To learn, one should teach

As I have approached master level, I have thought more about the responsibility of teaching and the need to be effective as an instructor.  I have been teaching martial arts since 1998, and I have certainly made many mistakes; however I have managed to glean a few useful tips on teaching over the years that I’d like to share with any potential instructors out there.

Be an example.  First and foremost, a teacher must model the attitude and behavior they expect from their students.  You must practice what you preach.  Students don’t just learn from what you say; they learn from watching what you do.  Your actions in and out of the dojang set an example of what a martial artist should be, so it is essential to be a good role model.  If you are constantly getting in fights outside the dojang or cussing up a storm inside the dojang, your students will see this as acceptable behavior and mimic it.  However, if you are courteous, organized, and honest in your interactions, you will see students mirror this behavior in their interactions in and out of the training hall.

Allow people to fail.  It is tempting to protect students from failing or making mistakes, just like an overprotective parent who doesn’t let their kid play outside for fear of getting hurt.  Sometimes instructors want to guide students through every move they do and constantly provide all the answers for the students before they can discover them for themselves.  A butterfly that is helped out of a cocoon will miss out on all the struggle that is necessary to strengthen its wings and will instead become too weak to survive.  Let a student make several mistakes when trying to learn a new technique and then ask them some questions that might guide them toward the truth; don’t simply give them the answer.  Sometimes it might be a good idea to have a student test for a new rank, knowing full well that they will not actually pass.  It might provide them with valuable experience, insight into what they need to improve on, and a whole lot of humility that can build their character over time.

Don’t say everything.  One mistake that many new instructors make when they start teaching is that they feel the need to give their students as much information as possible.  They may start out teaching a basic side kick and end up providing the complete history of the kick, a full description of its body mechanics from head to toe, and a lengthy overview of its applications for sparring.  After 10 minutes of lecturing about the kick, the student’s eyes glaze over and they starting to think about what they are going to eat for dinner later after class.  People can only retain so much information in our memory banks at one time.  If a person receives too many details or instructions, they are likely to forget much of what is said, or even worse, may become overwhelmed or frustrated by the chore of trying to process all the information they are receiving.  Sometimes you simply need to set the student on the right path with some basic instruction, a short demonstration, a few easy cues to remember, and some brief follow up feedback later on.

Tell, Show, Do.  Not everyone learns the same way.  Some can hear a verbal explanation and are able to decipher what you are trying to express.  Some can watch a video or a demonstration and pick up all the information they need to learn the technique.  Others might need to physically practice the technique over and over until they build a kinesthetic sense of the proper movement.  To make sure that you reach each and every student, I would suggest teaching by first telling (providing instruction, cues, details), showing (demonstrating the technique yourself or with another student), and doing (having the student actually do the technique to feel it out for themself).

Have the student be a teacher.  I’ve often found that when I teach my students, I end up learning something from the experience.  Offer students at any level the chance to occasionally teach something to another student.  It challenges them to think through the technique for the themselves and to determine what information is vital to pass on.  It is effective because it makes them more aware of their own technique and may also raise questions or observations from their student that they had not even thought of.

Practice empathy.  Understanding who your student is and where they are coming from is essential for teaching.  Empathy helps provide insight into what a student needs or doesn’t need.  It may help an instructor recognize mental roadblocks, hidden strengths and weaknesses, and internal motivations from the student that can be invaluable for reaching them on a deeper level.  Take the time to get to know your students and try to look for signals beneath the surface that will reveal how they are feeling or who they are as a person.  Keep in mind the old teaching adage, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.

Give them a “why”.  Students are more likely to embrace and internalize your lessons if they have personal meaning to them.  Try to explain why something you are teaching them is important and meaningful for their growth as a martial artist.  Know their goals and try to relate the skills to their sparring ability, competition performance, self-defense skills or personal growth; whichever area is a focal point for the student.  This will help them take a greater interest in what is being taught, will help increase motivation for continued training, and will improve retention of the skills learned.

Use the “Big Mac approach”.  It is not easy to criticize what another person is doing wrong.  Even the most well-intentioned feedback may sometimes be seen by some students as an admonishment from the instructor or as a critique of failure.  However, honest, useful feedback is essential for a student to improve.  A common way to approach giving feedback comes from the sports coaching world in something referred to as the “Big Mac approach”.  You start with the bun, which is a compliment on what the student or athlete is doing right.  “I really like the way you are snapping your roundhouse kick across.  It is getting faster!”.  Then you provide the “meat” of the sandwich, which is the main point or criticism that you would like the student to remember.  “I’ve noticed that when you throw your roundhouse kick that you tend to lean over too much and lose your balance.  This affects the accuracy of your kick”.  Then you finish the Big Mac with another bun, which involves some form of positive reinforcement.  “I know once you focus on correcting your balance that your kick will be fast and accurate.  Just keep training hard like you have been and you’ll get it in no time!”  All of this gives the student the necessary instruction and feedback they need in a package that is easy-to-digest and leaves them feeling good about their future progress.

