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What to look for in a martial arts school (Part 4)

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What to look for in a martial arts school (Part 4)

This will be the last part (Part 4) of the series (Parts 1, 2 and 3). The focus here will be Does It Matter or Not? Sorry for the length but there was no way around it on this topic.

“Don't be impatient, and don't look for petty gains. If you are impatient, you will not be thorough. If you look for petty gains, you will never accomplish anything great.”

Analects 13:17 – Confucius (孔子)

This passage is Confucius’ answer to Zi Xia (子夏), who was serving as governor of Jufu (莒父), when he asked Confucius, about how to govern. But we can also see it as being about keeping our eyes on the objectives that truly matter and not be distracted by the inconsequential that ultimately will lead us nowhere.

First let’s look at the things that simply should not matter in our choice for a school. As mentioned in the previous blogs, there’s a variety of schools and teachers out there, each serving their specific communities, some small some big but they are all different. Sometimes people feel that the best choice is based on what they believe to be true, but most of the time these “truths” are actually misconceptions that cloud how we perceive the facts. The fact is that we are looking for a school and/or teacher that best fits our needs in order to reach our goals, besides that nothing else should really matter. In our quest for a place to study we must look beyond our first impressions - as the saying goes “don’t judge a book by its cover”.

The following is a list of things that people think are important, when in reality they hold little value:

  • · Age – Some people feel that if a teacher is of an advanced age they will be better at teaching. This is solely based on the idea that “older is wiser”. Unfortunately this is not always true, a person can be advanced in age and still be foolish in their ways. The other side would be the young teacher; they may have all the vigor and prowess to perform the techniques taught, but are unable to convey these skills to the students. Just like you should beware of a twenty something “master” or “grandmaster” you should also not take lightly an advanced age teacher that disregards fame and titles.
  • · Gender – Some people will feel that martial arts should be taught by men because they feel it is “manly”, others will think that only a woman can teach a women’s self-defense class. This is not always true. Competence in teaching the arts has nothing to do with gender. There are supremely skilled women in the traditional “manly” arts as well as men who are excellent teachers, with incredible insights, on the subject of women’s self-defense, but beware, there’s incompetence on both sides as well.  
  • · Size/Shape – Just like gender, this has little to do with teaching. Teachers come in all different sizes, tall, short, big, small and everything in between. Some people are “blessed” with genetics that will have them always looking like they are in shape, no matter how much they abuse their bodies, others no matter how hard they work they will never get to that 8% body fat look, this not to mention the teachers that lived through rough times. First impressions never take into account the battles people fought in their lives.
  • · Ethnicity – This one, once again, like gender, size and shape has nothing to do with the quality of teaching you will get. This particular bias is downright racist when you think about it, on both sides. I’ve met wonderful and insightful teachers in several martial arts that were not of the same ethnicity as that of the people that created the art taught. I’ve also met several “teachers” that completely took advantage of their students based solely on their ethnicity, be it Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Brazilian or other. These students did not realize that their teacher’s understanding of what they taught was based on a passing hobby they had and inspired literature.
  • · Belief System – A martial art does not need to be taught with a belief system (religion), in other words you do not need to convert to a religion just to study martial arts. This is not to say that you will not gain insights into the art by learning about the belief systems that surround the art learned. If you want to learn a martial art that is taught with a belief system alongside it (e.g. Zen Archery), make sure you are going in primarily for the belief system and secondarily for the martial art, and if that’s the case make sure that the teacher has learned this belief system from a qualified teacher and that it is not just be a “hobby belief” of the teacher. Just like in our search for a qualified martial arts teacher, if we are looking for instruction in a belief system, we should find a qualified guide as well.

Now, here are things that somewhat matter:

  • · Awards/Rank – There is no across the board standard for awards in the martial arts, some awards are truly based on incredible achievements and dedication others are politically or monetarily motivated, just like ranks. What one school holds as a high rank may not hold true at another, not to talk about teachers that shun ranking systems. Again, this is an issue that is all over the place, and only matters within the organization they’re in - look for awards and certificates that are related to what is taught (e.g. if they teach Chinese martial arts they should be awards from Chinese martial arts organizations) . So one teacher may have 30 ranks and be considered a “Great” or “Supreme” in some important sounding organization but is unable to teach or even improve the skill of their student through teaching while another holds a simple rank (if any) and not only is able to teach the student but also transforms them not only into skillful martial artist but also a great human being.
  • · Lineage – This can matter to a certain extent, we just need to, once again, stay focused on the objectives and not let it become a principal focus on our choice. Lineage will matter to the extent of knowing where the style/system came from and who taught your teacher. Lineages should be respected; however they do not guarantee that you will receive quality instruction. It should not matter if it is a famous lineage or not, what should matter is that you enjoy what you study, the teacher is forthright with his teaching (and where it comes from) and that you reach your objectives.
  • · Ability - Ability in performing, like lineage, is not a guarantee of superior instruction. There are people who have supreme abilities in performing as a fighter and/or execution of forms that are completely unable to pass along the most basic skills. On the other side there are people who are average at their performance ability but are supreme teachers in their arts. Of course it’s great when we can find a combination of both; however as we are looking for a teacher to teach us skills, and not an idol, we would do best on focusing solely on their teaching abilities. Another thing to consider is if the teacher has had some health issue that prevents or hinders them from executing techniques. My own teacher, as an example, suffered a stroke and after that he was unable to execute techniques the way he used to, but he was still able to teach and pass on the knowledge of what he learned to his students. The teacher(s) must have the abilities to communicate, motivate and inspire, these three things truly matter.
  • · Advanced Students – This point might actually matter more than the previous ones. Observing advanced students, how they practice, move and interact will give you an idea of what to look for after years of training in a school. However, we should be aware of two things – The first is that you might view a class where you only see some of these students and perhaps it wasn’t their best day, performance or otherwise. The second would be that you might see perhaps the only student with any skill in the school, and that skill may be natural for them (physical intelligence), of course this would not be a good indicator of what we may potentially learn at this particular place.

So with all of these things considered what is the Bottom Line?

The only skill that matters, in a teacher, is the teaching skill. The only place to study, that matters, is where you’re comfortable. And the only person, that matters, in making the decision of where to study is you.

“People have this common saying: "The kingdom, the State, the family." The root of the kingdom is in the State. The root of the State is in the family. The root of the family is in the person of its Head.”

Mencius (孟子) Book 4, Part 1, Chapter 5

We are the foundation of the study that we wish to embark on. The martial art, regardless of style or system, will not make us great; it’s our efforts over time in the study that will make us great. The teacher can guide us to greatness, but only if we are willing to put in hard work and dedication in the study. The proper environment will support us, but only by being a positive part of it.

Our study must begin, and continue, with the concept of positive self-cultivation in mind. This will be the subject of the next blog post.

Last modified on Monday, 27 January 2014 15:28

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