Things I’ve Learned from being an Instructor/Coach

I’ve been teaching martial arts for 17-18 years(some years off and on) to the date of this writing and the following are some of the many things I’ve learned from those years. Some of these are topics of past blogs and topics of future ones. Of course I’m still learning but these are some of the important lessons so far.

  • Respect Goes Both Ways

Just like Students must respect instructors and coaches because they serve (something a grand master taught me), instructors must learn to respect students. You have to maintain that boundary between being tough and just asking too much. A teacher/coach must balance being nurturing with being a hard ass. Don’t ask students to do what you wouldn’t or can’t unless it’s just obvious that it is an ability of theirs. Don’t say things that are of course inappropriate or insults someone out of pure malice and disdain. Authority figures in the military or literally ANY other hierarchal structures have power over lower ranks and subordinates but even then, there’s such thing as crossing line and being disrespectful to those with lower ranks. Respect boundaries.

  • Creativity + Discipline = Art

Just like with music, a bunch of notes without concentration and structure is just a bunch of noise. Just the opposite is just a bunch of rigid notes that sound bland. It’s when you have both thought and structure with notes will there be music. You’re not going to be motivated everyday but discipline and making good habits will keep you consistent. That consistency will carry you great distances. A quote I really like is someone who works with their hands is a laborer, someone who works with their hands and mind is a craftsman; someone who works with their hands, mind, and heart is an artist. 

Courtesy of Evolve MMA
  • Yes, the little things matter. Yes, the details matter. Yes, etiquette and discipline matter.

Grandmaster Bu Kwan Park said something I would’ve taken for granted when I was younger but as man that’s taught young and stubborn adults I fully grasp: “The first thing you teach is going to attention. If they can’t learn that, they can’t learn much else.” 

It’s scary how true this is. Martial arts is about the little things. Granted the reference comes from traditional Karate and TKD (other martial arts traditions that share the practice) but it applies to all arts. If you can’t trust someone to do something little, how can you trust them to do something big. If you can’t add and subtract, I doubt you can multiply and divide. If you can’t count to ten, you’re not counting to a hundred. I mean, putting your hands by your side and feet together is simple motion. If someone can’t get that, then good luck getting something more technical down like cross reaches and simultaneous motions. 

  • Fighters can have an overinflated sense of importance. 

Lately, I’ve had to educate a lot of competitors on how just their mere presence doesn’t pay the bills. If it doesn’t directly lead to people signing up at the door, it doesn’t bring in money. Also, most people who can pay, don’t care. Most people who care, usually have a hard time paying. Most starving fighters are just that… starving. People don’t automatically show up to a place where their favorite pro trains. I have favorite MMA fighters and I have no idea where they train… and I’m a coach that used to cover MMA. Championships, wins and muscle flex pics on the gram doesn’t pay the rent. Add legitimacy, yes, but landlords don’t care about legitimacy. They care about the rent. 

  • Not Everyone is Trying to be the Next World Champion 

I have to tell every fighter I know who wants to teach that not everyone steps into the gym wanting to be the best fighter. Some people couldn’t care less about that. People have all kinds of reasons why they take up martial arts. Weight loss, improve dexterity, kicking something off of their bucket list, meditation, mental and physical wellness. Some people have no desire to be the baddest motha*****er to walk into the building. On top of that, I mentioned earlier in this blog that the bills are going to mostly be paid by people who care nothing about being the best. 

  • Purity of an Art Matters (it’s culture too)

“The ground is my ocean and I’m a shark.” “Catch as catch can.” From hitting someone with the planet Earth to the sweet science; the pure form of a martial art and the culture of its practitioners is important to keep the style and its attributes alive. The hand speed and head movement of boxers. The emphasis on throws you see in judo. The body control that comes from wrestling (in all its forms really). The knowledge of body and submissions that you see in BJJ or sambo. The emphasis on kicks that you see in Taekwondo and Savate. The grace and coordination of many forms of kung fu. The unique skills that pure form of a style gives contribute to the overall landscape on what is humanly capable in martial arts overall. 

Like I said earlier, not everything has to relate to mixed martial arts or realistic combatives. Yes, I personally do wish I had gotten into continuous point Taekwondo or more kickboxing oriented training when I started as a teenager. But i do have to thank stop-and-go point and especially Olympic/sport  style for footwork, distancing, and knowledge of kicks and reading kicks. I’ve had discussions of why Olympic style TKD doesn’t just add punches to the face for realism. When I get questions like that now  I usually respond with “why doesn’t boxing just add back fists and elbows for realism?” Besides the Olympic committee reasons for it, the reason for sport TKD being the way it is simply to display the art Taekwondo in its purity. In that, you get to see the full potential of the style by itself. Of course, the donkey guards and the butt scoots are impractical as far as realistic combat but the knowledge and creativity of pure BJJ when it comes to submissions wouldn’t be where it is if it wasn’t for these innovations in the martial art so to speak. 

