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.