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“My Kung Fu is Better Than Yours”


white belt child kicks with instructor watching

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MATA Martial Arts Instructor Certification Course

Module 21-The Proper Use of Student Instructors

by Scot Conway, Esquire

The $25,000 Volunteers

Excerpt from the Martial Arts Instructor Certification Course:

Using upper ranks to teach classes has been a long-standing martial arts tradition. But, is it legal?

A California instructor had his black belts teaching under-rank classes at his studio. In exchange, he no longer charged them tuition.

This continued until one fateful day when the owner and a black belt student had a disagreement.

The vindictive student contacted the California Labor Board and reported that his instructor had been employing assistants by requiring that they teach classes each week.

This can constitute an Employer – Worker relationship. The only thing missing was payment for the workers and the taxes the government would collect if they were being paid.

The State of California investigators concluded that the owner, over the years, had a total of 25 black belts teach classes.

They defined them as uncompensated employees, which is illegal under the laws of California, and fined the instructor $1,000 per incident.

The final bill: $25,000 for the volunteers.

Lesson: Know your state laws regarding utilizing assistant instructors.

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.

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