Relate training to what lies outside the dojang.  Most people who stick with the martial arts do it because they begin to understand its intrinsic value to their broader lives outside of the dojang.  The actual training occurs in the dojang, but the lessons learned should extend out to all aspects of their lives:  family, career, hobbies, relationships, daily interactions, etc.  Instructors should take the time to connect what is being learned during the training session with the student’s growth as a human being and their experiences out in the real world.  Martial arts can be much more than a system of self-defense or a method of exercise; they are also a mechanism for self-improvement and self-realization.

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Don’t think, feel

I recently had the tough, but rewarding experience of teaching my son to ride his bike without his training wheels.  He is used to the training wheels and was very reluctant to attempt the daunting task of riding without them.  I tried to give him some verbal directions and advice beforehand, but in the end learning to ride solo was a matter of getting him going and letting him go on his own.

After many failed attempts, he started getting the hang of balancing for a few seconds, and then half a minute, and eventually a minute or two without stopping.  He was still very wobbly and unable to turn, but little by little riding the bike started clicking internally for him.  His brain and body started making the necessary connections to keep him balanced and coordinated enough to keep from falling over.  He still had some trouble getting started pedaling every time he stopped, and I tried to explain what he should do, but once again he simply needed to try and fail repeatedly until it felt right for him.  I’m happy to report that after several days of riding, he rides with confidence and control; all without any further instruction from me.

This whole experience reminds me of trying to teach tae kwon do students advanced jump kicks.  For example, if I am going to teach a student jump turn back kick, the student already has the basic experience with similar kicks like back and jump back kick, so I will focus on explaining the specific step-by-step of what the jump kick should look like along with a sense of kick’s timing.  We might practice this on the ground first so the student can get a sense of what it might look like in the air.  I often demonstrate the kick myself as well so they can get a mental image of how it should flow.  Despite all this instruction, a student will most likely not get it the first time, or even the 100th time.  Like riding a bike, it is simply a process of trial and error to program a proprioceptive sense of how their body needs to move.  At some point they need to stop analyzing the technique and just feel it happening.  As Bruce Lee sagely advised a student in “Enter the Dragon”, “Don’t think, feeeeeeel”.

When attempting to learn a new technique, I usually have a student practice it repeatedly in different ways (e.g. on the ground, just trying the jump portion, kicking a target, etc.) and then I suggest that they keep “mental notes” on what worked and what didn’t.  If they hit the target dead on, I might have them think about how the technique felt and what was different than the other attempts.  Sometimes it is something they can communicate in words and write down for future reference; however, many times it is just a feeling that they are aware of but cannot explain.  Either way, repetitive practice with an awareness of the proper “feel” of the technique is the best way for a student to learn and progress.  Sometimes as an instructor, the best you can do is give them some guidance to get them on the right path and then let them go to experience the technique on their own.  With a little confidence, lots of practice, and some kinesthetic self-awareness they will have the training wheels off in no time.

Basically, it is about the basics

When a new student joins our class, one of the first techniques they learn is the front kick.  It is a pretty straightforward technique that involves rapidly lifting up the knee and snapping out the ball of the foot toward the target.  Even students with no experience and limited coordination can approximate the kick pretty quickly, which is helpful for providing a good starting point for training and building early self-efficacy (confidence) for martial arts.  There is one drawback to the deceptive simplicity of this basic kick:  many people early on may assume that they know the kick well enough to go through the motions mindlessly and move on to more advanced techniques.

I’ve been practicing the front kick for almost 22 years now and I’ve given it very little thought for most of those years.  When we run through our basic kicks in class, front kick is one of the first kicks we do and it almost feels like a warm-up for the more intricate kicks.  Many times I’ve simply snapped the kick out with little focus on the specific mechanics of the kick, and as a result, I have developed a lackluster technique that gets the job done, but doesn’t meet its full potential.

