Teachers vs. Doers- What to look for in a martial arts instructor.

July 13th, 2010By Category: Arts & Entertainment, Travel

The other day, I was having a conversation with good friend and martial arts writer, Keith Vargo about his experience training at Tokyo’s infamous Takada Dojo. During the conversation he jokingly mentioned how one of his best instructors at the dojo actually didn’t have all that great of a fight record.

After he said it, I reflected on my own experience, and saw a similar pattern in my study of action sequencing: the best teacher I’ve had so far (and the one whom I still principally study under) didn’t actually have that much experience doing stunt work and/or directing films at all. He just teaches action – and is awesome at it.

Despite the fact that logic would dictate that the most experienced people we can find would naturally make the best teachers, I thought it was fascinating (and telling) that our mutual experience has demonstrated otherwise.

If experience does not qualify one to be a great teacher, then what, one must ask, does?

For starters, accessability. As anyone who’s ever trained at a really famous school or dojo will tell you, the grandmaster, the champion, or the successful movie martial artist who’s name is on the door is rarely (if ever) there. Usually, he or she is too busy doing whatever it is that made them famous or successful.  If they are there, oftentimes, it’s more in an administrative (‘checking up on things’) faculty and it’s a rare occasion that they actually are there simply to teach students – Especially on a regular or intimate basis.

As such, while these individuals may have all of the technical knowledge in the world about their given crafts, joining their schools may not necessarily guarantee a great education for yourself. One personal example of this from my own experience is the fact that I’ve met a myriad of people on the action team of one of Japan’s most heralded international action film actors- and they’ve never done anything but theme park shows. Whereas for myself, I’ve already done 6 features, two short films, and two theatre shows (not too mention a variety of action work for commercials) – more than enough to build a solid career and qualify me as a teacher myself simply because my team is small, and I have always been one of only a few people my instructor focused on- and pushed for.

This is actually another differentiating factor that can make a relatively unknown teacher better than a famous doer- understanding the needs of their students. If there is one thing that I’ve learned from 16 years of teaching myself it’s that teaching is a skill unto itself, and that just because someone has a large degree of technical knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean that they can translate it into framework that you can understand. Particularly if they’ve never been posed with the question of ‘Why that way?’Anyone who’s ever watched an untrained native speaker here trying to teach English for the first time can tell you that.

A good teacher must not just be able to answer your questions, but to actually be able to anticipate them, prepare for them, and know what kind of examples will clarify things for you- and that only comes with an understanding of the student, and experience in conveying ideas- two things that someone who spends all of their time doing will more than likely lack.

Lastly, but certainly most importantly, an unfamous teacher will have one other thing that a famous doer’ will not- a passion for your success.

Oftentimes, the people who are the best, are so, because they are extremely competitive- even after they become successful. They know they are the best, and they want it to stay that way.As such, successful students may not be seen as a source of pride, but a potential threat to ‘their reign’.

A teacher however, will not just push for you because they gauge themselves by the success of their students- but also (as a result of their aforementioned intimate understanding of you), because they know, love, and understand you so well that they live vicariously through you.

When you bleed in the ring, in their hearts, they are bleeding with you. And when you solidly connect a blow to an opponent, it will resonate through their own body and bones  in the same way that it resonates through yours.

Even when you are at your worst, a great teacher will look at you, and say, ‘I KNOW that there is a fighter in there’. And they will bring it out because they see their success in you, and not in their own accomplishments.

As martial artists, and/or individuals striving to be the best at what we do, by nature we always want to seek out the very best people we can- to learn from, to work with, or just to be in the company of. But in doing so, it is of equal importance to make sure that we don’t leave those who care about us behind. Not just because they deserve better- but for our own sake as well.

Chuck Johnson is a martial artist of 16 years and a action film actor in Tokyo, Japan. His recent projects include the Yakuza Hunter movies and the Rock & Roll Musical Away in the Life. He also teaches both martial arts and action in Tokyo. For more information, please visit: www.chuck-n-action.com

Author of this article

Chuck Johnson

Chuck Johnson is a Martial Arts Instructor/ Action Film Actor based in Tokyo, Japan, and Michigan, USA. He has been teaching for 16 years, holds ranks in Taekwondo, Judo, Capoeira, and Karate, and is an experienced bodyguard. He is also a member of the Screen Action Stunt Association, and Society of American Fight Directors. Additionally, he has 10 years of ELT experience, and is the developer of Phat English, a system that uses specialized hip-hop music to teach the subtle nuances of GAm English pronunciation. For more information, visit www.chuck-n-action.com or follow Chuck on twitter at chuck_n_action

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