Courtesy of Europeankyokushin.org
  • There’s always Something to Learn

You’re never above reviewing something that you’ve already learned. Too many times have people have highlighted something else about something simple I know and all of a sudden it made more sense. One time my grandmaster in TKD came and corrected us on a form I had already been doing for 12 years. It was one detail but it was detail I didn’t learn until 12 years later. 

  • Smooth is fast 

Exactly as stated. People try to use speed as a means of executing techniques better but most of the time it’s better focus on being smooth and fluid. The fluidity and timing of your motion is efficient than just being fast. Timing beats speed. 

  • Fighting is dancing

Hip movement, footwork, fluidity of movement, timing, rhythm; fighting is basically dancing. Of all the types of athletes I’ve taught martial arts to, the easiest to teach (besides other martial artists) were dancers. Imagine teaching judo to a swing dancer. Imagine teaching capoeira or BJJ to a break dancer. Imagine teaching taekwondo to a ballerina (I have an it’s beyond easy). Vasiliy Lomachenko literally became an untouchable boxer via his experience in traditional Ukrainian dance. 

Courtesy of The Ballet Academy of Silicon Valley
  • Same tools, different mentality 

People have argued for years about it being better to just train self defense or is it better to learn how to fight. Short answer… it’s both. If you have a person who already knows how to fight, it’s really easy to give them new context and teach them combatives for self-defense because they have all of the tools; you just have to repurpose them and not much more. It’s way easier to teach a new way of using a hammer to someone who uses a hammer everyday than teaching someone what a hammer is and giving them a crash course in life-saving tactics. 

  • Teachers have over complicated striking and over simplified grappling. 

If you stop and think about technique execution, striking isn’t rocket science. There’s a reason why boxing a more crowd friendly sport than submission grappling despite they’re both very limited; punches to the face are easier to understand. But too often coaches try to go off on some kind of rocket science rant about how to throw a punch or kick like they’re trying to explain the theory of relativity or some crap like that. Even Albert Einstein himself said that if can’t explain something simply then you don’t know it well enough. I personally had an issue with a coach that’s local to my area about that. Once you learn the proper mechanics of a punch, the only thing you can do put in your reps. Grappling on the other hand is a little different. It’s not that grappling is super complex, it’s just that details matter in grappling. Grabbing someone’s wrist for a technique is way different than grabbing someone’s triceps. That’s why arts like TKD or karate will try to teach some kind of grappling-self-defense technique and it didn’t work half of the time. It’s probably not even the technique itself, it’s usually the how the instructor is explaining it. Also, not distinguishing situations, positions, body types, higher level techniques, lower level techniques, high percentage techniques, techniques that work better for smaller people, techniques that work better for bigger people. Without that awareness, someone will always make mistakes in explaining grappling. In striking, the hardest part is actually hitting someone. 

  • People are way more alike than they are different (doesn’t mean you’re not unique)

When you teach people in mass, you tend to realize that it really is easier to make a system that applies to the VAST majority of people you run across and make time for those who you realize are kind of an exception. Even in fighting/sparring, you can use tactics that will apply every time you square up to somebody because people tend to do a lot of the same things as everyone else. Especially, if you know what everyone wants to do; that makes them all the more predictable. When people insist that I approach teaching them different since they’re “not like everyone else” I’ve grown to be skeptical about it and I’m right to be skeptical nearly every time. Unless you have an obvious reason why you should have a different approach like you’re missing a hand or something, most people are just like everyone else… and there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone is unique in their own way but doesn’t mean they are special. Everyone has to learn the basics. Everyone has to understand the rules and parameters and why those rules and parameters are there. A lot of people try to be different or “the exception” when they are just like everyone else and should approach training just like everyone else. That means getting down the basics like everyone else. There’s no point in molding a specific style or method if you don’t have the basics. I have tried and seen people try and it always fails. It’s much more efficient to do that later. 

BECAUSE PEOPLE ARE WAY MORE ALIKE THAN THEY ARE DIFFERENT!

Yes I had to put that in all caps. It’s why restaurants have items on the menu that are more popular than others and were fully aware those same products were going to be popular ahead of time. Whether you’re trying to fill up or get the best value for your dollar, the hundreds of people before you thought the exact same thing and so will hundreds after you. Thinking that you are special for whatever reason is a dangerous mentality to have in the sphere of martial arts and fighting. It blinds you with hubris, makes you buy too much into someone’s hype, and encourages you to have habits that stifle growth. Hence, why coaches always say to stay humble. The moment you stop learning is the moment you start losing. And that applies to everybody. 

People are way more alike than they are different. Just because you’re unique does not mean that you are special. 

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