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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.

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By John Graden

I started teaching professionally as a 16-year old blue belt in 1976. After earning my black belt in 1978, I was hired by Walt Bone to be a staff instructor for $5 per class. I was thrilled. For the next four years, I was “mini-me” to Mr. Bone. I learned to teach by watching him, so I picked up the best and the worst of his teaching methods and mannerisms. 

Most of that time was spent teaching college students at St. Petersburg Junior College. It was a great gig for me because I was the same age as the students. I had dropped out of high school a couple of years earlier to teach karate because I figured,  “Who needs school when you already know what you want to do with your life?” I literally dropped out of high school to teach college.

As many of you can relate to, there are three issues in that narrative. 

1. I learned how to teach martial arts by imitating. Walt Bone learned from Allen Steen and Mike Anderson, who learned from Jhoon Rhee. None of whom had any formal education in teaching. Martial arts teaching styles are one part imitation. Two parts personality, and ego.

2. I was the same age as the students I was teaching. That was an ego fulfilled experience. Especially since half the class was female. I was big man on campus without guidance. 

3. I dropped out of school to teach karate and it had no effect on my employment by the school. Not only did I not have to complete high school to teach karate professionally, it just meant that I was now free to teach day classes.

In 1982, Walt Bone died in a plane crash and I was on my own (Who Killed Walt Bone?) The fact that I was the same age as my college students presented some issues. Mainly, because the college required a written curriculum, text books, and official grades that could have serious impact on a student academic career. Like Bone, I had no formal educational program. We pretty much taught what we felt like teaching each day.

Contrast that with the story of an elementary or high school teacher or coach in your area. Their story would be something like, “After graduating high school, I attended college and got my masters in education which qualified me for my job as English teacher at City High School.” Are you starting to get an idea where I’m going with this?

As martial artists, there is no-prerequisite to open a school and become an instructor. You can come out of college with an MBA or you can come out of prison and open a school. Internally, we have a universal agreement that you should at least be a black belt. That’s it. That’s the sole qualification and since there is no real standard for earning a black belt, it’s fair to say there are no standards for performance or education in the martial arts.

To be clear, I am ANTI-REGULATION, but strongly pro-education. That’s why I created the ACMA in the 1990s which has been upgraded to the MATA Instructor Certification Program. I’m especially proud that the new program is available at no charge thanks to the generosity and support of Sports Fitness Insurance Corp (SFIC). Visit them at MATAInsurance.com. SFIC supports martial arts instructors, so be sure to support them.

We need a standard language and understanding of how to teach as professionals to replace the “blind leading the blind” patterns of the past.

The MATA Instructor Certification Program accomplishes that with curricula based upon universally recognized and accepted methods of influence, safety, teaching, and leadership. This program was created by me but the majority of the content is written by veteran martial artists who are also experts in the fields of child psychology, sports medicine, motivation, teaching and other subjects most martial artists have never been properly educated in.

To be clear, this program is not a power play. I’m not looking to be the Grand Poohbah of the martial arts world. I never have. I just want to leave the martial arts a little better than it was when I started all those many years ago. I am by nature a teacher, not a Poohbah.

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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