Over the last couple of years I have revisited this most basic of kicks with a newfound interest in getting it right.  One book I read suggested enhancing the power of the kick by bringing the heel of the kicking leg up to your butt in preparation for snapping out the kick.  A video I watched reinforced the importance of training the “snap back” part of the kick just as much as the snapping out of the extension.  A karate instructor offered the wonderful mental cue of imagining that you are kicking sand off your instep (top of foot) into your opponents face to develop a faster extension of the kick.  I’ve also been reminding myself to bend the toes more on the preparation every time I teach the technique to a new student.  Combining all these lessons with a willingness to explore a technique that I hadn’t paid much attention to provided me with a new appreciation for the technique.  I realized that I could make it faster and more effective in sparring.  I felt like I could execute a higher and more fluid kick at a better angle during certain forms.  It almost felt like learning a totally new technique.  Along with front kick, I have also gone back to revisit and revise other basic kicks like side kick and back kick, and have spent a lot of time using books and videos to dig deeper into my lower belt forms to sharpen up many of the details.

In martial arts training, it is easy to get bored.  Much of the training revolves around repetition, which can build complacency and a sense of “I already know this, let’s move on to something new”.  But do you really “know” the technique?  It is tempting to assume you have learned a basic technique and move on to new and more advanced techniques without spending the time and focus building a good foundation with the basics first.  Bruce Lee is often quoted as saying “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times”.  The gist of this quote is that a person who has dedicated their training to the mindful repetition of a certain technique will be much more effective than a person who aimlessly jumps from one new technique to another without the sufficient practice necessary to develop a high level of skill at the various techniques.

The basics are the underlying foundation for everything that comes after.  The basic back stance allows for a good side kick, which will provide the proper structure for building a stronger back kick, which is necessary for developing a well-executed jump turn back kick.  If the stances lack balance or the basic side kick is awkward or slow, then all other kicks that build off of that technique will also be clumsy and ineffective.  The basics should be well-practiced to the point that they become ingrained and reflexive, but a martial arts student should avoid falling into the trap of becoming complacent from all the repetition of practice.  Don’t just rush through the basics to get to the “fun stuff”, take time to analyze the techniques, gain a deeper appreciation of their value, and ask yourself how you can make them better.

The spirit of spring

It has been a particularly brutal winter in Seattle this year.  I don’t mean that we’ve had blizzards and massive snowfall like the east coast; I mean brutal in that it has been a long, dark, drizzly season that has dragged on for months.  On the radio a few weeks back they pointed out the fact that we have only had three full days of sunshine since last October.  Seattle is known for being a rainy, overcast city; which is often overexaggerated, but this year we have truly lived up to our reputation.

As I sit here listening to soft piano jazz, sipping some chamomile tea, and staring out the window at the grey sky with the persistent drizzle of rain falling, I can’t help but get excited daydreaming about the upcoming spring and summer.  We had a peek at a bit of sunshine for a couple of days last week and I started getting charged up thinking about the nice weather to come.  As usual, I started making a to do list of summer activities I want to accomplish, started looking up new bike routes I hope to explore, and of course, started planning some of our outdoor summer tae kwon do trips.

When I lived in Illinois, there was a detectable feeling that came along with spring.  There was a definite division between the winter and spring seasons.  You could smell it in the fresh air and see it in the green grass and blooming flowers.  I remember when that sense of spring would arrive, my energy levels would increase and I’d become inspired to come up with new training goals and think of fun ways that I could enjoy training outside during the season.

This spirit of spring (and summer) has often provided some of my greatest enjoyment in the martial arts.  It seems like most of my best memories in tae kwon do have revolved around training outdoors around the beauty of nature.  I remember being a brand new student just a few weeks into the class and going out to a park in the spring to train and feeling that connection between our tae kwon do training and the environment we were in.  Through the years I’ve practiced at beaches, parks, play fields, forests, Japanese gardens, sand dunes, lakes, and expansive fields surrounded by prairie grass as far as the eye can see.  Every time I have had the fortune to practice martial arts outside I’ve felt the beauty and energy of nature around me inspiring my movement.

This connection between nature and the human spirit is truly special and it is something I look forward to experiencing any chance I get.  Splashing through some kicking combinations in the water on a warm, sunny day, shadowboxing in a field with the wind whispering over the prairie grass, powering through forms in a summer rainstorm, sparring waist deep in a forest mud bog, performing jump kicks up an enormous sand covered hill, and meditating in a flower garden with a waterfall trickling down in the background:  these are the experiences I cherish and will remember for the rest of my life.

