn down students, or ask them to leave–if they are not upholding their end of the bargain. Businessmen with thousand-dollar rents to pay cannot adhere to this policy, so as a result, we are often forced to take less-than-ideal students to get the bills paid. I don’t consider this selling out; it is a necessary function for the martial arts teacher of today. And here, we end up with the debate among the masters of the art:  whether teachers who produce anything less than the best they can are betraying their role as the art’s torch-bearer. I have a few things to say about this.
A question I was once asked by my grandfather was this:  What makes a great teacher? One who “finds” great students and develops them? Or one who takes average–even below average–students and turn them into Tigers? I feel that the Master-teachers of the arts, can take anyone with the desire to learn and turn them into killers. This is a subject that has intrigued me as well as challenged me for decades. As a teacher, I strive to become the kind of teacher who can take on awkward, even out of shape, students and help them acquire the kind of skills the talented ones will attain. I regret that I did not pursue this knowledge while my teachers were alive. As I got older, I became a wiser and more practical teacher, and I realize that in order to elevate my status as a teacher I will have to learn to develop physical prowess where there is no propensity for it. This requires patience, attention to detail, diligence, and a complete understanding of the nuances of every part of your style. Once a martial artist has achieved expertise in the performance of his art, he must strive to arrive to this level of knowledge in order to achieve expertise in the art of teaching the art.
Not only must we learn to teach students, we must also learn to identify qualified students. Does this mean that one must screen students for a minimum level of skill before accepting them? Absolutely not. But you must screen students for a minimum level of maturity and interest. Notice that I did not include “dedication”. This is because students must be mature enough to adopt the arts as a way of life for them… not just to learn a skill or take a class. (Note: this is for those who are in fact passing down an art and tradition, and not just teaching fighting skills) It is the reason I prefer not to teach children, as most children are not prepared for this commitment. I do have students who simply want to learn self-defense or improve fitness. However, I identify who wants what, and train them accordingly. Therefore, we do not teach the finer points of our techniques to a student who simply wants to lose weight. It is a good idea to schedule and plan separate classes. I have classes just for my Jow Ga students. I have a class where I only teach Kung Fu form. I have classes just for my FMA students. I have time slots just for fitness students. And I have classes just for my fighters. Students may mix and choose, but they get what they want in separate classes. However, some classes require a commitment from students in order to join, but they have the choice to specialize. Doing so requires a certain level of maturity to actually think about where they want to take their martial arts training. It is similar to a college student choosing a major. We ask college students where they want to take their education, while middle schoolers receive the education their schools system recommends. It is because of maturity we give and deny these choices. On the other hand, students must have enough interest to do what needs to be done to achieve the results they want. Maturity is not exactly the factor that this depends on. A 5-year old can have enough interest to master an art or skill, where a 30-year old can watch Ong Bak or an MMA fight and pursue classes for vanity purposes. Interest transcends age, money, maturity… you name it. My ten year old, for example, will throw a tantrum if he is beaten in a match to a girl, but he will play “Pacman” for hours (my old hobby) and develop enough skill to whip his old man any day of the week with one hand, while sipping on a rootbeer with the other. With enough interest and maturity, you will get the “dedication” we always talk about from our martial arts students.
What if a student lacks the maturity, interest, and commitment to become the model student?
This is where we learn to guide our students to the path of becoming a good martial arts student. Some students will be lazy. Some are cowards. Some are very egotistic, while others are arrogant and selfish. As teachers, we must learn to recognize these characteristics as well as learn how to address them. I knew a man once who has, at any point, as many as ten children living under his household. He is a foster parent, and has been raising children for over 30 years. This gentleman is a devout Christian, and a good man. Most of his children (many are grown adults today) are successful and good people as well. However, he does not always receive “good” or ideal kids. Some are juvenile delinquents, some come from drug addict households. Some steal, lie, drink, are manipulative, you couldn’t imagine what these children are going through. Yet, something about him was very striking. He runs a very tight ship:  the children are given religious training, have strict schedules, daily study and quiet times, and live with almost a prison-style dormitory environment. At the same time, he is very caring and attentive (he cannot be too affectionate for obvious reasons) and the children know that he loves them and they love him. His motto is that he cannot control how they come, but will control how they leave. He has taken in former gang members and turned them into preachers and school teachers. One girl, a former prostitute, is now a real estate agent. Another one, who was the child of two drug addicts and had two children by age 15–is a CPA and almost became Mrs. thekuntawman. As a teacher, you have a limited time with your students, and while you have them you must guide them to learning how to learn as well as passing on to them the foundation they need to become excellent martial artists–regardless of their shortcomings, laziness, or limitations. I wrote a blog article entitled “Mold the Kind of Students You Teach“, which expounds on this subject a little better.
Finally, as a teacher you should have a curriculum and teaching format that will produce top-quality students by the strength of the program you run alone. Many times it is not just what you teach, but how you teach, that makes the difference. You must have a very efficient and effective system that will garner skills and knowledge just by attending your classes. Many martial arts programs are not this well thought-out. I would say, in my experience, that most programs simply teach a set of techniques and skills (many with forms) that have not been scrutinized for omission or modification. Especially in the Filipino arts, we have teachers who do not teach a homogeneous system of skills and techniques that blend well together. Instead, they are teaching a miscellaneous combination of tricks and drills picked up along the way in seminars, videotapes and Youtube clips. Teaching this way will never produce excellence, and students deserve a program that has been tested, analyzed and completely combed through. When you have done your homework, the students will put out what you want from them. I do this with my martial arts constantly, and this is how I came up with the simple system I present in my book (what? you mean you haven’t heard of it???):   Mustafa Gatdula’s How to Build a Dominant Fighter in 12 Months  Make sure you check it out!
So much for the shameless plug…
Thank you for visiting my blog.

Author: thekuntawman

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

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