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What to look for in a martial arts instructor

19 Comments
By Chuck Johnson

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, accessibility. 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 theater 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, visit: www.chuck-n-action.com

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19 Comments
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I've found that the best instructors have nothing to do with antiquated Japanese martial arts.

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I've found that the best instructors have nothing to do with antiquated Japanese martial arts.

But they probably do not have a supercilious attitude towards Japanese martial arts.

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Some of the best sports coaches were mediocre-to-average players. The 'best' tend not to understand why it is difficult for others not to be able to do what comes naturally to them (the best). Tom Landry, Dallas Cowboys, and Billy Martin, almost every Major League baseball team, come to mind. Bill Russell, one of the best basketball players, was hardly a success as a coach.

Plus that sixth paragraph is unclear, at least to me. WHO has done only theme park shows - one of "Japan’s most heralded international action film actors" or "the myriad of people on the action team"? Logic would dictate it is the people on the team but if they're on the action team of a 'action film actor' why aren't they doing action films with the actor?

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I agree with borscht. The old saying, "Those who can't do, teach.", isn't an insult, it's an observation that the best teachers are those who don't work in their field, but rather teach full-time.

The worst martial arts instructor I ever had was famous for his arena record, but he made a lousy teacher because he was too "fight focused" and not "teaching focused". He'd use a fancy move, but he'd be unable to repeat it out of context because it was a reflexive action rather than something he'd actually studied. He also had poor control and hurt his students on more than one occassion.

My best instructor had relatively little arena experience, but he understood the movements and the logic behind the movements and why we did them a particular way incredibly well. He was careful, precise and he worked us like dogs, so we were exhausted and incredibly fit and our bodies were ready before he taught us the next technique, so there were never any injuries more serious than bruising. He produced some students who went on to win regional and national tournaments, but he had no interest in it himself.

A good teacher isn't one who wins tournaments. A good teacher is one who has the knowledge and knows how to communicate it to their students.

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Seems to me he is writing about movie action work, which is not the same as martial arts.

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My ex-Karate teacher was just the best. He managed to get me into top condition within 3 months and ever since getting belts after belts. So, the best teacher is someone who can give you customized instruction, someone who understands you, your body and your needs.

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A good Martial Arts won't be easy to find, as he usually don't advertise.

Also a good teacher will decide who he teaches. Neither will he try to baboozle you with lots of fancy talk, fancy Dojo, etc.

Also a good teacher will expect you to do 90% of the training on your own and he will only introduce new stuff, give guidance and corrections when you are together.

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A good Traditional Martial Arts Teacher will also very often forego modern additions like Belts, Ranks/Grades, Keikogi/Dogi, etc.

Those were introduced by Kano-Sensei to promote his Judo school, before that there were only 2 certificates(Teaching permission and Full Transmission/Knowledge received).

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Look for one that is not in show business .

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depends whether you want to be a 'technical' fighter or a 'street' fighter I guess and then find someone who suits that style...

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his best instructors at the dojo actually didn’t have all that great of a fight record

Proves what Bernard Shaw said all along "Those who can't do, teach"

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As was said above.

Really depends on what you want to get out of your Martial Arts training.

Sports fighting/competitions, real world fighting/applications, overall fitness and general well-being, etc.

The training will differ according to your goals, said that being good in competitions fighting don't mean you can fight well in a pub and vice-versa.

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i see that most of the time, the small-time martial arts teachers are considerably better and more worthwhile than the big, decorative ones... i also think that a small dojo with a small class is much better because you have more opportunities to ask questions with the sensei and get a better understanding of the certian art you are learning, compared to the bigger ones, where you barely get any time, one-on-one, with the teacher......

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Versatility is a great asset to instructing martial arts. Not tooting my own horn, but with 14 years of martial arts experience under my sash (more common in Kung Fu), I thought I'd give teaching a shot... Oh boy, was it HARD!! I have a lot of respect for my teacher. Teaching meant alot of time reading up on different styles, and teaching methods, and different approaches to the same techniques. As well, I enjoy working out HARD... that tends to scare off alot of students. Students would always challenge me with new ideas and questions. I learnt more from my students then they from me! Unfortunately, due to the recession, I to move, and give back the school to my senior. Best Martial Arts Experience. Ever.

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This article isn't about Martial arts, it's about show business, martial arts choreography, a career in action movies.

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Hmm. I guess you stopped reading the article after the second paragraph, huh?

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One who repeatedly belts you with bamboo sticks to toughen the shins, then makes you do push-ups on your knuckles on the concrete followed by repeated busting of old clay pots with the forehead to improve focus of power, si a true master sensei...kiaaaaiiiii!

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No I read the whole thing. Even this at the end. "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.."

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The writer seems more focused on ACTION stunts than teaching or the "Art" of martial arts! Also, the article is more focused on fighting and/or stunt work!

I do agree with some points in the article.

Sometimes a "better" instructor is not one who fights and knows how to teach and explain the techniques.

But remember, no matter how ANY instructor explains anything, it's the Student's Responsibility to Learn and to Grow, hoping that One day, that student will figure out the techniques (i.e. an "Enlightened moment" when he/she will figure out how the forms/techniques are used PROPERLY; when everything "falls into place") based on their Year's of hard work and working things out by themselves!

How do people think martial arts masters developed their skills, particularly in the past?? Hard work, diligence and using their brains. The hardest part was coordinating everything which could take YEARS! Masters expect students to learn the forms/techniques then have them figure out how to best use them, same like now!

IMHO, this is especially true of traditional kung fu martial arts (my field of study).

It's easier to learn but harder to teach as Not everyone can teach!

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