While I am listening to feedback and suggestions about how I teach martial arts I have been keeping the core of my style and approach unchanged for years. By teaching martial arts and fighting techniques I am empowering my students to defend themselves and to become better people but, with power, come responsibility which I take very serious.
Here are a few key points which are the pillars on which I base my teaching:
Learning martial arts takes time and dedication
If you had the illusion of becoming proficient in martial arts within a few weeks or months you took up the wrong activity. Nowadays most people train martial arts as an alternative to other sports or hobbies and they want fast results. Learning martial arts should however be seen as a medium to long time project, where some results can be seen within months but decent proficiency comes after a few years of regular and frequent attendance (e.g. 2+ 60-120 minutes lessons per week). My responsibility in this case is about creating an environment which fosters dedicated training and cooperation among all members of the club and continuously challenges everybody’s skills and performance, including mine.
Learning martial arts helps you to rationalise the irrational
In its most essential form fighting is about survival; when our ancestors got involved in a fight it was about defending their homes and families from invaders or from fierce animals or perhaps about invading other people’s territories; it was no game and it was about life and death. Most people react irrationally to a fighting situation because when adrenaline is released, even in a controlled environment like a martial arts gym, it causes some people to lose control. Training martial arts helps to cope with this irrational feeling and channel the energy toward better physical and mental performance. My responsibility in this case is about encouraging everybody to challenge themselves and understand where their threshold and comfort zone are and push them further.
Tough training helps to cope with tough situations
Whether you are training for sports fights or for self-defence it’s essential to test yourself toward a range of tough situations. In a sports fight your opponents will try their best to beat you within the rules of the fight, sometimes trying to bend such rules for their advantage. If you find yourself on the street and need to use your self-defence skills you better be used to tough attacks, the most unpredictable ones; your street opponents will probably have no rules about fighting and potentially go for the nastiest attacks. Here is where my responsibility is about reminding people about their limits and potential pitfalls in their skills and techniques. I am trying to help them to train in a way that pushes their skills beyond their current limits and make them better fighters.
Martial arts can be for everyone but they are not
Training martial arts is in my opinion one of the most satisfying and complete form of exercise for body and mind. Many people start and nearly as many give up with days, weeks or months. Many novices cannot cope with the learning, complexity of movements, fitness requirements and so on. It takes time, consistency and dedication which most people simply don’t have. I encourage most people to try and, depending on a number of factors, I might push them more or less toward a tougher training, sooner or later. In my experience of practicing martial arts for nearly 40 years and teaching for the good part of 30 years I met super talented people giving up at their first hurdle, which they never expected to happen. I have also seen many not talented people becoming great martial artist and champions. My responsibility in this case is about managing their expectations and feedback, in the most constructive and objective way, how they can improve and what they should do.
I was finishing a beginners’ course last night and one of the attendees was expressing his doubts about how he will develop the necessary skills to throw punches and kicks as well as blocking attacks at the right time.
I immediately reassured him that with time and careful teaching all necessary defence and attack skills will develop like natural instincts; I also added that “you can just fight what you have seen before”. To prove this simple concept I stepped a couple of metres away from him, removed my belt, folded it 4 times and threw it toward his chest saying ”catch!”. He caught it without hesitation and smiled. I then carried on explaining; you naturally catch an object thrown at you because that’s what you have been taught since you were a kid, by playing ball games and so on.
If you train just specific techniques you will be vulnerable to attacks which you are not used to. You will be able to block and avoid kicks and punches once you have seen them coming your way, many times, and being taught how to block and avoid them from different positions and angles.
To develop good fighting skills it’s essential to train in a variety of ways, with people of different sizes and shapes. In that way each possible combination of techniques can be tested and natural reactions get developed at subconscious level, generating instinctive moves.
There is an old saying that goes: “if you can’t do teach”; for me teaching has actually improved my doing. In fact my knowledge about martial arts practice has dramatically improved since I started teaching. When I first learnt martial arts I was in my early teens; I remember struggling initially with coordination and fitness but, with continuous and consistent training, I reached a good standard within months. By all means my technique and proficiency kept improving for years; as most movements and techniques were quite natural for me, I never had to analyse too hard how I was doing things.
