Martial Arts Instructor News and Articles

John Graden

John Graden

Executive Director

John Graden led the martial arts into the modern era by creating the first professional association, trade journal & instructors certification program.

At some point while you were dutifully teaching classes for your instructor, I bet a few students and/or parents let you know that they preferred your classes to those of your instructor. At first, you thought they were just being polite, but then you began to notice things your instructor did that you would not do ‘if it were your school.’

You enjoyed the attention and the rewards that came from teaching martial arts. Maybe the martial arts school became your social circle because it was easy for you. You were moving up in rank, training hard, and teaching, which automatically earned you respect and recognition within this community. Meeting people is easy when you outrank them.

You were loyal to your instructor and strongly believed in what you taught, because these techniques and methods brought you out of the darkness of intimidation to being a revered black belt instructor.

It was natural that we developed deep emotional ties to the techniques and the methods of our school. The mere mention of our school, style, or organization brought on fierce feelings of pride. This is also why the suggestion that there may be a better or a different way is met with initial resistance. These connections are so strong they are even parodied in films, because the “my kung fu is better than yours” scene has been played to death in movies. When an art has changed our life, it’s not always easy to admit that it may be flawed in some degree or way.

While you were teaching for your instructor, you may have suggested new ways of doing things, including teaching, testing, and martial arts marketing, but virtually every idea of yours was shot down. Your instructor had everything in his control, and trying something new was a risk he was not willing to take. I understand wanting to stay in your comfort zone. I was certainly that way. Once, as a school owner, I wanted to introduce some energy into classes by clapping in between drills or forms. I literally stayed up at night, thinking through how to introduce this concept. I was afraid my students would think I’d gone sissy and walk out.

Teaching martial arts is nirvana for a control freak. By the time you become a black belt following the path I’ve just described, you are a full-fledged control freak. You control how students move, breathe, where they look, what they should think about and, even in some extreme cases, some spiritual aspects of their lives. So, to risk giving up control for even a minute was very tough for me. This clapping thing became a huge obstacle for me. After all, my instructors would have never done something like this.

I chickened out during the first two classes and decided I would do it in the last class of the night, which was my brown and black belt class. I figured, if it bombed, only they would see it (by the way, don’t introduce new ideas to your advanced students first. They like things the way they are now. That’s why they are here. Some of them have developed deep connections to the way things are, just as you did at that rank).

I had the class do a form, Tan Gun, as a warm up. I was thinking, OK, after this form, I’m going to do it. But, instead of simply saying, “Hey! Give yourself some energy!” and clapping to show them what I meant, I used the classic control-freak method. When they finished the form, I snarled, “Attention!” Everyone snapped to. “Extend your left hand!” Every left hand popped out. “Extend your right hand!” Every right hand popped out. “Clap!”

I had to be in total control of every step of the way to clapping. It was silly. They did it and liked it, and it became part of our school’s energy, but without the micro-managing from me to extend each hand like robots. Much of our hesitation and fear of new ideas and changes are rooted in this control factor. You’ve gained control of your situation, and you are afraid of trying something new that might put you out of control, even for a moment.

Notice Tyson’s hand is by his face, not his hip.

His chin is down instead of up.

His shoulder is up instead of pulled back.

His body is sideways to his opponent instead of squared off.

His legs are under his body not spread apart like he was riding a horse.

With this kind of form, he would fail his orange belt exam in most schools. 

How does that make any sense?

Sensei Tyson?

If Mike Tyson or a world champion kickboxer came to your school to teach your black belts. What do you think he would work on? Double punches, square blocks, and keeping your chin up?

I’m pretty sure he would emphasize head movement, how to snap your punches and a defense that does NOT include pulling your punch back to your hip.

I’m sure the students would learn advanced applications to adjust for different fighters. Notice I said advanced applications, not advanced strikes.

When you focus on application, you can apply that to almost any technique.

For instance, if the drill is about how to fight a taller fighter, the answer is more about footwork to stay on the outside until you can secure quick access. My brothers are 6′ 3″ and 6′ 4″ so I know something about fighting a taller opponent.

Drills that teach that application do not require complexity. They require simplicity.

The more complex a skill becomes, the less chance it can be used. Have you ever seen a double punch? Only in kata and here:

If you eliminated all kata and traditional skills, you could devote that time to drills and conditioning that would give your students a true advantage in sparring or self-defense.

Imagine teaching fewer skills that are easy to teach and learn than traditional skills and kata.

You could spend more time on the application of those skills rather than stepping up and down the classroom and holding blocks and punches out in the air, which leaves you wide open for a counterattack.

Rather than spending student’s time with the complexity and frustration of spending years perfecting the bad habits of pulling their hand back to their hip, keeping their chin up, aiming and holding a punch in the air, and blocking with power while stepping forward, your retention will improve. Your student quality will improve. Your curriculum consistency will improve.

This is the core of our white to black belt curriculum Empower Kickboxing.

It’s an old saying, but true. “Less is best.”

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