There are many things that can enhance your spirit for your martial arts training:  your instructor, your club, a role model, movies, books, or your own determination to achieve your goals.  Consider adding the benefit of nature’s beauty, energy, and inspiration to the spirit of your martial arts practice, especially during the life-renewing spring and sun-drenched summer.  Find a park with a relatively secluded patch of grass surrounded by trees and maybe accentuated with a view of the water or mountains.  Extend your senses into the space and appreciate the sights, sounds, smells, and the overall feel of the environment you are in.  Let the scenery and the space inspire you and provide you with a sense of peace to get you in the proper mindset to practice your art at a deeper, more personal level.  You may discover a new sense of spirit in your training from the experience that can motivate you further and provide an even greater enjoyment of your martial art.

The power of defining yourself

I’ve been thinking a lot about my identity lately.  I was sick a couple of weeks ago and before that I missed a lot of training due to a holiday, lots of meetings, and a family trip.  When I don’t train or I’m sick for a while, I don’t feel like myself.  My identity involves being a healthy, fit, and active person.  When I recovered from my illness and returned to training I felt like I was regaining my sense of self.

I didn’t always identify myself this way.  Growing up I was overweight, out of shape, and had no consideration of being athletic or physically active.  During my senior year of high school, our PE classes changed so that we were required to do calisthenics, running, and stretching 3 times a week and our grades were based on our self-improvement.  When we started doing the stretching portion of the class, I suddenly discovered that I was very flexible, and that sparked the idea in my head that maybe I was capable of being a physically active person.  I became inspired and worked out obsessively, eventually gaining muscle and losing weight.  This change lasted about a year and a half before I fell back into old habits.  I lost my fitness identity for a bit until I found tae kwon do and reminded myself of what I could be.

My training in TKD built my confidence and helped me redefine myself as a fit, strong, capable person.  It also gave me a special identity as a martial artist.  For many years this made me feel like a super hero, capable of amazing feats.  I would run on rocks, slip into the splits on an icy sidewalk, jump on broken glass, and punch concrete patio blocks.   During a VO2 max aerobic endurance test in grad school I had to run to exhaustion, and the only thing that kept me going was the mantra in my head “I am a martial artist”.  I went from being a person with low self-esteem, low confidence, and no sense of control over my life to a person who had a strong sense of self and felt like he could accomplish anything he set his mind to.  My identity as a martial artist gave me courage and focus, and it challenged me to take the risks and make the decisions necessary to find direction and purpose in my life.

Be aware of the power of defining yourself.  Many people try to put a label on you or try to define who you are and what they think you are capable of, but the only definition that truly matters is your own.  If you give into other’s expectations for you and negative self-talk from your own mind, you can lose sight of your potential and can fall into the trap of limiting yourself.  You must see yourself as the person you want to be.  You must tell yourself that you are strong, confident, and capable and then live up to that vision through your goals and actions.  If you define yourself as a martial artist, make that part of your identity every day and consider the strength and spirit that identity can have on how you live your life. However you choose to define yourself, be positive and confident in shaping that identity, and appreciate the strength, spirit, dedication, and perseverance it took to get you to this point in your life.

Honestly expressing yourself

There is a classic interview with Bruce Lee where he reveals his thoughts on what martial arts are all about.  He said, “To me, ultimately, martial arts means honestly expressing yourself. Now, it is very difficult to do. It has always been very easy for me to put on a show and be cocky, and be flooded with a cocky feeling and feel pretty cool and all that. I can make all kinds of phony things. Blinded by it. Or I can show some really fancy movement. But to experience oneself honestly, not lying to oneself, and to express myself honestly, now that is very hard to do.”

Why is it so hard to express yourself honestly?  Probably because who we are is not so easily determined, even to ourselves.  There are many aspects to who we are and how we view ourselves.  We play different roles in society and often have to change our behavior to fit in with appropriate social norms and the expectations of others.  How I act around my boss might be different from how I act around a close friend.  The way I present myself as a teacher may be different than the way I act at home with my family.  We show different aspects of ourselves depending on the social environment that we are in.

The point is that there are many layers to a person’s self and it is sometimes difficult to clear away these superficial layers to delve deeper to discover the true self.  We may hide certain aspects of ourselves because of fear of being judged or ridiculed.  We may alter how we behave to live up to some self-imposed ideal of who we should be.  We may act in a way that fits in with what is expected of us, but may not reflect what we feel deep down.  It is sometimes hard to really know who we are as a person.