Years later, when I started teaching, I realised that people from all walks of life were approaching martial arts and, as it happens, some of them were terrific, some hopeless and the majority in the middle. By teaching martial arts to people who are not naturally talented and/or fit and/or coordinated I realised that many of them require much more explanation than showing the technique a few times and hoping they learn it. Many people need the technique to be deconstructed and explained; in same cases a clear description of the muscles involved is necessary to fully achieve the expected result. By analysing each technique in detail, including what muscle groups are working how and when, I forced my mind to grasp every single aspect of each movement and by improving my awareness about them it has greatly improved my technique.
For the first 15 years of my martial arts training I had a teacher who was always training as part of the class. While many sport coaches are usually on the side barking orders he was actively showing, demonstrating and practicing his techniques with us.
Unsurprisingly when I started running my own classes I could not think of a different way of teaching and, more than 25 years later, I am still training while teaching and teaching while training. Until about 4 years ago I could probably count on one hand, within a whole year, the number of lessons I missed or I simply coached without being part of the class. More recently, partially due to a number of training incidents which damaged my back, toes, shoulders, ribs and arm I started to slack a bit, train lighter or a bit less intensively to a point where a standard training session would be kind of challenging.
Early last year I was taking it easy as I was still recovering from a broken rib which happened in October 2015 and, during a training session, I ripped a tendon in my left arm which required a surgical procedure to be put back in working order. I noticed then that I allowed my fitness level to slip too much below a minimum expected level and this was triggering a number of niggling issues.
At that point I decided to increase the frequency and regularity of my training while reducing the times I allow myself to simply run a lesson to no more than once per month. I also select very carefully my training partners to minimise the risk of training due to excess of force or lack of control. Fast forward about 6 months of very regular and consistent training and I feel, once more, at the top of my game. I decided to concentrate on fast and technical training, which I most enjoy, and leave the sheer full contact stuff to people who are 10, 20 and 30+.
I simply had to acknowledge that if I have students in my weight category or heavier and they are training for full contact fights I should not try to spar with them full contact as I can get hurt. Apart from that I can still train regularly and consistently with a broad range of athletes at various levels of skill and fitness and keep in good shape while enjoying myself and being able to keep my technique at a high level and being worth the black belt I am wearing.
Martial arts, particular traditional ones, are often based on rules which resemble military regimes. In many Dojos it’s common to refer to the master/instructor/coach as “master”, “sensei”, “sifu”; in my opinion this is often excessive and encourages an unnecessary distance between students and instructors. I always allowed my students to call me by my first name and establishing a collaborative role where I share my knowledge and experience. At the same time I make sure they respect me for my experience and ultimately my position of authority within the club they have decided to join.
I always aimed at running a club which is accessible for anybody to join, train and improve their technique and overall skill. I enjoy training with instructors and advanced people that help me challenge my technique and fitness; at the same time I also train regularly with beginners and intermediate students so they can experience first-hand my teaching and feedback. All of my instructors are encouraged to do the same.
I am aware of many so called fight clubs, particularly boxing clubs, where there is a very strict hierarchy about who can train or be trained by whom. In those environments only the key fighters have access to high quality tuition while the others, inexperienced or just not good enough, have to accept being considered less valuable students. This, in my opinion, might discourage potentially good fighters who did not yet get the chance to move up the skill ladder.
Of course meritocracy has to an important role to play and it naturally does. Students who train more often, attend to more lessons, tournaments and become more involved with all club’s activities are automatically more visible. They get more exposure to key lessons and more naturally get chosen as training partner by the most experienced students and instructors; the more this happens and the better they get, a very natural selection. So if you are an advanced or intermediate student who is already getting the right kind of attention from instructor you are in the right place. At the same time if you feel a bit invisible within your club and would like to change this you should try to get more exposure toward the better part of the class; train more often, try to learn better techniques and keep practicing; it’s a long journey.