Teaching the Meek and Timid

A few days ago, a gentleman answered an ad I placed, which was for my gym.

Wait. Let me jump in and let you guys know this. Last month, I abruptly closed my school, and then a week later opened a gym. I named it “Streetfighter Fitness”. I would like to post an article about my reasons for doing so, and include in it my philosophy about streetfighting and fitness—and commercialism and the traditional martial arts school.

So, anyway… he answered the ad, which was headlined:  Kung Fu Training at Streetfighter Fitness. When he came down, he realized that he had once considered my old school, which is just a mile away from where I’m located now. We got to talking about his martial arts experience (he has a Korean style background) and why he was looking to do something different. He said something significant, something I’d heard many times:

Guro, I wanted to join your school, but it seemed intimidating and a little too aggressive for me.

This is a product brand for me; a reputation or marketing position, if you will. What sets us apart from the other martial arts schools—at least, the traditional schools—is that we do train aggressively. Even the way our school looks appeals to those who want toughness and tradition. Many come because our school is vastly different from anything in town, the anti-commercial martial arts school. We train hard, my students all have muscular builds—even the women and children—and the setting is hard and cold. It is the place that everyone in town knows about, but few ever set foot inside to see what we do. I have witnessed many times, someone recommending (or warning them to stay away from) my school because of what they heard or deduced about what we do.

But two things I’d like to say. First, almost no one comes into my school this way. Nearly everyone is somewhat timid and soft… that’s why they are there. Yet this is not to say that they were cowards. There is a certain level of toughness you must have to enter a place that makes you nervous, and to keep coming back until you are absorbed into its coldness, and become part of that hard environment. This is a major part of the tempering process that martial arts teachers must understand about their role as teachers. It is the art of turning a timid man into an aggressive one. With some, you must rebuild him much in the fashion that military basic training does it. With others, you simply unleash the tiger within him, as many men have a repressed animal inside them that is hidden by fear, upbringing or social expectations of his behavior. Even physically, they rarely come in with those muscular builds. My students’ physiques are a by-product of the type of training they endure. Their personalities and courage are likewise shaped by the way that I interact with them, and how I expect them to interact with each other.

The second point is that as a teacher, I am not trying to put on a show. Our image is not a gimmick. We simply do what we do, and it happens to be very different in my local martial arts community. Where I come from it is the norm, but around Sacramento , we stand out. Some of it is planned; I may be uneducated, but I’m no dummy. People like what is different, and one of the keys to commercial success is to eliminate competition by being in an industry by yourself. When I came to Sacramento , I was the only FMA-only school in town. Sure, there were Eskrima/Arnis/Kali classes on every corner, but we were the only place offering FMAs 7 days a week. In that, I was in a class of my own. If you wanted full contact, there were three schools that offered it here—Thomas Gibbs’ West Wind, Navaroni’s/Marinobles, and Gatdula’s. Also, I was the only teacher still in the ring at that time. Today, full-contact schools are everywhere, but again, we are in our own category:  The only FMA empty hand school, the only school with an all-female fighting team, the only school with a fighting Kung Fu program. At the last Muay Thai tournament, my student, Michael Hoops, was the only beginner fighting, and the only Kung Fu man competing. We are always the only FMA school fighting, and we represent at every MT event locally. Check out the tour of my last location, and you’ll see how my school was arranged. We have the necessary tools to develop the skills and techniques I require my students to learn; some things were purchased for that purpose, while some things were made/”jerry-rigged”. But all are functional—just like the pieces of my curriculum.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about the student.

Understand that many of your new students do not have the swagger of a seasoned fighter. If they drop out, I don’t agree that students truly leave because training is “too hard”(as I’ve heard many of my own students say). I believe that there are levels of intensity and intimidation that should be incorporated into martial arts training at specific points. We must learn what they are, and which measures are appropriate. These should not be blanket or standard things; each student is different, as is each teacher, teaching style and class format. For example, know when and how to reprimand a student. I believe in reprimanding students for poor effort, over-aggression, and character problems. It should never be done publicly, and while some beginners will accept it, I believe this is something for advanced students. You have built a rapport with them, and psychologically they are tough enough to take extreme criticism. Beginners may be reprimanded if they have been counseled several times for things such as failing to control one’s temper or being too heavy handed and they continue. The learning process is curved, and few students will learn at the same pace. The experienced teacher knows when to modify his teaching, and for whom. This is the key to teaching the timid, which represents possibly 75% of the beginning martial arts students in our schools. If we learn to harness the ability to turn them into tough-guys at their own rate and in a style that suits them best, you’ll have animals in no time.

I hope that you will be able to use some of this information when planning and teaching your classes. Thank you for visiting my blog.

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