To go below the surface and initiate self-discovery, a method of self-expression is needed.  There are many possibilities:  music, painting, meditation, sports, spiritual pursuits, and martial arts are all valid methods of self-expression.  I think what makes martial arts such a unique method of self-expression is the fact that it harmoniously combines the mind, body, and spirit during its practice.  When a martial artist is performing a form or sparring with an opponent, there is nothing fake about what is happening.  That person pushes their physical limits, maintains strong mental focus, and relies on their indomitable spirit to keep them going.  When a punch comes at you, you react and there is no time for anything else but an honest expression of your training and a true expression of who you are in that moment.  Martial arts forms involve an established set of choreographed movements in a specific sequence; however, every person that performs a form will do it in a slightly different way.  Their personality, their emotions, and their mental state will all be integrated into the movements and an experienced instructor can watch a form and understand a great deal about the student from such a performance.

If the martial arts are your chosen tool for self-expression, you need to practice them well to reveal your true self.  Constant practice allows this self-expression to become natural and instinctive over time, and will help reveal things that you didn’t even know were there.  When I started tae kwon do, I did not view myself as a strong, capable person.  I did not define myself as someone who was athletic, healthy, and sure of himself.  Through the years, my experience in tae kwon do held up a mirror regularly and showed me that I am a confident person who is full of spirit and determination.  I am capable of more that I realize.  I have the ability to lead and teach others.  I can be a fit, healthy person who is strong in mind, body, and spirit.

The next time you are training, take some time to explore yourself.  Why are you there putting in the effort?  How do you feel when you train?  What thoughts and emotions come to the surface when you are pushed to your limits?  What are you learning about yourself?  Where does your perseverance/confidence/spirit come from?  Are you capable of more (mentally or physically) than you realized?  Keep training and keep asking these questions and with time you will get a clearer, more honest expression of who you really are.

 

Calm your soul

When filming his last film “Game of Death”, Bruce Lee’s vision was to create a movie that encapsulated many of his martial arts theories and philosophy.  Unfortunately, he died before the movie could be completed, and what little footage remained was shoved into a completely re-worked script for a cash grab of a movie.  However, many years later, a wonderful documentary called “A Warrior’s Journey” came out and it featured roughly 25 minutes of the original footage put together according to Bruce Lee’s original script.  There are many jewels to be found in this revised version of the film, but one of my favorites is a small, intimate moment with Lee’s character in midst of the brutal final fight scene.

After battling an insanely tall Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (7’2″) the 5’7″ Lee is beaten down and exhausted and worried that he may not have the stamina to survive the fight.  After recovering from a blow, we hear his internal monologue reassuring himself that the other fighter is also tired and can’t keep getting up.  Then he takes a breath and says “Calm your soul”, before gathering his last bit of spirit to take on his opponent and finish the fight.

Although this is an extreme example, I think these words should be taken to heart whenever we feel overwhelmed, exhausted, beat down, and are ready to throw in the towel.  We can only push ourselves so far before we fall apart, so the importance of finding some time for recuperation is very important.  Many athletes may train extremely hard to push their limits, as they should, but without proper rest and recovery they are setting themselves up for failure through a condition known as “overtraining syndrome”, which will tax their immune system, degrade their performance, and set them up for injury.  When I teach people about weight training, I often ask them “when do you build muscle?”  Many might assume the answer is “when you are in the gym pumping iron”, but the truth is the opposite.  Weight training causes the breakdown of muscle cells at a microscopic level that provides the stimulus for muscle growth.  The actual adaptations from training occur during rest and recovery.  You actually build muscle sitting on the couch watching TV eating a ham sandwich!

Many of the same truths about recovery also apply to martial arts training.  Within a class, the pace may be demanding and hard to keep up with, but a student can seek out small moments to catch their breath and focus their mind on what they are doing.  After a hard workout, a student should set aside some time to mentally and physically relax to provide a balance to the hard training they have completed.  When I took tai chi classes years ago, we would spend much of the class working through continuous movements in forms and silk-reeling exercises, often with deep stances that added up to some tired leg muscles.  Every class would end with at least 15 minutes of qigong exercises and standing meditation.  The master explained that the tai chi used up our energy, but the qigong and meditation were performed for the purpose of recuperation and revitalization of energy.

Day to day, in the midst of our busy, hectic lives, we may struggle to find our rest and recovery.  However, if you actively seek it, I believe that you can find serenity throughout your day, and make an effort to seek out moments of peace, despite a whirlwind of responsibilities, anxieties, and distractions.  Maybe it involves a short walk outside during a lunch break, a focused breathing exercise before a long meeting, or a quiet meditation when you get home.  Maybe it is something as simple as lingering over a nice steaming cup of tea or taking the time to admire the beauty of a hummingbird buzzing around a flower.  Whatever the form, I cannot understate the value to a person’s health, well-being, and spirit to regularly find a way to “calm your soul”.